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Study shows that going green can make a real difference for companies

Researchers also find that meeting Energy Star certification standards can help companies reap huge savings

The United States population is continuing to grow over time, much like the population of the rest of the world. As the number of people in the country inc...

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Photo (c) ptnphotof - Fotolia

The United States population is continuing to grow over time, much like the population of the rest of the world. As the number of people in the country increases, it is imperative that we make sure that we use our resources wisely. Energy, in particular, is a finite resource in many ways. Using non-renewable forms of it for too long can put us in a very difficult position going into the future.

In order to reduce our energy consumption, we have to come up with many clever ways to make sure that we are getting 'the most bang for our buck”. In a recent article, we at ConsumerAffairs talked about how green buildings – those that use energy at a lower rate – are able to help the environment and save money for those that own them.

Researchers at SaveOnEnergy.com have taken this research a step further, though. In a recent study, they found which companies and entities were taking advantage of green technology, as well as how much they could expect to save by going green.

Energy Star certifications growing

For the study, the researchers focused on companies and entities that met the requirements for Energy star certifications between 2001 and 2014. Energy Star is a program initiated by the EPA that provides standards for buildings so that they can lower their energy consumption.

Companies that are able to meet these standards are awarded with an Energy Star certification that lasts for one year. Companies are able to re-qualify each year, provided that their buildings continue to meet the standards. Since its inception, Energy Star has helped to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 2.1 billion metric tons.

From 2001 to 2014, the number of Energy Star certifications has continued to grow. The graphic below shows how the number of certified Energy Star buildings have increased and expanded to different areas of the U.S. The researchers say that the number of certified buildings is now over 26,000, with more being certified every day.

PhotoWhile many companies make up a good share of green buildings with their offices (32%), they are not the only ones taking advantage of green technology. The researchers found that K-12 schools also make up 32% of green buildings in the country. This is followed by retail stores with 17%, supermarkets and grocery stores with 10%, and other smaller entities with 9%.

Schools take advantage

Some may be surprised by the number of school districts that have invested in green buildings, but the researchers point out that it just makes good economic sense. By lowering energy consumption, schools are able to free up money to pay for other expenses, like maintenance, teacher salaries, and extracurricular programs.

The amount of money that can be saved cannot be understated. A technical report from the Los Angeles Unified School District showed that a 1% reduction in energy costs would allow them to hire up to 25 new teachers. Perhaps not coincidentally, this same school district has the highest number of green schools in the U.S., with 142 total buildings.

In other states, many school districts are taking even better advantage of green technology. In Gwinnett County, Georgia, 93% of all schools meet the criteria for an Energy Star certification. They hold the second spot on the list of districts with the most number of green schools, with 126 in total.

Well-known retailers going green

Retail stores covered approximately 17% of all green buildings during the research period, many of which are well-known companies. Target was the retailer with the most number of green buildings, with 1,211 in all. Following them was Kohl's with 978, JCPenney with 648, Staples with 544, and Sears with 532.

While supermarkets and grocery stores have fewer green buildings (covering 10% of all green buildings during the research period), many of them have received special recognition from the EPA. In addition to being certified by Energy Star, these establishments work hard towards other goals, such as eliminating food waste, supporting sustainability, and improving efficiency.

Financial savings

If all of the positive statistics about green buildings weren't enough to get companies to certify, then they can always look at the potentially huge financial savings that go along with it. The EPA estimates that, over a three-year period, buildings who met Energy Star certification standards had yearly energy savings of 2.4%.

While that number may seem marginal to some, rest assured that it is not. In their study, the researchers included some calculations that can put that number in perspective.

At 2.4%, a 500,000 square foot office building had the potential to save roughly $120,000 per year by having their certification. For an 800,000 square foot school district, yearly savings were estimated to be near $140,000. A medium box retailer with 500 stores could expect to save $2.5 million every year, and a full-service hotel chain with 100 properties would save $4.1 million every year. Those numbers are nothing to scoff at by anyone's standards.

Setting an example

With all of the benefits that green technology can provide, one can only hope that they continue to flourish in the U.S. The researchers hope that their work can provide positive examples of what green technology is capable of. They applaud the companies who have taken steps thus far in reducing their energy consumption.

“We created this project to shed light on how Energy Star certification can benefit the participating businesses, the greater community, and the environment as a whole. We also wanted to highlight the companies and organizations that are doing their part with the hopes that more entities will be inspired to commit to greater energy efficiency,” said Amanda Milligan, the study's project manager.

For more information, you can read the team's full study here.  

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Microsoft really, really wants you to upgrade to Windows 10

Company will include the upgrade in Windows Update next year

Are you still running Windows 7 or 8 because you like it? Too bad. Microsoft says it's time for you to upgrade to Windows 10 and is taking steps to make it...

PhotoAre you still running Windows 7 or 8 because you like it? Too bad. Microsoft says it's time for you to upgrade to Windows 10 and is taking steps to make it almost automatic.

Beginning in 2016, Microsoft is adding the upgrade to Windows Update. Currently, users can either accept all the updates automatically or be notified that updates are available, then pick and choose what they want to load.

“Early next year, we expect to be re-categorizing Windows 10 as a Recommended Update,” Microsoft's Terry Myerson writes on the company blog. “Depending upon your Windows Update settings, this may cause the upgrade process to automatically initiate on your device.”

Users still have some control

However, Myerson says before the upgrade changes the operating system of your device, you will have the chance to choose whether or not to continue. If you do go ahead with the upgrade, which Microsoft strongly recommends, you'll have 31 days to go back to your old operating system.

“We understand you care deeply about what happens with your device,” Myerson said. “This is why – regardless of your upgrade path – you can choose to upgrade or decline the offer. That being said, we would encourage everyone to upgrade because Windows 10 is the best Windows ever – familiar, safer, faster, and full of innovations.”

Microsoft says it is encouraging the rapid move to Windows 10 because it says the new operating system has better security and more features than older versions of Windows.

Computer users might be a little sensitive because of what Microsoft admits was a mistake in mid-September and has moved to correct.

According to Computer World, Microsoft began pre-selecting the optional upgrade to Windows 10 in its update, resulting in the download and installation of the new operating system on a number of computers running the older operating systems.

“A bug perhaps,” writes Computer World's Gregg Keizer, “but one that Microsoft will turn into a feature in 2016.”  

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TSA will stop surprise invitations to Pre-Check lines

It's fallout from a report that found lax security at some airports

For months, travelers in security lines at airports have been pleasantly surprised to find themselves routed into one of the TSA Pre-Check lines for expedi...

PhotoFor months, travelers in security lines at airports have been pleasantly surprised to find themselves routed into one of the TSA Pre-Check lines for expedited processing -- no need to remove shoes, laptop, and so forth.

But those days are over. The Transportation Security Agency is ending the program, which means that from now, you'll need to pay $85 and go through a pre-screening procedure if you want to continue using the Pre-Check lines.

The reason? You may recall that a few months ago, an inspector general's report found that federal undercover investigators were able to smuggle simulated bombs or illegal weapons through security lines 95% of the time. 

As part of an effort to tighten security, TSA has shelved the program, known officially as "Managed Inclusion II" so that the Pre-Check lines will once again be for the exclusive use of those who've paid their dues and undergone the pre-screening.

The $85 fee and pre-screening are good for five years. More information is available here.

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Beyond cremation: Seattle project foresees composting human remains

It's a shame to waste all the nutrients locked away in our remains

Tomorrow is not just Halloween, it's also the Day of the Dead, perhaps a good day to contemplate how we want to manage o...

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Photo (c) Urban Death Project

Tomorrow is not just Halloween, it's also the Day of the Dead, perhaps a good day to contemplate how we want to manage our eventual departure from the land of the living.

Burial is becoming somewhat old hat. It's expensive and takes up a lot of space that could otherwise be used for condos, parking lots, or even nature preserves. Further, to be blunt, 100 or more pounds of valuable carbon-based material is locked away forever, doing nothing to nourish the world we leave behind.

Cremation is currently the most popular alernative to burial in the U.S. but, while less expensive, it's hardly environmentally beneficial. It sort of ranks up there with burning leaves. Besides the carbon discharged from the chimney, cremation burns up a lot of energy.

More natural

An emerging option in some parts of the country is "green burial" -- basically burial without a coffin or embalming. This returns valuable nutrients to the soil, doesn't interfere with drainage the way concrete burial vaults do, and lets the land be used for something else after a decent interval. 

A perhaps more radical version is "sky burial," where one is simply deposited on a remote hillside. This speeds up the process of recycling one's remains, since birds and animals move things along by picking the bones clean while ingesting nutritious protein.

For those who find this a little too natural, a Seattle group has come up with the latest "good death" innovation. It's called the Urban Death Project and is, when you get right down to it, an industrial-scale composting heap. 

Remains are placed at the top level of a three-story building at what's described as a "laying-in" ceremony. Nature takes it from there.

"Over the span of a few months, with the help of aerobic decomposition and microbial activity, the bodies decompose fully, leaving a rich compost," the group says on its website. The compost is then made available to local gardeners. 

"The Urban Death Project is not simply a system for turning our bodies into soil-building material. It is also a space for the contemplation of our place in the natural world, and a ritual to help us say goodbye to our loved ones by connecting us with the cycles of nature," the group says.

So far, the Urban Death Project is just that -- a project. Founder Katrina Spade, an architect and designer, is in the process of raising money to build the first compost tower.

If you live long enough, maybe it will be there when you need it.  

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Is daily fantasy sports cutting into state lotteries?

A research firm says states have a right to be worried

It's been an eventful few weeks for daily fantasy sports enterprises like DraftKings and FanDuel.First, there was an uproar over concerns that employee...

PhotoIt's been an eventful few weeks for daily fantasy sports enterprises like DraftKings and FanDuel.

First, there was an uproar over concerns that employees of the two fast-growing companies were unfairly profiting from inside information when they played games on competing sites.

That concern resulted in the launch of a formal investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Next, the Nevada Gaming Commission ruled that daily fantasy sports games constitute gambling, and therefore need to be licensed if they want to operate in Nevada.

Now, there's concern that these highly popular games could be cutting into the revenue consumers spend on state-sponsored gambling – lotteries.

A survey by research group Leger asked people who play daily fantasy games – where they can win money by forming teams of actual players and get points based on how well the players perform.

Buying fewer lottery tickets

Among the 15% of U.S. adults who claim to have played daily fantasy sports this season, 61% said what they spend on fantasy games has reduced what they wager on lottery games such as Powerball, Mega Millions, Scratch, or Instant Games.

It turns out the people who play fantasy sports games are typically gamblers. In fact, 84% of fantasy sports players said they played a lottery game in the last month. Leger says that's more than twice the level of all American adults.

"Specific to state lotteries, this is an external factor contributing to a perfect storm," said Lance Henik, Senior Account Manager at Leger.

Smaller jackpots

First, he says, you have to consider the reduction in blockbuster jackpots from Powerball or Mega Millions that may have impacted cross-play for other games in many state lotteries.

Then, there's the preference among younger players for online gaming, especially for those platforms that allow players to put their “skin in the game.”

The bottom line, he says, is daily fantasy sports may pose a long-term threat to state lotteries, which the states depend on for revenue.

Incidentally, the Leger data shows that daily fantasy sports is cutting into the casinos. Leger says that could well explain why the state of Nevada ruled that daily fantasy sports games constitute gambling and should be licensed.

"It appears Daily Fantasy Sports is serving up a double economic whammy for state governments right now." said Simon Jaworski, Senior Vice President at Leger. "These fantasy behemoths are not currently filling the local coffers with tax, due to their private ownership, which when coupled with potentially lower tax revenue from the DFS player's reduced lottery and casino spending, it is certainly a situation worth monitoring."

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Don't forget – clocks move back an hour this weekend

But why do we go through this twice a year?

There are certain things you probably shouldn't mess with, and time is one of them. And yet, twice a year we do it.Sunday morning, we're doing it again...

PhotoThere are certain things you probably shouldn't mess with, and time is one of them. And yet, twice a year we do it.

Sunday morning, we're doing it again as the U.S. – most of it, at least – returns to Standard Time from Daylight Saving Time. At 2 am Sunday, the clocks go back an hour, to 1 am.

In reality, we are simply readjusting to “real” time, hence the label “Standard Time.” But we've all gotten used to Daylight Saving Time over the last few months, so it's a big adjustment.

If you've been getting up in the dark each morning, chances are there will now be a little light in the sky. What is 6 am today will be 5 am starting Sunday.

On the other hand, you may be driving home in the dark. By the time December 21 rolls around, it will get dark at 4:30 pm.

Let's go shopping

The rationale for changing the clocks twice a year is largely economic. It's believed people spend more money when it is light outside. While we haven't yet gotten to the point where we can create more hours of sunlight each day, shifting time so that people have more daylight hours at the end of the day is thought to promote commerce.

And yet, the holiday shopping season -- the most important shopping period of the year for retailers -- takes place during Standard Time, not to mention the darkest months of the year.

Then why not have Daylight Saving Time all year? That's never been adequately explained, though the UK tried it one year and it actually worked out pretty well. For some reason, it wasn't tried again.

Despite the adjustment we have to make Sunday, getting an extra hour of sleep isn't such a bad thing. However, the clocks change again in early March, taking that hour of sleep from us as the clocks move up one hour.

Still confused? National Geographic produced the video below to try and shed some light on Daylight Saving Time.

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New York tries to expand banking service to more consumers

Attorney general questions reliance on screening services that keep consumers "unbanked"

In the wake of the financial crisis and new regulations, banks added fees and generally made it more expensive to have a checking account. They also became...

PhotoIn the wake of the financial crisis and new regulations, banks added fees and generally made it more expensive to have a checking account. They also became more selective about who they did business with.

As a result, millions of consumers went to a cash system, joining the ranks of what FDIC called “the unbanked” population. FDIC's latest data shows 7.7% of U.S. households were unbanked in 2013.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman thinks that's too many and is calling on banks operating in his state to revise policies to help more consumers receive access to standard checking accounts.

Schneiderman has sent letters to executives at nearly 100 banks, explaining his goals and what he would like them to do.

Big bank initiative

His office launched an initiative in 2013 to reduce the unbanked population in New York, resulting in agreements with five banks — Chase, Citibank, Capital One, Santander, and, most recently, Amalgamated.

Now Schneiderman is urging other banks operating in New York to follow the lead of these five banks by adopting a set of best practices to govern their own applicant-screening policies.

Schneiderman estimates more than two million households in New York lack access to mainstream bank accounts. That leaves them dealing with cash, or high-cost alternative financial services, including non-bank money orders, check-cashing outlets, and pawnshops.

Screened out

Schneiderman says even if some consumers are willing to pay the fees to open a checking account, some banks reject them because they fail to pass the screening process.

Just how fair, Schneiderman wondered, is that process?

His office examined the methods banks use to screen applicants for checking accounts and found that the use of consumer-screening agencies like ChexSystems, Inc. and Early Warning Services, LLC causes some banks to unnecessarily reject many thousands of applicants throughout the state.

In many cases, Schneiderman says, very small financial missteps on the part of the consumer blocks him or her from opening a checking account.

Chase, Citibank, Capital One, Santander, and Amalgamated have already committed to taking steps to limit their use of these types of screenings.

The five banks are still screening applicants for identity verification and fraud history, but they have significantly reduced or eliminated the number of applicants rejected on the basis of past financial mistakes.

The attorney general would like the rest of the banks in the state to follow suit.

“It is critical that low-income Americans — and New Yorkers in particular — have access to mainstream banking services,” Schneiderman said. “These new actions on the part of Amalgamated, and those of the other four banks that have already undertaken similar changes will help expand access to low-cost financial services available to the benefit of consumers across the state.”

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Filld is an app that keeps your car filled with fuel

Silicon Valley start-up brings the gasoline to you

A silicon valley startup is aimed at people with more money than time -- or maybe they just don't like the smell of gasoline fumes.Filld is an iPhone a...

PhotoA silicon valley startup is aimed at people with more money than time -- or maybe they just don't like the smell of gasoline fumes.

Filld is an iPhone app that's being compared to Uber. Except that, instead of coming to pick you up like Uber, Filld comes to wherever your car happens to be and fills it with fuel.

The company is the brainchild of Scott Hempy and Christopher Aubuchon and for now, is limited to the Silicon Valley area.

Customers download the Filld app and register. Then, when they want to top off their gas tank, they open the app and tap on their location.

Whether their car is parked at the office or in their driveway overnight, the Filld truck pulls up and fills the tank with gas. The bill goes on their credit card.

$5 delivery charge

Just how much is the bill? The company says the cost per gallon of fuel is based on the average price at area gas stations. It then adds on a $5 delivery charge that, admittedly doesn't seem excessive but can quickly ratchet up the price per gallon. Buy just 10 gallons and it adds 50 cents a gallon to the price.

But after all, this service is being offered in Silicon Valley, where, quite frankly, people who work in the tech industry don't worry much about the cost of gasoline. Not having to pull into a gas station and fill up yourself might be well worth an extra $5.

Does Filld have a future outside very affluent areas? Hemp and Aubuchon believe it does. According to Business Insider, the company has just secured more than $3 million in venture capital to expand to neighborhoods around San Francisco.

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FTC begins study of e-cigarette marketing

Growing use among teens has raised concerns

The Federal Trade Commission is planning to study the marketing of e-cigarettes, the first step in a process that could eventually lead to tougher regulati...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission is planning to study the marketing of e-cigarettes, the first step in a process that could eventually lead to tougher regulation of sales and advertising practices for the fast-growing industry.

The agency will first send information requests to e-cigarette marketers and will use the information as a basis for a report on the sales, marketing activities, and expenditures in this new and complex industry.

Since the mid-2000s, the sale of battery-powered e-cigarettes has grown rapidly in the United States. Rather than burning tobacco, e-cigarettes heat liquid containing flavorings and chemicals (usually including nicotine) to produce an aerosol that the user inhales. E-cigarettes are sold both online and in conventional brick-and-mortar stores, are available in both disposable and refillable models, and come in a range of different flavors and nicotine levels.

The FTC is seeking clearance from the Office of Management and Budget to collect information from the e-cigarette marketers, which is the first step toward conducting the study. It will publish a Federal Register notice seeking public comment on the proposed collection of information from approximately five large and ten smaller e-cigarette marketers.

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Personal income and spending inch higher

Consumers also tucked more away for a rainy day

Not a lot of movement in September in personal income or spending. The Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reports personal income ros...

PhotoNot a lot of movement in September in personal income or spending.

The Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reports personal income increased $18.6 billion -- or 0.1% -- in September. Disposable personal income (DPI), which is after-tax income was also up 0.1% or $19.2 billion.

On the spending side, personal consumption expenditures (PCE) edged up just 0.1% or $15.6 billion.

Money coming in

Wages and salaries fell by $3.7 billion in September, after shooting up $36.0 billion the month before. Within that, private wages and salaries were down $7.0 billion, while government wages and salaries increased $3.3 billion. Supplements to wages and salaries rose $3.3 billion.

Spending and saving

Personal outlays, which is made up of PCE -- personal interest payments and personal current transfer payments -- rose $13.7 billion last month, compared with an increase of $42.3 billion in August.

Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- totaled $642.8 billion in September, compared with $637.3 billion the month before. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income – was 4.8%; it was 4.7% in August.

The complete report is available on the BEA website.

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Older Jeep Liberty and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles recalled

Air bags and/or seatbelt pretensioners could deploy inadvertently

Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 284,089 model year 2003 Jeep Liberty vehicles manufactured March 29, 2003, to July 3, 2003, and 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee...

PhotoChrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 284,089 model year 2003 Jeep Liberty vehicles manufactured March 29, 2003, to July 3, 2003, and 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles manufactured May 27, 2003, to May 20, 2004.

 

Due to electrical noise beyond the tolerance of the air bag electronic control module (ECM), a component in the ECM may fail, causing the front air bags, side air bags, and/or seatbelt pretensioners to deploy inadvertently while the vehicle is being operated.

 

Inadvertent deployment of the air bags may increase the risk of injury and the possibility of a vehicle crash.

 

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the air bag electronic control module and the front and/or side impact sensors, as necessary, free of charge. The replacement parts needed for this remedy are not expected to be available until the early part of 2016. Owners will be mailed an interim notification by the end of December 2015 and will be mailed a follow up notification when new air bag control modules are available.

 

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is R60.

 

 

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Pottery Barn Kids recalls Avengers and Darth Vader water bottles

The gray paint on the water bottle can contain excessive levels of lead

Pottery Barn Kids of San Francisco, Calif., is recalling about 15,630 Avengers and Darth Vader-themed water bottles in the U.S. and Canada. The gray paint...

Pottery Barn Kids of San Francisco, Calif., is recalling about 15,630 Avengers and Darth Vader-themed water bottles in the U.S. and Canada.

 

The gray paint on the metal portion of the water bottle can contain excessive levels of lead, violating the federal lead paint standard.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves Avengers and Darth Vader-themed stainless steel water bottles with images of Thor, The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man on one and an image of Darth Vader and the Death Star on the other.

 

The water bottles are gray with a blue or black plastic top, a vacuum-valve stopper and are 5 ½ inches tall by 2 ¾ inches in diameter. SKU number 7939721 (Avengers) or 7939721 (Darth Vader) is printed on the price sticker affixed to the bottom of the bottle, along with one of the following date codes: 12/2013, 8/2014 or 12/2014.

 

A tracking label imprinted on the underside of the bottle contains the date code printed along with the words, “Pottery Barn Kids,” “LOT 1, BATCH 1” and “JINHUA, CHINA.”

 

The water bottles, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Pottery Barn Kids and Pottery Barn Outlet stores nationwide, through the Pottery Barn Kids catalog and online at www.potterybarnkids.com from June 2014, through September 2015, for about $16.

 

Consumers should immediately take the recalled water bottles from children and return them to the nearest Pottery Barn Kids store or contact the firm’s toll-free number for free shipping information. Consumers will have the option of a full refund or replacement water bottle, plus a $20 Pottery Barn Kids gift card.

 

Consumers may contact Pottery Barn Kids toll-free at 844-421-8062 from 7 a.m. to midnight (ET) daily, or online at http://www.potterybarnkids.com/customer-service/recall-water-bottle.html for more information.  

 

 

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Honda recalls model year 2008-2009 Accords

Slamming the door could cause the air bags to deploy

American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 303,904 model year 2008-2009 Honda Accord vehicles manufactured January 22, 2007, to June 30, 2008. The side impact...

PhotoAmerican Honda Motor Co. is recalling 303,904 model year 2008-2009 Honda Accord vehicles manufactured January 22, 2007, to June 30, 2008.

 

The side impact sensor calibrations may be overly sensitive, and as a result, the side air bag inflatable curtains and/or seat air bags may unexpectedly deploy when the ignition is on and the door is slammed or there is an impact with road debris. Air bags that unexpectedly deploy increase the risk of a crash or injury.

 

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will update the air bag control unit software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on December 14, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-888-234-2138. Honda's number for this recall is JV4.

 

 

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The feds are trying to give away $80 million to minority car buyers

It's the result of a settlement with Ally Bank, which was accused of gouging minority buyers

Back in 2013, Ally Bank agreed to pay $80 million in damages to minority borrowers who allegedly paid higher interest rates for their car loans because of ...

PhotoBack in 2013, Ally Bank agreed to pay $80 million in damages to minority borrowers who allegedly paid higher interest rates for their car loans because of their ethnicity, plus another $18 million in penalties.

Now, the government is ready to start sending out checks, but there's one hitch: it's not quite sure who's a minority group member and who isn't. After all, that's not information that is typically included on a car loan application. In fact, it's illegal under federal law to collect such information.

So, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has had to be a little creative. It's using a compjuter algorithm to make educated guesses about car buyers' ethnicity, based on their last name and their address. 

The CFPB has been sending a couple of different letters. One letter tells recipients they are probably eligible for a monetary award and asks them to write back if they are not a minority group member; that letter goes to consumers the algorithm is 95% sure are minorities. Another letter, sent to those whose status is less clear, asks recipients to sign and return the letter to certify that they are minorities.

While the process may sound a little unusual, the CFPB says it's confident it will be mostly accurate, the Wall Street Journal reported. “We anticipate that the full amount of the settlement fund will be allocated to affected customers,” CFPB spokesman Sam Gilford said.

"A serious issue"

At the time of the settlement, the CFPB said it had determined that more than 235,000 minority borrowers paid higher interest rates for their auto loans between April 2011 and December 2013 because of Ally’s allegedly discriminatory pricing system.

“Discrimination is a serious issue across every consumer credit market,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We are returning $80 million to hard-working consumers who paid more for their cars or trucks based on their race or national origin."

Auto loans are the third-largest source of outstanding household debt in the United States, after mortgages and student loans. When consumers finance automobile purchases from an auto dealership, the dealer often facilitates indirect financing through a third-party lender like Ally, one of the largest indirect auto lenders in the United States.

The CFPB has been trying to tighten its regulation of third-party lenders to reduce alleged discrimination against minority buyers. Third-party lenders often give dealers leeway to mark up the interest rate, giving dealers a financial incentive to take advantage of low-income buyers and minority group members.

Dealers and their trade groups vehemently deny this and say the flexibility third-partly lenders provide helps them find financing for buyers who would not otherwise qualify for a loan.

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Popular heartburn medicines linked to kidney disease

Two independent studies reach the same conclusion

Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is on the rise in the U.S., currently affecting more than 20 million people.Diabetes and hypertension can be risk factors,...

PhotoChronic kidney disease (CKD) is on the rise in the U.S., currently affecting more than 20 million people.

Diabetes and hypertension can be risk factors, but two separate studies say a certain kind of drug may also increase the risk of CKD.

Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are a class of drug commonly used to treat acid reflux and stomach ulcers. Some popular name brands include Prilosec OTC, Prevacid 24 Hour, and Nexium.

In one study, researchers at Johns Hopkins University followed 10,482 adults with normal kidney function, from 1996 to 2011. During that time, they found that subjects taking a PPI were between 20% and 50% more likely to develop CKD than non-PPI users.

As a follow up, the researchers conducted a second study to see if they could replicate the results – this one examining nearly a quarter of a million patients from 1997 to 2014. They say the results were roughly the same.

Reduce overuse

“In both studies, people who used a different class of medications to suppress stomach acid, known as H2-blockers, did not have a higher risk of developing kidney disease,” said lead researcher Benjamin Lazarus. “If we know the potential adverse effects of PPI medications we can design better interventions to reduce overuse.”

At roughly the same time, a research team at SUNY Buffalo had the same idea. It followed nearly 25,000 patients who developed CKD between 2001 and 2008. The researchers discovered about 25% were taking a PPI drug.

Among the people who took PPIs, there was reduced instances of vascular disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But the use of a PPI was linked with a 10% increased risk of CKD and a 76% increased risk of dying prematurely.

Understand potential side effects

“As a large number of patients are being treated with PPIs, health care providers need to be better educated about the potential side effects of these drugs, such as CKD,” said researcher Pradeep Arora.

Arora says PPIs are often prescribed outside of their approved uses and that may be at least partly responsible for increased kidney risks. He says it's been estimated that as many as two-thirds of all people on PPIs “do not have a verified indication for the drug.”

If you are taking a PPI, you probably shouldn't stop on your own. Instead, discuss with your health care provider whether your dosage and use is appropriate.

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Be safe when using space heaters this winter

These appliances could cause fires if they aren't used properly

As fall begins to wind down, many people across the country will preparing for the cold weather ahead. Turning up the heat in your home can make things mor...

PhotoAs fall begins to wind down, many people across the country will be preparing for the cold weather ahead. Turning up the heat in your home can make things more comfortable, but it can take a toll on your fuel bill as well. To avoid this, many consumers will be turning to space heaters to make the winter months more bearable.

Unfortunately, these appliances come with their own set of dangers. According to data collected by the National Fire Protection Association, there were 3,300 fires that were started because of portable space heaters between 2007-2011. Numerous families paid dearly for their mistakes by losing their homes and all of their possessions.

All of these fires were tragic, but they were also very preventable. To help consumers be safer, the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) has released a list of precautions that should be followed for proper space heater use.

Safety tips

  1. Read the manufacturer’s instructions and warning labels before using your portable electric heater.

  2. Do not leave an operating heater unattended and always unplug the heater when not in use.

  3. Do not use your heater with a power strip or extension cord.  Overheating of a power strip or extension cord could result in a fire.

  4. String out cords on top of area rugs or carpeting. Placing anything, including furniture, on top of the cord may damage it.

  5. Keep combustible materials, such as furniture, pillows, bedding, papers, clothes, and curtains at least three feet from the front of the heater and away from the sides and rear. Do not block the heater’s air intake or outlet.

  6. Keep flammable materials, such as paint, gas cans, and matches, away from the heater.

  7. Unless the heater is designed for outdoor use or in bathrooms, do not use in damp or wet areas. Parts in the heater may be damaged by moisture.

  8. Check periodically for a secure plug/outlet fit. If the plug does not fit snugly into the outlet, or if the plug becomes very hot, the outlet may need to be replaced. Check with a qualified electrician to replace the outlet.

  9. Unplug the heater when not in use by pulling the plug straight out from the outlet. Inspect the heater’s cord periodically. Do not use a heater with a damaged cord.

  10. Do not plug any other electrical device into the same outlet as your heater.  This could result in overheating.

  11. Heaters should be kept away from children and not be placed in a child’s room without supervision.

  12. Place the heater on a level, flat surface. Only use the heater on table tops when specified by the manufacturer. Do not place your heater on furniture.  It could fall, dislodging or breaking parts in the heater.

Consumers who want to learn more about portable space heater safety can visit this website for more information. 

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Background screening companies run afoul of feds

"Serious inaccuracies" cost companies $13 million

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has taken action against two of the country's largest background screening companies, saying they failed to...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has taken action against two of the country's largest background screening companies, saying they failed to ensure that the information they provided about job applicants was accurate.

The "serious inaccuracies" reported by General Information Services and its affiliate, e-Background-checks.com, Inc. (BGC), potentially affected consumers’ eligibility for employment and caused harm to their reputations. The CFPB is ordering the companies to correct their practices, provide $10.5 million in relief to harmed consumers, and pay a $2.5 million civil penalty.

“General Information Services and its affiliate failed to take basic steps to provide accurate background screening reports to employers about job applicants,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Today, we are holding two of the largest companies in this market accountable for cleaning up the quality of their reports.”

10 million per year

GIS and its affiliate, BGC, collectively generate and sell more than 10 million consumer reports about job applicants each year to prospective employers. These consumer reports include criminal history information and civil records, among other types of data. Employers use the consumer reports to determine hiring eligibility of applicants and make other types of employment decisions.

The companies are two of the largest background screening report providers in the United States. GIS is headquartered in Chapin, S.C., and BGC is headquartered in Dallas, Texas.

The CFPB found that GIS and BGC violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by, among other things, failing to employ reasonable procedures to assure the maximum possible accuracy of the information contained in reports provided to consumers’ potential employers.

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Consumers don't know much about electric vehicles but view them positively

Consumer Federation survey finds "tremendous opportunity" for EV manufacturers

Humans often fear the unknown, but that doesn't appear to be the case with electric vehicles, according to a survey released today by...

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Photo (c) Nissan

Humans often fear the unknown, but that doesn't appear to be the case with electric vehicles, according to a survey released today by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA).

The survey found that most Americans (54%) have a positive view of electric vehicles (EVs). While 33% of the respondents had no opinion, only 13% had a negative view of EVs. More significantly, almost one-third (31%) say they will consider buying an EV in their next car purchase even though, at this early stage, only one percent of vehicles sold are EVs.

“While the current market penetration of EVs is small, there are currently 12 automakers offering a wide variety of EVs, so these consumers already have choices,” said Jack Gillis, CFA’s Director of Public Affairs and author of The Car Book and the new Snapshot Guide to Electric Vehicles.

Not surprisingly, the survey revealed that the more Americans know about EVs, the more likely they are to consider this purchase. However, only a little over a quarter of respondents say they know a great deal (6%) or a fair amount (21%) about EVs at this early stage of EV marketing and sales.

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“Clearly, there is a tremendous opportunity for EV sellers to take advantage of this interest as long as they engage in the same effective marketing that has moved millions of gas powered vehicles,” said Mark Cooper, CFA’s Director of Research.

“Our research shows a clear, statistically significant, correlation between knowledge about EVs and positive attitudes towards EVs. The more one knows about EVs, the more positively one feels about these vehicles,” said Cooper.

“Furthermore, there is a statistically significant correlation between positive attitudes about EVs and a willingness to purchase them—those who feel positively about EVs are more likely to consider purchasing one,” said Cooper.

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Anheuser-Busch settles Beck's Beer lawsuit

It might be German-style beer but it's brewed in the U.S., lawsuit charged

Many discerning beer drinkers will tell you they only guzzle local craft beers or those hearty, yeasty beers from Germany. Like Beck's. There's only one pr...

PhotoMany discerning beer drinkers will tell you they only guzzle local craft beers or those hearty, yeasty beers from Germany. Like Beck's. There's only one problem with that: Beck's is brewed in the United States, which has left Anheuser-Busch with a $3.5 million class action tab.

Lead plaintiff Francisco Rene Marty claimed in his lawsuit that the brewing giant deceived Beck's drinkers into believing the beer is brewed in Germany.

Marty claimed the Beck's beer label still bears the phrases "Originated in Germany" and "German Quality," and that Anheuser-Busch sold Beck's at prices substantially higher than those of domestic beer, "despite the fact that the beer is brewed in the United States with domestic ingredients," Courthouse News Service reported.

Anheuser-Busch denied the claims and said its labeling, packaging, and marketing of Beck's Beer has always been truthful but agreed to settle the suit to avoid further litigation.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John O'Sullivan awarded Marty and two others $5,000 each. Consumers who purchased Beck's Pilsner, Beck's Dark, Beck's Light, and Beck's Oktoberfest beer can submit claims of up to $12 per household without a receipt or up to $50 with a receipt.

The claim form is located here

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A pharmaceutical mega-merger could be in the works

Pfizer and Allergen link-up could be part of an enduring trend

Financial media are reporting that two drug giants, Pfizer and Allergen, are in talks to merge.Both The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times are rep...

PhotoFinancial media are reporting that two drug giants, Pfizer and Allergen, are in talks to merge.

Both The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times are reporting merger talks are underway, though neither company will comment.

Pfizer is a huge drug company that produces the popular cholesterol-lowering Lipitor, the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, and the anti-inflammatory drug Celebrex.

Allergen, based in Ireland, is perhaps best known as the maker of Botox.

A merger, should it happen, would just be the latest in a series of mergers and acquisitions in the healthcare sector since last year. It could also open the way for Pfizer to switch its tax base to Ireland, which taxes corporations at a much lower rate.

Definite trend

Corporations merge for many reasons but among them is the desire to reduce competition and gain efficiencies amid declining, or flat demand. Just this week, Walgreens announced its intentions to purchase Rite Aid, combining the nation's largest drug store chain with the fourth-largest.

On Monday, Bridgestone announced a deal to purchase Pep Boys, consolidating it's position in the automotive parts and services market in the U.S.

While there are many business reasons for corporations to join forces, it rarely works out well for consumers. One only has to look at the airline industry.

Over the last decade airlines have merged, reducing the number of major carriers to four. Not only are there fewer flights to choose from, there is less price competition, especially when it comes to fees for things that once were included in the price of a ticket.

Merger that didn't happen

On the reverse side is the cellphone industry. In 2011, AT&T; made an ill-fated attempt to purchase and merge with T-Mobile, a deal that would have reduced the big-four providers to just three.

Since then, T-Mobile has been a highly disruptive force in the marketplace, offering a number of consumer-friendly promotions that has resulted in a cellphone price war and systematic changes in how the industry operates.

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Many used cars have advanced technology too

You don't have to buy a new car to get Bluetooth or back-up cameras

There is no doubt that one reason new car sales have surged in recent years is the cars rolling off the assembly line have gotten better and more fun to dr...

PhotoThere is no doubt that one reason new car sales have surged in recent years is the cars rolling off the assembly line have gotten better and more fun to drive.

There are new safety features and connectivity in the cabin that links many smartphone apps with the vehicle navigation and entertainment systems.

But if technology is a major reason you're considering a new car, you shouldn't overlook a late model used one. Automotive site Edmunds.com has done some research and found that many of the same technology features found on new cars are also available on many late model used cars, at thousands less.

"Many shoppers will be surprised to learn how many used cars currently available are loaded with advanced technology," said Edmunds.com Senior Consumer Advice Editor Ron Montoya. "Buyers looking at certified pre-owned cars or those in the two- to three-year-old range, for example, are very likely to find technology that's comparable with what can be found on a new-car lot."

To find a used car with the technology you want, you need to know when different carmakers began adding them, either as standard features or options. Edmunds has done the research.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth, the wireless technology that syncs your mobile device to the car's audio system, is among the most popular automotive technologies consumers seek. It exploded as a feature in 2009, with 81% of all models offering the technology as either standard or optional — up from just 47% the year before.

Starting your vehicle search with the 2009 model year means you should be able to purchase a car with Bluetooth technology for less.

Back-up cameras

Back-up cameras are another popular feature. They appeared as options in 2005 but, by 2010, began to be more common as standard equipment.

Cameras are valued as important safety equipment, especially for parents of small children. Insurance companies like them too, since they help avoid fender benders in shopping center parking lots.

Edmunds says by the 2010 model year, back-up cameras were available as standard or optional equipment in 58% of all available models.

Blind-spot monitoring

Blind-spot monitoring is a more recent technology, but Edmunds says consumers can find it on some used cars, starting with the 2013 model years. Edmunds calls it “an incredibly helpful technology” that is often found on many midsize sedans and SUVs.

The system displays a lit icon in the vehicle's side mirrors to let the driver know that it is not safe to turn or change lanes. By the 2015 model year, the feature was available on 50% of all cars.

Adaptive Cruise Control

Adaptive cruise control is another recent technology, also debuting in the 2013 model year. The feature automatically detects the speed of the vehicle ahead and reduces your car's speed to keep a safe distance.

This feature is still only offered as an option on less than half of all of today's new cars but, like blind-spot monitoring, the technology was available as a standard or optional feature in about one-third of vehicles in the 2013 model year. However, Edmunds says you'll mostly find it on luxury brands or top-of-the-line mainstream models.

Keep in mind the model years are simply a place to start. Consumers need to thoroughly research a potential used car purchase to determine whether the technology was standard that year or an option. In other words, not all used cars in that model year will have the desired equipment.

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Prices for condos rising faster than single-family homes

Urban units often compare favorably to renting

It wasn't so long ago that the value of the average condominium was crashing hard. During the housing market meltdown, these units lost value at an alarmin...

PhotoIt wasn't so long ago that the value of the average condominium was crashing hard. During the housing market meltdown, these units lost value at an alarming rate.

Fast forward to today, and you'll find condos are gaining value at a faster rate than single-family homes in many areas of the country. A report by real estate marketing site Zillow shows condo values are up 5.1% compared to 3.7% for single family homes.

It's not hard to figure out why. Single-family homes have already gained back a lot of their value since the depths of the Great Recession. In a way, condos are simply catching up.

Demographics

But demographics also play a role. Since condos are often an entry-level home purchase, the recent pick-up in first-time home buyers means more demand for condos.

Condos also tend to be numerous in urban areas, and cities are where young Millennials want to be. Zillow data shows that condo values outpaced house values the most in the New York City metro area, in Dallas and Houston, and in Boston and Denver.

Denver is one of the hottest housing markets in the nation. Condo values are up a head-spinning 20% there, rising 4% faster than single-family homes. It's earning condos new respect among real estate professionals.

Better investment now

“The housing bust hit condo values hard, and over the past few years, buying a condo wasn’t always considered a good investment compared to a single family home,” said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Svenja Gudell. “But that’s changing, and condos increasingly represent a strong-performing, often affordable choice, particularly for first-time buyers interested both in homeownership and in keeping a lower-maintenance, city lifestyle.”

That's not to say there aren't some extra costs associated with owning a condo. Home Owner Association (HOA) fees can be high for some developments, but even with those fees the bottom line can often compare favorably with rents.

A report by Zillow's sister site Trulia notes that rents for a one-bedroom apartment can run between $2,000 and $4,000 a month in San Francisco and New York.

In Philadelphia, a market where many people who rent are saving up to buy, demand for condos has driven up prices by 2.3%. At the same time, the value of single-family homes dipped slightly.

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Pending home sales sag in September

It's the second straight decline

Pending home sales seem to be running out of gas, posting their second decline in as many months in September. Figures released by the National Associatio...

PhotoPending home sales seem to be running out of gas, posting their second decline in as many months in September.

Figures released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show the Pending Home Sales Index Pending (PHSI) fell 2.3% to 106.8 -- the second lowest index reading in 2015. All four major regions experienced a pullback in activity in September.

At the same time, the PHSI is 3.0% above its year-ago level and has increased year–over–year for 13 straight months.

A sale is listed as pending when the contract has been signed but the transaction has not closed, though the sale usually is finalized within one or two months of signing.

A variety of factors

"There continues to be a dearth of available listings in the lower end of the market for first–time buyers, and Realtors in many areas are reporting stronger competition than what's normal this time of year because of stubbornly low inventory conditions," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "Additionally, the rockiness in the financial markets at the end of the summer and signs of a slowing U.S. economy may be causing some prospective buyers to take a wait–and–see approach."

Despite contract activity softening from the more robust levels seen earlier this year, Yun believes the housing market will still likely be one of the brighter spots in the economy in coming months.

"With interest rates hovering around 4%, rents rising at a near eight-year high, and job growth holding strong -- albeit at a more modest pace than earlier this year -- the overall demand for buying should stay at a healthy level despite some weakness in the overall economy," Yun added.

Regional performance

  • The PHSI in the Northeast fell 4.0% to 89.6 in September, but is still 3.9 percent above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index was down 2.5% to 104.7, but stayed 4.3% above September 2014.
  • Pending home sales in the South dipped 2.6% to a reading of 118.3 and have now fallen 0.1% below last September.
  • The index in the West inched down 0.2% to 104.4, but remains 6.6% above a year ago.
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Rate of economic growth slows dramatically

Weekly jobless claims inch higher

Growth in the U.S. economy slowed significantly during the third quarter following a robust increase in the previous three months. The Bureau of Economic ...

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© z_amir – Fotolia

Growth in the U.S. economy slowed significantly during the third quarter following a robust increase in the previous three months.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis 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 1.5% in the July – September quarter of 2015. Real GDP shot up 3.9% in the second quarter.

It should be noted that this is an “advance” and that the source data will be revised two more times as more information becomes available. The "second" estimate is due out on November 24.

Positives and negatives

The increase in real GDP is a reflection of positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), state and local government spending, nonresidential fixed investment, exports, and residential fixed investment. Those were partly offset by a decline in private inventory investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.

The slowdown in the rate of growth came from, in addition to the previously-mentioned downturn in private inventory, decelerations in exports, nonresidential fixed investment, PCE, state and local government spending, and residential fixed investment that were partly offset by a deceleration in imports.

Personal saving -- disposable personal income less personal outlays -- was $636.7 billion in the third quarter, compared with $617.5 billion in the second. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 4.7% in the third quarter, compared with an increase of 4.6% in the second.

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

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Jobless claims

First-time applications for state unemployment benefits were up a tad last week.

According to the Department of Labor (DOL), initial jobless claims rose 1,000 in the week ending October 24 to a seasonally adjusted 260,000. The previous week's total was unrevised, and DOL says there were no special factors affecting the latest week's initial claims.

The four-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly accounting and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, came in at 259,250 -- down of 4,000 from the previous week and the lowest level for this average since December 15, 1973.

The full report may be found on the DOL website.  

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Adolf’s Meat Products recalls assorted deli meat

The products maybe adulterated with Listeria monocytogenes

Adolf’s Meat Products of Hartford, Conn., is recalling approximately 224 pounds of assorted meat. The products maybe adulterated with Listeria monocytogen...

PhotoAdolf’s Meat Products of Hartford, Conn., is recalling approximately 224 pounds of assorted meat.

 

The products maybe adulterated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

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

 

The following items, produced on Oct. 20, 2015, are being recalled:

  • 14-lb. of Smoked Kielbasa
  • 100-lb. of Hams
  • 40-lb. of Canadian Bacon
  • 30-lb. of Bone-In Pork Loins
  • 50-lb. of Liverwurst

The smoked kielbasa products bear establishment number “EST. 34651” inside the USDA mark of inspection, while the others were sold from behind a deli counter without labels. All recalled products were sold at Adolf’s Meat & Sausage Kitchen in Hartford, Conn.

 

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

 

Consumers with questions may contact Joseph Gorski at (860) 522-1588.

 

 

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BMW recalls vehicles with front passenger air bag issue

The front passenger air bag may not deploy properly in a low speed crash

BMW of North America is recalling 6,073 model year 2014-2016 MINI Cooper S and MINI Cooper two-door vehicles, 2015-2016 MINI John Cooper Works and MINI Coo...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 6,073 model year 2014-2016 MINI Cooper S and MINI Cooper two-door vehicles, 2015-2016 MINI John Cooper Works and MINI Cooper S and MINI Cooper four-door vehicles, and 2014-2015 BMW i3 vehicles.

 

Due to a manufacturing error, the front passenger air bag may not deploy properly in a low speed crash. Thus, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 208, "Occupant Crash Protection." An air bag that fails to deploy properly increases the risk of injury to the front seat passenger.

 

MINI and BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the passenger frontal air bag module, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on November 20, 2015.

 

Owners may contact MINI customer service at 1-866-825-1525 and BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417.

 

 

 

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Burley Design recalls child bicycle trailers

Trailers can separate from the tow bar

Burley Design of Eugene, Ore., is recalling about 34,820 child bicycle trailers in the U.S. and Canada. Trailers with black plastic tow bar receivers can ...

PhotoBurley Design of Eugene, Ore., is recalling about 34,820 child bicycle trailers in the U.S. and Canada.

 

Trailers with black plastic tow bar receivers can separate from the tow bar when they appear to be connected, posing a crash hazard to the child in the trailer.

 

The company has received 35 reports of trailers with black plastic tow bar receivers separating from the tow bar, including two incidents that resulted in abrasions to a child.

 

This recall involves seven models of Burley Design child bicycle trailers manufactured from 2009 to 2015. The trailers allow cyclists to tow children behind their bicycles while riding.

 

The trailers are connected to the bicycle by a tow bar, which attaches to the rear axle of the bicycle on one end and to a tow bar receiver on the trailer at the other end. The tow bar receiver is on the front left side of the trailer as it faces the rear wheel of the bicycle.

 

Recalled trailers have a black plastic tow bar receiver with an integrated wheel guard and can be identified by the first four characters of the serial numbers on the trailer. The serial number is on a sticker in the rear cargo area behind the seat of the trailer on the left inside frame bar.

 

The following seven trailer models and serial numbers are being recalled:

 

Model

Serial Numbers

Cub

K943

Rental Cub

K943

D’Lite and D’Lite ST

D948 and K948

Encore

K942

Solo and Solo ST

D939, K939 and KK939

 

The trailers, manufactured in China, were sold at REI, Sport Chalet and other sporting goods stores and bike shops nationwide, and at Amazon.com and other online retailers from January 2009, to October 2015, for between $300 and $700.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycle trailers and contact Burley for a free safety strap kit with tools and instructions for installation and a coupon for a 20% discount on the purchase of any Burley accessory. Consumers should also inspect the black plastic tow bar receiver. If it appears to be cracked or damaged, consumers should also request a free replacement tow bar receiver.

 

Consumers may contact Burley Design at 800-311-5294 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (PT) Monday through Friday or online at https://burley.com/recall/

 

 

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Education Department knows of problems with teacher grants but does nothing

A March GAO report found more than 2,000 grants wrongly converted to loans

The plight of teachers whose federal grants are suddenly -- and in thousands of cases wrongfully -- converted to delinquent loans is a problem that educati...

PhotoThe plight of teachers whose federal grants are suddenly -- and in thousands of cases wrongfully -- converted to delinquent loans is a problem that education bureaucrats know about but have chosen to ignore, although the issue is beginning to percolate in Congress.

"We have a real problem here,” said Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) in a recent letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “Programs to help ease the burden of teacher loans all too often don’t accomplish that goal. Instead, they end up leaving many qualified candidates with costlier loan payments and more debt. It’s time to create a more effective approach that gives teachers the support they need to make a difference in the lives of kids everywhere.”

The TEACH Grant Program was established by Congress to encourage more teachers to go to “high-needs” schools and teach subjects that are critically important to students’ success. But many teachers who have lived up to their end of the deal now find themselves burdened with additional debt.

"This is an advertised federal program to help people become teachers. In reality, it's a for-profit scam," said David West, a South Carolina teacher whose grant was converted to a loan because of a minor administrative error, as reported in a recent ConsumerAffairs story.

2,252 errors & counting

The accounts of West and other young teachers are no surprise to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which reported in May that, as of September 2014, at least 2,252 TEACH grants had been erroneously converted to loans. “Education officials said they now monitor the [loan] servicer more closely and plan to review all of the nearly 36,000 of the program's grant-to-loan conversions, but the agency has not systematically reviewed the cause of the errors,” GAO said.

West and other teachers say their grants of $4,000 or more -- awarded to them for teaching in “high-needs” schools -- were converted to delinquent interest-bearing loans even though the teachers were doing everything they were required to do but had made simple administrative errors in filling out the annual paperwork the grants require.

The teachers appealed the conversions, but their appeals were denied, something else that would not come as news to the GAO examiners. In their March 2015 report, they wrote that the Department of Education “established a dispute process to address concerns about TEACH grants converted to loans in error; however, GAO found that Education and the servicer provide incomplete and inconsistent information to recipients about the availability of and criteria for disputing conversions.”

GAO said such conduct is “inconsistent with federal internal control standards that highlight effective external communication.”

Agreed but did nothing

GAO recommended that the Education Department “examine why erroneous TEACH grant-to-loan conversions occurred, disseminate information on the TEACH grant-to-loan dispute process, and establish program performance measures.”

The department said it agreed with GAO's recommendations, but that is little comfort to the thousands of teachers who find themselves rewarded for their efforts by being plunged into debt and threatened in harsh letters telling them their credit ratings will be affected and their income tax refunds may be seized.

No one has bothered to tell them of the 2,252 errors or to assure them their cases will get a second look.

The TEACH grants are administered by FedLoan, a Pennsylvania state agency that is part of a larger agency whose primary responsibility is providing grants to Pennsylvania students. A spokesman for that agency said he could not comment and referred inquiries to the Education Department, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Congress takes note

The issue is drawing the attention of several members of Congress, however. On May 7, Joyce joined with Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) in a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noting the problems with the TEACH grants and other programs and saying they “look forward to working with [him]” to improve the programs.

“Unfortunately, our current federal grant and loan forgiveness programs for teachers are a jumble of uncoordinated programs that are often too difficult to navigate. We have a responsibility to our teachers, students, families and taxpayers to do better,” Sen. Warner said.

Duncan, one of the longer-serving members of President Obama’s cabinet, announced earlier this month that he plans to step down in December. Duncan, a former basketball player, said he plans to return to Chicago and  “continue to involve the work of expanding opportunity for children” but gave no indication he would do anything about the TEACH grants.

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Senate passes cybersecurity measure, disappointing privacy advocates

The measure doesn't do enough to protect consumers' privacy, critics say

How does sharing information more widely promote privacy and security? It seems counterintuitive, but supporters of the the Cybersecurity Information Shari...

PhotoHow does sharing information more widely promote privacy and security? It seems counterintuitive, but supporters of the the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) say that's their goal. Privacy advocates say they are, at best, misguided.

The efforts of Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Wikipedia, Yelp, Sprint, and most privacy organizations weren't enough yesterday to prevent the Senate from passing the measure 74-21. It now heads to a conference committee to work out differences with the version already passed by House, then heads to President Obama for his signature.

"No amount of changes in conference could fix the fact that CISA doesn't address the real cybersecurity problems that caused computer data breaches like Target and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM)," the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a statement.

"The passage of CISA reflects the misunderstanding many lawmakers have about technology and security. Computer security engineers were against it.  Academics were against it. Technology companies, including some of Silicon Valley’s biggest like Twitter and Salesforce, were against it. Civil society organizations were against it. And constituents sent over 1 million faxes opposing CISA to senators," EFF said.

Deaf ears

But there was no dissuading lawmakers who bought the arguments put forward by intelligence agencies and the financial services and retail industries.

“Cyber-attacks present one of the most critical national and economic threats that this nation faces. It’s time to get serious about a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy, and this legislation is a step in the right direction,” Sen. Warner said. “This is a serious problem that isn’t limited to government. ... It is critical we encourage increased coordination and information sharing, between companies and the government, in order to identify and protect against real threats.”

Retailers urged quick action to bring a final version of the bill to Obama's desk.

"Cyber-attacks are not going away; in fact, hackers are only growing more sophisticated in their ability to attack businesses, institutions, and governments," said Retail Industry Leaders Association vice president Nicholas Ahrens. “Common-sense legislation that gives businesses the tools and legal protections needed to share cyber-threat indicators is a step in the right direction to thwart future attacks."

Hogwash, said the Electornic Frontier Foundation. "With security breaches like T-mobile, Target, and OPM becoming the norm, Congress knows it needs to do something about cybersecurity. It chose to do the wrong thing," EFF said. "EFF will continue to fight against the bill by urging the conference committee to incorporate pro-privacy language. And we will never stop fighting for lawmakers to either understand technology or understand when they need to listen to the people who do."

Out of sync

Among its other potential problems, CISA could put the U.S. out of step with the European Union, said Mike Weston, CEO of data science consultancy Profusion.

“This is bad news. Just as the EU makes it clear that the ease with which security agencies gain access to commercially held personal data is a serious problem, the U.S. government makes it even easier for this snooping to happen," Weston said.

“The Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act will make it significantly harder for the U.S. and Europe to agree a replacement for the collapsed Safe Harbour provisions. Without assurances that European citizens’ personal data is protected, it’s hard to see how such an agreement might be reached, putting the ‘thriving transatlantic digital economy’ at risk of stuttering, or worse.”

Rick Martinez, Chair of the Privacy and Cyber Security Litigation practice at Robins Kaplan LLP, also sees trouble ahead.

“Yesterday’s Senate vote pits those who value security against those who value privacy. As a result, we see strongly divided constituencies on both sides of the debate," Martinez said in an email. "The bill allows companies to share evidence of cyberattacks with the U.S. government — critics say — without fear of lawsuits if that information also violates privacy.

"As a result, the timing of this particular legislation may end up further complicating the efforts to remedy the European Court’s recent dismantling of the U.S.-E.U. Safe Harbor framework for cross border data transfers.”

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Walgreens buying Rite Aid for $17.2 billion

America's largest drug store chain about to get bigger

The parent company of Walgreens drug store chain is buying rival Rite Aid in a deal valued at $17.2 billion dollars.For investors holding Rite Aid stoc...

PhotoThe parent company of Walgreens drug store chain is buying rival Rite Aid in a deal valued at $17.2 billion dollars.

For investors holding Rite Aid stock it represents a nice payday. The purchase price is $9 a share, roughly 48% more than the stock was selling for earlier this week.

It is also the second major retail merger announcement this week. On Monday, Bridgestone announced it was buying and merging with rival Pep Boys, in a deal valued at $835 million.

Parent company Walgreens Boots Alliance says the acquistion of Rite Aid will create “the opportunity to deliver a high-quality retail pharmacy choice for U.S. consumers in an evolving and increasingly personalized healthcare environment.

Rite Aid operates approximately 4,600 stores in 31 states and the District of Columbia, with a strong presence on both the East and West Coasts.

Keeping its name

Initially, at least, Rite Aid stores will operate under their current name. However, they will be integrated into the Walgreens system.

“In both mature and newer markets across the world, our approach is to advance and broaden the delivery of retail health, wellbeing and beauty products and services,” said Walgreens Boots Alliance Executive Vice Chairman and CEO Stefano Pessina. “This combination will further strengthen our commitment to making quality healthcare accessible to more customers and patients.”

Walgreens is already the largest retail drug store chain in the U.S., with 8,232 stores. The combination with Rite Aid will create a pharmacy giant that may well invite anti-trust scrutiny.

Walgreens says the acquisition will greatly expand its footprint in the U.S., and the synergy between the two brand will likely be worth $1 billion a year.

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Why you should uninstall old software

When a vendor stops supporting a program, it becomes an open door for hackers

If you have an older computer, chances are it runs some older software. If it's software that is no longer supported by the vendor, that can be a problem....

PhotoIf you have an older computer, chances are it runs some older software. If it's software that is no longer supported by the vendor, that can be a problem.

From time to time, hackers find security weaknesses in software and use them to compromise a PC. In most cases the software company responds quickly with a patch, protecting the security of the software and the computer running it.

But when a company no longer supports a software – it's called end-of-life – it stops providing security updates. Those flaws discovered by hackers remain open doors to any computer running the outdated software.

Helping the hackers

"Hackers benefit from users' failure to uninstall end-of-life applications, as the exploits they wrote for the old versions continue to work and continue to have value on the black market," said Kasper Lindgaard, Director of Secunia Research at Flexera Software. "Too many users install and forget.”

Secunia Research has published a report in which it analyzes the security of privately operated computers in 14 countries. It found that in the U.S., one in 20 applications on consumers' computers are end-of-life.

Even the operating system can be end-of-life, as in the case of Windows XP, still being used despite the fact that Microsoft no longer supports it. The report found 12% of U.S. Windows users are working with an unpatched version of Windows.

Not high on the radar

“Maintenance of software is not high on the radar of average computer users, who tend to install whatever application they need to support whatever they need to do,” said Lindgaard. “They then tend to leave it sitting in their system, forgetting to uninstall or update it."

Here's what Secunia Research found on U.S. consumers' computers:

  • Adobe Flash Player 18, which went end-of-life in April, is on 80% on U.S. consumers' computers.
  • Apple QuickTime 7.x and Apple iTunes 12.x tops the list as the U.S.' most exposed applications.
  • QuickTime has a market share of 55% and 18 reported vulnerabilities, 61% of users have not installed the latest updates.
  • iTunes has a market share of 40% and 106 reported vulnerabilities, and 47% of users have not installed the latest updates.

Other vulnerable applications in the top 10 include Adobe Reader, Oracle Java 8, and Mozilla Firefox.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to keep up with what software is end-of-life. It requires you to pay attention.

In nearly every case, the software vendor will send a letter or email to inform the user that support is ending. It's important to be on the lookout for these notices and respond accordingly.

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Feds get default judgment against Corinthian Colleges for predatory lending

Corinthian liable for more than $530 million but has been liquidated

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has won a $530 million default judgment against Corinthian Colleges, the defunct for-profit chain that has already...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has won a $530 million default judgment against Corinthian Colleges, the defunct for-profit chain that has already declared bankruptcy and been liquidated.

“Today’s ruling marks the end of our litigation against a company that severely harmed tens of thousands of students, turning dreams of higher education into a nightmare,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We all have much more work to do before current and past students who were hurt by Corinthian’s illegal practices can be made whole. We remain deeply concerned about risks facing student borrowers in the for-profit space and will continue to be vigilant in rooting out harmful practices.”

A federal court entered the default judgment yesterday, resolving a lawsuit filed by the CFPB in September 2014.

The Bureau’s lawsuit alleged that Corinthian lured tens of thousands of students into taking out private loans to cover expensive tuition costs by advertising bogus job prospects and career services. Corinthian then used illegal debt collection tactics to strong-arm students into paying back those loans while still in school.

The court ordered that Corinthian was liable for more than $530 million and prohibited the company from engaging in future misconduct.

Company has been liquidated

Earlier this year, Corinthian Colleges filed for bankruptcy and was liquidated, making it unlikely the $530 million will ever be paid, although the CFPB said it will continue to pursue relief for consumers harmed by Corinthian’s unlawful conduct.

The CFPB said it "remains concerned about efforts to collect on loans made in association with Corinthian’s illegal conduct."   

In November 2014, the ECMC Group worked with the U.S. Department of Education to reach an agreement to acquire a substantial number of Everest and WyoTech campuses, which were owned by Corinthian. In February 2015, the CFPB announced that, through an action with ECMC, the Bureau secured hundreds of millions of dollars in forgiveness for borrowers who took out Corinthian Colleges’ high-cost private student loans.

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Ben Carson will be the best-liked debater in tonight's face-off

Donald Trump, Jeb Bush have high unfavorable ratings in Gallup survey

He may look sleepy to Donald Trump, but Ben Carson has a formidable +60 favorability rating among Republicans as the candida...

Photo
Photo (c) Carson Campaign

He may look sleepy to Donald Trump, but Ben Carson has a formidable +60 favorability rating among Republicans as the candidates get tuned up for tonight's GOP debate in Boulder, Colorado, Gallup reports.

Carson's net favorable score -- the difference between his favorable and unfavorable ratings -- is 20 percentage points higher than the next-highest-rated candidate, Marco Rubio. Donald Trump and Jeb Bush both have relatively high unfavorable ratings, pushing their net favorable scores well below those of several other candidates.

Photo

Carly Fiorina has the third-highest net favorable rating of the nine Republicans that Gallup is tracking, at +33, followed by Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Trump. Bush, whose familiarity among Republicans is second only to Trump's, has a net favorable score of +19, above only Christie and Kasich.

Carson's big lead on the measure of net favorability is based on his 68% favorable rating, the highest of any candidate, and his 8% unfavorable rating, which is the lowest.

Gallup's candidate image ratings are based on interviews conducted Oct. 13-26 with approximately 800 to 900 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents evaluating each candidate.

High times

Tonight's debate, the third in the series, doesn't bestow a home-court advantage on any of the candidates. In fact, the liberal college town might even be considered hostile territory. Marijuana and same-sex marriage are popular there, and, with an elevation of 5,430 feet, the air is thin enough to produce a contact high even when the smoke has cleared.

So far, Carson and Fiorina have benefited most from the debates. Just prior to the first debate, Carson's net favorable score was essentially tied with Rubio's, with Fiorina near the bottom of the list. By the eve of the second debate, both Carson's and Fiorina's images had improved significantly, and have stayed the same or edged up further in the time since.

Christie's image has also improved, but given his starting point at -2 prior to the first debate, his current +10 net favorable score places him just above Kasich at the bottom of the list.

Notably, Kasich and Bush are the only candidates whose images are worse now than just prior to the first debate, although Bush's current +19 is an improvement over the depths to which he fell just before the second debate. Kasich's image did rise shortly after the first debate, but then fell back again and has remained low since.

Net favorable scores for Rubio, Cruz, and Huckabee have not changed much over time.

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Republicans' views of Trump have varied over the last three months. Although his current net favorable score is higher than it was prior to the first debate in early August, Gallup's two-week rolling averages show considerable change. His net favorable score rose going into the second debate in September and fell after the debate, but has now returned to where it was.

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Study finds 43% of salmon is mislabeled

In most cases, "farm raised" masquerades as "wild caught"

When you shop for fish at the grocery store or order from a restaurant menu, salmon is usually labeled either “farm raised” or “wild caught.”For some i...

PhotoWhen you shop for fish at the grocery store or order from a restaurant menu, salmon is usually labeled either “farm raised” or “wild caught.”

For some it might not make much of a difference, but for those who prefer salmon taken in the wild, a study conducted by the environmental group Oceana may be disconcerting.

After collecting 82 salmon samples from restaurants and supermarkets, Oceana researchers determined that 43% of the samples were mislabeled. In nearly 70% of the cases, DNA testing confirmed farmed Atlantic salmon was being sold as wild caught.

“Americans might love salmon, but as our study reveals, they may be falling victim to a bait and switch,” said Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana. “When consumers opt for wild-caught U.S. salmon, they don’t expect to get a farmed or lower-value product of questionable origins. This type of seafood fraud can have serious ecological and economic consequences.”

Fishermen take a hit

Lowell says consumers aren't the only ones losing when this happens. She says American fishermen are being cheated when cheaper farm raised fish lower the price for their more expensive catch.

Scientists are divided over whether farm raised or wild caught is more nutritious. However, a 2004 study found a higher level of contaminants in farm raised salmon.

In this case, however, Oceana says the issue is labeling. It says if you pay extra for wild caught salmon, that's what you should get.

But Oceana says it found mislabeled salmon everywhere it tested, not just one or two areas. In Virginia, it says 48% of samples were mis-identified. In Washington, DC, is was 45%. It was 38% in Chicago and 37% in New York.

The survey considered salmon samples to be mislabeled if they were described as being “wild,” “Alaskan” or “Pacific,” but DNA testing revealed them to be farmed Atlantic salmon. Secondarily, the samples were flagged if they were labeled as a specific type of salmon, like “Chinook,” but testing revealed them to be different species – in most cases lower-value fish.

Most wild caught goes to exports

“While U.S. fishermen catch enough salmon to satisfy 80% of our domestic demand, 70% of that catch is then exported instead of going directly to American grocery stores and restaurants,” said Dr. Kimberly Warner, report author and senior scientist at Oceana. “It’s anyone’s guess how much of our wild domestic salmon makes its way back to the U.S. after being processed abroad. Without traceability, it is nearly impossible to follow the fish from the farm or fishing boat to the dinner plate.”

As a result, what ends up on our plates, she says, is mostly cheaper, imported farmed salmon, sometimes masquerading as U.S. wild-caught fish.

The study found consumers were five times more likely to find mislabeled salmon in restaurants than grocery stores. It also says consumers are less likely to be misled in large grocery store chains that are required to give additional information about seafood.

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"Miracle Mineral Solution" promoter sentenced to prison

The "miracle" solution was industrial bleach, which can be toxic

Industrial bleach isn't normally considered to be a cure for anything. In fact, it's toxic and can cause, not cure, all kinds of health problems. But that ...

PhotoIndustrial bleach isn't normally considered to be a cure for anything. In fact, it's toxic and can cause, not cure, all kinds of health problems. But that didn't stop Louis Smith from selling the stuff under the name "Miracle Mineral Supplement," claiming it could cure cancer, AIDS, malaria, and the common cold, among other maladies.

Smith, 45, of Spokane, Washington, was sentenced last night to more than four years in federal prison by Chief Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson of the Eastern District of Washington. The sentence spans 51 months in prison and will be followed by three years of supervised release. 

After a seven-day trial in June, a jury convicted Smith of one count of conspiracy to commit multiple crimes, three counts of introducing misbranded drugs into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead, and one count of fraudulently smuggling merchandise into the United States. 

Sodium chlorite

Evidence at trial showed that Smith operated a business called “Project GreenLife” (PGL) from 2007 to 2011.  PGL sold a product called “Miracle Mineral Supplement,” or MMS, over the Internet.  MMS is a mixture of sodium chlorite and water.  Sodium chlorite is an industrial chemical used as a pesticide, for hydraulic fracturing, and for wastewater treatment. 

Sodium chlorite cannot legally be sold for human consumption, and suppliers of the chemical include a warning sheet stating that it can cause potentially fatal side effects if swallowed.

“Today’s sentence is a just result reflecting the defendant’s role as the leader of a business that sold dangerous chemicals as miracle cures to sick people and their desperate loved ones,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.  “Consumers have the right to expect that the medicines that they purchase are safe and effective.”

The government presented evidence that Smith instructed consumers to combine MMS with citric acid to create chlorine dioxide, add water and drink the resulting mixture.  Chlorine dioxide is a potent agent used to bleach textiles, among other industrial applications.  Chlorine dioxide is a severe respiratory and eye irritant that can cause nausea, diarrhea, and dehydration. 

Smith provided instructions for use of his product and said that nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting were all signs that the miracle cure was working.  The instructions also stated that despite a risk of possible brain damage, the product might still be appropriate for pregnant women or infants who were seriously ill.

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Volkswagen skids to a loss in the third quarter

Diesel scandal results in first red ink in 15 years

Having to admit to a systematic design to circumvent emissions tests on its diesel cars was a blow to Volkswagen. What else could go wrong?It could los...

PhotoHaving to admit to a systematic design to circumvent emissions tests on its diesel cars was a blow to Volkswagen. What else could go wrong?

It could lose money. Lots of it.

The embattled German automaker reports losses of $3.9 billion in the third quarter. Admittedly, plenty of consumers were buying its cars during those three months. The loss is attributable to the billions of dollars the company has set aside to deal with the aftermath of the diesel scandal.

In its report, VW executives chose to focus on the positive. Sales revenue grew by 8.5% in the July through September quarter. Operating return on sales, before special items, amounted to 6.4%.

Core strength

"The figures show the core strength of the Volkswagen Group on the one hand, while on the other the initial impact of the current situation is becoming clear,” said Matthias Müller, Chairman of the Board of Management of Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft. “We will do everything in our power to win back the trust we have lost."

But the future may be uncertain for Volkswagen and there could be more pain ahead. The quarterly report only reflects the initial weeks of the cheating scandal. A preliminary report this week from Kelley Blue Book projected a sharp drop in VW sales, suggesting the scandal has taken a toll on the brand, not just its diesel cars.

Analysts at Frost & Sullivan say VW's concession of corporate malfeasance in circumventing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) testing in the U.S. can have impact on the entire industry.

Long-term sales decline

"As an immediate impact of the scandal, Volkswagen Group sales are expected to fall by 2% – 4% by 2020," said Arun Chandranath, Frost & Sullivan Automotive and Transportation Senior Research Analyst. "There will be a significant push towards alternate powertrains from both the industry and the consumer.”

As consumers become more leery of diesel technology, Chandranath believes hybrids will be the strongest benefactor. Hybrids offer high fuel efficiency with low emissions and are independent from a charging infrastructure. It's also a proven technology with plenty of available products.

Meanwhile, government regulators can be expected to tighten their standards. Frost & Sullivan predicts globally harmonized test procedures will be a vital strategy towards implementing worldwide test standards. This will ensure standardized emission and fuel testing so that the company can begin to regain consumer trust.

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Mortgage applications on the downside

Contract interest were headed higher

Following the previous week's surge of nearly 12%, mortgage applications were down 3.5% in the week ending October 23, according to the Mortgage Bankers As...

PhotoFollowing the previous week's surge of nearly 12%, mortgage applications were down 3.5% in the week ending October 23, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey.

The Refinance Index was also lower, showing a dip of 4%, leaving the refinance share of mortgage activity unchanged at 59.5% of total applications.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity fell to 6.6% of total applications, the FHA share dropped from 14.3% to 13.7% from the week prior, the VA share was 12.3%, while the USDA share inched up to 0.7% from 0.6% a week earlier.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) increased three basis points -- to 3.98% from 3.95%, with points increasing to 0.44 from 0.43 (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 from 3.87% to 3.88%, with points increasing to 0.33 from 0.29 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA rose two basis points to 3.80%, with points falling to 0.30 from 0.39 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs was up to 3.22% from 3.20%, with points increasing to 0.44 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs jumped nine basis points to 3.03%, with points decreasing to 0.34 from 0.35 (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.

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GM recalls vehicles with ignition issue

The ignition may get stuck in the "Start" position

General Motors is recalling 3,073 model year 2014-2015 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks manufactured January 24, 2014, to February 26, 2014, 2015;...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 3,073 model year 2014-2015 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks manufactured January 24, 2014, to February 26, 2014, 2015; Chevrolet Suburban vehicles manufactured February 12, 2014; and Chevrolet Tahoe vehicles manufactured February 6, 2014, to February 13, 2014.

 

The ignition lock actuator may bind, making turning the key difficult or causing the ignition to get stuck in the "Start" position.

 

If stuck in the "Start" position, the ignition may suddenly snap back into the "Accessory" position, causing a loss of engine, steering, and braking power, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash. If the vehicle is in a crash, the air bags may not deploy, increasing the risk of occupant injury.

 

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the ignition lock housing, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020 or GMC customer service at 1-800-462-8782. GM's number for this recall is 15573.

 

 

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Shuler Meats recalls turkey products

The products were reconditioned without the benefit of federal inspection

Shuler Meats of Thomasville, N.C., is recalling approximately 25,920 pounds of turkey products. The products were reconditioned without the benefit of fed...

PhotoShuler Meats of Thomasville, N.C., is recalling approximately 25,920 pounds of turkey products.

 

The products were reconditioned without the benefit of federal inspection.

 

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

 

The the following fully cooked smoked turkey legs, produced from Nov. 24, 2014, through May 4, 2015, are being recalled:

  • 648 - 40 lb. (approximate weight) plastic-lined cardboard boxes containing frozen turkey legs with the labels “Shuler Meats, Co.” and “Belmont Meats, Co.”

The recalled products bear establishment number “P-21309” on the Belmont Meats, Co. boxes, and “M-40367” on the Shuler Meats label, and were distributed to fairs and retailers in North Carolina.

 

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

 

Consumers with questions may Wayne Shuler at (336) 476-6477.

 

 

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Toyota recalls model year 2016 Tacoma trucks

Incorrect bolts were used to install the driver's knee air bag module

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 306 model year 2016 Tacoma trucks manufactured August 20, 2015, to September 10, 2015. Incorrect bo...

PhotoToyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 306 model year 2016 Tacoma trucks manufactured August 20, 2015, to September 10, 2015.

 

Incorrect bolts were used to install the driver's knee air bag module. The bolts may loosen over time and affect the performance of the driver's knee air bag, increasing the risk of driver injury during a crash that necessitates deployment of the air bags.

 

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will install the correct driver's knee air bag module mounting bolts, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin by December 12, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331. Toyota's number for this recall is F0T.

 

 

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Various Cooper vehicles with steering issue recalled

The vehicles could lose electro-hydraulic steering assistance

BMW of North America is recalling 86,018 model year 2002-2005 MINI Cooper and Cooper S vehicles and 2005 Cooper and Cooper S Convertible vehicles. The ve...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 86,018 model year 2002-2005 MINI Cooper and Cooper S vehicles and 2005 Cooper and Cooper S Convertible vehicles.

 

The vehicles may experience temporary or permanent loss of the electro-hydraulic steering assistance.

This would require extra steering effort at lower speeds, potentially increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

 

MINI will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the electro-hydraulic power steering system, replacing the components and wiring, as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin December 1, 2015.

 

Owners may contact MINI customer service at 1-866-825-1525.

 

 

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Chrysler recalls Ram 1500 trucks

The rear axles may have been incorrectly heat treated

Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 65,760 model year 2015-2016 Ram 1500 trucks manufactured June 17, 2015, to September 28, 2015. The vehicles may have b...

PhotoChrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 65,760 model year 2015-2016 Ram 1500 trucks manufactured June 17, 2015, to September 28, 2015.

 

The vehicles may have been built with rear axles that were incorrectly heat treated. If the rear axle shaft was not properly heated treated, it may fracture and a wheel separation could occur, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the vehicles and replace the axle assemblies, as necessary, 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 R59.

 

 

 

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LaRose Industries recalls Peanuts Flying Ace ride-on toys

The toy’s blue hubcaps can detach from the wheel’s axle

LaRose Industries of Randolph, N.J., is recalling about 11,000 Peanuts Flying Ace ride-on toys. The toy’s blue hubcaps can detach from the wheel’s axle, p...

PhotoLaRose Industries of Randolph, N.J., is recalling about 11,000 Peanuts Flying Ace ride-on toys.

 

The toy’s blue hubcaps can detach from the wheel’s axle, posing a choking hazard to young children.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves Peanuts Flying Ace ride-on toys modeled after older style airplanes. The toys are intended for children ages 12 months to two years.

 

The body of the plane is red, the steering wheel, propeller and wings are yellow and the hubcaps are blue. “Snoopy Flying Ace” is printed on the front of the toy airplane and Snoopy characters are printed on each wing and on the front. The ride-on toys measure 19 inches long by 19 ½ inches wide (wing span) by 13 inches high.

 

A hang tag attached to the product at purchase has “#38126” printed on it and one of the following date codes:

  • BCHTAR616A13-0515
  • BCHTAR614A13-0515
  • BCHTAR615A11-0515
  • BCHTAR684A20-0515
  • BCHTAR682A05-0615
  • BCHTAR683A05-0615

The toys, manufactured in China, were sold at Target stores nationwide from July 2015, through August 2015, for about $40.

 

Consumers should immediately take the recalled ride-on toys away from children and return the product to any Target store for a full refund.

 

Consumers may contact Target at 800-440-0680 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday, or online at www.target.com, click on Product Recalls at the bottom of the homepage under the Help section. Consumers can also click on the Product Recalls tab on Target’s Facebook page for more information. Consumers can also visit LaRose’s website at www.cra-z-art.com and click on the Product Recall tab at the bottom of the page.

 

 

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Nissan expands recall of Maximas to include Altimas

Fuel may leak from the tank during a crash

Nissan North America is expanding its earlier recall of model year 2016 Nissan Maximas manufactured March 19, 2015, to June 2, 2015. The expanded recall a...

PhotoNissan North America is expanding its earlier recall of model year 2016 Nissan Maximas manufactured March 19, 2015, to June 2, 2015.

 

The expanded recall adds 41,388 vehicles, including certain model year 2013-2016 Altima 3.5 vehicles equipped with a V6 engine manufactured March 30, 2012, to August 18, 2015, as well as the vehicles covered by the earlier notification.

 

Due to an improperly installed o-ring that may not have been seated correctly at the time of assembly, fuel may leak during a crash from the area where the fuel sending unit attaches to the fuel tank. If fuel leaks from between the fuel sending unit and the tank, it may increase the risk of a fire in the event of a crash.

 

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will install a retainer ring between the fuel tank and the fuel sending unit. The recall began on September 28, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Nissan customer service at 1-800-647-7261.

 

 

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New York AG launches probe to investigate top Internet providers

Consumers may be getting charged for faster broadband speeds that they simply aren't getting

The need to stay connected is more important than ever these days – just ask any teenager who doesn't have access to their phone or computer for a few hour...

PhotoThe need to stay connected is more important than ever these days – just ask any teenager who doesn't have access to their phone or computer for a few hours. This is why it can be completely infuriating when your connection to the Internet isn't working properly.

But it could be even more infuriating if you find out that your Internet provider is not giving you the broadband connection you paid for. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman is setting out to determine if that is the case in his state. He will be probing to see if three major Internet providers are duping consumers by charging them for faster broadband speeds that they are failing to deliver on.

“New Yorkers deserve the Internet speeds they pay for. But, it turns out, many of us may be paying for one thing, and getting another,” said Schneiderman.

Concerns about Internet speed

In order to determine if this claim holds water, letters have been sent to three top Internet providers in New York: Verizon Communications Inc., Cablevision Systems Corp., and Time Warner Cable Inc. The letters ask each company to provide copies of the disclosures that they have given to customers, as well as copies of any tests that have been performed on their Internet speeds.

Concerns over Internet speeds began after a 2014 study was conducted by Measurement Lab Consortium, or M-Lab. Researchers found that the Internet service for many consumers tended to suffer when broadband providers (i.e. the companies listed above) connected with long-haul Internet traffic carriers.

“Internet service provider interconnection has a substantial impact on consumer Internet performance – sometimes a severely negative impact,” concluded the researchers. They added that business relationships tended to be a major influencer for when problems would occur, rather than any technical issues.

Taking cues from the study and consumer complaints about their Internet service, the attorney general's office launched their investigation. They are particularly interested in Internet speeds for “the last mile” from Time Warner Cable and Cablevision. “The last mile” refers specifically to the point where the telecommunication chain reaches a consumer's device.

Confident and cooperative

Each company has responded to the probe with confidence over the service that they provide. “We're confident that we provide our customers the speeds and services we promise them and look forward to working with the AG to resolve this matter,” said Bobby Amirshahi, spokesman for Time Warner Cable.

Charlie Schueler, spokesman for Cablevision, added that his company's Optimum Online service “consistently surpasses advertised broadband speeds, including in FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and internal tests.” Verizon's spokesman echoes these sentiments about their own service and has expressed that the AG's office will have their full cooperation.  

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Feds allow security researchers to hack cars' software

Could the VW dirty diesel scandal have been discovered earlier?

In the world of security, there are "white hat hackers" -- experts who hack systems to expose vulnerabilities -- and "black hat hackers", those who hack sy...

PhotoIn the world of security, there are "white hat hackers" -- experts who hack systems to expose vulnerabilities -- and "black hat hackers", those who hack systems with malicious intent. Today the white hat hackers won a much-sought victory, as the Librarian of Congress granted security researchers the right to inspect and modify the software in their cars and other vehicles, despite protests from vehicle manufacturers.

Until now, automakers insisted that they, and only they, had legal access to the software that controls the engines and other systems in modern cars. That prevented the kind of white hat hacking that might have discovered the Volkswagen diesel scandal years earlier. 

The decision came in response to a request filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) as part of the complex, triennial rulemaking process that determines exemptions from Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

"Access controls"

Because Section 1201 prohibits unlocking “access controls” on the software, car companies have been able to threaten legal action against anyone who tries to get around those restrictions, no matter how legitimate the reason. While the copyright office removed this legal cloud from much car software research, it also delayed implementation of the exemption for one year.

“This ‘access control’ rule is supposed to protect against unlawful copying,” said EFF Staff Attorney Kit Walsh. “But as we’ve seen in the recent Volkswagen scandal—where VW was caught manipulating smog tests—it can be used instead to hide wrongdoing hidden in computer code.

"We are pleased that analysts will now be able to examine the software in the cars we drive without facing legal threats from car manufacturers, and that the Librarian has acted to promote competition in the vehicle aftermarket and protect the long tradition of vehicle owners tinkering with their cars and tractors," Walsh said. "The year-long delay in implementing the exemptions, though, is disappointing and unjustified. The VW smog tests and a long run of security vulnerabilities have shown researchers and drivers need the exemptions now.”

Video games

EFF also won an exemption for users who want to play video games after the publisher cuts off support. For example, some players may need to modify an old video game so it doesn’t perform a check with an authentication server that has since been shut down.

The Librarian also granted EFF’s petition to renew a previous exemption to jailbreak smartphones, and extended that to other mobile devices, including tablets and smartwatches. This clarifies the law around jailbreaking, making clear that users are allowed to run operating systems and applications from any source, not just those approved by the manufacturer.

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REI to close on Black Friday, will give employees a paid day off

Company tells consumers and employees to take a hike -- literally

As Black Friday has crept into Thanksgiving and encroached on Cyber Monday, there has been something of a consumer backlash.Some consumers have found t...

PhotoAs Black Friday has crept into Thanksgiving and encroached on Cyber Monday, there has been something of a consumer backlash.

Some consumers have found the unfettered commercialism a bit unsettling, empathizing with the sleep-deprived retail workforce that seemingly has to be on the clock throughout that weekend. Some retailers have noticed and are responding.

Earlier this month, Staples announced it would remain closed on Thanksgiving so its employees can enjoy the holiday. But REI, the specialty outdoor retailer, has upped the ante in the nice-guy competition.

Take a hike

While other retailers are talking about how early they will open on Black Friday, REI has announced it will be closed on the busiest shopping day of the holiday season. Not only that, the company is giving employees the day off with pay, encouraging them to spend it outdoors.

Crazy, right? Maybe, but crazy like a fox.

“Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the essential truth that life is richer, more connected and complete when you choose to spend it outside,” said Jerry Stritzke, president and CEO of REI. “We’re closing our doors, paying our employees to get out there, and inviting America to OptOutside with us because we love great gear, but we are even more passionate about the experiences it unlocks.”

Passing up the hoards of consumers eager to spend money on the day after Thanksgiving, and instead reveling in the beauty of nature, fits perfectly into REI's corporate vision. That, after all, is what it is selling.

Bonding with customers

At a time when consumers appear to choose products and brands that reflect their personal values, this is a perfect way to bond with the store's core customer.

REI operates 143 U.S. retail locations, a headquarters, and two distribution centers that employ a total of 12,000 people who will get both Thanksgiving and Black Friday off, something unheard of in the retail industry.

Is REI trying to make a point? You bet.

“As a member-owned co-op, our definition of success goes beyond money,” Stritzke said. “We believe that a life lived outdoors is a life well lived and we aspire to be stewards of our great outdoors. We think that Black Friday has gotten out of hand and so we are choosing to invest in helping people get outside with loved ones this holiday season, over spending it in the aisles.”

Stritzke said he hopes consumers take a break from shopping and enjoy the great outdoors. To do so would undoubtedly be good for the soul.

And if they need a backpack, it'll be pretty good for REI as well.

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Taxi company using technology to counter ride-sharing

San Diego Yellow customers can hail a ride with the push of a button

The emergence of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft has been highly disruptive to the taxi industry, which operates under tight government regulation. ...

PhotoThe emergence of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft has been highly disruptive to the taxi industry, which operates under tight government regulation.

Now, some cab companies are trying to up their game to compete for passengers. In San Diego, San Diego Yellow (SDY) is using the Internet to fight back.

The company has launched its Concierge service with the technology firm Bttn. Bttn installs large, bright buttons in high traffic locations, such as hotels, restaurants, and boutiques – the kinds of places where customers often need to summon a ride.

By pushing one of these buttons, a consumer sends a taxi order to SDY to come to that address. Once the company receives the message and dispatches a cab, it then displays a confirmation light on the button.

To hear Bttn tell it, this is a much better and easier way to summon a ride than using a ride sharing app. The company says having a highly visible button in a commercial establishment is both faster and more convenient than app-based hailing.

Visibility

"With SDY Concierge, we can gain more visibility at the point of sale, improve our customer satisfaction, and strengthen customer lock-in,” said Anthony Palmeri, President of SDY. “I see the super-easy bttn as one of the ways for the traditional taxi industry to go on-demand and keep our share of the pie."

Keeping its share of the pie has proved to be a challenge. In a recent study, Erica Taschler, a student fellow at the Institute for Consumer Studies, writes “the emergence of companies like Uber, the most successful ride-sharing company, threatens to eliminate the taxi industry’s stronghold on the ground transportation market and possibly the industry itself.”

In most cities the number of taxis on the street is limited by the number of taxi “medallions,” or permits issued. According to the Federal Trade Commission, these medallions were selling for as much as $1 million before ridesharing. Now, they sell for about 25% less.

Fighting back

Harri Rautio, CEO of Bttn, believes his service is a way for traditional taxi companies to fight back.

"The bttn streamlines taxi ordering, saves time and money in the concierge locations, and offers our customers new revenue streams,” he said. “We're thrilled to work with a market leader like SDY, as well as our local partner ButtonizeIT, who has been instrumental in working with SDY, configuring the solution and providing local support."

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How merchandise is delivered to your door is changing

Postal Service would like to replenish your liquor cabinet

With consumers able to buy almost anything online these days, the businesses that deliver all that stuff are pretty busy.This week Federal Express  pre...

PhotoWith consumers able to buy almost anything online these days, the businesses that deliver all that stuff are pretty busy.

This week Federal Express  predicted it will move a record 317 million shipments between Black Friday and Christmas Eve. That would be a 12.4% season-over-season increase.

“The shift in consumer shopping patterns, fueled by the rise of e-commerce, continues to drive our volume,” said Frederick W. Smith, CEO of FedEx Corp.

Drones

With traditional delivery services working around the clock, retailers continue to look outside the box. Walmart has joined Amazon.com in seeking federal permission to begin testing drone delivery. Reuters reports the retailer has spent the last few months conducting indoor tests of these unmanned aerial vehicles.

Even the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is looking at opportunities to expand and transform its delivery services. With the continued decline of first class mail, USPS is reportedly testing new services in select markets in search of new revenue.

According to Kiplinger, the beleaguered delivery service is considering five new services:

Mail notification

This might seem a bit redundant, but the Postal Service can send you an email to let you know what's coming to your mailbox. How useful would that be?

If you had to drive a couple of miles to check your Post Office box each day, it might save you a few trips. Also, if someone owes you money and you are told “the check is in the mail,” this service could tell you if it really is.

Sunday delivery

Keep in mind, USPS would like to end Saturday delivery. Adding Sunday delivery seems like a move in the opposite direction.

Kiplinger suggests it is a move aimed mostly at the holiday season, or for extremely time sensitive parcels.

Same day delivery

Once upon a time the Post Office delivered mail to residences twice a day, so it was possible you could get same day delivery. USPS has no plans to revive twice a day delivery but Kiplinger said the company is looking at a same day delivery option in New York City.

Grocery delivery

With people working around the clock, grocery delivery services are gaining traction. USPS is moving in that direction, working with Amazon to deliver groceries in parts of California and New York.

Alcohol delivery

No time to run to the liquor store? USPS would like to help by bringing you your favorite beer, wine, or spirits.

USPS will have to overcome more than logistics to accomplish this, however. Current law prohibits the Postal Service from delivering alcohol, so Congress would have to lift the sanction.

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E-cigarettes banned in checked airline luggage

The batteries can catch fire during flight

If you've flown lately, you may have noticed airline crews warning that e-cigarettes are not allowed in checked baggage. The U.S. Department of Transportat...

PhotoIf you've flown lately, you may have noticed airline crews warning that e-cigarettes are not allowed in checked baggage. The U.S. Department of Transportation has now made that ban official.

“We know from recent incidents that e-cigarettes in checked bags can catch fire during transport,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Fire hazards in flight are particularly dangerous.  Banning e-cigarettes from checked bags is a prudent safety measure.” 

In January, the department alerted airliners to the hazard and airlines began alerting passengers then. 

It can become quite a hassle for passengers who can't find room for their carry-on bags in the overhead bins. They're required to open their bags and remove the e-cigs before the bag is gate-checked.

Using or charging e-cigs is also prohibited.

The new rule does not prohibit a passenger from carrying other devices containing batteries for personal use (such as laptop computers, cell phones, cameras, etc.) in checked or carry-on baggage, nor does it restrict a passenger from transporting batteries for personal use in carry-on baggage, the department said.

 

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October car sales may be strongest since 2001

Compact SUVs continue to draw consumers to dealers

Despite a still anemic economy, U.S. auto sales have been robust month after month. But this month, sales have apparently shifted into overdrive.Kelley...

Despite a still anemic economy, U.S. auto sales have been robust month after month. But this month, sales have apparently shifted into overdrive.

PhotoKelley Blue Book (KBB) says its preliminary numbers suggest October new car sales will be up nearly 12% year-over-year, to a total of 1.43 million units. That would be the the biggest October for sales since 2001.

“Coming off the strongest sales month in a decade in September, sales continue to roll along this month, with double-digit growth expected for the industry in October 2015,” said Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book.

Gutierrez says everything is falling into place for carmakers and dealers. Unemployment is low and approaching 5%. Fuel prices are at six-year lows. Interest rates are near zero.

“This momentum has pushed Kelley Blue Book’s forecast to 17.4 million for 2015, a 5.6% year-over-year improvement.”

Ford out in front

Preliminary figures suggest Ford is setting the pace in October with a 16.6% increase in new car sales. There are two drivers for Ford this month – the F-150 pick-up and the refresh of the Ford Explorer SUV. Even Volkswagen's self-inflicted troubles haven't dampened overall sales.

“With most brands experiencing growth this month, Volkswagen Group should report fairly even sales totals in the wake of their diesel emissions issue,” said Gutierrez. “Audi and Porsche will be driving the sales growth for the manufacturer, as the Volkswagen brand posts negative figures, largely due to the stop-sale of its diesel models, which previously made up nearly 20% of the brand’s sales volume.”

This month, consumers seem to be flocking to compact SUVs. KBB says that segment is growing at twice the industry's pace.

October should be the third straight month compact SUVs will be the top seller, with expected growth of nearly 40%. KBB says that's partly because five new models have entered the segment in the past year, increasing sales by more than 20,000 units per month.

Where to find a bargain

The sales figures also show where consumers might find a bargain. Because of low fuel prices and the increasing popularity of SUVs and trucks, small and mid-size cars are losing market share in October. Dealers are more likely to offer incentives for these vehicles in the months ahead in order to move them off the lot.

Following Ford, Nissan and Hyundai-Kia are second and third in terms of October sales increases. KBB projects Nissan will increase U.S. sales by 16.4% and Hyundai-Kia by 16.1%. Even troubled VW should manage to move the needle in October, increasing sales 1.8%.

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To build wealth, Houston is a helpful place to live

Baltimore and Detroit also make the list

A lot of considerations go into choosing a locale in which to live. There's employment opportunities, of course, along with climate and amenities.But f...

PhotoA lot of considerations go into choosing a locale in which to live. There's employment opportunities, of course, along with climate and amenities.

But for those serious about building wealth, some cities are more helpful than others. In some cities, the high cost of living makes it hard to get ahead. Conversely, other cities offer a higher standard of living with a lower price tag.

Researchers at Bankrate.com recently crunched the numbers to determine the best place to live if you want to build your net worth. After looking at all the factors, they determined that the Houston metro is the best for your bank account.

The factors

To reach that conclusion, the researchers considered how strong of an environment each metro area provides for making and saving money. The formula includes after-tax, savable income; the job market; residents' debt; human capital; access to financial services; and the local housing market.

The top 10 metros are below:

  1. Houston
  2. Washington, D.C.
  3. Cleveland

  4. Detroit

  5. New York City

  6. Dallas-Fort Worth

  7. Baltimore

  8. Miami

  9. Minneapolis-St. Paul

  10. Chicago

Admittedly, there are a few surprises on the list. Baltimore is not exactly known for creating millionaires and Detroit just recently emerged from bankruptcy.

“Many of the cities that ranked high in the study may not be synonymous with wealth in the public mind, but they do a better overall job of creating an environment for typical households to get ahead financially,” said Bankrate.com banking analyst, Claes Bell. “For instance, living in a killer job market is great, but if you're spending half your income on rent, it's going to be hard to save and invest. You have to look at the whole picture.”

At the bottom

At the bottom of the list is San Diego, which many people consider a fabulous place to live. And it is, says Bell, if you've already accumulated a nice nest egg.

But it comes in last using the Bankrate formula because of its residents’ low savable income after taxes, relatively high unemployment, and the average debt burden. Other seemingly desirable locals join San Diego in the bottom tier, including San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle.

“Just because a city ranks at the bottom doesn’t mean it’s a bad place to live, or that you can't make a good living there,” said Bell. “The best city for a particular person to build wealth is going to depend a lot on their walk of life, occupation, education and a whole host of other factors.”

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Consumer confidence stumbles in October

Job market views took a hit

After posting a moderate in September, The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index retreated this month. The index now stands at 97.6 a loss of five p...

PhotoAfter posting a moderate gain in September, The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index retreated this month.

The index now stands at 97.6, a loss of five points from the previous month, while the Present Situation Index fell from 120.3 to 112.1, and the Expectations Index edged down to 88.0 from 90.8 in September.

“Consumers were less positive in their assessment of present-day conditions, in particular the job market, and were moderately less optimistic about the short-term outlook,” said Conference Board Director of Economic Indicators Lynn Franco, adding, “despite the decline, consumers still rate current conditions favorably, but they do not anticipate the economy strengthening much in the near-term.”

Consumers' appraisal

Consumers’ view of current conditions was somewhat less positive in October. Those saying business conditions are “good” dipped from 28.1% to 26.5%, while those who see conditions as “bad” rose from 16.4% to 18.3%. Respondents were also less upbeat about the job market. Those who think jobs are “plentiful” decreased from 24.8% to 22.2%, while those who believe jobs are “hard to get” edged up to 25.8% from 24.9%.

Optimism about the short-term outlook was more subdued in October. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months was unchanged at 18.1%, while those who said business conditions will worsen inched up to 10.6% from 10.4%.

Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was slightly less optimistic. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead declined from 14.9% to 14.5%, while those expecting fewer jobs rose from 15.9% to 16.9%. The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to rise slipped from 18.7% to 18.0%, while the proportion who believe there will be a decline increased from 9.9% to 10.7%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was October 15.

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Home price gains pick up steam in August

Prices rose on both a year-over-ear and month-over-month basis

Home prices across the U.S., continued their rise over the last 12 months during August. The S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index -- which cover...

PhotoHome prices across the U.S. continued their rise over the last 12 months during August.

The S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index -- which covers all nine U.S. census divisions -- was up 4.7% on a year-over-year basis in August, versus a 4.6% increase in July.

The 10-City Composite increased 4.7% in the year to August compared with 4.5% in the prior month, while the 20-City Composite’s year-over-year gain was 5.1% vs. 4.9% in the year to July.

San Francisco, Denver, and Portland reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities with price increases of 10.7%, 10.7%, and 9.4%, respectively. Fifteen cities reported greater price increases in the year ending August 2015 compared with the year ending July 2015. San Francisco and Denver are the only cities with double digit increases.

Phoenix, which reported an increase of 4.9% in August, had the longest streak of year-over-year increases, posting the ninth consecutive increase in annual price gains. Portland posted a 9.4% annual increase, compared with 8.5% the month before for the biggest jump in year-over-year gains during August.

“Home prices continue to climb at a 4% to 5% annual rate across the country,” said David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee for S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Most other recent housing indicators also show strength. Housing starts topped an annual rate of 1.2 million units in the latest report with continuing strength in both single family homes and apartments. The National Association of Home Builders sentiment survey, reflecting current strength, reached the highest level since 2005, before the housing collapse. Sales of existing homes are running about 5.5 million units annually with inventories of about five months of sales. However, September new home sales took an unexpected and sharp drop as low inventories were cited as a possible cause.”

Month-over-month

The National Index posted a gain of 0.3% month-over-month in August, with the 10-City Composite and 20-City Composite reporting gains of 0.3% and 0.4% month-over-month, respectively. Eighteen of 20 cities reported increases in August.

“A notable part of today’s economy is the continuing low inflation rate; in the year to September, consumer prices were unchanged,” Blitzer added. “Even excluding food and energy, the core inflation was 1.9%. One result is that a 5% price increase in the value of a house means more today than it did in 2005-2006, the peak of the housing boom when the inflation rate was higher. The rebound from the recent lows was faster than the 1997-2005 housing boom, and also much less driven by inflation.”

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Increases in some tax benefits coming for 2016

Others, however, are unchanged

Annual inflation adjustments for more than 50 tax provisions -- including the tax rate schedules and other tax changes are in the works for the 2016 tax ye...

PhotoAnnual inflation adjustments for more than 50 tax provisions -- including the tax rate schedules and other tax changes -- are in the works for the 2016 tax year.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, the tax items of greatest interest to most taxpayers include the following dollar amounts:

  • For tax year 2016, the 39.6% tax rate affects single taxpayers whose income exceeds $415,050 ($466,950 for married taxpayers filing jointly), versus $413,200 and $464,850, respectively. The other marginal rates -- 10, 15, 25, 28, 33 and 35% -- and the related income tax thresholds for tax year 2016 are described in Revenue Procedure 2015-53.
  • The standard deduction for heads of household rises to $9,300 for tax year 2016, up $50, from tax year 2015.The other standard deduction amounts for 2016 remain as they were for 2015: $6,300 for singles and married persons filing separate returns and $12,600 for married couples filing jointly
  • The limitation for itemized deductions to be claimed on tax year 2016 returns of individuals begins with incomes of $259,400 or more ($311,300 for married couples filing jointly).
  • The personal exemption for tax year 2016 rises $50 from 2015 -- to $4,050. However, the exemption is subject to a phase-out that begins with adjusted gross incomes of $259,400 ($311,300 for married couples filing jointly). It phases out completely at $381,900 ($433,800 for married couples filing jointly.)
  • The Alternative Minimum Tax exemption amount for tax year 2016 is $53,900 and begins to phase out at $119,700 ($83,800, for married couples filing jointly for whom the exemption begins to phase out at $159,700). The 2015 exemption amount was $53,600 ($3,400 for married couples filing jointly). For tax year 2016, the 28% tax rate applies to taxpayers with taxable incomes above $186,300 ($93,150 for married individuals filing separately).
  • The tax year 2016 maximum Earned Income Credit amount is $6,269 for taxpayers filing jointly who have three or more qualifying children, up $17 from tax year 2015. The revenue procedure has a table providing maximum credit amounts for other categories, income thresholds and phase-outs.
  • For tax year 2016, the monthly limitation for the qualified transportation fringe benefit remains at $130 for transportation, but rises $5 from 2015 -- to $255 for qualified parking.
  • For tax year 2016 participants who have self-only coverage in a Medical Savings Account, the plan must have an annual deductible that is not less than $2,250, up $50 for tax year 2015; but not more than $3,350, $50 more than in tax year 2015. For self-only coverage the maximum out of pocket expense amount remains at $4,450. For tax year 2016 participants with family coverage, the floor for the annual deductible remains as it was in 2015 -- $4,450, however the deductible cannot be more than $6,700, up $50 from the limit for tax year 2015. For family coverage, the out of pocket expense limit remains at $8,150 for tax year 2016 as it was for tax year 2015.
  • For tax year 2016, the adjusted gross income amount used by joint filers to determine the reduction in the Lifetime Learning Credit rises $1,000 from tax year 2015 -- to $111,000.
  • For tax year 2016, the foreign earned income exclusion is $101,300, up $400 from tax year 2015.
  • Estates of decedents who die during 2016 have a basic exclusion amount of $5,450,000, compared with a total of $5,430,000 for estates of decedents who died in 2015.
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Whole Foods Market recalls curry chicken salad products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

A Whole Foods Market store in Everett, Mass., is recalling approximately 234 pounds of curry chicken salad products that may be contaminated with Listeria ...

PhotoA Whole Foods Market store in Everett, Mass., is recalling approximately 234 pounds of curry chicken salad products that may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products, but there are concerns that some products may be in consumers' freezers or refrigerators.

 

The following chicken curry salad products, packaged on Oct. 16, 2015, and sold prepackaged, in salad bars, in store's chef's cases, and in sandwiches and wraps prepared in the store, are being recalled:

  • Sold by weight “Curry Chicken Salad, Our Chef’s Own” bearing UPC Code # 285551.
  • Sold by weight “Curry Chicken Salad CC” bearing UPC Code # 261068.
  • Sold by weight “PPK Salad Chicken Curry” bearing UPC Code # 263142
  • 12 oz. “Curry Chicken Salad Wrap, Made Right Here” bearing UPC Code # 263144.
  • 7 oz. “Single Curry Chicken Salad Wrap, Made Right Here” bearing UPC Code # 263126.
  • 7 oz. “Curry Chicken Salad Rollup” bearing UPC Code # 265325.

The recalled items, which have a sell by date of Oct. 23, 2015, were shipped to a warehouse and retail locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.

 

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

 

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Heather McCready at (617) 492-5500.

 

 

 

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Recall of Good N Fun Beefhide Chicken Sticks dog treats expanded

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Salix Animal Health of Deerfield, Fla., is expanding its earlier recall of "Good 'n' Fun - Beefhide Chicken Sticks" to include the tested lot and others ma...

PhotoSalix Animal Health of Deerfield, Fla., is expanding its earlier recall of "Good 'n' Fun - Beefhide Chicken Sticks" to include the tested lot and others made around the same timeframe.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

Salmonella can affect animals that eat contaminated products and there is a potential risk to humans if they come in contact with Salmonella from handling contaminated products.

 

The following products, packaged in a 2.8-oz bag stamped on the back side with an item code number of 82247 and an expiration date ranging from 02/2018- 07/2018, are being recalled.

BrandSizeDescriptionUPC CodeItem No.Expiration
Good ‘n’ Fun2.8 ozBeefhide Chicken Sticks0910938224718224702/2018
03/2018
04/2018
05/2018
06/2018
07/2018

 

The recalled products were distributed nationwide to Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar retail stores.

 

Consumers who have this product should dispose of it or return it for full refund.

 

Customers should contact Salix Animal Health’s consumer affairs team at 1-800-338-4896, Monday through Friday between 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM (EST) for a refund.  

 

 

 

 

 

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RushCard struggles to get back on track; its customers suffer even more

Some consumers have been without access to their accounts for two weeks

More than two weeks after a software upgrade blocked consumers from their RushCard accounts, the company says that access has been restored for most custom...

PhotoMore than two weeks after a software upgrade blocked consumers from their RushCard accounts, the company says that access has been restored for most customers and that it is working on a case-by-case basis to compensate those who suffered financial losses because of the problems.

That may not be enough to satisfy those consumers, not to mention state and federal consumer protection agencies, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has vowed to get to the bottom of the situation. 

RushCard  Oct. 25, 2015, 8:15 p.m.
Consumers rate RushCard

“Today, I have personally spoken with UniRush CEO Rick Savard to make sure that action is being taken to address harm that has occurred, the harm that may still be occurring, and the cascading financial effects of consumers not having access to their funds for more than a week," CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a prepared statement Friday.

Cordray said his agency was also "conferring with fellow regulators, including the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Trade Commission, to ensure a comprehensive response that addresses the situation quickly and holds accountable all of the parties involved to make consumers whole."

Affected consumers should continue to file complaints directly with RushCard or with the CFPB at consumerfinance.gov or toll-free at 855-411-2372.”

Columbus Day

The trouble began two weeks ago over the Columbus Day weekend, when the popular prepaid credit card issuer undertook a system upgrade.

"I received a notification stating the system was scheduled for maintenance on the 12th of October 2015. Weeks and days later I still do not have access to my money," said Tamica of Niagara Falls, NY, in a ConsumerAffairs posting. "I finally was able to use the app on my phone only to see my balance was $0.00. There is an entire paycheck on that card so where is my money??? Why does it show zero balance??? My bills are now 2 weeks behind -- what am I supposed to do?

RushCard has stressed that customers' funds have not been lost, even if they do not show up in their account.

“Their funds are there but their information is still inaccurate,” Savard said although he conceded that "a handful" of customers were still not able to access correct information about their account.

Savard said the company is working on an announcement about "how we plan to make this right with our customers who were severely inconvenienced and in some case suffered hardships.”

He might want to speak with Marianne of Chicago, who said in a ConsumerAffairs review: "Locked out of account, unable to access funds approaching 3 weeks. 4+ hours on hold resulting in being hung up on, eviction pending, repossession of vehicle pending, utilities suspended, babies hungry and crying! Blood pressure 119/200... No $ for meds! 87 yr old mother under my care having heart palpitations due to NO MEDS,  no $ to fill her RXs! No one cares."

Serving the unbanked

Founded in 2003 by hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, RushCard is billed as a solution to the millions of "unbanked" Americans, those who for one reason or another do not have a traditional bank account with checking and debit card privileges.

RushCard and other prepaid debit card accounts offer an inexpensive service that allows consumers to have their paychecks and benefits payments direct-deposited to their cards, allowing them to make purchases immediately and get cash from ATMs. It has generally recorded high satisfaction scores from consumers.

Prepaid issuers are able to offer this service because they have eliminated the expense of maintaining branches around the country. But, as the RushCard outage demonstrates, that advantage quickly becomes a major disadvantage when their online system fails and customers have no bricks-and-mortar branch to turn to.

They then wind up like Kasey of Bessemer, Alabama -- angry and frustrated: "My deposit from my employer was deposited a week ago. I'm able to log in online and view my account. But unfortunately it has a block on my money. I've called customer service everyday for a week. They are rude and not concerned about their customers. I don't have any funds because it's all tied up."

"My son is having a birthday party tomorrow and I have to explain to him that he has to cancel his birthday party," Kasey said. "I'm overwhelmed -- bill collectors are calling. I've been in eating at family members' houses."

While RushCard has emphasized that its customers’ money is covered by Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insurance through its issuing bank, MetaBank, it will nevertheless have a lot of explaining to do to Kasey, Marianne, Tamica and the hundreds of thousands of other customers affected by the outage. 

 

 

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Bacon, sausage, red meat linked to cancer

World Health Organization study is the latest blow to the meat business

Cattle ranchers and beef packers don't like it, but a study by the World Health Organization concludes that bacon, sausage, hot dogs and other processed me...

PhotoCattle ranchers and beef packers don't like it, but a study by the World Health Organization concludes that bacon, sausage, hot dogs and other processed meats cause cancer. Red meat probably does too, the study found.

In the politicized world in which consumers live, this is turning into a bonanza for meat lobbyists and publicists, who have been heating up the grill in preparation for the study's release.

The WHO study is based on the work of a 22-member panel of experts who studied decades of research findings on the link between cancer and mammal meat -- beef, pork, veal, goat, lamb and so forth -- as well as processed meats.

In an article in The Lancet, the researchers said they found a "positive [statistical] association between consumption of red meat and colorectal cancer" as well as "strong mechanistic evidence." The associations were seen primarily for colorectal cancer but also for pancreatic and prostate cancer.

Tenth of a pound

The experts concluded that each tenth of a pound (50 gram) portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” said Dr. Kurt Straif. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

”These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” said Dr. Christopher Wild, Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer. “At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations."

Those are fighting words to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which represents cattelemen and the meat-packing industry.

“Cancer is a complex disease that even the best and brightest minds don’t fully understand,” said Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD, in a prepared statement. "As a registered dietitian and mother, my advice hasn’t changed. To improve all aspects of your health, eat a balanced diet, which includes lean meats like beef, maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and, please don’t smoke.”

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What can you tell about cars from social media?

Facebook "likes" don't translate into sales -- yet

In past generations, consumers were influenced by friends and advertising when it came to choosing a new car.You might notice when your neighbor drove ...

PhotoIn past generations, consumers were influenced by friends and advertising when it came to choosing a new car.

You might notice when your neighbor drove home in a new set of wheels and consider the same model yourself if he raved about it. Meanwhile, car companies spend millions on advertising to shape consumer tastes.

The digital age has brought change. Now it's very common to research a vehicle online, checking the specs and consumer feedback before making a decision.

Auto Insurance Center study

Social media can also play a role, since that's how most people tend to communicate these days. The Auto Insurance Center has studied 23 major car brands and their 114 million American Facebook fans to look for trends in fan demographics, political orientations, and career paths.

Specifically, it wanted to know which brands have the most fans and how that influences sales. Additionally, how do companies’ marketing efforts impact consumer perceptions – and prompt users to click “like?”

Here's what it found.

Among the most “liked” models on Facebook, there is little correlation between likes and sales.

For example, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Ferrari occupy the top three spots in terms of Facebook following. Mercedes-Benz has an impressive 19.4 million Facebook fans, but the company only sold around 1.7 million vehicles in 2014. Ford, on the other hand, failed to crack the top 10 list with its 3.1 million Facebook fans, but it sold more than 6.3 million vehicles worldwide.

Just kicking tires

The assumption is that consumers may “like” a particular luxury car, even though they can't afford to buy it. In the vernacular of the industry, they're just kicking tires. But the Center says it's worth noting that high-end luxury vehicles are the fastest-growing segment in terms of sales in the U.S.

The data gets more interesting when you see who “likes” what. You might expect teens to be the ones dreaming of driving a luxury sports car, but the study shows Dodge has the most new teen drivers as fans. Oddly, they share their affection for Dodge with people engaged in farming.

Ford is apparently seen as a family car. It has the most married fans. Grandparents, meanwhile, are most likely to “like” Chrysler.

Jeep vs. Jaguar

From a political standpoint, consumers who “like” Jeep are most likely to be conservative. Those who prefer Jaguar are most likely to be liberal.

And no surprise – Tesla, with its $100,000-plus sticker price, has the richest fans, as well as those most likely to work in the technology industry.

What does all this mean? For automakers, it may mark a departure from how they tried to influence buying decisions in the past. In the future, they may rely less on advertising and more on the persuasiveness of millions of your neighbors, giving a simple thumbs up on Facebook.

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A three-minute test for dementia

Quiz determined Lew Body disease from Alzheimer's with 96.8% accuracy

Early detection is important in cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s, and researchers are hard at work trying to find ways to diagnose these illnesses earli...

PhotoEarly detection is important in cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s, and researchers are hard at work trying to find ways to diagnose these illnesses earlier.

A neuroscientist at Florida Atlantic University says he has developed a simple, three-minute test to identify the onset of Lew Body disease (LBD), a little-understood condition but the second-most-common cognitive disease after Alzheimer’s.

LBD affects more than 1.3 million Americans, but it is poorly recognized, meaning diagnosis is often significantly delayed. Patients with LBD simultaneously experience losses in cognitive function, mobility, and behavior.

Actor Robin Williams had this form of dementia. So did NHL coach Alger Joseph “Radar” Arbour.

Misdiagnoses common

“Most patients never receive an evaluation by a neurologist skilled in the diagnosis of Lewy body dementia, and significant delays and misdiagnoses occur in most patients with this disease,” said Dr. James E. Galvin, who developed what he calls the Lewy Body Composite Risk Score (LBCRS).

The LBCRS is a brief rating scale that is completed by a clinician to measure the symptoms highly associated with the LBD. With the tool, which takes about three-minutes to administer, a clinician can determine the type of dementia affecting the patient.

Results of a study deploying the LBCRS appear promising. In a real-world clinical setting, the LBCRS was able to discriminate between Alzheimer’s disease and LBD with 96.8 percent accuracy.

“Early detection of Lewy body dementias will be important to enable future interventions at the earliest stages when they are likely to be most effective,” said Galvin. “Our study provides evidence-based methodology that will have applications in clinical practice, participation in clinical trials, prevention studies, community surveys, and biomarkers research.”

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Brooklyn women have highest levels of chemicals used in cosmetics, study finds

The chemicals could cause hormonal disruptions in fetuses and children

A study finds that women in Brooklyn -- especially those of Caribbean and African-American descent -- have the highest levels of preservatives used in cosm...

PhotoA study finds that women in Brooklyn -- especially those of Caribbean and African-American descent -- have the highest levels of preservatives used in cosmetics in human cord blood samples.

The preservatives in question are parabens -- antibacterial substances commonly used in cosmetics and other proucts. Researchers from SUNY Downstate Medical Center and Arizona State University said the women had the highest levels of the chemicals of any group worldwide. 

Parabens have been used for decades and, at recommended levels, are categorized as "generally recognized as safe" by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Union. However, parabens have the potential to disrupt the expression of hormones during influential times of development, possibly affecting fetal, child, and even adult health.

The researchers point out that recent studies have raised awareness for potential health effects, particularly during fetal development and in children younger than six to 12 months of age, a period when detoxification systems are still immature, "and thus leaving the exposed more vulnerable," notes senior author Rolf Halden, PhD, professor and director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Security at Arizona State University.

Transferred to fetuses

"What we know from the study is that parabens are being transferred from pregnant women to their fetuses," said study co-author Laura A. Geer, PhD, MHS, associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences in the School of Public Health at SUNY Downstate. "This is problematic because parabens have demonstrated endocrine-disrupting potential in animal studies, leading to developmental and reproductive disorders. It is too early to know if these same effects can occur in humans, and if so, at what levels of exposure."

The results were published online in the journal Environment International, in an article titled, "Maternal and fetal exposure to parabens in a multiethnic urban U.S. population."

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Bridgestone to acquire Pep Boys

Deal gives company 3,000 U.S. locations

There is some consolidation taking place in the automotive services industry. Bridgestone, known primarily for tires, is acquiring and merging with Pep Boy...

PhotoThere is some consolidation taking place in the automotive services industry. Bridgestone, known primarily for tires, is acquiring and merging with Pep Boys, an automotive service and parts retailer.

Bridgestone Retail Operations, LLC (BSRO), a wholly owned subsidiary of Bridgestone, will acquire Pep Boys in an all-cash transaction for $15.00 per share, or approximately $835 million. For Pep Boys shareholders, that represents a 23% premium over Pep Boys' Friday closing stock price.

“Bridgestone and Pep Boys are two leading companies that share a proud heritage in the American automotive services industry,” said Gary Garfield, CEO and President of Bridgestone Americas. “Our shared expertise and commitment to our customers and employees will help us build an even stronger organization.”

Founded in 1921

Pep Boys is a national chain of automotive services and after market parts providers, founded in 1921. It operates more than 7,500 service bays in more than 800 locations in 35 states and Puerto Rico. Its business model closely resembles Bridgestone's, offering tires, maintenance, repairs, parts, and accessories.

Bridgestone says it is the world's largest manufacturer of tire and rubber products. While it provides other automotive services, tires make up 84% of its business.

Bridgestone currently operates a huge network of company-owned automotive service providers, made up of nearly 2,200 tire and vehicle service centers across the U.S., and includes Firestone Complete Auto Care, Tires Plus, and Wheelworks store locations.

5,000 dealers and distributors

In addition, Bridgestone is associated with more than 5,000 dealers and distributors in the U.S. The company says Pep Boys’ distribution network will help reach even more consumers in search of automotive products and services. Company executives say the acquisition of Pep Boys expands Bridgestone's retail operations by 35%.

“We are excited to join the Bridgestone family of companies to become part of the world’s largest company-owned tire and automotive service retail network,” said Scott Sider, CEO of Pep Boys. “This transaction delivers a significant premium for Pep Boys’ shareholders and offers new opportunities for our employees across a bigger business. We look forward to working with the Bridgestone team for a smooth and successful transition.”

The sale is scheduled to close early next year, assuming the deal clears a Justice Department anti-trust review. Last year, Bridgestone entered a guilty plea in a Justice Department probe of alleged price fixing for rubber parts used in many U.S. cars. The government's investigation of the auto parts industry began in 2011.

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Where did the first-time homebuyers go?

They had been driving the housing market. Now they'e not

One statistic jumped out of last week's report on existing home sales. Sales in September were up slightly but who was buying might be more significant....

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Retailers using free shipping for a competitive edge this holiday season

Best Buy and Target are getting out in front early with their offers

If you sell products online, how do you set yourself apart from your competitors? Last holiday season it was free shipping.This holiday season, free sh...

PhotoIf you sell products online, how do you set yourself apart from your competitors? Last holiday season it was free shipping.

This holiday season, free shipping might be the default mode. A retailer that isn't offering it may risk lowering their sales numbers. A consumer who doesn't demand it may be leaving money on the table.

Over the weekend BestBlackFriday.com reported that Target will repeat last year's offer of free shipping with no minimum purchase.

Returns free also

“While Target has not yet made an official announcement, it appears as though they will indeed offer free shipping and returns from November 1 through December 25 for every single order, regardless of the amount,” BestBlackFriday.com wrote in a post. “This includes standard shipping to 48 states and it may exclude oversized items.”

The website has published a screen shot from Target's leaked toy catalog, advertising the shipping offer.

Best Buy has already disclosed its plan to give customers free shipping with no minimum purchase amount. The move will surely increase competition this holiday season -- a move that was not made last year when customers had to spend at least $35 to get free shipping.

Walmart and Amazon

“This leaves Walmart and Amazon as the only two of the four largest Black Friday stores that have not offered free shipping with no minimum in the last two years,” Best Black Friday notes. “While they did not give into Target offering it last year, they could be pushed to offer it this year.”

Last year, Walmart provided free shipping on all orders $50 or more. Amazon provided free shipping for orders $35 or more, which is equal to what Best Buy offered last year.

But that was then and this is now. Consumers appear to be gaining leverage, holding out for free shipping and – so far – getting it from Target and Best Buy.

Amazon uses free shipping to sell Prime memberships and may be reluctant to go all in. But Phil Dengler, of Jones-Dengler Marketing – operator of BestBlackFriday.com – tells ConsumerAffairs he expects Walmart will be the next retailer to take up the free shipping challenge. The company may even look for a way to up the ante.

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New home sales post largest decline in two years

In addition, the August sales pace was revised lower

September was a tough month for sales of new, single-family homes. In a joint release, the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Developm...

PhotoSeptember was a tough month for sales of new, single-family homes.

In a joint release, the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development put sales an at annual rate of 468,000 houses -- down 11.5% from August and the lowest number sold since last November. If that wasn't bad enough, the government revised its estimate of August sales downward from the initially reported 552,000 to 529,000.

Even with the decline, the largest since July 2013, the September rate was 2% above the same month a year ago.

Prices and inventory

The median sales price of new houses sold last month was $296,900, up $7,800 from August and $235,400 year-over-year. The median is the point at which the price of half the homes was higher and half was lower. The average sales price was $364,100, a gain of $21,100 from the previous month and $45,000 more than September 2014.

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of September was 225,000, representing a supply of 5.8 months at the current sales rate, versus a supply 4.9 months in August.

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Big Game recalls tree stands

The cable assembly on the climbing tree stand can release

Big Game of Windom, Minn., is recalling about 12,200 climbing tree stands. The cable assembly on the climbing tree stand can release, posing a fall hazard...

PhotoBig Game of Windom, Minn., is recalling about 12,200 climbing tree stands.

 

The cable assembly on the climbing tree stand can release, posing a fall hazard to the user.

 

The company has received one report of the cable assembly releasing which resulted in injuries to the knee, wrist and hip.

 

This recall involves three model year 2014 Big Game climbing tree stands models: CL050 (The Outlook) with batch number 9B-0414, CL100-A (The Cobalt) with batch numbers 9B-0214 and 9B-0514, and CL500-AP (The Fusion) with batch numbers 9B-0214 and 9B-0514.

 

These climbing tree stands are used to hunt from an elevated position and were sold with an accessory bag. The black metal tree stands include the main stand platform with a nylon hanging strap assembly.

 

The Outlook has a nylon netted seat without a backrest. The Cobalt and The Fusion have a camouflage-print, padded seat with the Big Game logo at the front of the backrest.

 

The batch number starts with BN and can be found on a small tag located on the frame below the seat.

 

The climbing tree stands, manufactured in China, were sold at Bass Pro Shop, Cabela’s, Menards, Rogers Sporting Goods and Sportsman’s Guide stores nationwide and online from June 2014, through June 2015, for between $130 and $380.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled tree stands and return them for free replacement cables.

 

Consumers may contact Big Game at 800-268-5077 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday, online at www.biggametreestands.com and click on Recall Notice for more information, or write to the firm at Big Game P.O. Box 382, Windom, MN 56101.

 

 

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Buick LaCrosse; Cadillac XTS; Chevrolet Camaro, Equinox, Malibu; and GMC Terrain vehicles recalled

The front seat-mounted side impact air bag inflator may rupture

General Motors is recalling 395 model year 2015 Buick LaCrosse, Cadillac XTS, Chevrolet Camaro, Equinox, Malibu, and GMC Terrain vehicles. The vehicles h...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 395 model year 2015 Buick LaCrosse, Cadillac XTS, Chevrolet Camaro, Equinox, Malibu, and GMC Terrain vehicles.

 

The vehicles have front seat-mounted side impact air bags whose inflator may rupture upon its deployment.

 

In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of one or both of the side impact air bags, the air bag's inflator may rupture and the air bag may not properly inflate. The rupture could cause metal fragments to strike the vehicle occupants, potentially resulting in serious injury or death. Additionally, if the air bag does not properly inflate, the driver or passenger is at an increased risk of injury.

 

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the side impact air bag modules, free of charge. The recall began on October 19, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Buick customer service at 1-800-521-7300, Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020, Cadillac customer service at 1-800-458-8006, or GMC customer service at 1-800-462-8782. GM's number for this recall is 01320.

 

 

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L.L. Bean recalls knives with sheath

The knife can cut through the sheath

L.L. Bean of Freeport, Maine, is recalling about 300 hunting knives with sheaths. The knife can cut through the sheath, posing a laceration hazard. No in...

PhotoL.L. Bean of Freeport, Maine, is recalling about 300 hunting knives with sheaths.

 

The knife can cut through the sheath, posing a laceration hazard.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

 

The recall includes the L.L. Bean GTO Hunting Knife with Sheath with product identification number 296435 printed on the product’s packaging. The knife measures eight inches long including a four-inch blade. The handle is made of G10 synthetic. L.L. Bean is printed on the blade and an outline of a mountain is printed on the blade. The sheath is made of black ballistic cloth, embroidered with “L.L. Bean” and an outline of mountains.

 

The knives, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at L.L. Bean retail stores nationwide, catalog and online at www.LLBean.com from June 2015, through September 2015, for about $90.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the knife sheath and contact the firm to receive a free replacement sheath.

 

Consumers may contact L.L. Bean at 800-555-9717 daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (ET) or online at www.llbean.com for more information.  

 

 

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Volkswagen recalls Jettas, Golfs and E-Golfs

The Passenger Occupant Detection System may have been manufactured improperly

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 993 model year 2015 Jetta vehicles manufactured September 8, 2014, to November 28, 2014; Golf vehicles manufacture...

PhotoVolkswagen Group of America is recalling 993 model year 2015 Jetta vehicles manufactured September 8, 2014, to November 28, 2014; Golf vehicles manufactured April 2, 2014, to December 3, 2014; and E-Golf vehicles manufactured July 26, 2014, to October 18, 2014.

 

The vehicles are equipped with a Passenger Occupant Detection System (PODS) that may have been manufactured improperly. As a result, the front passenger seat occupant may be improperly classified or may not be detected.

 

In the event of a crash, if the front passenger seat occupant is incorrectly classified or non-detected, the passenger frontal air bag may deploy improperly or not at all, increasing the risk of occupant injury.

 

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will replace the PODS control module, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in November 2015.

 

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen’s number for this recall is 69L6.

 

 

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Innopower recalls Hawk climbing sticks

Folding steps can bend or break during use

Innopower of Frankenmuth, Mich., is recalling about 730 Hawk climbing sticks. The folding steps can bend or break during use, posing a fall hazard. The f...

PhotoInnopower of Frankenmuth, Mich., is recalling about 730 Hawk climbing sticks.

 

The folding steps can bend or break during use, posing a fall hazard.

 

The firm has received reports of five incidents of steps breaking. Only minor injuries, including scratches and bruises, have been reported.

 

This recall includes 2014 and 2015 Hawk 2085 RAZOR 3PK (32 inches long), the 2085-1 RAZOR 1PK (32 inches long), and the 2015 Hawk 2084 RAZOR SHORTMAX 4PK (20 inches long) and 2084-1 RAZOR SHORTMAX 1PK (20 inches long) climbing sticks.

 

The aluminum sticks, which have a gray finish, tie with nylon strap to tree trunks and provide steps for consumers to climb. Recalled steps have three rectangular holes cut in the bottom of them, which differentiate them from non-recalled steps, which have circular holes.

 

Model 2085 and 2085-1 have two 32-inch long metal poles with steps and a tree V-bracket to contact the tree.

 

Model 2084 and 2084-1 have two 20-inch long metal poles with steps and a tree V-bracket to contact the tree.

 

The model number is on the black and gray sticker located on the back side of the vertical post.

 

The climbing sticks, manufactured in China, were sold at A-1 Archery, Camofire LLC, Cinnamon Creek Ranch Archery, DNW Outdoors, Eunice Archery Range, Franks Great Outdoors, GameMasters, Grabow Archers, Hunter's Refuge, & Gear, Innovations of Home, Jay’s Sporting Goods, Jon’s Sports Shop, Long Range Archery, Mack's Sport Shop, RackFan Addicts, Simmons Sporting Goods and Woodbury Outfitters from June 2014, to August 2015, for between $38 and $130.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the climbing sticks and contact Innopower for information on returning the folding steps for a free replacement.

 

Consumers may contact Innopower at 800-916-3115 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday, online at www.hawkhunting.com or by writing to Innopower (Hawk) at 393 List St, Suite B, Frankenmuth, MI 48734.

 

 

 

 

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Hyundai recalls model year Elantras and Sonatas with corrosion issue

The coil springs could fracture

Hyundai Motor America is recalling 27,700 model year 2011 Elantra vehicles manufactured November 12, 2010, to March 31, 2011, and Sonata vehicles manufactu...

PhotoHyundai Motor America is recalling 27,700 model year 2011 Elantra vehicles manufactured November 12, 2010, to March 31, 2011, and Sonata vehicles manufactured December 11, 2009, to February 28, 2010.

 

The vehicles were originally sold in, or are currently registered in, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.

 

Road salt may corrode the front coil springs, possibly resulting in the coil springs fracturing. If a front coil spring fractures, it may contact the tire, possibly puncturing it, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

Vehicles that were previously registered in salt belt states but are currently registered elsewhere are eligible to be inspected and repaired.

 

Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front coil springs, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin November 30, 2015. Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-855-671-3059. Hyundai's number for this recall is 133.  

 

 

 

 

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Limiting full-contact in high school football practices shown to be effective at preventing concussions

A new rule implemented in Wisconsin more than halved the number of injuries sustained during practices

Sports fans everywhere find themselves in the middle of another exciting football season – ranging from the NFL all the way down to the high school level. ...

PhotoSports fans everywhere find themselves in the middle of another exciting football season – ranging from the NFL all the way down to the high school level. The acrobatic plays and hard hits are fun to watch, but the injuries that players can sustain are not to be taken lightly.

High school athletes, in particular, are at great risk of injury due to their varying skill levels. So how can we avoid all of the broken bones, sprains, and concussions that seem to define the sport? Well, new research suggests that limiting full-contact activities in high school practices goes a long way towards preventing player injuries – especially concussions, which can be one of the most dangerous.

Practice injuries more than halved

The study, which was conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, analyzed sports-related injuries for Wisconsin high school football players before and after the implementation of a new rule that limited full-contact activities in practice. They found that players who participated in the two seasons prior to the rule-change were more than twice as likely to sustain an injury during a practice.

The new rule went into effect after the 2014 season. It put strict limits on the amount of time that players could participate in full-contact drills, activities, and “game situations”. “Full-contact” activities are defined as instances when players can make full tackles at a competitive pace. Basically, any hit delivered in real-time that brings a player to the ground is eligible under the definition.

After the rule went into effect, players could not participate in ANY full-contact activities during the first week of practice; during the second week of practice, players were allowed 75 minutes worth of full-contact practice; after the second week, players were limited to 60 minutes of full-contact practice for the rest of the season.

Safety first

While many may feel that “genuine” practice time has been cut back significantly, the fact that injuries have more than halved in frequency cannot be ignored. “This study confirms what athletic trainers who work with high football programs have long believed regarding the association of full contact drills or practices and the likelihood a player will sustain a concussion,” said Dr. Timothy A McGuine, senior scientist at UW. This is probably also true for other football injuries such as sprains, fractures and dislocations.”

Just reducing concussions is a big enough win, though. Serious head injuries have plagued student-athletes across the country, with some even being fatal. “Educating high school coaches to limit the amount of full contact would be an effective and economical way to help protect students from head injuries,” said McGuine.

The full study will be presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference & Exhibition in Washington D.C. 

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Clothes are loaded with chemicals, many unidentified, researchers find

The chemicals raise the risk of everything from skin irritation to aquatic damage

What's in your clothes? Well, you are, of course, but there are also thousands of chemicals in clothing, some of them not very pleasant, Swedish researcher...

PhotoWhat's in your clothes? Well, you are, of course, but there are also thousands of chemicals in clothing, some of them not very pleasant, Swedish researchers have found.

A Stockholm University professor, Giovanna Luongo, tested 60 garments and found thousands of chemicals. She and her team identified about 100, including several that were not on the manufacturer's ingredients list. Some may have been added during transport.

"Exposure to these chemicals increases the risk of allergic dermatitis, but more severe health effect for humans as well as the environment could possibly be related to these chemicals. Some of them are suspected or proved carcinogens and some have aquatic toxicity," Luongo said.

Depending on occurrence, quantity, toxicity, and how easily they may penetrate the skin, four groups of substances were chosen for further analysis. The highest concentrations of two of these, quinolines and aromatic amines, were found in polyester. Cotton contained high concentrations of benzothiazoles, even clothes made from organic cotton.

Came out in the wash

The researchers washed the clothes and then measured the levels of chemicals. Some of the substances were washed off, with a risk of ending up in aquatic environments. Others remained in the clothes, becoming a potential source of long-term dermal exposure.

 The researchers said it's difficult to know if the levels of these harmful substances are hazardous, and what effects chemicals in our clothes can have in the long run.

"We have only scratched the surface, this is something that has to be dealt with. Clothes are worn day and night during our entire life. We must find out if textile chemicals go into our skin and what it means to our health. It is very difficult to assess and requires considerably more research," said Conny Östman, Professor in Analytical Chemistry at Stockholm University. 

The researchers' complete report is available online

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Advocates for raising the legal smoking age to 21 are finding traction

Stopping the use of tobacco products by young people can help them avoid many immediate health risks

The negative effects of smoking have been well documented in numerous studies. Doctors across the world treat patients who have suffered from the habit eve...

PhotoThe negative effects of smoking have been well documented in numerous studies. Doctors across the world treat patients who have suffered from the habit every day, but one such doctor has had enough. Dr. Daniel Ouellette, a pulmonologist at Henry Ford Hospital, is suggesting that the legal smoking age be raised to 21.

The suggestion, which is popular amongst anti-smoking advocates, would help limit access to tobacco products for teenagers. This, Ouellette says, would reduce smoking prevalence amongst younger demographics. Health problems related to smoking often start young, so this would be an important step.

“Most of my patients are diagnosed with emphysema or lung cancer at a relatively young age from smoking, despite the media attention given to the health risks of smoking and despite them knowing about those risks,” said Ouellette.

E-cigs not safer

Ouellette is also very against the notion that e-cigarettes are a safer product. “They're unregulated so we can't be sure what's in them. In some studies, it showed that the particulates may be comparable to that of a regular cigarette,” he said. “They also come from China, which makes it hard to know who is manufacturing them.”

Unfortunately, many middle and high school students have latched onto the product. Statistics show that e-cigarette use amongst young people tripled between 2013 and 2014. And while the product is supposed to be safe, there have been hospitalizations related to using it. Conditions attributed to their use include pneumonia, congestive heart failure, and seizure.

Even if the above conditions do not manifest, some researchers say e-cigarettes can often act as a gateway product that leads to actual cigarette smoking – which is still responsible for one in five deaths in the United States.

One study, conducted and released by the Institute of Medicine in March of 2015, concluded that raising the legal age for using tobacco products would likely prevent or delay the start of smoking for adolescents and young adults. While this may seem obvious, it is extremely important since it would lower the prevalence of many age-related health problems associated with smoking.

Many cities and states already support raising the legal age of smoking. In June, Hawaii became the first state to raise the age required to buy tobacco products to 21; since then, 90 cities in 8 different states have followed their lead. Dr. Ouellette will be giving presentations on e-cigarettes and raising the legal age for tobacco products at the American College of Chest Physicians' annual meeting, which takes place in Montreal from October 24-28. 

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FCC reins in excessive charges for calls from prison

Rates for some calls have been as high as $14 per minute

For nearly 20 years, it has been open season on the friends and families of prison inmates. They've paid as much as $14 per minute to call their incarcerat...

PhotoFor nearly 20 years, it has been open season on the friends and families of prison inmates. They've paid as much as $14 per minute to call their incarcerated loved ones, who must only use prison telephone systems to make calls.

The outrageous fees have been split between private telecommunications providers and the states and private companies that operate prisons and jails throughout the country. But yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission finally declared an end to the predatory practices, which were authorized by a little-noticed provision in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The FCC's action lowers the cap to 11 cents per minute for all local and long distance calls from state and federal prisons, while providing tiered rates for jails to account for the higher costs of serving jails and smaller institutions. 

At the same time, the FCC closed loopholes by barring most add-on fees imposed by inmate calling service providers. They also set strict limits on the few fees that remain. Extra fees and charges can increase the cost of families staying in touch by phone with loved ones who are incarcerated by as much as 40%.

Families in debt

According to a report released last week, one in three families go into debt because of the high cost of maintaining contact with incarcerated family members. 

While contact between inmates and their loved ones has been shown to reduce the rate of recidivism, high inmate calling rates have made that contact unaffordable for many families, who often live in poverty, the FCC said in a prepared statement

Today’s action builds on reforms begun by the FCC in 2013, when it acted on a petition by Martha Wright, a grandmother from Washington, D.C., for relief from the exorbitant rates she was paying to call her grandson in prison. These reforms set an interim cap of 21 cents per minute on interstate debit and prepaid calls, required by ICS providers to file cost data. In October 2014, the FCC sought comment on the data and proposed to reform all inmate calling rates and fees.

"In passing the most comprehensive reforms to date to the prison phone industry, champions like Commissioner Mignon Clyburn listened to those long considered voiceless—the families of the 2.4 million people incarcerated in the United States,” said Malkia A. Cyril, Executive Director at the Center for Media Justice and Co-Founder of the Media Action Grassroots Network. “It’s long past time to reform the unreasonable rates predatory companies impose upon on a captive consumer base.”

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Takata side airbags in VWs and GM vehicles may have faulty inflaters

Safety regulators say their probe is expanding to front and side Takata airbags

What with the dirty diesel scandal and all those defective ignition switches, Volkswagen and General Motors have had their share of problems lately, but th...

PhotoWhat with the dirty diesel scandal and all those defective ignition switches, Volkswagen and General Motors have had their share of problems lately, but there may be more on the way.

Federal safety regulators say newer side airbags in some VW and GM models may be at risk of rupturing violently, just like the older front airbags that have led to recalls of 19 million cars made by 12 automakers.

At a briefing yesterday, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Mark Rosekind, said it is not yet known how many vehicles could be affected, but the agency's investigation has been expanded to include newer airbags and side airbags.

The problem with the Takata inflaters is that they can rupture violently, spewing small, shrapnel-like pieces of metal into the passenger compartment. At least eight deaths and hundreds of injuries have been attributed to the problem.

The investigation began to expand over the summer when a Takata side airbag in a 2015 VW Tiguan ruptured. Last weekend, General Motors recalled about 400 cars after Takata said the side airbags used in the affected models had failed its safety tests.

NHTSA officials now say their investigation does not include all Takata inflaters that use ammonium nitrate as a propellant. 

Takata said it is cooperating in the investigation. 

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Professors develop tool to predict stock price crashes

A stock's most vulnerable period is at earnings reporting time

Everyone knows the secret to making money in the stock market is to buy low and sell high.Holding a stock when its price crashes through the floor isn'...

Everyone knows the secret to making money in the stock market is to buy low and sell high.

Holding a stock when its price crashes through the floor isn't part of the formula.

But how do you know when a stock price is poised for a big fall? You can invest in software or learn to read the tea leaves of a particular stock's chart.

PhotoBut some professors at the University of California Berkeley business school say they have developed a simpler way. They say their system has already been put to the test.

Price crash flag system

The researchers focused on the stock of Barracuda Network. When the stock price fell almost 35% in a day in September, the Berkeley system had already flagged the signs that led to the fall.

The new system measures crash risk and is based on a study of 14 years of stock data. It was developed to help investors actively avoid price crashes.

The system is based on flags, which researchers developed after looking at earlier stock price declines. According to the system, when a company receives three or more flags, that's a strong indicator that its stock price is about to crash.

“We have found these crash flags to be an effective tool for investors,” said Professor Richard Sloan, of the Haas Accounting Group. “Barracuda had been consistently raising between four and five flags over the previous month, so this is a good example of the price crash flag system in action. Despite reporting a healthy 14% revenue growth rate, Barracuda disappointed investors, who had been expecting even more.”

Highs and lows

On September 29, Barracuda stock hit an intraday high of $25.16. It crashed the next day, closing at $15.58.

Since then, Barracuda stock has failed to regain its pre-earnings level, as the company has revised its earnings estimates downward. For investors holding such a stock, the loss can be significant.

Sloan says about 70% of market crashes occur when the company announces earnings and discusses them – along with the outlook – on a conference call with analysts and reporters.

“We wanted to understand the types of signals that can help to predict such price crashes,” Sloan said.

To develop the tool, researchers studied 14 years worth of stock return data between 2001 and 2014.

The five flags

The researchers found five variables that helped foretell stock price crashes. These variables include:

  • Unusual trading volume
  • High short interest
  • Large accounting accruals
  • Extreme valuations
  • High growth expectations

According to the formula, stocks ranking very high on at least three of these variables were significantly more likely to experience a price crash over the next six months.

“We’re not necessarily advocating that investors should trade stocks based on crash risk flags alone,” said Sloan. “But we strongly suggest that stocks with three or more flags be carefully examined before continuing to hold them through earnings season.”

Sloan says if investors will remember these five flags, they should be better able to experience less volatility in their portfolios.

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Tax preparers increasingly become identity theft targets

Scammers use those identities to file multiple bogus returns

With the end of the year fast approaching, consumers are starting to gather their 2015 tax information.Tax preparers are getting ready for the start of...

PhotoWith the end of the year fast approaching, consumers are starting to gather their 2015 tax information.

Tax preparers are getting ready for the start of the busy tax-filing season in January.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) warns they had better get ready for something else – identity thieves looking for information to use on fraudulent tax returns.

Preparers more lucrative targets

If a scammer impersonates a single taxpayer, he only gets a single fraudulent refund. But if he steals the identity of a tax preparer, he can file for hundreds of bogus refunds, each possibly worth several thousand dollars.

As a defense, the IRS recommends tax preparers have a security plan in place. It should include:

  • High-quality security software that includes a firewall, anti-malware, and anti-virus programs
  • An education program for all employees to ensure they understand the dangers of phishing emails and other threats to taxpayer data.
  • Strong passwords that are changed periodically; consider having different levels of password protection.
  • Secure wireless connection. If Wi-Fi is used, protect taxpayer data by making sure it is password protected. Be sure to use encrypted email programs to exchange PII information with taxpayers.

Secure data

While it is recommended that tax preparers back up taxpayer data on a regular basis, the IRS says media containing this data should be put in a secure location with limited access.

Tax preparers should also access IRS e-services weekly during the filing season and several times during the year to check the number of returns filed using the preparer’s EFIN against the actual number. If there is a discrepancy, preparers are urged to contact the IRS e-Help Desk for e-Services immediately.

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Five signs of a college scholarship scam

Yes, scammers even target people seeking financial help for college

College is expensive enough without getting ripped off by a scammer pitching bogus scholarship offers and financial aid assistance. Finaid.org estimates th...

PhotoCollege is expensive enough without getting ripped off by a scammer pitching bogus scholarship offers and financial aid assistance. Finaid.org estimates that Americans are cheated out of roughly $100 million every year by scammers.

Abigail Seldin, vice-president of innovation for ECMC and co-founder of College Abacus, says there are five catch phrases that families should be listening for this college application season.

"Don't worry, we'll do all the work."

True, there is lot of paperwork involved in the application process and paying someone to fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form might sound good. But Seldin says it could end up creating an even bigger headache for you down the road.

The U.S. Department of Education does not endorse services that charge for help with the FAFSA and instead urges students seeking assistance to consult FAFSA's online help desk at fafsa.gov, the Federal Student Aid Information Center, or the financial aid offices at the colleges themselves.

Some students may still decide to use fee-based services, but those who do run the risk of being hit with hidden fees. Remember, FAFSA stands for 'Free Application for Federal Student Aid"--the operative word in that acronym being “free.”

"Guaranteed or your money back!"

In the competitive world of scholarships, legitimate organizations know better than to go out on a limb with claims like "guaranteed or your money back." Most of these scholarship sites are search engines that link you to scholarship sponsors – not actual scholarship sponsors themselves, who have actual control over who is and who isn't selected.

Seldin says scholarships that claim to have a "money back guarantee" should prompt caution as well, since they typically have attached terms and conditions that make it difficult – if not impossible – to receive a refund.

"Please provide a credit card to confirm eligibility."

Big red flag here. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns that scammers have been known to call unsuspecting students out of the blue to offer so-called grants and scholarships, then ask for a credit card or bank account in order to "confirm eligibility" or "hold the scholarship."

Seldin says you can safely assume that anyone asking you to submit unusual personal information upfront is a scammer and the sooner you hang up, the better.

In addition to the obvious risk of monetary theft, disclosing sensitive information to a stranger – whether it's your credit card information, bank account number, or anything else – makes you vulnerable to identity theft, especially when that information is paired with other personal data like your date of birth.

"You're invited to a free seminar!"

There are numerous pitfalls to something like this. Seldin says many of these sessions turn out to be crafty traps for peddling unrelated financial products to unsuspecting families – everything from annuities to life insurance policies.

In other cases, a seminar may present you a chance to secure a scholarship on the spot or pressure you to commit to overpriced private loans as a prerequisite for receiving federal aid. Private loans are never a requirement for federal aid.

"We'll just need your FAFSA ID to get started."

Your FAFSA ID is personal information that shouldn't be shared with outsiders. In the eyes of the U.S. government, your FAFSA ID might as well be your electronic signature.

Anyone who has access to it can also gain access to your most important personal data – everything from your date of birth and Social Security number to your home address and parents' names. In other words, all the ingredients criminals need to steal your identity and open up new lines of credit in your name can be found via your FAFSA ID. If you think your FAFSA ID has been compromised, make sure to change it immediately.

Seldin says it's always better to be safe than sorry. She says no legitimate scholarship will need access to your bank account or Social Security number.  

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Amazon shortens delivery times in more markets

Prime members in Chicago and Orlando now get free same day deliveries

Amazon.com continues to increase the number of markets where it provides same-day delivery.The online retailer says the Chicago and Orlando metro areas...

PhotoAmazon.com continues to increase the number of markets where it provides same-day delivery.

The online retailer says the Chicago and Orlando metro areas and parts of New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia are the latest places where Prime members can get free same-day delivery

Amazon now provides the service to more than 750 cities and towns across 16 metro areas. Under the system, Prime members can order by noon and receive all same-day orders over $35 before bedtime that very same day, seven days a week.

Amazon has focused intense efforts on speeding delivery to better compete with brick-and-mortal retailers, as well as online competitors.

"We're focused on making Prime better and better,” said Greg Greeley, vice president of Amazon Prime.

What consumers need today

What do consumers order for same day delivery? In addition to fun items like the latest electronics, Amazon says the orders include the Fire TV Stick, Crest 3D White Luxe Strips, and Optimum Nutrition chocolate-flavored protein powder.

Orders vary by locality. In New York, Amazon says it receives rush orders for water filters. In Atlanta, inflatable water toys are popular same-day items. In San Francisco, there are a lot of same-day orders for bicycle locks.

In California, Amazon is expanding the areas where Prime customers can get one-hour deliveries of certain products. Customers in most San Francisco and San Jose neighborhoods such as Potrero Hill, Mountain View, and Cupertino can now use the one-hour service. Customers can enter their zip code in the Prime Now app to see if their neighborhood is eligible or to be notified when the service is available in their area.

Delivery the new battleground

Now that consumers can order just about anything online, the next area of competition is free delivery and the speed at which the merchandise arrives. Among the major retailers offering free shipping on at least some items are TargetApple, and Kohl's. All require a certain order amount to qualify.

Online retailers that use Federal Express may be able to deliver the same day, in some cases, to consumers willing to pay the express charge. Fed Ex says it can get some parcels to your door within hours.

During the 2014 holiday season, free shipping almost became the norm. To make an online sale, a retailer almost had to eat the shipping charges. Many retail analysts think that will be even more prevalent this year.

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Gasoline prices drift lower for another week

$3 a gallon fuel becoming a distant memory

Motorists in most parts of the country are in for a treat, not trick, when they fill up in late October. Retail gasoline prices have been in decline for ne...

PhotoMotorists in most parts of the country are in for a treat, not trick, when they fill up in late October. Retail gasoline prices have been in decline for nearly two weeks.

The national average price of self-serve regular is $2.21 a gallon, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. Unless you live in Alaska, Hawaii, or California, you might not remember the last time prices were north of $3.

A year ago, oil prices had just begun their dramatic decline, but gasoline prices had yet to follow suit. The national average price 12 months ago was $3.08 a gallon.

Below $2 a gallon more common

Now, it's getting hard to find prices over $2 a gallon. In a Tweet, GasBuddy.com's Patrick DeHaan said 27% of U.S. gas stations are selling gasoline for less than $2 a gallon.

Gasoline prices continue to drift lower as refineries complete the switch over to winter grade gasoline blends and oil remains plentiful and cheap. And there is little evidence that oil prices will increase anytime soon.

“A number of factors have the potential to shift the global price of crude oil in the weeks ahead,” AAA said in a release this week. “The Iranian nuclear deal is once again front-of-mind, as global negotiators continue to move forward, which could bring Iranian oil back to the market in as little as two months.”

More Iranian oil on the market will only increase the supply glut that has depressed prices over the last year. Added to that, AAA notes that China’s economic growth rate fell below 7% for the first time since 2009, putting a damper on speculations that demand there could offset some of the market’s oversupply.

U.S. swimming in oil

The U.S. also has more oil than it can use. The latest report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows crude oil supplies are building. Because of ample supply, oil prices have settled into a trading range well below $50 a barrel.

Refineries and distribution remain the variables most responsible for price disparities from one region to another. The Southeast, for example, continues to enjoy low prices while motorists in the West pay significantly more.

The states with the most expensive gasoline are:

  • Hawaii $2.90
  • California $2.85
  • Nevada $2.78
  • Alaska $2.57
  • Utah $2.47

The states with the cheapest gasoline are:

  • South Carolina $1.91
  • Mississippi $1.94
  • Alabama $1.94
  • New Jersey $1.95
  • Tennessee $1.96
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Build-A-Bear recalls stuffed animals

The satin seam of the stuffed animal can open, allowing the stuffing material to be exposed

Build-A-Bear Workshop of St. Louis, Mo., is recalling about 34,600 Starbrights Dragon stuffed animals in the U.S. and Canada. The satin seam of the stuffe...

PhotoBuild-A-Bear Workshop of St. Louis, Mo., is recalling about 34,600 Starbrights Dragon stuffed animals in the U.S. and Canada.

 

The satin seam of the stuffed animal can open, allowing the stuffing material to be exposed, posing a choking hazard for young children.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

 

Starbrights Dragon is covered in a blue furry fabric with silver satin tummy, feet pads, wings and horns. The horns light up and the toy makes a musical sound when the hand is squeezed. The stuffed animal is about 17 inches high.

 

The tracking label ending with 9333 or 9334 for USA and 9337 or 9459 for Canada can be found on the label sewn on the backside of the leg.

 

The stuffed animals. Manufactured in China, were sold at Build-A-Bear Workshop stores and online at www.buildabear.com between April 2015, and August 2015, for about $25.

 

Consumers should immediately take the recalled stuffed animal away from children and return it to any Build-A-Bear Workshop store to receive a coupon for any Build-A-Bear stuffed animal.

 

Consumers may contact Build-A-Bear toll-free at 866-236-5638 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (CT) on Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (CT) on Sunday; by email at ProductHotline@buildabear.com or online www.buildabear.com for more information.

 

 

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Global Manufacturing recalls API Outdoors tree stands

The cable assembly on the climbing tree stand can release

Global Manufacturing Company of Windom, Minn., is recalling about 2,300 climbing tree stands. The cable assembly on the climbing tree stand can release, p...

PhotoGlobal Manufacturing Company of Windom, Minn., is recalling about 2,300 climbing tree stands.

 

The cable assembly on the climbing tree stand can release, posing a fall hazard to the user.

 

The company has received one report of the cable assembly releasing which resulted in a broken vertebra, fractured rib and sprained shoulder.

 

This recall involves model year 2014 API Outdoors climbing tree stands model GCL300-A (The Marksman) with batch numbers 9G-0114 and 9G-0614. The climbing tree stands are used to hunt from an elevated position and were sold with an accessory bag.

 

The light green metal tree stands include the main stand platform with a nylon hanging strap assembly. They have a nylon netted seat without a backrest. The batch number starts with BN and can be found on a small tag located on the frame below the seat.

 

The tree stands, manufactured in China, were sold at Menards and Rogers Sporting Goods stores nationwide and online from June 2014, through June 2015, for between $140 and $180.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled tree stands and return them for free replacement cables.

 

Consumers may contact Global Manufacturing Company at 888-393-9611from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at www.apioutdoors.com and click on Recall Notice for more information. Consumers may also write to the firm at Global Manufacturing Company/API Outdoors, P.O. Box 24, Windom, MN 56101.

 

 

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Small businesses “overwhelmed” by new chip cards

National Retail Federation renews push to add PINs to new card system

Just weeks after new rules went into effect for the use of credit cards with embedded security chips, the National Retail Federation (NRF) complains small ...

PhotoJust weeks after new rules went into effect for the use of credit cards with embedded security chips, the National Retail Federation (NRF) complains small businesses are being pressured to make an expensive investment without receiving the full level of security that could be provided.

NRF arranged for a small business owner to testify before Congress this week. Keith Lipert, owner of The Keith Lipert Gallery, a single-location, three-employee store in Washington, told lawmakers small businesses are being overwhelmed.

“Overwhelmed”

“The EMV transition is overwhelming and expensive for an independent, small retailer,” Lipert said. “Small retailers are entirely at the mercy and whims of the big players. We have no say and no way to use the marketplace to make our objections heard and our concerns valued.”

Retailers say the EMV cards, which have an embedded computer chip, don't go far enough to promote security. NRF wants the system to an include a PIN, which would make it less likely a lost or stolen card could be used.

Consumers may have noticed that many retail locations, especially small businesses, are still using the old “swipe” card readers, not the new “dipping” readers.

Unresponsive banks


“EMV is all new to me, and banks and the networks are not contacting small businesses to help the transition in any way,” Lipert said. “No one from my bank, processor or existing supplier even contacted me about the need to add a new EMV device, let alone a deadline by which to do so.”

The House Small Business Committee is investigating how Europay MasterCard Visa cards will affect small businesses. The hearing followed this month’s deadline set by the card industry for merchants to install chip-card readers be on the hook for fraudulent card usage.

Seven times more secure

Lipert said the EMV cards being issued by banks are chip-and-signature cards, instead of the chip-and-PIN cards used in nearly all other countries where EMV cards are used. He pointed to Federal Reserve data showing that a secure, secret PIN to approve transactions is seven times more secure than an easily forged and often-illegible signature.

Lipert also said small businesses are seeing “significant delays” in obtaining chip card readers or getting them certified once they are installed. He says small businesses just aren't a priority for hardware manufacturers.

Chip card terminal can cost as much as $2,000 when installation, software and other expenses are included.

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The "Dallas clock kid" is moving to Qatar

Rejected by Texas, clever 14-year-old accepts offer from Qatar

After Ahmed Mohamed brought a clock he built -- or a disassembled old Radio Shack clock, depending on what you want to believe -- to school, quite a few Te...

PhotoAfter Ahmed Mohamed brought a clock he built -- or a disassembled old Radio Shack clock, depending on what you want to believe -- to school, quite a few Texans wanted to run him out of town.

They're getting their wish. Mohamed, 14, is moving to Doha, Qatar, having accepted an offer from the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development (QF).

You'll recall that Mohamed was arrested when he brought his rather crude-looking clock to school in Irving, Texas, because his teacher thought it looked dangerous. 

He was later released but never received an apology from Irving police. In fact, police chief Larry Boyd stuck to his story that the clock did indeed look dangerous. Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne went on Glenn Beck's TV show and intimated that there was more to the story -- something sinister.

Lots of people in Irving bought Beck's suggestion that Mohamed and his family might be part of an Islamist plot against Irving.

Never went back

Mohamed never return to MacArthur High School, although he did make a quick trip to Washington, D.C., where he got a warm reception at the White House. He was invited to meet Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

But while he got a warm reception around the country, Texas basically told him to go to hell. Fortunately, the Qatar Foundation offer came along instead and he will be going to Doha instead.

“I really enjoyed my time at Education City, where I met other kids like me who are part of the Young Innovators Program. Qatar was a cool place to visit. I loved the city of Doha because it’s so modern. I saw so many amazing schools there, many of them campuses of famous American universities. The teachers were great. I think I will learn a lot and have fun too,” Mohamed said in a prepared statement.

 

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An economy without actual money? Sweden may look to go cashless in the future

While there are some hurdles to pass, the change is not completely improbable

Cashless transactions have become the norm for many businesses in recent years. While it is not uncommon for someone to carry cash on them, it is much fast...

PhotoCashless transactions have become the norm for many businesses in recent years. While it is not uncommon for someone to carry cash on them, it is much faster and simpler to swipe your card and be on your way. Sweden, in particular, has taken this idea a step further. Projections show that it is on its way to becoming the first cashless country in the world.

Going cashless

A study conducted from Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology shows that Sweden’s reliance on physical money is waning dramatically. Estimates show that the country currently has only 80 billion crowns (Swedish currency) in circulation. This is a major decrease from six years ago, when 106 billion marks were in circulation.

“Cash is still an important means of payment in many countries’ markets, but that no longer applies here in Sweden,” said Niklas Arvidsson, an industrial technology and management researcher at KTH.

Although 80 billion SEK (Swedish crowns) seems like a high number, Arvidsson says that the actual number is much lower than that. He estimates that only 40-60 percent of that amount is actually being used. The rest is saved by people in their homes, in bank deposit boxes, or circulating in the underground economy.

Electronic systems already in place

While still far away from being able to go truly cashless, Sweden may be able to reach that goal by using a direct payment app called Swish. The app was created through collaboration between Swedish and Danish banks and allows individuals to make transactions between each other in real time without exchanging currency.

Swish may be able to thrive in a country like Sweden due to its citizens’ ability to embrace new technologies. Electronic payment services have been in place for years in the country, so making the jump to all-electronic payments is not too far of a stretch. Many banks already have 100 percent digitalized branches that don’t accept cash.

This system has quite a few benefits for both the Swedish government and its citizens. Being able to track money more effectively has led to a crackdown on organized crime in the country. “At the offices which do handle banknotes and coins, the customer must explain where the cash comes from, according to the regulations aimed at money laundering and terrorist financing,” said Arvidsson. Bank employees are required to immediately report any suspicious transactions to the police.

Working out the kinks

While Swish is very popular with consumers, it will be some time before all of the kinks are worked out for going cashless. Citizens that are not familiar with electronic payment systems or computers in general would have trouble switching to the newer system. It would also force the homeless population and undocumented immigrants to become even more reliant on government systems and programs to survive.

Chances of cashless systems spreading to other countries is even more tenuous. “Swish is a brilliant idea, but to introduce it internationally is a challenge, not least because it takes a long time to change other countries’ banking systems from scratch. But it is not impossible that a Swish-based banking revolution can also occur abroad,” said Arvidsson. 

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Surprise! Volkswagen diesel prices plunge

Kelley Blue Book reports prices at auction are down 16%

Not only does Volkswagen face punitive fines, lawsuits, and recall costs in connection with its diesel cars that cheat on emissions controls, its selling f...

PhotoNot only does Volkswagen face punitive fines, lawsuits, and recall costs in connection with its diesel cars that cheat on emissions controls, its selling fewer vehicles.

And those that are selling are going at a discount.

Kelley Blue Book (KBB) reports that average auction prices, along with new-car shopping activity on KBB.com, for Volkswagen diesel vehicles have declined four weeks after the diesel emissions issue was announced. No surprise there.

The average auction price for Volkswagen diesel models dropped by nearly 16% since the news broke of the emissions scandal. The average auction price for the VW’s gasoline-powered vehicles declined by 2.9%.

On KBB.com, Volkswagen new-car shopping activity for affected TDI models has fallen, on average, by 2.4%.

“According to Kelley Blue Book Field Analysts, some auctions are still holding off on selling the affected Volkswagen inventory,” said Tim Fleming, analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “While Volkswagen diesel auction prices are in decline, we could see larger fluctuations depending on how this inventory is handled.”

According to KBB, the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen and Golf have seen the most significant declines in shopping activity, with decreases of 6.2 percent and 3.7 percent respectively.

The Audi A3 and Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen are the only TDI models seeing increases in activity, at 1.6% and 3% respectively. KBB says Audi A3 shoppers are increasingly cross-shopping competing luxury models following the announcement.

The most highly cross-shopped vehicles are the Lexus NX, BMW 2-Series, and Mercedes-Benz CLA.

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Teens could soon be driving interstate tractor-trailers, thanks to Congress

"Teens threaten the safety of everyone on the road," safety advocates argue

Congress is thinking about allowing teenagers to drive huge tractor trailer trucks interstate. Some safety advocates think it's a dumb -- and dangerous -- ...

PhotoCongress is thinking about allowing teenagers to drive huge tractor trailer trucks interstate. Some safety advocates think it's a dumb -- and dangerous -- idea.

"When trucking interests try to put teens in the cab of a large 80,000-pound truck driving long hours at high speeds it is a catastrophe waiting to happen," said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "It’s hard to believe that this proposal by the trucking industry is even getting serious consideration in Congress but unfortunately it may become law unless it is stopped."

The teen-trucker provision in the DRIVE Act has already passed the Senate and is being considered today by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Gillan's group quotes statistics showing that younger commercial motor vehicle drivers have higher crash rates; commercial drivers under the age of 19 are four times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes, and those between the ages of 19-20 are six times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes.

Yet, the Senate passed a bill (H.R. 22) that permits 18-year-olds to drive 80,000 pound trucks for up to 82 hours a week, Gillan said, and today the House committee is considering a similar provision.

The idea was squashed during the Bush Administration when the public, truck drivers, and motor carrier companies objected to a proposed rulemaking. Gillan said trucking interests are now trying to circumvent opposition by going to Congress to roll back the minimum age of 21 for driving a large truck in interstate commerce.  

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Tech support scam disproportionately targets seniors

FTC tells Congress 76% of victims are over 50 years old

The tech support scam is quite common, and we've warned about it in the past.It's when a scammer calls an unsuspecting consumer and pretends to be from...

PhotoThe tech support scam is quite common, and we've warned about it in the past.

It's when a scammer calls an unsuspecting consumer and pretends to be from Microsoft Tech Support. He tells his victim that he's noticed his or her computer is running slowly.

Now everyone thinks their computer runs more slowly than it should, so the victim may be quick to agree to the scammers offer to fix it remotely for a fee, charged to the victim's credit card.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) told Congress this week that this scam disproportionately targets seniors, who tend to be scam targets anyway. Since many older people confess to being technically inept, the scammer sees seniors as easy pickings for this particular con.

Testifying before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Lois Greisman, Associate Director of the FTC’s Division of Marketing Practices, said of the more than 18,000 tech support complainants to the FTC who reported their age during the first eight months of 2015, 76% were at least 50 years old, and 56% were more than 60 years old.

Money for nothing

Sometimes a scammer actually does take control of a victim's computer and downloads dangerous malware. More often than not though, the scammer is just after the victim's money.

In those cases the scammer does nothing to the victim's computer, takes the credit card information, and is on his way. Greisman says many times a victim will believe his or her computer actually is running faster, thanks to the imposter's remote efforts, and never reports the scam.

The FTC says it launched an international crackdown in 2012 that stopped six tech support scams based mainly in India. Last year, Greisman says the agency brought actions against operations that bilked more than $100 million from thousands of consumers, and worked with Indian authorities to combat the scam.

Meanwhile, young adults need to make their parents aware of this scam. When someone calls out of the blue, claiming to be from “tech support,” consumers need to understand that never happens in the real world. It's a scam.

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Match.com responsible for violent date? Court doesn't think so

"Everybody lies on that thing," judge scoffs

Sometimes you can tell it to the judge and get a sympathetic hearing, but not always. "Anybody who thinks the guy on the other side is really that person i...

PhotoSometimes you can tell it to the judge and get a sympathetic hearing, but not always. "Anybody who thinks the guy on the other side is really that person is an idiot," said Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz in a case brought by a woman who was attacked by a Match.com date.

Mary Kay Beckman said she was attacked by Wade Ridley, a man she met through Match.com and who, not coincidentally, had a lengthy criminal record. He was later convicted of killing an ex-girlfriend in Phoenix and died in prison while serving a decades-long sentence.

Beckman, who was beaten and left for dead by Ridley after she tried to break off her relationship with him, said Match.com knew of his criminal record and should not have brought the two together, but Judge Hurwitz was not having it. 

"Everybody lies on this thing," Hurwitz said, according to Courthouse News Service, saying that Beckman had not shown that Match.com knew of Ridley's history.

"We would allege that in fact they had prior warning from other users and failed to act," Beckman's lawyer Marc Saggese told a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court Tuesday.

Insisting that Match.com had a duty to report users' criminal histories, Saggese argued that the website is not simply an unregulated forum where "everyone just throws their posting up on a wall and sees what sticks."

Judge Richard Paez was more sympathetic but still doubtful, saying that Communications Decence Act provides "a form of immunity, basically." The CDA says providers of "interactive computer services" such as dating sites, cannot be held liable for information posted by third parties, in this case, people who submit dating profiles.

Beckman's lawyer, Saggese, said the case goes beyond that. He argued that matching one person with another amounts to more than just posting data submitted by users.

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AAA study finds hands-free phone systems highly distracting

Distraction can last 27 seconds after issuing voice command

Most new cars have cool infotainment systems that integrate wireless connectivity with cellphones, allowing drivers to send and receive verbal texts, make ...

PhotoMost new cars have cool infotainment systems that integrate wireless connectivity with cellphones, allowing drivers to send and receive verbal texts, make hands-free calls and issue voice commands to the music system.

They're billed as safety features but studies have suggested they might not be all that safe. Now, a new study from AAA says they're more dangerous than previously thought.

It's true these systems don't occupy your hands but they do take mind-share, and researchers say that's where the problem lies. Potentially unsafe mental distractions can for as long as 27 seconds after dialing, changing music or sending a text using voice commands, according to the research by conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Growing safety problem

“The massive increase in voice-activated technologies in cars and phones represents a growing safety problem for drivers,” said Marshall Doney, AAA’s President and CEO. “We are concerned that these new systems may invite driver distraction, even as overwhelming scientific evidence concludes that hands-free is not risk free.”

To some experts, the research raises new and unexpected concerns about the use of phones and vehicle information systems while driving. It's the third phase of the Foundation’s investigation into mental distraction behind the wheel.

It shows that new hands-free technologies can mentally distract drivers even if their eyes are on the road and their hands are on the wheel.

“The lasting effects of mental distraction pose a hidden and pervasive danger that would likely come as a surprise to most drivers,” said Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “The results indicate that motorists could miss stop signs, pedestrians and other vehicles while the mind is readjusting to the task of driving.”

At the 25 MPH speed limit in the study, drivers distracted for 27 seconds traveled the length of nearly three football fields. When using the least distracting systems, drivers remained impaired for more than 15 seconds after completing a task.

What's a driver to think? Maybe to think twice about when and where you use these voice-activated features.

“Drivers should use caution while using voice-activated systems, even at seemingly safe moments when there is a lull in traffic or the car is stopped at an intersection,” Doney said. “The reality is that mental distractions persist and can affect driver attention even after the light turns green.”

Best and worst

Some hands-free systems are more distracting than others. The best performing system was the Chevy Equinox, with a cognitive distraction rating of 2.4.

The most distracting was the Mazda 6, with a cognitive distraction rating of 4.6.

Among phone systems, Google Now performed best with a distraction rating of 3.0, while Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana earned ratings of 3.4 and 3.8.

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Textile industry looks to clean up its act

Some companies look to stop their polluting practices

With the autumn season well under way and winter coming right behind it, you might be getting ready to pull your warmer clothes out of storage. Unfortunate...

PhotoWith the autumn season well under way and winter coming right behind it, you might be getting ready to pull your warmer clothes out of storage. Unfortunately, you might be feeling a little out of style in your older clothes (which coincidentally is exactly what the fashion industry wants), but have you ever thought of what the real price is for new clothing?

Now, we aren’t necessarily talking about the money you pay at the counter; the environmental cost of new clothes may actually be much higher. A new article that has been published in Chemical & Engineering News(C&EN) discusses just how much the fashion industry affects the world around us.

Polluted practices 

Alex Scott, senior editor at C&EN, explains in the article that there are a number of different pollutants used when making clothes. These include dyes, fixing agents, bleaches, solvents, detergents, and other various materials. While using these agents isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the way in which they’re disposed of can often hit well below the mark.

Many companies simply allow these pollutants to wash away into wastewater systems which empty their contents into nearby rivers. These compounds can often be untreated before being released, which can have damaging effects on the environment and those that come into contact with them. Records produced by environmental groups show that nearby residents of textile factories can often become sick. Productivity at local farms also tends to drop as a result of these dirty practices.

Cleaning up

Luckily, some clothing manufacturers are acknowledging this problem and working toward fixing it. While the timeline leaves something to be desired, these companies have pledged to stop dumping their toxins into waterways by 2020.

In the meantime, many chemical firms are attempting to come up with products that meet the emerging green standards of the fashion industry. OrganoClick, a Swedish company, has developed a waterproofing compound that is made from biomaterials. These could replace current waterproofing products, some of which may contain carcinogens, according to Scott’s article. The company Archroma, which is well-known in the textile industry for its chemical production, is selling dyes that are made from natural products, such as waste nutshells and rosemary leaves.

While these alternatives, and others like them, are a good step forward, they may only be as effective as consumers allow them to be. The cost of producing environmentally safe products is almost always higher than making unsafe ones, which will invariably drive up their prices at retail stores. So, though the current generation may be more environmentally conscious than previous ones, their choice to buy more expensive products may ultimately decide how much the textile industry cleans itself up.

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Leading economic indicators dip in September

Initial jobless claims edge higher

The Conference Board reports that after showing no change in both August in July, its Leading Economic Index (LEI) fell 0.2% in September -- the first decl...

 

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© z_amir - Fotolia

The Conference Board reports that after showing no change in both August in July, its Leading Economic Index (LEI) fell 0.2% in September -- the first decline since last February.

 

While that might raise questions among some economists about the future growth of the economy, Ataman Ozyildirim, director of business cycles and growth research at The Conference Board remains fairly upbeat.

 

“Despite September’s decline, the U.S. LEI still suggests economic expansion will continue, although at a moderate pace,” he said, explaining, “The recent weakness in stock markets, the manufacturing sector and housing permits was offset by gains in financial indicators, and to a lesser extent improvements in consumer expectations and initial claims for unemployment insurance. The U.S. economy is on track for moderate growth of about 2.5% in the coming quarters, despite the mixed global economic landscape.”

 

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 the Leading Economic Index include:

  • Average weekly hours, manufacturing
  • Average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance
  • Manufacturers’ new orders, consumer goods and materials
  • ISM Index of New Orders
  • Manufacturers' new orders, nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft orders
  • Building permits, new private housing units
  • Stock prices, 500 common stocks
  • Leading Credit Index
  • Interest rate spread, 10-year Treasury bonds less federal funds
  • Average consumer expectations for business conditions

 

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Jobless claims

 

In a separate report, the Labor Department (DOL) says first-time applications for state unemployment benefits rose by 3,000 in the week ending October 17 to a seasonally adjusted 259,000. The previous week's level was revised up by 1,000 -- from 255,000 to 256,000.

 

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly calculation and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was down 2,000 to 263,250 -- the lowest level since December 15, 1973 when it was 256,750.

 

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

 

 

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A bounceback for existing-home sales

Home prices inched upward

Sales of previously owned homes rebounded in September following a decline the previous month. The National Association of Realtors (NRA) reports existing...

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(c) Brian Jackson - Fotolia

Sales of previously owned homes rebounded in September following a decline the previous month.

The National Association of Realtors (NRA) reports existing-home sales were up 4.7% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.55 million, and are now up 8.8% from September 2014 -- the 12th consecutive month of year-over-year increases.

Moderating home prices in some areas and mortgage rates below 4% are being given the credit.

"September home sales bounced back solidly after slowing in August and are now at their second highest pace since February 2007 (5.79 million)," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "While current price growth around 6 % is still roughly double the pace of wages, affordability has slightly improved since the spring and is helping to keep demand at a strong and sustained pace."

The median existing–home price for all housing types in September was $221,900 – up 6.1% from September 2014 ($209,100). September's price increase marks the 43rd straight month of year–over–year gains.

Regional breakdown

  • September existing–home sales in the Northeast jumped 8.6% to an annual rate of 760,000, and are 11.8% above a year ago. The median price in the Northeast was $256,500, which is 4.0% above September 2014.
  • In the Midwest, sales climbed 2.3% to an annual rate of 1.31 million in September, and are 12.0% above September 2014. The median price was up 5.4% from a year ago -- to $174,400.
  • Existing–home sales in the South were up 3.8% to an annual rate of 2.21 million, and are up 5.7% year-over-year. The median price was $191,500, up 6.2% from a year ago.
  • Sales in the West were at an annual rate of 1.27 million, up 9.5% from a year earlier. The median price rose 8.0% from a year ago to $318,100.
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(c) teena137 - Fotolia

Home prices

Separately, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) reports its monthly House Price Index (HPI) shows U.S. house prices rose a seasonally adjusted 0.3% in August.

The FHFA HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to, or guaranteed by, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. On a year-over-year basis, prices were up 5.5%. Even with August advance, the index is 0.9% below its March 2007 peak and is roughly the same as the December 2006 level.

For the nine census divisions, seasonally adjusted monthly price changes from July 2015 to August 2015 ranged from -0.4% in the East North Central and Middle Atlantic divisions to +0.8% in the East South Central division.

The 12-month changes were all positive, ranging from +2.2% in the Middle Atlantic division to +8.3% in the Mountain division.

The complete report may be found on the FHFA website.

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Toyota recalls two million vehicles with power window master switch issue

The switch may develop a short circuit that can cause the switch assembly to overheat and melt

Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. is recalling of approximately two million vehicles related to the driver’s side power window master switch. The power window ...

PhotoToyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. is recalling of approximately two million vehicles related to the driver’s side power window master switch.

 

The power window master switch may have been manufactured with insufficient lubricant grease. If not enough grease is applied, under certain conditions the switch may develop a short circuit that can cause the switch assembly to overheat and melt. A melting switch can produce smoke and potentially lead to a fire.

 

The following vehicles are included:

  • 2007 and 2009 Camry and Camry Hybrid
  • 2009-2011 Corolla
  • 2008-2011 Highlander and Highlander Hybrid
  • 2009-2011 Matrix
  • 2006-2011 RAV4
  • 2009-2011 Sequoia
  • 2009-2011 Tundra
  • 2006-2010 Yaris
  • 2009-2011 Scion xB
  • 2009-2010 Scion xD

Toyota previously recalled certain 2007-2009 model year vehicles for a similar condition. This recall adds vehicles not previously involved in the prior action that used a different lubricant application method.

 

Owners of the recalled vehicles will be notified by first class mail. Toyota dealers will inspect the switch and apply heat-resistant grease. If the switch is not operating normally, an internal circuit board will be replaced.

 

Owners may call Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331, or Lexus customer service at 1-800-255-3987.  

 

 

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Taylor Farms recalls turkey meatloaf products

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

Taylor Farms of Swedesboro, N.J., is recalling approximately 276 pounds of turkey meatloaf products. The products contain eggs, soy and wheat, allergens n...

PhotoTaylor Farms of Swedesboro, N.J., is recalling approximately 276 pounds of turkey meatloaf products.

 

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

 

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

 

The following products, produced on Oct. 15, 2015, are being recalled:

 

  • 13.9-ounce, single serve trays containing Taylor Farms “Turkey Meatloaf with tomato bacon glaze.”

 

The recalled products bear establishment number “P-34513” inside the USDA mark of inspection and a Sell By date of Oct. 29, 2015. They were shipped to retail locations in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

 

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

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Marie Butler at (856) 294-4181.

 

 

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Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles recalled

The hood may open unexpectedly while the vehicle is being driven

Chrysler Group is recalling 1,624 model year 2016 Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles manufactured August 19, 2015 to August 27, 201...

PhotoChrysler Group is recalling 1,624 model year 2016 Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles manufactured August 19, 2015 to August 27, 2015.

 

The bolts that attach the hood striker may loosen and, as a result, the hood may open unexpectedly while the vehicle is being driven. That could obstruct the driver's vision, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will install new hood striker bolts with the proper torque, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin November 6, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Chrysler's customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's recall number is R53.

 

 

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Senate takes up hotly opposed cybersecurity measure today

Privacy advocates, tech companies say the bill would endanger, not advance, security

The Senate today (Wednesday) takes up CISA, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, a measure that tech companies and priva...

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Photo © Gajus - Fotolia

The Senate continues wrestling today with CISA, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, a measure that tech companies and privacy groups vehemently oppose. On Tuesday, Apple became the latest tech giant to voice its opposition to the measure, which opponents say would undermine consumers' privacy while failing to improve cybersecurity.

"We don't support the current CISA proposal," Apple said in a statement to the Washington Post, "The trust of our customers means everything to us and we don't believe security should come at the expense of their privacy."

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Wikipedia, Yelp, Sprint and reddit also oppose the measure, which would basically require tech companies to give government a "back door" into their systems so that potential terrorist activity could be ferreted out.

"Improved protection"

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Sen. Burr

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is sponsoring the bill along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committe vice chair. Burr insists CISA would provide improved protection for Americans against cyberattacks and identity theft.

“Week after week, we learn of more cyber-attacks on Americans,” said Burr in a prepared statement. “Hackers have stolen detailed information about Americans’ families, their medical history and their financial data and exposed that information to criminals and foreign governments.”

Sen. Feinstein said the bill "while not a silver bullet, is an important step to shore up our cybersecurity." She said CISA is "the product of years of work and includes input from all sides of this issue. It balances security, personal privacy and liability protection in a way that I believe can pass the Senate.”

Governmental blunders

But tech companies and many privacy groups and cybersecurity experts say the bill would give terrorists and criminals another pathway into vast troves of data on citizens while also exposing more of consumers' private lives to the NSA and other government agencies. They have pointed to the many blunders by government agencies that have resulted in millions of Americans' data being exposed to hackers, most notably the hack attack on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which compromised the record of 22 million current and former federal employees, including many with top-secret security clearances.

“Apple gets privacy and security better than most companies, and way better than Congress does,” said Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, an activist group formed to oppose the measure.“Our lawmakers’ lack of understanding of cybersecurity isn’t just embarrassing, it’s dangerous. They should listen to the experts and abandon this hopelessly flawed bill.”

Fight for the Future says it will be rallying tens of thousands of websites to raise the alarm about the bill today, with statements on their sites.

Financial services

Besides law enforcement and intelligence organizations, the financial services sector has largely lined up behind the bill. Financial Services Roundtable (FSR) President & CEO Tim Pawlenty today joined other executives from financial services industry trade associations to cosign a letter urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to pass CISA and defeat any amendments that undermine its goals.

FSR argues that CISA is vital to protecting the privacy of customers’ personal and financial information, saying that current laws related to the sharing of cyber threat information are unclear, confusing, uncoordinated and do not encourage activities that could better protect customers. 

“CISA would help to establish clear lines of communication between the private sector and various government agencies responsible for cybersecurity and would establish a more open dialogue about emerging, imminent, and high risk cyber threats,” the CEOs wrote in the letter. “This is critically important as understanding cyber risks and threats is the first step to defending networks and our critical infrastructures from malicious activity.”

"Biggest joke in town?"

Who's right? It may not matter, simply because the bill has become such a magnet for controversy, with extremely vocal opponents and supporters besieging Congress daily. Politicians tend to steer clear of measures that arouse such passion on both sides.

Politico, the insiders' primary daily source of news in Washington, yesterday quoted an insider as calling the measure "the biggest joke in town" with virtually no chance of winning passage.

One longtime Capitol Hill observer said CISA was becoming today's abortion rights bill, meaning it arouses such virulence from both sides that no one wants to touch it.

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Sprint fined $2.95 million for mistreating customers with lower credit scores

Customers learned too late they would be charged an extra fee

If your credit score is not so hot, it makes companies nervous about signing you up for a monthly subscription. Sprint solves this by putting you in a spec...

PhotoIf your credit score is not so hot, it makes companies nervous about signing you up for a monthly subscription. Sprint solves this by putting you in a special Account Spending Limit (ASL) program and charging you an extra $7.99 per month.

That might have been OK if it had given customers proper notification, which the Federal Trade Commission says it failed to do, an oversight that will cost Sprint $2.95 million in penalties.

“Sprint failed to give many consumers required information about why they were placed in a more costly program, and when they did, the notice often came too late for consumers to choose another mobile carrier,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Companies must follow the law when it comes to the way they use consumer credit reports and scores.”

Because Sprint allows customers to be billed for services after they are used, they are subject to the requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act and its Risk-Based Pricing Rule. The rule requires that companies inform consumers whenever they are offered service on less favorable terms – such as the ASL program – as a result of information from their credit reports or scores.

“Sprint puts its customers first and is always working to provide clear and necessary information to customers," said  Jeffrey S. Silva, corporate communications manager for Sprint. "The FTC’s relatively new Risk Based Pricing Rule requires certain specific disclosures in specific formats be provided by letter to ASL (Account Spending Limit) customers and applicants. 

"The FTC agreed that we were including almost all of the relevant information in our ASL letters, but requested that we modify the format of the letter.  We appreciated the dialogue with the FTC and we have already implemented the changes requested by the FTC.”

Too little, too late

The complaint alleges that Sprint in many cases failed to provide consumers placed in the ASL program with all of the disclosures in the required notice and often provided the notices to consumers after the window in which they could cancel their service and change to another provider without paying an early termination fee, leaving consumers unable to shop for another carrier that might have offered them better terms.

The proposed settlement requires Sprint to pay a $2.95 million penalty for violations of the Risk-Based Pricing Rule. It also requires the company to abide by the Rule’s requirements in the future. In addition, Sprint is required to provide the required notices to consumers within five days of signing up for Sprint service or by a date that gives them the ability to avoid recurring charges like those in the ASL program.  Finally, the proposed settlement requires Sprint to send corrected risk-based pricing notices to consumers who received incomplete notices from the company.

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Sedentary lifestyle very hard on the kidneys

New research suggests too much lying down, as well as sitting, is unhealthy

As we have previously reported numerous times, researchers increasingly link prolonged periods of sitting to all manner of health problems. Some have even ...

PhotoAs we have previously reported numerous times, researchers increasingly link prolonged periods of sitting to all manner of health problems. Some have even called sitting “the new smoking.”

Another group of medical researchers has now expanded the scope of danger to include lying down as well as sitting. In short, two doctors at the University of Utah School of Medicine say being sedentary for too long during the day may be a risk factor for chronic kidney disease.

This finding is significant since sedentary behavior is a major part of modern life. Not just lounging in front of a TV set, but of the work environment as well. Most jobs now require long periods of sitting at a workstation and staring at a computer screen.

Important risk factor

At noted, sedentary behavior is an important risk factor for diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. The Utah researchers think it might also increase the danger of chronic kidney disease (CKD).

When someone has CKD, the kidneys lose their capacity to filter the blood and remove impurities. Eventually the kidneys fail, and the patient must undergo regular dialysis treatments to remain alive.

Researchers Dominique Ferranti, Srini Beddhu, and their colleagues examined this topic in 5873 adults in whom intensity and duration of physical activities were measured.

The researchers say for every 80 minutes a day increase in sedentary behavior they found a 20% increased likelihood of CKD. The link had nothing to do with moderate or vigorous physical activity duration, demographics, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, lung disease, and mobility limitations.

The link persisted even after adjusting for type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

Independent risk factor

“Sedentary behavior, which is not mere lack of moderate or vigorous physical activity, is likely an independent risk factor for chronic kidney disease,” said Beddhu. “It needs to be tested whether sedentary behavior affects the progression of chronic kidney disease, and thereby, increases the risk of end stage renal disease. Hence, interventions targeting sedentary behavior to slow the progression of chronic kidney disease need to be conducted.”

The National Kidney Foundation reports 26 million American adults have CKD and millions of others are at increased risk. It says early detection can help prevent the progression of kidney disease to kidney failure.

There is a strong link between high blood pressure and CKD. The Foundation says hypertension can cause CKD and CKD can cause hypertension.

Kidney health should be monitored during routine annual check-ups.

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Consumer Reports knocks Tesla off its pedestal, downgrades to "worse than average"

The car is fast but CR discovers it has reliability issues

Most of us -- at least most males of a certain age -- have been guilty of occasionally falling for a car that seems to be the fastest, sleekest, coolest, a...

PhotoMost of us -- at least most males of a certain age -- have been guilty of occasionally falling for a car that seems to be the fastest, sleekest, coolest, and just generally meanest set of wheels ever. This infatuation usually fades after the thing has taken up space in the driveway for awhile. 

This seems to be what has happened in the love affair between Consumer Reports magazine, the somewhat staid non-profit publication of Consumers Union, and the Tesla S, the wild-eyed, needle-pinning, luxury electric sedan. 

In August, just a few short months ago, Consumer Reports was gaga over the Tesla S, giving it a score of 103 on a scale of 100. Entranced by the car's blinding speed, precise handling, and other race track virtues, the consumerists just couldn't say enough about the S.

But in cars, as in most things, the bloom is soon off the rose, and when Consumer Reports pried itself out of the Tesla S and began reading its mail, it made a discovery: the car has issues, some big, some small.

Issues great and small

Big issues include frequent failure of the electric motor. Little issues include the failure of the recessed door handles to pop out when the driver approaches the car. You can't open the door without a handle, so that little trick leaves you not breathless but stranded.

Tesla S owners also complained of squeaks and rattles, leaking sunroofs, and other maladies one normally associates with a car that costs way south of the Tesla's $127,000. 

Faced with all this, the CR staff whipped a quick U turn and downgraded the S to a "worse than average" reliability rating. To be sure, chief auto tester Jake Fisher said the Tesla S will snap your neck, knock your socks off, and otherwise stun you with its brute force and svelte handling, but it will also drive you bonkers with nagging maintenance issues.

To be sure, Tesla has been good about repairing the problems under warranty, but just because a problem is fixed doesn't mean it isn't annoying and time-consuming. And as the cars age and the warranties expire, fixing those selfsame problems could be expensive.

As some consolation, CR noted that other high-performace cars, like the Chevrolet Corvette and the BMW 5 series, have their issues too.

What no one mentioned is the Porsche Boxster, which scored so highly on CR's tests a decade ago that the scoring scale had to be rejiggered. The Boxster is still around, still scoring highly on everybody's scale, and still enjoying one of the best reliability ratings around. Boxster owners will tell you that while Porsches are expensive to maintain,  they are also remarkably free of the everyday problems that plague other marques.

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Seniors could be at risk of "age-associated financial vulnerability"

Changes in behavior towards personal finance decisions could put many elderly citizens at risk

Being able to keep track of your money and expenses is extremely important when you become an adult. Wasteful or unwise spending can be especially damaging...

PhotoBeing able to keep track of your money and expenses is extremely important when you become an adult. Wasteful or unwise spending can be especially damaging if you’re on a fixed income, which is typical for many older Americans. Unfortunately, many people in the later stages of life end up having these problems – but why?

Two experts in the field of “elder abuse” may know the cause, and they coin it as “age-associated financial vulnerability,” or AAFV. They believe that identifying older people that have AAFV is extremely important so that they are not taken advantage of.

Changes in behavior and cognition

The experts, Duke Han and Mark Lachs – associate professor of behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center and co-chief of geriatrics and gerontology at Weill Medical College, respectively – classify AAFV as “a pattern of financial behavior that places an older adult at substantial risk for considerable loss of resources such that dramatic changes in quality of life would result.”

Basically, an older person with AAFV will consider and make financial decisions that they would not have made when they were younger. For example, giving thousands of dollars to a neighbor that they have never loaned money to in the past may be a sign of AAFV. However, if they were more apt to loan large sums of money to people in their younger years, then it may not be AAFV. The important distinguisher is the change in behavior.

There are some physical changes that can contribute to AAFV as well. “Functional changes such as impaired mobility, vision and hearing loss, and the cost of multiple medications can directly influence vulnerability in older adults,” said Han. Some cognitive impairments, such as lessened ability to discern a person’s trustworthiness, depression, and other psychosocial problems can also increase an elderly person’s vulnerability.

The authors are quick to note, however, that AAFV is not the same as other age-related cognitive impairments like dementia, where a victim is more likely to act erratically due to changed brain function. They believe that “cognitive impairment is not necessary for AAFV,” so even a seemingly well-functioning elderly person may be at risk.

Addressing the issue

Han and Lachs believe that many financial institutions look at the elderly community as an “untapped market”, and that is why they target them. “In my discussions with Dr. Lachs about our experiences with the heart-breaking effects of the financial vulnerability among our older patients, we decided that naming the problem may be a useful first step to addressing the issue,” said Han.

In order to combat this problem, Han and Lachs believe that it is important for AAFV to be classified as a real condition for the elderly community. Keeping track of individuals who change their spending behaviors would go a long way towards stopping financial exploitation in this age bracket – which Han says is the most common type of elder abuse.

“This is a growing problem since we have a large aging population with no ways to determine who is at risk and why,” said Han. “We need more screening, and more interventional programs and strategies to address this issue. We also need to determine what the role and responsibility is of physicians in protecting their patients.”

The authors have posted their opinions in an issue of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, which was published on October 13, 2015.  

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FCC will release data to help block robocallers

The data will help developers improve "do not disturb" technologies to block nuisance calls

Just about everybody would like to get rid of robocallers and telemarketers, but it's not as easy as it should be. For years, it was thought that Federal C...

PhotoJust about everybody would like to get rid of robocallers and telemarketers, but it's not as easy as it should be. For years, it was thought that Federal Comunications Commission rules required telecom companies to attempt to complete all calls.

But the FCC has recently declared that's not the case, and, in fact, it is encouraging carriers and developers to come up with ways of identifying and blocking unwanted calls.

Today, the FCC says it will soon release consumer complaint data that will help developers come up with "do-not-disturb" technologies to block or filter unwanted calls and texts. 

The data, including originating phone numbers of telemarketers and automated robocalls, will be released and available on the FCC’s Consumer Help Center’s website.

“Consumers want and deserve effective tools to empower them to choose the calls and texts they receive.  This data will help improve do-not-disturb technologies so they can provide the best service for consumers,” said Alison Kutler, chief of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, which manages consumer complaints. 

“As we encourage providers to offer these services, and as the Commission recently made clear that there are no legal barriers to doing so, we continue to look for ways to help facilitate important consumer tools.”

Green light

In June, the Commission gave the green light for do-not-disturb technologies, clarifying that there are no legal barriers to service providers offering robocall-blocking technologies to consumers. While such services are available today as apps on some smartphones and on VoIP phone systems, work is still underway for many carriers and third-party providers to offer consumers these tools on traditional landline networks.

Complaints about unwanted calls and texts are by far the largest complaint category to the agency, with over 215,000 complaints last year, so there should be no shortage of numbers to work with.

This data is similar to that released periodically by the Federal Trade Commission as part of its Do Not Call program. “Do Not Disturb” technologies use this information to determine what numbers might be originating unwanted calls. 

The data is available here.

For more information on the tools available to consumers in combatting unwanted calls and texts, the Commission has a consumer guide.

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United Parcel Services settles overcharging claims with 14 states

Governments paid for overnight delivery when they didn't always get it

When we send packages through a delivery service, most of us don't second guess the the charge. We usually assume it's correct and pay it.Maybe a littl...

PhotoWhen we send packages through a delivery service, most of us don't second guess the the charge. We usually assume it's correct and pay it.

Maybe a little follow up is called for. Fourteen states, as well as the cities of Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC, sued United Parcel Service (UPS) claiming UPS employees overcharged government agency customers on certain transactions.

The suit claimed that certain UPS employees recorded inaccurate delivery times on packages sent by government customers through next-day delivery services. The result, the suit alleges, was premium-priced packages that appeared to have been delivered by their guaranteed commitment times when they had not been delivered on time.

Weather delays on sunny days

The lawsuit also claimed certain UPS employees applied inappropriate exception codes to excuse late next-day packages. For example, they chalked it up to weather delays when the skies were sunny.

As a result, the government customers said they were unable to get refunds for the late deliveries.

In a settlement agreement, UPS agreed to pay the governments $4 million and will start training, monitoring, and reporting compliance programs to address any potential delivery failures or policy violations.

“UPS improperly profited from charging New York State government entities – and ultimately our taxpayers – when its employees failed to meet its guaranteed delivery times for overnight deliveries,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “Corporations that improperly profit at the expense of taxpayers will be held to account.”

Major beneficiary

New York will receive a large percentage of the settlement funds – $1.2 million. Other participating government entities include the states of California, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee, the Commonwealths of Massachusetts and Virginia, the District of Columbia, and the cities of New York and Chicago.

Schneiderman said the case came to light through the efforts of a whistleblower, a former UPS employee, Robert K. Fulk. Schneiderman says Fulk initially filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Alexandria, Va. New York investigated the whistleblower’s allegations under the New York False Claims Act. Under the New York False Claims Act, the whistleblower receives a portion of the recovery.

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FTC warns connected car legislation could make matters worse

The measure could discourage legitimate cybersecurity researchers, the agency warns

A Congressional measure that supposedly increases the security of "connected" cars could actually make drivers less safe, a Federal Trade Commission offici...

PhotoA Congressional measure that supposedly increases the security of "connected" cars could actually make drivers less safe, a Federal Trade Commission official cautioned today.

In testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, FTC Associate Director Maneesha Mithal said the committee's draft bill “could substantially weaken the security and privacy protections that consumers have today.” 

The committee's bill would provide a fine of up to $100,000 for anyone who hacks into a connected car. The problem, Mithal said, is that the measure could discourage researchers who hack into cars to find vulnerabilities and then inform the car companies of those vulnerabilities.

"Safe harbor"

Mithal also said in prepared testimony that the proposed "safe harbor" for auto manufacturers who submit privacy policies to the Department of Transportation was possibly too broad, allowing manufacturers a safe harbor from FTC enforcement actions even for privacy policies that significantly limit consumer protections, and even if they do not follow the terms of the privacy policies they submit.  

In addition, the safe harbor would prevent the FTC from taking action related to privacy issues beyond a manufacturer’s cars, including its use of consumer data collected from its websites, Mithal said. Finally, the safe harbor would allow manufacturers to make changes to privacy policies that would apply retroactively to consumer data that was collected previously.

Mithal's testimony also expressed concern with provisions of the draft legislation regarding the creation of a council to develop cybersecurity best practices for the industry.

Specifically, the council, which would operate by a simple majority, would include enough industry representatives so that they could act without support from government or consumer advocates on the council.

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HTC's new One A9 offers an iPhone look at a lower price

At $399, reviewers expect the device to turn heads

Now that cellphone carriers have done away with subsidies for smartphones, the cost of the phone matters.Consumers now pay full retail price for their ...

PhotoNow that cellphone carriers have done away with subsidies for smartphones, the cost of the phone matters.

Consumers now pay full retail price for their phone of choice, either upfront or spread over 18 to 24 months. Because of that, the HTC One A9 is getting a lot of attention.

The new phone costs $399, significantly less than the iPhone 6. But technology writers have noted strong similarities between the HTC One A9 and Apple's flagship product.

“The visually obvious design aspects that have people immediately comparing the new HTC One A9 to the Apple iPhone 6 include the polycarbonate antenna bands across the back, the move from curved back designs to a flat back, the move from distinctive beveled edges to smooth edges, the loss of BoomSound stereo front facing speakers to a single bottom facing speaker, and the small round camera lens,” writes Matthew Miller, at ZDNet.

Expandable memory

HTC says its new phone features a super-thin metal frame with an elegant finish, expandable SD card memory, and edge-to-edge Corning Gorilla Glass 4. It will be available in an array of colors.

"HTC is a smartphone pioneer, having delivered the first Android smartphone, the first Windows smartphone, the first 4G smartphone, and the first all-metal smartphone," said Cher Wang, chairwoman and CEO of HTC.

While HTC seems to have gotten the tech world's attention with a sleek design, the company says the One A9 is packed with plenty of performance ugrades as well.

The phone features the newest Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor with integrated X8 LTE and 64-bit octa-core CPUs. HTC says the One A9 will deliver more high-definition streaming videos, more high-resolution audio, and more storage in the cloud.

The phone will be available in both 16 and 32GB configurations and features expandable memory. With social media now an outsized influence on phone selection, HTC has also placed a lot of emphasis on the camera.

Upgraded camera

The HTC One A9's front and rear cameras and photo editing tools make the device a good camera as well as smartphone. Its main 13MP rear camera features Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), which automatically minimizes hand shake and corrects vibrations.

The company says the front UltraPixel camera delivers sharp self-portraits in any lighting condition, using HTC's UltraPixel sensor to capture 300% more light than conventional smartphone cameras.

Under the hood, it runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow with HTC Sense. In the U.S., the HTC One A9 will be available across multiple carriers and retailers. It's available for preorder at HTC's website

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Half of U.S. and Canadian food workers go to work sick

They can't afford to take a day off and don't want to leave co-workers short-handed

You walk into your favorite coffee shop and notice the barista has bloodshot eyes and a runny nose – not to mention an occasional sneeze.Uh-oh. Could t...

PhotoYou walk into your favorite coffee shop and notice the barista has bloodshot eyes and a runny nose – not to mention an occasional sneeze.

Uh-oh. Could that person preparing food and beverages behind the counter be sick?

Afraid so, and it's more common than you might think. A new survey by the Center for Research and Public Policy (CRPP) found that more than half of workers in the food industry go to work when they're sick.

They don't call in sick because they can't afford to. Food service workers are usually paid hourly and don't get sick days. They also don't want to leave their co-workers short-handed.

But their valor isn't doing anyone any favors. A food service worker with a cold or the flu can spread germs to both co-workers and customers.

CRPP polled more than 1,200 food workers at all stages of the food supply chain across the U.S. and Canada. It found 51% of employees reported they always or frequently go to work when sick.

Clueless bosses

The supervisors, meanwhile, have no clue. When the survey asked managers if employees ever came to work when they were sick, only 18% said yes.

To get an idea of how many germs are being spread, more than 20 million U.S. and Canadian frontline food workers grow, process, distribute, cook, and serve the food that is eaten by over 355 million consumers every day. When half come to work sick, that's a lot of germs.

“The vast majority of frontline food workers and their employers are committed to providing safe foods for their customers,” said Jeff Eastman, CEO of Alchemy. “The survey shows that over 90% of food workers feel responsible for the safety and well-being of their customers. So managers and supervisors need to better communicate why it’s okay to stay home when sick.”

The survey was conducted to delve into the attitudes and behaviors of the people who produce, prepare, and serve the food we eat.

Room for improvement

“While these findings are positive overall, there is always room for improvement,” Eastman said. “For example, while 93% of workers feel confident to stop work when they see a safety problem, it still leaves 7% of 20 million workers who do not. When it comes to safety, that number needs to be 100%.”

This is an issue of concern to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC says its research shows that food service employees have reported to work, even when they were vomiting or had diarrhea.

The CDC study found food service workers were most likely to call in sick if the restaurant where they worked wasn't busy, had plenty of fill-in help, and had a policy of employees informing managers when they were ill.

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Four ways to save money shopping online

Coupons, cash back and "member" deals can add up

Who doesn't like a good bargain? That's why coupons have been popular for eons.In the digital age, there are online coupons and daily deals like GroupO...

PhotoWho doesn't like a good bargain? That's why coupons have been popular for eons.

In the digital age, there are online coupons and daily deals like GroupOn, giving consumers a way to save here and there. If you look around, you'll find there are an increasing number of websites catering to value-conscious consumers.

Ebates

Ebates is an online cash back shopping website, founded in 1998 by two deputy district attorneys in Silicon Valley. Right now you can join for free and get a $10 welcome bonus, so you're already on your way to savings.

The site is a portal to other retailers' online shops, where you will find discounts on merchandise. In addition, buying through Ebates will earn cash back on your purchase. The company sends you a check in the mail quarterly or deposits cash in your Paypal account.

Retail Me Not

RetailMeNot.com is another website where you can find discounts from popular merchants in one place. The company says it helps retailers and brands connect with millions of active shoppers with more than 600,000 coupons and offers for 70,000 retailers.

It's a place where consumers can quickly find out which stores have current coupon codes that can include free shipping, 10% off purchase, and free gifts with purchase.

The Krazy Coupon Lady

Another way to save online is the same way you save at brick-and-mortar retail stores. Try never to buy anything without a coupon, and websites like TheKrazyCouponLady.com can be an almost never-ending source of coupons.

The site posts hot deals and tips on things their readers send in. If you check the site regularly, you can get in on deals before most other people, but you usually have to act fast.

Individual store mailing lists

When a retailer asks for an email address, it's not a bad idea to provide one. One reader suggests having a dedicated free email address for that very purpose so that your main email inbox doesn't get cluttered. Amid all the company propaganda will be a few deals from time to time.

Stores often send out coupon codes and sometimes have special codes for "members" – the consumers on their mailing list. If you buy something at full price on Monday and on Tuesday you get an email offering the item at 20% off, stores have been known to honor a request for the retroactive discount.

Of course, daily deal sites are another good source of bargains. Check out ConsumerAffairs' rundown on daily deal sites here.

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A bounce-back in mortgage applications

Contract interest rates feel to their lowest levels since spring

A sharp rebound in government volume helped push mortgage applications higher last week. The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) reports its weekly surve...

PhotoA sharp rebound in government volume helped push mortgage applications higher last week.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports its weekly survey shows applications jumped 11.8% in the week ending October 16. The results include an adjustment to account for the Columbus Day holiday.

“On an adjusted basis, application volume increased last week, led by a sharp rebound in government volume,” said MBA Chief Economist Mike Fratantoni. “We expect that application volume will remain volatile over the next few weeks as the industry continues to implement TILA-RESPA integrated disclosures.”

The Refinance Index increased 9% from the previous week, while the refinance share of mortgage activity fell to 59.5% of total applications from 61.2% the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity dipped to 6.9%.

The FHA share of total applications rose to 14.3% from 12.6% the prior week, the VA share applications increased to 12.7% and the USDA share inched up to 0.6% from 0.5% a week earlier.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell four basis points -- from 3.99% to 3.95 percent, the lowest level since May 2015, with points decreasing to 0.43 from 0.53 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dipped to 3.87%, the lowest level since April 2015, from 3.89%, with points decreasing to 0.29 from 0.41 (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 dropped four basis points to 3.78%, the lowest level since May 2015, with points unchanged at 0.39 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs was unchanged at 3.20%, with points decreasing to 0.34 from 0.39 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was down six basis points to 2.94%, the lowest level since May 2015, with points decreasing to 0.35 from 0.46 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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

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Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles recalled

The hood may open unexpectedly while the vehicle is being driven

Chrysler Group is recalling 1,624 model year 2016 Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles manufactured August 19, 2015 to August 27, 201...

PhotoChrysler Group is recalling 1,624 model year 2016 Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles manufactured August 19, 2015 to August 27, 2015.

 

The bolts that attach the hood striker may loosen and, as a result, the hood may open unexpectedly while the vehicle is being driven. That could obstruct the driver's vision, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will install new hood striker bolts with the proper torque, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin November 6, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Chrysler's customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's recall number is R53.

 

 

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Ford recalls F-150 trucks equipped with Adaptive Cruise Control

The vehicle may falsely detect an obstacle in its path and unexpectedly apply the brakes

Ford Motor Company is recalling 33,481 model year 2015 Ford F-150 trucks manufactured March 18, 2014, to August 6, 2015 and equipped with Adaptive Cruise C...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 33,481 model year 2015 Ford F-150 trucks manufactured March 18, 2014, to August 6, 2015 and equipped with Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC).

 

While using the ACC, the vehicle may falsely detect an obstacle in its path and may unexpectedly apply the brakes. A vehicle that brakes unexpectedly increases the risk of a crash.

 

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will reprogram the cruise control module with updated ACC radar software, free of charge. The recall was expected to begin October 19, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 15S29.

 

 

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Economist weighs in on “coming economic collapse”

Despite problems, economic catastrophe not a certainty

You can't go online these days without reading dire predictions about America's demise.They range from a coming economic collapse and Great Depression ...

PhotoYou can't go online these days without reading dire predictions about America's demise.

They range from a coming economic collapse and Great Depression to a 50% sell-off in the stock market. In most cases, the blame is placed on the Federal Reserve's policy of cheap money, enacted after the financial crisis.

The forecasters are sometimes people who are selling something – a report or video – telling you how to protect yourself or even profit from the coming calamity. Sometimes the warnings come from former politicians. In some cases, the forecasters have a strong political point of view.

So what is a consumer to think when the stock market has been volatile and the economy weak? Is the end really near?

Mainstream economist

We decided to ask a mainstream economist who monitors economic data on a regular basis. Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, says as things now stand, the U.S. domestic-related economy is just fine.

“Consumers are spending, firms that supply into the U.S. based economy are generally doing well and with wages rising and energy costs low, consumption should remain solid for all of 2016,” Naroff told ConsumerAffairs.

CA: Why does the economy seem to be so sluggish?

NAROFF: The slowdown is being caused primarily by the collapse in energy costs. Consumers are only slowly spending the added free cash but the energy companies have reacted much more quickly. They are laying off workers, slowing job growth. They have cut back investment activities, reducing orders and demand for all the companies that supply capital goods, operating products and services that are suppliers to the industry.

So investment is down as is manufacturing for those firms providing capital products. But the price of energy has stabilized and the energy industry is moderating its cut backs.

What about China?

CA: Some of the sense of unease seems to be be related to China. Is China in trouble?

NAROFF: Whether China is slowing sharply or the data are just catching up with the reality, is something we just don’t know. When you have as big an economy as is China’s, it is almost impossible to sustain 7%-9% annual growth. China will be throttling back to 5% and lower over the next few years. Thus, for there to be a catastrophe, certain things have to happen.”

CA: Like what?

NAROFF: “The price of oil has to fall sharply once again, basically crashing the elements of the energy sector that have been able to survive the fall to $40-$50. Is that likely? It doesn’t look like it. Second, Chinese growth has to not just slow, but probably flatline. Think of it this way, if China grew at a 5% pace, nominal GDP would expand by over $500 billion.

That would power an awful lot of purchases from the rest of the world. That would also be equivalent to about a nearly 8% rise in the Chinese economy just five years ago. In other words, on a nominal dollar basis, China is still growing strongly.

It is just the percentage change off of a really higher base that is confusing people. And in any event, the U.S. economy doesn’t depend upon China to buy much of its output. Exports to China will probably run about 0.6% of total GDP this year. Thus, even a 10% or 20% reduction in exports would have little direct effect. The rest of the world might be hurt more, but that makes it a secondary effect for the U.S."

We aren't without problems

CA: Well, are there economic problems facing the U.S.?

NAROFF: The primary problem is financial. Since corporate earnings growth has been powered by sharp gains outside the U.S., the slowdown in China would depress earnings. But those are earnings made in foreign markets and we shouldn’t be concerned about them. Similarly, earnings reductions that are due to the strong dollar, not a slowdown in sales, is also totally irrelevant when it comes to the U.S. economy.

CA: So, are we headed for an economic calamity?

NAROFF: I never say never, but right now, the probability is pretty low.  

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Subway agrees to stretch its foot-long subs

Franchisees are instructed to make sure the foot-longs are in fact 12 inches

How long should a foot-long sandwich be? In settling a class action lawsuit, Subway says its foot-long sandwiches will now be at least 12 inches long. Oh, ...

PhotoHow long should a foot-long sandwich be? In settling a class action lawsuit, Subway says its foot-long sandwiches will now be at least 12 inches long. Oh, and its six-inch subs? They'll be six inches long.

This may all sound quite logical, but a photo that went viral on Facebook and elsewhere a few years ago showed a "foot-long" Subway sub next to a tape measure, which showed it to be not 12 but 11 inches long.

Subway said its training materials and operating protocols had "previously allowed for a small tolerance in the size of a footlong sandwich" but that no such deviation will be tolerated any longer.

In a 79-page settlement agreement, Subway has agreed to a number of consumer protection measures, including:

Instituting or maintaining a requirement that franchisees use a tool for measuring bread ... to help ensure that bread sold to customers is either 6 or 12 inches long. 

Numerous lawsuits were filed by hungry attorneys in 2013, each alleging a mixed grill of wrongs including that old standby, deceptive marketing practices.

So what do consumers get out of this? Well, maybe justice, but that's all. There'll be no checks or coupons. There is, after all that litigating, still no free lunch. 

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CNN spins out "Great Big Story" for Millennials

It will be totally awesome, like a -- you know -- sugar daddy

If you like Vice and Buzzfeed, CNN has a news network for you. Oops, we're not supposed to call it a news network. Instead, an announcement says it will be...

PhotoIf you like Vice and Buzzfeed, CNN has a news network for you. Oops, we're not supposed to call it a news network. Instead, an announcement says it will be “CNN like a sugar daddy on the weekends,” whatever that means.

The idea is that CNN wants more Millennials instead of the Baby Boomers now snoozing in front of the flat screen, so it has come up with this new socially distributed network called “Great Big Story.”

We're told it will present “awesome, untold and inspirational stories about new frontiers, the human condition, planet earth, tastes and flavors.”

It will consist of three to five videos each day, all different lengths and dealing with whatever seems downright amazing at the moment. 

Great Big Story will run on Facebook, YouTube, and Apple News, among other sites. Connected TV platforms -- Apple TV, Roku, Amazon, and Chromecast -- will follow.

Revenue will come from "branded content videos" -- ads, in other words.

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Senator sounds alarm over Halloween make-up

New York's Chuck Schumer says Chinese make-up may contain lead

Every Halloween seems to bring consumer warnings. Don't use those eye color-altering contacts, for example. They can cause eye damage.One of the latest...

PhotoEvery Halloween seems to bring consumer warnings. Don't use those eye color-altering contacts, for example. They can cause eye damage.

One of the latest seasonal warnings comes from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who reveals that Halloween makeup and face paint, often imported from China, can contain heavy metals like lead, nickel, cobalt, and chromium, which could pose a serious danger to the children wearing it.

Schumer said he became concerned when he realized the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not conduct routine testing of novelty cosmetic products or face paints sold to consumers. He says the agency needs to do more to enforce the packaging regulations that require companies to include the full list of ingredients.

Banned in Canada and Europe

Lead is no longer allowed in makeup sold in Canada and Europe, but it is not currently banned from makeup sold in the United States. Without this regulation, Schumer says many parents are exposing their young children, and even themselves, to products that contain harmful metals like lead.

Over the years, U.S. environmental regulators have moved to remove lead from other consumer products. It used to be a common ingredient in paint, but now it isn't.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there is no safe blood lead level in children and that even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, disrupt concentration, and academic achievement.

Calls for new regulations

In light of all this, Schumer says he thinks the U.S. government has to do more to prevent children from being exposed to lead. A first step, he says, is not allowing Halloween makeup and face paint—geared towards children—to be produced using harmful heavy metals or chemicals, like lead.

Even if it weren't banned, Schumer says parents should at least know which ingredients are being used in the products they slather on their child’s face.

Schumer has asked the FDA to investigate Halloween make-up products to find out what’s being hidden and what’s not. He also plans to push for new regulations and better enforcement for these consumer products.

“Every Halloween we worry about the candy we’re putting in our kids’ mouths but nowadays, we need to worry about the face paint we’re putting on our kids’ faces,” Schumer said. “Toxic Chinese chemicals in children’s Halloween makeup and face paint is a scary thought, and yet, often times, parents don’t even know what’s in these products.”

Advice to parents

Schumer says parents need to pay close attention to where their child’s Halloween makeup is made. “Made in China,” he says, could be a sign that they are buying dangerous chemicals that could potentially pose a serious health risk to their kids.

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Education Department tightens the screws on ITT

The for-profit college faces stricter financial oversight

The Department of Education is stepping up its scrutiny of ITT Educational Services, citing federal fraud allegations against two ITT executives and the co...

PhotoThe Department of Education is stepping up its scrutiny of ITT Educational Services, citing federal fraud allegations against two ITT executives and the company’s “failure of the general standards of financial responsibility.”

ITT had already been under heightened oversight, along with other for-profit schools that receive much of their revenue from federally backed student loans and the G.I. Bill.

The feds said they had found several discrepancies during the heightened scrutiny, including a failure to reconcile federal aid accounts promptly and conflicting information about Pell Grant awards.

“Taken together, these facts demonstrate a failure by ITT to meet its fiduciary obligations, to properly and timely reconcile Title IV program funds as per the regulations and Federal Student Aid guidance, and to meet the standards of administrative capability required of institutions participating in Title IV, Higher Education Act programs,” the department wrote in a letter to ITT.

Faces lawsuits

A company spokeswoman, Nicole Elam, said the company was in the process of straightening out the reporting and administration issues.

"While the additional requirements will result in an increased administrative burden, the company does not believe they will have a material negative impact on our financial results, or in any manner affect the timely award of financial aid to eligible students or the operation of our campuses," she said.

Among other things, ITT will be required to submit a monthly enrollment roster, as well as information about all federal aid funds it disbursed during the previous month.

ITT is facing several other legal challenges, including lawsuits filed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and attorneys general in several states. The company enrolls about 50,000 studnets at its 135 locations.

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Funeral price data not easy to find online

Survey finds prices for same services can vary by 200%

Families making funeral arrangements for a loved one are often in the dark when it comes to pricing services.While consumers can easily compare prices ...

PhotoFamilies making funeral arrangements for a loved one are often in the dark when it comes to pricing services.

While consumers can easily compare prices of most products and services by scanning the web, a new survey finds that's not the case when it comes to a consumer’s final purchase.

A report produced jointly by the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) and Consumer Federation of America (CFA) contains a survey of the prices and price disclosures of a representative sample of 150 funeral homes from ten different regions of the country.

Where price information was available, the researchers found it could vary by a wide margin. Depending on the region of the country, the report found a family might pay as little as $2,580 for a ful funeral service to as much as $13,800.

The Funeral Rule

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) established the Funeral Rule in the 1980s, and updated it in the '90s, requiring funeral home operators to provide straightforward and transparent price data to consumers over the phone or when a consumer visits a funeral home in person.

Because the last update was in 1994, there is no mention of websites. Indeed, the researchers found only 25% of the 150 funeral homes in the survey disclosed prices online.

“Most funeral homes need to give consumers much better access to price information,” said Josh Slocum, FCA’s Executive Director. “The Federal Trade Commission should update antiquated disclosure rules developed in the pre-Internet 1980s, just as California has successfully done.”

California funeral homes are required to disclose on their websites the same prices the FTC requires funeral homes to disclose by phone or in an in-person visit. Thirteen of 15 surveyed California funeral homes fully disclosed prices on their websites.

Huge price range

“The huge price ranges for identical funeral services within individual areas indicate that these markets lack effective competition,” said Stephen Brobeck, CFA’s Executive Director. “The lack of price competition is unfortunate given the relatively high cost of funeral services and the reluctance of many bereaved consumers to comparison shop for these services.”

The researchers say price disclosure is important because the costs of services vary so much. Also, there are different types of post mortem services that funeral homes provide. The reporrt priced three types of service:

  • Direct cremation without ceremony
  • Immediate burial without ceremony or the cost of a casket
  • Full-service funeral including the basic services of the funeral director and staff, transport of the body from place of death to funeral home, embalming, other preparation of the body, viewing or calling hours, funeral ceremony with casket present, hearse to cemetery, sedan or limousine for family, and graveside ceremony.

Prices for the same funeral services within individual areas almost always varied by at least 100% and often varied by more than 200%. For example, direct cremation in Atlanta could cost as little as $850 or as much as $3,640.

FCA and CFA are submitting their research to the FTC in hopes the agency will move to update the Funeral Rule.

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What to consider before installing an app

Study finds it's hard to focus on app security when you multitask

Smartphone users have access to an endless supply of apps, which can be either fun or productive.We often install an app without giving much thought, b...

PhotoSmartphone users have access to an endless supply of apps, which can be either fun or productive.

We often install an app without giving much thought, but we should. After all, we're installing software on a computer (our phone) that also contains other sensitive information.

Security experts say that we need to be mindful of security risks before installing an app. One wrong decision can bypass the most secure encryption, and a malicious app can can easily compromise confidential information or even lock the user’s device.

Researcher Qian Liu and co-authors from North Carolina State University examined the conditions under which mobile device users are most likely to make security errors. They found consumers are most likely to make a bad app decision when they are in the midst of doing other things – in other words, when they're multitasking.

To arrive at that conclusion the researchers selected 65 students age 19 to 46 who were enrolled in psychology and computer science courses for the experiment. Each was asked to install 24 apps on a Samsung Nexus S mobile phone.

They then chose apps from a fake store that provided apps in eight categories: chat, music, banking, sports, food, maps, podcasts, and shopping. The store also described permissions, star ratings, reviews, and number of reviews for each app.

Security cues

Permissions and number of reviews were the same among the apps. However, the content of the reviews contained a number of security cues that an alert user might recognize as indicating which apps were malicious.

The students were tasked with identifying which of the apps were safe and which were not, at the same time engaging in other activities. These educated, tech-savvy subjects did not have an easy time of it.

They chose a safe app only about half the time. The results showed that multitasking with mobile devices creates stress and increases non-secure mobile behavior.

“We chose multitasking to focus on because when mobile phone users are doing other things, such as talking with a friend, driving while using apps, or using two or more apps at once, they experience more stress and are more likely to choose unsafe apps,” Liu said.

Insecure apps a big problem

According to a recent study, security experts discovered 277 new malware families last year. Mobile devices may offer a partial solution, since they are equipped with a range of sensors that could vary guards and provide warnings with context.

Google, meanwhile, said it may block sign-in attempts from some apps or devices that do not use modern security standards. Since these apps and devices are easier to break into, Google says blocking them helps keep your account safe.

In March, a study sponsored by IBM found nearly 40% of large companies, including many in the Fortune 500, aren’t taking the right precautions to secure the mobile apps they build for customers.  

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A rebound in new-home construction

The outlook for the months ahead dimmed, though

After slumping in August, construction of new homes shot up 6.5% last month -- to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,206,000. The surge put the rate of...

PhotoAfter slumping in August, construction of new homes shot up 6.5% last month -- to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,206,000, according to a joint release from the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The surge put the rate of housing starts 17.5% above the year-ago level of 1,026,000.

Ground-breaking on single-family homes was up 0.3% from August, while the September rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 454,000, a gain of 66,000 over August.

Building permits

The outlook for construction of new homes in the months ahead took a step backward. Privately-owned housing units authorized by building permits fell 5.0% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,103,000. Nonetheless, it is still 4.7% above the September 2014 estimate of 1,053,000.

Breaking that down, permits for new single-family home construction dipped 0.3% from August, and authorizations for multi-family units were down 6,300.

Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza sees a good news-bad news situation. She says that while housing starts were up more than expected, the larger-than-expected decline in permits, "suggests the anticipation of further momentum in the U.S. housing market may fall short of expectations with a slower pace of activity coming down the pipeline."

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

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GM recalls vehicles with electrical issue

The vehicles' window switches may become inoperative

General Motors is recalling 9,932 model year 2006-2007 Buick Rainier, Chevrolet Trailblazer and GMC Envoy vehicles, and 2006 GMC Envoy XL and Chevrolet Tra...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 9,932 model year 2006-2007 Buick Rainier, Chevrolet Trailblazer and GMC Envoy vehicles, and 2006 GMC Envoy XL and Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT vehicles.

 

Fluid may enter into the driver's door master power window switch module, causing corrosion that could result in a short in the circuit board, causing window switches to become inoperative. Previously, the affected vehicles may have had their master power window switch module treated with a protective coating, instead of having it replaced.

 

The protective coating may not eliminate the risk that the circuit board could short and result in a fire, even while the vehicle is unattended.

 

GM will notify owners, and dealers will install a new driver's door switch module, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Buick customer service at 1-800-521-7300, Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020, and GMC customer service at 1-800-462-8782. GM's number for this recall is 15700.

 

 

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Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ vehicles recalled

The fuel tanks may crack in the event of a crash

Ford Motor Company is recalling 658 model year 2016 Ford Fusions manufactured September 3, 2015, to September 13, 2015, and 2016 Lincoln MKZ vehicles manuf...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 658 model year 2016 Ford Fusions manufactured September 3, 2015, to September 13, 2015, and 2016 Lincoln MKZ vehicles manufactured September 3, 2015, to September 12, 2015.

 

The recalled vehicles have a fuel tank that may have insufficient wall thickness. As a result, the fuel tanks may crack in the event of a crash and thus the vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 301, "Fuel System Integrity."

 

A fuel tank that cracks may leak fuel, increasing the risk of a fire.

 

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the fuel tank, free of charge. The recall was expected to begin October 19, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 15C11.

 

 

 

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Latest dirty diesel lawsuit may be the most troublesome for VW

The Center for Auto Safety wants VW ordered to clean up after itself

Volkswagen already faces more than 400 lawsuits filed by U.S. consumers over its use of sophisticated computer software to cheat on emission tests as well ...

PhotoVolkswagen already faces more than 400 lawsuits filed by U.S. consumers over its use of sophisticated computer software to cheat on emission tests as well as investigations by government agencies, but the latest lawsuit, if successful, may produce results that actually benefit the general public.

It was filed today by the Center for Auto Safety (CAS), a Washington, D.C. non-profit that has been battling the auto industry for 45 years. Unlike the private lawsuits which seek monetary damages for VW and Audi owners, the center’s suit seeks action to clean up the damage from VW’s actions and ensure the violations are not repeated.

Specifically, the lawsuit seeks an injunction ordering VW:

  • To remediate the environmental harm caused by VW’s emissions relief,
  • To appoint an independent organization to monitor VW’s compliance with state and federal laws as well as other relief granted in this lawsuit, and
  • To order VW to pay a portion of its annual net profits into an independent fund administered by third parties to a non-profit organization to offset the environmental damage.

"Unprecedented corporate crime"

“CAS has sued VW and Audi because they committed an unprecedented corporate crime and fraud on the public that requires injunctive relief to remedy the harm caused by their violations of state and federal environmental and consumer protection laws,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the center. “Class actions and government enforcement actions result in headlines, penalties and settlements that do nothing to change underlying corporate behavior or remediate the underlying damage caused by illegal behavior.”

Ditlow said other sanctions commonly imposed on automakers also fall short.

“The independent monitors and auditors sanctioned by the Justice Department and federal agencies are nothing more than corporate law firms and employees who are all too willing to sign off on the behavior of their employers in documents filled with withheld redactions. When so-called independent funds are set up as was done in the Toyota Unintended Acceleration class action, they go to auto company designed programs that benefit the auto maker, not the consumer,” Ditlow said, vowing that his group will get results.

“CAS will use its integrity and skills acquired through 45 years of battling the auto industry to ensure that this litigation will reform VW and Audi once and for all and set a precedent for all other auto companies in the future,” Ditlow said in an email to ConsumerAffairs.

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Majority of Americans want stricter gun laws: Gallup

It's an increase of 8% from 2014

Consumers may be changing their views on the sale of firearms. A Gallup poll finds that a majority -- 55% -- say laws covering the s...

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Photo © 1jaimages - Fotolia

Consumers may be changing their views on the sale of firearms. A Gallup poll finds that a majority -- 55% -- say laws covering the sale of guns should be stricter, an increase of eight percentage points from 2014.

Fewer Americans than last year want the laws to be less strict, and the proportion who want the laws to stay the same has also declined slightly.

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In 2007, the year of the Virginia Tech massacre, the percentage of Americans who favored stricter laws on gun sales dropped to a bare majority (51%) for the first time in several years. Since then, support for stricter laws had stayed under 50%, except in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012.

At that point, 58% of Americans said they were in favor of stricter laws on gun sales. Although support for stricter laws receded after those shootings, in which Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults, it has yet to return to the 44% level it was at before that tragedy.

The latest increase, from the Gallup Crime poll conducted Oct. 7-11, came in the days after the most recent high-profile mass shooting at a community college in Oregon. However, that event seems to have mainly affected Americans' views about laws on gun sales, but not other topics relating to guns.

Independents, Democrats fueling trend

The rise in the proportion of Americans who want stricter laws on firearm sales can be attributed partly to an increase among certain demographic groups. Support rose among Democrats and especially independents from 2014, and among those who do not personally own a gun. However, support increased even among those who say they own a handgun, from 30% in 2014 to 36% this year.

PhotoThis doesn’t mean that more Americans want to outlaw guns entirely. The percentage of Americans who favor a law providing that only authorized persons (including the police) would be allowed to possess handguns has remained low since the 1990s. This year, 27% -- near the record low -- say there should be this type of ban. This trend has been generally declining since Gallup began asking this question in 1959, when 60% said such a law should exist.

But while it may sometimes seem that everyone has a gun in America, that’s not what Gallup found. Overall in the U.S., 43% say there is a gun somewhere in their household, and 28% say they personally own a gun.

Bottom Line

In a maelstrom of debate about guns, Americans have clear-cut views of at least some aspects of the debate. A majority in 2015 say gun sales should be regulated more strictly than they are now, which represents an uptick from last fall; however, it is still slightly lower than in December 2012, immediately after the Newtown school shootings.

But with mass shootings and individual homicides occurring with regularity, the debate will continue over whether there should be restrictions or amendments to firearms purchases or possession. Last week, California's Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said he will introduce a state ballot measure for next year that would require ammunition buyers to undergo background checks. President Barack Obama also said he may use executive authority to impose background checks for those purchasing weapons from high-volume firearms dealers.

These are just two examples of initiatives that may or may not gain traction with a public that is disturbed about mass shootings, but evidently divided about how to solve this persistent problem in the 2010s.

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Consumers and franchise owners have opposite views of McDonald's

Consumers like all-day breakfast, restaurant operators not so much

Two surveys conducted independently reveal starkly different feelings about McDonald's. One sampled consumer sentiment – the other the feelings of McDonald...

Two surveys conducted independently reveal starkly different feelings about McDonald's. One sampled consumer sentiment – the other the feelings of McDonald's franchise operators.

If you guessed that consumers have the negative view and operators the bullish outlook, you would be wrong.

According to the YouGov BrandIndex, McDonald's all-day breakfast, which debuted October 6, is a hit with consumers. The fast food chain has seen the biggest improvement in customer satisfaction among frequent breakfast diners over the past 90 days. McDonald's raised its satisfaction scores approximately seven percentage points from 15 to 22, on a scale from -100 to 100, with zero being neutral.

The survey found 42% of consumers who frequently eat breakfast at fast food restaurants would consider eating at McDonald's the next time they eat breakfast out. That's second behind Subway's 48% and well ahead of Taco Bell, which has made a major breakfast marketing push lately.

Stock soars

Wall Street is also pleased with what new CEO Steve Easterbrook has been doing lately. McDonald's stock is over $103, the highest level in years.

But the second survey may show the company faces some challenges. In fact, it prompted a headline writer for the Daily Mail to write “Is this the beginning of the end for McDonald's?”

The survey is the work of Wall Street analyst Mark Kalinowski, who questioned 29 franchise owners who operate 226 McDonald's restaurants. Admittedly, it's a small sample of the 14,000 McDonald's locations.

But Kalinowski found the overwhelming majority of the owners he surveyed had a negative view – not just of all-day breakfast, which one called “a disaster” – but of the company's future.

Klinowski says one pessimistic operator suggested McDonald's was in its “final days” and that the brand as a whole was in a “deep depression.”

“Seeds of our demise”

Another unhappy franchise owner estimated that 30% of franchise operators are insolvent. Another accused Easterbrook of sowing the “seeds of our demise. We are a quick-serve fast-food restaurant, not a fast casual like Five Guys or Chipotle. The system may be facing its final days,” the operator wrote.

Another franchise owner said “the lack of leadership is frightening.” Some said the company has not addressed the issue of food quality and customer service, and instead has burdened franchises with all-day breakfast while not acting on promises to streamline the menu.

Klinowski quotes one franchisee as saying “we continue to jump from one failed initiative to another.”

The analyst says several franchise owners said the all-day breakfast has slowed down service while causing chaos in the kitchens.

In short, they're not lovin' it.

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New discovery may slow cognitive decline in Alzheimer's patients

By manipulating a certain protein in the brain, researchers were able to improve cognition in test models

A new discovery in Alzheimer’s research could prove to be integral in slowing the cognitive decline that makes the disease so difficult to manage. Research...

PhotoA new discovery in Alzheimer’s research could prove to be integral in slowing the cognitive decline that makes the disease so difficult to manage. Researchers from the Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie (VIB) and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium have discovered that a certain protein called GPR3 may hold the key to reducing amyloid plaque build-up in the brain.

Researchers believe that the accumulation of proteins in the brain –specifically amyloid plaques – play a major role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Over time, proteins in the brain are segmented into different parts – one type of segment is called an amyloid-β peptide.

When amyloid-β peptides build up, they become amyloid plaques, which can block the pathways between nerves and the brain. Eventually, this forces many of the brain’s networks to shut down, which compromises healthy mental function. This causes dementia to develop, which is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers at VIB and KU Leuven were able to discover and test proteins in order to determine which ones played a major role in amyloid plaque build-up. “We discovered that G protein-coupled receptor 3 (GPR3), a protein expressed in the brain, plays a significant role in the generation of amyloid-? peptides and accumulation of amyloid plaques,” said Amantha Thathiah, leader of the research team.

“Our research indicates that the absence of GPR3 alleviates the cognitive decline and reduces amyloid pathology in multiple disease-relevant models. These studies identify GPR3 as a therapeutic target for [Alzheimer’s disease] and provide a significant level of validation necessary for the future of [Alzheimer’s disease] drug discovery."

Thathiah and her team were able to test their theory by using mouse models. By lowering GPR3 levels in the brain, researchers found that they were able to improve cognition in test subjects. Further examination of post-mortem brain tissue showed that GPR3 levels were high, suggesting that the protein progressed the disease in those subjects.

By testing multiple models, the researchers hope that their work will help form new therapies to combat Alzheimer’s disease. “Given the vast resources required to develop and evaluate a new therapy, demonstrating the relevance of research findings in multiple disease-relevant models is crucial. Our research provides exactly this level of validation,” said researcher Bart de Strooper.

The full study has been published in the journal Science Translational Medicine

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Lawsuit says FDA has dragged its feet in the fight against excessive salt

Non-profit group wants salt classified as a food additive

Ten years is a long time to fight over something as simple as salt. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest says it doesn’t have much choice. It ...

PhotoTen years is a long time to fight over something as simple as salt. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest says it doesn’t have much choice. It is suing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, saying that for 10 years it has ignored a petition asking it to treat salt as a food additive.

“For more than 35 years, FDA has dragged its feet and refused to do anything to protect Americans from excess sodium in the food supply,” said CSPI President Michael F. Jacobson in a prepared statement. “The government’s inaction condemns hundreds of thousands of Americans to early deaths due to preventable strokes and heart attacks.”

The average American consumes about 3,650 milligrams of sodium per day, far in excess of the 2,300 milligram limit recommended by federal dietary guidelines, or the 1,500 milligram limit recommended for certain subgroups, including children, people over 50, African Americans, and people with hypertension, kidney disease, or diabetes.

Should be a food additive

CSPI’s 2005 petition asked the FDA to revoke salt’s status as a “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, substance, and to treat it as a food additive under the law. The petition specifically urged the agency to require food manufacturers to gradually reduce the amount of sodium in different categories of processed food, and to require health messages on retail packages of table salt one-half ounce or larger.

“Food companies are putting far too much sodium in processed food in the factory, and we are all paying for it with unnecessarily high rates of hypertension, heart disease, and stroke,” said former New York City Health Commissioner Tom Farley, now CEO of The Public Good Projects. “It’s high time for the FDA to protect Americans from this risk.”

“I hope that CSPI’s lawsuit succeeds in spurring long overdue action that will save thousands of lives a year by reducing sodium in our food supply,” said Frank Sacks, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

37 years

CSPI has been calling on the FDA to order food manufacturers to reduce salt since 1978. Throughout all of those years, and specifically between 2005 and 2015, Americans’ sodium intake has continued to climb — a sign that the voluntary approach urged by the FDA and the food industry has failed, CSPI says.

In 2007, the FDA published a Federal Register notice, convened a public hearing, and opened a comment period on CSPI’s petition. Since that time, the agency has failed to act, according to CSPI.

Though some food products have posted modest reductions in sodium over the past 10 years, other products have been reformulated to have even more of it. Schmidt’s Potato Rolls, for instance, have 47 percent more sodium in 2015 than they did in 2005. Whole Foods’ 365-brand 4-Cheese Pizza contains 30 percent more sodium than it did in 2005, CSPI said.

While companies such as Walmart, Unilever, and Cargill have made sodium reduction a priority and achieved significant gains, the lack of FDA action means population-wide reductions necessary to reduce sodium-related diseases have not been achieved, CSPI argues.

In April 2010 the Institute of Medicine issued a major report outlining strategies to reduce sodium intake. It strongly endorsed the idea of mandatory reductions in packaged and restaurant foods phased in over time.

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Amazon sues review-for-hire writers

Seeks to identify individuals using jobs sites to pitch phony review-writing services

When you are buying something online, there are often plenty of consumer reviews about the product. But can you trust them?After all, a number of enter...

PhotoWhen you are buying something online, there are often plenty of consumer reviews about the product. But can you trust them?

After all, a number of enterprising souls are selling their services to online marketers, offering to write a five-star review for only $5; this means that a glowing review might mean very little.

Amazon.com is going on the attack against this practice. The company has filed a lawsuit in King County, Washington Superior Court against 1,114 individuals currently identified as John Doe. It charges them with breach of contract for violating Amazon's terms of service agreement.

“Honest and unbiased reviews allow customers to shop with confidence at Amazon.com,” the suit says. “Amazon takes the credibility of its customer reviews very seriously.”

Unfair advantage

The suit says a “small minority” of sellers and manufacturers try to gain an unfair advantage by paying people to post positive reviews, regardless of whether they have even seen the product. This practice, says Amazon, undermines trust and tarnishes the company's brand.

Despite attempts to keep reviews on the up-and-up, the company says “an unhealthy ecosystem has developed outside of Amazon to supply reviews in exchange for payment.”

Amazon targeted its defendants by their solicitations on a freelance jobs site called Fiverr. The writers used handles in place of names, but Amazon said it is taking steps to learn their identities.

The suit seeks unspecified damages.

In April, Amazon filed suit against websites that allegedly marketed fake reviews to businesses that sold products on Amazon.com. The suit, also filed in Washington state, accused the companies of false advertising, trademark infringement, and violating consumer protection laws.  

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New York reaches settlement with urgent care centers

Facilities promise to improve fee disclosures on their websites

For-profit urgent care centers are becoming a larger part of the U.S. healthcare system. Consumers with insurance are using these walk-in clinics for their...

PhotoFor-profit urgent care centers are becoming a larger part of the U.S. healthcare system. Consumers with insurance are using these walk-in clinics for their convenience, as well as the quality of the care many provide.

But New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sees a problem with some operators, and it has nothing to do with convenience or care. Rather, it's the disclosure of costs.

Too many consumers, he says, are assuming their treatment will be covered by their insurance and are being blindsided when the bill arrives.

Schneiderman has reached agreements with four urgent care centers in the state to provide clear, detailed information to consumers about the centers’ participation with health plans. It's the first enforcement action of New York’s recently adopted ‘Surprise Bill Law,’ enacted to protect consumers from unexpected medical billings and help patients make informed choices when selecting a provider.

The investigation began back in July when Schneiderman sent letters to 20 urgent care centers asking for information about their declarations on their websites that they participate in certain health plan networks.

Concerned about accuracy

Schneiderman said he was concerned that these centers’ website disclosures might not be accurate. As a result, consumers could receive unexpected bills – some of them quite high – from urgent care centers, when they believed they would only be responsible for their in-network co-pay.

The new law requires providers to disclose in writing, or through a website, which health care plans it participates in. Also, consumers must be able to determine what fees they would face.

“At a time when many New Yorkers are feeling squeezed by rising health care costs, consumers deserve to know whether a provider is in-network or out-of network so that they know the costs before they choose a medical provider,” Schneiderman said. “I commend the pledge by these urgent care centers to adopt critical reforms.”

After consulting with the attorney general's office, 181st Street Urgent Care in Manhattan, Brookdale Urgent Care -- affiliated with Brookdale Hospital, New York Doctor's Urgent Care -- with two locations in Manhattan, and Cure Urgent Care -- with three locations in Manhattan, agreed to improve their plan participation disclosure.

What consumers should be able to find out

Schneiderman says consumers should be able to pull up a medical provider's website and identify all health plans with which it has contracted to be an in-network participating provider.

As for plans that are not accepted, the website should specifically name them. In addition, it should post and provide the information in writing to the patient at the time of registration.

Schneiderman says urgent care centers have agreed to stop using the term “works with” or “accepts” in relation to a health care plan. Instead, the terms “in-network participating provider” or “out-of-network” will be used.

The centers will also explain that “out-of-network” will lead to higher charges than in-network services.

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Feds seek more information on Takata airbags

The current recall of 19 million cars could be expanded

Automakers got some unwelcome mail last week. Federal safety regulators informed them they could be next to face recalls of hundreds of vehicles equipped w...

PhotoAutomakers got some unwelcome mail last week. Federal safety regulators informed them they could be next to face recalls of hundreds of vehicles equipped with Takata airbag inflaters, which can send deadly shards of shrapnel into passenger compartments.

Automakers including Honda, GM, FCA US, and others have already recalled more than 19 million cars and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar-Land Rover, Suzuki, Tesla, Volvo Trucks, Volkswagen, and Spartan Motors could be next. The agency’s letter asks for more information on which types of airbags the manufacturers used in various models.

The faulty inflaters have been blamed for eight deaths and hundreds of injuries, and NHTSA says it is now trying to figure out how many more vehicles may be putting their owners at risk. It has scheduled a hearing for this Thursday to discuss its continuing investigation.

"Scope may expand"

“It is expected that the scope of the current Takata recalls may expand as time goes on and will likely grow to include vehicles that are outside the scope of the current recalls,” the letters said.

NHTSA is considering whether it should take over management of the recall in hopes of speeding things up. Of the 19 million cars recalled, only 4.4 million inflaters have been recalled, partly because of a shortage of parts and partly because -- as is typical in recalls -- owners have not responded promptly to recall notices. Many consumers who have responded have been frustrated to find the dealers weren’t ready to make the repairs.

Vehicles recalled so far include models made by Honda, FCA, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota. Recalls by those manufacturers could also be expanded as a result of NHTSA’s continuing investigation.

The latest theory on the problem is that ammonium nitrate is used as a propellant in the faulty airbags and can degrade over time. When that happens, it “could potentially lead to overaggressive combustion or potentially cause the inflater to rupture,” NHTSA said in the letters.

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Boeing creates more overhead storage for airliners

Alaska Airlines the first to install new Space Bins, with 48% more capacity

With nearly every airline charging a checked bag fee, passengers are trying to cram more and more into the overhead bins.That creates problems for both...

PhotoWith nearly every airline charging a checked bag fee, passengers are trying to cram more and more into the overhead bins.

That creates problems for both airlines and passengers but the chore might get a little easier on new and retrofitted Boeing 737s.

Alaska Airlines is taking delivery of some of the new jets that feature Boeing's new Space Bins, which the airline says will increase the room for carry-on bags by 48%. Alaska says its the first airline to line up for the capacity-adding feature.

"Alaska is relentlessly focused on making the travel experience better," said Sangita Woerner, Alaska Airlines vice president of marketing. "We've been on a mission to improve our cabin experience for several years and Space Bins are part of a $150 million investment we've made to make flying more comfortable and enjoyable.”

By the end of 2017, Woerner says nearly half of Alaska Air's fleet will have larger bins to accommodate a carry-on bag for virtually every passenger.

Installed on 34 new jets

The airline said it will take delivery of 34 737s and one MAX in the next two years and will begin retrofitting 34 Boeing Sky Interior aircraft, primarily 737-900ERs, in 2016.

Other airlines are sure to explore this option, since all are wrestling with the space issue. Maura, a United passenger, posted this response from United Customer Service at ConsumerAffairs, when he complained that he could not find space for his bags.

“We strive to accommodate carry-on bags for the greatest number of customers possible,” the United rep wrote. “More customers are choosing to bring their luggage onboard, which could cause a shortage of storage space. Our planes have some of the largest overhead storage bins in the industry. When the bins become full, remaining bags must be gate-checked.”

Holds six bags

Alaska Airlines says very soon, it will have the largest overhead capacity. It says each Space Bin can hold six bags, two more than the current pivot bins installed on Next-Generation 737s with the Boeing Sky Interior. That's based on a standard size carry-on bag measuring 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches.

"We work closely with our customers to continuously enhance their airplanes so they can offer great passenger experiences," said Brent Walton, manager of 737 Interiors New Features for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "We have a strong record of delivering value with innovative interiors features, like bigger bins that help reduce passenger anxiety about overhead storage and provide a better travel experience."

Improving acccess

When open, the bottom edge of the Space Bin will hang about two inches lower, so travelers can lift their carry-on bags in and out more easily. The deeper bins will allow more bags to be stowed and increase visibility into the back of the bins.

Alaska also says the Space Bins, designed without a flight attendant bin assist mechanism, will be easier to close.

Alaska Airlines said it is installing Space Bins on all its 737-900ERs and MAX aircraft currently on order and by 2017 will have 69 airplanes, or 46% of its passenger fleet, outfitted with Space Bins.

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Bugat Botnet shut down, administrator arrested

Malware stole banking credentials from infected computers

Federal prosecutors say a sophisticated malware,package designed to steal banking and other credentials from infected computers has been disrupted and char...

PhotoFederal prosecutors say a sophisticated malware package designed to steal banking and other credentials from infected computers has been disrupted and charges have been filed against a Moldovan administrator of the botnet known as,“Bugat,” “Cridex” or “Dridex.”Actions taken by the U.K. and the U.S. substantially disrupted the botnet.

Andrey Ghinkul, 30, of Moldova, was charged in a nine-count indictment with criminal conspiracy, unauthorized computer access with intent to defraud, damaging a computer, wire fraud and bank fraud. Ghinkul was arrested on Aug. 28, 2015 in Cyprus. The United States is seeking his extradition.

“The steps announced today are another example of our global and innovative approach to combating cybercrime,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell. “The Bugat/Dridex botnet, run by criminals in Moldova and elsewhere, harmed American citizens and entities. With our partners here and overseas, we will shut down these cross-border criminal schemes.”

According to the indictment, Ghinkul was part of a criminal conspiracy that disseminated Bugat, which is a multifunction malware package that automates the theft of confidential personal and financial information, such as online banking credentials, from infected computers through the use of keystroke logging and web injects.

Legitimate-looking emails

It is generally distributed through “phishing,” an email fraud method where legitimate-looking emails are distributed to victims in an attempt to obtain personal or financial information. Bugat is specifically designed to defeat antivirus and other protective measures employed by victims. The FBI estimates at least $10 million in direct loss domestically can be attributed to Bugat.

Victims of Bugat/Dridex may use the following webpage created by US-CERT for assistance in removing the malware: https://www.us-cert.gov/dridex.

The indictment alleges that Ghinkul and his co-conspirators used the malware to steal banking credentials and then, using the stolen credentials, to initiate fraudulent electronic funds transfers of millions of dollars from the victims’ bank accounts into the accounts of money mules, who further transferred the stolen funds to other members of the conspiracy.

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IIHS corrects erroneous booster seat ratings

The group's BEST BET awards have been rescinded

“We goofed.” That's the upshot of an announcement by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) that it's revising its booster seat ratings for 2014...

Photo“We goofed.” That's the upshot of an announcement by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) that it's revising its booster seat ratings for 2014.

Two models of boosters -- the Eddie Bauer Deluxe Highback 65 and Safety 1st Summit 65 -- were awarded a BEST BET designation in error. These seats, which can be used either with internal harnesses or as boosters, should have been designated as Not Recommended.

Consumers are advised not to purchase these seats for use as boosters. However, IIHS says there is no problem with either of them when used with the internal harness.

The purpose of a booster seat is to make a vehicle safety belt, which is designed for an adult, fit a child correctly. Correct fit means the belt lies flat across a child's upper thighs, not across the soft abdomen, and the shoulder belt crosses snugly over the middle of a child's shoulder.

Booster concerns

The concern about the Eddie Bauer Deluxe Highback 65 and Safety 1st Summit 65, both manufactured by Dorel Juvenile, is that while the shoulder belt crosses the child's body at the middle of the shoulder, it is positioned too far forward. In that position, the shoulder belt would be less effective in a crash.

IIHS evaluates boosters using a test dummy representing an average-size six-year-old. Engineers measure how safety belts fit the dummy in each of the tested boosters under four conditions that span the range of safety belt configurations in vehicle models. Based on these measurements, a seat is designated a BEST BET, GOOD BET, Check Fit, or Not Recommended to reflect the likelihood that the booster will work in any vehicle.

The original booster rating protocol called for measuring only the shoulder belt’s lateral position. It didn't take into account whether the shoulder belt was close enough to the dummy's body.

During preparations for the 2014 booster ratings release, the protocol was changed to limit the distance allowed between a reference point on the dummy's chest and the shoulder belt to one (1) centimeter. If the belt is within that distance of the chest, it will be close enough to the shoulder to provide good crash protection. Booster manufacturers were informed of the revised protocol.

However, the Eddie Bauer Deluxe Highback 65 and Safety 1st Summit 65, though new for 2014, were mistakenly evaluated according to the old protocol. The gap between the chest reference point and the shoulder belt with these two boosters is more than one (1) centimeter in all of the Institute's test conditions.

This was discovered only recently, when the seats were re-evaluated as part of a research study. Since then, IIHS has re-evaluated every booster seat listed in the ratings and currently on the market and has not encountered the problem on any others.

Children who have outgrown the weight or height limit for the harness should continue to use the seats as boosters if no other booster is available. Parents are advised to purchase a different seat that provides better belt fit as soon as possible.

BEST BET boosters can cost as little as $20. Until a replacement can be obtained, a child for whom an adult safety belt doesn't yet fit properly is better off using any booster than none at all.

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Builder confidence hits levels unseen in a decade

The closely-watched Housing Market Index was up another three points in October

Builders continue to express their confidence in the market for newly constructed single-family homes. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/We...

PhotoBuilders continue to express their confidence in the market for newly constructed single-family homes.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) jumped another three points in October, returning the HMI levels last seen at the end of the housing boom in late 2005.

“With October’s three-point uptick, builder confidence has been holding steady or increasing for five straight months. This upward momentum shows that our industry is strengthening at a gradual but consistent pace,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “With firm job creation, economic growth and the release of pent-up demand, we expect housing to keep moving forward as we start to close out 2015.”

Derived from a monthly survey, the HMI 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 in October. The index measuring sales expectations in the next six months rose seven points to 75, and the component gauging current sales conditions increased three points to 70. The index charting buyer traffic held steady at 47.

“The fact that builder confidence has held in the 60s since June is proof that the single-family housing market is making lasting gains as more serious buyers come forward,” said NAHB Chairman Tom Woods, a home builder from Blue Springs, Mo. “However, our members continue to tell us there are still pockets of softness in some markets across the nation, and that they face challenges regarding the availability of lots and labor.”

Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, all four regions posted gains. The West registered a five-point uptick to 69 while the Northeast, Midwest and South each rose one point to 47, 60, and 65, respectively.

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Good Food Concepts recalls beef, pork, and poultry products

The products were produced without a fully implemented HACCP plan

Good Food Concepts of Colorado Springs, Colo., is recalling approximately 12,566 pounds of beef, pork, and poultry products. The products were produced wi...

PhotoGood Food Concepts of Colorado Springs, Colo., is recalling approximately 12,566 pounds of beef, pork, and poultry products.

 

The products were produced without a fully implemented Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan. They also contain sodium nitrite, which is not listed on the label.

 

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

 

The following beef, pork and poultry items, produced between October 16, 2014, and October 16, 2015, are being recalled:

  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT SMOKED BACON.”
  • 1-lb. packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT BACON ENDS.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT SMOKED PIT HAM.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT PORK SMOKE HAM BUTT PORTION BI.”
  • 1-lb. packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT PORK HAM BUTT PORTION BI.”
  • Various sized containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT PORK SMOKED HAM SHANK PORTION BI.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT PORK HAM STEAK.”
  • Various sized packages containing “PORK PEEPA’S HAM BNLS.”
  • 1-lb. packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT PORK SMOKE HAM DICED.”
  • 1-lb. packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT PORK SMOKE HAM GROUND 1#.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT PORK SMOKED HAM SHANKS SLICED.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT PEPPERONI SLICE.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT GENOA CLASSIC.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT BEEF PASTRAMI.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT BOLOGNA SLICE.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT PEPPERONI.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT HAM STEAK COUNTRY STYLE.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT HAM DELI SLICED.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT CANADIAN BACON.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT BOLOGNA 1#.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT PORK LIVERWURST WESTPHALIAN.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOOD DIRECT PORK LIVERWURST PISTACHIO DELI STYLE.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT TURKEY BREAST NATURAL SMOKED, SLICED.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT ROASTED DELI TURKEY.”
  • 1-lb. packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT BRISTOL BEER BRATWURST.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT POLISH SAUSAGE PORK.”
  • 1-lb. packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT SAUSAGE PORK BANGERS.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT ANDOUILLE.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT LINGUISA.”
  • 1-lb. packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT PORK SMOKED GERMAN BRATWURST.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT GERMAN BRATWURST.”
  • Various sized packages “RANCH FOODS DIRECT KOLBASA RING.”
  • 1-lb. packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT 8/1 HOT DOGS.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT SAUSAGE BEEF HOT DOG FOOT LONG 5/1.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT VEAL BRATS.”
  • Various sized packages containing “RANCH FOODS DIRECT CORNED BEEF BRISKET.”

The recalled products bear establishment number “EST. 27316” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to retail locations in Colorado and New Mexico.

 

Customers who purchased these products should not consume them. The products should be thrown away or returned to the place of purchase.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Nikowa Neill at (719) 377-7514.

 

 

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Del Monte Fresh Produce recalls fresh apples

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Del Monte Fresh Produce is recalling Granny Smith green apples. The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. No illnesses have been repor...

PhotoDel Monte Fresh Produce is recalling Granny Smith green apples.

 

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

A total of 695 boxes containing eight (8) “Granny Smith” green apples each and 67 clear plastic bags containing six (6) “Granny Smith” green apples each were distributed to Coremark and 7-Eleven for sale in convenience stores in the Mountain States region on Oct. 1-12, 2015.

 

States affected include Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. The apples at store level are individual fruit on open displays.

 

Consumers who purchased the recalled product should throw it in the garbage and contact Del Monte Fresh Produce for a refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company’s consumer hotline at 1-800-659-6500, operating 24 hours seven days a week or by email at Contact-US-Executive-Office@freshdelmonte.com.

 

 

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Toyota recalls Tacoma pickup trucks

The knee air bag could malfunction

Toyota Motor Sales, USA is recalling approximately 310 Model Year 2016 Tacoma Pickup Trucks. The driver’s knee air bag module may have been attached to t...

PhotoToyota Motor Sales, USA is recalling approximately 310 Model Year 2016 Tacoma Pickup Trucks.

 

The driver’s knee air bag module may have been attached to the instrument panel with incorrect bolts, resulting in the bolts loosening over time. A loosened bolt could affect the performance of the knee air bag, increasing the risk of injury during a crash.

 

Vehicles owners will be notified by first class mail and Toyota dealers will replace the bolts with bolts of the correct specification.

 

Consumers may contact Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331, or Lexus Customer Service at 1-800-255-3987.  

 

 

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Some pre-holiday shopping advice

Experts weigh in on when and how to shop

Retailers are a bit nervous in the weeks leading up to the start of the 2015 holiday shopping season. It remains to be seen how consumers will react.Wi...

Retailers are a bit nervous in the weeks leading up to the start of the 2015 holiday shopping season. It remains to be seen how consumers will react.

Will they spend the money they've saved this year on gasoline? Or, will they use that money to pay existing bills and add to savings?

The evidence so far suggests shoppers will be careful with money and look for bargains. Heading into the holiday season, sales have been lackluster and even the National Retail Federation predicts only a modest increase in sales over last year.

“This provides opportunities for retailers and brands to continue to drive sales for a strong year-end finish,” said Lance Eliot, of Interactions, a retail marketing service. 'It’s not surprising that retailers plan for Black Friday sales to make up for any profit shortfalls but how they enable those sales may take some retailers by surprise.”

Buying before Halloween

Eliot cites a report predicting one-third of shoppers will begin buying Christmas gifts before Halloween. For those who are trying to save on holiday purchases, Bryan Leach, CEO of Ibotta, a shopping app, says it will pay to shop early.

“Don’t wait until December to begin buying all your gifts,” he said. “Start scanning sales and stocking up now, since stores typically clear inventory from the previous season and year to fill their shelves with brand new products.”

He says it's also critical to make a budget. By setting a budget now and already having gifts in mind, you’ll be able to scope rebates, coupons, and deals over the next few months, instead of spending a fortune in last minute panic buying.

He also says it will help save money if you plan holiday meals well in advance.

Saving on meals

“Holiday shopping doesn’t just mean gifts under the tree, but a season full of hor’dourves, cocktail hours, and tasty dinners spent with family and friends,” Leach said. “Avoid unnecessary stress over last minute menus by picking out recipes in advance and purchasing any dry goods that you think you may need.”

Meanwhile, the bargains have already started. BestBlackFriday.com reports Sony has cut the price of its popular PlayStation 4 game system to $349.99, which is a discount of $50 from the usual price of $399.99. The discount will remain in place thoughout the holiday season.

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We tried to get aboard one of the last US Airways flights

But American's renumbering was too quick for us

I tried to get aboard the last US Airways flight but fate wasn't having it. Officially, the last flight was a red eye that,left Sa...

Photo
Photo via Wikipedia

I tried to get aboard the last US Airways flight but fate wasn't having it. Officially, the last flight was a red eye that left San Francisco late Friday, Oct. 16 and arrived in Philadelphia the next morning.

I, on the other hand, was on what had been dubbed American Airlines flight 1927, leaving Los Angeles at 10:40 p.m. Saturday and arriving at Washington Dulles around 6:30 a.m. Sunday. I was a day late and one city pair off.

Maybe so but although my flight was technically an American flight,,it,left from LAX Terminal 6, which everyone knows is a US Airways terminal and was staffed by a crew that until a few hours earlier had been US Airways employees.

My flight west a few days earlier had left from a US Airways gate at Dulles and was flown by a US Airways crew. The airplane had already been painted in American's colors but still had a US Airways interior. We arrived at LAX Terminal 6, which was then still displaying US Airways logos. But it, along with most other US Airways flights, had been declared an American flight and carried an American flight number.

But aside from my scheduling miscues, things couldn't have gone more smoothly at LAX. My ride dropped me at Terminal 4, the American terminal. Checking the monitors, I was not surprised to find my flight leaving from Terminal 6 -- a,US Airways terminal just a few days before.

A brisk hike brought me to a deserted Terminal 6. There was no security line. None. TSA agents waved and smiled as I approached them and I was through in record time, strolling into a nearly empty terminal.

Bare bones schedule

The explanation? Many months ago, American chose Oct. 17 as the date when it would merge its reservations systems and finally begin flying as a single carrier instead of two carriers flying under common ownership. Hoping to avoid the disasters that have befallen other mergers, it canceled hundreds of flights for that date, in effect running a bare bones schedule for the first day, just to be sure there were no surprises lurking.

And so Oct. 17 became the day that US Airways employees and longtime customers would remember as the day the airline ceased to exist. Thus the explanation for that SFO-Philadelphia flight: it was given US Airways flight number 1939, the year that its predecessor, All-American Aviation, began flying air mail in Pennsylvania. It became Allegheny Airlines in 1952, later becoming US Air and then US Airways.

Along the way, it absorbed nearly too many regional carriers to count and today it was digesting its biggest catch ever -- American Airlines, becoming the nation's largest carrier. In an ironic twist, US Airways is giving up its identity but most of the top managers of the new American Airlines will be from US Airways and most airline analysts will tell you that it was US Airways that took over American, not the other way around.

Is the merger a good thing for consumers? Most consumer activists would say no, as it further reduces the number of large mainline carriers to a mere handful -- American, United, Delta and Southwest -- and doesn't exactly create a hotbed of seething competition.

But that's an argument for another day. Saturday was reserved for those of a nostalgic bent who noted that despite its long history, US Airways' most enduring moment came just a few years ago, in 2009, when Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger made a daring landing on New York's Hudson River when both engines failed after ingesting geese. All 155 aboard survived and Sullenberger became a legend, long with his employer.

Nothing like that happened on our dash from LAX to IAD. It was just another sleepy red eye.

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Peruvian man defrauded Spanish-speaking consumers

Call centers told Hispanic consumers they faced legal action for bogus debts

Call centers in Lima, Peru, placed calls to U.S. Hispanics, threatening them with jail and other consequences for debts they did not owe, the scam's ringle...

PhotoCall centers in Lima, Peru, placed calls to U.S. Hispanics, threatening them with jail and other consequences for debts they did not owe, the scam's ringleader admitted. Cesar Luis Kou Reyna, 40, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Miami last week to conspiracy to commit mail fraud.

“The threats made by the defendant’s call centers harassed and intimidated Spanish-speaking victims across the United States,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Mizer.  “As this case and other recent examples show, we will track down those responsible for defrauding and threatening American consumers, no matter where the fraudster resides, what language the fraudster speaks or which population he or she targets.”

​Kou Reyna owned and controlled a corporation, Fonomundo FC, which used Internet-based telephone services to place cold calls to Spanish-speaking residents in the United States.  The callers falsely claimed to be attorneys and said that victims had failed to pay for or receive a delivery of products, although the victims had not ordered these products. 

The callers claimed that victims would be sued and that the companies would obtain large monetary judgements against them.  Some victims were also threatened with negative marks on their credit reports, imprisonment or deportation. 

The callers said these threatened consequences could be avoided if the victims immediately paid “settlement fees.”  Many victims made monetary payments based on these threats. 

Kou Reyna was arrested at a Houston airport on July 30 while he was traveling in the United States. 

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What makes a CEO?

Researchers find that people at the top of the corporate ladder have many things in common

Have you ever sat back and wondered what it would be like to run the company that you work for? You certainly aren’t alone if ...

Photo
(c) aerogondo - Fotolia

Have you ever sat back and wondered what it would be like to run the company that you work for? You certainly aren’t alone if you have, but only so many people can rise up to meet that professional goal. But why not you? You might have all of the ambition in the world, but is it enough?

Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) certainly have to work hard to get to where they are, but what allows them to climb so high on the corporate ladder? It was this question, amongst others, that prompted researchers at JobApplicationCenter.com to look into the pasts of CEOs to determine some of the common factors that allowed them to achieve so much success.

Career beginnings

Photo
(c) JobApplicationCenter.com

According to the researchers, CEOs tend to start their careers in their early-to-mid-twenties. Nearly a quarter of all CEOs began careers at the age of 22, which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the time when most young adults graduate from a four-year college.

There were not too many CEOs who began their careers after the age of 28 or in their teenage years, but this should not discourage workers who fall into these categories. CEOs from some of the most recognizable companies were able to start their careers well before their college years.

For example, Rodney McMullen began as a stock clerk at the age of 17 for The Kroger Company before rising to become CEO of that same company. Similarly, Mary T. Barra became CEO of General Motors after beginning as a co-op student for the Pontiac Motor Division at the age of 18.

Working for a variety of companies in different fields is also not unheard of for current CEOs. Researchers found that roughly 60% of CEOs started at a different company than the one that they are currently working for. Nearly 30% worked in a completely different field before settling into the role they have now.

Producing CEOs

Another interesting finding that the researchers uncovered was that certain companies had a tendency to produce employees who would go on to become CEOs. Arthur Andersen, a large accounting firm, had the highest number of employees that eventually went on to become CEOs. They were followed by companies such as Procter & Gamble, IBM, Goldman Sachs, General Electric, and Dow Chemical.

CEOs who came from these and other big-name companies were often able to use their previous positions to good advantage. Using contacts that they acquired over years of working for their previous companies gave them the opening they needed to break into the industry. For example, Dave Lesar went on to become CEO of Halliburton because the company was a client of his at Arthur Andersen.

States with the most CEOs

You can usually find a CEO at his or her company’s headquarters, which researchers have found to be fairly predictable. Nearly 44% of all Fortune 500 company headquarters are found in one of five states –California, Texas, New York, Illinois, and Minnesota.

These states are picked most often because they all have assets that cater to specific industries. California tops the list due to its large focus on technology and entertainment; Texas is a major location for the energy industry, where companies dealing in mining, equipment, pipelines, and transport can thrive; New York is a center for financial firms due to its connection to Wall Street.

Apart from these five cities, CEOs tend to live in the Northeast and Southeast of the country. Companies usually thrive in areas that have a major socioeconomic presence; that is why some states – such as Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine – have no Fortune 500 companies.

General similarities

So while CEOs can come from different backgrounds, the researchers conclude that there are some similarities that cannot be ignored.

“While no tried-and-true formula exists, some experts suggest a solid education, varied career experience, (for instance, a background in consulting), and specific strengths including a high level of ambition and excellent communication skills are the building blocks to becoming a CEO,” they said.

The researchers hope that their work will help people achieve their professional goals by allowing them to see what successful businesspeople have done before them. Additional information can be found by reading their full study here

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AARP wants Congress to hold down Medicare increases

All beneficiaries should be "held harmless," retirees group argues

Many Medicare beneficiaries face sharply higher premiums next year while receiving no cost-of-living (COLA) increase in their Social Security checks. AARP ...

PhotoMany Medicare beneficiaries face sharply higher premiums next year while receiving no cost-of-living (COLA) increase in their Social Security checks. AARP wants Congress to do something about it.

In a letter to all members of Congress, AARP asks that Congress “reduce...the impact of the sudden, sharp increases in the Part B premiums and deductible as soon as possible. Ideally, all Medicare beneficiaries should be held-harmless in the face of no Social Security COLA adjustment.”

The letter notes that 16.5 million Americans face sharp premium increases and that “all Medicare beneficiaries will see their Part B deductible increase 52 percent…from $147 to $223.”

Chained CPI

AARP also reiterated its opposition to the Chained Consumer Price Index (CPI), an alternative to the current CPI, which some say understates inflation by relying too heavily on energy costs. 

The Chained CPI, favored by many conservatives, seeks to eliminate what is called "substitution bias," an economic theory that holds that when the price of apples goes up, consumers buy oranges.

Proponents say it is a more accurate method of measuring inflation but AARP says the "Social Security COLA would be even more inaccurate and benefits would be even less adequate if recent proposals to adopt a Chained CPI had been enacted."

"AARP has opposed all attempts to enact a Chained CPI, and will continue to do so, because the Chained CPI would further underreport inflation experienced by Social Security beneficiaries, and further erode their standard of living, cutting an estimated $127 billion in Social Security benefits from current and near retirees in the next ten years alone,” the seniors organization said in its letter.

"Obscene inequality"

The Chained CPI issue was debated in Congress earlier this year, drawing vehement opposition from many Democrats and from one independent, namely Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), currently seeking the Democratic Presidential nomination. 

Sanders, speaking in January, said that U.S. middle class incomes are declining while the wealthiest Americans and corporations are getting richer. He believes that any "serious" fiscal proposals should cut tax loopholes for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, prevent massive cost overruns by defense contractors, and raise the minimum wage.

"When we look at America, we have to understand that we have an obscene level of income and wealth inequality," Sanders said.

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Nevada orders halt to one-week fantasy sports games

Regulators conclude that the games constitute unlicensed gambling

If anyone knows gambling when they see it, you would expect it to be Nevada gaming regulators. So it might be significant that the Nevada Gaming Commission...

PhotoIf anyone knows gambling when they see it, you would expect it to be Nevada gaming regulators. So it might be significant that the Nevada Gaming Commission has declared one-week fantasy sports games to be unregulated gambling.

In a memorandum, Nevada Gaming Control Board Chairman A.G. Burnett said he asked the state attorney general's office and others to examine enterprises like DraftKings and FanDuel to determine if they were gambling operations.

“Based on these analyses, I, along with staff, have concluded that DFS (daily fantasy sports) constitutes gambling under Nevada law,” Burnett wrote. “More specifically, DFS meets the definition of a game, or gambling game pursuant to Chapter 463 of the Nevada Revised Statutes.”

Game of skill

DFS has been considered legal because it had been judged to be a game of skill, rather than a game of chance. But Burnett says the games involve wagering on the collective performance of individuals participating in sporting events.

Under current law, Burnett says, if you are going to operate such games – as DraftKings and FanDuel do – then you must be licensed.

As a result, all unlicensed daily fantasy sports games – and that's all of them – must cease and desist operating in Nevada – meaning consumers in Nevada can't play.

FBI inquiry

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports the FBI has made inquiries into the operations of daily fantasy sports websites after players of the games and lawmakers leveled charges of insider trading and predatory practices.

At least one state attorney general, New York's Eric Schneiderman, has also launched an investigation. Schneiderman has sent letters to the executives of both DraftKings and FanDuel seeking information about company policies when it comes to employees participating in DFS.

“It’s something we’re taking a look at,” Schneiderman said in a brief statement last week.” Fraud is fraud. And, consumers of any product – whether you want to buy a car, participate in fantasy football – our laws are very strong in New York and other states that you can’t commit fraud.”

In a letter to DraftKings CEO Jason Robbins, Schneiderman expressed concern over reports that company employees or agents may have gained an unfair financial advantage in the contests by accessing non-public data.

“These allegations, and your company’s subsequent statement, raise legal questions relating to the fairness, transparency, and security of DraftKings and the reliability of representations your company has made to customers,” Schneiderman wrote.

Both DraftKings and FanDuel, which are among the biggest advertisers on television, have denied employees unfairly benefited from insider information. But both companies have altered policy to bar employees from participating in DFS games on rival websites.

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Pumpkins: the good, the bad, and the ugly

This seasonal gourd can be healthy -- or not

Fall is that time of year when chefs can't seem to help themselves. They tend to find more and more ways to use pumpkin flavor in food and beverages.Th...

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Nestlé pumps drought-stricken taxpayers' water without a permit, sells it back to them

Lawsuit: Forest Service sits on its hands for 27 years

Staff photoIt rained yesterday in Southern California, an event so unusual lately that in Palm Springs, residents ran into the streets to enjoy the p...

Photo
Staff photo

It rained yesterday in Southern California, an event so unusual lately that in Palm Springs, residents ran into the streets to enjoy the phenomenon of rainwater falling on their heads.

But in general, the Southland is dry as a bone and the state has imposed Draconian restrictions to preserve what little water is available. So it irks environmentalists to no end that the U.S. Forest Service continues to allow Nestlé to pump water from the San Bernardino National Forest and bottle it under its Arrowhead Springs label.

The Center for Biological Diversity and others sued the U.S. Forest Service Tuesday, noting that Nestlé's special-use permit expired in 1988, Courthouse News Service reported.

Nestlé, which reported $92 billion in revenue last year, has been pumping about 66,000 gallons a day through its Strawberry Creek pipeline, Palm Springs' Desert Sun newspaper reported.

$15 million

Nestlé pays an annual fee of $524 for the water. It sells a 6-gallon case of Arrowhead for $3.74, which works out to about $15 million a year, not counting bottling and distribution costs.

Why is Nestlé allowed to pump precious water from taxpayer-owned land and sell it back to those very same taxpayers for next to nothing on an expired permit?

Good question.

The Forest Service first issued a permit to Nestlé in 1976. The permit expired in 1988 and Nestlé applied to renew it but, in the best federal tradition, the Forest Service just hasn't gotten around to doing anything about it for the last 27 years.

So, while it considers whether or not to renew the permit, Nestlé continues pumping away, draining precious water while proudly proclaiming on its label that the water comes from Southern California taxpayers' own backyard.

"Fresh taste"

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California spotted owls (Photo: UC Riverside)

"Local means fresh taste," the Arrowhead bottles burble. "Proudly sourced from mtn springs in the west for a crisp, fresh taste."

The water may taste OK, but the lawsuit argues that the diversion of water from Strawberry Creek harms and reduces habitat for protected plants and animals. It also "seriously affects summer flows in Strawberry Creek and the amount of life that the watershed can support."

Among the affected species are the Least Bell's vireo, the southwestern willow flycatcher, California spotted owls, the two-striped garter snake, the southern rubber boa, and others.

Lead attorney for the groups is Lisa Belenky with the Center for Biological Diversity's Oakland office.

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Volkswagen TDI owners sue, asking to stop making loan payments

It's the latest twist in more than 400 "dirty diesel" lawsuits

Germany has ordered Volkswagen to get the lead out and start recalling its diesel-powered cars, but in the U.S., federal regulators and Volkswagen are mean...

PhotoGermany has ordered Volkswagen to get the lead out and start recalling its diesel-powered cars, but in the U.S., federal regulators and Volkswagen are meandering along, perhaps gradually rolling towards a potential solution to the "dirty diesel" scandal that has engulfed VW and Audi cars, dealers, and owners. Some consumers, however, are getting restless and making pit stops at the nearest courthouse.

More than 400 lawsuits have been filed so far, but Will Ballew is thought to be the first to claim that he shouldn't have to keep making payments on his 2015 VW Jetta Sportwagen, at least until the car is recalled and repaired or replaced.

Ballew has sued VW Credit, which financed his purchase of the car, Courthouse News Service reported. He says the Federal Trade Commission's "Holder Rule" allows him to hold VW Credit responsible for the deceptive practices that have left nearly half a million consumers with diesel cars that spew out as much as 40 times the allowed level of emissions.

Ballew says he bought his car because of the "Clean Diesel" system that VW touted in its advertisements and promotional material.

Besides being allowed to stop paying for his car, Ballew wants VW Credit ordered not to report him and others similarly situated, as they say in court, to the credit bureaus. 

The Holder Rule, adopted in 1975, basically is "designed to prevent the widespread use of credit terms which compel consumers to pay a creditor even if the seller's conduct would not entitle the seller to be paid," according to Ballew's suit. In other words, if VW misled its customers, VW Credit could be held equally liable. 

Filing Ballew's suit was attorney Timothy Bechtold of Missoula, Montana.

Volkswagen models with the illegal defeat devices include the diesel-powered Jetta (2009-2015), Beetle (2009-2015), Golf (2009-2015) and Passat (2014-2015), as well as the 2015 Audi A3.

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States oppose pre-dispute arbitration clauses for nursing homes

Sixteen attorneys general claim these provisions are unfair to vulnerable consumers

When you sign a contract to enter a long-term care facility, the document often contains what is called a pre-dispute arbitration clause.It means that ...

PhotoWhen you sign a contract to enter a long-term care facility, the document often contains what is called a pre-dispute arbitration clause.

It means that right up front, you agree to let a third party settle any dispute that might arise, rather than resorting to a lawsuit.

The attorneys general from 16 states have sent a petition to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), strongly opposing pre-dispute arbitration clauses in long-term care facility contracts.

“While arbitration can be used to resolve such disputes, the decision to do so should not be taken out of the hands of consumers prior to a conflict arising,” said Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen. “The worst time for a vulnerable person or his or her family to decide the means to resolve potential future disputes is at the time of admission to a nursing home. It is simply unfair to ask someone in that difficult and delicate circumstance to enter a binding arbitration contract.”

No time to weaken provisions

The state officials say consumer protection provisions of these contracts should be strengthened, not weakened. They contend that an individual entering a nursing home or other long-term care facility, or family members acting on their behalf, are often making a healthcare choice under stressful circumstances, making it difficult to be rational or informed when deciding the resolution of future disputes.

"Arbitration can be a preferred method of resolving disputes, but that decision should not be taken out of the hands of consumers long before a conflict is ever contemplated," said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh. "The worst time to provide a waiver of patient rights like this is when you or a loved one are going through the difficult process of entering a long-term care facility."

In their written comments, the attorneys general argued that pre-dispute binding arbitration agreements in general can be unfair to consumers, jeopardizing one of the fundamental rights of Americans – the right to be heard and seek judicial redress for our claims.

Not voluntary

“This is especially true when consumers are making the difficult decisions regarding the long-term care of loved ones,” the attorneys general wrote. “These contractual provisions may be neither voluntary nor readily understandable for most consumers.”

Connecticut and Maryland joined California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia in submitting comments to CMS.

In recent years, courts have been chipping away at arbitration clauses in all sorts of consumer contracts, in particular banking and telecommunications.

In the case of nursing homes, the attorneys general say their position is consistent with that of the American Arbitration Association, which determined in 2003 that it would not administer healthcare arbitration between patients and service providers that related to medical services unless all parties agreed to arbitration after the dispute occurred.

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Tis the season for Medicare scams

Open enrollment period brings out the hustlers

The 2015 Medicare open enrollment started Thursday. Unfortunately, the Medicare scams started long before that.Open enrollment, of course, is the perio...

PhotoThe 2015 Medicare open enrollment started Thursday. Unfortunately, the Medicare scams started long before that.

Open enrollment, of course, is the period between October 15 and December 7, when Medicare recipients can make changes to their plans. It's the time for consumers age 65 and older to assess their Medicare plans and consider various plan options.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris warns scammers take advantage of the publicity surrounding open enrollment to prey on senior citizens.

In particular, Harris says scammers are likely to call unsuspecting seniors and offer assistance in the process. Their real purpose, she says, is to steal their identities or get access to their bank accounts.

Advice

Harris's advice? Don't provide Social Security numbers or account information to callers who claim to be Medicare employees. Medicare employees will not call and request such information by phone.

At the same time, don't provide personal information to callers who claim to be calling on behalf of a doctor, hospital, or health agency. When seniors are uncertain about the identity of a caller, Harris says they should directly contact the organization in question.

And trust us on this – Medicare does not have door-to-door sales representatives. So anyone who knocks and says they work for Medicare is a fraud. Don't let these people in your home and after they leave, call the police.

Free offers

Harris also advises seniors to be wary of offers to provide free medical exams or supplies. Dishonest companies may use these offers to obtain and misuse your personal information, she says.

Another red flag is when someone purporting to provide Medicare information offers a free lunch. Remember, there is no such thing. Since federal law does not permit a free meal to be provided during the marketing of Medicare health or drug plans, anyone offering this arrangement should not be trusted.

Your fraud detector should also go off if a representative demands that billing information be provided by phone or on the web and refuse to provide any information by mail. Medicare plan representatives are not allowed to ask you for payment over the phone or web.

Finally, be on guard against high pressure or aggressive sales tactics. If this happens, do not make a decision until you have had a chance to discuss it with a trusted friend or relative who can assist you with determining what best suits your needs.

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Cheap gas = no inflation = no Social Security increase

But Medicare premiums will take a bigger bite out of many checks

The math is pretty simple. Gas prices have been lower than at any time since 2004 in much of the country lately, which is good. Well, sort of good. It's ba...

PhotoThe math is pretty simple. Gas prices have been lower than at any time since 2004 in much of the country lately, which is good. Well, sort of good. It's bad for those who work in the energy industry -- or to be more precise, those who used to.

It's also bad news for Social Security recipients, who for only the third time in 40 years will not be getting a cost-of-living increase in their monthly checks. That means 80 million retired and disabled Americans will tighten up a little on their spending, which isn't good news for the overall economy.

It's all because the Consumer Price Index (CPI) hasn't risen enough, thanks largely to lower energy costs. Yes, groceries cost more and so does rent but they don't have as much impact on the CPI.

Now, just to add a little more pain to the equation, healthcare costs continue to climb, seemingly regardless of whatever else happens, which means that the monthly Medicare tab that's taken directly out of many of those Social Security checks will increase.

Hold harmless

This is where it gets a little complicated. There is a "hold harmless" clause that protects about 70 percent of elderly Americans from any reduction in their Social Security check.

That means the increase that would normally be taken from all recipients to cover higher Medicare costs will be taken from the 30 percent not covered by the hold harmless clause. That group includes people with higher incomes, federal retirees and new Medicare enrolees (draftees would be a better term, but might not be well-received). Their premiums could rise as much as 52 percent, to about $159, even more for those with higher incomes.

It is always good to note once in a while that Medicare is compulsory. The military draft is long gone but Americans are still compelled to enroll in Medicare. Those with higher incomes wind up paying as much or more than they did for private health insurance.

It is, of course, compulsory for much the same reason that Obamacare is required for nearly everyone: it spreads the risk around. Also, if it were voluntary there are fears it would be considered a "welfare" program instead of an "entitlement" program and would be more likely to be cut in years when budget pressures are intense. Every year, in other words.  

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America's built-by-hand exotic, the Dodge Viper, runs out of gas

Production of the bodacious Bimmer-beater will end in 2017

When you think of a car being built by hand, you may think of high-end cars like the Bugatti. But what about the Dodge Viper, FCA's all-American exotic spo...

PhotoWhen you think of a car being built by hand, you may think of high-end cars like the Bugatti. But what about the Dodge Viper, FCA's all-American exotic sports car? It's built largely by hand by a crew of 80 workers at a small plant in Detroit.

But the Viper's days are numbered, according to a report in Automotive News, which quoted Fiat Chrysler's new contract with the United Auto Workers. The contract calls for ending production of the Viper in 2017.

Retailing for about $90,000, the Viper boasts a 645-hp, 8.4-liter V-10 engine that can launch it from 0-60 mph in about three seconds, roughly as fast as a Porsche 911 GT3 or a 2015 Corvette Z06. 

With a long nose, a predatory stare, and plenty of curves, the Viper is as distinctively styled as its supercar competitors but lacks the sophisticated handling of its European counterparts, in the opinion of many reviewers. It also was never quite able to displace the Chevrolet Corvette as America's in-your-face answer to the Porsche/BMW crowd.

The first Viper rolled off the line in 1992 and was updated three times before its run ended with Chrysler's bankruptcy in 2010. A new version debuted in 2013, but the higher price and a growing field of competitors conspired to keep it boxed in at the starting line. Only 760 Vipers were sold in all of 2014.

Maybe the Beach Boys should have written a song about it?

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Cost of excessive drinking hits $249 billion

Swedish researchers say a drug that normalizes dopamine levels may help problem drinkers

One new study quantifies the cost of excessive drinking while another finds that normalizing dopamine levels in the brain can reduce alcohol cravings in pr...

PhotoOne new study quantifies the cost of excessive drinking while another finds that normalizing dopamine levels in the brain can reduce alcohol cravings in problem drinkers.

In a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the cost of excessive drinking is pegged at $249 billion in 2010, or $2.05 per drink, a significant increase from $223.5 billion, or $1.90 per drink, in 2006.

Most of these costs were due to reduced workplace productivity, crime, and the cost of treating people for health problems caused by excessive drinking.

In the dopamine study, researchers said that humans who took an experimental drug that targets the dopamine system showed a marked reduction in alcohol craving. Similar results were found in rats.

Current drugs aren't very effective, partly because the U.S. population is so genetically diverse, scientists say. What works for one group of people doesn't work for others.

The study was conducted by researchers in Sweden. They said that the experimental drug helped normalize dopamine levels so that the research subjects were not as dependent on alcohol for a feeling of well-being.

It's estimated that More than 16 million adults in the U.S. have an alcohol-use disorder, and nearly 88,000 people die each year from alcohol-related causes, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Running a tab

PhotoIn the CDC study, most of the costs of excessive drinking were due to reduced workplace productivity, crime, and the cost of treating people for health problems caused by excessive drinking.

Binge drinking, defined as drinking five or more drinks on one occasion for men or four or more drinks on one occasion for women, was responsible for most of these costs (77 percent). Two of every 5 dollars of costs -- over $100 billion -- were paid by governments.

“The increase in the costs of excessive drinking from 2006 to 2010 is concerning, particularly given the severe economic recession that occurred during these years,” said Robert Brewer, M.D., M.S.P.H., head of CDC’s Alcohol Program and one of the study’s authors. “Effective prevention strategies can reduce excessive drinking and related costs in states and communities, but they are under used.”

Excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for an average of 88,000 deaths each year, including 1 in 10 deaths among working-age Americans ages 20-64.

The study, “2010 National and State Costs of Excessive Alcohol Consumption," is available here.

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Germany orders Volkswagen to recall 8.5 million diesel-powered cars

No time to waste, German Transport Ministry decrees

Tired of waiting for Volkswagen, German authorities have rejected VW's proposal for voluntary repairs and ordered the automaker to get its recall of 8.5 mi...

PhotoTired of waiting for Volkswagen, German authorities have rejected VW's proposal for voluntary repairs and ordered the automaker to get its recall of 8.5 million diesel-powered cars into gear.

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency is waiting for VW to propose a remedy. The EPA will then study the proposed remedy to determine whether it is likely to work, a process that could stretch well into 2016.

The Federal Trade Commission has also opened an investigation into the deception, joining the Justice Department and the EPA, agency spokesman Justin Cole confirmed yesterday. At issue, presumably, are VW's advertisements touting its "clean" diesels. 

It was researchers in the United States who discovered that VW had rigged a "cut-out" that turned off much of the pollution control equipment on its diesel cars except when they are being inspected, allowing the cars to emit as much as 40 times the allowed amount of pollutants.

But the number of cars involved in the U.S. is relatively small, fewer than half a million. In Germany, by contrast, the illegal device is found on more than 8.5 million cars. Today's recall affects 2.4 million of them. It came after German Transport Ministry officials rejected VW's proposed fix.

A huge embarrassment

In the U.S., the scandal is a huge embarrassment for Volkswagen that many analysts say could permanently harm its brand but is not regarded as a national disgrace or a potential economic or environmental disaster.

In Germany, by contrast, the number of cars is not only much greater, but the importance of VW to the nation's economy is hard to overstate. German authorities, fearing that their entire auto industry could be harmed by the scandal, are increasingly impatient and determined to begin implementing a solution.

The recall ordered by the government will be much more expensive for VW since it requires the company to speed up the process and devote more time, money, and personnel to designing and implementeing a fix.

Under today's order, Volkswagen must share technical details of its solution with the government by mid-November and begin recalling cars in January. The government will test the recalled vehicles to be sure the repairs are successful.

For the sake of customers and the image of the automobile, “we will clear up what happened at Volkswagen,” Enak Ferlemann, state secretary in Germany’s Transport Ministry, said in a speech in the lower house of parliament, Bloomberg Business reported. “Germany will stay the No. 1 auto country.”

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Amazon releases 2015 holiday toy list

Movie characters and retro toys expected to be hot items

What's going to be the hot toy this holiday season? Amazon.com says it's hard to narrow it down to one or two items. The online retailer has released its h...

PhotoWhat's going to be the hot toy this holiday season? Amazon.com says it's hard to narrow it down to one or two items. The online retailer has released its holiday toy list, with hundreds of items covering a wide range of interests.

Instead of individual toys, Amazon has recognized several trends. The first centers on toys in the STEM category.

Since young people are being encouraged to explore careers relating to science, technology, engineering, and math, toy companies are providing toys that may get kids excited about learning. Earlier this year, Amazon said it launched a STEM Toys & Games Store which features the Meccano Mecca Noid G15 KS, the Thames & Kosmos Remote-Control Machines: Space Explorers Science Kit, and many more STEM products.

Hollywood influence

There will also be plenty of toys connected to popular movies. Products include the Star Wars Jedi Master Yoda Toy and Play-Doh Star Wars Millennium Falcon, which Amazon says are already big hits with customers.

In addition, the summer blockbuster movie Jurassic World and holiday release of Disney’s Good Dinosaur are expected to stoke interest in dinosaur toys like the Playskool Heroes Jurassic World Dino Tracker and WowWee MiP Robot Miposaur.

Kids might seem completely uninterested in their parents' childhoods, but Amazon says it knows better. It's predicting a line of retro-themed toys will be hot this season.

The company says it expects to sell classic arts and crafts kits like the Spirograph Deluxe Kit and ride-ons like the Radio Flyer Deluxe Steer and Stroll Trike, if not for kids then maybe for a few parents.

“We are super excited about the products featured on our Holiday Toy List this year, from popular STEM toys that educate and inspire the young scientist to our favorite movie characters that ignite the imagination in your aspiring actor or author,” said Eva Lorenz, Category Leader of Toys & Games for Amazon.com. “The Holiday Toy List, which now features Amazon Wish List functionality and even more editorial content, makes shopping easier for parents and gift-givers so they can spend more time with their loved ones during the busy holiday season.”

Sales expected to rise

While the toys are waiting, it remains to be seen just how many end up under the tree this year. Retail sales have hit a sluggish patch lately, as consumers have been saving, not spending, the money they are saving on gasoline.

Maybe they're saving up for a Christmas shopping spree. Then again, maybe not.

In its latest forecast, the National Retail Federation said it expects sales in November and December to rise a modest 3.7% over last year. While that's significantly higher than the 10-year average of 2.5%, it doesn't keep pace with 2014, when sales were up 4.1%.

The news is better for online retailers like Amazon, however. The Federation forecasts online sales to increase between 6% and 8% to as much as $105 billion.

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Study finds dietary supplements lead to 20,000 hospital visits each year

But prescription drugs cause 30 times as many problems

A new study finds dietary supplements lead to more than 20,000 emergency room visits a year. That sounds like a lot, but the supplement industry notes that...

PhotoA new study finds dietary supplements lead to more than 20,000 emergency room visits a year. That sounds like a lot, but the supplement industry notes that prescription drugs account for 30 times as many problems.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that young people were more likely to have problems than seniors, who tend to run into trouble with prescription drugs.

Cardiovascular problems were the most common complaint and were often linked to supplements taken for weight loss and extra energy.

Industry critics say the study shows the need for stronger regulation of supplements. The supplement industry says that considering half the American population takes supplements regularly, 20,000 incidents isn't very significant.

The study was conducted by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers tracked E.R. visits at a large network of hospitals over a ten-year period.

They found that about 10 percent of the visits resulted in admission to the hospital. Injuries included allergic reactions, nausea, vomiting, and cardiovascular symptoms.

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Study finds student loan debt a drag on entrepreneurship

Debt burden keeps would-be business owners from taking a shot

Photo © highwaystarz - FotoliaNothing is more exciting than starting a new business. And nothing is as important to the economy as a constant stream ...

Photo
Photo © highwaystarz - Fotolia

Nothing is more exciting than starting a new business. And nothing is as important to the economy as a constant stream of new start-ups. After all, it's small businesses which feed the economy and generate the majority of jobs.

But the lines have crossed lately -- more businesses disappeared than were formed in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the nearly 30 years before that, the U.S. consistently averaged a surplus of almost 120,000 more business births than deaths each year.

But from 2008 to 2011, an average of 420,000 businesses were born annually nationwide, while an average of 450,000 per year were dying. The deaths of businesses during this time outnumbered the births of businesses.

PhotoThings improved a little bit in 2012 and 2013, but it is a far cry from the average of 120,000 new businesses created each year from 1977 to 2007.

To make matters worse, the country can't look to people coming out of college to reverse this trend because too many of them are strapped by student loan debt. Results of the 2015 Gallup-Purdue Index -- a study of more than 30,000 college graduates in the U.S. -- provide a worrisome picture of the relationship between student loan debt and the likelihood of graduates starting their own businesses, according to Gallup analyst Brandon Busteed.

Among those who graduated between 2006 and 2015, 63% left college with some amount of student loan debt. Of those, 19% say they have delayed starting a business because of their loan debt. That percentage rises to 25% for graduates who left with more than $25,000 in student loan debt, Gallup found.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 16.9 million bachelor's degrees were conferred in the U.S. over the past 10 years -- a time frame that mirrors Gallup-Purdue Index analysis of recent graduates between 2006 and 2015.

This translates to more than two million graduates saying they have delayed starting a business because of their student loan debt. If even a quarter of them had done so, we would quickly recoup our average surplus of 120,000 new businesses annually, Busteed said.

As colleges and universities ramp up entrepreneurship programs, and as the U.S. economy struggles to achieve higher growth rates, this data provides renewed motivation to do everything possible to make college more affordable, Busteed concluded.

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Repossessed homes jump 66% in third quarter

But despite the headline, the housing market appears to be on the mend

Foreclosure activity in the third quarter rose 3% from 2014, according to foreclosure marketing website RealtyTrac. Most of that activity came in the form ...

PhotoForeclosure activity in the third quarter rose 3% from 2014, according to foreclosure marketing website RealtyTrac. Most of that activity came in the form of bank repossessions, which spiked 66% year-over-year.

On the surface that might look like trouble, but it probably isn't. The increased activity isn't caused by new problems in the housing market but is a hangover from the housing crises.

Homes lost by people three to five years ago, many of them vacant for years, are finally being seized and put on the market. According to RealtyTrac, here is the key statistic:

A total of 133,811 U.S. properties started the foreclosure process in the third quarter, down 12% from the previous quarter and down 14% from a year ago to the lowest level since the third quarter of 2005.

Back to normal

In other words, we are very close to getting back to normal when it comes to homeowners being able to manage their mortgage payments.

“The widespread rise in foreclosure activity in the third quarter compared to a year ago is the result of two starkly different trends taking place,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac. “In states such as New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York, a flood of deferred distress from the last housing crisis is finally spilling over the legislative and legal dams that have held back some foreclosure activity for years. On the other hand, in states such as Texas, Michigan and Washington, the third quarter increases are a sign that the foreclosure market has settled into a normalized pattern close to or even below pre-crisis levels, and in those states the overall housing market should easily absorb the additional foreclosure activity with little impact on home values.”

But in states where there is a flood of distressed homes finally hitting Multiple Listings, there should be a significant impact on the housing market – good for buyers, not so good for sellers.

When foreclosed homes are finally put up for sale, they have often sat empty for years. There may be cosmetic and even structural degradation. That tends to pull down its asking price as well as surrounding property values.

However, it can be a great benefit for buyers. It not only provides a lower entry price into the market, it vastly increases the supply of homes they have to choose from.

Most-affected states

Here are some markets that may be most affected:

  • New Jersey: Foreclosure activity was up 27%, boosting the state’s foreclosure rate to the nation’s highest. One in every 171 housing units received a foreclosure filing during the quarter — more than twice the national average. Most of the activity was centered in Atlantic City.
  • Florida: Foreclosure activity dropped 17% from a year ago, but the state still posted the nation’s second highest foreclosure rate. One in every 186 housing units had a foreclosure filing. Data suggests that the Florida housing market is on the mend.
  • Nevada: Foreclosure activity jumped 13%, with the third highest foreclosure rate in the nation. One in every 194 housing units had a foreclosure filing. But like Florida, the trend is moving in the right direction. Foreclosure stats dropped 14%.
  • Maryland: Foreclosure activity was down year-over-year, but the state has a large share of repossessed homes finally hitting the market.

“We are anticipating a continued slowdown in foreclosure activity across the state in the fourth quarter,” said Michael Mahon, president at HER Realtors, covering the Cincinnati, Dayton, and Columbus markets in Ohio. “While the lower number of foreclosures is a good reflection of the growing economy and jobs across Ohio, less foreclosure activity will help lender servicers to provide quicker action on pending foreclosure accounts into their REO portfolios.”

A shortage of homes for sale in many markets has distorted prices, artificially boosting home prices. In regions where repossessed homes are finally hitting the market, prices could moderate significantly.

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Too many young people have elevated blood pressure

Scientists think too much time online isn't helping

High blood pressure was once just a concern for people entering their middle-aged years. Now, with an epidemic of obesity and increasing cases of diabetes,...

PhotoHigh blood pressure was once just a concern for people entering their middle-aged years. Now, with an epidemic of obesity and increasing cases of diabetes, it's a problem for young people too.

A recent federal study determined that having even slightly elevated blood pressure when you are young can lead to serious heart problems in middle age.

Persistently elevated blood pressure, or hypertension, is one that tops 140/90, a reading that measures the force of pressure in the heart as it contracts and as it relaxes between contractions. Hypertension has been long implicated as a risk factor in a range of cardiovascular diseases.

But the recent study suggests that pressure just below that threshold -- or high normal pressure -- begins to fuel heart damage in people as young as 20 and can lead to changes in heart muscle function in as little as 25 years.

One in 25 teens

According to the Nemours Foundation, a non-profit children's health organization, about one in 25 teenagers has elevated blood pressure. The foundation says there can be many reasons, but most have to do with an unhealthy lifestyle – a bad diet, excess weight, stress, and too little physical activity.

One risk factor for high blood pressure in teens may be spending hours each day on the Internet.

Researchers at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit discovered teens who spend at least 14 hours a week on the Internet had an increased risk of elevated blood pressure. When they examined 134 teens who fit the category of heavy Internet users, 26 of them had higher than normal blood pressure.

These findings add to other research that seems to suggest an association between heavy Internet use and a number of health risks like addiction, anxiety, depression, obesity, and social isolation.

Dial it back

Andrea Cassidy-Bushrow, the study’s lead author, says the take-home message for teens and parents is moderation.

“Using the Internet is part of our daily life but it shouldn’t consume us,” she said. “In our study, teens considered heavy Internet users were on the Internet an average of 25 hours a week.”

Cassidy-Bushrow urges young people to take regular breaks from their computer or smartphone and engage in some form of physical activity. She also recommends parents place limits on their children’s’ time at home on the Internet.

“I think two hours a day, five days a week is good rule of thumb,” she said.

The study estimates teens spend an average of 15 hours a week online, either at school or at home. Forty-three percent of heavy Internet users were considered overweight compared to 26% of light Internet users.

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Feds fight back against effort to erase student debt

Forgiving student loans could cause dire economic consequences, government argues

Democratic candidates have been competing to see who can come up with the best plan to help relieve those struggling under the burden of huge student debts...

PhotoDemocratic candidates have been competing to see who can come up with the best plan to help relieve those struggling under the burden of huge student debts but, off the campaign trail, it's a different story as the Department of Education fights back against attempts to loosen bankruptcy standards for student debt holders.

Currently, student debt cannot be forgiven under bankruptcy laws and the government wants to keep it that way.

The Education Department's lawyers yesterday intervened in the case of Robert Murphy, the unemployed 65-year-old who for three years has been trying to get out from under $246,500 in loans he took out to finance college education for his three children, who are now self-sustaining adults.

Murphy says he has been unable to find a job and, even if he could, he would have to work the rest of his life to make even a dent in the money he owes the government.

Murphy says his case fits the definition of "undue hardship," which is the criterion for releasing students -- or, in Murphy's case, their parents -- from student debt. But the government disagrees. Education Department lawyers say the "fiscal stability of the loan program" could be imperiled if large numbers of students and their parents were released from their debts.

Readers responding to an earlier story on Murphy's case were divided in their opinions, with many saying Murphy should have known what he was getting into.

"How about his worthless children pay their own loans back? He raised a bunch of greedy kids, and now he is paying for it," said Hutch Hutchison. "Maybe they should have taken a year or two off after high school and saved some money for college? And now you want the loans forgiven? Who is going to pay that lost money? You and I."

Others, like Pam Lara were sympathetic.

"The Parent Plus loans are driving seniors into poverty. All we wanted was for our children to have a good education," she said. "I hope this gentleman wins and opens the door for the rest of the parents who are now seniors and only have their Social Security checks to live on."

Many readers said the banking industry could afford to write off the loans. In fact, the loans are financed not by banks but by the federal government.

Dire consequences

Student loans now total $1.2 trillion -- more than any form of consumer debt other than home mortgages. Some 7.5 million borrowers are already severely behind in repaying their loans. Wholesale defections would have dire consequences for the economy, the government argues.

Lower courts have upheld the government's position, and the case is now being heard by the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

In their filing, Education Department lawyers had scant sympathy for Murphy's plight. He has a master's degree and was previously president of a manufacturing company and should be able to find a job that would enable him to pay back at least some of what he owes, they argued.

“That is part of the bargain that parents strike when they take out loans later in their work life,” the government lawyers said.

The National Consumer Law Center earlier filed a brief with the appeals court saying that many consumers face "a lifetime of crushing debt" because of student loans.

"A finding about whether a debtor’s hardship is likely to persist should be based on hard facts, not conjecture and unsubstantiated optimism," the NCLC said.

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Sales down, debit card fraud up at Walmart

What's the best way to safeguard your debit card? Don't have one

For years, Walmart used "Watch out for falling prices" as its slogan, but today it's Walmart's stock price that's plunging, down 9.9 percent at midday as t...

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Lawsuit seeks immediate buyback of VW diesels in California

Lawyers argue that VW violated California's emissions laws by selling noncomplying cars

The latest lawsuit in the Volkswagen dirty diesel scandal seeks an immediate buyback of "clean" TDI diesels sold in California, arguing that the cars viola...

PhotoThe latest lawsuit in the Volkswagen dirty diesel scandal seeks an immediate buyback of "clean" TDI diesels sold in California, arguing that the cars violate California's strict emissions laws.

The lawsuit follows Congressional testimony by VW executives who said the firm won't begin to recall its polluting diesels until 2016, and that the recall process could take a year or more.

“In a state where environmental protection is paramount, consumers in California have suffered greatly from VW's dirty diesels and its deception,” said Steve Berman, managing partner of the Seattle law firm Hagens Berman. “We believe California owners should not have to choose between either parking their cars and walking, or driving them and spewing illegal and dangerous compounds into the environment. They should not have to wait years or even months for Volkswagen to get around to fixing this.”

The lawsuit states that the tainted vehicles violate California law because by design, they were never intended to pass the state's emissions requirements and instead employed a defeat device which, during emissions tests, turns on full emissions controls -- but only during the test.

Warranty breached

“Under California’s stringent automobile emissions control laws, each vehicle purchased in the state must as a matter of law come with an express manufacturer’s warranty that the vehicle was ‘[d]esigned, built, and equipped so as to conform with all applicable regulations adopted by the Air Resources Board,’ the suit states. “Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. (“VW”) breached this express warranty with respect to each California Vehicle.”

According to the suit, “Under applicable California express warranty law, VW must ‘promptly’ offer to accept the return of non-conforming vehicles and to provide replacement vehicles or restitution of the purchase price (among other remedies) unless it can make them ‘conform to the applicable express warranties after a reasonable number of attempts.’”

The suit further alleges that Volkswagen admits it cannot presently make the required repairs and its own timetable would have owners wait months, or even years for a suitable repair.

The suit covers these diesel VWs:

  • Jetta (model years 2009 – 2015),
  • Beetle (model years 2009 – 2015),
  • Audi A3 (model years 2009 – 2015),
  • Golf (model years 2009 – 2015) and
  • Passat (model years 2014 – 2015).

Hagens Berman's suit quotes VW owners who feel that Volkswagen has committed consumer fraud, leaving them with either an illegally polluting car, or what will become a recalled, underperforming vehicle whose value has sharply declined.

Joining Hagens Berman in the suit is business litigation firm Quinn Emanuel.

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Researchers find new contributor to Great Recession

Damage to corporate bond market did long-term damage

No doubt there will be many issues in the 2016 presidential election – from immigration to private email servers.But researchers at the University of H...

PhotoNo doubt there will be many issues in the 2016 presidential election – from immigration to private email servers.

But researchers at the University of Houston and Georgia State Universitysuggest one more – the role of corporate bond sales in the Great Recession. The effects of that economic calamity, they say, are still being felt and need to be better understood so they can be avoided in the future.

The general view is that the collapse of the subprime housing market created the severe recession. While it played a major role, the researchers in their paper – "Spreading the Fire: Investment and Product Market Effects of Corporate Bond Fire Sales" – find another culprit.

University of Houston finance professor Praveen Kumar says that a central question that should be asked is why the housing bubble spread to the broader economy, sparking corporate cutbacks and job losses.

Wall Street sinking Main Street

"There is a widespread view that financial market shocks were transmitted to the real sector - the 'Wall Street sinking the Main Street' syndrome," he and Georgia State's Hadiye Aslan wrote. "In particular, shocks in the asset-backed commercial paper market led to substantial losses on the balance sheets of banks, forcing them to sell assets in 'fire sales,' contract their lending firms, and force the economy into a prolonged recession.”

There was nothing wrong with the corporate bonds that got dumped during the financial crisis, the authors write. It's actually that fact that led to the fire sale.

Because banks were holding so many “toxic” assets they couldn't sell at any price, they were forced to sell their more valuable assets to raise money. And the more commercial paper put up for sale, the lower the price sank.

The study found institutional holders of corporate bonds - primarily insurance companies and mutual fund firms – were also heavily invested in risky mortgage securities.

Credit freeze

As they dumped their good assets and saturated the commercial bond market, even strong companies were unable to issue additional bonds to finance capital expenditures. At one point, even GE could find no buyers for its bonds.

When major companies couldn't raise capital, they suspended activity and slashed their workforce. At that point, an ordinary recession became the Great Recession.

The research team says capital expenditures of affected firms dropped by 14.5% while research and development dropped by 17.2%.

"This highlights how integrated the financial markets are with the rest of the economy," Kumar said. "One financial market sneezes, and the rest of the economy catches pneumonia. This goes far beyond Wall Street."

The research already has captured the attention of advocates for additional reform of the nation's financial markets. Kumar predicts the issue of Wall Street risk taking, and how it could threaten the overall economy, will heat up as the 2016 presidential campaign progresses.

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Uber launches its quick-courier service, Uber Rush

Think of it as a faster, more local version of FedEx or UPS

The next time you order something from a local business, it may be an Uber driver who delivers it. That's because Uber Rush starts today. It's a courier se...

PhotoThe next time you order something from a local business, it may be an Uber driver who delivers it. That's because Uber Rush starts today. It's a courier service that works just the way Uber does -- a business summons a courier who picks up and delivers your package, sandwich, or document.

Uber Rush has been operating in test mode for several months but goes into full commercial operation today in New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago, spreading to other cities over the next few months.

What's different about Uber Rush is that it is strictly on-demand, just like the rest of Uber. Restaurants may still have their own delivery crew, but when they get swamped with orders, they can use Rush to handle the excess.

Likewise, businesses that don't normally deliver can call Uber Rush in emergencies -- when a loyal customer leaves an expensive smartphone behind or when they need to get a replacement part across town with no notice, for example.

It's sort of a local FedEx on speed.

This, of course, is what the rest of Uber's all about -- on-demand service that costs nothing except when you use it. You don't have to keep a chauffeur on staff to get a ride to the airport.

There's no charge to businesses to sign up. Deliveries cost $5 to $7, with the driver getting 75% to 80% of that.

Unlike its nearest competitor, Postmates, Uber doesn't take orders directly from consumers. Postmates displays lists of restaurants and other businesses, while Uber takes orders only from businesses. Consumers won't necessarily know that Uber Rush is delivering their order until they get an email that shows the tracking information, just as the Uber app now lets you track your driver as he approaches.

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Calcium supplements may not lower risk of kidney stones

Researchers say it's better to get your calcium from food

Getting plenty of calcium in your diet is a good thing – particularly for your kidneys. So it was something of a surprise when health researchers determine...

PhotoGetting plenty of calcium in your diet is a good thing – particularly for your kidneys. So it was something of a surprise when health researchers determined that taking calcium supplements might actually have the opposite effect.

Researcher Christopher Loftus of the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine and his colleagues reviewed the 24-hour urine collections and CT imaging scans from patients at their institution who had a history of kidney stones.

More than 6,000 patients had a history of kidney stones by imaging scans, a third of whom had 24-hour urine collections before and after starting calcium supplements. A total of 1486 patients were supplemented with calcium, 417 with vitamin D only, and 158 with no supplementation.

The patients who took calcium supplements had lower total calcium and oxalate – components of kidney stones – in their urine. Blood levels were unaffected. That's the good news.

Faster kidney stone growth

However, these patients also had a faster rate of kidney stone growth. Researchers believe this suggests that the mechanism of calcium supplementation on stone formation may not be so clear-cut.

Vitamin D supplements appeared to have better results. Those subjects had less urinary calcium excretion, as well as less stone growth.

Bottom line? Vitamin D supplements might help reduce the risk of stone formation. As for calcium, the research team concludes it is preferable to get it from food, especially if you are prone to developing kidney stones.

“While taking supplemental calcium has associated positive effects, these results suggest that supplemental, as compared with dietary, calcium may worsen stone disease for patients who are known to form kidney stones,” said Loftus.

Dairy products and green leafy vegetables are good food sources of the mineral.

Skeptical

Past research has questioned the effectiveness of calcium supplements. In 2013, the U.S. Prevention Services Task Force recommended that postmenopausal women avoid calcium and vitamin D supplements, saying it could find little evidence that they protected against broken bones.

But the human body needs calcium, especially to build and maintain strong bones. Your heart, muscles, and nerves also need calcium to function properly.

Some studies suggest that calcium, along with vitamin D, may have benefits beyond bone health: perhaps protecting against cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. But the Mayo Clinic  says evidence about such health benefits is not definitive.

Men and women have different calcium needs, which also vary by age. Before taking supplements, you should discuss it with your healthcare provider since overloading on calcium can cause other types of health problems.

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A new breakthrough with solar energy cells could make them cheaper and more effective

The research could be a huge step forward for clean energy sources

A new breakthrough in solar energy has the potential to make it cheaper and more viable as a source of renewable energy, according to researchers at Lund U...

Photo

A new breakthrough in solar energy has the potential to make it cheaper and more viable as a source of renewable energy, according to researchers at Lund University and Uppsala University in Sweden.

Historically, developing solar energy cells was a fairly expensive process because they needed to use an expensive metal called ruthenium in order to adequately capture sunlight and convert it into usable energy. Unfortunately, attempting to replace this expensive material with a more usable one proved to be a challenge.

"Many researchers have tried to replace ruthenium with iron, but without success. All previous attempts have resulted in molecules that convert light energy into heat instead of electrons, which is required for solar cells to generate electricity," said Villy Sundström, Professor of Chemical Physics at Lund University.

Luckily, researchers have found a way around using ruthenium. The technique behind the breakthrough involves using nanostructured titanium dioxide and a dye that can be applied to solar energy cells to capture and convert energy without losing it through heat.

These new materials will finally allow scientists to use iron and lower the cost of making the power cells. This will undoubtedly lower the cost of production, which is a huge step towards making solar energy more marketable.

“The advantage of using iron is that it is a common element in nature. It can provide inexpensive and environmentally friendly applications of solar energy in the future,” said Kenneth Wärnmark, Professor of Organic Chemistry at Lund University.

In addition to furthering research on solar energy, the breakthrough also holds promise for solar fuels – an area of development wherein the sun is used to turn water and carbon dioxide into energy-rich molecules. The full study has been published in Nature Chemistry

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Housing affordability depends on more than just price

Location and income are important factors

When real estate economists talk about housing affordability, they tend to focus on home prices and interest rates.While those are important, they aren...

PhotoWhen real estate economists talk about housing affordability, they tend to focus on home prices and interest rates.

While those are important, they aren't the only factors that determine whether a home is affordable. Another big consideration is the purchaser's income.

Researchers at real estate site Zillow conducted an interesting research project. They selected several occupational categories for which there is data on average salaries and compared that with home prices in various housing markets. The results were surprising.

Tale of two teachers

They found that teachers would have an easier time finding an affordable home in parts of California – known for pricey real estate – than in Salt Lake City. The reason? Teachers in California make a lot more money than teachers in Utah.

In Bakersfield, Calif., the median home value is $166,300, while the average teacher's salary is $61,000 a year. Since consumers in Bakersfield usually spend 22% of their income on a house payment, a Bakersfield teacher could afford a $310,000 home. In fact, currently 86% of the homes on the market would be in their price range.

It's a much different story in Salt Lake City, where the average teacher earns $38,000 a year and people historically spend the same share – 22% – of their incomes on a mortgage payment. There, teachers could buy a $195,000 home – meaning only about a quarter of the homes on the Salt Lake City market would fall within their budget.

The Midwest isn't always a bargain

That's why homes in the middle of the country aren't the bargains they appear to be. Home prices in the Midwest are less than comparable houses on either coast, but salaries are generally lower too.

"There's a lot more to home buying affordability than just the cost of the home. Incomes vary a lot across the country – even within the same occupation," said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Svenja Gudell. "There's also the question of how much of your paycheck you're willing to put toward a house payment, and finally, whether you can find a home in your price range.”

Gudell says many potential buyers are doing all the right things before buying a home – saving a healthy down payment, organizing finances, and qualifying for a loan – only to find there are few homes available within their budget and close to their job.

According to Zillow's research, if you are a lawyer or judge you could afford almost every home on the market in Buffalo or Syracuse, N.Y. But don't move to Stockton, Calif., because 34% of homes would be out of your price range.

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Wholesale prices drop in September

Retail sales barely rise

If someone could “get it for you wholesale” last month, you got a pretty good deal. The Department of Labor reports its Producer Price Index (PPI) for fina...

PhotoIf someone could “get it for you wholesale” last month, you got a pretty good deal. The Department of Labor reports its Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand declined 0.5% in September.

The index for final demand goods moved down 1.2% for the month, the largest decrease since a 1.9% drop in January.

What does that mean, exactly? It means the cost of producing goods was lower, with not a hint of inflation. It also means the Federal Reserve may hesitate once again before raising interest rates.

Lower gasoline prices

Much of the decline was centered in the energy sector, dragged down by falling gasoline prices. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says over 80% of the price decline can be traced to final demand for energy, which was down 5.9%. Final demand prices for gasoline were down 16.6%.

Wholesale prices for beef, veal, and eggs were also lower, helping to keep food prices in check. Egg prices were down from recent highs caused by the bird flu virus.

The deflationary trend also extended to the service sector. The report shows the index for final demand services fell 0.4% in September, the largest decline since falling 0.5% in February.

Almost half of the drop can be traced to prices for services outside the trade, transportation, and warehousing sectors.

Cause for concern

This is a report that may worry Fed policymakers who are trying to increase the amount if inflation in the economy. Normally, inflation is bad for consumers because it makes everything more expensive.

But the Fed wants prices to rise moderately to encourage businesses to expand and hire more people. It also makes existing debt cheaper, since it will be paid back in dollars that are worth less than when the debt was incurred.

Today's Commerce Department report on retail sales won't make Fed policymakers feel any better. In September, consumer spending rose an anemic 0.1%, largely because consumers spent less on gasoline.

Consumers pocket the savings

That, of course, could be considered a good thing as long as they spent the savings elsewhere. They didn't. The report shows other spending areas were down or flat as consumers, for the most part, pocketed their fuel savings.

Sluggish demand feeds worries that the economy is slowing down, at a time when demand is falling worldwide and commodity prices continue to move lower.

For consumers, it's something of a double-edged sword. Buying things becomes more affordable, but if you are an employee, your employer may feel the pressure.

At best, raises may be harder to come by. At worst, there could be an increasing number of pink slips.

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Ad Week: don't bet against one-week fantasy enterprises

Madison Avenue says the industry is too big to fail

As we reported last week, the scrutiny on one-week fantasy sports enterprises has intensified amid allegations of insider trading.After New York Attorn...

PhotoAs we reported last week, the scrutiny on one-week fantasy sports enterprises has intensified amid allegations of insider trading.

After New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced he would investigate the two largest one-week fantasy enterprises, DraftKings and FanDuel, USA Today sports columnist Nate Scott predicted the scandal is “the beginning of the end” for one-week fantasy sports games, saying they're gambling that is legal only because of a loophole in the law. That loophole, he predicts, is about to be closed.

But the obituaries may be premature. AdWeek delved into the issue, since the new industry is spending record amounts of ad dollars. The publication says the experts it has consulted all agree – fantasy sports is already too big to fail.

Too big to fail

In other words, there is too much money at stake. No one is going to be willing to pull the plug on that.

"The problem is that everybody has a partnership with these companies; the media, the league, the teams – it's incredible," executive vice president/executive creative director Bob Dorfman of Baker Street Advertising, told AdWeek.

By Adweek's counting, there have been more than 60,000 network TV ads for these companies so far this year. It's hard to turn on the TV without seeing one – and the frequency has only increased with the kick-off of the NFL season.

Congressional attention

Now Congress is showing signs of getting involved. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) have asked Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairwoman Edith Ramirez to explore and implement safeguards to ensure a fair playing field for fantasy sports enthusiasts who participate in daily or weekly games.

The two lawmakers point out they aren't advocating outlawing the wildly popular games, just trying to provide some regulation.

“We believe that fantasy sports should be legal and subject to appropriate consumer and competitive protections,” Menendez and Pallone wrote in a letter to the FTC Chairwoman. “Consumers also expect companies to hold online contests in a fair, transparent manner.”

Fantasy games are not considered gambling, and in fact are embraced and encouraged by professional sports leagues, because it has been determined they are games of skill, not chance. Participants choose actual players for their fantasy teams and get points – and huge potential payouts – when their team performs well.

But critics like USA Today's Scott see it differently.

“You give someone money, and based on outcomes outside your control, you can win more money,” Scott wrote. “That is gambling.”

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Two drugs show promise in delaying Alzheimer's

Both are designed to disrupt amyloid build-up in the brain

A clinical trial is underway to determine whether a new drug that attacks beta amyloid in the brain could delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease.If it ...

PhotoA clinical trial is underway to determine whether a new drug that attacks beta amyloid in the brain could delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

If it can, scientists say it would be a breakthrough in the treatment of this disease that robs victims of their memory and ultimately causes death.

Beta amyloid is a protein that can form in the brain and previous research has suggested that when it builds up it plays a major role in the development of Alzheimer's.

The drug is a mono-clonal antibody called solanezumab, which targets excess amyloid in the brain. It is being given to subjects ages 65 to 85 who are deemed at risk for Alzheimer’s disease-related memory loss but who have not yet shown signs of the disease.

Treatment before symptoms appear

If successful, doctors might eventually use positron emission tomography (PET scans) to locate beta amyloid as it begins to form plaques in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease 10 to 20 years before they show any symptoms of the disease.

The idea is to remove that harmful protein from the brain before it can begin to build up. Researchers think it could delay memory loss by at least 10 years.

The trial is being carried out at the Nantz National Alzheimer Center at Houston Methodist Hospital.

The center was established with major financial support from NBC sportscaster Jim Nance and his wife Courtney, who have campaigned to increase funding for research and generate awareness of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the possible effects that concussions and traumatic brain injuries have on these diseases.

“It is encouraging to be able to detect excess beta amyloid with PET technology in people predisposed to Alzheimer’s and then try to lower the amyloid levels with solanezumab,” said Dr. Joseph Masdeu, principal investigator of the study.

However, Masdeu says there appears to be a point in the development of Alzheimer’s where removing beta amyloid does not reverse or stop the disease progression because too much damage has been done. That's why it is crucial to identify patients early, before they begin to display symptoms.

Approximately 1,000 adults are expected to participate in more than 60 sites, besides the Nance Center, across the United States, Canada, and Australia.

IVIG shows promise

Meanwhile, in another trial, the blood product intravenous immunoglobulin, or IVIG, was found to reduce brain atrophy and cognitive decline in patients in the early, pre-dementia phase of Alzheimer’s disease.

IVIG is extracted from the plasma of more than 1,000 blood donors and contains antibodies to amyloid. Researchers at the Sutter Institute of Medical Research designed the study to see if a course of IVIG could be a practical way to reduce the effects of Alzheimer's when administered before a patient develops dementia.

Researchers say the study showed promising results during the first year after treatment in the form of reduced brain atrophy as well as reduced development of dementia.

“This research shows some evidence that IVIG could prevent brain atrophy and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in patients who are in the beginning stages,” said Shawn Kile, M.D., Sutter Neuroscience Institute neurologist and principal investigator of the IVIG study. “My hope is that our study will lead to additional investigations of this treatment strategy so we can eventually conquer this devastating disease.”

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Verizon unveils new prepaid plan for devices

Consumers can connect a device for as little as a week at a time

Verizon has announced a change to its method of pricing prepaid wireless services, saying the new plan will be simpler for consumers.The pricing applie...

PhotoVerizon has announced a change to its method of pricing prepaid wireless services, saying the new plan will be simpler for consumers.

The pricing applies to tablets, hotspots and connected devices. Current rates apply for smartphones.

Under the new arrangement, consumers can choose from five new prepaid data plans, giving customers connectivity with no annual contract and no credit checks.

Weekly rate available

In fact, consumers can get Internet access for just a week, receiving 500MB of data for $15. Service for the month is just $5 more, giving a consumer 1GB of data for the month at a rate of $20.

There are three plans when you prepay for two months. You can get 2GB of data for $35, 5GB of data for $60 or 10GB for $100.

Customers may select the option to auto-renew their account or just purchase data when they need it.

“There is no obligation to pay every month,” Verizon said in a release. “For even more flexibility, customers can now replenish data on their devices, online at MyVerizon or by using refill cards.”

The new prepaid data device plans are available on 3G and 4G-enabled tablets, mobile broadband and connected devices.

Growing trend

The movement to prepaid service is relatively new for the major carriers, who have clung to the two-year service contract for years. Two-year contracts are now pretty much a thing of the past.

TracFone and Cricket Wireless pioneered prepaid, no-contract cellular service, finding a ready source of customers who either had less-than-stellar credit or simply didn't want to be committed for two years.

By 2013, one-third of all smartphone sales were operated on prepaid plans, a 42% jump in 12 months, according to the NPD Group.

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Amtrak opens its trains to small dogs, cats on some Northeast lines

The pilot program follows one in Illinois that has been trouble-free

Perhaps seeking a class of passengers who will,keep their tails up and not complain so much, Amtrak is now allowing small pets on some of its Northeast lin...

PhotoPerhaps seeking a class of passengers who will,keep their tails up and not complain so much, Amtrak is now allowing small pets on some of its Northeast lines. The pilot program follows a similar one in Illinois that started last year and has so far carried 200 animals without any complaints or incidents.

The Northeast program applies to trains running,from Boston to Lynchburg, Newport News and Norfolk, Va., on the Northeast Regional service and between Boston and Brunswick, Maine on the Downeaster route.

“We have listened to our passengers looking for other transportation options while traveling with their pets,” said Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman. “We are pleased to bring this pilot program to the region.”

Passengers can take one cat or small dog on trips up to seven hours. The carrier and pet combined must weigh no more than 20 pounds. Pets must be eight weeks old and have current vaccination records.,

Pets on Trains

“Expanding the Pets on Trains program in the Northeast Corridor is a victory for American pet owners and for Amtrak, which can now serve individuals and families traveling with small dogs and cats,” said Rep. Jeff Denham of California, who has been urging Amtrak to carry more pets. “This change will increase ridership and revenue for Amtrak while building on the success of the pilot program, paving the way for the future of pets on trains nationwide.”

Advance reservations are required and a surcharge of $25 will be assessed for travel. Passengers must arrive 30 minutes prior to train departure to check-in at a ticket counter and sign a pet waiver form. Amtrak routinely welcomes service animals on trains at no charge and that policy is unchanged.

This pilot program, which is initially scheduled through February 15, 2016, will be regularly reviewed for possible improvements or continuation beyond that date, Amtrak said.

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FTD settles suit challenging floral substitutions

Consumers claimed they ordered one bouquet but got another

A rose is fine but call it by another name and it may not smell as sweet, Shakespeare notwithstanding. That's the conclusion of a class action lawsuit that...

PhotoA rose is fine but call it by another name and it may not smell as sweet, Shakespeare notwithstanding. That's the conclusion of a class action lawsuit that charged FTC.com with substituting one bouquet for another.

Plaintiff Rachelle Erratchu filed the complaint in July 2015, claiming that flowers of lesser quality were substituted for two arrangements that she purchased. Her lawyers argued that FTD did not properly disclose its substitution policy, which allows florists to make substitutions when they don't have the right flowers on hand.

Erratchu claims that she would not have purchased the floral arrangements from FTD if she had known about the company’s substitution policy.

FTD denied any wrongdoing and maintains that it fully disclosed its substitution policy. The company has, however, agreed to settle the suit and rearrange its disclosure.

If you purchased a floral arrangement in California from FTD.com between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2015 involving a substitution, you could be eligible for payment from the class action settlement.

Class Members who submit a valid claim form will receive either a check for $8.50 or a $20 coupon to be used toward purchases at www.ftd.com

If you wish to exclude yourself from or object to the FTD class action settlement, you must do so no later than Nov. 3, 2015. The claim form is available at https://www.erratchuflowersettlement.com/claim/

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The laser razor slides smoothly from one crowd-funder to another

Those with excess funds should act quickly

Lots of consumers like to "invest" in new products and schemes promoted on Kickstarter, Indiegogo and other crowd-funding platforms. Professional investors...

PhotoLots of consumers like to "invest" in new products and schemes promoted on Kickstarter, Indiegogo and other crowd-funding platforms. Professional investors, wary of getting a haircut, have usually passed on the projects being promoted. But maybe you could at least get a close shave?

Something called Skarp -- which promotes itself as a laser-powered razor -- promises just that: a razor-smooth shave that doesn't involve a blade. Nothing touches your skin except a laser beam that whisks away those rascally whiskers.

Sounds too good to be true? Maybe so, but eager "investors" threw $4 million at it before it was excised from Kickstarter. It has now popped back up on Indiegogo, where it had raised nearly $86,000 by midday.

No one seems to know quite why it was razored off Kickstarter, although Business Insider suggests there may be suspicions of fraud, or at least excessive exuberance. Kickstarter requires products to have a working prototype before being promoted to investors eager to rid themselves of excess cash. There's some suspicion that Skarp may have skipped that step, according to the Business Insider report.

Skarp is the brainchild of two Swedish tinkerers who say their device will not only give you the closest shave ever but also rid landfills of all those sharp and scary old razors. Admittedly, this may not be the most pressing environmental problem the world faces but every little bit, perhaps, helps.

As for the "investment" value of the gadgets, brainstorms and notions promoted on these crowd-funding sites, it is negligible to the point of being non-existent.

Real investors do due diligence, a close examination of the bona fides of companies and their founders. They also get an equity stake in the form of stock or its equivalent. They share in the future earnings, if any. And they have certain rights, depending on the structure of the company, its place of incorporation and so forth.,

On crowd-funding sites, by contrast, about the best you can hope for is a close shave. Or a haircut.

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49 vehicles nominated as a Kelley Blue Book Best Buy

Winners will be announced next month

The 2016 model-year vehicles are arriving at dealer showrooms around the U.S., some providing better value than others.Kelley Blue Book (KBB) has sorte...

PhotoThe 2016 model-year vehicles are arriving at dealer showrooms around the U.S., some providing better value than others.

Kelley Blue Book (KBB) has sorted through the data – from prices to performance statistics – and has assembled a list of vehicles in every category it says represent the finalists in the 2016 Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Awards.

KBB said it narrowed down its lists by subjecting the new cars and trucks to head-to-head comparison testing and evaluation. The winners in each category and an overall winner will be announced in November.

Cream of the crop

The competition is designed to identify the cream of the crop of all available 2016 model-year vehicles. The finalist models are chosen on a set of criteria that identify overall vehicle quality and value, based both on proprietary KBB metrics and the evaluations of the KBB.com editorial staff.

Included in the evaluation are vehicle pricing/transaction prices, five-year cost-to-own data, which includes depreciation, insurance, maintenance, financing, fuel, fees and taxes for new cars, consumer reviews and ratings, and vehicle sales/retail sales information.

“At Kelley Blue Book, everything we do is designed to help car shoppers make smart decisions, and the Best Buy Awards program is the culmination of a wide variety of data and expert vehicle evaluation efforts throughout the company,” said Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com.

Toyota gets most nominations

A total of 49 vehicles ended up with a nomination. The nominees include 18 vehicle makes across 12 major vehicle categories. The top three vote-getters are Toyota, with eight nominations, Chevrolet with seven, and Honda with six.

In the highly competitive pick-up truck category, the finalists are the 2015 Chevrolet Colorado, 2016 Ford F-150, 2016 Nissan Titan, and 2016 Toyota Tacoma.

“While at the conclusion of the testing and evaluation period only 12 prestigious models will be deemed 2016 winners, it is a very high honor for a vehicle to be chosen as a finalist for these prominent awards,” Nerad said. “The automakers represented among this year’s finalists offer car buyers with top-notch vehicle choices.”

You'll find the complete list here.

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TV station uncovers Craigslist housing scam

Consumers paid $500 for what was supposed to be a list of clients

There are lots of ways to pick up a few extra bucks these days -- driving for Uber or Lyft, dog-walking, renting a spare room through Airbnb, just to name ...

PhotoThere are lots of ways to pick up a few extra bucks these days -- driving for Uber or Lyft, dog-walking, renting a spare room through Airbnb, just to name a few of the more popular.

So it sounds logical,you could make a few bucks as a house-sitter. Lots of consumers in the Phoenix area thought so and many of them paid $500 to get in on the deal when they read about it on Craigslist.

The ads sounded great -- you got paid to live in somebody else's house and basically had to do nothing but make sure the place didn't burn down or get carried off by bandits.

But like lots of things that sound too good to be true, it was. Consumers paid Derek Walker Bollwinkel their $500 and got nothing in exchange, according to KPHO-TV.

"He said $500 down and he gave you a list, and you could get any house you wanted that was available," Brittany Wallace, one of Bollwinkel's victims, explained to KPHO, which promptly sent out an undercover crew to check it out.

"In 14 years of doing this, I haven't had anyone that's gone out there and not gotten a house," Bollwinkel told the undercover crew, KPHO reported.

The reports drew the attention of Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who vowed:,"This office is going to do everything we can to make sure that Mr. Bollwinkel never ever does business in this town again."

"We take these crimes, these allegations, these consumer complaints very, very seriously, and we're going to do whatever we can to reach the maximum results," he continued.,

Legal action is pending.

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Attorneys general want less alcohol in Four Loko

One can of Four Loko qualifies as binge drinking by CDC standards

The attorneys general of 15 states, plus the District of Columbia, would like to see less alcohol in Four Loko, a malt beverage that they say has so much a...

PhotoThe attorneys general of 15 states, plus the District of Columbia, would like to see less alcohol in Four Loko, a malt beverage that they say has so much alcohol a single can amounts to binge drinking under federal definitions.

The AGs have written to Chicago-based beverage company Phusion Projects LLC and its officers, expressing concerns over the product’s alcohol content.

“Phusion is marketing a product that puts people at risk simply through its high alcohol content,” Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said. “We are calling on the company to lower Four Loko’s alcohol content to the industry standard of eight percent alcohol by volume.”

With a 12% alcohol concentration in a 23.5 ounce container, one can of Four Loko contains 4.7 servings of alcohol. Based on Centers for Disease Control (CDC) standards, drinking just one can of Four Loko constitutes a binge drinking episode. The CDC defines binge drinking as men drinking five and women drinking four or more alcohol servings in about two hours.

Previous warnings

Last year, Miller and 19 other attorneys general reached a settlement with Phusion to resolve allegations that the company marketed and sold Four Loko in violation of consumer protection and trade practice statutes by promoting the alcoholic beverage to minors.

Attorneys general also alleged that Phusion promoted dangerous and excessive consumption of the product, promoted the misuse of alcohol, and failed to disclose to consumers the effects and consequences of drinking alcoholic beverages combined with caffeine.

In 2010 Phusion removed caffeine from Four Loko after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned four companies, including Phusion, that caffeine added to their malt alcoholic beverages was an “unsafe food additive” and threatened further legal action.

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"Black" name conjures image of bigger, more violent man

Researcher says he's "disgusted by his own data"

More than a decade ago, a major study found that people with stereotypically black names were 50 percent less likely to get callbacks from prospective empl...

PhotoMore than a decade ago, a major study found that people with stereotypically black names were 50 percent less likely to get callbacks from prospective employers.

Have things changed? Not according to a new UCLA study, which finds that a stereotypically black name conjures up a mental image of a person who is bigger, more violent and of a lower social status than someone with a typically "white" name.

“I’ve never been so disgusted by my own data,” said lead author Colin Holbrook, a research scientist in the UCLA anthropology department. “The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name.”

Jamal vs. Connor

During one version of the study, the mostly white participants, aged 18 to mid-70s, from all over the United States and self-identifying as slightly left of center politically, read one of two nearly identical vignettes.

One featured a man named Jamal, DeShawn or Darnell, and the other featured Connor, Wyatt or Garrett.

In that version, participants read a vignette with one of the two types of names. A control group read a,“neutral” vignette. The other groups read the same vignette with one of two additions: a “successful” scenario in which the character was a college graduate and successful business owner, or a “threatening” scenario in which the character had been convicted of aggravated assault.

In all versions of the study, participants were asked their intuitive impression of the character’s height, build, status, aggressiveness and other factors.

“In the ‘successful’ scenario, the white and black characters are similarly perceived,” Holbrook said. “And when the character is convicted of assault, they again have similar outcomes, no matter their name. But people imagine the neutral black character as similar in size to the white criminal character, and we know that this shift in size is a proxy for how violent and aggressive they implicitly perceive the person to be. It’s quite disturbing.”

Participants rated each character on height, muscularity and size, and the composite score for all three characteristics was statistically equivalent for the “black neutral” character and the “white criminal” character.

Socio-economic status

Not only did participants envision the characters with black-sounding names as larger, even though the actual average height of black and white men in the United States is the same, but the researchers also found that size and status were linked in opposite ways depending on the assumed race of the characters.

The larger the participants imagined the characters with “black”-sounding names, the lower they envisioned their financial success, social influence and respect in their community. Conversely, the larger they pictured those with “white”-sounding names, the greater they envisioned their status, said co-author and UCLA anthropology professor Daniel Fessler, director of the,UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture.

“In essence, the brain’s representational system has a toggle switch, such that size can be used to represent either threat or status,” Fessler said. “However, apparently because stereotypes of black men as dangerous are deeply entrenched, it is very difficult for our participants to flip this switch when thinking about black men. For study participants evaluating black protagonists, dangerous equals big and big equals dangerous, period.”

Participants would be dismayed

“I think our study participants, who were overall on the liberal end of the spectrum, would be dismayed to know this about themselves,” Holbrook said. “This study shows that, even among people who understand that racism is still very real, it’s important for them to acknowledge the possibility that they have not only prejudicial but really inaccurate stereotypes in their heads.”

The study was published,in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

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TF Supplements recalls “sexual enhancement” pills

The products contain ingredients that make them unapproved new drugs

TF Supplements of Houston, Texas, is recalling RHINO 7 3000 capsules packaged in a bottle containing six capsules UPC: 616453150126 ALL LOT NUMBERS WITHIN ...

PhotoTF Supplements of Houston, Texas, is recalling RHINO 7 3000 capsules packaged in a bottle containing six capsules UPC: 616453150126 ALL LOT NUMBERS WITHIN EXPIRY, and Rhino 7 Platinum 3000 Capsules packaged in a single (1) blister packs hang card count UPC: 700729253748 ALL LOT NUMBERS WITHIN EXPIRY.

 

Lot numbers are on the back top right of the (1) count and on the side of the (6) count bottle.

 

The products contain undeclared desmethyl carbondenafil and dapoxetine.

 

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

 

The company says it has received a report of one adverse event associated with these products to date.

 

These products are marketed as dietary supplements for sexual enhancement and packaged in (6) count bottle and count hanging card and distributed to consumers nationwide via the company website tfsupplements.com.

 

Customers are being notified of the recall by e-mail.

 

Consumers who purchased the recalled products should stop using them immediately and may return them to:

 

TF Supplements

6666 Gulf Freeway

Houston, TX 77087

 

 

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Court case could free bankruptcy courts to forgive some student debts

The result could be a financial disaster for loan underwriters -- i.e., taxpayers

Photo (c) FotoliaA Boston federal appeals court is considering a case that could change the way bankruptcy courts handle student debt. Currently, it ...

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Photo (c) Fotolia

A Boston federal appeals court is considering a case that could change the way bankruptcy courts handle student debt. Currently, it is nearly impossible to escape from student debt through bankruptcy, but a 65-year-old man is arguing that forcing him to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt would constitute an undue hardship.

If the appeal is successful, it could be a financial disaster for the U.S. Education Department and Educational Credit Management Corp. (ECMC), a loan servicer that has an exclusive contract to service many federally underwritten student loans. 

"Undue hardship" is the magic phrase. Back in the 1970s, Congress added new rules to the bankruptcy code, providing that student debt could not be discharged in bankruptcy like other debts unless paying it would present an undue hardship.

Unfortunately, lawmakers didn't define "undue hardship," giving Robert Murphy an opening. Murphy, who is not a lawyer, has been representing himself in court, making an argument that many experienced lawyers would probably have thought didn't stand a chance.

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Source: ECMC.org

Murphy's story

Murphy took out several Parent PLUS student loans, backed by the U.S. Education Department, between 2001 and 2007 to help his children get through college. But then, he lost his job as president of a manufacturing company and says he has been unable to find a similar job becauase of his age, while being turned down for lesser positions because he is overqualified.

The result is that at the age of 65, Murphy lives on his wife's $15,000 yearly salary as a teacher's aide and faces an ever-increasing mountain of debt, currently $246,500. His home has been foreclosed and his retirement savings are gone, he says.

Murphy estimates that even if he found a $50,000-a-year job and worked until he was 77, the loans would grow to $500,000.

This, he says, fits the definition of undue hardship. 

A scary prospect 

While many borrowers are no doubt rooting for Murphy, it could be a financial disaster for the U.S. government if he succeeds. After all, student loans now total $1.2 trillion -- more than any form of consumer debt other than home mortgages. Some 7.5 million borrowers are already severely behind in repaying their loans. Opening the door to bankruptcy forgiveness would have wide-ranging repercussions.

The solvency of the student loan program is not just a point of intellectual interest. In May 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Rya Zobel upheld the bankruptcy court's denial of Murphy's case, saying Murphy "has a steep hill to climb."

Judge Zobel noted that bankruptcy law "prioritizes the continued financial integrity of the federal student loan programs over the debtor's ability to make a fresh start" and said that, therefore, discharges for undue burden are granted in only "truly exceptional circumstances." 

She noted that Murphy had a master's degree and a record of high-level employment and that, although he was unable to pay the debt comfortably, his children were grown and self-supporting, his wife was employed and it was possible that he would find employment at some point. 

ECMC's lawyers argued that just because one is nearing retirement is no reason to forgive his legal obligations. 

Lifetime of crushing debt

Weighiing in on Murphy's behalf is the National Consumer Law Center, which filed an amicus brief with the appeals court saying that many of those seeking discharge of their student debts face long-term consequences much more severe than is often the case with other consumer debts. 

"[M]any have already been burdened by the obligations for decades and, if denied a discharge, face a lifetime of crushing debt," said attorney John Rao, writing for the NCLC. "A finding about whether a debtor’s hardship is likely to persist should be based on hard facts, not conjecture and unsubstantiated optimism." 

The First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is now considering Murphy's appeal of the lower court's ruling. 

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Diesel engineer offers free advice to Volkswagen

Simple fix might reduce emissions without affecting fuel economy

The pressure is building on Volkswagen in the wake of the automaker's admission that it installed software in its “clean diesel” cars to pass mandated emis...

PhotoThe pressure is building on Volkswagen in the wake of the automaker's admission that it installed software in its “clean diesel” cars to pass mandated emissions tests, when the vehicles were actually operating at 40 times over the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standard.

Besides the legal and public relations disaster VW has on its hands, it faces another stern test. Somehow it has to “fix” the problem on the millions of cars that have the technology.

One would think that if the problem could have been easily fixed, the company would have done that in the first place, rather than take the enormous risk that cheating on the emissions test entailed.

Might not be that complicated

Actually, the fix might not be all that complicated, according to Ta-Jen Huang, a chemical engineering professor at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. Huang says replacing the Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) system on current VWs with what he describes as the Electro-Catalytic Honeycomb (ECH) system would solve the problem.

As we reported last week, the SCR system has significant drawbacks. This system uses a technology bearing the trade name “AdBlue” to convert diesel fuel's toxic NOx by-product into harmless nitrogen via various chemical reactions in a special SCR that has been optimized for NOx reduction.

According to Empa Laboratory of Automotive Powertrain Technologies director Christian Bach, SCR systems are considerably more complex than a conventional three-way catalytic converter in gasoline engines. AdBlue is carried in a separate tank in the car and needs to be topped off every now and again, usually while the vehicle is being serviced. The AdBlue dosage needs to be set precisely to the amount of NOx emitted by the engine.

If the dosage is too low, it doesn't reduce NOx emissions enough to meet the standard. Too high a dosage and the result is undesirable ammonia emissions. In short, diesel SCR systems can yield unpredictable results.

Zero emissions

Huang believes replacing the SCR system with the ECH system can treat diesel exhaust to zero emissions. But what does that do to fuel economy?

“The fuel economy with replacing the SCR with the ECH can be kept at least the same or even be increased,” Huang told ConsumerAffairs. “In fact, the electro-catalytic honeycomb (ECH) can maximize both the performance and the fuel economy, with possible zero air pollution, without consuming any resource.”

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(c) Ta-Jen Huang

Huang provided a graphic showing how the ECH system works (shown above). He says it's an easy fix on cars equipped with existing SCR technology, only requiring the replacement of a section of the tail pipe.

”This only needs to replace the section of the SCR converter by the ECH, which is a honeycomb in a size similar to the SCR catalyst honeycomb,” Huang said. ”The consumer may not see any difference on this fix.”

If the fix is that simple, one has to wonder why it hasn't been adopted before. But Huang said he believes it is the answer, and that VW is well aware of it. He quotes engineers at VW Group as saying they believe the ECH system ”has big potential.”

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Antioxidants promote cancer progression, study finds

The findings reinforce earlier studies that suggest antioxidants may make things worse rather than better

For years, consumers have been gulping nutritional supplements containing antioxidants, assuming they protect against cancer. But assumptions don't always ...

PhotoFor years, consumers have been gulping nutritional supplements containing antioxidants, assuming they protect against cancer. But assumptions don't always turn out well, as a Swedish study finds.

Researchers at Sahlgrenska Academy in Gothenburg, Sweden, found that antioxidants can double the rate of melanoma metastasis in mice. The results reinforce previous findings that antioxidants hasten the progression of lung cancer. Earlier studies found that antioxidants hastened the progression of lung cancer in mice and experiments on human lung cancer cells confirmed the finding.

Given well-established evidence that free radicals can cause cancer, the research community had simply assumed that antioxidants, which destroy them, provide protection against the disease. Found in many nutritional supplements, antioxidants are widely marketed as a means of preventing cancer. 

But as a result of the findings, people with cancer or an elevated risk of developing the disease should avoid nutritional supplements that contain antioxidants, according to Professor Martin Bergö, the lead researcher. 

Double the rate

The latest study found that antioxidants double the rate of metastasis in malignant melanoma, the most perilous type of skin cancer. Science Translational Medicine published the findings on October 7.

"As opposed to the lung cancer studies, the primary melanoma tumor was not affected," Professor Bergö says. "But the antioxidant boosted the ability of the tumor cells to metastasize, an even more serious problem because metastasis is the cause of death in the case of melanoma. The primary tumor is not dangerous per se and is usually removed."

Experiments on cell cultures from patients with malignant melanoma confirmed the new results.

"We have demonstrated that antioxidants promote the progression of cancer in at least two different ways," Bergö says.

The overall conclusion from the various studies is that antioxidants protect healthy cells from free radicals that can turn them into malignancies but may also protect a tumor once it has developed.

Avoid supplements, lotions

Taking nutritional supplements containing antioxidants may unintentionally hasten the progression of a small tumor or premalignant lesion, neither of which is possible to detect, Bergö said.

"Previous research at Sahlgrenska Academy has indicated that cancer patients are particularly prone to take supplements containing antioxidants," Dr. Bergö says. "Our current research combined with information from large clinical trials with antioxidants suggests that people who have been recently diagnosed with cancer should avoid such supplements."

The role of antioxidants is particularly relevant in the case of melanoma, not only because melanoma cells are known to be sensitive to free radicals but because the cells can be exposed to antioxidants by non-dietary means as well.

"Skin and suntan lotions sometimes contain beta carotene or vitamin E, both of which could potentially affect malignant melanoma cells in the same way as antioxidants in nutritional supplements," Bergö says.

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Netflix raises prices, blames rising cost of content

The price will be going up $1 for most subscribers

Uzo Aduba in "Orange is the New Black" (Netflix photo)There used to be a saying in the media world that content was king. Then for awhile it was tech...

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Uzo Aduba in "Orange is the New Black" (Netflix photo)
There used to be a saying in the media world that content was king. Then for awhile it was technology that was king, but now that technology has broken everything wide open and created lots of new pipes, everyone's starting to realize they need content to put in those pipes.

All of which is a long way of saying that the price of movies, TV shows, and original content is going up as more distributors bid for it, which is why Netflix is raising the price of its most popular subscription option from $9 to $10 a month. Other packages are going up by similar amounts.

A Netflix spokesman says the increase is necessary so it can “continue adding more TV shows and movies including many Netflix original titles.” said Netflix rep Jonathan Friedland.

The new price applies immediately to new subscribers in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. But it will also eventually kick in for existing customers — some of whom will end up seeing their monthly bill increase by $2 a month.

Here's how Netflix explains it on its site:

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FBI weighs in on safety of new chip card

An improvement, the agency says, but a PIN system would make it better

The FBI has joined the discussion of the new EMV, or chip cards that are replacing credit and debit cards in the U.S.“While EMV cards offer enhanced se...

PhotoThe FBI has joined the discussion of the new EMV, or chip cards that are replacing credit and debit cards in the U.S.

“While EMV cards offer enhanced security, the FBI is warning law enforcement, merchants, and the general public that these cards can still be targeted by fraudsters,” the Bureau said in a public service announcement.

The EMV cards replace the traditional magnetic strip on the back with a small chip that holds encrypted data. It allows merchants to verify a card’s authenticity, providing the cardholder greater security and making the EMV card less vulnerable to hacking while the data is transmitted from the point of sale (PoS) to the issuing bank.

But the FBI says that may not be enough. It says EMV cards can be counterfeited using stolen card data obtained from the black market.

Prefers a PIN system

The FBI says the best defense is for consumers to use a PIN instead of a signature when making purchases.

“Merchants are encouraged to require consumers to enter their PIN for each transaction, in order to verify their identity,” the FBI said. “If a consumer uses a signature, merchants should ask to also see a government-issued photo identification card to verify the cardholder’s identity.”

This was music to retailers' ears, since they delivered an almost identical warning to Congress this week.

“What the FBI is saying is what the rest of the world already sees as common sense,” Mallory Duncan, National Retail Federation vice-president said. “It’s the right thing to do, and we hope the banks are listening.”

Leaving the back door open

Not using all of the card's potential security features, says Duncan, is like locking the front door but leaving the back door wide open.

“Retailers have long-argued that PINs are essential to providing cardholders with the security that they deserve,” said Brian Dodge, executive vice president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), another retail industry trade group. “The FBI’s alert should be a wake-up call to the banks and card networks that continue to stand in the way of making PIN authentication the standard in the U.S. just as it has been around the world for years.”

The retailers complain that virtually all of the chip cards being issued in the United States are chip-and-signature rather than chip-and-PIN, leaving consumers without the option to use a PIN. By contrast, EMV cards used in 80 countries around the world for 20 years or more are routinely chip-and-PIN.

“They’re encouraging consumers to use PIN and they’re encouraging merchants to request PIN – the only thing missing is to encourage the banks to issue PIN cards,” Duncan said.

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Facebook, New York form partnership to crack down on human trafficking

Trafficking victims often featured in online sex advertisements

Facebook and New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman are teaming up to fight human trafficking. They'll leverage technology to identify victims of s...

PhotoFacebook and New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman are teaming up to fight human trafficking. They'll leverage technology to identify victims of sex trafficking in online advertisements for commercial sex, and pursue the traffickers.

The initiative will focus, in particular, on identifying child victims of sex trafficking, including those who are reported as missing, according to a statement issued by Schneiderman's office.

“This is an exciting and important new partnership that will greatly assist our efforts to bring sex traffickers to justice and return their victims to safety,”said Schneiderman. “Working with Facebook, we will open a new front in the fight to make online sex trafficking a thing of the past. Facebook has been a great partner in my office’s work to protect children in the past, and I am very pleased to be working with them again on this critical new effort.”

As part of the initiative, the Attorney General’s office will work with Facebook to develop algorithms that will identify evidence of trafficking in these online advertisements, including pattern analysis of ad language, phone numbers, images, and other data, as well as identification of missing children who appear in advertisements for commercial sex. 

Cases cited

There's no shortage of cases to work with. 

In 2009, a Maryland man pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of three minors after postings Craigslist ads promoting sexual services and including a photo of one of the victims. 

In 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation obtained a guilty plea from a Texas man who “posted prostitution advertisements on the Internet site Backpage.com depicting [the victim] and offering commercial sex services.”

In 2013, a Washington, D.C., police officer was accused of prostituting more than a half dozen girls, posting nude pictures of them on Backpage.

In October 2013, the Attorney General’s Organized Crimes Task Force announced the arrest of three members of a sex trafficking ring that operated in Syracuse, Watertown, Ithaca, and elsewhere in New York State. The ring leader preyed on women and girls as young as 15 years old, recruiting them to work for sex. In certain instances, he intimidated them with the use of physical force to compel them to commit acts of prostitution, and supplied them with cocaine, heroin, and MDMA to keep them ensnared.

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North Carolina shuts down for-profit medical school

Attorney general claims it charged hundreds of dollars for unaccredited courses

Consumers hoping to advance in a career are often attracted by for-profit institutions that, even though they can be expensive, admit anyone who applies. B...

PhotoConsumers hoping to advance in a career are often attracted by for-profit institutions that, even though they can be expensive, admit anyone who applies. But not all these school can deliver on promises.

In North Carolina, state Attorney General Roy Cooper has obtained a court order temporarily halting operations at a private, for-profit career school that Cooper maintains charged students hundreds of dollars for unlicensed, unaccredited medical courses and put them to work without proper training.

On Thursday, Wake County, North Carolina Superior Court Judge G. Bryan Collins, Jr., granted Cooper’s request to temporarily bar North Carolina Medical Institute and its owner, Sherita McQueen, from advertising, offering, or accepting payment for any educational products or services in the state.

Cooper is asking the court for a permanent ban on NC Medical Institute’s operation and refunds for students.

Keeping an eye on career schools

“Students seeking training to upgrade their job skills deserve to get what they pay for, and patients deserve care from properly trained employees,” Cooper said. “If you notice a career school taking advantage of students, my office wants to hear about it.”

Cooper claims that the school could endanger patients in his state by certifying some students as qualified nursing aides after completing course work, which Cooper claims is far less training than required by law.

The complaint alleges that McQueen used a former employee’s nursing license and Social Security number to enter 50 unqualified Nursing Aide II students into the State Board of Nursing’s electronic registry, permitting them to get jobs.

License yanked

Back in May the North Carolina State Board of Proprietary Schools and the North Carolina State Board of Nursing refused to renew NC Medical Institute’s license. It previously determined that the school advertised and enrolled students in unlicensed courses, employed unapproved teaching instructors, and presented misleading information to the State Board of Community Colleges.

Cooper said it didn't stop there. He says after losing required licenses, McQueen misled prospective students by telling them that the courses offered by her school were accredited. He said NC Medical Institute continued to charge fees as high as $800 per course for unlicensed medical training programs, including pharmacy technician, medical assistant, and first aid courses.

After completing the classes, students often found themselves unprepared or ineligible for jobs in their fields of study.

Illegal practices

Cooper further alleges NC Medical Institute engaged in illegal practices while licensed. According to an affidavit filed by a North Carolina Board of Nursing employee, the school continued to offer a Nursing Aide II program despite repeatedly failing to meet state requirements.

While this might seem scary and discouraging for someone who hopes to advance in the medical field, Cooper says it shouldn't. Consumers just have to be careful.

“Enrolling in a vocational program can lead to a brighter future, but make sure the school you select is legitimate before you pay any money to enroll,” he said.

He suggests checking out your local or regional community college, where he says students are much more likely to receive quality training at a fair price.

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National Retail Federation forecasts so-so holiday sales

Online sales should play an important role

There may not be as much ho-ho-hoing among retailers this Christmas season as there was last year. The National Retail Federation (NRF) says it expects sa...

PhotoThere may not be as much ho-ho-hoing among retailers this Christmas season as there was last year.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) says it expects sales in November and December (excluding autos, gas, and restaurant sales) to rise 3.7% to $630.5 billion. While that's significantly higher than the 10-year average of 2.5%, it doesn't keep pace with 2014, when sales were up 4.1%.

In addition, the NRF is forecasting online sales to increase between 6 and 8% to as much as $105 billion.

Holiday sales in 2015 are expected to represent approximately 19% of the retail industry’s annual sales of $3.2 trillion.

“With several months of solid retail sales behind us, we’re heading into the all-important holiday season fully expecting to see healthy growth,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “However, while economic indicators have improved in several areas, Americans remain somewhat torn between their desire and their ability to spend; the fact remains consumers still have the weight of the economy on their minds, further explaining the complex retail spending environment we are seeing right now. We expect families to spend prudently and deliberately, though still less constrained than what we saw even two years ago.”

The NRF also expects seasonal employment to grow with retailers hiring between 700,000 and 750,000 seasonal workers. Last year saw the addition of 714,000 new holiday positions.

The NRF’s holiday sales forecast is based on an economic model using several indicators including consumer credit, disposable personal income, and previous monthly retail sales releases.

It also includes the non-store category (direct-to-consumer, kiosks and online sales.)  

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Medicare open enrollment is almost here

Beneficiaries can select or change plans Oct. 15 - Dec. 7

It's that time of year again. If you are on Medicare, or are newly eligible, the annual open enrollment period to select or change coverage starts October ...

PhotoIt's that time of year again. If you are on Medicare, or are newly eligible, the annual open enrollment period to select or change coverage starts October 15 and runs through December 7.

For starters, you need to review your current plan to make sure it continues to meet your needs. Also, the plan itself might have changed. If so, you may already have received a notice.

Starting this month you should use Medicare’s Plan Finder to search for a plan that meets your needs. October 15 is the first day you can change your Medicare coverage for next year. On December 7, that window closes.

January 1

Coverage for the year begins January 1 if you switched to a new plan. If you stay with the same plan, any changes to coverage, benefits, or costs for the new year will also take effect on that date.

If you’re in a Medicare Advantage Plan, you can leave your plan and switch to Original Medicare. If you switch to Original Medicare, you’ll have until February 14 to also join a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan to add drug coverage.

Your coverage will begin the first day of the month after the plan gets your enrollment form. In certain cases, you may be able to make other changes if you qualify for a Special Enrollment Period.

The basics

New to Medicare? Here are some basic things you need to know: Medicare plans are divided into parts.

Part A pays for hospital care, skilled nursing, hospice, and even some home health care. This part is free, providing you or your spouse have been in the Social Security system for at least ten years. If not, premiums can run as much as $407 a month

Part B is more like regular health insurance, covering doctor visits, preventive care, outpatient care, and hospital visits. Premiums are based on income and are deducted from your Social Security payments if you are receiving benefits. In 2015, Part B cost $104.90 a month for Medicare beneficiaries whose incomes are $85,000 a year or less – $170,000 for a couple – and up to $335.70 for those whose annual income is greater than $214,000.

Part C is what is known as a Medicare Advantage plan. It combines parts A and B and, in most cases, Part D, the drug plan. Premiums vary by location and coverage. According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the average premium in 2016 will be $32.60. Advantage plans often limit where beneficiaries can get their care.

Part D covers prescription drugs, with premiums of $15 to $50 per month. It isn't required, but here's something to keep in mind; it's cheaper to enroll when you begin Medicare, instead of waiting until you are older.

Still have questions? AARP has a handy Medicare Question & Answer Tool. You can also visit Medicare.gov, or call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) to learn more.

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Plus-sized crash victim's damage award reduced

Nissan seat belts weren't designed for a 240-pounder, woman argued

When a drunken driver plowed into her then-husband's Nissan Pathfinder, Amanda Maddox, who weighed 240 pounds, suffered broken ribs, hips, vetebrae, and ab...

PhotoWhen a drunken driver plowed into her then-husband's Nissan Pathfinder, Amanda Maddox, who weighed 240 pounds, suffered broken ribs, hips, vetebrae, and abdominal injuries. Her husband, 170 pounds, suffered a broken foot. The driver of the other car was killed instantly. 

Maddox, who spent 139 days in the hospital, sued the estate of the drunken driver and Nissan, claiming the car's seat-belt system wasn't adequate to protect her, even though the Pathfinder had a five-star crash rating from the federal government.

A jury ruled that Nissan was 70 percent at fault and the drunken driver 30 percent at fault. It ordered Nissan to pay $2.6 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages, Courthouse News Service reported.

Increasingly portly

The Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict, but the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down the punitive damages award.

"Even viewing the evidence in Amanda's favor, she failed to present proof that could establish such a degree of belief in the minds of reasonable jurors that would justify a punitive damages award," Justice Bill Cunningham wrote.

He noted that the Pathfinder had passed the toughest federal frontal crash tests.

"While those tests may have been performed using body weight metrics that no longer reflect our increasingly portly population, Nissan nevertheless satisfied and exceeded the regulatory duty imposed upon it," he noted.

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Americans count cyber threats among their top everyday concerns

Be sure to take steps to protect your privacy

You may be obliquely aware of some of the major hacking events that have occurred in the U.S. over the past year. At every turn it seems that some new data...

PhotoYou may be obliquely aware of some of the major hacking events that have occurred in the U.S. over the past year. At every turn it seems that some new data breach has exposed more confidential data on millions of Americans. As a result, many people are now considering cyber threats amongst the top concerns in their daily lives.

According to Travelers Companies, Inc.’s third annual Consumer Risk Index, cyber-related concerns grew by more than 20 percentage points since last year – moving it up to the third overall position of things that Americans worry about; it is topped only by financial concerns and the risk of identity theft.

“Cyber threats are joining the ranks of the conventional issues that individuals have worried about for decades … Many may be feeling more vulnerable to cyber risks as Americans are becoming increasingly reliant on technology in nearly every aspect of their daily lives. This may also be playing a role in consumers’ overall perception of risk with so many respondents believing the world is becoming a riskier place,” stated Patrick Gee, Senior Vice President of Auto, Property, and Catastrophe at Travelers.

Out of all cyber threat risks, consumers are most worried about their bank accounts being hacked. After this, consumers are most worried about contracting a virus on an electronic device, having their personal information stolen via a cyber-attack on a retailer, and the cost of repairing their credit after having their identity stolen.

Although cyber threats will continue to present a real problem for consumers, there are steps that you can take in order to protect yourself. Be sure to create strong, private passwords that you can use on all of your different user accounts. Also ensure that you keep your personal information offline if at all possible and update your security software often so that it stays up-to-date. 

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Hiring outlook may be improving in the fourth quarter

Careerbuilder survey looks better than most recent employment numbers

When the government reported September's employment numbers earlier this month, it was a disappointment to economists and the stock market.There were f...

PhotoWhen the government reported September's employment numbers earlier this month, it was a disappointment to economists and the stock market.

There were fewer jobs created than expected, and August's more robust numbers were revised downward. But maybe it's not as gloomy as it seems.

A new survey from the employment website Careerbuilder.com predicts full-time, permanent hiring in the fourth quarter will be the strongest since 2006. Seasonal hiring could outpace last year’s projections by a healthy margin.

According to the survey, 34% of U.S. employers plan to hire full-time, permanent staff in the fourth quarter. About the same percentage plan to add seasonal staff.

When the survey honed in on retailers, more than half – 53% – said they plan to take on seasonal help for the holidays, up from 43% last year. All in all, the survey casts the employment picture in a bullish light.

Healthy labor market

“Our study is reflecting a durability in the U.S. economy and labor market,” said Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder. “Employer confidence is widespread and the strongest we’ve seen since 2006. Hiring will continue on an upward trajectory for both permanent and seasonal positions, with pay expected to improve over last year as companies keep pace with minimum wage hikes and compete more aggressively for elusive talent.”

According to Careerbuilder, 39% of employers added full-time, permanent employees in the third quarter, up from 34% in the same period in 2014 and 28% in 2013. Ten percent of businesses reduced their workforce, about the same as last year, while 49% made no change to staff levels.

For the future, 35% plan to add full-time, permanent employees in the current quarter, up from 29% in 2014 and 25% in 2013. Ten percent expect to reduce staff, on par with 9% last year. About 52% anticipate no change.

Bump in seasonal hiring

Because of the holidays, the fourth quarter is often marked by an increase in seasonal hiring and this year should be no exception. About 33% of employers said they expect to hire seasonal workers in the fourth quarter, up from 26% last year. Fifty-seven percent expect to transition some seasonal staff into full-time, permanent roles, up from 42% last year.

If you end up taking a seasonal job, not only do you have improved chances of turning it into a permanent position, you will likely earn more money. The survey shows 37% of employers say they will increase pay for their seasonal staff, up ten percentage points over last year.

Seventy-two percent of seasonal employers will pay $10 or more per hour while 19% will pay $16 or more.

Customer service in demand

Most of the seasonal hiring – 46% – will be for positions in customer services. There will also be demand for help in administrative support, inventory management, hosting/greeting, and shipping/delivery.

Your best chance of landing a job in the fourth quarter will be if you live in the south. The Midwest reported the largest year-over-year gain with 34% of employers planning to add full-time, permanent staff, up ten percentage points over last year.

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Whole Foods Market recalls Papillon Organic Roquefort Cheese

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Whole Foods Market is recalling Papillon Organic Roquefort Cheese sold in all stores nationwide. The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogen...

PhotoWhole Foods Market is recalling Papillon Organic Roquefort Cheese sold in all stores nationwide.

 

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

 

No illnesses or infections have been reported to date.

 

The recalled cheese was cut and packaged in clear plastic wrap and sold with Whole Foods Market scale labels. It can be identified by the scale label that begins with PLU 029536. All “sell by” dates are affected.

 

Signs are posted on retail store shelves to notify customers of this recall, and all recalled product has been removed from shelves.

 

Customers who purchased this product may bring their receipt to the store for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact their local store or call 512-477-5566 ext. 20060 between of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. (EST).

 

 

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Stem cells may restore sight to the elderly

Scientists think they may be able to reverse age-related macular degeneration

Canadian researchers say they have made huge strides in potentially reversing the effects of age-related macular degeneration (AMRD) by transplanting stem ...

PhotoCanadian researchers say they have made huge strides in potentially reversing the effects of age-related macular degeneration (AMRD) by transplanting stem cells.

ARMD is a common eye problem caused by the loss of cones. A team of researchers at the University of Montreal has developed a highly effective in vitro technique for producing light sensitive retina cells from human embryonic stem cells.

“Our method has the capacity to differentiate 80% of the stem cells into pure cones,” said Gilbert Bernier, a University of Montreal professor and study author. “Within 45 days, the cones that we allowed to grow towards confluence spontaneously formed organized retinal tissue that was 150 microns thick. This has never been achieved before.”

Cone destruction

ARMD is caused by the degeneration of the macula, which is the central part of the retina that is key to eyesight. The degeneration is caused by the destruction of the cones and cells in the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), a tissue that is responsible for the reparation of the visual cells in the retina and for the elimination of cells that are too worn out.

Currently there is no cure for ARMD because humans are born with a fixed number of cones; there is currently no natural way for their replacement. As we age, the RPE’s maintenance is less and less effective – waste accumulates, forming deposits.

Bernier's research provides new hope. In order to verify the technique, Bernier injected clusters of retinal cells into the eyes of healthy mice. The transplanted photoreceptors migrated naturally within the retina of their host.

“Cone transplant represents a therapeutic solution for retinal pathologies caused by the degeneration of photoreceptor cells,” Bernier explained. “To date, it has been difficult to obtain great quantities of human cones.”

May lead to new treatments

Bernier believes his discovery offers a way to overcome this problem. From it, new treatments may be developed for currently non-curable degenerative diseases, like Stargardt disease and ARMD.

“Researchers have been trying to achieve this kind of trial for years,” he said. “Thanks to our simple and effective approach, any laboratory in the world will now be able to create masses of photoreceptors. Even if there’s a long way to go before launching clinical trials, this means, in theory, that will be eventually be [sic] able to treat countless patients.”

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), ARMD is most common in people over age 50 and is the leading cause of vision impairment among that age group. In some people, ARMD advances so slowly that vision loss does not occur for a long time. It can also progress quickly, leading to a loss of vision in one or both eyes.

As AMD progresses, a blurred area near the center of vision is a common symptom. Over time, the blurred area may grow larger or you may develop blank spots in your central vision. Objects also may not appear to be as bright as they used to be.

The Canadian findings may be particularly significant because people are living longer. That extended lifespan increases the likelihood of developing ARMD.  

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Senators: VW diesel owners got $50 million in tax credits

Meanwhile, VW and EPA executives are being grilled on Capitol Hill

Consumers, car dealers, environmentalists, regulators, they're all mad at Volkswagen. And now you can add the U.S. Senate. It turns out that consumers who ...

PhotoConsumers, car dealers, environmentalists, regulators, they're all mad at Volkswagen. And now you can add the U.S. Senate. It turns out that consumers who bought VW's "clean diesels" slurped up $50 million or so in "lean-burn technology motor vehicle" tax credits.

The top two senators on the Senate Finance Committee have written to Volkswagen, giving the company until Oct. 30 to answer some tough questions about whether those credits were justified.

"Volkswagen fleeced Oregonians and Americans across the country by selling 'clean' diesels secretly equipped with defeat devices (that hid their true emissions)," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a blog posting that claimed Oregonians own more VW diesels per capita than residents of any other state.

Photo

Wyden and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said they are "launching a bipartisan investigation into VW’s cheating – cheating that millions of taxpayer dollars inadvertently subsidized because of VW’s deception."

Certified by Volkswagen

It all has to do with something called the Alternative Motor Vehicle Tax Credit, passed by Congress in 2005 to encourage taxpayers to buy high-efficiency, low-polluting cars. To qualify, manufacturers had to certify that their vehicles met certain standards, after which consumers could claim the tax credit, the senators note in their letter to Volkswagen.

In 2008, Volkswagen certified to the Internatl Revenue Service that the 2009 VW Jetta TDI sedan and SportWagen qualified for $1,300 tax credits based on their supposedly clean emissions profile. More VW and Audi vehicles were added later.

About 60,000 of the cars were sold by July 1, 2010. The credit was then cut in half until it expired on Dec. 31, 2010. Using those figures, the senators calculated the loss to American taxpayers at "well over $50 million."

In their letter, the senators give Volkswagen until Oct. 30 to produce documents relating to the tax credits. 

House holds a hearing

The letter was sent to VW CEO Matthias Muller and Michael Horn, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America. Horn is on Capitol Hill today, testifying before the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, which is also looking to grill VW and EPA officials.

In advance of today's hearing, the EPA told U.S. lawmakers it could not divulge new details about its probe since it is still conducting its investigation. Previously, officials have said that VW deceived regulators by building the "cut-out" software that turned on emission controls when vehicles were being inspected, then turned it off when the inspection ended. 

In written testimony prepared for today's House hearing, officials said VW also conspired to cover up evidence of its deceptive actions.

Besides various federal investigations, VW also faces a flood of consumer lawsuits and investigations by state attorneys general, including New York's Eric Schneiderman. 

"No company should be allowed to evade our environmental laws or promise consumers a fake bill of goods. That is why my office is investigating troubling reports that millions of Volkswagen cars carried software designed to cheat emissions tests that protect our environment," Schneiderman said. "We look forward to collaborating with Attorneys General across the nation on this matter.”

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Lumber Liquidators to settle federal charges

But settlement is unrelated to alleged dangerous levels of formaldehyde

Months after it was uncomfortably thrust into the limelight on a “60 Minutes” broadcast, Lumber Liquidators has reached a multi-million dollar settlement w...

PhotoMonths after it was uncomfortably thrust into the limelight on a “60 Minutes” broadcast, Lumber Liquidators has reached a multi-million dollar settlement with the U.S. government over its use of illegally imported wood used in flooring products.

The Virginia-based firm announced the settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, saying it concludes the government's inquiry that began two years ago. The charges relate to the company's compliance with the Lacey Act, a conservation law protecting plants, fish, and wildlife.

The investigation focused on some of the Company's hardwood flooring purchase orders and import declarations made concerning the origin of the timber of those orders. It did not involve whether some of the company's imported flooring contained dangerous levels of a toxic substance.

The company said it would pay a combined total of $10 million in fines, community service payments, and forfeited proceeds. The $10 million is broken down into a $7.8 million fine, community service contributions of $880,825, $350,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation fund, respectively, and a $969,175 forfeiture payment.

Unrelated to California probe

“Lumber Liquidators fully cooperated with federal authorities and is continuing to make significant enhancements to its sourcing and compliance practices,” the company said in a statement. “This settlement is unrelated to current California Air Resources Board ("CARB") related claims around certain Lumber Liquidators products.”

Lumber Liquidators has denied charges that some of its laminate wood products contain hazardous quantities of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Those allegations were the crux of the "60 Minutes" broadcast.

At the time, company founder and chairman, Tom Sullivan, maintained that the charges were part of a plot by Wall Street short sellers to drive down the company's stock price.

While the California probe goes on, Lumber Liquidators has agreed to plead guilty to violations of a Customs law and the Lacey Act. It includes four misdemeanor due care violations of the Lacey Act and a single felony charge for entry of goods by means of false statements.

Continuing to cooperate

Lumber Liquidators said it is continuing to cooperate with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, CARB, Securities and Exchange Commission, and U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, with respect to additional ongoing inquiries and legal proceedings not covered by the settlement.

"We appreciate the opportunity to have collaborated with the Department of Justice to develop an Environmental Compliance Plan, which we believe when fully implemented will be one of the strongest and most comprehensive in the industry," said Jill Witter, the company's chief compliance and legal officer. "The program is designed to ensure an unbroken and verified chain of custody and documentation of our products from the store all the way to the forest.”

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Retailers push back against new chip card system

National Retail Federation says cards won't stop fraud without addition of a PIN

Since late last week some consumers have been dipping their plastic instead of swiping and, from most reports, have encountered little difficulty in the sw...

PhotoSince late last week some consumers have been dipping their plastic instead of swiping and, from most reports, have encountered little difficulty in the switch-over to the EMV chip card system.

Retailers, on the other hand, are not completely sold. In a message to Congress, the National Retail Federation (NRF) said any new chip-and-signature credit cards that do not also require a PIN will not stop data breaches. The trade group says small businesses should not be pressured to install the equipment to accept the new cards at the expense of more effective technology.

“The new EMV equipment does not stop breaches,” NRF Senior Vice President for Government Relations David French said in prepared testimony before the House Small Business Subcommittee. “Indeed, in many cases it provides no significant benefits either to the business or to the business’ regular customers. It is merely an additional expense small businesses are being told to bear.”

Additional expenses that will ultimately be passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices.

Could pre-empt mobile payment

The NRF warns that if small businesses are pushed to adopt EMV technology, alternatives such as near-field communication contactless payment, mobile wallets, and other smartphone-based technology “may effectively be locked out of the market.”

“These are important considerations that businesses of all sizes must carefully ponder,” French said. “It would be inappropriate to prejudge their decision-making and stampede businesses into the adoption of solutions less protective for businesses and consumers than what has existed throughout the industrialized world for more than a generation.”

While many consumers have received new credit cards in the mail, containing chips to hold encrypted data, just as many haven't. They're still using the old magnetic strip cards that still work.

Liability shift

The only real change that occurred on October 1 was liability in case of fraud shifted from credit card companies to retailers that have not moved over to the new system.

Banks are still in the process of issuing new cards containing a computer microchip that will eventually completely replace cards’ easily copied magnetic stripe to store data. But French said retailers are concerned the new security measures don't go far enough. He says the cards also need a secure personal identification number, or PIN, which would eventually replace easily forged signatures.

French says the chips make the cards more difficult to counterfeit but do nothing to protect lost or stolen cards. If the chip cards also required a pin, he said that would prevent both types of fraud.

If you haven't seen many of the new chip card readers in your recent shopping trips, it might not be much of a surprise. Many retailers have yet to install them.

French says chip card readers and installation can vary from “a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars” per terminal. The industry average is around $2,000.

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Consumer complaints about airlines rise sharply in August

But carriers don't lose as many bags during the month

Consumers are growing more unhappy with U.S. air travel, if complaints to the government are any indication.The Transportation Department's monthly rep...

PhotoConsumers are growing more unhappy with U.S. air travel, if complaints to the government are any indication.

The Transportation Department's monthly report on airline performance shows consumer complaints totaled 1,633 in August, up 47.5% from a year earlier. Complaints covered the waterfront, from delayed flights to lost luggage and customer service.

Spirit Airlines had the highest rate of complaints. In particular, Spirit had a problem with punctuality, with only 63% of its flights arriving on time. The report considers a flight on time if it operated less than 15 minutes after the scheduled time shown in the carriers' Computerized Reservations Systems (CRS).

Delta had the best on time record for the month, at nearly 86%. It was followed by Alaska Airlines at 83%.

Only two tarmac delays

There were only two flights in August delayed on the tarmac longer than three hours. Delta flight 897 sat on the tarmac at Orlando for 232 minutes. PSA flight 4947 was delayed in Charlotte for 185 minutes.

Airlines as a whole did a slightly better job of keeping up with bags. There were 3.33 reports of mishandled luggage for every 1,000 bags. That compares to 3.69 reports in August 2014.

Envoy Airlines had the worst individual record, mishandling 7.06 out of every 1,000 bags it checked. Virgin America had the best record, at 0.94 per 1,000 bags.

Envoy was also most likely to “bump” a passenger in August, with 2.84 denied boardings per 1,000 passengers. JetBlue and Hawaiian Air had the best record in that category, bumping just 0.01 passenger per 1,000 boardings.

As far as the breakdown of passenger angst, flight problems – cancellations, delays, and missed connections – drew nearly half the complaints, 731. Mishandled bags came next with 382 total complaints.

The complaints only include the ones directed to the Department of Transportation and not those received by the airlines – or by consumer websites like ConsumerAffairs.com.

Read airlines complaints from our readers here.

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What sounds Teutonic and is threatening the car business?

No, it's not Volkswagen. It's something even worse.

Quick -- what sounds Teutonic and is hurting the car business more than anything else? No, not Volkswagen.It's Uber, according to a new survey from Fra...

PhotoQuick -- what sounds Teutonic and is hurting the car business more than anything else? No, not Volkswagen.

It's Uber, according to a new survey from Frank N. Magid Associates. The market research firm estimates from the study's findings that three to four million consumers are putting off buying a new car because of Uber.

"That's a lot of cars in an industry that sells 15 to 20 (million) a year," said Magid Advisors President Mike Vorhaus.
 
Magid's survey found that U.S. Uber users have risen in number from 5% last year to 18% this year. Among those current users, 22% said they were holding off on a car purchase thanks to the service. After all, you don't need to buy a new car if you can whip out your smartphone and summon a car and driver whenever you need one.

In trouble

Vorhaus compared Uber to a "Mack Truck just rolling down the street gaining speed," and said its growing popularity is bound to have an influence on car sales.

“Even if only a modest number of consumers begin to prioritize car ‘sharing’ over ownership the car industry is in trouble,” said Andrew Hare, director of digital research and strategy at Magid. “It’s rare that a brand transforms the way we live in such a short amount of time but that's exactly what Uber has done.”

About the only good thing car dealers can say about Uber is that their drivers need cars, which could help counterbalance the effect of others foregoing their purchases. One Texas-based Toyota dealership even offers buyers who are Uber drivers a discount on a new vehicle, according to the Magid researchers.

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Sen. Reid files suit over exercise injuries

The Senate minority leader blames Theraband for his facial injuries

Photo via YouTubeWhen Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid showed up with a badly bruised and broken face earlier this year, it set tongues wagging. The...

Photo
Photo via YouTube

When Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid showed up with a badly bruised and broken face earlier this year, it set tongues wagging. There was speculation he had been slugged, thrown from a horse, or injured in a motorcycle accident.

The explanation was more prosaic. Reid, 75, had been exercising at home with a Theraband, a rubber-band-like exercise contraption. It either slipped from his hand or broke -- no one seems to know which -- causing Reid to slam his face into a cabinet.

Photo
Source: Theraband.com

Now the Nevada Democrat has filed suit against Performance Health, saying the company should have included a warning in its packaging. He says he suffered severe pain and injuries, including broken ribs and facial bones, a concussion, scarring, and loss of vision in his right eye.

The incident happened on New Year's Day at Reid's Nevada home. When he showed his face in public, there was so much speculation about the cause of his injuries that he put an explanation on YouTube. 

The lawsuit says that Performance Health should have known people would wrap the band around their hands or feet and attach one end to a door or other fixture while exercising, creating a potentially dangerous situation if the band slips or breaks. 

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Moms, dads -- watch out for hidden window cord hazards

Deaths and injuries caused by strangulation are preventable

If you have small kids in your house, you know all about child proofing. But here's an area that might have slipped by: dangling window or blind cords. Th...

PhotoIf you have small kids in your house, you know all about child proofing. But here's an area that might have slipped by: dangling window or blind cords.

The Window Covering Safety Council (WCSC) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) are urging parents and caregivers to check their window coverings for exposed or dangling cords, which pose a strangulation hazard to infants and young children -- and to replace them as soon as possible with safer blinds and shades. They strongly recommend that only cordless window coverings or those with inaccessible cords be used in homes with young children.

“Every year, cords from window blinds kill children,” said CPSC Chairman Elliot F. Kaye. “Corded window coverings are one of the top five hidden hazards in American homes -- and they are a preventable hazard.”

To heighten public awareness of window cord dangers, the council and CPSC have again declared October “National Window Covering Safety Month.”

“Parents with young children should replace their corded window coverings with the cordless products available,” explained WCSC Executive Director, Peter Rush. “There are many cordless products available in different styles, colors, and sizes that will soon be easily identified with the Best for Kids label.”

A safety push

The industry recently launched the Best for Kids certification program to help consumers and retailers easily identify window covering products that are suitable for use in homes with infants and young children.

For a product to be eligible for this certification program, manufacturers must meet specified program criteria and submit their window covering products to a designated third party testing laboratory.

Once a product passes the third party testing, the manufacturer will be allowed to label the product with the Best for Kids certification seal.

The multiple cordless products available include (partial list):

  • cordless drapes,
  • sheers,
  • light-filtering cordless shades,
  • cordless blackout shades,
  • cordless roman shades,
  • cordless mini-blinds,
  • faux wood blinds,
  • shutters,
  • cordless pleated shades, and
  • cordless motorized shades to name a few.

All of the above come in a variety of sizes, patterns, and fabrics from which to choose.

What to do

WCSC and CPSC offer these basic window safety precautions:

  • Install only cordless window coverings, or window coverings with inaccessible cords, in homes with young children.
  • Move all furniture, cribs, beds, and climbable surfaces away from windows.
  • Mount window guards or window stops to prevent children from potentially falling from a window. Ensure that windows cannot open more than four inches if young children are in the home.
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Best credit cards for travel in 2015

Some will give you hundreds of dollars in statement credits just for signing up

When oil prices started to dive about one year ago, no one thought they would go this low and stay this low for this long.As a result, gasoline prices...

PhotoWhen oil prices started to dive about one year ago, no one thought they would go this low and stay this low for this long.

As a result, gasoline prices and competitive air fares have made travel more affordable than it's been in some time. To make it even more affordable, consumers who used a rewards credit card geared to travel can save even more.

According to personal finance website CardHub’s latest Credit Card Landscape Report, some cards offer consumers sign-up bonuses worth up to $625 and various other perks. The key to landing these perks, of course, is to have an above-average credit rating.

CardHub compared more than 1,000 credit card offers – and in the interest of full disclosure, some originate from CardHub advertising partners – in order to identify the best travel deals.

Best Initial Bonus

The survey found the value of initial rewards bonuses consumers can reap just by signing up appears to have stabilized near record highs during the third quarter. That said, bonuses offered in the form of points or miles have more than doubled in value over the last five years.

In the category of “Best Initial Bonus,” CardHub selected two cards; the Citi Thank You Premier Card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

The Citi card will award you 50,000 bonus points if you spend $3,000 during the first three months of card activation. You can then trade those points for a $625 statement credit that will go to pay travel-related charges that post to your account.

In addition, you rack up three points per $1 spent on travel and gas, two points per $1 on dining and entertainment, and one point per $1 on everything else. On the downside, there's a $95 annual fee, but it doesn’t kick in until the second year.

Putting at least $4,000 on a Chase Sapphire card during the first three months your account is open will result in a 40,000-point rewards bonus, which can be redeemed for $500 in travel accommodations booked through Chase's Ultimate Rewards Program or a $400 statement credit.

Best All Around

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus and Capital One Venture Rewards Card share honors for “Best All Around” travel cards.

The Barclaycard gives you a 40,000-mile rewards bonus, redeemable for $400 in travel expenses, but only if you spend $3,000 during the first three months the account is open. You’ll also earn the miles-equivalent of 2% cash back on all other purchases and receive a 5% rebate on miles redeemed for travel.

Spending $3,000 in the first three months will also get you 40,000 bonus points on the Capital One card. These points can be used to receive a $400 statement credit to pay for any travel-related expenses. The ongoing reward rate is two miles per $1 spent, with no limits or expiration dates.

This card also charges a $59 annual fee, but it is not assessed during the first year.

Other categories include “Airline Rewards,” “Hotel Rewards,” and “Road Trip Rewards.” After selecting the right credit card, the authors say the next step is to use it. In addition to the rewards, Credit cards offer $0 fraud liability guarantees, the lowest possible currency conversion rates, and complementary rental car insurance coverage.  

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IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK+ award for Fiat 500X

It's the second Fiat Chrysler vehicle to win this year's award

The new Fiat 500X, a small SUV, qualifies for the IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK+ award after earning good ratings in all five of the Insurance Institute for Highwa...

PhotoThe new Fiat 500X, a small SUV, qualifies for the IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK+ award after earning good ratings in all five of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) crashworthiness tests and an advanced rating for front crash prevention.

For Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, it's is the second vehicle -- after the Chrysler 200 -- to earn the Institute's highest award for 2015.

Strong test results

In the most challenging IIHS evaluation, the small overlap front crash test, the 500X's driver space was maintained reasonably well, with maximum intrusion of 4 inches at the door hinge pillar and instrument panel. The dummy's head contacted the front airbag, though it then moved to the left side, leaving the head vulnerable to contact with forward structure.

The side curtain airbag deployed and had sufficient forward coverage to protect the head on the left side. Measures taken from the dummy indicate that injuries to the left lower leg would be possible in a crash of this severity, but the likelihood of other injuries is low.

In the moderate overlap test, the only issue was possible injuries to the right foot. There were no problems with the side crash test performance. The vehicle also has good head restraints and seats for whiplash prevention in a rear crash and a good roof strength rating for rollover protection.

The 500X has an optional front crash prevention system that earns an advanced rating. In the Institute's 12 mph track test, a 500X equipped with the system avoided a collision in four out of five runs. In the 25 mph test, the impact speed was reduced by 5 mph. The system also has a forward collision warning function that meets criteria set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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.

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GM recalls Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave vehicles

The windshield wiper motor may overheat

General Motors is recalling 29,295 model year 2016 Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, and Buick Enclave vehicles manufactured August 18, 2015 to September 24,...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 29,295 model year 2016 Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, and Buick Enclave vehicles manufactured August 18, 2015 to September 24, 2015.

 

The windshield wiper motor may overheat when used, increasing the risk of a fire.

 

Owners are advised not to use their front windshield wipers until the wiper cover has been replaced. If weather conditions prevent operation of the vehicle without using the windshield wipers, GM will make arrangements to pick up the vehicle for servicing

 

GM has notified owners, and dealers will replace the windshield wiper motor cover assembly, free of charge. The recall began on September 30, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020, Buick customer service at 1-800-521-7300, and GMC customer service at 1-800-462-8782. GM's number for this recall is 15780.

 

 

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BRP recalls Youth ATVs

The fuel filter can break and leak

BRP US of Sturtevant, Wis., is recalling about 240 Youth model Can-Am all-terrain vehicles The fuel filter can break and leak, posing a fire hazard. The ...

PhotoBRP US of Sturtevant, Wis., is recalling about 240 Youth model Can-Am all-terrain vehicles

 

The fuel filter can break and leak, posing a fire hazard.

 

The company has received eight reports of the fuel filter breaking and leaking at dealerships. No injuries have been reported.

 

This recall is for the model years 2015 and 2016 Youth Model Can-Am TMDS 90TM and DS 90TMX ATVs. The recalled vehicles have an engine size of 90 cubic centimeters.

 

The vehicles came in black and yellow. “Can-Am DS” and the engine size are painted in white on both sides of the vehicle’s fairing. “Can-Am” appears in white letters on both sides of the seat.

 

The ATVs, manufactured in Vietnam, were sold at Can-Am dealers nationwide from May 2015, through September 2015, for between $2,800 and $3,800.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled vehicles and contact a BRP dealer to schedule a free repair. BRP is notifying registered consumers directly about this recall.

 

Consumers may contact BRP toll-free at 888-272-9222 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday or online at http://can-am.brp.com/off-road/owners/safety/safety-recalls/youth-all-terrain-vehicles.html.

 

 

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Scientists learn two new things about Alzheimer's

Both are tied to genes that might predict who will get the disease

A lot of high-powered research is currently aimed at Alzheimer's disease, as the huge Baby Boom generation moves into old age.Since age is a principal ...

PhotoA lot of high-powered research is currently aimed at Alzheimer's disease, as the huge Baby Boom generation moves into old age.

Since age is a principal risk factor, health officials are concerned that the memory-robbing and ultimately fatal disease could become an epidemic. Scientists working independently have recently uncovered new information that may lead to improved treatments. Both involve genes.

At Indiana University (IU), a research team has identified an immune system gene associated with higher rates of amyloid plaque buildup in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and older adults. This plaque is believed to be a primary cause of the disease.

Potentially more harmful gene

The variant occurs in the IL1RAP gene, and researchers say it is associated with even more plaque build-up than the previously discovered APOEe4 allele gene.

The new study found that the amyloid-associated IL1RAP variant was also associated with a faster loss of memory and overall cognitive ability.

"These findings suggest that targeting the IL1RAP immune pathway may be a viable approach for promoting the clearance of amyloid deposits and fighting an important cause of progression in Alzheimer's disease," said Andrew Saykin, director of the Indiana Alzheimer Disease Center and the national Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative Genetics Core.

In unrelated research, scientists at State University of New York (SUNY) have found that women who have the APOEe4 allele gene variant experience a steepe