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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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