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    Feds try to help student loan borrowers navigate repayment process

    Meanwhile, new tool launches to help students find Pell grants

    Three federal agencies have issued guidelines to student loan servicers to help students repay their loans and avoid default.

    The guiding principals from the Departments of Education and Treasury and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) are designed to make sure borrowers are protected and have the information they need, even if they are struggling under the burden of their debts. It also is meant to provide ways to quickly resolve errors and hold federally-contracted companies accountable.

    The guidelines say servicer policies should be consistent, accurate, accountable, and transparent.

    Student loan debt has become an issue as outstanding loans now approach $1.3 trillion, saddling many recent graduates – not to mention those who left school before getting a degree – with significant debt as they start careers.

    Types of loans

    There are four main types of post-secondary education loans under which borrowers have outstanding balances. Direct Loans are federal loans made directly to borrowers by the U.S. Department of Education through the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan program.

    Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) loans were originated by private lenders and guaranteed by the federal government.

    Federal Perkins Loans, which are co-funded by institutions of higher education and the federal government, are originated and administered by participating institutions.

    Private student loans are made by depository and non-depository financial institutions, states, colleges, and other entities.

    Alternatives to loans

    Finding alternatives to student loans has become a priority as college costs continue to rise. As we previously reported, College Abacus is a free online tool allowing students and families to calculate the amount of aid they qualify for when applying at more than 5,000 colleges and universities.

    Now it has launched a new site, Pell Abacus, which it says will simplify and streamline the college search process for low-income students who are likely eligible for federal Pell Grants.

    “By making this process simple to navigate without tax forms and accessible on mobile phones, we’re removing some of the key barriers preventing low-income students from exploring their full range of college options,” said Abigail Seldin, co-founder of College Abacus and vice president of Innovation & Product Management at ECMC Group. “Our goal with Pell Abacus is to not only streamline the college search process for underserved students, but to empower them by providing meaningful context around the most important financial factors impacting college choice, from personalized net prices to school-specific loan repayment information.”

    The new Pell Abacus desktop site provides school-specific data on different financial factors, such as average loan payments for Pell students, the percentage of students who receive Pell Grants and the average monthly income percentage spent on federal loan repayments after college.

    Pell Grants are government stipends that allow students, based on need, to pay for college. Grants, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid, making it a great alternative to student loans.

    In a previous interview with ConsumerAffairs, Seldin said the College Abacus tool helps students access grant money, reducing the need for borrowing. Check it out here.

    Three federal agencies have issued guidelines to student loan servicers to help students repay their loans and avoid default.The guiding principals fro...
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    Target expands price match to online competitors

    Will also give customers 14 days to make a price adjustment request

    Think of it as the long countdown to the holiday shopping season. The nation's retailers are all putting the final touches on competitive strategies they hope will give them an advantage in increasing sales.

    Consumers need to be aware of this maneuvering so they can put it to their advantage.

    The latest move comes from Target, which says that beginning October 1 it is expanding upon its Price Match Policy by increasing its online usability. The retailer said it is providing longer timeframes and matching additional competitors so that its customers can get the best price, whether in a store or ordering from the website.

    “We’ve expanded the list of online competitors we match, both in stores and Target.com, and added 24 more,” the company said in a statement. “We looked at which competitors are most important to our guests, and where there’s a lot of overlap with Target’s product assortment, and landed on the competitors that are most relevant for our guests. And for the first time, that list includes membership clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club.”

    Target and Target.com will now price match:

    • Amazon.com
    • Babiesrus.com
    • BedBathBeyond.com
    • Bestbuy.com
    • BN.com
    • Buybuybaby.com
    • Costco.com
    • CVS.com
    • Diapers.com
    • DicksSportingGoods.com
    • Drugstore.com
    • Gamestop.com
    • JCPenney.com
    • Kmart.com
    • Kohls.com
    • Macys.com
    • Newegg.com
    • Officedepot.com
    • Petco.com
    • Petsmart.com
    • Samsclub.com
    • Sears.com
    • SportsAuthority.com
    • Staples.com
    • Target.com
    • Toysrus.com
    • Ulta.com
    • Walgreens.com
    • Walmart.com
    • Wayfair.com.

    In addition to expanding its list of price match competitors, Target says it is doubling the number of days customers have to make a price adjustment on a product. Customers will now have 14 days, both in stores and at Target.com.

    Think of it as the long countdown to the holiday shopping season. The nation's retailers are all putting the final touches on competitive strategies they h...
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      Tax-filing extension deadline approaches

      Make sure everything is in order before you send your return in

      If you're one of those taxpayers who got an extension back in April for filing your federal income tax return, be advised that the clock is ticking

      With the extension running out on Oct. 15, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is advising you to double-check your return for often-overlooked tax benefits and then file electronically using IRS e-file or the Free File system.

      About a quarter of the 13 million taxpayers who requested an automatic six-month extension this year have yet to file. While Oct. 15 is the last day for most people, some still have more time, including members of the military and others serving in combat zone localities who typically have until at least 180 days after they leave the combat zone to both file returns and pay any taxes due.

      “If you still need to file, don’t forget that you can still file electronically through October 15,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “Free File is free tax software that takes the guesswork out of return preparation. Even if you’re filing in the final days, filing electronically remains easy, safe and the most accurate way to file your taxes.”

      Check out tax benefits

      Before you file, the IRS encourages you to take a moment to see if you qualify for these and other often-overlooked credits and deductions:

      • Benefits for low-and moderate-income workers and families, especially the Earned Income Tax Credit. The special EITC Assistant can help taxpayers see if they’re eligible.
      • Savers credit, claimed on Form 8880, for low-and moderate-income workers who contributed to a retirement plan, such as an IRA or 401(k).
      • American Opportunity Tax Credit, claimed on Form 8863, and other education tax benefits for parents and college students.

      Health care tax reporting

      While most taxpayers will simply need to check a box on their tax return to indicate they had health coverage for all of 2014, there are also new lines on Forms 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ related to the health care law. Visit IRS.gov/aca for details on how the Affordable Care Act affects the 2014 return.

      This includes:

      • Reporting health insurance coverage.
      • Claiming an exemption from the coverage requirement.
      • Making an individual shared responsibility payment.
      • Claiming the premium tax credit.
      • Reconciling advance payments of the premium tax credit. Properly doing so can help maintain continued eligibility for premium assistance in 2016.

      The Interactive Tax Assistant tool can also help a taxpayer determine if he qualifies for an exemption, needs to make a payment, or is eligible for the premium tax credit.

      Taxpayers who intend to claim the Health Coverage Tax Credit for 2014 must first file an original 2014 tax return without claiming the HCTC, even if they have no other filing requirement. They can then file an amended return when the IRS issues further HCTC guidance. Updates can be found here.

      If you're one of those taxpayers who got an extension back in April for filing your federal income tax return, be advised that the clock is ticking With t...
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      Housing experts see shift to buyer's market in September

      Home prices have dipped and houses are spending more time on the market

      There's some good news for would-be home buyers. It should be easier to get the house you want at the right price.

      According to the number-crunchers at Realtor.com, prices dipped in September, and homes spent more time on the market, suggesting the trend is favoring buyers over sellers.

      “The spring and summer home-buying seasons were especially tough on potential buyers this year with increasing prices and limited supply,” said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com. “Buyers who are open to a fall or winter purchase should find some relief with lower prices and less competition from other buyers. However, year-over-year comparisons show that fall buyers will have it tougher than last year as the housing market continues to show improvement.”

      Timing may work for buyers in another way. Fall and winter are traditionally weak times for the housing market. Sellers who still have their homes listed during this season are usually highly motivated.

      Tighter inventory

      There is one downside, however. Inventory has also peaked for 2015, so buyers will see fewer choices through the end of the year. The website's monthly report draws on residential inventory and demand trends over the first three weeks of the month to reach its conclusions.

      It notes that the national median list price during the period was $230,000, down 1% over August but up 6% year-over-year.

      Homes are sitting on the market longer, usually a good sign for buyers. The median age of inventory is now 80 days, up 6.7% from August, but down 5% year-over-year. Fall listings tend to stay on the market longer as the days become shorter.

      But expected tighter inventory will limit choices and might lead to multiple offers in sought-after communities.

      Hot markets remain stable

      There was little change in Realtor.com's hottest markets. San Francisco, Dallas, and Denver continue to set the pace. The Nashville market jumped from 20th in August to 15th in September. Detroit slipped from 13th to 16th.

      “The hottest markets are little changed in September as supply remains tight and demand remains strong,” Smoke said. “Sellers across all these markets continue to see listings move much more quickly than the rest of the country in September, and the seasonal slow-down is not as strong in these markets.”

      What jumps out from the September data is that California maintains 11 markets on the “Hotness Index” due to continued tight supply and a turbo-charged economy. With fewer available homes, frustrated buyers who have not been able to find a home so far remain active, supporting continued strength in sales across much of Northern and Southern California.

      Texas and Michigan also remain hot, but for different reasons. There, lower prices on homes make them affordable to a wider section of consumers.

      There's some good news for would-be home buyers. It should be easier to get the house you want at the right price.According to the number-crunchers at ...
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      September sees 200,000 jobs added, says ADP

      Large businesses carried the load this month

      Another good month for job creation.

      The ADP National Employment Report, which is produced by the payroll procession company in collaboration with Moody's Analytics, reports private sector employment increased by 200,000 jobs from August to September.

      The report, derived from ADP's actual payroll data, shows companies with over 1,000 employees added 109,000 jobs, accounting for over half the total jobs added for the month. Payrolls for businesses with 49 or fewer employees increased by 37,000 jobs, while employment among companies with 50-499 employees increased by 56,000 jobs. However, companies with 500-999 employees lost 3,000 jobs.

      "The U.S. job machine continues to produce jobs at a strong and consistent pace,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics. “Despite job losses in the energy and manufacturing industries, the economy is creating close to 200,000 jobs per month. At this pace full employment is fast approaching."

      Goods and services employment

      Employment at goods-producing companies rose by 12,000 jobs in September, down about 3,000 from the previous month. The construction industry added 35,000 jobs -- almost double the 18,000 gained in August. Meanwhile, manufacturing dropped into negative territory losing 15,000 jobs in September, the worst showing since December 2010.

      Service-providing employment rose by 188,000 jobs in September, up by 16,000 from August. Professional/business services contributed 29,000 jobs in September, roughly the same as in August. Trade/transportation/utilities grew by 39,000 jobs, while financial activities added 15,000 workers.

      "The largest companies appear to be starting to overcome the impacts of weak global demand and the high dollar,” said Ahu Yildirmaz, VP and head of the ADP Research Institute, “while the smallest companies may have pulled back as concerns about the resiliency of the U.S. economy grew and consumer confidence softened."

      Another good month for job creation. The ADP National Employment Report, which is produced by the payroll procession company in collaboration with Moody'...
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      Mortgage applications take a dive

      Contract interest rates were generally lower

      After rising last week for the first time in three weeks, mortgage applications are down again.

      According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications fell 6.7% in the week ending September 25.

      The Refinance Index plunged 8%, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity down to 58.0% of total applications from 58.4% the previous week.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 6.9% of total applications, the FHA share rose to 13.8% from 12.9% the week before, the VA share of total applications increased to 10.3% from 10.0% and the USDA share of total applications held steady 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) edged down one basis point -- to 4.08% from 4.09%, with points unchanged from 0.45 (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) fell from 3.99% to 3.96%, with points decreasing to 0.35 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages backed by the FHA dipped one basis point to 3.87%, with points rising to 0.34 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs dropped to 3.29% from 3.31%, with points slipping to 0.41 from 0.42 (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 unchanged at 2.95%, with points decreasing to 0.41 from 0.58 (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.

      After rising last week for the first time in three weeks, mortgage applications are down again. According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s ...
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      Royal Frozen Food recalls frozen food products

      The products have numerous problems including an undeclared allergen and no mark of inspection

      Royal Frozen Food of Los Angeles, Calif., is recalling approximately 230 pounds of frozen beef and pork products.

      The products were not produced under a fully implemented Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan. Additionally, a portion of these products are missing the USDA mark of inspection and may also contain egg, an undeclared allergen, which was listed on the label.

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

      The the following frozen food items, produced between September 1, 2014, and September 29, 2015, are being recalled:

      • 17 oz. plastic tray package bearing code #607238300447 and containing 10 pieces of “PRECOOKED STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES WITH BEEF AND RICE.”
      • 20 oz. plastic tray package bearing code #607238300454 and containing 8 pieces of “PRECOOKED STUFFED CABBAGE LEAVES WITH BEEF AND RICE.”
      • 12 oz. plastic tray package bearing code #607238300553 and containing 10 pieces of “POT STICKERS.”

      Some of the recalled products bear establishment number “Est. 20585” inside the USDA mark of inspection. One (Pot Stickers) does not contain the USDA mark of inspection. These recalled products were shipped to retail locations in California.

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

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Gloria Cheng at (626) 552-1882.

      Royal Frozen Food of Los Angeles, Calif., is recalling approximately 230 pounds of frozen beef and pork products. The products were not produced under a f...
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      Thirteen manufacturers, distributors recall bicycles with brake issue

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

      Thirteen manufacturers and distributors are recalling about 1.55 million bicycles equipped with front disc brakes and quick release levers sold in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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

      There have been three incidents reported in which an open quick release lever on a bicycle’s front wheel hub came into contact with the bike's front disc brake assembly and caused the front wheel to come to a sudden stop or separate from the bicycle. In one incident, a man suffered a broken finger, a wrist injury, a shoulder injury and abrasions. No injuries were reported in the other two incidents.

      This recall involves bicycles equipped with front disc brakes and a black or silver quick-release (QR) lever on the front wheel hub. Bicycles that do not have disc brakes are not included. When the front QR is fully opened, if there is less than 6 mm -- or the width of a #2 pencil -- between the QR and disk brake rotor on the wheel, the bicycle is included in this recall.

      The recalled bicycles include the following companies, brands and model years:

      Brand Model Year(s) Phone Number 
      Diamondback, Raleigh 2004-2015800-251-8435

      800-251-8435

      Breezer, Fuji, SE2005-2015888-286-6263
      Cannondale, GT1998-2015800-245-3872

      800-843-2453

       Felt2006-2015866-433-5887
       Jamis2005-2015800-533-9010, ext. 237
       Giant2003-2004866-458-2555
       Haro2000-2015800-289-4276
      Norco2000-2015

      800-263-2344 (Eastern US and Canada)

      800-663-8916 (Western U.S. and Canada)
      Access2009-2015800-727-2453
      Civia Cycles2008-2012877-311-7686
      Novara2002-2015800-426-4840
      Ridley 2014-2015877-283-7545
      Specialized2002-2015800-722-4423

      The bicycles, manufactured in China, Japan, Poland, Switzerland and Taiwan, were sold at Bicycle stores nationwide from about 1998, through 2015, for between $200 and $10,000 for the bicycles.

      Consumers should stop using the bicycles immediately and contact the recalling company for free installation of a new quick release on the front wheel.

      Consumers may contact the recalling companies through their websites and call centers listed above or visit the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association Quick Release Recall website at www.quickreleaserecall.com, where a video showing how to determine if a bike is included in this recall is available.   

      Thirteen manufacturers and distributors are recalling about 1.55 million bicycles equipped with front disc brakes and quick release levers sold in the U.S....
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      Madewell expands recall of women’s sandals

      The metal shank can dislodge and break through bottom of the outsole

      Madewell of New York, N.Y., is expanding its earlier recall of women's sandals to include about 573 pair sold in the U.S. and Canada. About 50,600 pair of women’s Sightseer sandals were recalled in August 2015.

      The metal shank can dislodge and break through bottom of the outsole, posing a fall hazard.

      The firm has received one report of a metal shank dislodging and breaking through the bottom of the outsole. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves all sizes and colors of the Madewell Katya sandal from the spring 2015 collection. The metallic sand or rose gold-colored leather sandals have a wide strap with a lace-up thong. The style number C5840 is located on a sticker on the outsole.

      The sandals, manufactured in Brazil, were sold exclusively at Madewell stores nationwide and online at madewell.com from April 2015, through August 2015, for about $100.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled shoes 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 expanding its earlier recall of women's sandals to include about 573 pair sold in the U.S. and Canada. About 50,600 pair of ...
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      Endocrine disrupters seen causing diabetes, obesity epidemics

      Endocrine Society: Evidence of harm is "more definitive than ever before"

      Evidence presented at a global meeting of scientists suggests that endocrine-disrupting chemicals -- like bisphenol A and phthalates -- may be to blame for the diabetes and obesity epidemics that are among the gravest public health threats facing the U.S. and other industrialized nations.

      The Endocrine Society said in a prepared statement that the chemicals contribute to health problems by mimicking, blocking, and otherwise interfering with the body's natural hormones. By hijacking the body's chemical messengers, the chemicals can alter the way cells develop and grow.

      Bisphenol A is commonly found in the lining of food cans and on cash register receipts, while phthalates are used in plastics and cosmetics. Flame retardants and pesticides also contain endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).

      "More definitive"

      "The evidence is more definitive than ever before - EDCs disrupt hormones in a manner that harms human health," said Andrea C. Gore, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Texas at Austin and chair of the task force that developed the statement. "Hundreds of studies are pointing to the same conclusion, whether they are long-term epidemiological studies in humans, basic research in animals and cells, or research into groups of people with known occupational exposure to specific chemicals."

      The threat is particularly great when unborn children are exposed to EDCs, the statement indicated. Animal studies found that exposure to even tiny amounts of EDCs during the prenatal period can trigger obesity later in life.

      Similarly, animal studies found that some EDCs directly target beta and alpha cells in the pancreas, fat cells, and liver cells. This can lead to insulin resistance and an overabundance of the hormone insulin in the body risk factors for Type 2 diabetes, the statement said.

      The chemicals are so common that nearly every person on earth has been exposed to one or more of them, previous studies have found.

      The statement was presented at the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM4), in Geneva, Switzerland, on the importance of using scientific approaches to limit health risks of EDC exposure.

      Reproductive health

      The statement also examines evidence linking EDCs to reproductive health problems, hormone-related cancers such as breast and ovarian cancer, prostate conditions, thyroid disorders, and neurodevelopmental issues. Although many of these conditions were linked to EDCs by earlier research, the number of corroborating studies continues to mount.

      "It is clear we need to take action to minimize further exposure," Gore said. "With more chemicals being introduced into the marketplace all the time, better safety testing is needed to identify new EDCs and ensure they are kept out of household goods."

      Gore’s statement was endorsed by Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, MD, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Liège in Belgium.

      "Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals during early development can have long-lasting, even permanent consequences," said Bourguignon. "The science is clear and it's time for policymakers to take this wealth of evidence into account as they develop legislation."
      Evidence presented at a global meeting of scientists suggests that endocrine-disrupting chemicals -- like bisphenol A and phthalates -- may be to blame for...
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      Volkswagen readies retrofit procedure for 11 million cars

      Now if it could only retrofit its reputation and stock market valuation

      Volkswagen is pulling together plans to recall and retrofit 11 million diesel-powered cars worldwide. At the same time it is trying to retrofit its brand from the damage done by the revelation that it used software to fool emissions testing equipment. 

      VW's new CEO, Matthias Mueller, said that "in the next few days," the company will begin asking customers to bring their cars in to have the illegal software deactivated, a campaign that some experts say could cost more than $6 billion. 

      Fewer than half a million of the cars are in the United States but they constitute nearly all of the cars VW sold here under its much-ballyhooed TDI "clean diesel" label. 

      The company has set up a website for U.S. customers that includes an apologetic statement from Michael Horn, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America.

      In his statement, Horn emphasizes that VW and Audi diesel-powered cars are safe and legal to drive.

      Legal blizzard

      The company faces a blizzard of class-action lawsuits and pending criminal and civil actions by federal and state authorities in both the U.S. and Germany.

      The consumer class-actions mostly reflect owners' concenrs that their cars have lost resale value as a result of the stealth software that turned emission controls on full-blast only when the cars were undergoing periodic emissions tests. The rest of the time, emissions were as much as 40 times the legal limit.

      Customers are also worried that, once the retrofit is completed, their cars will not be as peppy and will not achieve the fuel economy that they do now.

      Besides the pending fines, penalties, litigation, and lost sales, Volkswagen is being severely punished by stock markets, where falling stock prices have wiped out more than one-third of the company's market capitalization.

      Volkswagen is pulling together plans to recall and retrofit 11 million diesel-powered cars worldwide. At the same time it is trying to retrofit its brand f...
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      Holiday shopping site predicts 2015 deals

      BestBlackFriday.com sees deep discounts on TVs and laptops

      What's ahead for the holiday shopping season? BestBlackFriday.com, a website property of Jones-Dengler Marketing, is predicting Black Friday will be less of a one-day, in-store event as shopping spreads to surrounding days and online shopping sites.

      For consumers making an early shopping list, the company has compiled data to predict where the bargains will be this year in a wide variety of categories.

      “In order to come up with our figures, we went through over 150 ads from last year and thousands of products,” Phillip Dengler, principal at Jones-Dengler Marketing, told ConsumerAffairs.

      Shoppers looking for an HDTV should be able to find a 32-inch model for just $70 this year, and a 50-inch model for as little as $175. BestBlackFriday.com predicts the iPad Air 2 will go for $375, a $125 discount. The new iPad Mini 4 is expected to be offered as low as $325.

      The Amazon Fire HD 6 will approach stocking-stuffer prices at around $60. The Samsung Galaxy Tabs should start at $90, with an average price of $250.

      Ridiculous prices on laptops

      Staying with an electronics theme, BestBlackFriday.com predicts ridiculously low prices on laptops. You might be able to pick up a PC under $100, with an average price of $300.

      Name brands will be pricier but still attractive. Look for the MacBook Air starting at $769 and the MacBook Pro line starting at $849.

      “The Apple Store will once again offer no direct discounts,” Dengler said. “They will, however, bundle gift cards worth $25 to $100 when paying full price.”

      Meanwhile, he says sales on Apple items including the watch, iPads, Macs, Apple TV, iPhones, and other devices will be readily available at most stores.

      Even though mobile carriers are phasing out subsidies for two-year contracts, Dengler says some people will still be eligible. They could find the new iPhone 6s for $99 with a two-year contract.

      Where to find the deals

      Where will consumers find the most aggressive deals? The company predicts JCPenney will once again have the highest average discount for their sale at around 60%. Walmart, Best Buy, and Amazon will once again be toward the bottom, with average store discounts of around 30%.

      The overall average discount on Black Friday for every store will be around 39.55%, the company predicts. For many, the deals may prove hard to resist.

      The website predicts total Black Friday sales of $8.8 billion, declining 3.29% from 2014. But it expects Thanksgiving sales to more than make up for the decline, rising 18.8%.

      Meanwhile, more of those shoppers will be purchasing online instead of going to the store. Combined online sales Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday are predicted to surge by 33%.

      After that, however, the deals could get even better. Dengler's advice? Do the bulk of your shopping in December.

      What's ahead for the holiday shopping season? BestBlackFriday.com, a website property of Jones-Dengler Marketing, is predicting Black Friday will be less o...
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      Carl Icahn the latest to warn of impending economic catastrophe

      Billionaire investor says Fed policy has created "dangerous bubbles"

      In a video released today, billionaire investor and legendary Wall Street trader Carl Icahn said the Federal Reserve policy of keeping interest rates at 0% for the last seven years has created “dangerous bubbles” in art, real estate, and high yield bonds.

      "It's like giving somebody medicine and this medicine is being given and given and given and we don't know what's going to happen - you don't know how bad it's going to be,” Icahn said in the video. “We do know when we did it a few years ago it caused a catastrophe, it caused '08. Where do you draw the line?"

      Icahn is hardly alone in predicting economic collapse. For months, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) has appeared in ads for Stansberry Research, a newsletter publisher, promoting a video in which he warns of an even greater economic crisis in the offing – but this one is also due to the Fed's monetary policy.

      The problem with “free money”

      Why, exactly, is the extended period of “free” money a bad thing? How does that set the economy up for a catastrophic fall? Back in 2010, less than two years after the zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) went into effect, there were plenty of warnings.

      At that time, financial blogger Charles Hugh Smith laid out some of the arguments. With ZIRP, he wrote, savers, investors, and money managers cannot earn any kind of return for having their assets in cash. Therefore, they have to look elsewhere for a return on capital.

      That means less money is going into banks, at a time when banks need to replenish their reserves. With rates at zero, even the banks can't earn a return.

      Since banks can borrow from the Fed at 0%, many are doing so in order to buy bonds in other countries, where rates are higher. The banks earn a return but it also draws money out of the U.S. economy.

      Encourages risk-taking

      ZIRP also encourages risk-taking. Instead of keeping money in cash, individuals and institutions are putting it in assets that have dramatically risen in value. Icahn specifically mentions art and real estate.

      When he worries about real estate, he is obviously not talking about suburban tract houses, but rather palatial homes in red hot markets like New York, San Francisco and San Jose, where the wealthy have bid up the price of condos well past a million dollars.

      Money has also flowed into stocks, raising prices beyond what the fundamentals of the underlying companies might justify. In recent weeks, money has been flowing out of stocks and prices are falling.

      Five years ago Smith concluded even then that evidence of the Fed's interest rate policy was “perniciously undermining the financial sector and the U.S. economy is increasingly persuasive.”

      The Fed is increasingly signaling that it will begin raising rates before the end of the year, but a lot of people like Carl Icahn think it may be too late.

      In a video released today, billionaire investor and legendary Wall Street trader Carl Icahn said the Federal Reserve policy of keeping interest rates at 0%...
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      Hackers use big-name events to spread malware on social media sites

      Many scammers mask malicious links by making them appear to be about real-life, live events

      Big-name events simply aren’t what they used to be. The growth of media outlets, and the technology that they use, has transformed events that you used to read about in the paper into live events where everyone is able to watch. It doesn’t stop there, though. The growth of social media outlets like Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter have allowed the average person to participate in events as well through their comments and various status updates.

      While this new growth is promising in many ways, there are some worrying problems that are sliding in under the radar. One such problem is the risk to privacy that every social media user is taking when browsing videos and posts about a big event. Researchers say that many cyber criminals are using the high amount of traffic generated by real-world events to post links to websites infected with malware.

      Masking infected links

      Researchers have found that these real-world events produce an optimal environment for hackers and scammers to do their dirty work. Sites like Twitter seem to be especially vulnerable to these scam jobs due to the layout of their site.

      “URLs are always shortened on Twitter due to character limitations in posts, so it’s incredibly difficult to know which are legitimate. Once infected the malware can turn your computer into a zombie computer and become part of a global network of machines used to hide information or route further attacks,” said Dr. Pete Burnap, Director of the Social Data Science Lab at Cardiff University.

      Dr. Burnap goes on to explain that many scammers mask infected links by making them appear to be associated with the event that is being covered. Many unsuspecting victims believe that they’re looking up more information about the event, but instead become infected.

      Identifying cyber-attacks

      In order to counteract this dangerous trend, Burnap and his colleagues have developed an intelligent system that is designed to check shortened URLs, such as the ones popular on Twitter, and see if they are dangerous. Their recent study found that the system was able to identify potential cyber-attacks within a five-second window with up to 83% accuracy. If given up to 30 seconds, the system was able to identify malicious links with up to 98% accuracy.

      “We are trying to build systems that can help law enforcement authorities make decisions in a changing Cyber Security landscape. Social media adds a whole new dimension to network security risk. This work contributes to new insight into this and we hope to take this forward and develop a real-time system that can protect users as they search for information about real-world events using new forms of information sources,” said Professor Omer Rana, Principal investigator for the study.

      The research team hopes to stress-test their system for the upcoming European Football Championships next summer, which will see a high increase in Twitter traffic. The team’s paper was recently presented at the 2015 IEEE/ACM International Conference on Advances in Social Networks Analysis and Mining, which took place in August.

      Big-name events simply aren’t what they used to be. The growth of media outlets, and the technology that they use, has transformed events that you used to ...
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      Like delivering packages? Amazon has a deal for you

      Amazon Flex is an Uber-like package delivery service -- minus those annoying passengers

      So maybe you'd like to get paid for driving around, but you can't stand making small talk, which sort of rules out driving for Uber or Lyft. Ah, but now Amazon will pay you to drive around and deliver packages.

      The Uber-style package delivery service is called Amazon Flex, and it launched today in Seattle, with plans to roll out shortly in New York, Chicago, and other large cities.

      Drivers will be paid $18 to $25 an hour to deliver packages ordered up through Amazon Prime Now, the company's one-hour delivery service. Shifts are two, four, or eight hours.

      You'll need the usual -- a car, a smartphone (Android, not iPhone) and a clean criminal record. 

      Amazon says drivers can work as much or as little as they like. It's not clear from Amazon's announcement whether the pay is hourly or per piece, a detail you might want to be sure you understand before diving in.

      Some former Uber and Lyft drivers have become disenchanted and filed suit, claiming they should actually be classified as employees rather than independent contractors.

      To avoid disappointment, freelancers looking for "gigs" need to think of themselves as businesspeople. While it's true that you'll be responsible for gas, car maintenance, insurance, etc., remember that these are deductible business expenses. You may also be able to take a depreciation deduction for your car. Talk to an accountant to work out a strategy.

      Incorporating as an LLC is also a good idea. It provides important liability protection and is very inexpensive.

      So maybe you'd like to get paid for driving around, but you can't stand making small talk, which sort of rules out driving for Uber or Lyft. Ah, but now Am...
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      Iowa sues New York psychic

      Attorney general claims she preyed on vulnerable seniors

      Many people might see an ad for a psychic and laugh it off. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller is not one of those people.

      When his office recently received a marketing letter, forwarded by a concerned citizen, that extolled the powers of a New York-based psychic, Miller sued the psychic and the marketing company promoting her services.

      Miller said his office has secured a temporary injunction against Direct Response Advertising Inc., of New York, its owners, David Vogel and Michael Geisinger, and Lee Moorhead, the purported “psychic and mystic” featured in the mailings.

      The court's action prevents misleading mail solicitations to Iowans and forbids the defendants from sharing customer lists containing the names of Iowans with other marketers while the lawsuit is pending.

      “We looked into this operation and filed a lawsuit alleging that the defendants misled and cheated Iowans, particularly older Iowans,” Miller said. “Our lawsuit seeks to stop these operators permanently in Iowa, and return money to Iowa victims.”

      Highly personalized letters

      According to Miller, the letters from the psychic were highly personalized and expressed her “deep personal interest” in the recipient – typically an Iowan over seventy years old. Miller said the letters promised to use Moorhead’s supposed powers to deliver wealth, health, and other tangible benefits, all for a modest fee.

      “Any vulnerable Iowan who responded by sending a check would be set up for more financial losses,” Miller said. “Not only would Direct Response follow up with other deceptive appeals for money, but it would sell the Iowan’s name to other marketers who might have similar bad intentions.”

      The defendants' over-the-top appeal also contained the disclaimer that it was “for entertainment purposes only,” but according to Miller those words appear in almost unreadable tiny print at the bottom of a page.

      “While many of us would dismiss such claims out of hand, there are vulnerable Iowans, many of them elderly, who can be exploited in this way,” Miller added. “We are sending the message to those targeting older Iowans that we’re watching and it’s just not worth the risk.”

      Miller said he is particularly concerned that the solicitation letters instructed the recipient not to tell anyone about the psychic's special attention. By urging secrecy, he said the mailings tried to cut the victims off from family or friends who might otherwise help them see through the deception.

      Many people might see an ad for a psychic and laugh it off. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller is not one of those people.When his office recently receiv...
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      Consumer confidence ticks higher in September

      Still, there's an air of caution about the months ahead

      After posting a substantial gain last month, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index moved moderately higher in September and now stands at 103.0.

      The Present Situation Index jumped from 115.8 to 121.1 this month, while the Expectations Index edged down to 91.0 from 91.6 in August.

      “Consumers’ more positive assessment of current conditions fueled this month’s increase,” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board, “and drove the Present Situation Index to an 8-year high. Consumers’ expectations for the short-term outlook, however, remained relatively flat, although there was a modest improvement in income expectations. Thus, while consumers view current economic conditions more favorably, they do not foresee growth accelerating in the months ahead.”

      The consumers' eye view

      Consumers’ appraisal of current conditions was more positive in September. Those who say business conditions are “good” increased from 23.7% to 28%, while those who see them as “bad” dipped from 17.8% to 16.7%.

      The view of the job market was mixed. Those who think jobs are “plentiful” rose from 22.1% to 25.1%. At the same time, those who believe jobs are “hard to get” also rose from 21.7% to 24.3%.

      Optimism about the short-term outlook was little changed. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months increased from 16.6% to 17.9%, but those expecting business conditions to worsen also increased -- from 9.1% to 10.3%.

      The outlook for the labor market was mixed. Those who think there will be more jobs in the months ahead was virtually unchanged at 15.0%, while those anticipating fewer jobs rose from 14.5% to 15.8%.

      The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to rise improved from 16.2% to 19.1%, while the proportion expecting a decline inched up from 9.8% to 10.1%.

      The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was September 17.

      After posting a substantial gain last month, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index moved moderately higher in September and now stands at 103.0....
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      Home prices continue their gains into July

      Values were up on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis

      Home prices across the country were higher in July on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices.

      The leading measure of U.S. home prices, covering all nine U.S. census divisions, posted a year-over-year gain of 4.7% in July, versus a 4.5% increase in June. The 10-City Composite was virtually unchanged, rising 4.5% year-over-year, while the 20-City Composite was up 5.0%.

      “Prices of existing homes and housing overall are seeing strong growth and contributing to recent solid growth for the economy,” said David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “The S&P/Case Shiller National Home Price Index has risen at a 4% or higher annual rate since September 2012, well ahead of inflation.”

      West leads the advance

      San Francisco, Denver, and Dallas reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities with price increases of 10.4%, 10.3%, and 8.7%, respectively. Fourteen cities reported greater price increases in the year ending July 2015 over the year ending June 2015. San Francisco and Denver are the only cities with a double digit increase, while Phoenix had the longest streak of year-over-year increases, reporting an increase of 4.6% in July -- the eighth consecutive year-over-year increase. Boston posted a 4.3% annual increase, versus 3.2% in June for the biggest jump in year-over-year gains in July.

      Month-over-month

      Before seasonal adjustment, the National Index posted a gain of 0.7% month-over-month in July, with the 10-City Composite and 20-City Composite both rising 0.6%. After seasonal adjustment, the National index posted a gain of 0.4%, while the 10-City and 20-City Composites were both down 0.2%. All 20 cities reported increases in July before seasonal adjustment; after seasonal adjustment, ten were down, nine were up, and one was unchanged.

      The three cities with the largest cumulative price increases since January 2000 are all in California: Los Angeles (138%), San Francisco (116%), and San Diego (115%). The two smallest gains since January 2000 are Detroit (3%) and Cleveland (10%). The Sunbelt cities -- Miami, Tampa, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, which were the poster children of the housing boom, have yet to make new all-time highs.

      Home prices across the country were higher in July on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indice...
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      TF Supplements recalls RHINO 7 dietary supplement for sexual enhancement

      The product contains desmethyl carbondenafil and dapoxetine, which are not listed on the label

      TF Supplements of Houston, Texas, is recalling RHINO 7 dietary supplement.

      The product contains desmethyl, carbondenafil and dapoxetine, which are not listed on the label.

      Desmethyl carbondenafil is a phosphodiesterase PDE-5 inhibitor which is a class of drugs used to treat male erectile dysfunction, making this product an unapproved new drug. Dapoxetine is an active ingredient not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

      The company says it has received no reports of illness associated with this product to date

      RHINO 7, marketed as a dietary supplement for sexual enhancement, is packaged in a bottle containing six (6) capsules WITH LOT# K824B719-P and in a single (1) count capsule hang card with LOT# SU-5102617*RP at the consumer level. Lot numbers are on the back top right of the (1) count and on the side of the (6) count bottle.

      TF Supplements is notifying its customers of this recall by email.

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should stop using it immediately and return it to:

      TF Supplements

      6666 Gulf Freeway

      Houston TX 77087

      TF Supplements of Houston, Texas, is recalling RHINO 7 dietary supplement. The product contains desmethyl, carbondenafil and dapoxetine, which are not lis...
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      Honda recalls model year 2015 Fit vehicles

      The wires inside the Plug Top Ignition Coils may suffer damage

      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 17,796 model year 2015 Fit vehicles manufactured December 6, 2013, to August 28, 2014.

      The recalled vehicles may experience damage to the wires inside the Plug Top Ignition Coils (PTC) due to improper protection against electrical noise.

      If the wires become damaged, the coil may overheat and cause the engine to stall, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Honda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the PTC with new design, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin October 6, 2015.

      Owners may contact Honda Automobile Customer Service at 1-888-234-2138. Honda's number for this recall is JT9.

      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 17,796 model year 2015 Fit vehicles manufactured December 6, 2013, to August 28, 2014. The recalled vehicles may e...
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      OC Raw Dog recalls raw frozen dog food products

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      OC Raw Dog of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., is recalling 640 lbs. of Chicken, Fish & Produce Raw Frozen Canine Formulation.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses have been reported.

      This recall is limited to Chicken, Fish & Produce Raw Frozen Canine Formulations that were packaged into 6.5-lb. Doggie Dozen Patties, 4-lb. Doggie Sliders, and 3-lb. Meaty Rox with the lot number 1819, and use by date of 05/05/16. The codes are on the bottom left corner of the back of the package.

      The recalled product was sold to customers through independent pet specialty retailers in Colorado, Vermont and Pennsylvania.

      Customer who purchased the recalled product should submit a picture of the package with the lot number to Olivia@ocrawdog.com for verification, and either dispose of the product immediately or return it to the place of purchase it for a replacement product.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-844-215-DOGS (3647) Monday thru Friday 9am - 4pm (PST).  

      OC Raw Dog of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., is recalling 640 lbs. of Chicken, Fish & Produce Raw Frozen Canine Formulation. The product may be contamin...
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      Other diesel carmakers worry about VW fallout

      BMW Group assures consumers its diesel cars have low emissions without cheating

      What will be the impact on car buyers of the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal? Will it dampen new car sales?

      Most industry experts say it shouldn't. Edmunds.com says the scandal appears to have had very little impact on consumer confidence in the overall industry, even as it proves to be a self-inflicted wound for the German automaker.

      "Volkswagen's deception is dominating headlines, but it is not keeping shoppers away from other brands' showrooms," said Edmunds.com Director of Industry Analysis Jessica Caldwell. "It puts the crisis in a little bit of perspective, since these Volkswagen diesels don't constitute a very big share of sales. It's also a reminder that buyers won't disappear from the market just because they suddenly can't or don't want to buy these affected cars. They're willing to turn to other automakers that will meet their needs."

      BMW may stand to benefit from Volkswagen's woes, and the fellow German automaker is taking great pains to assure consumers that its clean diesel vehicles don't cheat. BMW said it has “clear, binding specifications and processes” in place through all phases of development at the BMW Group in order to avoid wrongdoing.

      Cites studies

      In a news release, the car maker said the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) carried out two studies that confirmed the BMW X5 and 13 other BMW vehicles tested comply with the legal requirements concerning NOx emissions. No discrepancies were found in the X5 between laboratory-test and field-test NOx emissions, the company said.

      BMW Group also said it is willing to discuss its testing procedures with the relevant authorities in the U.S. and other countries and would make any of its vehicles available for testing at any time.

      The company said progress in meeting emissions goals has largely been accomplished with diesel technology and it is not backing away from diesel propulsion systems because of VW's problems. In fact, the company said meeting future requirements won't happen without diesel drive trains.

      According to BMW, a diesel engine emits roughly 15% to 20% less CO2 on average than a comparable gasoline engine.

      Refining and optimizing

      “At the BMW Group, we have invested a great deal in recent years in refining and optimizing diesel technology,” the company said in a statement.

      BMW has a lot riding on how consumers ultimately react since it is heavily invested,in diesel models, as are many other automakers. Diesel vehicles accounted for 38% of vehicles sold worldwide last year – mostly in Europe. Diesel is less of a factor in the U.S. since diesel-powered vehicles accounted for only 6% of total sales.

      The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said last week that it is revising its emissions testing procedures to make it more difficult for a car maker to cheat. BMW said it supports efforts to bridge the gap between test results and real-life fuel consumption and emissions.

      What will be the impact on car buyers of the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal? Will it dampen new car sales?Most industry experts say it shouldn't. ...
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      Payday lenders sue FDIC, saying it "stigmatized" them

      Federal agencies put pressure on banks to cut off payday lenders, suit charges

      The federal government has gone to war against payday lenders in recent years, and now the payday lenders are fighting back in court. A trade association, the Community Financial Services Association of America, and Advance America, a large payday lender, have sued the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), saying it pressured banks into breaking ties with the payday lenders.

      Payday lenders, after all, are just like everyone else in one sense -- they need banks to finance their activities. They borrow money at preferred rates from large banks and then lend it at high rates to individuals who have a bad or non-existent credit score.

      The payday lenders say they are performing a valuable service and that cash-short consumers would have nowhere else to go if payday lenders went away. But federal consumer protection agencies contend that payday lenders take advantage of consumers by charging exorbitant interest rates that make it almost impossible for consumers to get out of debt.

      Choke Point

      Allegedly seeking to throttle the lenders, the U.S. Justice Department organized a campaign called “Operation Choke Point” and enlisted the FDIC to put pressure on banks to stop doing business with the payday lenders, the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington charges. As a result, Advance America says it was left to look for new banking partners on short notice, hampering its business operations.

      The FDIC allegedly told banks that they were incurring a “reputation risk” by financing payday lenders, which the payday lenders say violated their rights to due process since there had been no finding that they had violated any laws.

      U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler, in a 48-page decision, said the payday lenders had clearly shown that they had suffered an injury as a result of Operation Choke Point, allowing the lenders’ suit to move forward.

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      The federal government has gone to war against payday lenders in recent years, and now the payday lenders are fighting back in court. A trade association,...
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      One-week fantasy sports walks a fine line as its popularity explodes

      Why regulators and sports leagues don't consider it illegal gambling

      If you watched any NFL games over the weekend – or any television for that matter – you no doubt were bombarded with commercials for the two major one-week fantasy sports enterprises, DraftKings and FanDuel.

      Fantasy sports – particularly fantasy football – has been around for years. One-week fantasy sports is a relatively new phenomenon and has enjoyed explosive growth. Instead of picking your fantasy team for an entire season and getting a small cash prize at the end if you win, DraftKings and FanDuel allow players to choose different teams each week, earning sometimes significant cash prizes if their teams compile the most points. Players may play one week or every week.

      Wait a minute, I know what you're probably thinking. Isn't this illegal gambling?

      It might seem like it, but, so far, no one who enforces laws thinks so. The difference between betting $50 on the Cincinnati Bengals to cover the spread against the Oakland Raiders and putting up $50 to play your fantasy team is that fantasy football is considered a game of skill, not chance.

      Murky distinction

      According to FanDuel, as long as your are at least 18 years old and live in either the U.S. or Canada, you can legally pick your teams and place your bets. Pete Rose may have been banned from Major League Baseball for betting on baseball games, but for other sports leagues, whether professional athletes should be allowed to play one week fantasy games remains a murky subject.

      The leagues, meanwhile, are all in, as are sports media.

      “We've even partnered up with companies like NBC, Sports Illustrated, Comcast, Sporting News, and plenty of others,” FanDuel says on its website.

      How to play

      Instead of picking a particular team to beat another team, fantasy players assemble a “team” of actual players, winning points for how well those athletes perform in a particular game. In the case of football, participants “draft” a quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers, a tight end, a kicker, and a team defense.

      There is a fairly complicated formula that assigns points based on how each player performs in a game. For example, if Tom Brady was your quarterback Sunday, you would have done quite well, earning eight points for Brady's two TD passes and 14.32 points for his 358 passing yards and no interceptions.

      Highest points win

      Each position has a similar formula to produce points. The highest point total in the league – the players in a particular group – wins the money put up by the rest of the participants, with FanDuel or DraftKings taking a small cut.

      To prevent participants from “drafting” the best players at every position, professional players are assigned a contract value, with the best-performing players having the highest values. Fantasy players have a budget, or salary cap, of $60,000 to assemble a team. If you want to draft Tom Brady at quarterback, you'll probably have to choose a lesser known, or sleeper player at one or two of the other positions to stay under the cap.

      If it all sounds like a male sports geek obsession, it isn't. Leger, The Research Intelligence Group, estimates nearly one-quarter of this year's NFL Fantasy Football players are women, a steady climb over the past few years.

      Women players

      "We're seeing a small, steady trend showing the rate that women are playing Fantasy Football is growing faster than that among Fantasy Football players in general," said Lance Henik, Senior Account Manager at Leger. "According to the Fantasy Sports Trade association, approximately 20% of all fantasy players in 2011/2012 season were women. The results from our 2013 poll showed 23% of Fantasy Football players were women, with our latest poll results currently showing that 25% of them are women."

      As the 2015 NFL season kicked off earlier this month, both DraftKings and FanDuel saturated the airwaves, competing for even more participants. According to iSpot.TV, Draft Kings spent $81 million in ads between August 1 and mid September, more than the traditional sponsors of NFL games, beer companies, carmakers, and athletic shoe companies.

      Season-long fantasy football leagues are mostly played for fun, a way for sports fans to enjoy the season. As the commercials make clear, one week leagues are all about the money – and there's a lot of it. In its TV commercials over the weekend, DraftKings boasted it would pay out more than $1 billion for the season.

      It can cost as little as $1 to field a team for the week, but the potential payout for that amount is very small. Players who pay more can potentially earn more – but can lose more as well.  

      If you watched any NFL games over the weekend – or any television for that matter – you no doubt were bombarded with commercials for the two major one-week...
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      Evidence suggests Millennials interested in buying homes

      When opportunity presents itself, young people appear interested in ownership

      As first-time home buyers have entered the housing market in 2015, a sizable portion of these new buyers was made up of Millennials. It was something of a surprise since this generation had been pigeon-holed as renters.

      Having come of age precisely at the time the housing market collapsed, it was thought many young people were leery of taking out mortgages and making long-term commitments to pieces of real estate.

      There may have been some truth to that but another explanation for the absence of Millennials buying homes is the recent sorry state of the job market and the difficulty in obtaining a mortgage.

      The movement of first-time buyers into the housing market coincided with continued improvement in the employment picture. As things began to get back to normal, young people did what previous generations have done – purchase homes.

      Looking online

      According to the real estate website Realtor.com, interest can't be measured solely by foot traffic. It reports nearly 65% of Millennials aged 21 to 34 looked at real estate websites and apps in August. That conclusion is based on an analysis of data from comScore and current population estimates.

      The company said 25-34 year olds were 70% more likely than the average adult to be currently looking for a home to buy on its website. In recent months new home sales have drawn the most interest.

      “While it is difficult to estimate the effect of Millennial buyers in the new home market, one can infer that since prices over the year have trended towards the more affordable, that some of the growth in the new homes market is a result of builders providing more affordable supply,” said Realtor.com Chief Economist Jonathan Smoke.

      The National Association of Realtors (NAR) has traced the increase in first-time buyers in 2015, crediting them with keeping the market moving forward. NAR says first-time buyers counted for 32% of August's sales, rising from 28% in July.

      68% of first-time buyers

      In fact, Smoke estimates that half of all home sales activity for the first half of the year can be attributed to first-time buyers. According to NAR's 2015 Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends report, Millennial comprise 68% of all first-time buyers.

      This is an important piece of data, Smoke believes, because the people who have increased the demand for rental inventory – making it a lot more expensive in the process – are increasingly trading rent payments for mortgages.

      “People who believe that Millennials are disinterested in home ownership are grossly mistaken,” said Smoke. “This generation hit the job market during one of the largest recessions of all time and they’ve had to work hard to establish credit and save for a down payment. With the older segment just beginning to enjoy the life events that drive home ownership – marriage and children – now is the most appropriate time for them to consider home ownership, and that’s what we’re seeing.”

      As first-time home buyers have entered the housing market in 2015, a sizable portion of these new buyers was made up of Millennials. It was something of a ...
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      Audi admits "dirty diesel" involvement, pledges to fix cars

      The company says 2.1 million cars are affected, only a handful in the U.S.

      The Volkswagen "dirty diesel" scandal is starting to have overtones of Watergate. Every few days we're brought fresh news of yet another transgression, cover-up, or evasion.

      The latest affects Audi, VW's upscale brand sometimes referred to as Volkswagen's Lexus. Audi today said that 2.1 million of its diesel-powered cars are equipped with the same stealth software as its downmarket VW brethren.

      "We are working at full speed to find a technical solution," said Audi spokesman Juergen de Graeve, Bloomberg Business reported. "Once we have that solution, we will write to customers and we will upgrade the cars so that they are within emissions regulations.

      Audi said the 2.1 million cars included the popular A4 sedan and Q5 SUV. Only 13,000 of the cars were sold in the U.S.

      Ousted VW CEO Martin Winterkorn made much of his strategy of using interchangeable parts in the company's many brands, which include VW, Audi, Porsche, Seat, and Skoda.

      Common components

      Some analysts had questioned that strategy, saying it could spell disaster for the company if it had to recall a component common in many millions of cars. It is, of course, exactly that situation that VW now faces. It needs to replace or retool software in 11 million cars -- more than it sells in a year. About 5 million are VW brand cars, including Golfs, Passats, and Tiguans, according to Automotive News.

      Winterkorn, meanwhile, is the subject of a criminal probe opened by prosecutors in Germany. Investigators are trying to determine who is responsible for scheming to circumvent emissions regulations.

      But while trying to pin blame on someone, the German government is also “working hard to contain the damage,” according to Peter Altmaier, chief of staff to Chancellor Angela Merkel. He said in an interview with Bloomberg Television in Berlin that the government is keen to ensure that the reputation of German cars in general is “not damaged.”

      A 2016 Audi S6 (Audi photo)The Volkswagen "dirty diesel" scandal is starting to have overtones of Watergate. Every few days we're brought fresh news ...
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      Community colleges probe rising student loan default rates

      Study finds students borrowing the least default the most

      Community colleges are almost all state-supported and have always cost significantly less than four-year colleges.

      So it was something of a surprise a couple of weeks ago when the Brookings Institution lumped community colleges in with for-profit schools as institutions where student loan recipients were most likely to default on their loans.

      Admittedly, the much larger risk is for students at expensive for-profit schools, but the report's authors note, with some concern, that community college students taking out loans – and then defaulting – is a relatively new development.

      The Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) has dug deeper into community college student borrowing and repayment behavior. It has compiled a report using data from all 16 community colleges in Iowa to examine who borrows and who defaults.

      Persistence and completion

      "Our institutions are more focused on persistence and completion now than ever before," said ACCT President and CEO Noah Brown. "This report emphasizes just how important those factors are to post-enrollment success."

      In their report, the Brookings researchers appeared to suggest that students attending non-selective schools – for-profit and community colleges have open enrollment, accepting all who apply – were most at risk of defaulting on loans. The ACCT report suggests it might be more complicated than that.

      The report found that students who borrow the least amount of money, not the most, are more at risk of default. Many defaulting students take no action on their loans, suggesting the complexity of the repayment system and lack of information may be a contributing factor.

      "For borrowers with less than $5,000 in debt, there are almost as many borrowers in default as those who are actively repaying their loan debt," said Jee Hang Lee, ACCT's vice president for public policy and external relations. "The solutions that we have for struggling borrowers, like public service loan forgiveness and income-based repayment, are geared toward middle-income earners with high debts. We need a policy solution for the students who borrow a little but still struggle to make the minimum monthly payment."

      Who borrows and who doesn't

      The more successful community college students don't borrow money; students who do so are more likely to drop out. Those who default on their loans are even more likely to not finish school with a credential.

      Finally, community colleges have no easy way to share data that could help institutions address student loan defaults and better manage them.

      "As institutional policymakers, Iowa's Community College Trustees recognize the value of using data to drive our decision-making process," said Cheryl Langston, Des Moines Area Community College trustee and Iowa Association of Community College Trustees board chair. "This report demonstrates how community colleges can be more reflective and forward-looking by understanding where we are doing a good job and where we need to improve to help our students be as successful as possible."

      The report includes policy reform recommendations for colleges, as well as for Congress to incorporate into the Higher Education Act's reauthorization.

      Community colleges are almost all state-supported and have always cost significantly less than four-year colleges.So it was something of a surprise a c...
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      Feds report 17.6 million identity theft victims in 2014

      Most incidents involved stolen credit cards

      The government's latest accounting of identity theft shows the problem for consumers remains much as it was in 2012, the last time the government compiled the results.

      According to the U.S. Justice Department, about 7% of the U.S. adult population – some 17.6 million people – suffered some type of identity theft last year. But there was a wide variation in the severity of the impact.

      The Justice Department includes the unauthorized use of a credit card, in which the consumer's liability is limited, on its list of identity theft crimes, along with the more serious stealing of a consumer's personal information to open credit lines or clean out a bank account.

      In fact, most victims suffered the least serious type of identity theft in 2014, the unauthorized misuse or attempted misuse of an existing account. Some 16.4 million people – the overwhelming majority of identity theft victims – had that experience.

      More than one attack

      Of course, some victims may have experienced multiple types of identity theft. An estimated 8.6 million consumer experienced the fraudulent use of a credit card, 8.1 million experienced the unauthorized or attempted use of existing bank accounts, and 1.5 million victims experienced other types of existing account theft, such as misuse or attempted misuse of an existing telephone, online, or insurance account.

      When a thief steals a Social Security number and other information to open bogus credit accounts, a victim can spend months trying to straighten out the mess and clear his or her name. The government report shows 52% of last year's identity theft victims were able to resolve any problems in a day or less, suggesting those incidents were not among the most serious.

      About 14% of identity theft victims experienced an out-of-pocket loss of $1 or more. Of those, about half suffered losses of $99 or less and 14% lost $1,000 or more.

      A helpful heads-up

      The report also suggests financial institutions are doing a better job of monitoring customers' accounts. About 45% of victims said they were alerted to suspicious activity on their accounts by a financial institution.

      The report also contains some good news and bad news. The good news is 85% of people surveyed took action in 2014 to prevent identity theft, such as checking credit reports, shredding documents with personal information, and changing passwords on financial accounts.

      The bad news? The number of identity theft victims who were 65 or older increased to 2.6 million in 2014, up from 2.1 million in 2012. Seniors are especially vulnerable to scams, and the report suggests the need for family members to help older relatives keep their financial information safe.

      The government's latest accounting of identity theft shows the problem for consumers remains much as it was in 2012, the last time the government compiled...
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      Another increase in personal incomes and spending

      But consumers weren't tucking away as much for emergencies

      Personal incomes rose in August, building on July's increase, as did personal consumption expenditures (PCE) or consumer spending.

      According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, income was up 0.3%, or $52.5 billion, and disposable personal income (DPI) -- also known as after-tax income -- increased $47.1 billion, or 0.4%. PCE was up $54.9 billion, or 0.4%.

      Compensation

      The increase in wages and salaries weakened in August, rising just $35.6 billion, compared with an advance of $43.8 billion the month before. Private wages and salaries were up $31.5 billion, while government wages and salaries rose $4.1 billion.

      Personal outlays and personal saving

      PCE, personal interest payments and personal current transfer payments increased $55.2 billion in August, after rising $46.0 billion in July.

      Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was $615.6 billion in August, compared with $623.6 billion in July. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income – was 4.6% versus 4.7% a month earlier.

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

      Personal incomes rose in August, building on July's increase, as did personal consumption expenditures (PCE) or consumer spending. According to the Bureau...
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      An August drop in pending home sales

      Three out of four geographic regions posted declines

      Pending home sales declined in August but, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), remained at a healthy level of activity.

      The NAE says its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, was down 1.4% last month to 109.4. Even with that decline though, the PHSI is up 6.1% from August 2014 and has risen year–over–year for 12 consecutive months.

      Continuing demand

      Despite the modest decline in contract signings, demand continues to outpace housing supply and elevate price growth in numerous markets. "Pending sales have leveled off since mid-summer, with buyers being bounded by rising prices and few available and affordable properties within their budget," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. "Even with existing-housing supply barely budging all summer and no relief coming from new construction, contract activity is still higher than earlier this year and a year ago."

      Yun believes sales in the coming months should be able to roughly maintain their current pace. However, he warns that there are looming speed bumps.

      "The possibility of a government shutdown and any ongoing instability in the equity markets could cause some households to put off buying for the time being," he said, adding, "Furthermore, adapting to the changes being implemented next month in the mortgage closing process could delay some sales."

      The national median existing–home price is expected to increase 5.8% in 2015 to $220,300, the median being the point at which prices for half the homes are higher and half are lower. Yun forecasts total existing-home sales this year to increase 7.0% to around 5.28 million -- 25% below the peak set in 2005 (7.08 million).

      Regional sales

      • The PHSI in the Northeast fell 5.6% to 93.3 in August, but is still 8.9% above a year ago.
      • In the Midwest the index inched down 0.4% to 107.4%, and is 6.5% above August 2014.
      • Pending home sales in the South dipped 2.2% to 121.5, but are still 4.1% above last August.
      • The bright spot was in the west where the PHSI rose 1.8% 104.9, and is now 7.6% above a year ago.
      Pending home sales decline in August but, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), remained at a healthy level of activity. The NAE says i...
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      Calperf recalls chicken product

      The product contains milk, an allergen not listed on the label

      Calperf, operating under Creative Foods, of Santa Clara, Calif., is recalling approximately 216 pounds of chicken product.

      The product contains yogurt derived from milk, an allergen not listed on the label. While yogurt is declared on the front label, the product is missing an ingredient list identifying milk as a sub-ingredient.

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

      The following marinated skinless chicken item, produced on September 16, 2015, is being recalled:

      2-lb. sealed trays of “Green Meadows PREMIUM MEAT CUTS Marinated Skinless Chicken Bone-In Cubed Chicken in 23% Yogurt-Curry Marinade” with a use-by date/Case code date of September 30,

      2015.

      The recalled product, bearing the establishment number “P-6052” inside the USDA mark of inspection, was shipped to retailers in the San Francisco, Calif., Bay Area.

      Customers who purchased this product should not consumer it, but throw it away or return it to the place of purchase.

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Saswata Bhattacharya at (925) 506-8286.

      Calperf, operating under Creative Foods, of Santa Clara, Calif., is recalling approximately 216 pounds of chicken product. The product contains yogurt der...
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      Hyundai recalls model year 2009-2011 Accents

      A malfunctioning brake light switch may cause the brake lights to not illuminate

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 99,500 model year 2009-2011 Hyundai Accents manufactured March 1, 2009, to February 11, 2011.

      The brake light switch may malfunction causing the brake lights to not illuminate when the brake pedal is depressed or may cause an inability to deactivate the cruise control by depressing the brake pedal. It may also prevent the shifter from being moved out of the PARK position.

      Failure to illuminate the brake lights during braking or the inability to disengage the cruise control could increase the risk of a crash.

      Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will replace the brake switch, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin November 2, 2015. Owners may contact Hyundai's customer service at 1-855-671-3059 or by visiting www.HyundaiUSA.com/Campaign131. Hyundai's number for this recall is 131.

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 99,500 model year 2009-2011 Hyundai Accents manufactured March 1, 2009, to February 11, 2011. The brake light switch m...
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      Dealers join consumers in suing VW over "dirty diesel" scandal

      Consumers looking for a bargain should probably act now

      Unsold VWs (Staff photo)

      It's not just Volkswagen owners who are outraged over the Volkswagen dirty diesel scandal, dealers are angry too. In fact, the dealers were already fed up with slow sales that they blamed on VW's plodding pace in bringing new models to market, and many are right behind consumers in filing class action litigation against the company.

      It might sound strange to consumers, but dealers stand to lose a lot more in the Volkswagen scandal than their customers do. After all, what's the worst that will happen to a VW owner? The cars aren't safety hazards and can still be driven; they stand to lose resale value and may take a performance hit when the emissions systems are straightened out, but no individual car owner is going to be wiped out financially.

      Dealers, on the other hand, argue that they have already taken multi-million dollar hits in lost sales because VW was slow to update its model line-up. And now they stand to lose much more if consumers turn their backs and head over to the Kia or Nissan dealer. 

      There's also the little matter of inventory. Volkswagen sales have been sluggish the last few years and if you look carefully at VW dealers' lots, you'll see they are bulging with unsold cars that appear as a huge liability on dealers' balance sheets. 

      Bargain hunter's dream

      Not to be crass, but there is one bright spot in the entire mess -- anyone looking for a new or used car should be able to drive a hard bargain and then drive off with lots of change jiggling in their pockets. 

      Dealers live from month to month. Between now and the end of September, anyone who walks into a VW showroom with cash or good credit should be able to knock thousands of dollars off the going price for most models. 

      Admittedly, this is not the time to buy a VW diesel, since no one knows what the emissions modifications will do to the cars' performance and fuel economy, but gas-powered Volkswagens are the same precision-engineered, fun-to-drive cars today that they were yesterday.

      Consumers too often make buying decisions based on morality instead of their own self-interest. Whether you buy a VW or not doesn't really matter to Volkswagen, but if you can do so at a fire-sale price, it matters a lot to your bank balance. 

      Headed for court

      The mess that VW has made for itself also presents a sterling opportunity for the legal profession, which is letting no grass grow under its feet. Lawyers who specialize in the auto trades are tuning up their word processors and getting ready to head for the courthouse, Automotive News reports

      “If I’m a VW dealer and they’ve made intentional decisions either in Germany or in Virginia, and those decisions damaged the brand, that hurts me as a dealer,” said Mike Charapp, a partner at Charapp & Weiss in McLean, Va., a McLean, Va., a firm that represents dealers, the trade journal reported. “I’m going to be looking at some potential recourse unless VW steps up and helps me with my business.

      VW's U.S. subsidiary is headquartered in Herndon, Va., near Washington Dulles International Airport. The proximity to Dulles makes it easy for executives to fly back and forth to Germany.

      It also makes it convenient for lawyers to shuttle into Dulles and head for the Fairfax County courthouse or the U.S. District Court in Alexandria. Reuters estimates that at least 25 class-action cases have already been filed, representing dealers in all 50 states. 

      Besides lost sales, dealers will argue that the value of their franchises has been decreased -- even wiped out -- by Volkswagen's skirting of U.S. emission laws. The damages sought by dealers could easily exceed those sought by consumers and could even rival the $18 billion in potential fines.

      Fahrvergnügen? Fuhgeddaboudit.

      Unsold VWs (Photo via Wikipedia)It's not just Volkswagen owners who are outraged over the Volkswagen dirty diesel scandal, dealers are angry too. In ...
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      Study: Deregulation of TV news to blame for political polarization

      Congress tried to spur competition but got consolidation instead

      The polarization of the American population is often blamed for the seeming inability of the government to get anything done, as politicians play to the fringe elements of their respective parties and ignore the day-to-day decisions that are needed to keep things running smoothly.

      But don't blame the voters, says a new study, which instead ties the trend to the Telecommunication Act of 1996, a train wreck legislation that was supposed to remove the shackles of regulation, let a million stars twinkle, and so on and so forth.

      What happened instead, says the study by Washington State University, is that the television industry was no sooner deregulated than it raced to consolidate, resulting in slashed newsroom budgets and ratings competitions that turned into a race to the bottom.

      "After 1996, we see changes in polarization based on how much television people are using," said researcher Jay Hmielowski, assistant professor in WSU's Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. He conducted the study with Murrow colleague Myiah Hutchens and former colleague Michael Beam, now at Kent State University.

      A specific moment

      The Murrow researchers found that U.S. citizens have become increasingly polarized since 1996. They also found that greater use of TV news is associated with higher levels of polarization.

      "Our study is unique," they wrote, "in that it focuses on a specific moment (1996) that perpetuated changes to the media system."

      "We thought it was important to look at polarization in the United States given that we have increasing polarization in Congress and some evidence that people in general are polarizing with their attitudes and their likes or dislikes for the out party," said Hmielowski.

      Their work was recently published online in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research.

      The polarization of the American population is often blamed for the seeming inability of the government to get anything done, as politicians play to the fr...
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      More than one-quarter of U.S. homes are losing value

      Disturbing pattern also appeared just before the housing bubble popped

      Despite real estate industry statistics that consistently show a rise in the average home price, there is evidence that these increases skip over several significant housing markets.

      In fact, real estate market site Zillow has compiled statistics showing that more than one-quarter of U.S. homes lost value over the last year, at a time when the real estate market as a whole was thought to be still improving.

      The disconnect is largely due to the nature of real estate, and the importance of “location, location, location.” In some markets, prices have already eclipsed those at the height of the housing bubble. Others are still struggling to put the housing crisis in the rear view mirror.

      From a national standpoint, Zillow says homes gained 3.3% from a year ago. Not a big gain but more than the inflation rate.

      Leveling off

      But the numbers show the national growth rate in home prices has leveled off over the past five months, suggesting the housing recovery is coming to an end and the market is returning to normal.

      A disturbing twist, however, is the 27.9% of homes that lost value over the past year. Something like that happened in the recent past – just before the market crash, in fact, when 21.2% of homes were worth less.

      The eroding values peaked in December 2008, when 81.6% of homes had lost value. Today, the most significant falling values are clustered in East Coast markets.

      According to Zillow, 48% of homes in Baltimore, 43% of homes in Philadelphia, 41% of homes in Washington, DC, and 38.6% of homes in New York and Northern New Jersey have lost value over the last year.

      Markets in the Midwest also had their share of losses. Home values were down 32% in Cincinnati, 31% in Cleveland, and 27% in St. Louis.

      Hot markets still holding value

      At the other end of the scale, some real estate markets remain red hot, with homes shedding little of their value. Markets like Denver, Dallas, San Jose, and San Francisco all saw double-digit home value growth over the past year. Less than five percent of homes in Denver and Dallas were worth less in August 2015 than they were a year ago.

      "We're not going in reverse, but we are hitting the brakes a bit in some markets," said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Svenja Gudell. "It's easy to say the recession is over when a third of the biggest markets are more expensive now than ever before, but we're still seeing a number of homes losing value. The reality is there are still areas lagging behind in the recovery."

      If you're renting, does that mean you should be dissuaded from buying? Again, it depends upon the market. However, renting in most areas is still no bargain.

      The Zillow Rent Index rose 3.8% on an annual basis to$1,381, suggesting that rents are rising faster than home values.

      Despite real estate industry statistics that consistently show a rise in the average home price, there is evidence that these increases skip over several s...
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      Springtime economy grew at a healthy clip

      More consumer spending was a big factor

      The final numbers for economic growth during the second quarter are in -- and things were looking pretty good.

      The Commerce Department reports real gross domestic product (GDP) -- 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 -- increased at an annual rate of 3.9%.

      By way of comparison, real GDP increased a paltry 0.6% in the first three months of the year.

      These new numbers are based on more complete source data than were available for the "second" estimate, in which the increase in real GDP was put at 3.7%. With this “third” and final look at the April – June quarter, personal consumption expenditures (PCE) and nonresidential fixed investment increased more than previously estimated.

      Contributors

      The acceleration in real GDP came from an upturn in exports, an acceleration in PCE, a deceleration in imports, a turnaround in state and local government spending, and an acceleration in nonresidential fixed investment. Those were partly offset by decelerations in private inventory investment and in federal government spending.

      Real gross domestic income (GDI) -- the value of the costs incurred and the incomes earned in the production of goods and services in the nation’s economy -- rose 0.7% after increasing 0.4% in the first quarter.

      GDP inflation and corporate profits

      The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, rose 1.5% in the second quarter, in contrast to a decline 1.6% in the first quarter. Excluding food and energy prices, the “core” rate of GDP inflation jumped 1.2% after edging up just 0.2% in the preceding quarter.

      Profits from current production (corporate profits with inventory valuation adjustment (IVA) and capital consumption adjustment (CCAdj)) shot up $70.4 billion in the second quarter; they fell $123.0 billion in the first.

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

      The final numbers for economic growth during the second quarter are in -- and things were looking pretty good. The Commerce Department reports real gross ...
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      Hyundai Tucson and Sonata collect top IIHS awards

      A redesign for 2016 reaps rewards

      Hyundai tweaked the designs for both the Tucson and Sonata, qualifying the vehicles for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) TOP SAFETY PICK+ award.

      In the Tucson's small overlap test, the driver's space was maintained well, with a maximum intrusion of six inches at the parking brake pedal, but no more than three inches at other locations. The dummy's movement was well-controlled, and the front and side curtain airbags worked well together to protect the head. Measures taken from the dummy indicate a low risk of any significant injuries in a crash of this severity.

      In contrast, when the previous generation of the Tucson was tested, the intrusion was severe, reaching a maximum of 16 inches at the parking brake pedal. The steering column moved in and to the right, causing the dummy's head to slide off the left side of the front airbag. The head hit the instrumental panel, and the side curtain airbag didn't deploy.

      Like its predecessor, the redesigned Tucson earns good ratings in the other crashworthiness tests -- moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraints.

      Sonata changes

      The midsize Sonata was redesigned for the 2015 model year. For 2016, Hyundai made changes to the driver's safety belt and the front suspension in hopes of improving the small overlap rating from acceptable to good. Those changes weren't enough, and the rating remains acceptable. It earns good ratings in the other crashworthiness tests.

      Both the 2016 Sonata and the 2016 Tucson have an available front crash prevention system that includes automatic braking. The vehicles avoided collisions in IIHS track tests at 12 mph and 25 mph. The optional package also includes forward collision warning that meets criteria set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That gives the vehicles the maximum six points for a superior front crash prevention rating.

      To qualify for the 2015 TOP SAFETY PICK award, vehicles must earn good ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraint tests, plus a good or acceptable rating in the small overlap test. For TOP SAFETY PICK+, vehicles also need an available front crash prevention system with an advanced or superior rating.

      The Institute plans to raise the bar in 2016, requiring a good small overlap rating for either award. Vehicles with an acceptable rating, such as the Sonata, will need further improvements to qualify for 2016 honors.

      Hyundai tweaked the designs for both the Tucson and Sonata qualifying the vehicles for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) TOP SAFETY PICK+...
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      Sanderson Farms recalls poultry products

      The products that may be contaminated with extraneous metal materials

      Sanderson Farms of Hazlehurst, Miss., is recalling approximately 554,090 pounds of poultry products that may be contaminated with extraneous metal materials.

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

      The following chicken items, produced on September 17-18, 2015, are being recalled:

      • 70-lb. cases containing “YOUNG CHICKEN PARTS JUMBO BONELESS SKINLESS BREAST FILLETS WITH RIB MEAT” with case code 45017.
      • 70-lb. cases containing “YOUNG CHICKEN PARTS JUMBO CLIPPED TENDERLOINS” with case code 45092.
      • 70-lb. cases containing “YOUNG CHICKEN PARTS JUMBO BONELESS SKINLESS BREAST BUTTERFLIES WITH RIB MEAT” with case code 45015.
      • 70-lb. cases and 1800-lb. combos containing “FRESH YOUNG CHICKEN PARTS BREAST FRAMES” with case code 45969.

      The recalled products bear the establishment number “EST. P-247” inside the USDA mark of inspection and were shipped to processing facilities in Georgia and Louisiana.

      Consumers who purchased these products should not consume them, but throw them away or return them to the place of purchase.

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Mike Cockrell at (601) 426-1454.

      Sanderson Farms of Hazlehurst, Miss., is recalling approximately 554,090 pounds of poultry products that may be contaminated with extraneous metal material...
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      Wishbone Design recalls Recycled Edition Bikes

      The handlebar can pinch fingers

      Wishbone Design Studio Limited of Yardville, N.J., is recalling about 5,000 Recycled Edition Bikes.

      The handlebar can pinch fingers placed at the center where the handlebar connects to the bike frame.

      The firm received reports of four incidents, including two injuries. One required stitches and one required restorative surgery.

      The Wishbone Recycled (RE) Bikes are made from recycled black plastic materials with 12-inch, air-filled white rubber tires. The adjustable seat height ranges from nine to 20 inches. The bikes weigh about ten pounds. The two recalled bikes include one three-in-one model, which is adjustable as a three-wheeler or two-wheeler with a high seat or low seat; and one two-wheeler model, which is adjustable with a high or low seat.

      The date codes for production appear in a round dial on the front frame of the bikes under the seat. Date codes are either December 2013, or May 2014. The year appears in the center of the dial and the arrow points to the month. There is also a Wishbone logo embossed on each bike fork.

      The bikes, manufactured in China, were sold at independent toy and bike stores nationwide and online at www.amazon.com from July 2014, through June 2015, for about $200 for the two-wheeler and $230 for the three-in-one.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the bike, take it away from children and contact Wishbone or the store where the bike was purchased for a free neoprene cover for the handlebar.

      Consumers may contact Wishbone Design Studio toll-free at 888-748-7453 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday or online at www.wishbonedesign.com and click on Product Care and then Safety & Recalls at the bottom of the page for more information.

      Wishbone Design Studio Limited of Yardville, N.J., is recalling about 5,000 Recycled Edition Bikes. The handlebar can pinch fingers placed at the center w...
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      General Motors recalls Cadillac ATS sedan

      The coil antenna module that powers the rear defogger system may generate excessive heat

      General Motors is recalling 96,145 model year 2013-2016 Cadillac ATS sedans manufactured April 23, 2012, to September 2, 2015.

      The coil antenna module that powers the rear defogger system may generate excessive heat due to excessive cycling or continuous operation. Excessive heat increases the risk of a fire.

      GM will notify owners, and dealers will update the Electronic Climate Control module to remove the automatic rear defogger "on" function, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Cadillac customer service at 1-800-458-8006. GM's number for this recall is 15299.

      General Motors is recalling 96,145 model year 2013-2016 Cadillac ATS sedans manufactured April 23, 2012, to September 2, 2015. The coil antenna module th...
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      Hyundai recalls model year 2011-2012 Sonatas

      Oil flow may be restricted through the connecting rod bearings

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 470,000 model year 2011-2012 Sonatas manufactured December 11, 2009, to April 12, 2012, at Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama and equipped with either a 2.0 liter or 2.4 liter Gasoline Direct injection engine.

      Metallic debris may not have been fully removed during manufacturing of the engine crankshaft. If the debris was not completely removed, oil flow may be restricted through the connecting rod bearings, causing connecting rod damage. A worn connecting rod bearing will produce a metallic, cyclic knocking noise from the engine and possible engine failure.

      Engine failure would result in a vehicle stall, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the vehicles and replace the engine assembly, as necessary, free of charge. Additionally, Hyundai will increase the warranty for the engine sub-assembly (short block) to 10 years/120,000 miles for both original and subsequent owners of the recalled vehicles.

      An interim notification will be mailed by November 2, 2015. A second notification will be mailed when parts are available.

      Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-855-671-3059. Hyundai's number for this recall is 132.

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 470,000 model year 2011-2012 Sonatas manufactured December 11, 2009, to April 12, 2012, at Hyundai Motor Manufacturing A...
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      Rainbow Play Systems recalls plastic yellow trapeze rings

      The rings can unexpectedly crack or break during use

      Rainbow Play Systems is recalling about 133,000 pairs of plastic trapeze rings sold in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

      The rings can unexpectedly crack or break during use, posing a fall hazard to children.

      The company has received more than 100 reports of the rings cracking or breaking including 15 with reports of injuries consisting of bumps, bruises, lacerations, concussion and one broken finger.

      This recall involves only the yellow plastic trapeze rings, which are triangular with rounded sides and have a loop at the top. They measure about 8½ inches high by 6½ inches wide. The yellow rings come as a pair and are connected to a trapeze bar.

      They were sold either as a separate component or as an attachment on the following Rainbow-branded residential wooden playsets: All-American, Backyard Circus, Carnival, Fiesta, King Kong, Monster, Sunray, Sunshine and Rainbow.

      All of these playsets have an aluminum plate located on the front of the wooden swing beam with the following name stamped on it, “Playgrounds America,” “Rainbow Play Systems Inc.,” or “Sunray Premium Playgrounds.”

      The trapeze rings, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Rainbow dealers nationwide from January 2007, through December 2011, and at several mass merchandisers including Sam’s Club, Toys R Us and Walmart from January 2009, through December 2009. The playsets retailed for between $900 and $10,000.

      Consumers should immediately stop children from using the recalled rings, contact Rainbow for ring removal instructions, then remove the rings from the playset and receive a $10 gift card.

      Consumers may contact Rainbow Play Systems toll-free at 888-201-1570 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at www.rainbowplay.com and click on the Recall tab located on the top menu bar for more information.  

      Rainbow Play Systems is recalling about 133,000 pairs of plastic Trapeze rings sold in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The rings can unexpectedly crack or br...
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      New iPhone becomes a weapon in carrier price war

      New phones debut Friday with discounts from T-Mobile and Sprint

      T-Mobile is at it again. The mobile carrier that immediately priced the new iPhone 6s below where Apple did has now lowered the cost to certain customers once again.

      For customers with JUMP! On Demand and an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus to trade in, the new iPhone 6s or 6s plus is just $5 a month for the 6s and $9 a month for the 6s Plus, for an 18 month term. The company previously announced a $20 a month plan without a trade-in, which is less than Apple's rate.

      “With these incredible $5 and $10 a month deals, we’re giving customers just one more reason to come to T-Mobile,” said John Legere, president and CEO of T-Mobile. “This is a deal that only the Un-carrier could create, let alone make into a reality - and the crazy demand we’re already seeing tells me the carriers’ customers just aren’t buying their BS anymore. For your new iPhone, the choice couldn’t be clearer.”

      Even older phones accepted

      T-Mobile says the new price promotion builds on its previously announced $20 a month for a new iPhone 6s 16GB with JUMP! On Demand, without a trade-in. In addition to the $5 deal, the company is offering lower rates when customers trade in older phones; $10 a month with trade-in of iPhone 5s, Note 4 or Note edge and $15 a month with trade-in of almost any other phone you own, like the iPhone 5, iPhone 5c, Galaxy S4, Galaxy S3, HTC M8, and Motorola Droid Turbo.

      T-Mobile says its customers who pre-ordered with a trade-in will receive the same reduced rate with an upfront bill credit.

      At the end of 18 months, you turn in your iPhone – but there is another option. T-Mobile says you can keep the device when the agreement is up by paying $125 less than the full retail price. That comes to $524 for a new iPhone 6s 16GB without trade in. With a trade-in, you can keep your iPhone 6s 16GB after 18 months by paying a total of $254.

      Sprint's iPhone Forever

      T-Mobile isn't the only carrier hoping to use the new iPhone to pull in new customers. Earlier this month Sprintannounced its iPhone Forever plan. Qualified Sprint customers can get the iPhone 6s for $15 per month and iPhone 6s Plus for $19 per month with a trade-in.

      Customers who choose not to trade in an existing smartphone at the time of purchase can get the iPhone 6s for $22 per month and iPhone 6s Plus for $26 per month. After that, Sprint customers can get a new iPhone every year.

      iPhone Forever is available on any eligible Sprint rate plan and upgrade eligibility is included in the price. Through Dec. 31, 2015, Sprint says customers on any other carrier, or existing Sprint customers who are upgrade-eligible and turn in any smartphone, will get the promotional rate of $15 per month on iPhone 6s.

      The latest iPhones make their debut Friday. In years past each release was greeted with excitement worthy of a quantum leap in technology. These days, there may be more excitement – certainly more competition – built around the rate packages.

      T-Mobile is at it again. The mobile carrier that immediately priced the new iPhone 6s below where Apple did has now lowered the cost to certain customers o...
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      Safety features a bigger draw for new car buyers

      Accident avoidance and smartphone integration among the most prized

      A year ago, fuel economy was a major driver of new car purchases. Consumers tended to favor smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles.

      Now, after 12 months of falling gasoline prices, fuel economy isn't nearly as much of a factor.

      Instead, the experts at Kelley Blue Book (KBB) say consumers are showing more interest in safety features. KBB has singled out its favorite safety features for consumers to consider.

      One feature KBB particularly likes is wireless connectivity in the vehicle cabin.

      “Options available on new cars today like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto provide drivers with easy access to their smartphone’s navigation, phone, entertainment and texting abilities in ways that are an infinitely safer alternative to checking your phone behind the wheel, including options like voice commands,” said Micah Muzio, managing editor for Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com.

      Reducing distractions

      Distracted driving continues to be a growing concern. KBB cites official U.S. government data showing 3,154 people were killed and approximately 424,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted driving in 2013. Adding to the danger, approximately 660,000 U.S. drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving at any given moment.

      Technology is improving safety in other areas as well. Muzio says backup cameras have reduced accidents and improved safety, as have blind spot warnings.

      “Forward collision alerts and lane departure warnings are helping to ensure greater safety for passengers and pedestrians alike,” Muzio said.

      Crash avoidance features

      The insurance industry has a vested interest in safer cars and fewer accidents. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says crash avoidance features are rapidly making their way into the vehicle fleet.

      Six of the most common new technologies are forward collision warning, autobrake, lane departure warning, lane departure prevention, adaptive headlights, and blind spot detection. IIHS data shows that your chances of dying in a crash in a late-model vehicle have fallen by more than a third in just three years.

      Even 2011 models have made a quantum leap in safety, with nine vehicles from the 2011 model year hitting the magic number: a driver death rate of 0.

      Air bags, a technology dating back to the 1980s, have also improved – as long as they are correctly manufactured and installed. Insurance.com reports most 2003 models were equipped with two front airbags.

      Now, virtually every new car comes with front, side, and side-curtain airbags standard. Some of the latest options include inflatable seat belts in Fords, front center airbags in some GM cars, and even a pedestrian airbag that pop over the windshield in case you hit someone crossing the street. That's available from Volvo.

      A year ago, fuel economy was a major driver of new car purchases. Consumers tended to favor smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles.Now, after 12 months...
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      Consumer group demands rebates for VW "clean diesel" owners

      U.S. PIRG launches "Make VW Pay" campaign

      A consumer group says Volkswagen mut offer to buy back all of the "clean diesel" cars equipped with software that lets them slip through emissions tests.

      “VW once was a company that brought us iconic cars like the Beetle and the flower-powered microbus, but now VW is just a big cheater, said Ed Mierzwinski, Consumer Program Director of U.S. PIRG. “VW CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned ... while claiming he committed 'no wrongdoing' but VW must still pay full penalties under law and grant full rebates to the customers it deceived into buying pollution-spewing cars that led to massive, undeserved profits.”

      The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says Volkswagen built elaborate software — called a “defeat device” — to turn on emission controls during testing and turn them off during regular driving, emitting as much as 40 times the legal limit of smog-forming and lung-damaging pollutants.

      “When they were caught, they denied it as long as they could but now VW admits it broke the law when it engaged in a scheme to trick pollution controls and ripped off hundreds of thousands of consumers who thought they were buying clean vehicles,” added Mierzwinski. “Our Make VW Pay Campaign will hold VW fully accountable while preventing future corporate lawbreaking that cheats consumers or places health, safety, wallets or the environment at risk.”

      Key demands

      Key elements of U.S. PIRG’s Make VW Pay Campaign include:

      1. Volkswagen must offer to buy back all “defeat device” diesel cars with full rebates to customers. VW cheated customers in selling them a product that was different than advertised in material ways.

      2. The EPA must demand tough penalties: For VW’s violation, the law calls for penalties up to $37,500 per car — or $18 billion total.

      3. Congress must put an end to the auto industry’s “get out of jail free" loophole: Auto industry lobbyists have won and defended a loophole in the law that makes it harder to prosecute their executives for intentionally violating the law and putting the public at risk, U.S. PIRG said. It’s time to close that loophole and any others that threaten consumer safety or wallets.

      4. The Department of Justice must stop allowing tax write-offs for wrongdoing.

      “GM got off cheap with a $900 million penalty over its ignition switch defect and cover-up that reportedly led to as many as 124 deaths,” concluded Mierzwinski. “Let’s make sure VW pays, that its customers get justice and that corporate crime no longer pays.”

      U.S. PIRG is the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups. PIRGs are non-profit, non-partisan public interest advocacy organizations.

      A consumer group says Volkswagen mut offer to buy back all of the "clean diesel" cars equipped with software that lets them slip through emissions tests....
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      Six truths about credit and debit cards

      For consumers with self control, a credit card usually trumps a debit card

      You're at the checkout counter ready to pay and you open your wallet. You have a credit card and a debit card. Which one do you use?

      There are pros and cons to both, but Alex Matjanec, CEO of MyBankTracker, has compiled six truths he says surround the debate consumers have with themselves every day.

      The first truth, he says, is that protection against theft will vary, depending on the card you select. With credit cards, you are liable for only up to $50 of fraudulent use. But in the case of a lost or stolen debit card, financial loss is limited to $50 only if you report the theft of your card or PIN code within two days upon learning of it.

      Credit cards may have another advantage. Matjanec says a credit card will put you in a better position when dealing with merchant disputes.

      “With a debit card, the amount would already have been debited from your account and you would have to wait for a settlement of the matter before any action to return those funds could be made,” Matjanec told ConsumerAffairs. “With a credit card, the bank or card issuer is charged for that purchase, not you.”

      Card blocking

      A third truth, says Matjanec, is that some retailers or service companies may put a hold on your debit account. It's also called “blocking” your card.

      For example, suppose you use your debit card when you check into a $100-a-night hotel for five nights. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the hotel will put a hold on a least $500 and may add charges for "incidentals" — like food or beverages — to the blocked amount.

      This can also happen when you purchase gasoline with a debit card. The station may place an additional $50 charge on your account, that goes away in a couple of days when the gas purchase goes through. If your balance is low, the FTC suggests asking a merchant if it places a hold on your account. Otherwise, your could lose access to your account for a couple of days.

      Rewards

      The fourth truth about cards is that the rewards are better with credit cards. Some bank accounts may offer perks if you use your debit card a certain number of times each month, but that's about the extent of the extras.

      “Some debit cards have also taken to offering rewards programs in the last few years, but credit card rewards tend to be more attractive,” Matjanec said.

      The fifth truth is that debit cards don't really do much to help enhance your credit standing. Yes, it's a plastic card but you are using your own money. As such, debit card transactions don't get reported to credit agencies.

      The sixth truth of plastic, says Matjanec, is debit cards don’t come with the added benefits that credit cards have. Credit card issuers provide more travel insurance and extended warranty on purchased items, such as replacements or refunds on defective online-ordered goods.

      From Matjanec's perspective, the advantage is clearly with the credit card. That said, consumers using credit cards to pay for everyday expenses must keep track of what they are putting on those cards. Unlike debit cards, credit cards can accumulate a balance if you don't pay the bill in full each month.

      You're at the checkout counter ready to pay and you open your wallet. You have a credit card and a debit card. Which one do you use?There are pros and...
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      New home sales rise again

      Homes sold at best clip in more than seven years

      Sales of new single-family houses have added the gains they posted in July.

      Figures released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show sales jumped 5.7% in August to a adjusted annual rate of 552,000. That's the most since 593,000 in February 2008 and 21.6% above the same month a year ago.

      Sales were higher in three of the four U.S. geographic regions last month, led by a surge of 24.1% in the Northeast. Sales also rose in the South (+7.4%) and West (+5.4%), but declined in the Midwest (-9.1%)

      Prices and inventory

      Home prices last month were mixed. The median sales price of new houses sold in August was $292,700, for a year-over-year gain of $1,000 and up $1,600 from the previous month. The median is the point at which prices of half the homes sold were higher and half were lower. The average sales price was $353,400, down $2,800 from August 2014, but up $2,800 from July 2015.

      The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of August was 216,000, representing a supply of 4.7 months at the current sales rate.

      The complete August new home sales report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      Initial claims

      Separately, the Department of Labor (DOL) is reporting an uptick in the number of initial jobless claims filed last week.

      During the week ending September 19, first-time applications for state unemployment benefits totaled a seasonally adjusted 267,000 -- an increase of 3,000 from the previous week.

      The government says there were no special factors affecting claims level.

      The four-week moving average, which smooths out the volatility in the weekly tally and is considered a more accurate barometer of the Labor market, was down 750 to 271,750.

      The full report may be found on the DOL website.

      Sales of new single-family houses have added the gains they posted in July. Figures released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing a...
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      Battery packs for Fujitsu notebook computers recalled

      The battery packs can overheat, posing a fire hazard

      Fujitsu America of Sunnyvale, Calif., is recalling about 305 Fujitsu notebook computer battery packs in the U.S. and Canada.

      The battery packs can overheat, posing a fire hazard.

      The company has received three reports of the battery packs catching fire, including two in Japan and one in China and causing fire damage to rugs, bedding, a desk and other furniture. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves Fujitsu lithium ion battery packs sold or provided as replacement battery packs for the following Fujitsu notebook computers: Celsius H720 and LIFEBOOK E752, P701, P702, P770, P771, P772, S752, S762 and T580. The battery packs were also sold separately. The black battery packs measure about 8 inches long, 2 inches wide and about 0.8 inches high.

      Model number CP556150-1 including all serial numbers, and model number CP556150-2 with serial number range Z120102 through Z120512 are included in this recall. The model and serial numbers are printed on the white battery label. The notebook computer’s model number is printed on a label on the bottom of the notebook.

      The batteries, manufactured in China, were sold online at www.shopfujitsu.com and other Web retailers from August 2012, through July 2015, for about $150.

      Consumers should immediately turn off their Fujitsu notebook computer, remove the battery pack and contact Fujitsu for a free replacement battery pack. Consumers can continue to use their Fujitsu notebook computer without the battery pack by plugging in the AC adapter and power cord.

      Consumers may contact Fujitsu at 800-838-5487 from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. (CT) Monday – Friday or online at www.fujitsu.com/us and click on “Important Announcement: Voluntary Battery Recall and Replacement” for more information.

      Fujitsu America of Sunnyvale, Calif., is recalling about 305 Fujitsu notebook computer battery packs in the U.S. and Canada. The battery packs can overhe...
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      Paint-stripping chemical linked to sudden deaths

      The chemical has been banned from general use in Europe but not here

      A chemical commonly found in paint strippers is being blamed for at least 56 sudden deaths in the U.S. in recent years.

      Methylene chloride is commonly identified as posing a cancer risk but warning labels don't mention that it can also cause sudden death from heart attack and aspyhyxiation when used in an enclosed area.

      Labels do, however, say that the vapor is harmful and should be used outdoors if possible.

      A report by the non-profit news site Public Integrity identifies victims of the chemical as ranging in age from 18 to 80. They included a teen-ager working a summer job, a mother of four and at least one worker nearing retirement.

      Banned in Europe

      The European Union banned methylene chloride from general use in 2011 but regulators in the U.S. haven't followed suit. Nor have they required better warnings. Containers warn of a long-term cancer risk but say little about the chemical's ability to kill users if the fumes are allowed to accumulate.

      Nor is it easy for online shoppers to know which paint strippers contain the deadly chemical. Listings on Amazon and at the Lowes and Home Depot sites did not specify the ingredients of various brands. 

      The Environmental Protection Agency is considering stricter regulation but the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance (HSIA)  says proper use of strippers and other chemicals is the key to avoiding death, Public Integrity reported.

      Follow precautions

      On its website, HSIA says it is "concerned" by recent reports of deaths involving the use of metyhlene chloride by bathtub refinishers and said it's important to follow the safety precautions outlined on product labels.

      Those precautions include:

      • Always wear protective gloves, protective clothing and eye and face protection to avoid contact with skin, eyes and clothing;
      • Do not breathe mist, vapors or spray;
      • Ventilate closed spaces before entering them and make sure that the solvent vapor concentrations do not exceed limits established by OSHA;
      • Do not eat, drink or smoke when using the product;
      • Always consult the manufacturers safety data sheet and label instructions before using and do not handle until all safety precautions have been read and understood;
      • Use respiratory protection when vapor concentrations may exceed OSHA limits; pay particular attention to working in a closed environment;
      • Store unused product in a cool, dry and well ventilated area;
      • Properly dispose of any unused material and do not release the material into drains, water or groundwater;
      • Properly train personnel in the safe handling, storage and disposal of methylene chloride and the appropriate safety procedures; and
      • Do not use in areas where there is likely to be inadequate ventilation (e.g., bathrooms, basements, any confined areas, etc.).

      Paint strippers on AmazonA chemical commonly found in paint strippers is being blamed for at least 56 sudden deaths in the U.S. in recent years.M...
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      Final mortgage rules may make small banks more competitive

      Consumers may find they have more options when shopping for a loan

      New mortgage regulations take effect at the end of next week, changing disclosure forms and generally making the homebuying process more consumer friendly.

      But that's not all the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) regulations do. They also have provided some long-sought benefits to small, community banks that should make these often-overlooked institutions more of a competitive force in the mortgage industry.

      Among the changes taking effect October 3 is a broadening of the small-creditor designation under the government's Qualified Mortgage (QM) rule. The change will allow more community banks to receive QM legal safe-harbor protection for mortgage loans they originate and retain in portfolio.

      Qualified Mortgage

      What's a Qualified Mortgage? In short, it's a loan that the lender has determined the borrower can repay. Before the housing meltdown, many lenders made loans without determining whether the loan could be repaid or not and many of them weren't.

      A QM is one that has met specific requirements and does not contain any of the risky features that contributed to the foreclosure crisis. For the lenders, there are advantages to making a QM, not least of which is the ability to sell the mortgage on the securities market.

      The Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA), the Washington-based trade group representing largely small town banks, got a lot of what it sought in the final rule. For example, it says CFPB expanded the number of communities designated as rural, which it says will provide additional relief from mandatory escrow requirements and include more balloon-payment loans as qualified mortgages.

      As a result, small independent community banks are better able to compete for mortgage business.

      Additional flexibility

      “ICBA strongly supports the CFPB’s reforms to its QM rules, which will help ensure community banks can continue making mortgage loans in their communities,” said ICBA Chairman Jack Hartings, who is also president and CEO of The Peoples Bank Co. in Coldwater, Ohio. “The additional flexibility CFPB has provided will enable community banks to better meet the mortgage credit needs of their customers who may not fit a standardized mold.”

      Among the other rule tweaks that ICBA says benefit small banks, the final rule expands who can qualify as a small creditor to include banks that make fewer than 2,000 loans annually, up from the previous threshold of 500.

      Another advantage – loans held in portfolio, in which banks retain 100% of the credit risk and a direct stake in the loan’s performance, will not count toward the loan total.

      Consumer benefits

      There may be benefits to consumers shopping for a home loan as well. Instead of being limited to working with a mortgage broker or large bank, that processes thousands of loans at a time, consumers have the option of working with a smaller bank, perhaps one in their local community.

      The final rule expands the definition of “rural” to include not only certain rural counties, but any census blocks that are not in an urban area as defined by the Census Bureau. This expands banks' service area and includes more consumers.

      Are consumers better off using a small, community bank over a major lender when they purchase a home? Will the process go more smoothly?

      It might. In fact, that's the subject of a forum on Trulia, a real estate listing site, with numerous Realtors weighing in.

      The consensus seems to be that small is better. Larry, an agent in Chapel Hill, N.C., recommends using a preferred local lender to ensure the transaction will be handled smoothly with a minimum of stress.

      New mortgage regulations take effect at the end of next week, changing disclosure forms and generally making the homebuying process more consumer friendly....
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      Many presidential campaign websites fail the privacy test

      Some sites admit they may sell your information to others

      Eager to support your favorite Presidential candidate? That's fine, but an audit finds only 6 of 23 sites got a passing grade for their website privacy policies. Also, in today's Super PAC era, there's no guarantee your money will go where you think it's going.

      Candidates Jeb Bush, Lincoln Chafee, Chris Christie, Martin O'Malley, Rick Santorum and Scott Walker all got passing grades, although Walker has since dropped out of the race.

      The privacy audit was conducted by the Online Trust Alliance,  It found that four candidates' sites had no privacy policy at all, several others failed to disclose their data disclosure practices, and several more said that they would disclose personal data to others or even sell it.

      Money to burn

      And as for those Super PACs, it's important to remember that they are the result of judicial rulings, not Congressional intent. As a result, there are very few rules governing their actions and no laws about what to do with your money when they fold their tents.

      Super PAC's supporting Scott Walker and Rick Perry, respectively, say they are returning supporters' money, but there's no guarantee others will do the same. A cautious investor might wait until the field narrows a bit before throwing money at one of the remaining entrants.

      Eager to support your favorite Presidential candidate? That's fine, but an audit finds only 6 of 23 sites got a passing grade for their website privacy pol...
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      NRF: Halloweeners to turn out in big numbers this year

      Spending on spooky stuff is projected to reach $6.9 billion

      It's party time! Well, next month anyway, and a lot of people plan to be a part of it.

      The National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Halloween Consumer Spending Survey, conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, finds that more than 157 million people in the U.S. plan to celebrate Halloween this year.

      But they won't be spending as much to do it as they did last year. The survey says the average person celebrating will spend $74.34, compared with $77.52 last in 2014. Total spending on Halloween is expected to reach $6.9 billion.

      “After a long summer, consumers are eager to embrace fall and all of the celebrations that come with it,” NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said. “With a bit more confidence in their finances and still enjoying the perks of low gas prices, we expect those celebrating Halloween this year will look for several different activities to do with their family and friends. Retailers of all shapes and sizes will welcome millions of shoppers with promotions on candy and decorations and of course, costumes.”

      Costumes get the lion's share

      Consumers celebrating Halloween plan to spend an average of $27.33 on costumes for the whole family for a total of $2.5 billion on store-bought, homemade, large, and small costumes. Most of that will be for adult costumes ($1.2 billion), with $950 million for children’s costumes and $350 million for their pets. It’s estimated that 68 million people will dress up this Halloween and another 20 million pet owners will dress up their furry friends.

      Nine in ten (93.7%) Halloween shoppers will buy candy, spending a total of $2.1 billion, and an additional 33.5% will buy greeting cards, laying out a total of $330 million. Two in five celebrants (44.8%) plan to decorate their home or yard, meaning there’s no question consumers will see their fair share of pumpkins, hay bales, and even life-size Minions and black cats strewn across their neighborhoods. The average person planning to buy decorations will spend $20.34, with total spending expected to reach $1.9 billion.

      When it comes to how people plan to celebrate, most will hand out candy (67.8%) or dress in costume (43.5%). There will be no shortage of jack-o-lanterns lighting up windows this year, though, with 41% of people planning to carve pumpkins. Nearly one-third (31.5%) plan to throw or attend a party with friends and family.

      Shopping till they drop

      More consumers have decided to head to stores or shop online early to pick out costumes and decorations. More than one-third (34.1%) will start their Halloween shopping before the first of October, compared with 32.1% last year -- 40.9% will get started in the first half of the month and one-quarter (25%) will wait for the final weeks of October.

      “People shouldn’t be too surprised when they see Halloween candy and decorations available in stores as early as September first,” Prosper Insights Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow said. “Given that more than a third of Americans enjoy taking advantage of early-bird deals to kick off their fall celebrations, it seems there’s plenty of appetite among consumers to enjoy a perfectly ‘frightful’ Halloween.”

      Similar to past years, the majority of consumers will find inspiration for their costumes online (31.4%) or will head to costume shops and retail stores (26.8%) before they make a final decision. Pinterest continues to grow in popularity among those looking for costume inspiration (13.3%), as this year’s percentage is nearly double the amount who used the site for inspiration just three years ago (7.1%).

      Millennials remain the drivers of Pinterest traffic around Halloween though, with 24.9% of 18-24 year-olds and 23.7% of 25-34 year-olds using the site for costume inspiration.

      It's party time! Well, next month anyway, and a lot of people plan to be a part of it. The National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Halloween Consumer Spending ...
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      Nearly 30 million Americans are dipping into their retirement savings prematurely

      Many use the money to cover emergencies, but analysts call it a "permanent setback"

      Every working person occasionally (or maybe not so occasionally) dreams of the day when they can stop working and go into retirement. In order to be comfortable when you reach that point in your life, though, you should be continuously putting money into your retirement savings and not touching it. This last part, unfortunately, seems to be a problem for many Americans.

      A recent report by Bankrate.com shows that nearly 30 million people took money out of their retirement savings this past year due to an emergency. Another 21 million people simply aren’t putting money towards retirement at all, which could prove costly when they reach an appropriate age.

      Disparity between generations

      In their report, Bankrate.com determined that millennials were the best at putting money towards retirement and not touching it; only 8% of people in this age bracket took money out of their savings prematurely in the past year. This may correlate to how they feel about their overall financial situation – 40% say they are better off financially than they were a year ago, while only 11% say they are worse off.

      In contrast to millennials, people ranging in age from 50-64 are much more likely to think that their financial situation has worsened in the last year. The report shows that 26% of people in this age bracket admit to these feelings – the most of any other age group surveyed. Seventeen percent of people in this age group also admit that they have dipped into their retirement savings this past year to pay for an emergency.

      “Using retirement savings to cover an emergency is a permanent setback to retirement planning, with the possibility of taxable distributions, early withdrawal penalties, loss of tax efficiency, and the inability to replace withdrawn funds in future years,” said Bankrate.com’s chief financial analyst, Greg McBride.

      The site’s full survey can be viewed here

      Every working person occasionally (or maybe not so occasionally) dreams of the day when they can stop working and go into retirement. In order to be comfor...
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      Catholic church holds steady in U.S. as Protestants show heavy losses

      Catholics are 23% of the U.S. population, a figure that has held for 66 years

      Religion is not a consumer product but, let's face it, many Americans "shop" for a religion when they reach adulthood or at other times. Viewed in that light, Catholicism is far and away the top choice for religious Americans.

      As Pope Francis makes his first visit to the U.S., Catholics account for about 23% of the American population, a figure that has held remarkably steady for the 66 years that Gallup has been asking Americans about their religious affiliation. 

      One remarkable aspect of this relatively stable trend is that during the same period, the percentage of Americans who have no formal religious identity has increased from roughly 1% to about 20% today. The rise in those with no religion has been accompanied by a decline in the percentages of Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians, the ranks of which have fallen from as high as 70% of the population, down to about 50% today.

      Catholics have been able to hold their own -- percentage-wise -- even as the unaffiliated percentage has risen significantly. 

      These results are based on Gallup's traditional "stand-alone" polls dating back to 1948. Religious identification is also measured as part of Gallup Daily tracking, and interviews with more than 170,000 individuals in 2014 showed a similar 23.9% of national adults interviewed identified as Catholic.

      Hispanic population

      One of the explanations for the stable representation of Catholics in the adult population over time is the increasing percentage of Hispanics in the U.S. population, coupled with the fact that the majority of Hispanics identify as Catholic.

      In Gallup's 2014 tracking data, 32% of Catholics identified as Hispanic, more than double the representation of Hispanics in the U.S. adult population. Sixty-one percent of Catholics are white, while 3% are black -- much lower than the black representation among Protestants.

      No political preference

      While in Washington, Pope Francis will meet with Democratic President Barack Obama and will make a speech before a joint session of the Republican-controlled Congress. This bipartisanship fits nicely with the party identification of Catholics in the U.S., which is remarkably similar to what is found in the overall population.

      In 2014, 40% of both Catholics and non-Catholics identified as or leaned Republican, while 43% of both groups identified as or leaned Democratic.

      This is a different situation from that of other religious groups, whose partisan identification tends to skew in one direction or the other. For example, 47% of Protestants and 71% of Mormons identify as or lean toward the Republican Party, well above the overall 40% of the population who are Republican. On the other hand, 61% of Jews identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party.

      All of this explains why Catholics have been a key swing group in recent presidential elections, much more so than other religious groups. The tendency for Catholics to mirror the overall population from a partisan perspective is a shift from the past, when Catholics tended to skew significantly more Democratic in their partisan and voting behavior.

      These data statistics are available in Gallup Analytics.

      Vatican photoReligion is not a consumer product but, let's face it, many Americans "shop" for a religion when they reach adulthood or at other times....
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      Smartphone app will monitor sickle cell disease

      System will give patients an early warning of attack

      Sickle cell disease is a hereditary blood disorder that affects red blood cells, distorting their natural disc shape into a crescent moon or “sickle” shape.

      This misshapen form makes it more difficult for these red blood cells to move through blood vessels. They can block the flow of blood and break apart, leading to internal organ damage – not to mention a lot of pain.

      “A major challenge in the management of sickle cell disease is the tremendous pain that patients endure from chronic and acute pain episodes called pain crisis,” said Sarah Du, a professor at Florida Atlantic University. “Unfortunately, these pain episodes are unpredictable and patients never know when or where these episodes will take place.”

      National Science Foundation grant

      With a small grant from the National Science Foundation, Du has designed and will develop a portable smart sensor and a phone application for patients to analyze and store the results of their blood tests on a smart phone.

      The app will enable sickle cell patients to keep a close watch on any abnormal activities in their blood cells and take required action at the first sign of an attack.

      This will be a first for sickle cell patients. The system will consist of a disposable test, a lot like a glucometer that is used by patients who have diabetes.

      The system will allow patients to monitor what their red blood cells are doing and better manage the condition by making sure they are always appropriately hydrated and have the right amount of oxygen.

      Uses small drop of blood

      “We will only need to use a very small drop of blood from a finger stick that will then be loaded into a microscale channel that is biochemically modified,” said Du. “Then, the embedded microprobes inside the channel together with the microprocessor will transmit the signals of blood cells to a patient’s cell phone revealing the results of their blood test.”

      The next step, she says, is to use the sensor technology as a part of a smart and connected health system for sickle cell disease management. The readings could be shared with a health care provider, who could then send intervention strategies, feedback, and even prescription medications.

      Sickle cell disease affects millions world-wide, including both children and adults. In the U.S., it disproportionately affects people of African descent, as well as Hispanics and those of Middle Eastern descent.

      It's estimated that about two million Americans carry this genetic mutation, which affects about 100,000 individuals in the U.S.

      Sickle cell disease is a hereditary blood disorder that affects red blood cells, distorting their natural disc shape into a crescent moon or “sickle” shape...
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      Mortgage applications post first gain in three weeks

      The advance was driven by dips in mortgage rates

      After posting sizable declines in the preceding two weeks, applications for mortgages shot higher last week.

      Figures released by the Mortgage Bankers Association show applications surged 13.9% in the week ending September 18. The previous week’s results included an adjustment for the Labor Day holiday.

      “We saw significant rate volatility last week surrounding the FOMC meeting, and rate declines toward the end of the week likely drove applications from both prospective home buyers and borrowers looking to refinance” said MBA Chief Economist Mike Fratantoni. “The 30-year fixed rate remained unchanged over the week even though there was substantial intra-week fluctuation, but we saw rate decreases in other loan products like the 15-year fixed, 5/1 ARM, and 30-year jumbo.”

      The Refinance Index jumped 18%, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity to 58.4% of total applications from 56.2% the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 6.9% of total applications, the FHA share slipped to 12.9% from 14.2%, the VA share dropped to 10.0%, and the USDA share of total applications decreased to 0.7% from 0.8% the week prior.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) was unchanged at 4.09%, with points increasing to 0.45 from 0.42 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate remained unchanged from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) fell five basis points -- from 4.04% to 3.99%, its lowest level since May 2015 -- with points increasing to 0.36 from 0.26 (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 held steady at 3.88%, with points decreasing to 0.33 from 0.35 (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 slipped two basis points to 3.31%, with points increasing to 0.42 from 0.26 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs dropped to 2.95%, its lowest level since May 2015, from 3.04%, with points increasing to 0.58 from 0.36 (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.  

      After posting sizable declines in the preceding two weeks, applications for mortgages shot higher last week. Figures released by the Mortgage Bankers Asso...
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      "I and love and you" expands recall of beef gullet

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      "I and love and you," of Boulder, Colorado, is expanding its earlier recall of cow-boom! strips – beef gullet.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      There have been no reported pet or human illnesses associated with this recall.

      The recall is limited to cow-boom! strips - beef gullet packaged in 2.0-oz bags, with lot numbers ending in 4T1 or 5T1, a best-by-year of 2016 or 2017 and UPC number 8 18336 01134 4.

      Customers who purchased these products should dispose of them or return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 855.ILY.LOVE Monday through Friday between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM (MT) or by email at service@ilypet.com.

      "I and love and you," of Boulder, Colorado, is expanding its earlier recall of cow-boom! strips – beef gullet. The product may be contaminated with Salmon...
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      Study: One in three born in 2015 to develop dementia

      Rising risks are the result of longer lifespans

      Since age is the major risk factor for Alzheimer's disease, health officials worry that the huge and aging Baby Boom population is going to lead to a staggering increase in the affliction.

      Now comes word that British health researchers have concluded that longer life spans mean more people will suffer dementia at some point. Their report, produced for Alzheimer's Research UK, predicts that one in three Britons born this year will be affected by loss of cognitive ability at some point in their lives.

      Alzheimer's is the most common brain disease but is not the only one. The various dementias result in the loss of brain cells and impair the brain’s ability to function properly.

      Early symptoms can include problems with memory and thinking. As more brain cells die, physical functions such as walking and even swallowing can be affected. There is no cure, although a new drug that may slow or stop Alzheimer’s will soon undergo Phase 3 clinical trials.

      While the research focuses on people living in the UK, similar results can be expected for other Western countries, including the U.S.

      More women than men

      The report estimates that 32% of people born in the UK in 2015 will develop dementia during their lifetime. Women are more likely than men to develop the disease – 37% to 27%.

      “These figures underline a stark reality: as people are living longer, more and more people will develop dementia in the future if action is not taken now to tackle the condition,” said Matthew Norton, Head of Policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “It’s wonderful news that each generation is living longer than the last, but it’s important to ensure that people can enjoy these extra years in good health.”

      The research team previously concluded that if science is able to produce a treatment that could delay the onset of dementia by five years, it would reduce the number of cases by one-third. Major research is underway to do just that.

      Research

      A year ago researchers in California reported stunning results after a small study of patients just diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. They administered a novel and complex treatment they say restored memory function in nine out of ten study participants.

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

      It is the first Alzheimer's research to suggest that memory loss in patients may be reversed, and that improvement can be lasting.

      Since age is the major risk factor for Alzheimer's disease, health officials worry that the huge and aging Baby Boom population is going to lead to a stagg...
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      Turning 65? What you should know about Medicare

      AARP's Medicare expert releases new book

      When you celebrate your 65th birthday, it's a transition to your “golden years.” Even if you're still working, you start thinking about the days when you won't be.

      And even if you are still on the job, age 65 marks the time when you transition from private health insurance – if you are fortunate enough to have it – to Medicare, the government's health program for seniors.

      As with any government program, Medicare can be confusing for those who are new to it. To help with the transition, AARP's Medicare expert, Patricia Barry, is out with the second edition of her book, Medicare For Dummies. It's offered as a comprehensive guide for navigating Medicare’s often-confusing complexities and helps consumers avoid mistakes that could be costly.

      Barry outlines what Medicare covers and what beneficiaries pay, offering some tips along the way for reducing out-of-pocket costs.

      Making the right decisions

      “This book will help anybody with Medicare get the best out of their coverage and save money,” said Barry. “Medicare For Dummies is especially useful for people who are about to become eligible for the program, because that’s when they need to make the right decisions—out of an array of often confusing options—and avoid pitfalls that could cost them dearly.”

      The book also provides some of the basics, including how the program is broken down. Medicare Part A is the hospitalization portion of Medicare, covering you when you are admitted to the hospital. According to Medicare, you usually don't pay a monthly premium for Medicare Part A coverage if you or your spouse paid Medicare taxes while working. This is sometimes called "premium-free Part A."

      Medicare Part B works like normal health insurance, covering doctor's visits and routine health care.

      Most people pay the Part B premium of $104.90 each month, if you sign up for Part B when you're first eligible.

      Costs

      You pay $147 per year for your Part B deductible. After your deductible is met, you typically pay 20% of the Medicare-approved amount for most doctor services, outpatient therapy, and durable medical equipment. Costs for higher income beneficiaries may be higher.

      Medicare Part D is the program's prescription drug coverage, which is optional. Many beneficiaries who are healthy and not taking medication often decline this coverage. However, the coverage becomes increasingly expensive for each additional year you wait. If you were to develop a serious illness at age 70, the Part D premiums would be much higher than if you obtained it at age 65.

      Medicare doesn't cover all of your medical costs – only about 80%. That's why many recipients purchase a “supplemental” policy that covers the other 20%.

      Complicated? Sure. In her book, Barry offers readers advice to get the most from the program while avoiding the pitfalls.

      Her advice in a nutshell? Sign up at the right time to avoid lifelong penalties.

      When you celebrate your 65th birthday, it's a transition to your “golden years.” Even if you're still working, you start thinking about the days when you w...
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      Gas in five state averages less than $2 a gallon

      But prices remain over $3 a gallon in California and Alaska

      It's a measure of how far gasoline prices have fallen in less than a year that fuel at $2.50 a gallon seems a bit high.

      The national average, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey, is now $2.28 a gallon, more than a dollar cheaper than at this time last year. Remarkably, the average price has dipped below the $2 a gallon benchmark in five states:

      • South Carolina - $1.90
      • Mississippi - $1.93
      • Alabama - $1.95
      • Tennessee - $1.98
      • Louisana - $1.99

      At the same time, it appears as though several other states are poised to join the sub-$2 club. New Jersey, Virginia, Texas, and Arkansas all have average gasoline prices below $2.05 a gallon.

      Lowest since 2004

      At the other end of the scale, California and Alaska are the only two states to still have average gasoline prices above $3 a gallon. But those are the exception, as most states are enjoying the lowest seasonal gasoline prices since 2004.

      AAA says the national average has dropped for 36 consecutive days for a total savings of 38 cents per gallon during that time. The savings at the pump are largely due to the relatively low price of crude oil and abundant petroleum supplies.

      It's helped that there have only been a few significant refinery issues in the last few weeks. This, and the end of the summer driving season, has reduced demand somewhat. With no regional supply bottlenecks to speak of, AAA says pump prices are down in 47 states and Washington, D.C. in comparison to one week ago, with the motorists in the majority of these states saving at least a nickel per gallon.

      Midwest remains unpredictable

      Drivers in six states are benefiting from double-digit savings in the price of retail gasoline, with the largest discounts over this period seen in Alaska, South Dakota, and California. Meanwhile, prices in three Midwestern states have gone up over the last week.

      Gas Buddy senior analyst Patrick DeHaan Tweeted that a recent fire at Husky's refinery in Lima, Ohio has sent fuel prices up in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.

      AAA notes that prices in the Midwest have consistently been among the most volatile in the nation. This week, prices in some of those states are going up while others are going down.

      California motorists continue to suffer, in large part, because of a refinery issue. A fire in February at the Exxon Mobile refinery in Torrance, Calif., caused widespread damage that continues to affect output. Even though California fuel prices tend to be among the highest in the nation, they now run about a dollar a gallon more than most states in the southeast, which has an abundance of oil refineries.

      It's a measure of how far gasoline prices have fallen in less than a year that fuel at $2.50 a gallon seems a bit high.The national average, according ...
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      Home prices increase accelerates in July

      Prices are still below the peaks they hit prior to the housing meltdown

      Housing prices continued their increase in mid-summer.

      According to the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), the House Price Index (HPI) for July was up 0.6% on a seasonally adjusted basis from the previous month.

      From July 2014 to July 2015, house prices were up 5.8%. The HPI is now 1.1% below its March 2007 peak and roughly the same as the November 2006 index level.

      For the nine census divisions, seasonally adjusted month-over-month price changes ranged from -1.2% in the New England division to +1.6% in the Mountain division.

      The year-over-year changes were all positive, ranging from +2.1% in the New England division to +9.4% in the Mountain division.

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

      The complete HPI report is available on the FHFA website.

      Housing prices continued their increase in mid-summer. According to the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), the House Price Index (HPI) for July was up...
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      TOP SAFETY PICK award for Ford Edge

      Occupant protection is improved in small overlap front crashes

      The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has named the redesigned 2015 Ford Edge as a recipient of its TOP SAFETY PICK award.

      The midsize SUV received good ratings for crash protection in four of five IIHS evaluations and an acceptable rating in the challenging small overlap front crash test. It also has an optional basic-rated front crash prevention system.

      This is the first time the Institute has evaluated the Edge in the small overlap front test. Like the previous generation of the Edge, the 2015 model earns good ratings for occupant protection in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraint evaluations.

      Vehicle changes

      Ford reinforced the door-hinge pillar on models built after May 2015 to improve occupant protection in small overlap front crashes. The driver space held up reasonably well in the small overlap test, according to IIHS, with maximum intrusion of five inches in the driver’s seating space measured at the upper hinge pillar.

      The dummy’s movement was reasonably controlled. The head was largely protected by the frontal and side curtain airbags, but the safety belt allowed the head and torso to move too far forward toward the intruding A-pillar. Measures taken from the dummy indicate a low risk of any significant injuries in a crash of this severity.

      To qualify for a 2015 TOP SAFETY PICK, vehicles must earn good ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraint tests, plus a good or acceptable rating in the small overlap test.

      For TOP SAFETY PICK+, vehicles also need an available front crash system with an advanced or superior rating. The Edge doesn’t qualify for the “plus” award because it doesn’t have a front crash prevention system equipped with automatic braking.

      IIHS plans to raise the bar to earn a 2016 TOP SAFETY PICK, requiring a good small overlap rating. Vehicles with an acceptable rating such as the Edge will need further improvements to qualify for the 2016 honor.

      The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has named the redesigned 2015 Ford Edge as a recipient of its TOP SAFETY PICK award. The midsize SUV rec...
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      Mortgage rates show little change in mid-September

      Speculation about an interest rate hike wasn't much of a factor

      Mortgage rates inched higher last week belying any nervousness about the Federal Reserve's interest rate deliberations.

      Freddie Mac's Primary Mortgage Market Survey put the average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) at 3.91%, up one basis point from last week's average of 3.90%. The 30-year FRM averaged 4.23 percent at the same time last year.

      The 15-year FRM averaged 3.11 percent versus last week's 3.10%. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 3.37%.

      The average for the 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) was up one basis point from last week to 2.92%; it was 3.06% a year ago.

      The 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM average dropped from 2.63% to 2.56%. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.43%.

      "The Treasury market was relatively quiet this week, and as a result the 30-year mortgage rate barely budged,” said Freddie Mac Chief Economist Sean Becketti. “We're still on track for the best year of home sales since 2007,” he added, noting that Freddie Mac “is keenly aware though that any rate increase will have a larger impact on low-to-moderate income families looking to finance a home purchase."

      Bankrate

      Mortgage rates as tracked by Bankrate.com also came in slightly higher for the week.

      The 30-year FRM was up one basis point to 4.06%, the 15-year FRM rose from 3.23% to 3.25% and the 5/1 ARM jumped four basis points to 3.28%.

      With financial markets settling down from the jitters of the past few weeks, the demand for the safety of U.S. government bonds eased somewhat, with yields moving higher, according to Bankrate. Mortgage rates are closely related to the yields on long-term Treasury securities. With or without a Fed interest rate hike, the context of low inflation and weak global economic growth seems likely to temper any movement in mortgage rates in the near-term.

      At the current average 30-year fixed mortgage rate of 4.06%, the monthly payment on a $200,000 loan is $961.76.   

      Mortgage rates inched higher last week belying any nervousness about the Federal Reserve's interest rate deliberations. Freddie Mac's Primary Mortgage Mar...
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      Picnic Gourmet Spreads recalls yogurt cheese spreads

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Picnic Gourmet Spreads is recalling its yogurt cheese spreads.

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

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

      The recalled products include:

      • Red Pepper Feta Cheese Spread,
      • Moroccan Cilantro Cheese Spread,
      • Tandoori Garlic Cheese spread,
      • Herbed Goat Cheese,
      • Parmesan Cheese Spread and
      • Chipotle Sage Cheese Spread.

      The products, distributed to retail stores in Maryland, Kentucky, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, D.C. , Minnesota and Illinois, have a "Best By" date of October 6th.

      Customers who purchased any of these products should dispose of them immediately.

      Consumers with questions may contact Picnic Gourmet Spreads at info@picnicspreads.com

      Picnic Gourmet Spreads is recalling its yogurt cheese spreads. The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. No illnesses have been repo...
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      VW apologizes, stops sales of diesel models in U.S.

      Dirty diesel scandal leaves Volkswagen owners feeling outraged and betrayed

      Volkswagen has apologized and suspended sales of its "clean diesel" cars in the U.S. after federal and California officials charged the cars were clean only when hooked up to emissions testing devices and dirty the rest of the time.

      Whether an apology will be enough to placate outraged VW owners is doubtful. "I am furious at Volkswagon for intentionally lying to me. I want to return my 2010 to Volkswagen for a full refund," said photographer and VW owner Joshua Ets-Hokin in a Facebook comment.

      "This is almost unbelievable," said Daryl Allen, a semi-retired engineering graduate of the Masschusetts Institute of Technology, expressing the disbelief with which many VW fans greeted the news.

      "Wow, how shady and deceptive from a company that claims to be so environmental!" said another Facebook commenter, J'On Bradley, a heavy equipment operator.

      German engineering

      Volkswagen, revered by many consumers for turning out precision-engineered high-tech cars at modest prices, has for years promoted its TDI turbodiesels as a clean and efficient alternative to hybrids so the news that the cars allegedly put out 40 times the allowed levels of diesel pollution left many of its most loyal customers dismayed and bitterly disillusioned.

      Consumers immediately began complaining that their cars would lose much of their resale value and class-action lawyers were expected to be close behind.

      VW itself seemed taken aback by Friday's announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency but finally managed to get out a brief statement attributed to its CEO on Sunday.

      "I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public," said Prof. Dr. Martin Winterkorn. "We will cooperate fully with the responsible agencies, with transparency and urgency, to clearly, openly, and completely establish all of the facts of this case. Volkswagen has ordered an external investigation of this matter.
      "We do not and will not tolerate violations of any kind of our internal rules or of the law, Winterkorn insisted as the company announced that it was suspending sales of all vehicles equipped with the four-cylinder TDI -- turbo direct injection -- engine. The engine is used in VW Golf, Jetta, Passat and Bettle models as well as the Audi A3."

      It's estimated that about 482,000 of the cars were manufactured and sold -- and are still on the road -- leaving owners of those vehicles waiting for the next shoe to drop.

      It is a near certainty that VW will recall the cars to remove the allegedly illegal software that deceives emission inspection stations but whether it will be able to bring the cars into compliance with clean-air regulations without hampering their performance and gas-mileage is not known.

      Damage to the brand

      Volkswagen faces up to $18 billion in fines and could be criminally prosecuted. But even more severe than any legal penalty may be the damage done to VW's brand.

      The dirty diesel scandal is bringing forth a wave of other complaints from VW customers, many of them having to do with excessive oil consumption in gas engines, a complaint VW shares with some other German cars.

      A VW owner named Mike contacted us shortly after the diesel story broke, complaining that his gas-powered Tiguan -- Volkswagen's popular small SUV -- is constantly "upshifting" in an apparent effort to improve gas mileage.

      "On a level surface at normal acceleration it shifts into 5th gear (1st overdrive) at 27 mph and 6th gear (2nd overdrive) at 32 mph. That means on normal neighborhood driving you are in 6th gear and can make milkshakes most of the way," Mike said.

      "I'm far from a mechanic but do know enough to know if you consistently lug an engine you'll rip the bottom out of it before long. Along the way you'll start to burn large amounts of oil before the rings blow," Mike said. "I've got no way to know when I'm going to wind up with a blown engine but I'm certain after speaking to many mechanics about lugging it's just a matter of time."

      Slow Sport mode

      A ConsumerAffairs staff member who drives a Tiguan said he shifts into the "Sport" mode when driving around town. It makes for a jerky ride and wastes gas but keeps the RPMs up, he said, thus avoiding the "lugging" issue. He tells his wife to do the same, telling her the "S" stands for "Slow."  

      Mike's comments are similar to those made a few years ago by Pete, a Fairfax, Va., mechanic who specialized in old Alfa Romeos, which burn oil like a furnace. That's not unusual in cars from the 1970s but Pete said it was completely unacceptable in newer cars and flatly recommended that his customers replace their VWs with Japanese cars. 

      Pete's advice may have gone a little far but sadly, the ConsumerAffairs database has many complaints from VW owners complaining of engine failure related to low oil levels.

      "At 48,000 engine blew. VW of Springfield said we had not changed oil frequently enough (we changed it more often than required/necessary but I could not find one receipt!)," said Ernie of El Dorado Springs, Mo., speaking of his Volkswagen Toureg.

      For those not yet ready to take Pete's advice, it's a good idea to manually check the oil level at least weekly.  

      Volkswagen has apologized and suspended sales of its "clean diesel" cars in the U.S. after federal and California officials charged the cars were clean onl...
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      Comcast settles privacy breach with California

      State acted after unlisted numbers were published online

      Comcast has entered into a settlement with the state of California to resolve allegations that it posted the names, phone numbers, and addresses of tens of thousands of customers online who had paid for unlisted voice over internet protocol (“VOIP”) phone service.

      As part of the settlement, Comcast will pay $25 million in penalties and investigative costs to the California Department of Justice and the California Public Utilities Commission. The company will also pay about $10 million in restitution to consumers whose numbers were disclosed.

      “Troubling breach of privacy”

      “Publishing personal information that should have been unlisted is unlawful and a troubling breach of privacy,” said California Attorney General Kamala Harris. “This settlement provides meaningful relief to victims, brings greater transparency to Comcast’s privacy practices and sends a message that violations of consumers’ privacy will result in significant penalties.”

      In Alameda Superior Court, Comcast agreed to a permanent injunction that requires it to improve its customer complaint process and strengthen the restrictions it places on its vendors’ use of personal information about customers.

      The settlement will also result in a new simple and easy-to-read disclosure form that all Comcast customers will have access to. It will explain the ways in which the company uses unlisted phone numbers and other personal information.

      More than privacy is at stake. Customers paid extra to have their telephone numbers unlisted, a service that ultimately was not provided.

      Refunds

      To resolve that complaint, Comcast has agreed to refund all fees paid for unlisted service by the roughly 75,000 customers whose information was improperly disclosed over a two-year period.

      Harris estimates that comes to about $2 million. An additional $100 in restitution per customer brings the total to nearly $10 million.

      According to court documents, existing Comcast customers will receive their restitution payment as a credit on an upcoming telephone bill. Consumers who no longer have Comcast service will receive their restitution payments by mail, sent to their last known address.

      Comcast has entered into a settlement with the state of California to resolve allegations that it posted the names, phone numbers, and addresses of tens of...
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      Hackers gnaw into the core of the Apple Store

      Many popular apps may be infected; users should download newer versions

      Apple's App Store defenses have at last been breached. The company confirms that a tool used by developers was copied and modified by hackers, allowing them to insert bad code into apps at the store.

      Researchers at Palo Alto Networks said in a blog posting that about 40 apps had been contaminated with malware, dubbed XcodeGhost. A Chinese security firm said it had found more than 300.

      The infected apps include the messaging app WeChat and the business car scanner CamCard. 

      Apple has removed all of the infected apps that have been identified so far and is working to assess the damage, according to a spokesperson.

      The Palo Alto researchers said that once the malicious code can go to websites hosting viruses, which are then installed on the user's Apple device. It can also open pop-up screens that probe for personal user information, including passwords to their Apple account.

      Innocuous-looking

      Once the infected apps are downloaded, researchers said, the malicious code can open particular websites designed to infect the device with more viruses. It can also open innocuous-looking pop-up screens that ask users for more information, like passwords to their Apple account.

      “Since the dialogue is a prompt from the running application, the victim may trust it and input a password without suspecting foul play,” Palo Alto Networks said in its blog post.

      A partial list of apps that may be infected was published by BusinessInsider and other sites. In some cases, only the most recent versions are infected and not all language versions are infected.

      • Angry Birds 2
      • CamCard
      • CamScanner
      • Card Safe
      • China Unicom Mobile Office
      • CITIC Bank move card space
      • Didi Chuxing developed by Uber’s biggest rival in China Didi Kuaidi
      • Eyes Wide
      • Flush
      • Freedom Battle
      • High German map
      • Himalayan
      • Hot stock market
      • I called MT
      • I called MT 2
      • IFlyTek input
      • Jane book
      • Lazy weekend
      • Lifesmart
      • Mara Mara
      • Marital bed
      • Medicine to force
      • Micro Channel
      • Microblogging camera
      • NetEase
      • OPlayer
      • Pocket billing
      • Poor tour
      • Quick asked the doctor
      • Railway 12306 the only official app used for buying train tickets in China
      • SegmentFault
      • Stocks open class
      • Telephone attribution assistant
      • The driver drops
      • The Kitchen
      • Three new board
      • Watercress reading
      • WeChat

      If you have any of these apps isntalled, the safest course is to delete them and download a new version from the App Store when it becomes available.

      Apple's App Store defenses have at last been breached. The company confirms that a tool used by developers was copied and modified by hackers, allowing the...
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      City of Cleveland incurs wrath of FAA

      The “Mistake by the Lake” is accused of running an unsafe airport

      The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) claims the City of Cleveland failed to meet FAA requirements for maintaining a safe airport during winter weather. And, if the agency gets its way, it'll cost Cleveland big: $735,000 in civil penalties.

      “Snow and ice removal at our nation’s airports is a critical safety issue,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We require airports to effectively manage this important responsibility.”

      The FAA says that over a 15-month period ending in March 2015, managers at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport failed on numerous occasions to keep the airport’s runways and taxiways safe and clear of snow and ice. Federal Aviation Regulations require airports with commercial service to have sufficient and qualified personnel to carry out their snow and ice control plans during severe weather.

      Three violations alleged

      Between Dec. 30, 2013 and Feb. 25, 2014, the FAA began three separate investigations into the airport’s alleged failure to comply with regulations:

      • Early in the morning of December 30, 2013, two commercial aircraft were disabled on taxiways because of unsafe braking conditions. Regulations require airport personnel to monitor conditions and close any pavement areas that are unsafe. Freezing rain and drizzle had been falling for more than two hours when the airport allegedly dismissed its maintenance staff at 11 p.m. the previous evening. No airport personnel were on duty to operate snow-removal and de-icing equipment after the two passenger flights landed.
      • On January 18, 2014, an Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting vehicle slid on ice during a training exercise and was unable to stop before crossing a line that marked the entrance to a runway. An aircraft had just begun its takeoff roll on that runway, resulting in a runway incursion. The aircraft departed safely.
      • On February 25, 2014, airport management allegedly failed to follow the approved snow and ice control plan, resulting in unsafe conditions on the airfield. The airport was closed after one pilot reported poor to non-existent braking conditions.

      Still missing the mark

      After initiating those investigations, the FAA worked with airport management to update Cleveland’s snow and ice control plan. This included establishing new procedures and adjusting schedules to ensure that sufficient personnel were available to respond to inclement weather.

      On March 1, 2015, icy conditions prevented an air carrier from quickly exiting the runway. Controllers subsequently canceled the takeoff clearance for one flight and told the captain of another flight on final approach to go around.

      During this investigation, the FAA found that, even under the updated policy, airport management allegedly had failed on 19 separate days between Jan. 5 and March 1 to have the required number of maintenance and airport operations personnel on duty.

      The city has 30 days from receipt of the FAA’s enforcement letter to respond.

      The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) claims the City of Cleveland failed to meet FAA requirements for maintaining a safe airport during winter weather...
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      Survey finds growing employer support for minimum wage hike

      How much is enough?

      A strong majority of employers support an increase in the minimum wage, according to a new survey by CareerBuilder.

      Sixty-four percent of employers responding to the survey say they think the minimum wage should be increased in their state -- up 2% who said so last year.

      “Americans’ wages have been stuck in a slow-growth pattern since the recession,” said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder. “As big name brands take measures to increase pay for minimum wage workers and the market overall grows more competitive for skilled labor, employers are going to start feeling more wage pressure when trying to attract and retain employees at all levels within the organization.”

      The national online survey, conducted on behalf by Harris Poll between May 14 and June 3, 2015, included a representative sample of 2,321 full-time hiring and human resource managers and 3,039 full-time workers in the private sector across industries and company sizes.

      What is fair?

      Twenty-six percent of employers said they plan to hire minimum wage workers this year. Just 6% of all employers believe the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) is fair. Sixty-one percent said a fair minimum wage is $10 or more per hour, versus 54% who said that last year. Eleven percent said a fair minimum wage is $15 or more per hour, compared with 7% last year.

      Is it enough?

      Of workers who currently have a minimum wage job or have held one in the past, 65% said they couldn’t make ends meet; another 49% said they had to work more than one job to make ends meet.

      But it’s not just minimum wage workers who are struggling. Nineteen percent of workers at all salary levels claimed they were unable to make ends meet during the past year. Sixty-five percent of all workers say they’re in debt and, while most say it’s manageable, it should be noted that 16% of workers ages 25-34 still live with their parents. Eighteen percent of all workers have reduced their 401k contribution and/or personal savings in the last year and 28% don’t set aside any savings each month.

      A strong majority of employers supports an increase in the minimum wage, according to a new survey by CareerBuilder http://www.careerbuilder.com/?sc_cmp2=j...
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      New legislation seeks to upgrade infrastructure of water systems across the U.S.

      Giving more water system options to small communities will reduce cost to taxpayers

      Depending on where you live in the United States, your water bill can vary greatly. Cities and larger communities, for example, have water infrastructure in place that can deliver water to their citizens in an effective manner; this makes their water prices more manageable. This contrasts greatly with people in rural areas; because people are more spread out, building and maintaining a water system is much more expensive. This increased cost affects millions of people across the country.

      Luckily, a solution to this problem has been introduced to the House of Representatives by Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN). Their bill is called the “Water Systems Cost Savings Act”, a proposal that aims to provide rural areas with cost-effective alternatives to accessing clean, high quality water. By adding options like water-well systems to areas that don’t have them, Hanna and Cooper believe that their bill will reduce federal, state, and local costs for providing water services.

      "Traditional municipal water systems don't work in every community, or are prohibitively expensive," said Hanna. "Fortunately, there are other options. Communities seeking federal assistance to upgrade their water infrastructure should be given the most comprehensive information possible so that they can build the most appropriate and cost-effective system that best meets their unique needs.”

      Cost-effective

      One of the great things about the bill is that it will not only help citizens who benefit from the upgraded infrastructure. With its passing, all citizens will see their tax dollars going towards other projects that will help their communities. “This bill will encourage cost-effective alternatives that will save taxpayer dollars and free up resources to reduce the growing backlog of clean water infrastructure needs,” said Hanna.

      A recent survey given by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that funding for water infrastructure in smaller communities was down $64 billion across the country. The new proposal intends to give programs to agencies like the EPA and USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) that will inform smaller communities about more cost-efficient water options.

      Many proponents applaud the bill for its focus on water well systems, which are a much more realistic and optimal choice for small communities. “The effectiveness of water wells as a reliable, low-cost way to provide access to safe drinking water has been proven in projects across the nation that have realized costs savings of as much as 94% over conventional drinking water systems,” said Margaret Martens, Executive Director of the Water Systems Council. “This legislation is a win for rural America and for the American taxpayer.”

      Depending on where you live in the United States, your water bill can vary greatly. Cities and larger communities, for example, have water infrastructure i...
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      Sales of previously-owned homes dip in August

      Last month's decline was spread across the U.S.

      Despite a slowdown in price growth, sales of existing homes fell in August following three consecutive monthly gains.

      The National Association of Realtors reports total existing–home sales -- completed transactions that include single–family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co–ops -- fell 4.8% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.31 million. Sales were down in August in all four major regions.

      Even with the August decline, sales posted a year–over–year advance of 6.2% and have been up year-over year for 11 straight months.

      Tight inventories blamed

      "Sales activity was down in many parts of the country last month -- especially in the South and West -- as the persistent summer theme of tight inventory levels likely deterred some buyers," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "The good news for the housing market is that price appreciation the last two months has started to moderate from the unhealthier rate of growth seen earlier this year."

      Total housing inventory at the end last month rose 1.3%% to 2.29 million existing homes available for sale, but it is 1.7% lower than a year ago (2.33 million). Unsold inventory is at a 5.2–month supply at the current sales pace, compared with 4.9 months in July.

      The median existing–home price for all housing types was $228,700 in August, 4.7% above the same time last year ($218,400). That increase marks the 42nd consecutive month of year–over–year gains.

      "With sales and overall demand higher than a year ago and supply mostly unchanged, low inventories will likely continue to limit options for those looking to buy this fall even with the overall pool of buyers shrinking because of seasonal factors," Yun added.

      The percent share of first–time buyers jumped to 32% in August from 28% in July, matching the highest share of the year set in May. A year ago, first–time buyers represented 29% of all buyers.

      Regional breakdown

      • Existing–home sales in the Northeast were unchanged in August an annual rate of 700,000, but were 6.1% above a year ago. The median price in the was $271,600, a year-over-year gain of 2.4%. The median is the point at which half the prices are higher and half are lower.
      • In the Midwest, sales were down 1.5% an annual rate of 1.28 million, but were 5.8% above August 2014. The median price was $181,100 -- up 4.0% from a year ago.
      • Sales in the South fell 6.6% to an annual rate of 2.14 million, but are still 5.9% above August 2014. The median price in the South was $196,300 -- up 6.0% from a year ago.
      • Sales of previously-owned homes in the West plunged 7.8 percent to an annual rate of 1.19 million, but are 7.2 percent above a year ago. The median price rose 7.1% from a year earlier to $321,300.
      Despite a slowdown in price growth, sales of existing homes fell in August following three consecutive monthly gains. The National Association of Realtors...
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      Report finds nation's obesity rate has stabilized

      Authors say intervention with young children offers hope for stemming the tide

      America still has a serious weight problem, but if there is a silver lining to the latest State of Obesity report, it's the obesity problem isn't getting much worse.

      The annual report from the Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) finds obesity rates increased in Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Utah but held mostly steady in the rest of the country.

      Arkansas has the highest adult obesity rate at 35.9%, while Colorado has the lowest at 21.3%. In three states – Arkansas, West Virginia and Mississippi – 35% or more of adults are clinically obese., meaning they have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher.

      The top 10 states with the highest obesity rates are:

      1. Arkansas
      2. West Virginia
      3. Mississippi
      4. Louisiana
      5. Alabama
      6. Oklahoma
      7. Indiana
      8. Ohio
      9. North Dakota
      10. South Carolina

      Fairly recent trend

      The report drives home how recently this epidemic has occurred. In 1980, no state had an obesity rate above 15%. In 1991, there was no state with an obesity rate above 20%. Today, more than 30% of American adults, nearly 17% of two to 19 year olds and more than 8% of children ages 2 to 5 are obese.

      Not just overweight. Obese.

      The 78 million Americans who are obese are at increased risk for a range of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

      "Efforts to prevent and reduce obesity over the past decade have made a difference. Stabilizing rates is an accomplishment. However, given the continued high rates, it isn't time to celebrate," said Jeffrey Levi, PhD, executive director of TFAH. "We've learned that if we invest in effective programs, we can see signs of progress. But, we still haven't invested enough to really tip the scales yet."

      The report authors suggest the best way to reduce obesity rates is to help children maintain a healthy weight. That's best done, they say, promoting good nutrition and physical activity. In that light, a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is not encouraging.

      Fast food consumption

      Its study of caloric intake from fast food between 2011-2012 finds that just over one-third of U.S. children and adolescents consumed fast food on a given day, getting 12.4% of their daily calories from fast food restaurants.

      “Consumption of fast food has been linked to weight gain in adult.” the authors write. “Fast food has also been associated with higher caloric intake and poorer diet quality in children and adolescents.”

      The CDC report also traces the rise in calories from fast food as a fairly recent trend. It also noted that older children frequent fast food restaurants a lot more than younger children do.

      America still has a serious weight problem, but if there is a silver lining to the latest State of Obesity report, it's the obesity problem isn't getting m...
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      EPA charges VW, Audi used software to make their diesels appear cleaner than they really are

      VW faces fines of up to $18 billion and possible criminal prosecution

      The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is accusing Volkswagen and Audi of using illegal emissions control software to make their diesel-powered cars appear "clean" when in fact they are emitting up to 40 times the allowable diesel pollution.

      The company could be fined up to $18 billion and faces criminal prosecution if it is proven that the deception was deliberate. It is also likely to be ordered to recall the cars.

      Volkswagen, which has been far behind the curve in hybrid development, sold the cars with the promise that they are nearly as fuel-efficient and environmentally beneficial as hybrids.

      "Hybrids aren’t the only game in town. TDI Clean Diesel engines offer up impressive efficiency numbers too. Take the Passat TDI for starters. It can go up to 814 miles uninterrupted. Now that’s a game changer," VW purrs in a page on its website.

      The EPA said the software detects when a car is undergoing emissions testing, turns on the full emission controls, then switches them off when the car returns to "real-world" driving patterns.

      “Using a defeat device in cars to evade clean air standards is illegal and a threat to public health,” said Cynthia Giles, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Working closely with the California Air Resources Board, EPA is committed to making sure that all automakers play by the same rules. EPA will continue to investigate these very serious matters.”

      Giles said VW initially denied the allegations but has now admitted wrongdoing.

      “We expected better from VW.,We take this very seriously,” she said.

      The agency said about 482,000 VW and Audi cars were sold with the illegal software from the 2009-2015 model years. The affected vehicles are diesel versions of:

      • 2009-15 model year VW Jetta, Beetle, Golf and Audi A3; and

      • 2014-15 model year VW Passat.

      What now?

      Besides learning that the cars they thought were helping to clean up the air when they may in fact have been making it much dirtier, owners of the cars are now left to wonder what they will have to do to bring the cars into compliance -- something the already-strict California authorities are also pondering. While the cars are likely to be recalled, owners may still face performance and fuel-economy issues after the fixes are made.

      “Working with US EPA we are taking this important step to protect public health thanks to the dogged investigations by our laboratory scientists and staff,” said Air Resources Board Executive Officer Richard Corey.

      “Our goal now is to ensure that the affected cars are brought into compliance, to dig more deeply into the extent and implications of Volkswagen’s efforts to cheat on clean air rules, and to take appropriate further action,” Corey said.

      Oxygen sensor

      Earlier this week, Volkswagen was ordered to pay $1.1 million for failing to promptly notify EPA of a defective oxygen sensor affecting at least 329,000 of their 1999, 2000 and 2001 gas-powered Golfs, Jettas, and New Beetles. It was the largest civil penalty to date for this type of violation.

      As part of this settlement, Volkswagen completed a voluntary recall of the affected vehicles at a cost of over $26 million. Vehicles with the defect may release thousands of tons of harmful pollutants including nonmethane hydrocarbons (NMHC) and carbon monoxide (CO).

      NMHC are key reactants in the production of ozone, a major contributor to cancer-causing smog. CO impairs breathing and is especially harmful to children, people with asthma, and the elderly, EPA said.

      "Reliable and effective automobile pollution control systems are an important part of this nation's air pollution reduction strategy," said Thomas V. Skinner, acting assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. "This case demonstrates EPA's commitment to ensuring that automobile manufacturers comply with emissions regulations."

      The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is accusing Volkswagen and Audi of using illegal emissions control software to make their diesel-powered cars appe...
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      Feds provide new mortgage shopping tools

      Will guide buyers through the use of new mortgage forms

      Since the housing crisis occurred, in part, because consumers purchased homes they couldn't afford, new federal regulations taking effect October 3 are aimed at clearing up any doubt about what future homebuyers can afford and what they can't.

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is providing new online tools as part of its Know Before You Owe initiative to provide consumers with more information as they navigate the mortgage process.

      Starting October 3, the mortgage industry will begin using the new Know Before You Owe forms. The forms are designed to make it easier for consumers to understand mortgage options and comparison shop between multiple loan offers.

      Closing the information gap

      “Our new mortgage forms reduce the information gap between lenders and consumers, shedding light on a process that often feels like a mystery,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “It is time consumers have more power in the mortgage process, and our new forms and online tools will help make that a reality.”

      Since the housing bubble burst new, more stringent mortgage underwriting standards have had the effect of preventing consumers from buying homes they can't afford. The tighter standards have done the job of screening out consumers who lack the income to purchase a home.

      However, that hasn't meant consumers have been more informed as they go through the process. That's where the new forms come in.

      The forms in question are those covering the loan estimate and closing disclosure. CFPB says the forms will help consumers to better understand their options, choose the deal that’s best for them, and avoid costly surprises when they get to closing.

      Loan Estimate

      The Loan Estimate lists all the details of the mortgage transaction, including the estimated loan and closing costs. It makes possible an apples-to-apples comparison when consumers are considering different loan options.

      The Closing Disclosure, which lists details of the final transaction, is sent to consumers at least three business days before closing. Consumers can use that time to make sure they are getting what they expected, ask questions, and negotiate over any changes. The Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure mirror each other, making it easy to compare estimates with final loan terms.

      CFPB has also added new tools to its website to help consumers determine whether owning a home is the right financial step to take. It focuses on the many ownership costs outside of the monthly mortgage payment.

      Online tools

      The new “Owning a Home” tools include:

      • A guide to the mortgage milestones: a step by step guide through the mortgage processs
      • A monthly mortgage payment worksheet: the tools include a monthly payment worksheet that helps homebuyers fit in housing costs with their current debts, savings, living expenses.
      • An interactive sample of the new Know Before You Owe mortgage forms: these can help consumers double-check the details of their own transactions and get definitions for terms they may not understand.

      Meanwhile, CFPB Executive Director Richard Cordray addressed a National Association of Realtor (NAR) audience this week, defending the new mortgage regulations as vital protections for consumers. He noted that dire predictions about the effect tighter rules would have on the housing market haven't come to pass.

      “Sensible regulation that includes substantial consumer protections should foster greater trust by consumers in the financial marketplace,” he said. “If people believe they will be treated fairly rather than becoming victims of predatory lending, they can develop a renewed sense of consumer confidence.”

      Since the housing crisis occurred, in part, because consumers purchased homes they couldn't afford, new federal regulations taking effect October 3 are aim...
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      Delta, American interlining agreement expires

      American was sending Delta too many stranded passengers

      If your American Airlines flight goes off the rails, don't go looking to Delta for help. The carriers' interlining agreement has expired and Delta is in no hurry to renew it.

      "Interlining" is the practice of moving passengers and baggage from one airline to another. The usual assumption is that it will work out more or less evenly for both sides, but Delta says that hasn't been the case. It says American has been sending it five times as many passengers as it sent to American.

      It all has to do with flight disruptions. U.S. Transportation Department data finds that nearly 84% of Delta flights were on time last year, compared to 76% of American's. And that, says Delta, means the numbers just don't add up anymore.

      "The industry agreement was no longer mutually beneficial,” Delta spokesman Anthony Black said.

      The expiration of the agreement means that, besides not handling rebookings for each other, Delta and American will not transfer bags and will not allow you to book travel that includes flight segments on both carriers.

      American responded only indirectly to questions from trade publications about the situation, emailing a statement that said:

      “While this is a change, it will not affect our commitment to re-accommodate customers during irregular operations,” she wrote. “The new American now has the world’s largest and best network and our team is doing a great job of running a reliable airline."

      If your American Airlines flight goes off the rails, don't go looking to Delta for help. The carriers' interlining agreement has expired and Delta is in no...
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      New York Post invades Chicago, promises "a little more NYC"

      Fuhgeddaboudit, you know what I'm sayin'?

      Chicagoans think their town is pretty much the center of the world. New Yorkers get it confused with Minneapolis. Neither city seems very interested in the other. 

      But that's not stopping Rupert Murdoch's New York Post from invading Chicago. The irreverent, sometimes tasteless tabloid, is perhaps best known for its classic headline: "Headless Body in Topless Bar." Recent specimens have gone ever farther but cannot be quoted here in case our mothers are reading. 

      For whatever reason, the Post will go on sale Monday in Chicagoland for $2, the same price it charges in Noo Yawk but double what the Chicago Sun-Times charges.

      Maybe it will be worth twice as much because it will have all kinds of hot Chicago news? No, sorry. Sources deep within Murdochland are reported to have revealed that it will just be the same paper distributed in NYC. 

      Chicago Magazine broke the story of the invasion, headlining it: "Tasteless Newspaper Found in Second City." (Of course, Los Angeles is now the second city, but who's counting).

      Rail riders

      The Post will join the Sun-Times and RedEye in vying for the attention of commuters stuffed into crowded trains. We're not quite sure how many people ride the rails in Chicago. Metra -- official motto: "The way to really fly" -- says it carried nearly 83 million passengers last year despite lousy weather. (Chicago is one of those places that takes pride in its miserable weather; NYC just ignores it). 

      These papers are all tabloids, of course, as is the Post. You could only read the Chicago Tribune on the train if your origami skills are unusually advanced.

      Cab drivers used to be the Post's target audience, but what with Uber and immigration, the cab driver market isn't what it used to be, so the Post has been looking for entrained commuters wherever it can find them.

      You could read the Post at Starbucks, but it just doesn't seem right somehow.

      Little more NYC

      Post brass aren't saying much. Publisher Jesse Angelo issued what used to be known as a terse statement to Chicago Mag: “The rumors are indeed true. As of next week, the New York Post is coming to Chicago.  We wanted the great people of Chicago to have just a little more fun and a little more NYC in their daily media diet.”

      The Post is part of Murdoch's News Corp. empire, which includes the Wall Street Journal and used to include Fox News before the company split its dead-tree and digital properties. It also used to own the Sun-Times, Chicago Magazine noted.

      Chicago Magazine and RedEye, by the way, are owned by none other than the Tribune.

      See, this is why newspapers have so much trouble competing effectively. They're like one of those small Midwestern towns where everybody's related to everybody else. They know each other's weaknesses but think it would be rude to reveal them to others.

      Newspaper people also revere the past, the way they do in small towns. Maybe Rupert Murdoch looks at all those trains clattering around Chicago and thinks they're filled with news-hungry commuters wishing they had just one more newspaper.

      Last time I was on a subway -- last Thursday, to be exact -- it was filled with people looking at their smartphones. I didn't see many newspapers of any description, tasteless or otherwise.

      None of this should be taken to disparage newspapers, three of which land on my driveway each morning. A number that may go to four since, in conducting rigorous research on this story, I discovered that the NY Post offers home delivery in my corner of the D.C. area. 

      Who knew?

      Chicagoans think their town is pretty much the center of the world. New Yorkers get it confused with Minneapolis. Neither city seems very interested in the...
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      Realtors' message to buyers: don't wait

      Housing economist says mortgage rates may rise before the Fed acts

      The Federal Reserve is keeping interest rates at 0% for a while longer, and while talking heads on TV argue whether this is the right move or not, one housing economist warns the mortgage rate reprieve is likely short lived.

      Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com, a real estate market site, says rates are going up, it's just a matter of time. And if the market becomes convinced that the rate hike is coming in December, mortgage rates could begin to rise in anticipation.

      For would-be homebuyers, he says that means not waiting.

      “Those planning to get into the housing market in 2016 may want to consider a home purchase before the end of the 2015,” Smoke said. “When rates go up, not only will monthly mortgage payments increase, that increase will also lessen some buyers’ ability to get approved for a home loan – due to an increased debt to income ratio.”

      A half point over 12 months

      Mortgage rates can be hard to predict, but Smoke believes there could be a potential increase of 50 basis points over the 12 months following an official move to increase the Federal Funds target rate. Because a December rate hike appears more likely than a September one did, Smoke believes the mortgage market will try to stay out in front of Fed action, meaning mortgage rates could begin to rise before any Fed action is taken.

      Smoke has produced models of what kind of impact he thinks a 50 basis point rate increase would look like in the mortgage market. He says it could result in:

      • A 6% increase in monthly payments on new mortgages: on a loan of $231,000 it could mean the difference between principal and interest payments of $1,107 and $1,175 a month.
      • An additional 7% rejection of mortgage applications: The increase in payments will result in borrowers being able to qualify for less house.
      • The average debt-to-income ratio could increase by 4% . Right now that ratio is running at about 35.5%. A 50 basis points rise, and keeping all other factors equal, would send the average debt-to-income ratio to 37%.

      Geography matters

      The potential impact on borrowers would vary dramatically by geography.

      “High cost markets and markets where first-time buyers have been just barely able to qualify this year are most at risk of seeing more failed mortgage applications as a result of higher debt burdens triggered by higher rates,” Smoke said.

      Those markets where it would be harder to qualify for a mortgage include Honolulu, HI., Stockton, CA., Fresno, CA., El Paso, TX., and Fort Piece, FL.

      The Federal Reserve is keeping interest rates at 0% for a while longer, and while talking heads on TV argue whether this is the right move or not, one hous...
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      Leading Economic Index inches upward in August

      Moderate growth is expected to continue

      After showing no movement in July and an 0.6% gain in June, the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index (LEI) posted a tiny increase in August,

      According to Ataman Ozyildirim, director of Business Cycles and Growth Research at The Conference Board, the 0.1% advance “suggests economic growth will remain moderate into the New Year, with little reason to expect growth to pick up substantially.

      “Average working hours and new orders in manufacturing have been weak,”, he noted, “pointing to more slow growth in the industrial sector. However, employment, personal income and manufacturing and trade sales have all been rising, helping to offset the weakness in industrial production in recent months.”

      The LEI is essentially a composite of several indicators. It's 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 they smooth out some of the volatility of individual components.

      The ten components of 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, nondefense 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
      After showing no movement in July and an 0.6% gain in June, the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index (LEI) posted a tiny increase in August, Accordin...
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      IIHS kudos for the Volvo XC90

      The SUV aced the front crash prevention test

      Stellar ratings for crash protection and for its standard front crash prevention system have won the redesigned Volvo XC90 the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) highest award -- TOP SAFETY PICK+.

      The previous generation of the midsize luxury SUV also had good ratings across the board for crashworthiness but had no available front crash prevention system.

      The 2016 XC90 comes with an upgraded version of Volvo's City Safety feature. A previous version of City Safety -- standard on earlier Volvos, though not the XC90 -- was an automatic braking system that functioned only at low speeds.

      The new version also functions at higher speeds. In IIHS track tests at 12 mph and 25 mph, the XC90 avoided collisions. The system also includes a forward collision warning component that meets criteria set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The vehicle earned the maximum six points from IIHS for a front crash prevention rating of superior.

      Strong crashworthiness performance

      The SUV earns good ratings in all five of the Institute's crashworthiness tests: small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints.

      In the small overlap test, the most challenging of the IIHS evaluations, the driver space held up very well, with intrusion of less than 2 inches at all measured points in the driver's seating space. The dummy's movement was well-controlled, and the front and side curtain airbags worked well together to protect the head. Measures taken from the dummy showed a low risk of any significant injuries in a crash of this severity.

      To qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK, vehicles must earn good ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests, plus a good or acceptable rating in the small overlap test.

      For TOP SAFETY PICK+, vehicles also need an available front crash system with an advanced or superior rating.

      Stellar ratings for crash protection and for its standard front crash prevention system have won the redesigned Volvo XC90 the Insurance Institute for High...
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      Butala Emporium dietary supplements

      The products contain elevated levels of lead and mercury

      Butala Emporium of Jackson Heights, N.Y., is recalling 11 Ayurvedic (dietary) supplements.

      The products were found to contain elevated lead and mercury levels which may cause health problems to consumers -- particularly infants, small children, pregnant women and those with underlying kidney disorders if consumed.

      The concentration of lead exceeds the recommended daily lead exposure for children less than six years of age and women of childbearing age, and would likely be injurious to health.

      No complaints or illnesses have been reported to date.

      The following products are being recalled:

      1. Baidyanath brand Saptamrit Lauh--Batch No. SPL-04, Expiry Date 4/2018
      2. Baidyanath brand Rajahpravartini Bati--Batch No. RAJ-15 0 & 126, Expiry Date 1/2019 & 07/2016
      3. Baidyanath brand Sarivadi Bati--Batch No. SRI-09, Expiry Date 04/2018
      4. Baidyanath brand Shankh Bati--Batch No. SHN-02, Expiry Date 08/2018
      5. Baidyanath brand Marichyadi Bati--Batch No. 200, Expiry Date 08/2017
      6. Baidyanath brand Agnitundi Bati--Batch No. 018, Expiry Date 02/2016
      7. Baidyanath brand Arogyavardhini Bati--Batch No. 018, Expiry Date 03/2017
      8. Baidyanath brand Sarivadi Bati--Batch No. SARI-015, Expiry Date 01/2019
      9. Baidyanath brand Brahmi Bati--Batch No. HGB-18, Expiry Date 03/2019, Batch Nos. 244 & 242, Expiry Date 03/2017 (products without Batch No. or Expiry Date are subject to this recall)
      10. Baidyanath brand Gaisantak Bati--Batch No. GAI-09, Expiry Date 08/2018 and Batch No. 141, Expiry Date 10/2017
      11. Baidyanath brand Chitrakadi Bati--Batch No. 193, Expiry Date 02/2018

      The 80-count-capsules are packed in white, plastic bottles with green, yellow or orange labeling under the brand name “Baidyanath” made by Shree Baidyanath Ayurved Bhawan (P) Ltd. 1 Gupta Lane, Kolkata, India, and top cap sticker with imported by Butala Emporium

      The recalled products were distributed in New York in retail stores and to consumers as single unit purchase via the firms Internet site within California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

      Customers who purchased these products should not consume them, but should return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-718-899-5590, Monday – Friday, 9 am – 5 pm (ET) or by email at butala1@aol.com.

      Butala Emporium of Jackson Heights, N.Y., is recalling 11 Ayurvedic (dietary) supplements. The products were found to contain elevated lead and mercury le...
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      The Land of Nod recalls mobiles

      The yarn from the sheep figures can unravel, posing a strangulation hazard

      The Land of Nod is recalling about 400 Follow the Herd mobiles.

      The yarn from the sheep figures can unravel, posing an entanglement and strangulation hazard to young children.

      The company has received three reports of the sheep's yarn unraveling. No injuries have been reported.

      The Land of Nod Follow the Herd mobile mobile is made of white wool felt and has five sheep figures made of white wool yarn. The sheep have black felt eyes and brown felt ears. The mobile is about 24 inches tall, 10 inches wide and 10 inches deep. SKU number 198234 is on a label attached to the body of the mobile.

      The mobiles, manufactured in Nepal, were sold exclusively at The Land of Nod stores nationwide and online at www.landofnod.com from September 2013, through May 2015, for about $50.

      Consumers should immediately put the recalled mobiles out of the reach of children and contact The Land of Nod for a full refund.

      Consumers may contact The Land of Nod at 800-933-9904 from 8:30 a. m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at www.landofnod.com and click on Product Recalls at the bottom of the page for more information.

      The Land of Nod is recalling about 400 Follow the Herd mobiles. The yarn from the sheep figures can unravel, posing an entanglement and strangulation haz...
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      Toyota recalls RAV4 and RAV4 EV vehicles

      The vehicles have a windshield wiper issue

      Toyota Motor Sales, USA is recalling approximately 421,000 model year 2009-2012 RAV4 and approximately 2,500 model year 2012-2014 RAV4 EV vehicles.

      Water dripping onto the windshield wiper link can, over time, cause corrosion and wear at the wiper link joint. In some cases this could result in the separation of the wiper link from the wiper motor crank arm.

      If separation occurs, the windshield wipers could become inoperative, which could reduce driver visibility and increase the risk of a vehicle crash.

      Owners of the recalled vehicles will be notified by first class mail. Toyota dealers will replace the water channel, wiper link, and wiper motor crank arm with new ones.

      Consumers may contact Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331.  

      Toyota Motor Sales, USA is recalling approximately 421,000 model year 2009-2012 RAV4 and approximately 2,500 model year 2012-2014 RAV4 EV vehicles. Water...
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      Stuffed chicken products linked to earlier recall

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

      The Agriculture Departments Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has confirmed that frozen, raw, stuffed and breaded chicken products produced by Aspen Foods, a division of Koch Poultry Company of Chicago, Ill., has same Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak strain which was part of a July 2015 recall.

      Following that recall, FSIS has been conducting intensified sampling at Aspen to ensure that the hazard responsible for the initial contamination has been controlled by the company. Results from FSIS sampling revealed 12 positive results that match the outbreak strain of Salmonella Enteritidis to Aspen Foods products.

      Three illnesses were epidemiologically linked to the original recall.

      The frozen, raw, stuffed and breaded chicken items may include the following brands and be labeled as “chicken cordon bleu,” “chicken Kiev” or “chicken broccoli and cheese” and bear the establishment number “P-1358” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

      These following products were shipped to retail and food service locations nationwide:

      • Acclaim
      • Antioch Farms
      • Buckley Farms
      • Centrella Signature
      • Chestnut Farms
      • Family Favorites
      • Kirkwood
      • Koch Foods
      • Market Day
      • Oven Cravers
      • Rose
      • Rosebud Farm
      • Roundy’s
      • Safeway Kitchens
      • Schwan’s
      • Shaner’s
      • Spartan
      • Sysco

      Customers who purchased these products should not to consume them, but throw them away or return them to the place of purchase. FSIS is concerned that some product may be in consumers' freezers.

      Although the products included in this Alert may appear to be cooked, this product is in fact uncooked (raw) and should be handled carefully to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen.

      The Agriculture Departments Food Safety and Inspection Service www.fsis.usda.gov (FSIS) has confirmed that frozen, raw, stuffed and breaded chicken produc...
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      GM expected to settle ignition switch criminal case for $1 billion

      No GM employees are expected to face criminal charges even though 124 consumers died

      General Motors will pay a fine of about $1 billion to settle a federal criminal investigation into the defective ignition switches that killed at least 124 people, but no GM employees will go to jail, The New York Times reports today.

      Critics say the settlement proves the old adage that murdering someone with a gun carries the death penalty but doing so with the stroke of a pen carries only a fine.  

      "GM killed over 100 people by knowingly putting a defective ignition switch into over 1 million vehicles. Yet no one from GM went to jail or was even charged with criminal homicide," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the non-profit Center for Auto Safety, in an auto safety blog, Care for Crash Victims. "GM killed innocent consumers."

      Instead of entering a guilty plea, GM will sign a "deferred-prosecution agreement," the equivalent of probation for corporations, the Times said. 

      The fine rivals the $1.2 billion fine Toyota was ordered to pay for concealing unintended acceleration problems.

      GM recalled more than three million vehicles -- mostly sedans -- to replace the switches, which could unexpectedly shut off, cutting power to the engine and leaving drivers with no power streering, brakes, or airbags. 

      The Times quoted relatives of crash victims as saying that failing to prosecute individual GM employees amounts to "giving GM ... permission to do it again."

      Other penalties

      In May 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) fined GM $35 million for failing to report a safety defect in the vehicle to the federal government in a timely manner.

      The automaker has also paid out millions to the families of victims and still faces numerous individual lawsuits. 

      General Motors will pay a fine of about $1 billion to settle a federal criminal investigation into the defective ignition switches that killed at least 124...
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      Federal Reserve decides not to raise interest rates

      Central bank was worried about the impact on developing economies

      Despite a low official unemployment rate and steady economic improvement, the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (Fed) has decided to leave U.S. interest rates at 0%.

      The Fed said economic conditions in the U.S. are improving but cited concern about economic weakness in developing economies. A number of international economists had urged the Fed not to raise U.S. interest rates, saying the move could have a harmful effect on other economies.

      Foreign nations and corporations have borrowed billions of dollars and a rise in U.S. rates would place added costs on those loans.

      Wall Street reacted with relief, since cheap money supports current stock valuations, which some economists think are too high.

      The housing industry is also relieved. Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Realtor.com, says a Fed rate hike would have signaled the end of historically low mortgage rates and would have added about 6% to the cost of the average new mortgage.

      Because of the Fed's decision, consumers should find mortgage rates, as well as rates on car loans, little changed.

      The Fed lowered interest rates to 0% in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and has not raised them since. It's next opportunity will come at it's October meeting. At that time, the will-it-or-won't-it guessing game will begin again.

      Despite a low official unemployment rate and steady economic improvement, the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (Fed) has decided to leave U.S. interes...
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      Amazon introduces seven-inch tablet for $49.99

      If you buy five, Amazon will throw in an extra at no charge

      Amazon.com has been known to try to get a jump on the holiday shopping season. Its July 15 Prime Day promotion is a successful example.

      The online retailer is at it again, taking the wraps off a new seven-inch tablet for $49.99. The product is available for pre-order, with shipping beginning on September 30.

      To make it even cheaper, Amazon is offering its new Fire tablet in a six-pack; if you buy five of the devices, you get a sixth free, meaning it could replace the fruit cake or fruit-of-the-month club as the ubiquitous holiday gift.

      Front and back cameras

      The new tablet features a 1024 x 600 seven-inch display with a 1.3 GHz quad-core processor and rear and front cameras. It comes with 8 GB of internal storage and free unlimited cloud storage, as long as it is Amazon content and photos taken with Fire devices. You can add a microSD card for up to 128 GB of additional storage.

      It runs Fire OS 5 and provides up to seven hours of battery life.

      “Today, we’re taking another step in our mission to deliver premium products at non-premium prices,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com CEO. “The all-new Fire features a quad-core processor, is incredibly durable, and is backed by the Amazon content ecosystem, the new AmazonUnderground, and Amazon customer service with Mayday Screen Sharing.”

      Flat sales

      The tablet, as a device, appears to be at a crossroads. Apple this month introduced a larger tablet, the iPad Pro – a device aimed at business users. With the $50 Fire, Amazon is banking on entertainment users to drive sales.

      These changes come at a time when tablet sales have leveled off. According to Statista, global tablet shipments declined from 48 million in the second quarter of 2014 to 44.7 million in the second quarter of this year.

      Technology publication TechCrunch speculates the market has become saturated while consumers find they prefer their recently more sophisticated smartphones over a bulkier tablet.

      Amazon is likely banking on the lower price point to lure consumers back to tablets. Since Amazon increasingly positions itself as a content provider, it stands to profit in other ways than strictly the sale of hardware.

      The company points out the tablet will give users access to over 38 million movies, TV shows, songs, books, apps, and games, as well as other features like X-Ray, ASAP, and Second Screen.

      Amazon.com has been known to try to get a jump on the holiday shopping season. Its July 15 Prime Day promotion is a successful example.The online retai...
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      Honda introduces redesigned Civic

      Popular compact gets major changes inside and out

      Honda has essentially returned to the drawing board to redesign one of its best-selling models, the Civic sedan. The carmaker took the wraps off the 2016 model this week, saying it will be in dealer showrooms in the fall.

      Honda has been making the Civic for 43 years and the new model year will include a sedan, coupe, high-performance Si models, a 5-door hatchback, and the first-ever Civic Type-R model for the U.S. market.

      "This tenth-generation Civic is quite simply the most ambitious remake of Civic we've ever done," said John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co, Inc. "We are bringing more new technology and innovative thinking to Civic than ever before to establish a new benchmark for fun-to-drive performance, fuel efficiency, safety performance and refinement in the compact class."

      Two new engines

      What's new for 2016? Honda says for the first time the 2016 Civic will feature two new engines – including the first-ever application of Honda turbo engine technology in the U.S.

      There are also new exterior changes, including new chassis and body designs that Honda says will also contribute to improved fuel efficiency.

      Inside, the Civic will offer smartphone integration with a new, 7-inch high-definition display audio touchscreen for more connectivity. It features Apple CarPlay, which integrates a user's iPhone with the dash display.

      That feature provides the ability to get directions, make calls, send and receive messages, and listen to music from the touchscreen or by voice via Siri. Supported apps include Phone, Messages, Maps, Music, and compatible third party apps.

      Pressure's on

      “The last Civic redesign was not well received, which puts Honda under some pressure this time around,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “But early indications suggest the 2016 Civic will be a big leap forward in terms of styling, technology and performance. This car has spent most of its history as the benchmark in the compact car class, and Honda wants to see it convincingly retain that position.”

      One of the headwinds the Civic may face in the current market is consumers' recent infatuation with trucks and SUVs. Low gasoline prices have removed some of the incentive to purchase a smaller, fuel efficient vehicle.

      But Honda is counting on the model's long history and the stylish flourishes to lure consumers back. Its new ad campaign is designed to stoke nostalgia among the millions of consumers who have driven a Civic in the past.

      And millions have driven one. The first Civic was introduced in 1972, when foreign-made cars were still a novelty on American highways. Today, Honda says American car buyers have purchased more than 10 million Civics throughout its 43 years in the U.S. market.

      Honda has essentially returned to the drawing board to redesign one of its best-selling models, the Civic sedan. The carmaker took the wraps off the 2016 m...
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      Inexpensive home improvements can help sell your house faster

      Without spending a lot, simply make what you have look better

      For homeowners hoping to sell their homes, cleaning, painting, and staging are three low-cost ways to make your property more attractive to potential buyers.

      A fresh coat of paint in neutral colors brightens and freshens each room. Replacing light switchplates, door hinges, and vent covers helps make an older home look new again with little expense.

      Removing excess furnishings and personal effects, like family pictures, will make it easier for a would-be buyer to imagine your home as his or her new home. Most Realtors will tell you these are basic steps in getting your home ready to sell.

      Small investments

      If you are willing to make some small investments, there are other steps a seller can take to make a home more attractive. Some are exterior touches that home shoppers may notice before they ever reach the front door.

      Pay attention to landscaping issues. Weed flower beds and add fresh mulch. In the fall, keep leaves raked and off the lawn.

      Inspect the wood trim, especially on porches and decks, for excessive wear. Decks and porches are prominent exterior features on any home and can have an outsized impact on first impressions.

      A fresh coat of stain or paint is a small investment to bring fresh life back into your entryway or backyard living space. If you have a deck, power-washing it removes dull, gray dirt buildup and makes it look new again.

      In the kitchen

      The kitchen can make or break your ability to sell a house, but most buyers are more concerned with counter space and general layout than other features. To avoid a major investment, make what's already there look better.

      If cabinets are structurally sound, consider a fresh coat of paint, set off by attractive, stylish hardware. Decorators say replacing dated pulls with a more contemporary look in a new color can bring a new mood to the room.

      New flooring is not a small investment but might be necessary if the carpet is worn and is looking its age. In high traffic areas, consider replacing carpet with wood or tile. It's more durable and homebuyers tend to prefer it over carpet.

      Accent lighting

      Finally, take a look at lighting, both natural and artificial. Most home showings occur in daylight hours, but you want to make sure your home is always properly lit in order to create the best impression. Use subtle accent lighting to prevent rooms from appearing dark.

      A good real estate agent will have other ideas to help your home present well. The secret is to limit expenses to improvements that deliver the most bang for the buck; this will help you avoid big expenses that you won't recoup on the sale.

      HGTV, home of countless real estate reality shows, says basic maintenance is often more important in moving a house than an awesome kitchen.

      For homeowners hoping to sell their homes, cleaning, painting, and staging are three low-cost ways to make your property more attractive to potential buyer...
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      Ultimeyes agrees to stop claiming its app improves vision

      The Federal Trade Commission said the claims lacked scientific evidence

      If your vision's not so good, you can wear glasses or contacts or maybe have a laser procedure to sharpen things up. But don't count on Ultimeyes, a smartphone app that claimed it could improve users' vision.

      The app's promoters, Carrot Neurotechnology, Inc., has agreed to pay $150,000 and stop making claims not supported by scientific evidence.

      “This case came down to the simple fact that ‘Ultimeyes’ promoters did not have the scientific evidence to support their claims that the app could improve users' vision,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Health-related apps can offer benefits to consumers, but the FTC will not hesitate to act when health-related claims are not based on sound science.”

      According to the FTC’s complaint, since 2012, Carrot Neurotechnology, Inc. advertised and sold Ultimeyes on the company’s website and through third-party app stores including the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, claiming it is “scientifically shown to improve vision.”

      "Turn back the clock"

      Ads for Ultimeyes stated that the app, which sells for between $5.99 and $9.99, would “Turn Back The Clock On Your Vision.” The ads further claimed that users would benefit from “comprehensive vision improvement” for activities such as sports, reading and driving, and that using the app would reduce the need for glasses and contact lenses. 

      The app is based on a series of visual exercises related to reading speed, contrast sensitivity, and low light conditions among other elements.

      The ads further claimed that studies, including those conducted by Aaron Seitz, prove Ultimeyes works. The FTC alleges that Seitz’s studies and other “scientific research” do not prove Ultimeyes improves vision. The FTC also alleges the marketers failed to disclose Seitz’s affiliation with the company when touting his studies in advertising.

      If your vision's not so good, you can wear glasses or contacts or maybe have a laser procedure to sharpen things up. But don't count on Ultimeyes, a smartp...
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      Debt-relief scheme lands World Law Group in federal hot water

      The firm is accused of charging illegal fees and making false promises

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is cracking down on an operation that allegedly runs a debt-relief scheme that charges consumers exorbitant, illegal, upfront fees.

      In announcing it obtained a preliminary injunction against World Law Group and its senior leaders, the CFPB claims the debt-relief scheme falsely promised consumers a team of attorneys to help negotiate debt settlements with creditors, failed to provide legal representation, and rarely settled consumers’ debts.

      Additionally, World Law is accused of taking $67 million from at least 21,000 consumers before providing any debt-relief services. The order, obtained in U.S. District Court, halts World Law’s operations and freezes defendants’ assets while the case is pending.

      Action was taken against World Law, according to CFPB Director Richard Cordray, “for an alleged debt relief scheme that lured consumers with false promises of help from lawyers and collected millions in illegal upfront fees. We are seeking to put an end to this scheme and prevent more consumers from being harmed.”

      The lawsuit names Derin Scott, David Klein, and Bradley James Haskins, who control World Law Group. The lawsuit alleges that the defendants operate through an interrelated maze of companies, including Orion Processing, LLC, d/b/a World Law Processing, WLD Credit Repair, and World Law Debt; Family Capital Investment & Management LLC (a.k.a FCIAM Property Management); World Law Debt Services, LLC; and World Law Processing, LLC. The companies comingle funds and share functions, employees, and office locations to operate the debt-relief scheme.

      The charges

      According to the complaint, World Law promised to help consumers reduce their debts using a “team of attorneys,” including “local attorneys,” that would provide legal representation and negotiate debt settlements directly with consumers’ creditors. The firm allegedly told consumers to stop paying their debts and instead make a single monthly payment to the company, which its lawyers would use to negotiate debt settlements with creditors.

      According to the complaint, World Law unlawfully kept many of these payments as fees before providing debt-relief services. As a result, consumers paid millions of dollars in illegal fees and suffered additional harms, including being subjected to collection calls, lawsuits, late fees, and lower credit scores.

      The CFPB complaint is not a finding or ruling that the defendants have actually violated the law. The Court issued the preliminary injunction because it found that the agency is likely to prevail and that the public interest is served by granting the order. The case will proceed until the court makes a final determination or the parties settle the matter.

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB is cracking down on and operation it says runs a debt-relief scheme that charges consumers exorbitant, illeg...
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      LinkedIn settles promotional spam suit

      It also agrees to pay $1.25 million to members whose passwords were hacked

      LinkedIn is close to settling a class action that accused it of using 20.8 million members' emails to flood their contacts with spam. In another case, it agreed to pay $1.25 million to users whose passwords were hacked.

      In the promotional spam case, consumers complained that LinkedIn used their email address to bombard their contacts with spam emails without asking their permission.

      In some cases, LinkedIn masqueraded as the member when it sent it promos to the member's contacts, Courthouse News Service reported.

      A tentative settlement has been reached in the case, but the settlement amount was not revealed in court papers signed by U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh. 

      Not encrypted

      In the hacking case, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila signed off on a $1.25 million settlement with LinkedIn users whose passwords were posted online by hackers.

      Lawyers for the LinkedIn members argued that LinkedIn had failed to adequately encrypt the information.

      The settlement will be divided among 800,000 LinkedIn members whose passwords were posted online after legal fees are deducted.

      LinkedIn is close to settling a class action that accused it of using 20.8 million members' emails to flood their contacts with spam. In another case, it a...
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      Movie production "opportunity" didn't turn out that way

      Consumers cashed in their annuities to make it big in Hollywood

      Lots of people want to be movie stars. Lots of others would like to make big bucks as movie producers, but like any other specialized business, novice investors can find themselves fleeced.
      That's what prosecutors allege Michelle Kenen Seward, 42, and Dror Soref, 75 were doing. They're charged with operating a Ponzi scheme that allegedly bilked investors from the Los Angeles area out of $21 million dollars in an elaborate movie investment scheme.
      The California Department of Insurance Investigation Division says it found evidence that Seward, a former licensed insurance agent, allegedly convinced some of her clients to invest their life savings in a film directed by Soref titled "Not Forgotten," which was an unsecured investment.
      In some cases, Seward allegedly talked clients into surrendering annuities early and paying large penalties by promising returns of between 10 and 18 percent. Investors who surrendered annuities paid more than $600,000 in penalties and fees for early withdrawal.
      After the film's completion, the two formed a new entity titled Windsor Pictures, LLC, which investors were promised would produce several films. Investors were given promissory notes and told they would again earn between 10 and 18 percent on their investment.
      But investigators say they found evidence that investors' money used to form Windsor Pictures was used to pay investors in the production of "Not Forgotten." Additionally, Seward and Soref were not licensed to sell securities or provide investment advice.
      The case is being prosecuted by the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office.
      Charles PonziLots of people want to be movie stars. Lots of others would like to make big bucks as movie producers, but like any other specialized busi...
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      Two Toyota products win IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK+ awards

      That gives the automaker ten top award recipients

      Toyota has done it again.

      Two of the Japanese automaker's products -- the Lexus ES, a luxury midsize car, and the Scion iA, a new minicar -- have won the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) TOP SAFETY PICK+ award.

      Toyota now has 10 vehicles that qualify for the Institute's top award.

      The Lexus ES

      The 2016 ES -- including both the ES 350 and the hybrid ES 300h -- was modified for improved protection in small overlap front crashes. Changes were made to the front structure, A-pillar and roof rail, door hinge pillar, and door sill.

      The car's performance in the small overlap test earned it a good rating. According to IIHS, the driver space was maintained very well with maximum intrusion of four inches at the parking brake pedal.

      In addition, the dummy's movement was well-controlled and the front and side curtain airbags worked well together to protect the head. Measures taken from the dummy showed injuries to the right lower leg would be possible in a crash of this severity.

      Improvements also were made to the vehicle's optional front crash prevention system, which went from an advanced to a superior rating. The car avoided a collision in track tests at 12 mph and 25 mph. It also has a forward collision warning component that meets criteria set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

      The Scion IA

      The new iA also earned a good small overlap rating. The driver space was maintained very well, with maximum intrusion of two inches at the parking brake pedal, door hinge pillar, and instrument panel. As with the Lexus, the dummy's movement was well-controlled and the airbags worked well to protect the head. Measures taken from the dummy indicated a low risk of significant injuries in a crash of this severity.

      The minicar has a standard low-speed front crash prevention system that earned an advanced rating. The iA avoided a collision in the 12 mph track test. The system doesn't operate at higher speeds or include a warning feature.

      Although many vehicles now have front crash prevention as an option, it is still relatively rare to have the technology standard and unprecedented for a vehicle as inexpensive as the iA.

      Award criteria

      Both the ES and the iA earn good ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraint tests. To qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK, vehicles must earn good ratings in those tests, plus a good or acceptable rating in the small overlap test.

      For TOP SAFETY PICK+, vehicles also need an available front crash system with an advanced or superior rating.

      Toyota does it again. Two of the Japanese automaker's products -- the Lexus ES, a luxury midsize car, and the Scion iA, a new minicar -- have won the Ins...
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      An August drop for new home construction

      Jobless claims continue to fall

      Construction of new homes fell in August after posting a modest gain a month earlier, according to figures released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

      Housing starts for privately-owned homes were down 3% from the revised July seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,161,000 units -- to 1,126,000. Still, the construction rate is up 16.6% from the same month a year ago.

      Builders broke ground on 739,000 single-family homes in August -- down 3.0% from a month earlier, while the August rate for multi-family -- units in buildings with five units or more -- was 381,000, down 9,000 from July.

      Building permits

      Building permits, a sign of builders plans in the next six months or so, came in at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,170,000 -- up 3.5% from July 12.5% year-over-year.

      Authorizations for single-family home construction were up 2.8% to a rate of 699,000; permits for units in buildings with five units or more totaled 440,000 last month, a gain of 18,000 from July.

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

      Jobless claims

      First-time applications for state unemployment benefits continue to fall.

      The Labor Department (DOL) reports initial jobless claims were down 11,000 during the week ending September 12 to a seasonally adjusted total of 264,000. That level, economists say, suggests an economy that is at, or near, full employment.

      There were no special factors affecting this week's initial claims.

      The four-week moving average was 272,500, a drop of 3,250 from the previous week's unrevised average of 275,750. Because it lacks the volatility of the weekly data, the four-week moving average is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market.

      The complete jobless claims report is available on the DOL website.

      Construction of new homes fell in August after posting a modest gain a month earlier, according to figures released jointly by the Census Bureau and the De...
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      Karoun Dairies recalls various cheeses

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Karoun Dairies is recalling a variety of cheeses it distributes.

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      To date, no product has tested positive for Listeria.

      The products are vacuum packed, in jars or in pails under the following brands: Karoun, Arz, Gopi, Queso Del Valle, Central Valley Creamery, Gopi, and Yanni. Weights vary from 5 ounces to 30 pounds.

      This recall is limited to cheese with the UPC codes in the table below sold nationwide.

      Item NameUPC CodesAffected AreasUse by Dates up to
      Ackawi7 96252 00123 9, 7 96252 01123 8, 7 96252 00325 7, 7 96252 02223 4, 7 96252 03223 3US1/6/2016
      California7 96252 90030 3US1/5/2016
      Cotija7 96252 80037 5, 7 96252 80036 8, 7 96252 80032 0US2/29/2016
      Farmers Goat Fresh7 96252 50016 9US11/26/2015
      Fresco7 96252 80083 2, 7 96252 80081 8US11/8/2015
      Fresh Cheese/Panela7 96252 03226 4, 7 96252 03227 1, 7 96252 00227 4, 7 96252 00226 7, 7 96252 00228 1, 7 96252 00122 2, 7 96252 00126 0, 7 96252 60001 2, 7 96252 80074 0, 7 96252 22003 6, 7 96252 80070 2, 7 96252 00127 7US12/31/2015
      Feta7 96252 22004 3, 7 96252 22006 7, 7 96252 22007 4, 7 96252 22005 0, 7 96252 22022 7, 7 96252 22002 9, 7 96252 11003 0, 7 96252 40003 2, 7 96252 11024 5, 7 96252 11025 2, 7 96252 22012 8, 7 96252 40025 4, 7 96252 12034 2US3/7/2016
      Goat Milk Feta7 96252 50001 5US3/2/2016
      Mozzarella7 96252 70012 5, 7 96252 70013 2, 7 96252 12014 5, 7 96252 12015 2US1/2/2016
      Paneer7 96252 70008 8, 7 96252 70014 9, 7 96252 70019 4, 7 96252 70018 7US1/7/2016
      Queso Blanco7 96252 80004 7, 7 96252 80005 4, 7 96252 80043 6US
      String Cheese7 96252 00019 5, 7 96252 00020 1, 7 96252 00035 5, 7 96252 00015 7, 7 96252 00025 6, 7 96252 00041 6, 7 96252 00042 3, 7 96252 00040 9, 7 96252 00005 8, 7 96252 00008 9, 7 96252 00038 6, 7 96252 00028 7, 7 96252 00018 8, 7 96252 00013 3, 7 96252 00017 1, 7 96252 00016 4, 7 96252 00039 3, 7 96252 00022 5US3/16/2016
      Ani7 96252 01125 2, 7 96252 00323 3US1/5/2016
      Nabulsi7 96252 03225 7, 7 96252 00225 0, 7 96252 00223 6 7 96252 00125 3US12/29/2016
      Yanni Grilling7 96252 90024 2, 7 96252 90029 7US12/23/2015

      UPC codes and use by dates are on each package.

      The recalled products were distributed to retail outlets, including food service accounts and supermarkets, in the U.S.

      Customers who purchased any of the recalled products should dispose of them or return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with any questions may call toll free 1-866-272-9393 toll free, Monday – Friday 8:00AM to 6:00PM (PST).

      Karoun Dairies is recalling a variety of cheeses it distributes. The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes To date, no product has tes...
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      Di Stefano Cheese recalls ham products

      The products were were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection

      Di Stefano Cheese Co., of Pomona, Calif., is recalling approximately 1,280 pounds of Parma Boneless Ham.

      The products, produced in Italy, were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection. Without the benefit of full inspection, a possibility of adverse health consequences exists.

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

      The following products are being recalled:

      15 lb. cases of “Ruliano Collezione Regale” Parma boneless ham with case code 14260

      15 lb. cases of “Ruliano 24” Parma boneless ham with a sell by date of 08-02-2016

      The products were sent to distributors in the California.

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

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Sasia Mellinger at (909) 865-8301.  

      Di Stefano Cheese Co., of Pomona, Calif., is recalling approximately 1,280 pounds of Parma Boneless Ham. The products, produced in Italy, were not present...
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      First drug to prevent Alzheimer's gets clinical trial

      Drug is currently approved for treatment of epilepsy

      For the first time, a drug designed to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease will be tested in a major clinical trial, the first step in bringing the drug to market.

      Researchers at Johns Hopkins University say they are getting $7.5 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a Phase 3 trial of the drug levetiracetam, scheduled to start early next year.

      Levetiracetam is not a new drug. It has been commonly prescribed for more than a decade to treat epilepsy. Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Michela Gallagher and colleagues have shown that a form of the drug calms hyperactivity in the brain of patients with a condition known as amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), in which memory impairment is greater than expected for a person’s age.

      Doctors believe it also greatly increases risk for Alzheimer’s dementia. More than 5.6 million Americans and 25 million people globally suffer from aMCI.

      Gallagher says scientists believe overactivity in aMCI is a strong predictor of who will ultimately get Alzheimer's, a progressive brain disease that is ultimately fatal.

      “We expect our upcoming trial to demonstrate efficacy in preserving cognition and memory in aMCI patients while delaying progression to the clinical stage of Alzheimer’s dementia,” Gallagher said.

      Skipping first two phases

      Because levetiracetam is already an approved drug for epilepsy, it will skip the first two phases of trials. In a Phase 1 trial, a drug is tested on a small group of people for safety. In a Phase 2 trial, it is tested on a small group to determine if it is effective and has harmful side effects.

      In a Phase 3 trial, a drug or treatment is given to large groups of people to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it to commonly used treatments, and collect information that will allow the drug or treatment to be used safely.

      If a drug passes a Phase 3 clinical trial, the FDA usually allows it to be marketed for the purpose for which it was tested.

      Public-private partnership

      The trial will be carried out in a public-private partnership between the NIH’s National Institute on Aging, Johns Hopkins, and the biopharmaceutical company AgeneBio. Patients will receive a mild dose of levetiracetam, called AGB101, in an extended release once-a-day tablet at approximately one-fifth to one-twelfth of the dose most commonly prescribed for epilepsy. Other patients will receive a placebo. The trial is expected to last 18 months to two years.

      Other promising Alzheimer's treatments have yet to come to the clinical trial stage but appear to be in the pipeline. As we reported late last year, researchers at UCLA believe they are on the cusp of a breakthrough in which memory loss can not only be slowed but lost memories restored in patients in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

      There has been an increased urgency associated with Alzheimer's research since the large Baby Boom population began entering the period of highest risk. While Alzheimer's is not a normal part of aging, the Alzheimer's Association says people age 65 and older are at the highest risk.  

      For the first time, a drug designed to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease will be tested in a major clinical trial, the first step in bringi...
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      Correction: Printer ink story was incorrect

      ConsumerAffairs apologizes for the error

      A ConsumerAffairs story yesterday incorrectly characterized Epson Corporation's business practices, saying the company "secretly inflates" the $3,800 price of ink cartridges used in its professional-grade Epson 9900 printers.

      The story was based on a YouTube video posted by a printing company which complained that the printer controls showed cartridges as being empty when in fact they still contained several ounces of ink.

      The company submitted a response to the story, which is presented here verbatim: 

      Your recent article highlighted a video posted by Bellevue Fine Art Repro. I’m contacting you on behalf of Epson to clarify how the ink system of the Epson Stylus Pro 9900 is designed. The Epson Stylus Pro 9900 printer is a graphic arts printer designed for professional operation for printing high value photographs and fine art reproductions on canvas and other specialty media up to 44-inches wide. Like Epson’s other graphic arts printers, the Epson Stylus Pro 9900 is finely calibrated to consistently deliver extraordinarily high print quality.

      • For quality assurance, the Epson Stylus Pro 9900 ink system uses two methods to track ink levels. The first system estimates ink consumption by mathematically calculating how much ink is consumed from a cartridge for each ink droplet fired during printing and print head cleaning. The printer and ink cartridge use this information to display ink levels and initiate an “Ink Low” status alert. This alert is an indicator to the operator that it is time to consider ordering a new cartridge and occurs with roughly 10-15 percent ink remaining. 
      • After “Ink Low” alert, the printer can continue to print normally until all usable ink in the cartridge is consumed and noted with an “Ink Out” notice. This “Ink Out” notice is triggered by a second method – a physical sensor in the cartridge – not an estimated amount. The sensor triggers when ink volume has declined to the point that further use could cause harm to the print head.
      • If a cleaning cycle is initiated during the “Ink Low” status and the level of ink remaining in the cartridge is estimated by mathematical calculation to be less than required for a print head cleaning, the printer will signal that there is “not enough ink to complete the process.” The ink required for cleaning is conservatively estimated to assure there is enough ink to completely eliminate any print head obstructions and ensure quality output. At this stage a fuller cartridge needs to be installed to complete the print head maintenance. But, it is important to note, that after this maintenance cycle, the original cartridge may be reinserted and used until “Ink Out” status is reached. It does not have to be discarded.

      The printing system of the Epson Stylus Pro 9900 is conservatively designed with two methods of tracking ink levels. The “Ink Low” signal does not prevent the ink from being used until the “Ink Out” signal. In the event that a print head cleaning is attempted after an “Ink Low” signal, the professional operator may have to swap in a full cartridge for cleaning and use up the useable ink in the original cartridge at a later time.

      ConsumerAffairs apologizes for its error.

      A ConsumerAffairs story yesterday incorrectly characterized Epson Corporation's business practices, saying the company "secretly inflates" the $3,800 price...
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      iOS9 available today; it's the latest operating system for iPhones and iPads

      Lots of new features, including improved security

      Apple enthusiasts already know this, but for the rest of us, here's a reminder: iOS 9 is available today. It's the latest version of the software that makes iPhones and iPads run.

      This latest version of Apple's venerable mobile operating system has lots of new features you may or may not care about, but Apple insists the new operating system is devoid of many bugs and overlooked irritants which drove many iFolks to distraction with iOS 8.

      Of course, if you're the cautious type and you're not unduly determined to have the very latest version of anything Apple, there's nothing wrong with waiting a week or two. There will undoubtedly be a few glitches that come to light in the first days.

      Among its biggest advantages, iOS 9 is quite a bit more compact than its predecessor, weighing in at a mere 1.3 gigabytes of free space needed for an update. iOS 8 wanted 4.58, which was more than many consumers had available.

      But what's so great about 9? According to Apple, the search function is much improved, Maps and News work better, Siri is better behaved, and there are new multitasking features that will let you run two apps at once. 

      Smart & secretive

      Siri is not only smarter and better behaved, she's also good at keeping secrets, like other Apple products and services. Although Siri tries to notice and keep track of your wants and needs, she does it all on the hardware in your phone -- not in someone's cloud. 

      This is part of Apple's "privacy built-in" policy, often cited by CEO Tim Cook as a prime differentiator between Apple and competitors like Google and Microsoft. Their "free" services are paid for, at least in part, by their mining of the data they capture from their users, whereas Cook swears that Apple is not looking over your shoulder. Nor is it reading your mail, which is now encrypted for better security.

      There's a complete list of new and improved features on Apple's website.

      Apple enthusiasts already know this, but for the rest of us, here's a reminder: iOS 9 is available today. It's the latest version of the software that make...
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      DealerApp spied on prospective car buyers

      The app gathered data and provided it to third parties without telling consumers

      If you've spent any time browsing car dealers' sites lately, chances are you've been invited to download an app that would supposedly make your car-shopping faster, easier, and so forth.

      Some apps might really do that but you may pay an unexpected price for it in lost privacy.

      That's what brought DealerApp Vantage LLC to the attention of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.  The Piscataway, N.J., company develops apps for hundreds of car dealers, each of them customized to reflect the dealer's brand.

      But the state agency says that besides providing information to consumers and the dealers who host the app on their websites, DealerApp Vantage also collects and disseminates app users' personal information without their knowledge or permission.

      “Online consumers, like all other consumers, have the right to control who can view or transmit their sensitive and private personal information,” said Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman. “This settlement will assure that the alleged violations of consumer privacy committed by DealerApp will no longer occur and will send a message to companies that violate their customers’ privacy that such conduct is unacceptable.”

      Never informed

      The state charged that consumers were never informed that the apps transmitted personal information, not only to the dealership, but also to DealerApp. In addition, the dealerships that bought and utilized apps from DealerApp were also unaware that the company was transmitting the personal information of their customers to DealerApp.

      The personal information collected by the apps and allegedly transmitted to DealerApp included the consumer’s name, email address, telephone number, and the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) of the vehicle purchased, among other data. The state alleged that DealerApp failed to disclose to consumers that this data was being transmitted by DealerApp, in violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. Some of the data was provided to third-party data analytics companies, again without disclosure, the state charged.

      About 500 dealers world-wide, including 38 in New Jersey, are DealerApp clients.

      “The number of threats to online privacy appear to be growing by the day,” said Steve Lee, Acting Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. “No one should be able to profit from the personal information of others that has been obtained through cyber fraud or violations of privacy.”

      Settlement details

      Among other things, under terms of the settlement, DealerApp must:

      • clearly and conspicuously disclose to its dealership customers the types of personal information it collects through its apps;

      • provide disclosures within its privacy policies that clearly and conspicuously disclose the types of personal information it collects from consumers through its apps;

      • provide disclosures within its privacy policies that clearly and conspicuously disclose its use of any third-party data analytics companies and what information such companies may collect from consumers’ use of its apps;

      • not sell, rent, or otherwise transfer personal information to persons or entities other than the dealership customer for which the mobile app in question was customized, without those consumers’ express consent or providing proper disclosure and offering a mechanism for opting-out such practice; and

      • not engage in any unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any business, and complying with all applicable laws and regulations in its future business dealings.
      Photo: DealerApp.comIf you've spent any time browsing car dealers' sites lately, chances are you've been invited to download an app that would suppos...
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      Illinois promotes "Delete Day" in schools

      Kids need to be aware that content put online stays there

      Not long ago, parents and educators worked to encourage kids to learn how to use the Internet. Now they're trying to get them to stop posting every minute of their lives.

      In Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan is promoting "Delete Day." She wants teachers to set aside some time to "promote respectful and safe online interactions" -- something other than scandalous pictures and selfies, in other words.

      “As students around Illinois settle into a new school year and spend more time online, it is important to promote positive online interactions,” said Madigan. “Delete Day is an opportunity for students to evaluate their online habits and get rid of content or associations that could be harmful to themselves or to others.”

      Last year the Attorney General’s office conducted a survey of Illinois students in grades three through eight to determine how they are using technology and social media. Results showed compelling information, including:

      • 75 percent of surveyed students spend up to four hours a day using technology (not including television);
      • the average youth is 10 years-old when they create their first social networking account; and
      • more than 60 percent of youth are not concerned with the amount of personal information they make available online.

      “Delete Day is an important opportunity for educators to teach students that once they post something online, it never really goes away,” said Decatur’s Garfield Montessori Magnet School Counselor Melissa Downs, who is implementing the school’s second “Prevent and Delete” program this December. “We need to help students be proactive in removing and preventing interactions that could be harmful down the road.”

      By participating in Delete Day, Madigan said schools can help students think critically about their online connections, followers and posts, and promote safety and respect on the Internet.

      Not long ago, parents and educators worked to encourage kids to learn how to use the Internet. Now they're trying to get them to stop posting every minute ...
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      Home builder confidence at a nearly ten-year high

      Some concerns remain, though

      Builder confidence in the market for newly constructed single-family homes is at its highest level since October 2005.

      National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) continued its steady rise in September with a one point increase to a level of 62.

      "The HMI shows that single-family housing is making solid progress, said NAHB Chairman Tom Woods. "However, our members continue to tell us that they are concerned about the availability of lots and labor.”

      The NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index, derived from a monthly survey, gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next six months as "good", "fair", or "poor." The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as "high to very high," "average" or "low to very low."

      Scores for each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

      Two of the three HMI components posted gains this month. The index measuring buyer traffic increased two points to 47, and the component gauging current sales conditions rose one point to 67. The index charting sales expectations in the next six months, however, dropped from 70 to 68.

      Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the West and Midwest each rose one point to 64 and 59, respectively. The South posted a one-point gain to 64 and the Northeast dropped one point to 46.

      "NAHB is projecting about 1.1 million total housing starts this year,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. The report, he said, “is consistent with our forecast, and barring any unexpected jolts, we expect housing to keep moving forward at a steady, modest rate through the end of the year.”

      Builder confidence in the market for newly constructed single-family homes is at its highest level since October 2005. National Association of Home Builde...
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      Cost of living declines in August

      And the year-over-year rate of inflation has barely budged

      Consumer prices became less of a worry during the past month.

      According to the Labor Department (DOL), the Consumer Price Index (CPI) dipped 0.1% in August on a seasonally adjusted basis. Moreover, during the past 12 months, it's up a miniscule 0.2%.

      Energy and food

      Energy costs were down 2.0% in August after posting gains in five of the last 6 months. Gasoline prices, which were up for three straight months, dropped 4.1%. Fuel oil index also declined (-8.1%), offsetting increases in natural gas (+1.2%) and electricity (+0.3%). Over the past 12 months, electricity has fallen 0.6%, fuel oil has plunged 34.6%, gasoline is down 23.3%, and natural gas is off 11.5%.

      Food prices, however, were up 0.2%, with the food at home category up 0.3% -- the same as July. Within that latter sector, major grocery store food groups were mixed. The largest increase was for fruits and vegetables, which jumped 1.5% with both fresh fruits and fresh vegetables posting their largest increases of the year. Prices for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs rose 0.5%, while beef, poultry, and pork costs all declined. The biggest sticker shock came in eggs, where costs surged 7.7% and are now up 35.3% over the past year. Over the past 12 months, food at home prices are up 0.8%.

      Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, the core rate of inflation increased 0.1% in August the same as July. Shelter costs were up 0.2%, apparel rose 0.3%, and tobacco was up 0.5%. The costs of medical care, new vehicles, and personal care were unchanged, while airline fares fell 3.1%., used cars and trucks were down 0.4%, and household furnishings and operations prices dropped 0.3%. Over the last 12 months, the core rate of inflation is up 1.8%.

      The interest rate outlook

      The inflation report comes as the Federal Reserve begins a two-day meeting to decide the course of interest rates.

      Given the latest CPI numbers, Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza says inflation is likely to remain increasingly benign for the remainder of the year and beyond. That, she says, undermines "any notion of confidence inflation will begin to reverse course back towards the Fed's target of 2%."

      Piega believes that despite an apparent growing impatience at the Fed to raise rates, the data suggest September "may not be the appropriate timetable for liftoff."

      The complete CPI report is available at the Department of Labor website.   

      Consumer prices became less of a worry during the past month. According to the Labor Department (DOL), the Consumer Price Index (CPI) dipped 0.1% in Augus...
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      Mortgage applications post second consecutive decline

      Contract interest rates were mostly lower

      Mortgage applications posted a sizable decline for a second week running.

      The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows applications were down 7.0% in the week ending September 11 following a 6.2% drop the week before. The latest results include an adjustment for the Labor Day holiday.

      The Refinance Index fell 9.0% from the previous week, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity down to 56.2% of total applications from 56.9% the previous week.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity slipped to 6.8% of total applications, the FHA share rose to 14.2% from 13.4% the week prior, the VA share decreased to 10.7%, and the USDA share of total applications was unchanged at 0.8%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) dipped one basis point -- from 4.10% to 4.09%, with points increasing to 0.42 from 0.39 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) inched up to 4.04% from 4.03%, with points decreasing to 0.26 from 0.28 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was unchanged from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA dropped two basis points to 3.88%, with points increasing to 0.35 from 0.23 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs fell to 3.33% from 3.34%, with points decreasing to 0.26 from 0.28 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose one basis point to 3.04%, with points increasing to 0.36 from 0.27 (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 posted a sizable decline for a second week running. The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey sho...
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      Iowa Select Herbs recalls all products

      The products are adulterated

      Iowa Select Herbs is recalling all products sold between January 1, 2015, and August 17, 2015, pursuant to a Consent Decree issued by the federal court for the Northern District of Iowa.

      The company manufactured and distributed unapproved new drugs, misbranded drugs, misbranded dietary supplements and dietary supplements not manufactured in compliance with the current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations for Dietary Supplements, and therefore adulterated.

      There are no reports to date of side effects or adverse events.

      The recalled products are herbal extracts marketed under the Iowa Select Herbs brand in either an alcohol or alcohol-free (A/F) solution packaged in various sizes from once ounce to one gallon. The following lots are being recalled:

      PRODUCTQUANTITY**LOTEXP. DATE
      CHAPARRAL2314675/19
      CILANTRO2324464/20
      CYPRESS106305L12 and 60305424/20 and 9/19
      RASBEERRY119183 and 306144/20 and 12/19
      SAGE132880 and 322824/20 and 12/19
      WHITE WILLOW2329734/20
      ALISMA1130601H0402/19
      ELDERBERRIES333223 and 198475/19 and 6/19
      FENUGREEK393268411/19
      GOLDENSEAL3329969/19
      RHODIOLA1131101H50412/19
      WHITE PEONY EXTRACT80111001H2092/20
      YOHIMBE420508 and 325334/18
      ST JOHNS WORT1198922/19
      PANAX GINSENG1895812/19
      PAPAYA LEAF CAPSULES36unknownunknown
      ZIZIPHUS20515GF8/19
      ACIA BERRY10223455/17
      ALFALFA1304642/19
      ALOE VERA10m1075211/16
      ARNICA FLOWERS10305992/19
      ARTICHOKE LEAF10458945/17
      ASHWAGANDA12223495/19
      ASTRAGULUS1309005/19
      ATRACTYLODES10458115/17
      BEET ROOT10223518/19
      BLACK COHOSH ROOT2199728/19
      BOSWELLIA SERRATA2209tc137/17
      BROAD BEANS11588211/18
      BUCHU LEAF1303387/17
      CASCARA ROOT1172333/17
      CATS CLAW1314874/19
      CINNAMON BARK3297925/19
      CITRUS PEEL1557564/19
      CRANBERRY1765423/17
      CUDWEED1317963/17
      DAMIANA LEAF2312654/17
      FENNEL SEED EXTRACT1310014/20
      GINGER1335005/19
      GINGKO1305208/18
      GRAPESEED3325742/19
      GREEN TEA1325132/19
      HAWTHORNE BERRY1964832/20
      LOBELIA LEAF1312666/19
      MOMORDICA GALLON158545F6/19
      Nettle Leaf (4oz)4565985/19
      OREGANO2199765/18
      Organic Papaya Leaf1unknownunknown
      POMEGRANATE115114217282unknown
      PROPOLIS EXTRACT1223868/18
      PSOREALEA SEED1496972/19
      REISHI184272/20
      RHUBARB ROOT1301762/18
      SANGRE DE GRADO1329002/18
      SARSPARILLA1307097/19
      SCHIZNDRA1223897/18
      TUMERIC1374417/20
      VALERIAN ROOT EXTRACT2431-Mar4/20
      YARROW FLOWERS24223967/18
      PAPAYA LEAF EXTRACT (Various sizes)99933161; R1380ST; 529724/20
       BILBERRY1198895/19
      ACEROLA BERRY10327954/19
      ASTAGULUS ROOT13316855/19
      BAYBERRY1311864/20
      BILBERRY LEAF10198895/19
      BITTER MELON158545F5/19
      BLACK CURRANT1648325/17
      BLOOD ROOT1307465/19
      Burdock Root24207714/20
      Chamomile Flowers10317783/19
      CHICORY Root255426 and 559104/20
      COLD BE GONE (Various Sizes)300873661/20
      Dandelion Leaf263249669/20
      DANDELION ROOT2130902; 32945; 20792; 33154; 335834/20 and 9/19
      DULSE LEAF2223564/20
      ECHINACEA PURP. (various sizes)6322634/20
      ELEUTHERO ROOT13046912/19
      GARCINIA FRUIT4214846/19
      GINGER ROOT2231123 and 335005/19
      Graviola Leaf17223639/20
      GYMNEMA SYLVESTRE28m108662/19
      HIBISCUS2307633/19
      JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE2455145/19
      JEWEL WEED4175448009165/19
      JUNIPER BERRY2198365/19
      KAVA KAVA2930540 and 336602/20
      Lemon Balm Leaf12327002/20
      LICORICE ROOT13032698 and 333802/20
      MAGNOLIA BARK2PAS1308284/20 and 5/19
      Marshmallow Root3309334/19
      MILK THISTLE EXTRACT (various sizes)11332358; 32964; 631H422001224/20 and 10/19; 10/19;1019
      MUIRA PUAMA22R111651/20
      NETTLE LEAF1207695/19
      OATSTRAW4931953 and 331839/19
      OATSTRAW EXTRACT6031953 and 331839/19
      OLIVE LEAF EXTRACT42327725/19
      Osha Root35323033/20
      Propolis Resin1223868/18
      Pygeum Bark393240712/19
      QUACK GRASS22066812/19
      Saw Palmetto Berry20326549/19
      Scullcap3328634/19
      SOLOMON SEAL3350150980313 and 328622/19
      SUMA ROOT32105352/19
      WORMSEED250415AN017/20
      YUCCA ROOT2319902/19

      **Quantity refers to the number of units distributed and not the size of the unit (e.g. ounces or gallons).

      The recalled products were sold nationwide between January 1, 2015 to August 17, 2015 to wholesalers and consumers using the company's website and through online marketplace websites, such as Amazon and Ebay.

      Iowa Select Herbs is notifying its wholesale and retail customers.

      Customers who purchased these products should immediately discontinue their use and return the products to their place of purchase or directly to Iowa Select Herbs.

      Consumers may call the Company at 319-826-1000 Monday through Friday from 9:00 am - 5:00 pm (CST) for instructions on the return and refund process.

      Iowa Select Herbs is recalling all products sold between January 1, 2015, and August 17, 2015, pursuant to a Consent Decree issued by the federal court for...
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      Recaro recalls ProRIDE and Performance RIDE child restraints

      The top tether anchorage may detach from the child restraint

      Recaro Child Safety is recalling 173,063 ProRIDE child restraints, model number 332.01 in all colors (AK21, KAEC, KAEG, KK91, MC11, MJ15, QA56, QA9N, QQ11, QQ14, and QQ95), manufactured from April 9, 2010, through June 9, 2015; and Performance RIDE child restraints, model number 333.01 in all colors (CHIL, HABB, HAZE, JEBB, JETT, KNGT, MABB, MARI, MNGT, PLUM, PLBB, REBB, SLBB, REDD, ROBB, ROSE, SABB, SAPH, SLTE, VIBB, VIBE), manufactured from January 15, 2013, through June 9, 2015.

      In the event of a crash, the top tether anchorage may detach from the child restraint. As such, these restraints fail to conform to the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard number 213, "Child Restraint Systems."

      If the top tether anchorage detaches from the child restraint, there is an increased risk of injury to the child or other vehicle occupants.

      Recaro will notify and send all registered owners a length of webbing with loops on both ends and instructions to further secure the child restraints. The retrofit kit will be provided free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in September 2015.

      Owners may contact Recaro customer service at 1-866-628-4750 or by email at recarorecall@m-s-s.com.

      Recaro Child Safety is recalling 173,063 ProRIDE child restraints, model number 332.01 in all colors (AK21, KAEC, KAEG, KK91, MC11, MJ15, QA56, QA9N, QQ11,...
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      Hackers seize control of Cisco routers in four countries

      Attack lasted at least a year before security researchers detected it

      Today, security researchers at FireEye announced their discovery that hackers have managed to seize control of 14 routers in four countries spanning three continents: Ukraine, Mexico, India, and the Philippines. The hacked routers were all made by Cisco, but FireEye says “this attack could be possible on any router technology.”

      The attackers breached the routers using a sophisticated form of malware which FireEye named SYNful Knock, as a reference to how the malware, once planted, can jump from one router to another using the devices' syndication functions. “We believe that the detection of SYNful Knock is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to attacks utilizing modified router images (regardless of vendor),” researchers Tony Lee and Bill Hau wrote on FireEye's security blog. “As attackers focus their efforts on gaining persistent access, it is likely that other undetected variants of this implant are being deployed throughout the globe.”

      Hacking routers

      Routers are responsible for deciphering and then delivering (or “routing”) broadband information from your modem to your computer. As FireEye's Chief Executive Dave DeWalt told Reuters, “If you own [seize control of] the router, you own the data of all the companies and government organizations that sit behind that router.”

      Firewalls, anti-virus programs and other anti-hacker security measures might protect your computer, smartphone, or similar device, but it won't protect the routers that deliver information to those devices. “Ironically, [routers] often get overlooked for endpoints, mobile devices, and servers when it comes time to respond to an attack,” FireEye said. “However, a router implanted with a backdoor provides attackers a very easy entry point to establish a foothold and compromise other hosts and critical data.”

      If that comment about implanting backdoors sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the so-called “backdoor” mandates which the (ironically named, in such instances) National Security Administration, as well as the FBI and other branches of the government want tech companies to install on all encrypted communications technologies. This would leave a backdoor on each network so that government has full access to read secure information without your knowledge, and if that means hackers also get full access, that's a risk the feds are willing to force you to take.

      In March, Microsoft issued a security advisory admitting that it was “aware of a security feature bypass vulnerability” which “affects all supported releases of Microsoft Windows,” in addition to any non-Microsoft software running on a part of Windows called Secure Channel.” That vulnerability was a security flaw known as FREAK, a not-quite-acronym which stands for “Factoring attack on RSA-EXPORT Keys.” FREAK made it possible for attackers to spy on supposedly secure communications. And it was the NSA's anti-encryption “backdoor” mandates that made the vulnerability possible.

      Attacks ongoing for at least a year before discovery

      Ironically, the NSA's and FBI's own websites were included among the major world websites vulnerable to FREAK attacks.

      As Apple CEO Tim Cook said in June, “If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it too.”

      That said, the hackers who used SYNful Knock to successfully attack those 14 Cisco routers didn't have to exploit any vulnerability to gain access. Instead, as Cisco said to Reuters, the attackers got in by either stealing valid login credentials from someone else, or by gaining physical access to the routers themselves.

      A survey of computer logs suggests the attacks have been ongoing for at least a year before their discovery, and FireEye's Dave DeWalt told Reuters that multiple industries and government agencies were included among the targets.

      Today, security researchers at FireEye announced their discovery that hackers have managed to seize control of 14 routers in four countries spanning three ...
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      The Fed's interest rate decision and what's at stake

      Policymakers will show their hand on Thursday

      On Thursday the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (Fed) may announce that it is raising interest rates for the first time in seven years. On the other hand, it might not.

      The will it or won't it question has been Wall Street's obsession for months now, and it has spawned a wide variety of economic theories about what happens if the Fed, as expected, raises interest rates by one-quarter of a percent.

      Theories range from the apocalyptic to the benign, and any number of smart, thoughtful people paint very different scenarios. So, what is the average consumer to think?

      Stock market impact

      First, raising interest rates is very likely to have a short-term negative impact on the stock market. That's because of the distorting effect cheap money has on stock valuations.

      Think back to the housing bubble. A major reason home values soared as high as they did was because mortgage money to buy them was overly plentiful. Money wasn't exactly cheap but “creative” financing allowed buyers to purchase a home with low “teaser” rates for a couple of years before the rate reset to normal levels.

      Current interest rates below 1% make it very cheap to buy stocks on margin, or in the case of corporations to buy back shares of their own companies to keep stock prices high. As a result, traders and investors could justify paying more for a stock than it's really worth, based on its fundamentals.

      When rates go up it costs more to buy those shares, so the valuation has to be adjusted lower. That's what many economists expect will happen.

      Shiller weighs in

      Yale's Nobel economics laureate Robert Shiller has been outspoken in his concern that many stocks are currently overvalued.

      “It looks to me a bit like a bubble again with essentially a tripling of stock prices since 2009 in just six years and at the same time people losing confidence in the valuation of the market,” Shiller told the Financial Times.

      But Shiller is not one who is predicting a Fed interest rate hike will crash the stock market. He says the market has seen this coming for so long that it's really “no big deal” at this point. But at some point in the future, Shiller said he expects stock valuations to become more realistic, bringing prices down.

      Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic advisor to Allianz, also believes the market holds some downside risk. But like Shiller, he thinks it could come from worsening economic conditions, rather than Fed policy.

      Buying opportunity

      But if stocks drop sharply in the months ahead, El-Erian told CNBC that he thinks it would be a “once in a decade” opportunity to buy bargain stocks.

      So it sounds like the Fed raising rates might not cause lasting harm to the markets, but what about the economy?

      In a media briefing late last week, Claudio Borio, an official of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), noted that developing nation debt, in particular borrowing from the U.S., has surged since the financial crisis. But lately, credit has begun to dry up.

      $3 trillion in debt

      “The total amount of dollar credit to non-bank borrowers outside the United States had risen by over 50% since early 2009, to $9.6 trillion by the end of March 2015, and almost doubled for emerging market economies, to over $3 trillion,” Borio said.

      Much of that money, he says, ended up going to foreign corporations that may, or may not, be able to pay it back.

      That's why many international economists are urging the Fed not to raise interest rates just yet. The U.S. economy may be recovering and can withstand a modest hike – the rest of the world, however, might not.

      In a global economy, the danger for the U.S. – and by extension U.S. consumers – is the threat that a global recession becomes a U.S. one as well.

      On Thursday the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (Fed) may announce that it is raising interest rates for the first time in seven years. On the other ...
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      Average “grandmother scam” victim loses $4,000

      Talk to your elderly relatives so they'll be on guard against these scammers

      The average victim of a “grandmother scam” loses $4,000 to the scammers, Ohio's Attorney General Mike DeWine said in a warning to families. So far this year, DeWine's office has received nearly 40 complaints from victims in his state.

      The so-called “grandmother” or “grandparent” scam is a form of impostor scam: scammers call their victims while pretending to be the victims' grandchildren, in dire trouble and in need of money to get out of it. It's a big-enough problem that in summer of 2014, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing in an attempt to find some solution to the problem. An 81-year-old Cincinnati resident named Roger W. (his full name was withheld for fear that additional con artists would seek him out) told the Senate committee his story, which is sadly typical: the previous December, Roger got a call from a scammer claiming to be his grandson.

      Supposedly, the grandson had been arrested for speeding and drug possession, and needed bail money. Roger and his wife eventually bought and sent $7,000 worth of prepaid (and untraceable) money cards before finally speaking to their actual grandson on the phone and learning he was fine – no speeding tickets, no police encounters at all, and certainly no calling his grandparents to request thousands of dollars for bail.

      “One of the reasons this scam works is that the relationship between a grandparent and a grandchild is different than the relationship between a parent and a child,” said Attorney General DeWine. “Grandparents are more likely to send money, no questions asked. Scam artists understand this and they take advantage of it.”

      Another thing that makes grandparents extra-likely to fall for this scam is that in today's age of social media, it's quite easy for the scammers to discover some genuine and specific details about the victim's family. A typical caller won't offer a generic greeting such as “Hi, Grandma, this is your grandson”; a grandparent scammer will do enough research to say “Hi, Grandma, this is Jeff. Yes, I'm doing well in my classes at Expensive State U. But I'm currently in a bit of trouble....”

      DeWine suggested that, if you ever receive such a phone call, you should ask the caller questions which only an immediate family member would know (and has not shared on Twitter, Facebook, or other forms of social media).

      You should also talk to your older relatives to warn them away from this scam, and also discuss ways you would communicate in the event of a true emergency. And always remember that real police fines, court costs, and other legal bills never require (or even accept) pre-paid money cards, wire transfers, or other untraceable methods of payment which the scammers demand.

      The average victim of a “grandmother scam” loses $4,000 to the scammers, Ohio's Attorney General Mike DeWine said in a warning to families. So far this yea...
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      New safety standards expected for laundry pods

      Thousands of children have been treated after mistaking the pods for candy

      New safety standards for those tasty-looking little laundry pods are in the works. ASTM International, a safety standards organization, is expected to adopt the standards tomorrow.

      The problem is that the pods look like candy, at least to a child's eye. They're fairly easy to bite into and before anyone knows it, the child has swallowed a mouthful of detergent that can cause vomiting, coughing, choking, and respiratory distress.

      About 11,700 childen under the age of five were treated for just such incidents in 2014, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Several children have died and hundreds have been hospitalized with serious injuries.

      The new ASTM standards are expected to call for child-resistant and less colorful packaging. They will also have a foul-tasting coating on the outside of the pods. ASTM is a non-profit industry organization that sets standards for products and processes. 

      Head off legislation

      The standards may head off pending Congressional legislation that would have enshrined the standards in law.

      “From child-resistant packaging to consistent warning labels, we are glad to see the industry move forward with nearly every policy we outlined in our legislation,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who are among the supporters of the legislation. 

      “These are common-sense protections, many of which are in line with standards that have been set in Europe where incident rates have declined.  As these standards are adopted over the next year, we will be monitoring their effectiveness and evaluating whether further action or legislation may be needed,” the lawmakers said.

      The pending legislation would require the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to set mandatory safety standards for easily accessible liquid detergent packets. Specifically, the bill would give the CPSC the authority and direction to issue rules requiring safer, child-resistant packaging for liquid detergent packets within eighteen months, compelling the industry to implement stronger and more effective policies

      New safety standards for those tasty-looking little laundry pods are in the works. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is expected to ado...
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      FDA orders halt to sale of four cigarette products

      Camel Crush Bold, Pall Mall Deep Set Recessed Filter, Pall Mall Deep Set Recessed Filter Menthol and Vantage Tech 13 pulled from market

      The Food and Drug Administration has used its newly-acquired tobacco regulating power again – this time to order R.J Reynolds to stop selling four cigarette products.

      The order covers Camel Crush Bold, Pall Mall Deep Set Recessed Filter, Pall Mall Deep Set Recessed Filter Menthol and Vantage Tech 13, with the agency ruling the products don't meet guidelines set out in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C; Act).

      The issue, according to the FDA, is these products are different from their versions that were on the market in early 2007. More specifically, the agency concluded the current products have different characteristics than those that came before and the manufacturer failed to show that the new products do not raise different questions of public health. As a result, the four products may no longer be distributed or sold in the U.S.

      Science-based review

      “These decisions were based on a rigorous, science-based review designed to protect the public from the harms caused by tobacco use,” said Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. “The agency will continue to review product submissions and exercise its legal authority and consumer protection duty to remove products from the market when they fail to meet the public health bar set forth under law.”

      The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed into law in 2009, gave the FDA new powers to regulate tobacco, which it lacked in the past. However, the agency starting exercising those powers only recently.

      In late August, the FDA fired off warning letters to three cigarette manufacturers – ITG Brands LLC, Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company Inc., and Sherman’s 1400 Broadway N.Y.C. Ltd. — for making unsubstantiated claims about their products. That was the first time the FDA acted under the 2009 law.

      Changed with no notice

      In this latest action the agency expressed concern the cigarette products were changed with no notice, making them different from their previous approved versions.

      The FDA said the scientific basis for these four decisions include a “failure to demonstrate that increased yields of harmful or potentially harmful constituents, higher levels of menthol, and/or the addition of new ingredients in the currently marketed products– when compared to the predicate products – do not raise different questions of public health.”

      The Food and Drug Administration has used its newly-acquired tobacco regulating power again – this time to order R.J Reynolds to stop selling four cigarett...
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      FDA: New rules will make your foods safer

      The rules cover the route from farm to table

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently adopted new rules that it says will keep your food safe.

      The first two of seven rules proposed to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) (the preventive controls rules for human and animal food -- meaning food companies will apply greater controls to prevent hazards) are now final. The additional rules will become final through 2016.

      Your first reaction is probably WIIFM -- what's in it for me? Plenty, says FDA. Here are five ways the FSMA rules will affect you:

      Food companies tighten their controls

      “Rather than just react to outbreaks, we are requiring food facilities to take measures to prevent them from the get-go,” says Jenny Scott, M.S., a senior advisor in FDA’s Office of Food Safety. Food facilities will need to think upfront about what could be harmful to consumers, and then put controls in place to minimize or prevent those hazards.

      For example, Scott says the facilities could take steps to kill bacteria that cause foodborne illness or to prevent them from growing in food. If allergens (things that can cause an allergic reaction) are a hazard, the facility could pay particular attention to how equipment is cleaned when it is used for more than one product so that allergens aren’t transferred from one food to another, and ensure that the product label identifies the presence of food allergens. Unidentified food allergens are a major cause of food recalls by industry.

      Protections from tainted animal food

      With the Preventive Controls for Animal Food rule -- the second final rule -- “the same up-front thinking now required of human food manufacturing will also apply to manufacturers of animal food, including pet food,” says Dan McChesney, Ph.D., director of the Office of Surveillance and Compliance in FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.

      If pet food manufacturers have methods in place to kill harmful bacteria, it will be much safer for both the pet and for anyone handling the food, McChesney says.

      He adds that with a new prevention-oriented system in place, the FDA expects reductions in the risk of serious illness and death to animals when hazards, such as harmful levels of substances in a product, are controlled.

      Healthful and safe eating go hand-in-hand

      The final Produce Safety rule, which will be issued this fall, will create safeguards to help prevent illnesses in ways that are appropriate for farms.

      “Farms, unlike factories, are open environments,” says Samir Assar, Ph.D., director of FDA’s Division of Produce Safety. “There are elements we understand that farms can’t necessarily control.” However, there are actions that can, and must, be taken to minimize the likelihood of contamination in ways that are practical and feasible for growers.

      Farming conditions and methods for growing the same crop can differ widely from state to state and coast to coast, so the new regulations will focus on major conduits of contamination that are common to all or most farming environments, says Assar.

      For example, standards have been proposed for agricultural water, farm worker hygiene or cleanliness, compost and sanitation conditions affecting buildings, equipment, and tools. These standards will apply to both domestic and imported produce.

      The FDA anticipates the proposed produce rule would prevent hundreds of thousands of illnesses caused by produce each year.

      Greater oversight of imported foods

      The U.S. imports a lot of food. In fact, 15% of our food supply comes from other countries, including 80% of our seafood, nearly 50% of our fresh fruit and 20% of our fresh vegetables.

      The rules specifically affecting imports -- Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP) and Third Party Certification -- are scheduled to become final this fall.

      “The FSVP rule, when finalized, will require importers to assume greater responsibility to verify that the foods they import into the U.S. meet the same safety standards required of domestic producers,” says senior policy advisor Brian Pendleton, J.D.

      A greater sense of confidence

      “Up until now, everything has been reactive,” says Darin Detwiler, senior policy coordinator for the advocacy group STOP Foodborne Illness. ”This is the most sweeping food safety legislation passed within the last 70 years.”

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently adopted new rules that it says will keep your food safe. The first two of seven rules proposed to implemen...
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      Retail sales inch higher in August

      The tiny advance was the second in a row

      It wasn't much, but retail sales were up in August, building on July's advance.

      According to the Census Bureau, sales were up 0.2% from the prior month to $447.7 billion, and up 2.2% from the same time last year. The figures take into account seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not price changes.

      At the same time, the government revised its figures to show July's sales were up 0.7% instead of the 0.6% reported a month ago.

      Strengths and weaknesses

      The August increase was powered by increases at auto and parts dealers, restaurants, and grocery stores -- all of which showed gains of 0.7% -- and health and personal care stores (+0.8%). Those gains were offset by sales declines at gas stations (-1.8%), building material and garden equipment supplies dealers (-1.8%), and furniture and home furnishing stores (-0.9%).

      Core sales -- which exclude motor vehicle dealers, gas stations, and building material and supply dealers -- were up 0.5% last month.

      The complete August retail sales report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      It wasn't much, but retail sales were up in August, building on July's advance. According to the Census Bureau, sales were up 0.2% from the prior month to...
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      EPA reminds home owners to check septic tanks

      Proper maintenance can save you thousands of dollars

      If the beginning of autumn is a busy time for you, then it might be hard to remember what day it is. With so many special occasions coming up, it might even be hard to remember if there’s a special week coming up. One such week that you should mark down on your calendars is Septic Smart Week. Backed by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it runs from September 21-25, and reminds home owners of the importance of maintaining their septic tanks.

      Proper maintenance

      Proper maintenance on your septic tank can really help you avoid throwing money down the drain. It can be easy to forget this important piece of your home’s infrastructure, but the price of doing so can be very steep. Charges for repairs can cost you thousands if something serious goes wrong.

      Unfortunately, this is not a piece of equipment that you can change the batteries for and forget about. Many home owners simply throw an additive into their septic system and hope that any potential clogs will take care of themselves, much to their detriment when a problem finally does pop up.

      The best thing you can do to take care of your septic tank is to call a specialist that knows what they’re doing. They can inspect your pump system and see if there are any problems developing that you may not be aware of. It is recommended that you have a specialist look at your system every three to five years.

      Although calling a specialist is the best course of action, there is some maintenance that you can do to keep your septic system going strong. First, you should become more aware of what you dump down your sink. Greases from cooked food and other solid objects can wreak havoc on your septic system by causing pipes to clog, which can irritate your drain field.

      Similarly, be careful about what you flush down the toilet. Disposable diapers, wipes, and feminine hygiene products can cost you dearly if flushed, so be sure to dispose of them properly. Other objects, like cigarette butts or cat litter, can also be harmful.

      Environmental impact

      There are other things that you can have installed in your home to help out your septic tank as well. WaterSense products, for example, are great for saving water. Look into their faucets, toilets, and shower heads to see what works best for your home. Having less water flowing can help ensure that you’re not overloading your septic system. You can also save water by changing some common habits, such as spreading out your laundry into several loads or keeping the water running when brushing your teeth. Every little bit helps.

      A septic system that is not operating properly will not only cost you money; it can also negatively impact the environment in a big way. Bad septic systems can pollute our water sources with excess nutrients or pathogens, which can make it unsafe to use. Just remember: a healthy septic system doesn’t just help you, it helps everyone. 

      If the beginning of autumn is a busy time for you, then it might be hard to remember what day it is. With so many special occasions coming up, it might eve...
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      Ram 2500 and 3500 trucks and cab chassis recalled

      Front bracket components may separate from the frame

      Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 149,512 model year 2014 Ram 2500 trucks and 2013-2014 Ram 3500 trucks and cab chassis manufactured October 9, 2012, to July 29, 2014.

      The recalled vehicles may have inadequate welds securing the front track bar frame brackets, which may result in the bracket components separating from the frame. Separation could make the vehicle more difficult to steer and control, increasing the risk of a crash.

      The remedy for this recall is still under development. The recall is expected to begin October 9, 2015.

      Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is R46.

      Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 149,512 model year 2014 Ram 2500 trucks and 2013-2014 Ram 3500 trucks and cab chassis manufactured October 9, 2012, to J...
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      organicgirl Produce recalls baby spinach

      The product contains trace levels of cadmium

      organicgirl Produce is recalling a limited quantity of organicgirl baby spinach.

      Test results indicate the presence of trace levels of the naturally-occurring element cadmium.

      Because it is naturally-occurring in the earth's soil, trace levels of cadmium are found in many foods as well as in the water and air. There is no minimum health tolerance for cadmium in crops or soil in the U.S. at this time and the probability of acute health consequences from consumption of cadmium is remote.

      No illnesses are reported in association with this recall.

      The recall consists of 1,290 cases of five-ounce packages with a Use-by Date of September 13 and Product Code B030298-001B08S. The product was distributed in13 states: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Utah.

      Consumers should check their refrigerators for the recalled product, which should be discarded.

      Consumers with questions may call the organicgirl consumer hotline at 866-486-4939, Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. (PST).

      organicgirl Produce is recalling a limited quantity of organicgirl baby spinach. Test results indicate the presence of trace levels of the naturally-occur...
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      Chrysler recalls Dodge Darts with transmission issue

      The transmission can unexpectedly shift into neutral while the car is being driven

      Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 23,629 model year 2013-2015 Dodge Darts manufactured February 24, 2012, to June 16, 2015.

      The vehicles may experience failure of the transmission control module (TCM), causing the transmission to unexpectedly shift into neutral. If the transmission shifts into neutral, it can cause loss of motive power, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

      Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the TCM and bracket, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is R42.

      Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 23,629 model year 2013-2015 Dodge Darts manufactured February 24, 2012, to June 16, 2015. The vehicles may experience ...
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      Federal study urges lower blood pressure targets for seniors

      In most cases, medication would be required to meet the lower target

      There is no debate over the danger of high blood pressure. It's a killer. The debate is over what constitutes high blood pressure.

      A series of studies has set different benchmarks, with different levels of risk. The latest study –this one produced by a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – could add to the confusion.

      In what's being called a landmark clinical trial, researchers monitored the blood pressure of thousands of patients. In particular, they paid attention to systolic pressure – the top number in a blood pressure reading.

      The study found that patients over age 50 who used medication to achieve a systolic reading of 120 reduced their rates of cardiovascular events, such as heart attack and heart failure, as well as stroke, by almost a third. They reduced the risk of death by almost a quarter, as compared to the target systolic pressure of 140. That's a significant reduction in risk.

      “This study provides potentially lifesaving information that will be useful to health care providers as they consider the best treatment options for some of their patients, particularly those over the age of 50,” said Gary H. Gibbons, M.D., director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

      Other research

      But it isn't the only study out there. In 2014 an AMA panel of experts issued its Evidence-based Guideline for the Management of High Blood Pressure in Adults, determining that physicians were shooting too low, especially when they insisted their older patients achieve a blood pressure of 120/80. The panel said patients over 60 were fine with a blood pressure reading of 150/90. Blood pressure goals were also eased for adults with diabetes and kidney disease.

      As expected, this was controversial. A month later researchers at Duke University added to the controversy when they proclaimed that there were 5.8 million Americans taking blood pressure medication who really didn't need the pills.

      Based on the study sample, the researchers determined that the proportion of U.S. adults considered eligible for hypertension treatment would decrease from 40.6% under the old guidelines to 31.7% under the new recommendations. In other words, a lot fewer patients need to be taking drugs for high blood pressure.

      What is normal?

      The fact is, if you are 60 years old and in excellent physical condition, with regular exercise and a healthy lifestyle, you might be able to achieve a systolic reading of 120 without the aid of medication. But if you are a few pounds overweight and spend most of your time at a desk or in a chair, chances are good that you'll need a pill or two to get to 120/80.

      So whether a normal blood pressure is easy or difficult to maintain without medication is of enormous importance – to drug manufacturers.

      The sale of medication to control blood pressure is a huge part of the pharmaceutical industry. The government reports that in 2010, more than 58 million adults were treated for hypertension and spent more than $20 billion on medication to control blood pressure. According to Statista, the top five selling prescription blood pressure medications brought in $5.27 for pharmaceutical companies in 2011.

      And there has been research suggesting that, in the end it might not matter all that much. As we reported in June, researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham concluded that once you develop hypertension, even if it is eventually controlled with medication, it significantly increases the chance of having a stroke. In addition, the reearchers contend the risk of stroke went up 33% with each blood pressure medicine required to treat blood pressure to goal.

      What to do

      That doesn't mean that if you have elevated blood pressure you should ignore this latest study, but you probably shouldn't take it at face value either. Instead, have an informed conversation with your health care provider.

      Make sure he or she is aware of the 2014 Evidence-based Guideline that raised blood pressure targets for older adults and discuss this latest research as well.

      Over the years ConsumerAffairs has reported extensively on blood pressure research. Check out our articles here.

      There is no debate over the danger of high blood pressure. It's a killer. The debate is over what constitutes high blood pressure.A series of studies h...
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      Consumers beware: online tickets can be very expensive

      Theater complains one online site charges a 500% premium for tickets

      Buying tickets to sporting events and entertainment outside of normal channels has always been tricky, and today there are more ways than ever to lose money.

      In the pre-Internet days, shady characters lurked outside performance venues selling last-minute tickets at inflated prices. Today, some online sites do the virtual equivalent, and many sites that promise convenience and low prices often deliver a lot less. Some deliver nothing at all.

      AARP estimates that at least 5 million consumers buy fraudulent tickets every year, running up a monthly tab of $4 million in losses. While old-fashioned "scalpers" account for some of the losses, a growing percentage takes place online.

      While there are numerous stories of outright fraud occurring on Craigslist, eBay, and similar spots, there are perhaps even more cases in which consumers simply pay an unnecessary premium for tickets by ordering from online sites.

      Lori Lochtefeld, who owns the Golden State Theatre in Monterey, Calif., hears these complaints all the time. She's currently incensed by the business practices of BoxOfficeTicketSales.com -- a site that often appears at the top of Google's search results when customers are looking for her theater.

      Lochtefeld said that even though BoxOfficeTicketSales.com has created an account in her system, the site does not have an inventory of pre-purchased tickets and is simply placing orders for consumers at premium-plus prices.

      "This past weekend an elderly couple paid $149 to see 'West Side Story the Musical' and we were only charging $39," Lochtefeld said. "This company is deceiving elderly people which is terrible. They use Google Adwords to rank at the top of a Google search for my company."

      Price comparison

      Is it really as bad as Lochtefeld makes it out to be? We checked prices for the Friday, Sept. 18 appearance by comedian Lisa Lampanelli at the Golden State.

      When we checked earlier today, BoxOfficeTicketSales.com was selling upper balcony tickets at prices ranging from $213 to $252 each (and be careful -- the default quantity is set at 6 tickets). 

      Sounds pretty high for stand-up, you say? Well, we checked the official Golden State Theatre site to see what consumers could pay by going direct to the source.

      So that's $213 for the cheapest ticket on BoxOfficeTicketSales.com versus $33.50 on Golden State's own site -- a premium of $179.50 per ticket. A 540% mark-up, in other words.

      We contacted Howard Schwartz, an Omaha resident who is listed as the site's registrant and he denied being responsible for the price disparity.

      "The website Boxofficeticketsales merely acts as an intermediary between ticket buyers and the ticket sellers. We do not determine the ticket prices as they are set by the ticket sellers," Schwartz said. 

      That, Lochtefeld said, is not true. She said her theater and other venues have no control over the prices that BoxOfficeTicketSales charges. 

      Buyer beware

      Lochtefeld thinks such practices should be illegal and has been filing complaints with federal and state agencies, although it's not quite clear what, if any, laws are being broken. An item or service is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it, although there are laws and regulations about misrepresentation and fraud.

      BoxOfficeTicketSales.com doesn't, after all, claim to have the cheapest tickets. The "About Us" section of its site says: 

      Box Office Ticket Sales is one of the leading ticket providers in the nation. Our incredible selection, service, and security are key factors that make BoxOfficeTicketSales.com a most trusted brand for premium event seating and tickets.

      What Lochtefeld takes issue with is the site's next claim:

      We have the internets [sic] premier inventory of tickets available for purchase, you can shop our site with confidence knowing that all tickets sold on BoxOfficeTicketSales.com are 100% authentic Guaranteed.

      In fact, says Lochtefeld, BoxOfficeTicketSales.com does not have an inventory of tickets to her theater and only buys tickets to fill orders it has already received. 

      Could be worse

      One could reasonably argue that BoxOfficeTicketSales.com has its thumb on the scale but at least it is not accused of failing to cough up the tickets. That's something you can't say for the many illegitimate ticket-sellers that populate the Internet.

      AARP's advice is as sound as any. In a consumer alert a few years ago it said:

      • Stick with well-known players like StubHub, Ticketmaster or SeatGeek. Prices may be higher than Craigslist or eBay offerings but the tickets are authentic and guaranteed.
      • Before clicking on an online vendor’s website, copy-and-paste its address on an online search engine and see what results come up. This can help you get wind of possible computer malware being installed on your computer if you click on the link, or warnings about deceptive sales from past customers. If all appears kosher, be sure the purchase page address begins with https://, indicating that the site is encrypted to protect your credit card information.

      AARP also recommends checking consumer sites like this one to see what other consumers have to say about a ticket-seller. Also be sure to use a credit card or PayPal account so that you have some recourse if the deal goes sour.

      Perhaps most basic of all -- try to buy tickets directly from the source. It's the most fool-proof method and often the cheapest. 

      Buying tickets to sporting events and entertainment outside of normal channels has always been tricky, and today there are more ways than e...
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      Mediterranean diet may reduce breast cancer risk

      Spanish researchers think extra virgin olive oil could be the secret

      Health experts have for some time recommended the Mediterranean diet as a healthy eating plan. It is heavy on fruits and vegetables, fish, and olive oil.

      According to the Mayo Clinic, research shows that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease.

      “In fact, an analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of death from heart disease and cancer, as well as a reduced incidence of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases,” the Mayo Clinic staff notes.

      Spanish researchers now add reducing the risk of breast cancer to the list of attributes. Scientists at the University of Navarra set out to determine the effects of the Mediterranean diet on the primary prevention of chronic diseases.

      Cut risk by two-thirds

      It found the diet cut the risk of developing breast cancer by two-thirds.

      The participants, all from Spain, followed three types of diet; two were versions of the Mediterranean diet, which heavily relied on extra virgin olive oil and was supplemented by nuts.

      Those diets confirm a lower incidence of breast cancer, which is almost a third of that in the control group. The researchers conclude it is the extra virgin olive oil that probably makes the difference.

      "All this despite the fact that the control group or comparison group also followed a diet already healthy, which suggests that the results could have been even more significant had it been compared to a dietary pattern as the followed in non-Mediterranean Western countries,” said Dr. Miguel Angel Martinez-Gonzalez, a member of the research team.

      Preventive strategy

      Doctors generally agree that preventive strategies provide the most effective tool to combat breast cancer. The Spanish researchers say having the Mediterranean diet as one of these tools is all the better, since it can also be a tool to promote general health.

      Previous research has suggested the Mediterranean diet is linked to lower risk of diabetes and even improves brain function in aging adults.

      Key components of the Mediterranean diet

      The Mediterranean diet emphasizes:

      • Consuming mostly plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts
      • Skipping the butter and instead going with healthy fats like olive oil
      • Flavoring food with herbs and spices instead of salt
      • Going easy on red meat – no more than a few times a month
      • Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week
      • Enjoying some red wine in moderation, though that's considered an option

      The diet also recognizes the importance of being physically active, and enjoying meals with family and friends.

      Health experts have for some time recommended the Mediterranean diet as a healthy eating plan. It is heavy on fruits and vegetables, fish, and olive oil....
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      Report finds student loan defaults heaviest at non-selective schools

      Student attending for-profit and community colleges most likely to default, researchers say

      Student loan debt is about $1.2 trillion and growing, with not everyone who took out students loans able to pay them back.

      Student loan default rates doubled between 2000 and 2011, according to Brookings Institution researchers who analyzed U.S. Department of Education administrative data on federal student borrowing, linked to earnings records derived from tax records.

      Their report traces most student loan defaults to students who attended for-profit colleges and, to a lesser extent, community colleges. A common thread, the researchers found, was non-traditional students – typically older than the average student – and those attending “non-selective” institutions – schools that accept anyone – were most likely to default.

      Weak educational outcomes

      “These non-traditional borrowers were drawn from lower income families, attended institutions with relatively weak educational outcomes, and experienced poor labor market outcomes after leaving school,” the authors write.

      At the same time, the authors contend students attending traditional public or private non-profit colleges were much less likely to default and have done better in the job market after graduation.

      The finding that a significant portion of student loan defaults occurs among students attending for-profit schools is not exactly a new charge. Federal data released last year showed nearly half of the 650,000 federal student loan defaults between 2011 and 2013 were by students at for-profit schools.

      Taking issue

      Still, some for-profit schools are finding flaws with the Brookings study's conclusions. Mark Brenner, an Apollo Education Group executive, whose subsidiaries include University of Phoenix, told Marketwatch the Brookings study was based on “limited data.”

      The Brookings study appears to suggest students who are not qualified to attend college – they choose schools that have no admission requirements – are the ones who take on too much debt and default. The authors say a relatively new development is community college students are defaulting on student loans. In the past, the report says, few of these students took out loans to pay for college.

      Accounting for 70% of defaults

      “By 2011 borrowers at for-profit and two-year institutions represented almost half of student-loan borrowers leaving school and starting to repay loans, and accounted for 70% of student loan defaults,” the authors write. “In 2000, only one of the top 25 schools whose students owed the most federal debt was a for-profit institution, whereas in 2014, 13 were.”

      According to the report, the borrowers from those 13 schools owed about $109 billion—almost 10% of all federal student loans. And once out of school, they faced more difficult employment prospects.

      For example, the researchers say the median borrower from a for-profit institution who left school in 2011 and found a job in 2013 earned about $20,900 a year. At the same time, 21% were unemployed.

      By comparison, community college borrowers earned $23,900 and only 17% were unemployed.  

      Student loan debt is about $1.2 trillion and growing, with not everyone who took out students loans able to pay them back.Student loan default rates do...
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      Realtors worry about growing housing shortage

      Home builders so far unable to meet new demand

      During the housing boom of the early 2000s, America went on a home-building binge. When the market crashed, the pendulum swung wildly in the other extreme. Builders who weren't bankrupt drastically slowed construction activity.

      As a result, seven years after the meltdown there is a shortage of housing that the National Association of Realtors (NAR) warns has pushed up home values too much in some areas and made rents unusually high just about everywhere.

      NAR said it measured new home construction relative to the number of newly employed workers in 146 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) throughout the U.S. to determine whether homebuilding has kept up with the steadily improving pace of job growth. In most cases, it hasn't.

      Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says homebuilding activity for all housing types is underperforming in roughly two–thirds of measured metro areas and that has led to a sharp drop in available homes for sale.

      Fewer single-family homes

      "In addition to slow housing turnover and the diminishing supply of distressed properties, lagging new home construction — especially single family — has kept available inventory far below balanced levels," he said. "Our research shows that even as the labor market began to strengthen, homebuilding failed to keep up and is now contributing to the stronger price appreciation and eroding affordability currently seen throughout the U.S."

      It's understandable that homebuilders might be slow to resume a brisk pace of construction until they see permanent demand. It also takes time to plan new developments and pull the permits.

      Still, by NAR's measure, the pace of new home construction is running behind the demand curve, causing a few imbalances in the housing market.

      "Affordability issues for buying and renting because of low supply are already well–known in many of the country’s largest metro areas, including San Francisco, San Diego and New York," said Yun. "Additionally, our study found that limited construction is a widespread issue in metro areas of all sizes."

      Job growth driving demand

      The markets with the largest disparity of jobs versus home construction are those where the economy is strongest – places like San Jose, Calif., San Francisco, San Diego, New York and Miami. Where job growth is much slower, the effects on housing are much less, Yun says.

      Millions of homeowners are still underwater, owing more on mortgages than their homes are worth. With those properties off the market for the foreseeable future, Yun says it's going to be up to builders to help restore the supply of homes. Besides causing an unhealthy imbalance in the market, a constricted supply could contibute to another bubble.

      "The demand for buying has drastically improved this year and is propelling home sales to a pace not seen since 2007," says Yun. "As local job markets continue to expand, the pool of homebuyers will only increase. That’s why it’s crucial for builders to begin shifting their focus from apartments to the purchase market and make up for lost time.”

      But it won't be easy. Yun says homebuilders face rising construction and labor costs, limited credit availability for smaller builders and concerns about the re–emergence of first–time buyers.

      But unless construction activity picks up soon, Yun says rising prices will make homes less affordable, whether you're buying or renting.

      During the housing boom of the early 2000s, America went on a home-building binge. When the market crashed, the pendulum swung wildly in the other extreme....
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      BMW recalls vehicles with electrical issue

      The front side marker lights may not work in conjunction with the parking lights or the headlights

      BMW North America is recalling 7,544 model year 2012-2015 320i, 320xi, 328i, 328xi, 335i, 335xi, and ActiveHybrid3 vehicles manufactured October 20, 2011, to June 22, 2015; 2014-2015 328xi Sports Wagon vehicles manufactured March 21, 2013, to March 17, 2015; 2014-2015 328d, 328xd vehicles manufactured June 28, 2013, to April 21, 2015; and 2014-2015 328xd Sports Wagon vehicles manufactured July 5, 2013, to April 21, 2015.

      The vehicles may have been programmed with new software that inadvertently makes the front side marker lights inoperative in conjunction with the parking lights or the headlights. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 108, "Lamps, Reflective Devices, and Associated Equipment."

      If the side marker lights do not illuminate, the vehicle may be less visible at night, increasing the risk of a crash.

      BMW will notify owners, and dealers will upload revised software to correct the issue, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin October 9, 2015.  

      Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417 or by email at CustomerRelations@bmwusa.com.

      BMW North America is recalling 7,544 model year 2012-2015 320i, 320xi, 328i, 328xi, 335i, 335xi, and ActiveHybrid3 vehicles manufactured October 20, 2011, ...
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      Recall of Miracle Diet 30 and Miracle Rock 48 expanded

      The products contain ingredients not listed on the label

      The One Minute Miracle is expanding an earlier recall of Miracle Diet 30 capsules and Miracle Rock 48 capsules to include all lots of the products.

      The dietary supplements contain undeclared drug products making them unapproved drugs.

      Miracle Diet 30 contains phenolphthalein, an ingredient used in over-the counter laxatives, which has been removed from the market because of concerns of carcinogenicity. There is a reasonable probability that the health risks of long term phenolphthalein consumption could include serious gastrointestinal disturbances, irregular heartbeat, and cancer with long term use.

      Miracle Rock 48 contains 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 there is a reasonable probability that concomitant use of this dietary supplement and nitrates could cause a sudden and significant drop in blood pressure that may be life threatening.

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

      Miracle Diet 30 capsules, marketed as a dietary supplement to support appetite control and weight loss, is packaged in 30-count plastic bottles. All lots of Miracle Diet 30 through the expiration date of 04/15/2018 are affected. The product was distributed via the Internet throughout the U.S.

      Miracle Rock 48 capsules, marketed as a dietary supplement for male sexual enhancement, is packaged in two blister packages of two-count capsules, four capsules per box. All lots of Miracle Rock 48 through the expiration date of 06/01/2018 are affected. The product was distributed via the Internet throughout the U.S.

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

      • 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 and
      • Master Blaster

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

      Customers who have Miracle Diet 30 and/or Miracle Rock 48 should stop using 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 One Minute Miracle at (305)947-6244 or by email at theoneminutemiracle@gmail.com Monday through Friday, 9:00am through 5:00pm (EST).  

      The One Minute Miracle is expanding an earlier recall of Miracle Diet 30 capsules and Miracle Rock 48 capsules to include all lots of the products. The di...
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      Custom Produce recalls Fat Boy brand and unlabeled cucumbers

      The cucumbers may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Custom Produce Sales of Parlier, Calif., is recalling all cucumbers sold under the Fat Boy label starting August 1, 2015. Unlabeled cucumbers packed into a black reusable plastic container (RPC) and sold in Nevada, as of August 1, 2015, are also covered by this recall.

      The cucumbers may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      The company is currently working with health authorities on this recall, which is associated with an outbreak of Salmonella Poona, with 341 illnesses, including 2 deaths, being reporting in as many as 30 states. All customers who may have received this product are being contacted.

      Fat Boy cucumbers were produced in Baja Calif., and distributed in California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas.

      The product was shipped in a black, green, red and craft colored carton which reads “Fat Boy Fresh Produce.” This variety is often referred to as a “Slicer” or “American” cucumber. It is dark green, 7 to 10 inches long and has a diameter of 1.75 to 2.5 inches.

      Fat Boy cucumbers were packed into the following:

      • Cucumber Carton 24’s Fat Boy Label
      • Cucumber Carton Super Select Fat Boy Label
      • Cucumber Carton 6 count Fat Boy Label
      • Cucumber Carton 5 # Fat Boy Label
      • Possible Fat Boy Lot Codes: 93968, 94506, 94550, 94522, 94513, 93991
      • Reusable Plastic Containers (RPC): Lot Code: (01) 1 0851821 22000 2 (10) 99 Item # 552678329

      Customers who have purchased the recalled products should not consume them, but return them to the place of purchase or dispose of them.

      Consumers with questions may contact Custom Produce online at www.customproducesales.com or by phone at 559-254-5860.

      Custom Produce Sales of Parlier, Calif., is recalling all cucumbers sold under the Fat Boy label starting August 1, 2015. Unlabeled cucumbers packed into ...
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      Juratoys recalls fishing games

      The product has small parts that pose a choking hazard to children

      Juratoys U.S. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is recalling about 14,200 Sardines and Starfish fishing games in the U.S. and Canada.

      The plastic worm at the end of the fishing pole line can separate, producing small parts that pose a choking hazard to children. Additionally, the small magnet inside the worm can liberate. Swallowing multiple magnets can result in serious internal injury.

      The firm has received about 417 reports of the plastic worm at the end of the fishing pole line separating and releasing small parts, including four reports of children ingesting a small part. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves two models of the Juratoys fishing game, Sardines and Starfish. The fishing game user picks up a toy fish using a play fishing rod with a magnetic worm.

      The Sardine fishing game has a red and white sardine with a yellow eye painted on a sardine-shaped tin and has product number J08152 printed on the bottom of the container at the tail, and on the back of one of the fish pieces.

      The Starfish fishing game has an orange starfish painted on a starfish-shaped tin with a product number J08153 printed on the bottom of the container and on the back of one of the fish pieces.

      Each set comes with two wooden fishing rods and several wooden fish with a magnetic button in the middle. The lid of each tin package contains the word “Janod.”

      The toys, manufactured in China, were sold online at www.citruslane.com, www.burrogoods.com, www.terratoys.com, www.patinastores.com; numerous retail stores including Patina, Burro, and Terra Toys; and at Juratoys trade shows from April 2015, through August 2015, for approximately $15 to $20.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled games and keep them out of the reach of young children. Consumers should contact Juratoys for a prepaid shipping envelope to return the game. Juratoys will then send a $15 refund check for the Sardines game and a $20 refund check for the Starfish game. Consumers who paid more should include a receipt in the return to receive a full refund.

      Consumers may contact Juratoys U.S. toll-free at 877-271-0440 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday or online at www.juratoysus.com or www.janod.com and click on the “Product Recall” link at the bottom of the page for more information.

      Juratoys U.S. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is recalling about 14,200 Sardines and Starfish fishing games in the U.S. and Canada. The plastic worm at the end ...
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      Appeeling Fruit recalls sliced apples

      The apples may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Appeeling Fruit of Dauberville, Pa., is recalling a limited number of consumer packages of fresh sliced apples.

      The apples may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Health authorities have not linked any illnesses to this recall to date.

      The recalled product, with Best-if-Used-by dates of 09/14/15 and 09/21/15, was shipped to retail distribution centers, wholesalers and foodservice customers in Florida, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania between August 31 and September 2.

      The following table contains product's brand, UPC codes and Best-if-Used-by dates:

      Product Description and Consumer PackagingBrand/Label on bagUPC on bag if applicableBest If Used By date on bag
      12oz package with fresh, green apple slicesAppeeling Fruit58324 0095009/21/2015
      12oz. package with fresh, red apple slicesAppeeling Fruit58324 0090009/21/2015
      Convenience pack of 8, 2oz. sized bags of fresh, red apple slicesAppeeling FruitBag of 8, 2 oz. bags 58324 08400
      Individual 2 oz. bags 58324 00400
      09/21/2015
      2oz. sized bags of fresh, red apple slicesBurger King (BK) Crownn/a&09/14/2015
      2oz. sized bags of fresh, red apple slices Snack Fresh74641 0098209/21/2015

      Customers who have the recalled product in their possession should not consume it, and should either dispose of it properly or return it to the place of purchase for a refund. Keep proof of product purchase, if available.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company’s consumer information desk at 1-866-873-0468, or visit its website at http://www.appeelingfruit.com/.

      Appeeling Fruit of Dauberville, Pa., is recalling a limited number of consumer packages of fresh sliced apples. The apples may be contaminated with Lister...
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      Major carmakers, minus FCA, Honda & Nissan, commit to automatic braking

      The technology "is making a difference" in reducing accidents, experts say

      Most of the recent safety improvements to cars have been aimed at protecting occupants after a crash. But an announcement today makes it clear that the emphasis is now shifting to preventing accidents.

      Ten major carmakers -- but not Fiat Chrysler, Honda, and Nissan -- have committed to making automatic emergency braking (AEB) a standard feature on all new vehicles they build, the U.S. Department of Transportation, its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) announced today.

      The 10 companies — Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo — said they will work with IIHS and NHTSA in the coming months on the details, including the timeline for making AEB a standard feature.

      There was varying explanations for why Fiat Chrysler (officially known as FCA US LLC), Honda, and Nissan -- the three most prominent manufacturers missing from the list -- were not committing to the technology.

      An FCA spokesman insisted the company was committed to the feature, even though it was not included in today's announcement.

      "It is currently available on eight of our vehicles, from the compact Fiat 500X to the full-size Dodge Durango. The Chrysler 200 and Jeep Renegade were the first vehicles in their segments with advanced fusion-sensor systems that benefit from camera AND radar technologies. Further proliferation is being considered," the spokesman said in an email to ConsumerAffairs.

      Nissan said it had not been approached about the agreement.

      "Nissan Group was not asked to be included in today’s announcement, but we do look forward to discussing the proposals with NHTSA," Nissan spokesman Steve Yaeger said.

      "We are supportive of NHTSA’s efforts to significantly reduce traffic accidents and fatalities using a variety of tools, including advanced crash avoidance technology. Infiniti was the first automotive brand to offer Predictive Forward Collision Warning in 2013, and Infiniti has expanded that technology along with Forward Emergency Braking throughout their lineup over the past two years," Yager said. "The all-new Nissan Maxima and Murano also have available Predictive Forward Collision Warning and Forward Emergency Braking. We will evaluate the feasibility of introducing Forward Emergency Braking into our full lineup in the near future as each model is updated."

      "Can't be voluntary"

      Safety advocates were quick to note the omissions and to insist that all consumers should be able to count on having automatic braking, not just those who buy from certain manufacturers.

      “Automatic emergency braking is the next big safety feature on vehicles. It’s up there with electronic stability control and airbags.  This can’t be voluntary.  This needs a mandated safety standard with rigorous performance measures that trigger a recall if an auto maker doesn’t meet them," Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the non-profit Center for Auto Safety, told ConsumerAffairs. 

      "Only a rulemaking will give consumer groups the opportunity to raise the hard questions such as if one stops a car going at 25 mph then why not at 50 mph, which is closer to highway speeds? NHTSA should have no part of a private deal cut behind closed doors,” Ditlow said.

      In July, Fiat Chrysler agreed to pay a $105 million fine, clean up its recall procedures, and buy back some defective vehicles after a probe by federal safety officials. The company acknowledged that it had violated the Motor Vehicle Safety Act's requirements to promptly repair vehicles with safety defects, something it had stridently denied for years.

      The fine was the largest ever imposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

      "Making a difference"

      Federal safety officials and the insurance institute also called on reluctant automakers to commit to the technology. 

      "AEB is a life-saving technology that should be available to every vehicle owner. In the months ahead, NHTSA will work closely with IIHS and the auto industry to carry out that commitment, and we encourage every other manufacturer to join this effort," said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind.

      "We are entering a new era of vehicle safety, focused on preventing crashes from ever occurring, rather than just protecting occupants when crashes happen," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "But if technologies such as automatic emergency braking are only available as options or on the most expensive models, too few Americans will see the benefits of this new era. These 10 companies are committing to making AEB available to all new-car buyers."

      The announcement was made at the dedication of IIHS's newly expanded Vehicle Research Center.

      Lund said several studies, including a recent report from IIHS, show that AEB technology can reduce insurance injury claims by as much as 35%. The 10 manufacturers committing to across-the-board AEB represented 57 percent of U.S. light-duty vehicle sales in 2014."The evidence is mounting that AEB is making a difference," said IIHS President Adrian Lund. "Most crashes involve driver error. This technology can compensate for the mistakes every driver makes because the systems are always on alert, monitoring the road ahead and never getting tired or distracted."

      Should be standard

      Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports magazine, had earlier called for the feature to be standard on all cars.

      “Forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking is the biggest safety advancement since the introduction of stability control over two decades ago,” says Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports. “This is such an important safety feature that all other manufacturers should bring it to their vehicles as soon as possible.”

      Automatic emergency braking systems could drastically reduce rear-end crashes—either in avoiding them altogether, or at least reducing the velocity of the collision. The price-per-car for a frontal-collision warning system is $250 to $400—a fraction of the typical charge for an ambulance ride, Fisher said.

      Most of the recent safety improvements to cars have been aimed at protecting occupants after a crash. But an announcement t...
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      T-Mobile undercuts Apple Store on price of new iPhones

      Customers would end up paying significantly less each month

      When the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, announced Wednesday, go on sale Saturday (pre-orders), T-Mobile customers are going to find it costs less to get it from the carrier than if they were to buy it at the Apple Store.

      A lot less.

      When Apple introduced its smartphone upgrades, it started the price of the 6s at $27 for 24 months and the Plus at $31 for 24 months. That works out to a price of $648 and $744 respectively.

      But in his blog, T-Mobile CEO John LeGere said the carrier will offer the devices at a lower price; $20 a month for 18 months for the 6s and $24 a month for 18 months for the Plus. That means the $648 phone from Apple costs $360 from T-Mobile and the $744 Plus at Apple goes for $432 at T-Mobile.

      The catch

      The catch is this deal is for customers signing up for Jump! On Demand, a T-Mobile program where you trade in your phone after 18 months and get a new one. It's very similar to an auto lease. The customer does not pay for the residual value of the phone at the end of 18 months.

      Those who pay the full price from Apple own their devices once the payments end, just like buying a car. Jump! On Demand customers who want to keep their iPhones at the end of 18 months may do so by making a one time $164 payment for the 6s.

      “That means your total cost to own your phone is just $524 – that’s a screaming deal,” LeGere writes. It’s special introductory pricing for our launch, and it won’t last long.”

      Lifetime Coverage Guarantee

      At the same time, LeGere introduced what he calls the T-Mobile Lifetime Coverage Guarantee for customers buying one of the new iPhones.

      “For as long as you use your iPhone 6s or 6s Plus on T-Mobile, if you aren’t completely satisfied with your coverage experience we’ll refund you for every penny you’ve paid for your new device in the first month, or after that, we’ll unlock it at no charge so you can use it with one of the other wireless companies,” LeGere writes.

      The CEO said his company will also refund up to a full month of service fees. If a phone is unlocked, he says customers will be able to keep the interest-free payment plan at standard prices.

      When the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, announced Wednesday, go on sale Saturday (pre-orders), T-Mobile customers are going to find it costs less to get it fro...
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      Forecast: holiday season air travel won't be any easier

      Fares will be more expensive, harder to get

      Each year Dean Headley, Airline Quality Rating co-author and associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, issues his outlook for air travel during the upcoming holiday season.

      It goes without saying that the holiday travel period is busier than any other time of the year, but how airlines handle it makes all the difference in the world to consumers' wallets and stress level.

      This year? Headley says seats will cost more and be harder to find. His advice is to book as soon as possible.

      Challenging time

      "During the past several years, the holiday travel period has continued to be a challenging time for travelers, and with industrywide seat capacity adjustments, it will remain a stressful travel experience," said Headley.

      “Industrywide seat capacity adjustments” is a polite way of saying the airlines have managed capacity to ensure they fly with few, if any empty seats. They've also reduced competition through a series of mergers.

      Yes, it's probably a good business strategy, but it can be very hard on consumers who have fewer choices and are often left in the lurch when a flight is cancelled or late. Unfortunately, that happens a lot during the holidays.

      While industry airline performance quality has generally improved each year since 2007, Headley says high passenger volumes and the possibility of bad weather should always be factored into holiday travel plans.

      Worst months for travel

      "December and January typically have the worst on-time arrival percentage and mishandled baggage rates of any month,” Headley said. “The best bet for the consumer is to travel as early before the actual holiday or as late as possible afterward, and always leave room for schedule changes."

      Airlines don't usually make major changes late in the year to compensate for the demands of the holidays. Take last year, for example. Headley says 2014 was a steady year of improvement for airline performance -- until December.

      "Data shows performance scores are holding steady from year to year," he said. "We are settling in to a reduced capacity system that challenges travelers to be savvy. With strong demand for fewer seats and fewer airline providers, it presents an opportunity for the airlines to perform better, but also charge more for a ticket."

      Pick your airline carefully

      The savvy traveler should not only book early, but take performance into consideration when choosing an airline. Which airline is less likely to lose your luggage or arrive so late you miss your connecting flight?

      Headley suggests taking a look at how airlines have performed when measured for quality. In 2014, he says the best performing airlines across the combined AQR categories were Virgin America, Hawaiian, Delta and JetBlue.

      Hawaiian was best in on-time performance; Virgin America and Hawaiian were best in avoiding denied boardings; Virgin America was best in baggage handling; and Alaska had the lowest rate of customer complaints.

      The worst performing airlines across the combined AQR categories in 2014 were Envoy/American Eagle, Express Jet, SkyWest, United, and Frontier.

      Envoy/American Eagle, ExpressJet, and Southwest had the worst on-time performances; SkyWest and Express Jet had the worst rate of denied boardings; Envoy/American Eagle had the highest rate of mishandled baggage; and Frontier had the highest rate of customer complaints.

      Each year Dean Headley, Airline Quality Rating co-author and associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, issues his outlook for air trave...
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      A delay-free month for the airlines

      July saw improvement in both the on-time and cancellation rates

      There were no -- repeat -- no tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights or more than four hours on international flights in July.

      And, that's not the only good news in the most recent Air Travel Consumer Report released by the Department of Transportation (DOT).

      The nation’s largest airlines posted an on-time arrival rate of 78.1% in July, better than both the 75.6% on-time rate in July 2014 and the 74.8% mark in June of this year. In addition, the reporting carriers canceled just 0.9% of their scheduled domestic flights, versus the 1.6% cancellation rate posted a year earlier and the 1.8% the month before. In fact, the July cancellation rate was the lowest for any July in 21 years of comparable records.

      The consumer report also contains information on chronically delayed flights, the causes of flight delays, statistics on mishandled baggage, and aviation service complaints.

      Other areas covered in the report include flight problems, baggage, reservation and ticketing, refunds, consumer service, disability, and discrimination, along with reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of animals traveling by air.

      The full report is available on the DOT website.

      A delay-free month for the airlines July saw improvement in both the on-time and cancellation rates There were no -- repeat -- no tarmac delays of more t...
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      Rental housing stock may be about to improve

      Now you don't have to have a mortgage to experience that new house smell

      The website for Starwood Waypoint Residential Trust looks like the slick marketing site you would find for any upscale homebuilder; granite counter tops in the kitchen, large master bedroom suites, and nicely landscaped lawns.

      Only Starwood Waypoint is not a homebuilder. The homes on its website are not for sale, they're all for rent.

      In the wake of the housing crisis, investors like Starwood jumped into the housing market and snapped up single-family homes for well below the market value, which admittedly seemed to be less by the month. Many of these distressed properties needed a lot of work but many did not – their owners simply got overwhelmed by the financial crisis and walked away.

      It was always assumed that these investors – and for several years they made up nearly a third of monthly home buyers – would rent the properties for a few years, then sell them for a profit. But the investors, by and large, aren't selling – perhaps contributing to tight housing inventories around the country.

      Brand new homes for rent

      Now Starwood is taking an unusual approach. With fewer and fewer foreclosures, the company has begun purchasing newly built single-family homes to convert to rentals. With tighter mortgage lending standards, there are many people with good incomes but perhaps not so good credit. While they would like to live in a new house, their only option is to rent. In an interview with CNBC, Starwood CEO Doug Brien said buying new homes for the rental market has a lot of advantages.

      "For us operationally, being able to have a brand-new home that typically has a warranty, that works well for us. We can also customize floor plans that work for the business," he said.

      And the fact remains that rents are still very high, in part because fewer people can qualify to purchase a home and compete for available rental property. New research by real estate market site Zillow suggests that trend isn't going to change anytime soon.

      Cooling off on homeownership

      In its latest survey Zillow found the percentage of renters who say they plan to buy a home in the next year fell from 12.1% to 11.4% in the first six months of this year. After a big rebound in home prices, it appears fewer consumers are wanting to buy, preferring to keep renting.

      "The housing market is slowing down, and Americans' confidence in the future of the market is understandably fading a bit, too," said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Svenja Gudell. "Despite remaining quite confident overall, homeowners are less confident about the future than they are about the present.”

      For renters, it's probably good news that investors are still bullish on residential real estate, even if consumers are less so. An increasing supply of available properties should keep rents from rising so fast.

      New house smell

      The fact that investors like Starwood are adding brand new homes to their inventory is even better news. For the first time, really, you'll be able to live in a home with that new house smell without having to take out a mortgage.

      The website for Starwood Waypoint Residential Trust looks like the slick marketing site you would find for any upscale homebuilder; granite counter tops in...
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      Wholesale prices flatline in August

      A big drop in gasoline prices helped keep the lid on

      The Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand -- wholesale prices, in other words -- was unchanged in August following increases of 0.2% and 0.4% in July and June, respectively, according to the Department of Labor (DOL).

      A gain of 0.4% for services offset a drop of 0.6% in prices for goods.

      Look out below

      The August decline of 0.6% for goods was the largest since an identical decrease last April. In August, most of it was attributable to a drop of 3.3% in energy costs. Prices for gasoline plunged 7.7%, with jet fuel, grains, iron and steel scrap, home heating oil, and light motor trucks also lowering. In contrast, prices for residential natural gas and for search, detection, navigation, and guidance systems and equipment increased. Conversely, prices for foods rose 0.3%, led by 23.2% surge in the cost of chicken eggs.

      Services prices on the rise

      The 0.4% rise in the cost of services was the third in as many months. Almost half of the advance is attributable to for apparel, footwear, and accessories retailing, which jumped 7.0%. Prices for automotive fuels and lubricants retailing; securities brokerage, dealing, investment advice, and related services; wireless telecommunication services; residential real estate loans (partial); and inpatient care also moved higher. Prices for airline passenger services, on the other hand, declined 1.6 percent with costs for machinery and equipment wholesaling and guestroom rental also dipping.

      Core inflation

      The PPI less the volatile foods, energy and trade services -- what's known as the less volatile “core rate” of wholesale inflation -- inched up 0.1% in August after advancing 0.2% the month before. For the 12 months ended in August, the core rate is up 0.7%.

      The complete report is available on the DOL website.

      The Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand -- wholesale prices, in other words -- was unchanged in August following increases of 0.2% and 0.4% in July...
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      The Pork Rind Factory recalls pork products

      The products contain milk and soy, allergens not listed on the label

      The Pork Rind Factory of Spartanburg, S.C., is recalling approximately 18,406 pounds of pork rinds.

      The products contain milk and soy, allergens not listed on the label.

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

      The the following fried pork rinds, produced from March 17, 2015, through September 3, 2015, are being recalled:

      • 2.25 ounce clear plastic bag packages containing multiple pieces of fried pork rinds with the label “Suncrest Farms Salt and Pepper Pork Skins” and a use-by date of 09/16/15, 01/12/16, 02/15/16.
      • 2.25 ounce clear plastic bag packages containing multiple pieces of fried pork rinds with the label “Suncrest Farms Hot Pork Skins” and a use-by date of 12/27/15, 12/21/15.
      • 4.00 ounce clear plastic bag packages containing multiple pieces of fried pork rinds with the label “Food Lion Salt & Pepper Flavored Pork Rinds” and a use-by date of 9/12/15, 9/26/15, 10/10/15, 10/24/15, 11/26/15, 12/15/15, 12/17/15, 01/01/16.
      • 3.00 ounce clear plastic bag packages containing multiple pieces of fried pork rinds with the label “Larry’s Old-Fashioned Seasoned Pork Cracklin Strips” and a use-by date of 10/24/15, 11/20/15.
      • 3.00 ounce clear plastic bag packages containing multiple pieces of fried pork rinds with the label “Larry’s Old-Fashioned Seasoned Pork Fatback Curls” and a use-by date of 11/20/2015.

      The recalled products bear the establishment number “EST. M888” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

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

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Terri Morey at (864) 573-5678.

      The Pork Rind Factory of Spartanburg, S.C., is recalling approximately 18,406 pounds of pork rinds. The products contain milk and soy, allergens not list...
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      Baja Motorsports recalls mini bikes

      The front fork can separate from the wheel

      Baja Motorsports of Anderson, S.C., is recalling about 4,600 gas-powered mini bikes.

      The front fork can separate from the wheel, posing fall and crash hazards to riders.

      The firm has received 22 reports of the front forks separating from the wheel, including 11 reports of minor injuries.

      This recall involves Baja Motorsports gas-powered mini bikes manufactured during November 2014 and December 2014. The recalled mini bikes have a black frame with a black padded seat, a storage tank and fenders that are camouflage, side reflectors, a headlight and a tail light. A decal with model number “Baja Warrior 200” inside a circle with wings attached is on both sides of the storage tank. The date of manufacture is printed on the bottom right of the Vehicle Emissions Control Information label in the MM/YY format. The label is attached to the front side of the engine.

      The mini bikes, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Tractor Supply Company stores from February 2015, through August 2015, for about $650.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled mini bikes and contact Baja Motorsports to schedule a free repair.

      Consumers may contact Baja toll-free at 888-863-2252 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or online at www.bajamotorsports.com and click on Safety Information for more information.

      Baja Motorsports of Anderson, S.C., is recalling about 4,600 gas-powered mini bikes. The front fork can separate from the wheel, posing fall and crash haz...
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      Panasonic recalls metal cutter saws

      The lower blade guard can get stuck in the fully retracted position

      Panasonic Corporation of North America of Newark, N.J., is recalling about 165 Metal Cutter Saw Kits and Metal Cutter Combo Kits.

      The lower blade guard can get stuck in the fully retracted position and not automatically release to cover the blade. The exposed blade poses a laceration hazard and risk of injury.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves the EY3530NQMKW 15.6V Cordless Metal Cutter Kit and the EYC136NQK 15.6V Cordless Metal Cutter Combo Kit.

      The model EY3530 metal cutter saw is a circular metal cutting saw in black with yellow accents. “Panasonic” is printed in white letters on the upper wrap around blade guard. “15.6 V” and “Metal Cutter Saw” are printed in black letters with yellow highlights on the blade guard. The recalled metal cutters are about 13 inches long and 6.7 pounds.

      The model EY136 combo kit includes the EY3530 circular metal cutting saw and also includes a drill and other accessories. The model number and date code are located on the bottom of the lower support, between the battery and the blade. The first number in the date code is the year, the second and the third are the month and the last four digits are the production number.

       Date Codes
       3120001 through 3120030
       4010001 through 4010030
       4030001 through 4030030
       4080001 through 4080060
       5010001 through 5010060

      The saws, manufactured in China and Japan, were sold at industrial distributors nationwide from April 2014, through June 2015, for about $400 for the saw kit and $500 for the combo kit.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled saws and contact Panasonic to receive a return prepaid shipping label. Panasonic will replace the safety guard and return the saws to the consumer.

      Consumers may contact Panasonic Corporation of North America at 800-743-2335 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. (ET) on Saturday and Sunday, or online at www.panasonic.com and click on Product Recall for more information.

      Panasonic Corporation of North America of Newark, N.J., is recalling about 165 Metal Cutter Saw Kits and Metal Cutter Combo Kits. The lower blade guard ca...
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