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VTech hack exposes personal data for 4.8 million kids, parents

Kids' birthdays and home addresses among the compromised data

VTech says the personal records of 4.8 million children and their parents have been breached by hackers. The data includes kids' birthdays and home address...

PhotoVTech says the personal records of 4.8 million children and their parents have been breached by hackers. The data includes kids' birthdays and home addresses, as well as their parents' passwords and password hints.

The data was stored in VTech's "Learning Lodge" app store, where customers of the Hong Kong-based company can download apps, games, e-books, and other content for VTech products.

The company said the breached database contains general user profile information, including their name, email address, encrypted password, secret question and answer for password retrieval, IP address, mailing address, and download history.

"It is important to note that our customer database does not contain any credit card information and VTech does not process nor store any customer credit card data on the Learning Lodge website. To complete the payment or check-out process of any downloads made on the Learning Lodge website, our customers are directed to a secure, third party payment gateway," the company said.

It noted that the database "does not contain any personal identification data (such as ID card numbers, Social Security numbers or driving license numbers)."

Customers can contact VTech at vtechkids@vtechkids.com

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Cyber Monday safety tips

This is good advice to heed throughout the rest of the holiday shopping season

Shoppers who braved the malls on Black Friday might have risked some pushing and shoving but not a lot more.Those taking part in Cyber Monday run the r...

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Applebee's nixes soda from kids' menu

It's the first family-diming restaurant to do so

Sorry, kids. Applebee's is removing soda from its children's menus, the first family-dining chain to do so, the non-profit Center for Science in the Public...

PhotoSorry, kids. Applebee's is removing soda from its children's menus, the first family-dining chain to do so, the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said.

“Soda and other sugar drinks promote diabetes, obesity, tooth decay, and even heart disease, and a kids’ menu is no place for disease-promoting drinks,” said CSPI nutrition policy counsel Jessica Almy.  “Kudos to Applebee’s for taking this important step to promote children’s health. Other sit-down chains such as Chili’s should follow Applebee’s lead.”

Fast-food chains McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Dairy Queen deep-sixed soda earlier at the urging of CSPI and other organizations, including MomsRising.org, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, and the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Subway, Chipotle, and Panera also exclude sugar drinks from kids’ menus, as does IHOP, which is owned by Applebee’s parent company DineEquity.

“Responsible restaurants are on the fast track toward making soda for kids a thing of the past,” said Almy.  

The news comes as New York City enacted a requirement that chain restaurants identify high-salt menu items. Applebee's has said it is already in complaince.

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International flight snafus? You may be eligible for compensation

Code-sharing flights operated by UK and EU carriers offer higher consumer protection on U.S. flights

By now, most of the estimated 25 million passengers who flew somewhere over the Thanksgiving holiday should be back home, but some a...

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Photo (c) Fotolia

By now, most of the estimated 25 million passengers who flew somewhere over the Thanksgiving holiday should be back home, but some are undoubtedly still fuming over various delays, cancellations, and other unanticipated snafus.

For those whose travels involved international flights -- and for future reference -- it's worth noting that tougher consumer protections may apply to many international code-sharing flights and passengers may be entitled to compensation for travel disruptions. 

"Code share" refers to the sharing of flight numbers by different carriers. For example, a flight to Paris might carry flight numbers for both Lufthansa and United and might actually be flown by either carrier.

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Photo: refund.me

“Only ten percent of travellers are aware of their rights to claim compensation for flight delays and cancellations,” said Eve Buechner, founder and CEO of refund.me, a travel advisory site. “And even fewer are aware that travelling on many code-share flights operated by EU and UK based airlines to and from the U.S. translates into greater consumer protection as these flights are covered by EU 261 legislation, which affords higher levels of compensation from airlines.”

European Union regulation (EC) 261/2004 applies to all worldwide airlines departing from an airport located in the territory of a European Union Member State (Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland included) regardless of whether the airline is or is not an EU Community carrier airline.

For flights from outside the EU to a destination within the EU, passengers are protected if flying with an EU-based airline. 

If a flight entering the EU is operated by a ‘code-share’, for example a passenger books an American Airlines code-share flight that is operated by an EU airline, then that flight would also be covered under EU 261/2004.  

Passengers can file claims directly from the refund.me website or by way of a free app for iOS and Android. refund.me has the lowest commission rate in the industry, which a passenger pays only when a claim against an airline has been successfully processed.

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Shipping deadlines especially important this year

This is when you have to get your packages to the Post Office, UPS, and FedEx

It's happening more every year. Shoppers are making fewer trips to the mall and buying more gifts online.In the preliminary numbers from Black Friday w...

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Three startups that want to get millennials saving money

Financial planning help for a demographic often ignored by banks

Saving money can be difficult for people under 35. Often saddled with student loan debt, financial planning is a bigger hurdle to this cohort than others....

PhotoSaving money can be difficult for people under 35. Often saddled with student loan debt, financial planning is a bigger hurdle to this cohort than others.

In addition to struggling under the weight of debt, there's the fact that many traditional banks and brokerage firms ignore young people. Many charge fees or require a minimum opening deposit that may be too high for some millennials.

“By and large big banks and brokerage firms are not focused on millennials,” says Douglas A. Boneparth, a certified financial planner and partner at Life and Wealth Planning, which advises many millennials. “They are more focused on baby boomers that have assets today.”

In(come) the apps

Digital savings companies Acorns, Stash, and Digit are three startups that aim to help with this dilemma, and even simplify the stock market for first-time investors. Acorns and Digit focus on transferring small amounts of money into users' savings accounts at appropriate times, and Stash helps users take baby steps towards stock market familiarity.

Acorns works by connecting to users' debit or credit card and rounding up the spare change to the next dollar on all purchases. Once the roundups reach $5, it withdraws the money and invests in a personalized stock portfolio. A $9.95 purchase at the store, for example, will get savers 5 cents in an Acorns account.

Digit's catchy tagline is “Save money without thinking about it.” Every few days, Digit checks users spending habits and removes a few dollars from their checking account if they can afford it. It boasts bank-level security.

Stash lets users invest in about 30 different ETFs of their choosing and features the ability to invest in the stock market for as little as $5. CEO and co-founder David Ronick was inspired to create the app after learning that his 20-something nieces and nephews didn't invest at all. It worried him since investing, he says, “has historically been one of the best ways to make money over the long-term.”

Targeting millennials in different ways

Digit uses fun animated images known as GIFs when certain savings milestones are reached. Stash includes a glossary throughout the app explaining what a ticker symbol is or what historical performance means. Acorns beckons to young people by offering free use for college students.

Users of the apps are warned against simply putting their savings goals on auto-pilot via use of the apps. Additional courses of action are also needed, such as coming up with financial plans and goals and knowing what they are saving for.

Acorns and Stash cost just $1 per month and Digit is free. Digit, however, does communicate with users via text, so texting fees may be incurred. All apps are available in the App Store.

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Suburbs becoming only affordable option for first time buyers

Record rents and rising interest rates and home prices will squeeze potential buyers

Two housing trends coincided in the wake of the financial crisis to change the demographic make-up of neighborhoods.Homes in urban areas lost much of t...

PhotoTwo housing trends coincided in the wake of the financial crisis to change the demographic make-up of neighborhoods.

Homes in urban areas lost much of their value due to the high number of foreclosures. At the same time, a new generation of homeowners came of age, with a strong preference for city life.

These young people snapped up these homes at bargain prices. But today, homes in these newly-desirable areas are no longer the bargains they once were. That means entry-level buyers may have to look elsewhere.

Affordable suburbs

In its 2016 housing trends forecast, real estate marketplace Zillow predicts first-time buyers who would prefer city living will have to look in the suburbs, which may offer the only affordable options. Reinforcing that trend will be the almost-certain rise in mortgage rates that will begin to erode home affordability.

Zillow predicts these factors will conspire to make it harder to purchase a home in the coming year:

  • Growth in home values will outpace incomes, especially for low-income Americans. In 2016, those whose incomes fall in the bottom third of all incomes will be priced out of homeownership and unable to afford even the least expensive homes on the market.
  • Rising rents won't let up in 2016, and will continue to set new records. The next year will bring the least affordable median rents ever.
  • The median age of first-time buyers will reach new highs in 2016 as Millennials put off homeownership and other major life decisions.

Suburbs with a city feel

Zillow also predicts that buyers priced out of the urban center should be able to find suburban property that meets some of their desires. Many older suburbs, which tend to be closer to the city core, will become hot areas.

Neighborhoods that are dense, walkable, and have an urban feel will be 2016's new hot spots, especially if they offer easy access to the city.

“In 2016, we'll start to see more people in hot coastal markets forced to move farther from the core of the city to find housing,” said Zillow chief economist Dr. Svenja Gudell. “When they get there, they'll be looking for amenity-rich suburbs – mini-cities, with walkable cores and an urban feel.”

Meanwhile, the current tight inventory of available homes may persist into 2016. Gudell says slowly rising interest rates may make many current homeowners think twice about selling, and many of them will decide to remodel their current homes instead.

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NYC requires warning logo on salty restaurant dishes

High salt intake is blamed for high blood pressure and heart disease

There was a time when you could do just about anything in New York City without anyone noticing or, frankly, giving a damn. Those day...

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Photo via Flickr

There was a time when you could do just about anything in New York City without anyone noticing or, frankly, giving a damn. Those days are gone. Smoking, jaywalking, and consuming Big Gulps are now officially frowned upon, as is eating too much salt.

And just to be certain you get the message, the New York City Board of Health is requiring restaurants to display a special warning symbol on any menu item that contains more than 2,300 milligrams -- about a teaspoon -- of sodium. That's roughly the recommended intake limit for an entire day.

The problem with salt, of course, is that it is linked to increased blood pressure, which in turn raises the risk of heart disease and stroke. The average American consumes nearly 40% more than the recommended 2,300 milligrams per day, somewhere around 3,400 mg per day, most of it from fast-food restaurants.

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NYC salt warning

Health officials say the problem has been getting worse instead of better, with sodium conent of menu items at leading fast-food chains incrasing more than 20% from 1997 to 2010. 

The new rule takes effect Tuesday, Dec. 1, and initially applies only to restaurant chains with 15 or more outlets nationwide.

The New York State Restaurant Association isn't happy. President Melissa Fleischut called the new rule "cumbersome" and said it would make it "tougher and tougher for restaurants to find success."

However, numerous restaurant chains have previously agreed to pursue salt reduction goals, including: 

  • Au Bon Pain
  • Bertucci’s Italian Restaurant
  • Black Bear European Style Deli
  • Boar’s Head Provisions Co.
  • Butterball
  • Campbell Soup Company
  • Delhaize America
  • Dietz & Watson
  • FreshDirect
  • Furmano’s
  • Goya Foods
  • Hain Celestial
  • Heinz
  • Ken’s Foods
  • Kraft Foods
  • LiDestri Foods / Francesco Rinaldi
  • Mars Food US
  • McCain Foods
  • Premio
  • Red Gold, Inc.
  • Snyder’s-Lance, Inc.
  • Starbucks Coffee Company
  • Subway
  • Target Corporation
  • Unilever
  • Uno Chicago Grill
  • White Rose
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Li-Fi seen as eventual successor to W-Fi

It's 100 times faster but can't see through walls

The development of Wi-Fi -- wireless fidelity -- put a crimp in the ethernet business but allowed laptops and tablets to roam freely anywhere they could ge...

PhotoThe development of Wi-Fi -- wireless fidelity -- put a crimp in the ethernet business but allowed laptops and tablets to roam freely anywhere they could get a signal and made smartphone broadband reception economically feasible.

Now a new technology called Li-Fi -- or light fidelity -- is promising to do the same at speeds exponentially faster than Wi-Fi, up to 224 gbps.

There are, as usual, advantages and disadvantages. The major advantage, besides much higher speed, is that since Li-Fi uses light emitting diodes (LED) instead of radio waves to transfer signals; it doesn't suffer or cause interference from or to other radio signals.

The disadvantage, however, is a big one. Since it uses light to transmit data, Li-Fi is basically what radio engineers call "line of sight" -- the transmitter and receiver must be able to "see" each other. 

Open plan office?

This could be a boon for open-plan houses and offices but not so great for those surrounded by walls. Oh, by the way, it won't work in bright sunlight either, for obvious reasons. No more going outside to enjoy a balmy day.

One way around this, of course, would be to wire your house with fiber optic cable at rather vast expense so you can put a wireless Li-Fi router in each room. That, of course, pretty much gets us back where we started -- stringing wires everywhere.

But a New Delhi, India, company called Velmenni is promoting a way around that hurdle, basically by building Li-Fi into LED light bulbs, in effect creating a hotspot in each room. 

The Li-Fi concept has been around for a while, and Velmenni is not alone in looking for ways to commercialize it. Its light-bulb concept eliminates some of the interconnection issues but apparently holds speeds down to about 1 gbps, which is roughly what a high-end wired connection can deliver.

Even without the 224 mbps speeds, however, Velmenni aruges that its brand of Li-Fi could be a boon in areas where Wi-Fi interference is a problem. It can also solve some security issues, since Li-Fi signals don't pass through walls.

It would also be beneficial for those who claim to be allergic to Wi-Fi signals, a small but growing group. 

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Plastic building materials make the “tiny” house energy efficient

Building materials industry may be embracing the tiny trend

As we have previously noted, “tiny” houses -- small dwellings often less than 200 square feet -- are becoming increasingly popular in the U.S.A tiny ho...

PhotoAs we have previously noted, “tiny” houses -- small dwellings often less than 200 square feet -- are becoming increasingly popular in the U.S.

A tiny house is often built from scratch by the person who plans to occupy it, using materials close at hand. But more and more, tiny houses are being manufactured by companies.

Recently, Zack Giffin, co-host of FYI Network's "Tiny House Nation," teamed up with manufacturers to build an energy efficient tiny house using new plastic building products that are designed to maximize a home's overall energy efficiency.

Cheap to build and operate

Since people usually build a tiny house because it costs less, the builders thought, "why not make it as energy efficient to operate?" That way it's not only inexpensive to build, but also to heat and cool.

By some estimates U.S. residences use more than 40% of the nation's energy. That's due in part to older, less efficient building materials. The plastic tiny house uses new plastic building products that promote efficiency in any size building.

The prototype is set up at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, where guests can explore it to learn how these new building products, used both inside and out, can reduce energy use, improve durability, and make it easier to maintain.

Improve any home's efficiency

"This tiny house is a great way to show how modern building materials can improve any home's energy efficiency," said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council. "In one small space, visitors can see more than a dozen ways that innovative plastic building products work together to help save energy and money on utility bills."

Russell credited Griffin for his knowledge in building and design conservation. He said he hopes the plastic tiny house will call attention to the need for improved energy efficiency in all homes.

The building products used to construct the prototype include airtight polyurethane foam insulation, a UV-resistant polycarbonate skylight, and plastic solar shingles that both protect the roof and generate energy.

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Amazon is now the top brand among moms

The age of e-commerce is here, and it's a force to be reckoned with

As a generation famous for their love of ease and convenience (lookin' at you, Millennials) begins their parenting journey, the era of online shopping has ...

PhotoAs a generation famous for their love of ease and convenience (lookin' at you, Millennials) begins their parenting journey, the era of online shopping has kicked into high gear.  

That's right, the “Eh, I'll just get it online” crew is having babies – and Amazon is reaping some major benefits. The brand is now the most loved among moms who have children aged 6-12, topping the list of 283 family-friendly brands assessed in an annual brand tracking study conducted by market research firm Smarty Pants.

With its ease of use and a depth of products that could fill an ocean, what mom wouldn't be tempted to skip the brick-and-mortar stores this holiday season? As the mom of a 9-year-old girl summarizes, “I love all the choices of products, Amazon Prime with its 2-day free shipping, and making wish lists so I can grab stuff when prices drop. I love shopping in my pajamas without dragging my kids to stores.”

It meets the needs of contemporary moms

If research findings are any indication, Amazon is poised to nab the biggest wins of the holiday shopping season. . . and beyond. The brand is rolling out new services all the time, making it easier than ever to shop at the site.

Dr. Michelle Poris, head of quantitative research at Smarty Pants explains, “The brand is removing the two main drawbacks of online shopping – shipping costs and wait times – and expanding services like Amazon Instant Video that extend the brand to mean so much more than shopping.”

Amazon is even getting in on the grocery game. With Amazon Prime Now, groceries – as well as toys, appliances, and other home items – can be delivered right to your door from a local store within two hours after ordering (or one hour, for a small fee).

What’s next for physical retailers?

With such a large percentage of the nation's shoppers turning on their computers instead of their ignitions to go shopping, the future of brick-and-mortar stores remains to be seen. Stores like Staples, GameStop, the Gap, and Barnes & Noble are all closing hundreds of stores nationwide as a result of the convenience of online shopping.

Online retailers have a weapon that physical stores simply can’t compete with: their ability to track visitors, obtain consumer data, and change their marketing strategies to cater to customers. Armed with this kind of information, online shopping is an unstoppable force.

While physical shopping does have certain perks – it’s nice, for instance, to actually examine a product in your own hands before purchasing it – it’s not hard to imagine an online-only future.

Ten years from now, physical stores could be as archaic in feel as Blockbuster video. After all, it’s a Netflix world out there.

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Pending home sales show little change in October

But they did show another year-over-year increase

After two straight months of declines, pending home sales inched higher in October, as gains in the Northeast and West were offset by declines in the Midwe...

PhotoAfter two straight months of declines, pending home sales inched higher in October, as gains in the Northeast and West were offset by declines in the Midwest and South.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), which is based on contract signings, was up a miniscule 0.2% last month to 107.7. The index is now up 3.9% from October 2014 and has increased year-over-year for 14 months in a row.

A plateau in pending sales

The lack of strong movement may be the result of buyers struggling to overcome a scant number of available homes for sale and prices that are rising too fast in some markets.

"Contract signings in October made the most strides in the Northeast, which hasn't seen much of the drastic price appreciation and supply constraints that are occurring in other parts of the country," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "In the most competitive metro areas -- particularly those in the South and West -- affordability concerns remain heightened as low inventory continues to drive up prices."

Yun notes that although contract activity has slightly trended downward since the spring, the strengthening of several local job markets continues to fuel the improved demand for buying that has now pushed existing-sales above a five million sales pace for eight consecutive months.

"Areas that are heavily reliant on oil-related jobs are the exception and have already started to see some softness in sales because of declining energy prices," he added.

Regional contracts

  • The PHSI in the Northeast rose 4.5% to 93.6 in October, and is now 6.8% above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index declined 1.0% to 103.9, but remains 3.3% above October 2014.
  • Pending home sales in the South dipped 1.7% to an index of 118.1 last month and are now 0.3% below last October.
  • The index in the West climbed 1.7% to 106.2, and is 10.4% above a year ago.

The outlook

With demand expected to remain stable through the final two months of the year, Yun is forecasting existing-home sales to finish 2015 at a pace of 5.3 million -- the highest since 2006.

Although further expansion in existing-sales is expected next year, continuing inventory shortages and affordability pressures from rising prices and mortgage rates will likely temper sales growth to around 3% (5.45 million) in 2016. Home prices are expected to slightly moderate from a 6% increase in 2015 to 5% next year.

Yun said he believes that unless sizable supply gains occur for new and existing homes, “prices and rents will continue to exceed wages into next year and hamstring a large pool of potential buyers trying to buy a home.”

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Couple entrusts their dog to film their wedding day

The results are as beautiful as they are unique

Hiring a close family friend to be your wedding videographer is a dream come true – someone you know, trust, and are happy to have around on the big day. O...

PhotoHiring a close family friend to be your wedding videographer is a dream come true – someone you know, trust, and are happy to have around on the big day. One Tennessee couple found someone who fit that bill perfectly, and it just so happened she was willing to do it for free: their dog.

A wedding through a dog's eyes

Josh Burnette and his new wife Addie enlisted the help of their Siberian Husky, Ryder, to capture their snowy mountaintop nuptials and the at-home reception that followed. With a GoPro camera firmly strapped to her, Ryder perfectly captures the day's most precious moments.

“We actually eloped, so everything was last minute, including my wedding dress,” said the new Mrs. Burnette. The Roan Mountain backdrop was even more special to the couple since it was where they had their first date ten years before.

From pre-ceremony preparations to the couple's “cold and magical” first moments as husband and wife, the sweet, shaky footage shows the special day from the perspective of a very loving set of eyes. 

“Ryder did a pretty great job. We've had several comments that she did better than most hired wedding videographers," says the new Mrs. Burnette.

“She took a while to edit the footage, but we think she did a great job," adds Jordan.

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Blue Buffalo recalls Cub Size Wilderness Wild Chews Bones

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Blue Buffalo Company is recalling one production lot of Cub Size Wilderness Wild Chews Bones. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. ...

PhotoBlue Buffalo Company is recalling one production lot of Cub Size Wilderness Wild Chews Bones.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

The product was distributed starting November 19, 2015, in PetSmart stores in California, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington

 

The recalled product comes individually shrink-wrapped in plastic with the UPC number 840243110087 printed on a sticker affixed to the product, and an expiration date of November 4, 2017, printed as “exp 110417” on the shrink-wrap.

 

The following product is being recalled:

Product NameUPC CodeExpiration Date
Cub Size Wilderness Wild Chews Bone840243110087November 4, 2017

 

Customers who purchased the recalled product should dispose of it or return it to the place of purchase for full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Blue Buffalo at 888-641-9736 from 8 AM to 5 PM (ET) Monday through Friday, or by email at Bluebuffalo4260@stericycle.com.

 

 

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Consumers disappoint retailers on Black Friday

Two-day sales tally may be less than last year

Despite the hype and doorbuster bargains, consumers were less inclined to jam into malls on Black Friday, according to a preliminary sales tally. They were...

PhotoDespite the hype and doorbuster bargains, consumers were less inclined to jam into malls on Black Friday, according to a preliminary sales tally. They were also less likely to shop online.

ShopperTrak, a consumer analytics firm, estimates consumers spent $12.1 billion on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. If those numbers hold up, it would be less than was spent over those two days last year.

Specifically, Thanksgiving Day accounted for an estimated $1.8 billion in sales, while Black Friday brought in an estimated $10.4 billion.

Early sales take a toll

Is this a sign of an impending recession, or simply a case of early sales? Kevin Kearns, ShopperTrak chief revenue officer, says it's probably the latter, with retailers cannibalizing the big shopping day with early sales.

“This year, we saw Black Friday ads emerge before Halloween, as retailers aimed to get at the shopper’s wallet early,” he said.

Kearns says evidence suggests these early promotions generated sales prior to the Black Friday weekend. Money that was spent on Black Friday last year may have been spent during the previous two weeks this year.

Reinforcing a trend

“Fewer visits on both days reinforce the trend we’ve seen throughout the year, in which shoppers are researching products ahead of time, targeting their store visits, and arriving in-store with the intention of making a purchase,” Kearns said. “The decrease in shopper visits on Thanksgiving Day also lends itself to the social backlash against store openings on the holiday.”

Meanwhile, BestBlackFriday.com projects Cyber Monday spending will be strong, approaching $2.25 billion. But Phil Dengler, a principal at the website, says it too is losing its ability to attract attention.

Declining importance of Cyber Monday

“Honestly, Black Friday and Thanksgiving had so many more doorbusters online this year than ever before, so Cyber Monday is really not necessary anymore,” Dengler told ConsumerAffairs. “Regardless, we will still continue to cover it as long as stores have sales. In the end though, we say retire it.”

Dengler says Best Buy stands out this year as the retailer with the best deals. He cites the company's extensive Cyber Monday ad, praising its diverse selection.

As an example, he cites a $300 Best Buy gift card when you trade in a working smartphone and lease or activate a Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ or a Note 5.  

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Black Friday shoppers beware: thievery is pretty prominent on this retail "holiday"

Be sure that your items are safe before diving back into the shopping fray, or shop online to avoid the risk

Everyone is being swept up by the Black Friday craze this year; stores like Target and Walmart are boasting of strong sales numbers as we head into the wee...

PhotoEveryone is being swept up by the Black Friday craze this year; stores like Target and Walmart are boasting of strong sales numbers as we head into the weekend. While the huge discounts and masses of people are hallmarks of this retail “holiday”, thievery is something that it has become infamous for in recent years as well. Consumers should stay vigilant when it comes to keeping themselves and their newly acquired items safe.

In a report from Fortune.com, insurance company Travelers said that thefts are, on average, 2% higher on Black Friday than any other day of the year, and for good reason. Many consumers will be storing bought items in their vehicles and jumping back into the fray to see what other deals they can find; this is optimal for thieves who will be prowling parking lots in search of valuables.

Consumers are not safe when they leave the mall though. When Travelers broke down all claims made on Black Friday, they found that thefts were 28% higher than any other day of the year when they included ones made off-premise (not at the mall or retail store). “On Black Friday, thieves are just much more focused on the opportunity than on a regular basis,” said Patrick Gee, senior vice president at Travelers.

Take away the opportunity to steal

Thieves are not too picky about which items they can get their hands on, but statistics show that there are some trends associated with items stolen. On average, clothing and apparel are 40% more likely to be stolen than other items and toys are three times more likely to be stolen. Despite the huge surge in sales on Black Friday, electronic items are no more likely to be stolen on this day than any other day of the year.

Consumers can take several different steps to make sure that their goods are safe while they shop. If you insist on keeping items in your car while you go back to shop, make sure everything is covered or out of sight when they're in your car; thieves who see an item they want will be much more likely to take it if given the opportunity.

Taking away the opportunity to steal is probably your best bet, though. After checking out, bring your items straight home so that they're safe. You can also remove yourself from the equation altogether by hunting for deals online.

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Emails cast pall over Coke-funded research on obesity

Correspondences reveal that the company was much more involved with a scientific group that was doing the research

A few months ago, we reported on how Coca-Cola was responding to criticism of its research funding. Basically, the company had come under fire for bankroll...

PhotoA few months ago, we reported on how Coca-Cola was responding to criticism of its research funding. Basically, the company had come under fire for bankrolling studies that showed that obesity was mainly caused by sedentary lifestyle choices and not by the amount of calories a person consumed.

The company even went so far as to launch a website to explain its research funding (i.e. where it was spending its money and how much). Coca-cola defended its funding of groups like the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), saying that “our engagement and financial support of these well-respected experts, institutions and organizations were made with the best of intentions – to inform our business, support our local communities and support solutions to the public health issues facing people across the United States and around the world.”

Well, it seems that this patronage may not have been so well-intentioned after all. Emails uncovered by the Associated Press (AP) appear to show that the research done by GEBN was heavily influenced by its relationship with Coca-Cola.

Extensive involvement

The emails that the AP exposed show correspondence between James Hill, GEBN president and a Colorado med school professor, and Rhona Applebaum, the chief health and science officer for Coca-Cola. John Peters, another leader at GEBN, is also included in some of the emails.

The emails show that Coca-Cola funded GEBN research so that they could stress how important diet and exercise are – but they also wanted the blame shifted off of their company. In October of 2012, Hill received an email from Applebaum saying that they would be sending a “stimulus package” to GEBN. She says those working on the project will need to be open about collaboration with private industry and that this collaboration is “non-negotiable.”

In November of 2012, Applebaum emailed Hill and Peters about questions the media had been asking about the Coke-funded study. She offers the two GEBN leaders media training as well, stating that “all our folks receive it.”

In July of 2014, Applebaum compares the GEBN research to a political campaign. “We will develop, deploy and evolve a powerful and multi-facted strategy to counter radical organizations and their proponents,” she said. She later states that the company's hope was to make GEBN “the place the media goes to for comment on any obesity issue.”

Emails were sent back and forth between Applebaum, Hill, and Peters well into 2015. A description of each can be found here.

Importance of impartiality

This level of involvement with GEBN shows that Coca-cola was much more involved in the group's research than simply sending them money. It was not just a one-way street either; GEBN showed that it supported Coca-cola as well.

“It is not fair that Coca-Cola is signaled out as the #1 villain in the obesity world, but that is the situation and makes this your issue whether you like it or not . . . I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples' lives and back to a being a company that brings important and fun things to them,” wrote Hill in an email to a Coke executive.

A basic tenet of scientific rsearch is that it should remain impartial and that finds should not be “influenced by particular perspectives, value commitments, community bias or personal interests,” as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it. 

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Fewer Americans say they want to lose weight

Gallup finds more Americans are happy with their current weight

For the first time in at least 25 years, fewer than half of Americans say they want to lose weight, according to Gallup. Dur...

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Photo © aleutie - Fotolia

For the first time in at least 25 years, fewer than half of Americans say they want to lose weight, according to Gallup. During the period from 2001 to 2008, nearly 60% of us wanted to shed excess poundage, Gallup's annual Health and Healthcare poll found. 

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Not only that, but an increasing percentage of us, currently 41%, say our present weight is just fine, thanks. This may sound like wishful thinking, but, as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Gallup calculates Americans' body mass index scores based on respondents' self-reported height and weight. The obesity rate ticked up to 27.7% in 2014, the highest rate recorded since Gallup and Healthways began tracking it in 2008. 

In addition to being less likely to say they want to lose weight in recent years, fewer Americans say they are making a concerted effort to do so. Less than a quarter of adults (24%) report they are "seriously trying to lose weight." This is the lowest reading since 2002, though it is similar to the 25% to 30% of adults who said they were "seriously" trying from 2003 through 2014.

When asked to describe their weight, 37% say they are "very" or "somewhat overweight." This has generally declined since 1990, when about half of adults (48%) said they were overweight. Meanwhile, 5% say they are "very" or "somewhat underweight."

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Americans, however, are most likely to describe their weight as "about right" (56%) -- consistent with readings since 2009. From 1990 to 2008, this figure was in a lower range, from 46% to 54%.

The overwhelming majority of those who say they are overweight also report wanting to lose weight. Over the past decade, between 90% and 96% of those who describe themselves as overweight have said they wanted to drop some pounds. This suggests that the decline in the percentage of Americans wanting to lose weight is more attributable to fewer people saying they are overweight than to overweight people being less likely to say they want to lose weight.

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Failure to report to the CPSC costs Philips Lighting North America millions

The company did not report defective lamps

Philips Lighting North America of Somerset, N.J., will pay a $2 million civil penalty to the government, settling charges that it  knowingly failed to repo...

PhotoPhilips Lighting North America of Somerset, N.J., will pay a $2 million civil penalty to the government, settling charges that it  knowingly failed to report information to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) about a defect and an unreasonable risk of serious injury with EnergySaver (a.k.a. “Marathon” or “Marathon Classic”) compact fluorescent lamps.

After numerous complaints about glass separating from the body of the lamps and striking people and objects, and attempting multiple design changes to fix the problem, Philips failed to report the matter to the CPSC. The incidents resulted in ten reports of lacerations and seven reports of property damage.

In addition to paying the $2 million civil penalty, Philips has agreed to implement and maintain a compliance program to ensure compliance with the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA) and a related system of internal controls and procedures.

Compliance program

The compliance program requires written standards and policies and written procedures to ensure that all information regarding the firm’s compliance with the CPSA, including reports and complaints, whether an injury is referenced or not, is conveyed to the firm’s responsible employees. The compliance program also must address:

  • confidential employee reporting of compliance concerns to a senior manager;

  • effective communication of compliance policies and procedures, including training;

  • senior management responsibility for, and board oversight of, compliance; and

  • requirements for record retention.

The lamps were recalled in August 2011 after Philips had manufactured about 1.86 million units. Grocery and home center stores, online retailers, and professional electrical distributors sold the lamps from March 2007 through July 2011 for between $11 and $24 each.

Philips does not admit to the CPSC staff’s charges.

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Most merchants still haven't adopted chip card technology

Holiday shoppers likely to encounter the old swipe card readers

With the holiday shopping season now in full swing, retailers are braced for the heaviest shopping days of the year.However, the results of a recent 20...

PhotoWith the holiday shopping season now in full swing, retailers are braced for the heaviest shopping days of the year.

However, the results of a recent 2015 Merchant Survey, conducted by Fattmerchant, has found that 72% percent of business owners have not yet adopted EMV-compliant technology, putting them at risk for fraudulent activity.

Since October 1, merchants have been liable for credit card fraud, a change from when the credit card companies were on the hook.

200% fraud rates

With fraud rates reaching 200% of the average rate on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone, Fattmerchant says businesses without EMV technology will be held financially responsible for fraudulent transactions, making these stats particularly alarming.

While there has been a lot of education and information for business owners about making the switch to EMV equipment, Fattmerchant says 36% of business owners still do not know anything about what the switch really means.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) has also expressed concern that so many retail businesses are exposed. But the trade association has also pushed hard for a revision in the EMV card system by asking that a PIN be added. Without it, the more secure chip cards can still be used if they are lost or stolen because the user just has to provide a signature, says the NRF.

Pushing for a PIN

The NRF says law enforcement also advocates a PIN for the new chip cards. The attorneys general of Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington state and the District of Columbia recently wrote to the credit card companies urging the addition of a PIN.

“The chip-and-PIN approach is considered by many to be the gold standard currently for payment card security,” the letter said. “Countries that have implemented chip-and-PIN cards have seen significant reductions in fraudulent transactions.”

Not only have many retailers not installed the new chip card readers, many consumers are still using the old magnetic strip cards. Credit card companies have several more months in which to issue the new cards with an embedded chip.

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Emphasis already shifting to Cyber Monday

Amazon will join Walmart in offering deals early

Make no mistake, there will be plenty of consumers jamming stores to take advantage of Black Friday deals. But the emphasis has already shifted to Cyber Mo...

PhotoMake no mistake, there will be plenty of consumers jamming stores to take advantage of Black Friday deals. But the emphasis has already shifted to Cyber Monday and beyond, as retailers jockey for position to sell gifts between now and Christmas Day.

Amazon.com has extended its holiday promotions with new deals that start on Saturday and run through Monday.

While Black Friday may be bigger for brick-and-mortar stores, an Internet-only retailer like Amazon makes the most of Cyber Monday. Last year, Amazon sold more than 43 million items worldwide, which was a record-breaking 500 items per second.

Some of last year's big sellers were the Samsung 40” Smart LED TV, GoPro HERO4, Disney Frozen Elsa Doll, Anki DRIVE Smart Robot Car Racing Game, LORAC PRO Palette, and Cuisinart 5-in-1 Griddler.

This year's deals

This year's Cyber Monday deals will include the Amazon Fire for $34.99; the LG Electronics 60” 1080p TV, less than $700; $10 off $50 orders of select Black & Decker and STANLEY tools; up to 45% off on select Wilton bakeware; up to 50% off on select Coleman gear; and 65% off select cashmere for women.

Amazon Prime members get unlimited free two-day shipping on more than 20 million items and unlimited free same-day delivery on more than a million items in 16 metro areas.

But if you aren't a Prime member, you'll need to read shipping details carefully. Amazon offers free shipping on eligible orders of $35 or more.

Early start for Walmart

Meanwhile, Walmart says it's moving up its Cyber Monday schedule to 8 p.m. Sunday night to provide a simpler and more convenient experience for customers. Walmart said it noticed in past years that consumers were searching online for bargains on Sunday evening, then waiting up until midnight to place their orders.

“It can be exhausting for working parents and millenials to stay up past midnight to shop online, only to wake up early the next day to get ready for work,” said Fernando Madeira, President and CEO, Walmart.com. “By starting Cyber Monday hours earlier on Sunday evening and quadrupling the number of Cyber Monday specials, we’re making it easier for customers to get ahead of the busiest online shopping day of the year and save on the best gifts.”

Cyber Monday bargains

Walmart says some of the deals include $500 off an LG 65-inch HDTV and a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 for $599, a savings of $200. Both items will be available with free shipping.

Other Cyber Monday deals include:

  • Air Hogs Star Wars Remote Control X-34 Landspeeder – $19, plus free shipping to store
  • 14-ft. Trampoline with Enclosure – $189, plus free shipping
  • Porter Cable 3-Tool Combo Kit – $79, plus free shipping
  • Air Hogs Video Drone – $75, plus free shipping
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Melatonin supplements face arsenic concerns

Take a closer look at what's inside the 30 best-selling melatonin products

It is estimated that 50-70 million American adults suffer from sleep disorders – a number so large as to warrant “public health problem” status in a statem...

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Small businesses expect bump in sales

As the busiest shopping season of the year draws near, consider the little guys

Small Business Saturday is just around the corner, and for the first time in two years more small business owners are expecting a boost to their business' ...

PhotoSmall Business Saturday is just around the corner, and for the first time in two years more small business owners are expecting a boost to their business' bottom line from Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Forty eight percent of small business owners expect Black Friday to provide a bump in sales (compared to only 24% in 2014). This comes as a well deserved win for the humble underdog of the World o' Commerce after all they've done for their local communities over the years.

Both national and local economies benefit

"Small businesses are a vital part of our nation's economy and of the local economies they operate in," said Jodi Uecker, interim president of Sage North America. "As the holiday shopping season approaches, shop at local small businesses to support your community."

Small businesses have created more than two million of the approximately three million private-sector jobs generated in 2014, and almost all – 92 percent! – of small business owners personally donate to charities and non-profit organizations.

In addition to job creation, small businesses funnel more of every dollar back into the local economy than any other retailer. According to the research firm Civic Economics, for every $100 spent at a locally operated business, roughly $68 stays in the local community.

Small business owners not only anticipate a healthier economy, but they also report plans to grow their businesses and to hire more employees over the next 12 months -- all at a much higher rate than in recent years. They are evolving at a rapid pace, and as they grow, their dedication to their communities creates a significant impact on the world around us.

Keeping up with the big box stores

Small business owners' confidence in the economy is at a three-year high. This confidence, however, comes with lingering fears. Many small business owners across the country maintain some level of concern over current events (the upcoming presidential election, the minimum wage hike, and an increase in interest rates).

The antidote to these fears? Investing in the talent they employ. Many small business owners are embracing the workplace practices initiated by some of their larger peers.

The adoption of new technologies has helped small business owners accept payments, connect with employees, track inventory, and boost marketing efforts. It has also improved their ability to serve customers, with customer interactions increasing over the past five years via email, social media, and online chat. 

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Sharks more deadly than Black Friday, but it's close

And if the guy behind you in the check out line seems a little tipsy, he probably is

Anytime crowds head to stores in record number, anything can happen. Black Friday has its share of mayhem and mishaps.The website SheBudgets.com has co...

PhotoAnytime crowds head to stores in record number, anything can happen. Black Friday has its share of mayhem and mishaps.

The website SheBudgets.com has collected a number of interesting facts about the busiest shopping day of the year, and among them – you almost have as much chance of being killed at a Black Friday event as being fatally attacked by a shark.

In the last five years, the site says, Black Friday has been blamed for seven deaths and 98 injuries. Sharks, on the other hand, kill five and injure 100 people a year. While sharks kill more people, those attacks occur over 365 days – Black Friday is just one day.

Origin of the name

How did Black Friday get its name? It has always been accepted fact that the name derives from the fact that most retailers reach the breakeven point by Thanksgiving. After that, everything they make is profit.

Not so, says SheBudgets. The site claims Philadelphia Police came up with the name in the 1950s because of the horrendous traffic caused by all the shoppers flocking to stores.

A lot of celebration goes on around Thanksgiving, and it apparently continues into Black Friday. The shopping site RetailMeNot claims 12% of Black Friday shoppers show up drunk. Come to think of it, that could explain a lot of the mayhem and mishaps.

Quality issues

SheBudgets makes an interesting claim when it says stores tend to roll out low quality items to entice shoppers. That might have been the case in the past but may not be now.

Still, we reported several years ago that consumers who purchased flat screen TVs on Black Friday seemed to have a lot of problems with them.

Finally, Black Friday is not only the busiest day of the year for retailers, it's also the busiest day for plumbers. Most likely it has something to do with the clean-up from the Thanksgiving feast. Too many food scraps down the drain, maybe?

SheBudgets also notes that 79% of Americans will do at least some of their Black Friday weekend shopping online, certainly easier and safer. Still, millions will hit the mall.

So stay sober, and stay safe.

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Boyle’s Famous Corned Beef recalls beef products

The products contain hydrolyzed wheat protein, an allergen not listed on the label

Boyle’s Famous Corned Beef of Kansas City, Mo., is recalling an undetermined amount of beef products. The products contain hydrolyzed wheat protein...

 

PhotoBoyle’s Famous Corned Beef of Kansas City, Mo., is recalling an undetermined amount of beef products.

 

The products contain hydrolyzed wheat protein, an allergen not listed on the label.

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

The following products, produced between Nov. 24, 2013, and Nov. 24, 2015, is being recalled.

  • Approximately 20-lb. cases containing “Boyle’s FAMOUS USDA CHOICE SEASONED-COOKED BEEF TOP ROUND.”

The recalled products, which bear establishment number “EST. M-469” inside the USDA mark of inspection, were shipped to distributors in Iowa, Kansas and Missouri.

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

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Gregg Ouverson at (816) 221-6284.

 

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BRP recalls snowmobiles

Internal damage to the fuel hose can cause a leak

BRP U.S. of Sturtevant, Wis., is recalling about 2,800 Ski-Doo snowmobiles. Internal damage to the fuel hose can cause a leak, posing a fire hazard...

PhotoBRP U.S. of Sturtevant, Wis., is recalling about 2,800 Ski-Doo snowmobiles.

 

Internal damage to the fuel hose can cause a leak, posing a fire hazard.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves 68 models of 2016 Ski-Doo snowmobiles equipped with a 600 HO E-TEC engine or an 800R E-TEC engine. The VIN is scribed on the vehicle description decal, which is located on the right hand side of the tunnel. The vehicles came in various colors.

The snowmobiles, manufactured in Canada, were sold at Ski-Doo dealers nationwide from September 2015, to November 2015, from about $12,000 to $17,000.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled vehicles and contact BRP 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 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (ET) Monday through Sunday, or online at http://www.ski-doo.com/owner-center/safety-recall for more information.

 
 
 
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Weekend air travel forecast: crowds, long lines, full flights

Good news: gas prices down but bad news: highway death up

It almost seems unnecessary to say this, but it's shaping up to be a holiday travel season from ... well, you know. Crowds are bigger, security is tighter,...

PhotoIt almost seems unnecessary to say this, but it's shaping up to be a holiday travel season from ... well, you know. Crowds are bigger, security is tighter, and lines are longer. Gas is cheap, but highway deaths are up. 

AAA estimates that 46.9 million people in the United States will travel more than 50 miles from home, with nearly 42 million people traveling by car, the highest number since Thanksgiving of 2007. Airline industry execs are expecting an 8% increase in travel this holiday season, meaning that already full planes will be even fuller, if that's possible. 

On top of that, the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) recently changed its policy and is no longer opening its Pre-Check lanes to non-Pre-Check passengers, making the regular screening lines longer. 

To add to the angst, the State Department has issued a traveler's advisory, warning Americans to be on the look-out for terrorism even though there is no known specific threat against U.S. targets. The recent downing of a Russian jetliner and the attacks in Paris are contributing to heightened security at airports, train stations, and elsewhere.

Jump in the car

Driving is an option for shorter trips, of course, and the good news on that front is that gas prices are at their lowest pre-Thanksgiving level in seven years. The nationwide average price of a gallon of regular-grade gas sits at $2.09, a full 73 cents lower than at this time last year. As always with averages, you will find prices that are higher, sometimes much higher, and prices that are lower.  

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U.S. Energy Information Administration

If you drive, here's something to consider: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has found an alarming increase in traffic deaths for the first six months of the year.

NHTSA says the death rate is 8.1% higher than the same period last year. NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind calls the numbers "troubling" but cautions that they're still preliminary and no single cause has been established -- although distraction from smartphones and other gadgets is a prime suspect.

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Multi-state E. coli outbreak linked to Costco's chicken salad

Five people sent to the hospital

Federal and state health agencies are investigating a multi-state E. coli outbreak that has been linked to chicken salad sold at Costco.To date, incide...

PhotoFederal and state health agencies are investigating a multi-state E. coli outbreak that has been linked to chicken salad sold at Costco.

To date, incidents have been reported in seven states: California, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Utah, Virginia, and Washington.

The number of people sickened by the tainted chicken salad is small, but health officials are concerned since Costco products are usually sold in very large containers, and are sometimes purchased to serve at events with many people.

So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are taking the lead at the federal level, with various state health departments investigating at the local level.

The E. coli strain has been identified as Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O157:H7 (STEC O157:H7). That's the same strain that caused illnesses last month and was linked to some Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants.

Five people hospitalized

The CDC says five of the people who have become ill have been hospitalized and two have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure. No deaths have been reported.

Health officials say the evidence available at this time suggests that rotisserie chicken salad made and sold in Costco Wholesale stores in several states is a likely source of this outbreak.

Fourteen of 16 people purchased or ate rotisserie chicken salad from Costco in the week before the illness started, the CDC said. So far, the investigation has not identified what specific ingredient in the chicken salad is linked to the illness.

Costco reports that it has removed all remaining rotisserie chicken salad from all stores in the U.S. and stopped further production of the product until further notice.

If you purchased rotisserie chicken salad from any Costco store in the United States on or before November 20, 2015, you should not eat it and throw it away.

Even if some of the rotisserie chicken salad has been eaten and no one has gotten sick, throw the rest of the product away, the CDC advised.

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Beware of pet shops offering puppies

Most dogs sold in stores come from puppy mills

Among all the concern about terrorists, refugees, and the like, there are people who have more local concerns, like the stores in their communities that se...

PhotoAmong all the concern about terrorists, refugees, and the like, there are people who have more local concerns, like the stores in their communities that sell puppies.

Most of these stores portray themselves as having puppies that came from “local small breeders.” But forget the image you have in your head of a nice family who breeds their female dog once a year and sells the puppies after meeting prospective families. And forget the image of the experienced breeders who supply the championship dogs that you see at the Westminster Kennel Club shows.

The breeders who sell to puppy stores don’t fall into either category. Instead, they most resemble farmers who raise crops to sell. Their dogs are a commodity, nothing else.

USDA Certified

Puppy stores also brag that their breeders are "USDA Certified," but that distinction means very little. The USDA requires a fee, performs an initial inspection of a breeder’s facilities, and then issues a license to breeders whose facilities meet minimum standards set by the Animal Welfare Act. The AWA, however, was passed in 1965, before dog breeding became big business.

According to the USDA website, after that initial inspection, the agency “uses a risk-based inspection system in order to make the best use of its resources.” Meaning that if a breeder passes a subsequent inspection, he may not have another inspection for several years, since there are more than 1,700 dog breeding facilities in the country and only 120 inspectors.

These breeders are not concerned with the temperament or genetic issues of the dogs in their kennels. They breed their female dogs as often as three times a year, or every time the dog comes into heat. The puppies are taken away as early as 8 weeks and shipped, often out of state, to pet stores. There they will be sold to anyone with the money to pay.

Genetic issues

Because the puppies are taken away so young, genetic abnormalities are usually not apparent until the dog is much older. Most puppy stores offer some kind of health guarantee for a limited time after purchase, but the burden is on the buyer to prove that the puppy had an illness before purchase, and most of these guarantees do not offer needed veterinary care, but instead require returning the puppy for another dog.

By the time the puppy gets sick, though, the family has usually fallen in love and doesn’t want to return it, especially knowing that their cute little ball of fluff will probably be euthanized rather than treated.

Change is coming, however. In 2015, Phoenix, AZ and Beverly Hills, CA became the latest cities to ban sales of commercially-bred puppies in pet stores. Instead, the stores are required to offer only rescue dogs for adoption. Across the country, there are 60 cities and counties that ban sales of dogs in shops, and another 25 communities in Canada have passed similar legislation.

The ASPCA has more information on its website

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Feds further delay "quiet car" rule

Safety regulators want hybrids to make more noise

Electric and hybrid cars are very quiet, so much so that drivers sometimes wonder why their tires are making so much noise or why their watch is ticking so...

PhotoElectric and hybrid cars are very quiet, so much so that drivers sometimes wonder why their tires are making so much noise or why their watch is ticking so loudly.

But while these sounds of silence may be soothing to those inside the car, they can be dangerous to pedestrians, bicyclists, and others who may not hear the cars approaching at low speeds.

For years, safety regulators have been planning to draft a rule that would require quiet cars to announce themselves -- to make some kind of sound that would alert others to their presence. But things move slowly in Washington and so far, it's still the Wild and Silent West for quiet cars.

Congress passed a law back in 2010 that required the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to finalize a quiet-car rule by January 2014, but deadlines have a way of slipping by and now the agency says it will be March 2016 before anything happens.

Whether the rule is really necessary is something that could be debated, but the NHTSA says it has calculated that electric cars are 19% more likely to be involved in a pedestrian accident than gas-powered vehicles. And it says noisier cars would prevent 2,800 pedestrian and bicyclist injuries annually, out of a total of 125,000 such injuries each year.

 NHTSA gave no reason for the delay, saying only that "additional coordination" was needed.

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YouTube faces FTC complaints about advertising to kids

Its ad practices called "harmful, unethical, and irresponsible"

Two consumer groups have filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), accusing Google of engaging in unfair and deceptive practices toward chi...

PhotoTwo consumer groups have filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), accusing Google of engaging in unfair and deceptive practices toward children on its YouTube Kids App for kids five and younger. 

“Our new complaints underscore why the FTC needs to stop Google from engaging in what are nothing less than harmful, unethical, and irresponsible practices that target America’s youngest children,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), which joined with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) in filing the complaints.

The groups want the FTC to broaden its investigation of YouTube Kids to include Google’s relationships with multichannel video programmers; food, beverage and toy companies; its major YouTube advertising and “unboxing” video partners; and companies that specialize in “influencer” and product placement marketing on YouTube. 

Food and drink

In one of the complaints, CCFC and CDD urge the Commission to hold 17 food and beverage manufacturers accountable for violating the self-regulatory pledges they made as members of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).

A review of YouTube Kids by CCFC and CDD found hundreds of commercials and promotional videos for products these companies had publicly pledged not to market to children under the age of 12.

For example, even though the Coca-Cola Company has pledged to not market any beverages to children under 12, CCFC and CDD found 47 television commercials and 11 longer promotional videos for Coke and Coke Zero on YouTube Kids.

“Far from being a safe place for kids to explore, YouTube Kids is awash with food and beverage marketing that you won’t find on other media platforms for young children,” said CCFC’s Josh Golin. “The Commission should investigate why Google’s algorithms aren’t configured to keep junk food marketing off of YouTube Kids, and hold food and beverage companies accountable for violating their pledges not to target their most unhealthy products to children.”

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Three doggy health hazards to avoid on Thanksgiving

Because your pup would rather see its family than the vet

Any holiday centered around food is bound to be an exciting one for dogs. In addition to the extra sets of petting hands milling about the house, there is ...

PhotoAny holiday centered around food is bound to be an exciting one for dogs. In addition to the extra sets of petting hands milling about the house, there is also an entire bird on the table.

Sharing Thanksgiving with your four-legged pal is a definite 'do' – but with so many dogs ending up in the vet's office after Turkey Day, it's important to also think about the 'don'ts'. To make sure your favorite companion isn't one of the countless dogs who come down with digestive issues or canine pancreatitis following Thanksgiving, be aware of potentially harmful foods.

Three hazards

Keep in mind the following hazards to ensure your pooch stays healthy. 

1. Left out leftovers: Many dogs don't necessarily get sick from being fed directly -- they get sick because they climb up on the table and eat large quantities of food when humans aren't around.

2. Food no-nos: Don't give your dog turkey skin, poultry bones, onions, grapes, or raisins. These and other foods are actually harmful and/or toxic to dogs.

3. Dental damagers: Avoid giving your dog plastic bones, ice cubes, antlers, and bully sticks. All of them can cause painful doggy tooth fractures.

How to include your pup in the day

So, what can you do when your four-legged pal gives you the puppy dog eyes from under the Thanksgiving table? If you're like most dog-parents, saying 'no' isn't easy.

The good news is that unless your dog has allergies, most Thanksgiving staples are okay for dogs to eat in moderation.

White meat turkey is generally the safest thing on the table that can be fed to dogs – just be sure to avoid the skin.

Dog treats also keep them occupied

Another great way to make sure your dog feels happy and included is to keep a treat on hand. Dental chews and other treats made for dogs keep them busy and have none of the hazards of human holiday foods.

So, before adjourning to the living room to watch football, be sure to clear off the table to avoid the possibility of Fido doing something he'll regret later.  No dog wants to spend the day after Thanksgiving in the vet's office.

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Fewer homes on the market holding back sales

Economist concerned this supply-demand imbalance will hold back market

The air seems to be coming out of the housing market. While some individual markets are more active than others, nationally there is an unmistakable declin...

PhotoThe air seems to be coming out of the housing market. While some individual markets are more active than others, nationally there is an unmistakable decline.

Earlier this week the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reported existing home sales in October fell 3%, to a seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 5.36 million.

It wasn't rising interest rates that caused the slowdown – rates remain near historic lows. It wasn't rising home prices or an increase in unemployment either. In fact, jobs have been growing, though at a slower pace recently.

Instead, Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Realtor.com, says the main reason that fewer houses are selling is that there are fewer houses for sale.

Shrinking inventory

“This report reveals a slowing but strong real estate market in the weakest seasonal quarter of the year,” Smoke said. “However, tight supply continues to be a major factor holding back growth in the market.”

Smoke says inventory is currently down 5% over last October. While that's hurt buyers, it's played to the advantage of sellers. The tight supply of homes has boosted the year-over-year price appreciation to around 6%, which is higher than average.

Smoke points to a few underlying factors in the data that are clearly positive indicators of the improving health of the market. The first-time buyer share increased to 31%, reversing the one-month decline in September.

There are also a lot fewer foreclosures. The share of distressed sales fell to 6%, the lowest level since NAR started collecting that data in 2008.

Unhealthy trend

On balance, Smoke said it isn't good for the market when supply lags too far behind demand.

“Tight supply is an impediment to future growth, and we are not seeing new construction grow enough to fill the void,” he said.

In fact, homebuilders have dramatically curtained activity and are focused on the more upscale market, building fewer entry level homes. As a result, Smoke predicts tight supply will remain a factor for the months and year ahead, moderating gains in sales but also providing firm support for home values.

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Personal income, spending inch higher in October

Jobless claims plunged last week

Your paycheck may have been a little fatter last month -- not a lot, but fatter nonetheless.According to the Bureau of Economic...

Photo
© Kentoh – Fotolia

Your paycheck may have been a little fatter last month -- not a lot, but fatter nonetheless.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), personal income rose 0.4%, or $68.1 billion in October, with disposable personal income (DPI) -- what you have left after taxes -- up $56.8 billion, or 0.4%.

At the same time, personal consumption expenditures (PCE) inched $15.2 billion, or 0.1%, higher.

Incomes

Wages and salaries shot up by $45.0 billion, compared with an increase of just $2.5 billion a month earlier. Private wages and salaries rose $43.0 billion, and government compensation was up $2.0 billion. Supplements to wages and salaries increased $6.5 billion.

Personal outlays and saving

Personal outlays, which includes PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments, jumped $17.8 billion in October -- up $10.5 billion from September.

Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was $761.9 billion in October, versus $722.9 billion in September. That pushed the personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- up 0.3% from September to 5.6%.

The complete report may be found on the BEA website.

 

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Jobless claims

Something to be grateful for heading into the Thanksgiving holiday weekend: initial jobless claims were down sharply last week.

The Department of Labor (DOL) reports first-time applications for state unemployment benefits were down by 12,000 in the week ending November 21 to a seasonally adjusted 260,000. The previous week's level was revised up by 1,000.

The four-week moving average, which lacks the volatility of the weekly headcount and is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was unchanged from the week before at 271,000 -- close to a 15-year low.

The full jobless claims report is available on the DOL website.

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New home sales soar in October

It was another good quarter for home prices

While October may have been a disappointing month for sales of existing homes, it was a good one for sales of new single-fami...

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(c) leschnyhan - Fotolia

While October may have been a disappointing month for sales of existing homes, it was a good one for sales of new single-family houses.

A joint report from the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development put sales at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 495,000 -- a surge of 10.7% above the September rate and a year-over-year gain of 4.9%.

The median sales price of new houses sold last month was $281,500, while the average price was $366,000. The median is the point at which half the houses were priced higher and half were lower.

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of October was 226,000, which represents a supply of 5.5 months at the current sales rate.

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

 

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(c) waldemarus - Fotolia

Home prices

Separately, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) says its House Price Index (HPI) shows house prices in the U.S. rose 1.3% in the third quarter -- the 17th consecutive quarterly price increase.

The FHFA’s seasonally adjusted monthly index for September was up 0.8% from August. On a year-over-year basis, prices rose 5.7% from the third quarter of 2014.

The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to, or guaranteed by, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Video highlights of the HPI are something new this quarter and are available online. 

“The factors that have contributed to extraordinary price growth over the last few years -- low interest rates, tight inventories, strong buyer confidence, and improving income growth -- continued to drive prices upward in much of the country” said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. “However, as prices continue to rise, reduced affordability will be a stronger market headwind,” he added.

Report highlights

  • Home prices rose in every state (except for West Virginia) and in the District of Columbia between the third quarter of 2014 and the third quarter of 2015. The top five areas in annual appreciation were the District of Columbia – 15.4%, Colorado – 12.7%, Nevada – 12.4%, Oregon – 10.0%, and Florida – 10.0%.
  • Among the 100 most populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., four-quarter price increases were greatest in North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, Fla, where prices increased by 16.1%. Prices were weakest in El Paso, Texas, where they fell 3.6%.
  • Of the nine census divisions, the Mountain division experienced the strongest increase in the third quarter, posting a 2.4% quarterly increase and a 9.0% increase since the third quarter of last year. House price appreciation was weakest in the New England division, where prices rose 0.2% from the last quarter.

The complete report is available on the FHFA website.

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Mortgage applications head downward

Contract interest rates were mostly higher

It has been a down week for mortgage applications.The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports that its Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows the...

Photo It has been a down week for mortgage applications.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports that its Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows the number of applications fell 3.2% for the week ending November 20. The previous week’s results included an adjustment for the Veteran’s Day holiday.

The Refinance Index dropped 5% from the previous week, but the refinance share of mortgage activity inched up to 58.7% of total applications from 58.6% the week before.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was 6.4%, the FHA share dipped to 13.7% from 14.4%, the VA share was 11.0%, and the USDA share of total applications was unchanged at 0.7%.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) dropped four basis points -- from 4.18% to 4.14%, with points increasing to 0.49 from 0.45 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) fell to 3.99% from 4.05%, with points decreasing to 0.30 from 0.33 (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 was down three basis points to 3.87%, with points increasing to 0.49 from 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was unchanged.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs inched down from 3.40% to 3.39%, with points down to 0.43 from 0.45 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose one basis point to 3.19%, with points decreasing to 0.38 from 0.45 (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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Toro TimeCutter riding mowers recalled

The mowers' fuel filters can become brittle and fractured

The Toro Company of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling about 9,000 2015 TimeCutter riding mowers in the U.S. and Canada. The fuel filters on the mowe...

PhotoThe Toro Company of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling about 9,000 2015 TimeCutter riding mowers in the U.S. and Canada.

 

The fuel filters on the mowers can become brittle and fractured, allowing fuel to leak and posing a fire hazard.

 

The firm has reported five incidents of fuel leaking. No injuries have been reported.

 

The 2015 TimeCutter riding mowers are red and black, with a gray seat. “TORO” is printed on the front and sides of the mower. A black and white “TIMECUTTER” decal is located in front of the operator seat. The model number and serial number are located on a decal affixed to the frame, under the seat.

 

The following models are being recalled:

 

Model Number

Serial Number Range

74710

315000876 - 315002048

74720

315000101 - 315003342

74731

315000152 - 315000437

74750

315000101 - 315001155

74780

315000101 - 315001700

74781

315000101 - 315000150

74784

315000340 - 315001172

74787

315000403 - 315000437

74790

315000178 - 315000320
315001400 - 315001493

74797

315000624 - 315000698

 

The mowers, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Home Depot and other hardware, lawn and garden stores nationwide from November 2014, through October 2015, for about $3,400.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled mowers and contact the nearest Toro dealer to schedule a free repair. Consumers with registered machines will receive a letter and a fuel filter, and may contact a Toro Dealer if they are uncomfortable with the replacement procedure.

 

Consumers may contact Toro toll-free at 844-521-2384 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at https://www.toro.com/en/product-safety-information/product-recall-information for more information.

 

 

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Toy Story II: Toymakers strike back against Dangerous Toys list

Safety groups' annual listings get manufacturers' goat

Every year about this time, the non-profit consumer group U.S. PIRG casts a wary glance at the toys piled high on ...

Photo
Photo © BillionPhotos.com - Fotolia

Every year about this time, the non-profit consumer group U.S. PIRG casts a wary glance at the toys piled high on store shelves, warning that many of them pose grave risks to unsuspecting children.

This annoys toymakers to no end, so this year the toymakers tried to get ahead of the story by issuing denials and rejoinders before the annual "Trouble in Toyland" report was even released. 

“Each holiday season, a small group of non-governmental organizations seek to generate publicity and donations for themselves by needlessly frightening parents during an otherwise joyful time of year,” said Steve Pasierb, President & CEO of the Toy Industry Association. “Having spent more than two decades in public health, I see these groups time and again failing to support their claims with credible, scientific data that families can trust."

Pasierb, who previously was CEO of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, says it's simply not true that we're surrounded by mountains of unsafe toys.

"What parents can rely on is knowing that all toys sold in the U.S. are highly regulated 365 days a year by the federal government and must meet more than 100 safety standard requirements. These are established facts in which parents can have faith,” Pasierb said in a news release issued weeks ahead of today's release by U.S. PIRG of its 30th annual toy safety report, which says flatly: "Dangerous or toxic toys can still be found on America’s store shelves."

“We should be able to trust that the toys we buy are safe. However, until that’s the case, toy buyers need to watch out for common hazards when shopping for toys,” said Mike Litt of U.S. PIRG.

Getting safer

PhotoThis year's report reveals the results of lab testing on toys for toxic chemicals, including chromium and phthalates, both of which it says can have serious, adverse health impacts on a child’s development. The survey also found what it says are examples of toys that pose a choking hazard, extremely loud toys that can threaten children’s hearing, and powerful toy magnets that can cause serious injury if swallowed.

Both sides agree that, in general, toys are getting safer. 

"The 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act strengthened the Consumer Product Safety Commission and gave it new authority to protect children from unsafe products,” said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and general counsel at Consumer Federation of America. "Parents and all consumers can have more confidence in the toys they may own or consider purchasing. However, consumers should carefully research and select the most age and developmentally appropriate gifts for the children on their gift lists.”

Key findings

Key findings from the U.S. PIRG report include:

  • Toys with high levels of toxic substances are still on store shelves, according to testing by a lab that the organization says is accredited by the CPSC. For example, it said the Fun Bubbles jump rope from Dollar Tree had ten times the legal limit of the banned phthalate DEHP.
  • Despite a ban on small parts in toys for children under the age of three, U.S. PIRG said it found toys available in stores that still pose choking hazards, including a fairy wand from Dollar Tree that has small parts that easily break off but was not labeled as a choking hazard.
  • The report said it found inadequate warning labels in the Disney Pixar Cars Riplash Racers and Disney Planes from Marshalls, G2 Air Mini Football and a Disney Finding Nemo Dory figurine from Five Below, and a Nickelodeon Mermaid Dora the Explorer from Target. These products may have labels suitable for foreign countries, but they were not sufficient to meet U.S. standards, PIRG said.
  • Small balls pose a hazard for young children who are inclined to put objects in or near their mouths. PIRG found Magic Towels packaged as a small baseball and a small football at Dollar Tree which did not have the appropriate small ball warning label.
  • U.S. PIRG said it also found toys that are potentially harmful to children’s hearing. These include the Vtech Go! Go! Smart Wheels, Vtech Go! Go! Smart Animals, Vtech Spin & Learn Color Flashlight, Fisher Price Click n Learn Remote, and Leap Frog Fridge Phonics Magnetic Letter Set from Target. While they don’t violate federal standards, each product was found to be extremely loud at the ear and at a distance.
  • Also found on toy shelves were small, powerful magnets that pose a dangerous threat to children if swallowed, including Sizzlers noise magnets from Family Dollar and Singing magnets from Dollar Tree that are “near-small-parts." Again, while they don’t violate federal standards, these parts are small enough to be swallowed and can cause severe internal damage.

"Not a hazard"

Many of the findings no doubt irk Pasierb, who complained earlier that in last year's toy safety report, PIRG cited dangerous toys that actually meet federal safety standards.

For example, Pasierb said that in its 2014 report, PIRG cited 29% of the toys for having “near” small parts and “nearly” fitting into the Consumer Product Safety Commission-approved small parts tester to check for choking hazards. 

"The fact remains that if an item passes the small parts test, it's not a small part … and not a hazard," Pasierb said.

Pasierb also complained that in its 2014 report, PIRG cited "dangerous toys" that aren't toys -- things like backpacks, headbands, and towels -- a practice he labeled "disingenuous."

"Non-toys are not subject to the same rigorous safety standards as toys," Pasierb noted.

This is, of course, an argument that's not likely to be settled. U.S. PIRG and other safety and consumer groups say more needs to be done while the toy association says consumers should be aware that progress is being made and that most toys are safe.

“Our leaders and consumer watchdogs need to do more to protect our youngest consumers from the hazards of unsafe toys – no child should ever be injured, get sick, or die from playing with a dangerous toy,” concluded PIRG’s Litt. “Also, the CPSC should finalize its rule to include other toxic phthalates like DIBP on its list of banned phthalates.” 

Pasierb, for his part, says his association "was a vigorous supporter of the CPSIA, the federal consumer product safety legislation adopted in 2008, and works year-round with medical experts, consumer groups, and government regulators to ensure the safety of children and maintain U.S. toy safety standards, which are among the strictest in the world."

The full Trouble in Toyland report is available online, as is a report by the toymakers. 

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Study: Crib bumpers killing babies and should be banned

Deaths have spiked in recent years as more parents use bumpers

Baby crib bumpers are killing babies. That's the conclusion of researchers who have documented 23 deaths caused by crib bumpers from 2006 through 2012, thr...

PhotoBaby crib bumpers are killing babies. That's the conclusion of researchers who have documented 23 deaths caused by crib bumpers from 2006 through 2012, three times as many deaths as in previous seven-year time spans.

And alarmingly, the researchers report, the lack of data gathered on crib-bumper deaths and injuries over the decades suggests that the actual number of related deaths and injuries is likely much larger than now known.

"Crib bumpers are killing kids," said senior author Bradley T. Thach, M.D., a professor emeritus of pediatrics at the Washington University School of Medicine and the author of a landmark study published in 2007 that first documented crib-bumper deaths. "Bumpers are more dangerous than we originally thought. The infant deaths we studied could have been prevented if the cribs were empty."

Thach and his colleagues say the bumpers should be banned. There are presently no federal regulations regarding crib bumpers. In 2012, a voluntary industry standard was revised to improve crib-bumper safety by limiting their thickness. And in 2013, the CPSC directed its staff to explore rule-making options but then did nothing.

Sole cause of harm

According to the new research, a review of CPSC data showed that 48 infant deaths from 1985-2012 were specifically attributed to crib bumpers. An additional 146 infants were involved in crib-bumper incidents in which the babies nearly suffocated, choked, or were strangled. The mean age of death was 4.6 months, with an age range of one to 22 months. Documents reviewed included death certificates, autopsy reports, death scenes, and other investigative records.

The findings indicate that in the majority of incidents studied, crib bumpers were the sole cause of harm, rebutting beliefs that other items also in the cribs -- such as blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals -- caused the deaths and injuries.

Most of the infants died due to suffocation because their noses and mouths were covered by a bumper or were between a bumper and a crib mattress. No other objects were between the infants' faces and the bumpers.

"When a baby's nose and mouth is covered by a bumper, the infant can suffocate when his or her airway becomes blocked, or from breathing oxygen-depleted air," Scheers explained. "So if bumpers had not been in the cribs, these babies would not have died."

Thach conducted the study with two former CPSC scientists, N.J. Scheers, PhD, former manager of CPSC's Infant Suffocation Project, and Dean W. Woodard, former CPSC corrective actions director.

The findings are reported Nov. 24 in The Journal of Pediatrics.

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Audi details fix for 3.0-liter TDI diesels, awaits U.S. approval

Revised software will be installed as soon as regulators approve, carmaker vows

Audi is trying to move the "dirty diesel" scandal into the rear-view mirror. It is preparing to submit plans for revised emissions control software that it...

PhotoAudi is trying to move the "dirty diesel" scandal into the rear-view mirror. It is preparing to submit plans for revised emissions control software that it says will resolve problems affecting the 3.0-liter TDI engines in Audi, Porsche, and Volkswagen vehicles.

Audi executives say the plans are a result of recent discussions with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and says it will install the software as soon as it is approved by the agencies.

Audi was dragged into the larger controversy surrounding its parent company, Volkswagen, when it was discovered that some of the auxilary emission control devices (AECDs) on its diesel engines were not properly described in the applications submitted for U.S. approval when the engines were developed.

Volkswagen has insisted its 3.0-liter diesels are not affected by the illegal "defeat devices" found on the 2.0-liter VW TDI engines. The Audi 3.0-liter engines were developed by Audi and are used in certain Audi and Porsche vehicles, as well as the VW Toureg. 

Defeat device 

One of the AECDs on the Audi engines is regarded as a "defeat device" under U.S. law, Audi conceded. It turns on emission control systems when the cars are being tested and turns it off when the tests are over, causing the cars to appear to meet pollution standards while in ordinary, everyday use they may be emitting more pollution than the law allows. Audi describes that device as "the software for the temperature conditioning of the exhaust-gas cleaning system."

"Audi has agreed with the environmental authorities on further steps of cooperation in which the concrete measures to be taken will be specified. The company has committed to continue cooperating transparently and fully," Audi said in a prepared statement. "The focus will be on finding quick, uncomplicated and customer-friendly solutions."

This engine was developed by Audi and is used in U.S. Audi models A6, A7, A8, Q5, and Q7 from model year 2009 onwards. Volkswagen uses the engine in the Toureg and Porsche and has used it in the Cayenne since model year 2013.  

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Twenty hot Black Friday deals on electronics

Record savings this year on HDTV sets

Electronic gadgets make up a big chunk of the average Christmas shopping list. Whether it's a new smartphone or a big screen TV, consumers seem to like gif...

PhotoElectronic gadgets make up a big chunk of the average Christmas shopping list. Whether it's a new smartphone or a big screen TV, consumers seem to like gifts that they plug in.

The editors at Best Black Friday, who have worked with us in the run-up to the holiday season to identify some of the best buys, have submitted their picks for the best deals on electronics.

If an HDTV happens to be on your list, you are likely to find record low prices for select models and sizes, as well as video game bundles.

“While stores such as Walmart have taken steps back in certain areas, their overall sale is strong once again,” the website reports. “After waiting every other retailer out, Amazon finally gave us a preview of their upcoming sale, and while it is vague, a few of their items have made our Top 20 list.”

The list breaks down into these categories:

HDTVs

  • Toshiba 49" 1080p LED HDTV for $149.99 at Best Buy
  • 50" 1080p LED TV for $149.99 at Amazon
  • 32" LED TV for $75 at Amazon
  • TCL Roku 32″ 720p LED Smart HDTV for $125 at Walmart and Amazon
  • TCL Roku 55″ 1080p Smart LED HDTV for $348 at Walmart and Amazon
  • Samsung 60″ 1080p LED Smart HDTV for $697.99 at Target and Best Buy
  • Samsung 40″ 1080p LED Smart HDTV + $90 Kohl’s Cash for $319.99 at Kohl’s
  • Samsung 40" inch HDTV + Xbox One Bundle for $499.98 at Best Buy

Tablets

  • iPad Air 2 (64GB and 128GB) for $150 Off at Sam’s Club
  • iPad Mini 4 64GB and 128GB (Best Buy) and 16GB (Staples) for $100 Off
  • iPad Air 2 16GB for $359.99 at eBay

Video Games

  • Xbox One Gears of War Bundle + Fallout 4 & Extra Controller for $299.99 at Dell
  • Xbox One and PS4 Bundles for $299.99 + $75 Kohl’s Cash at Kohl’s
  • Xbox One Bundle + Samsung 40-inch HDTV for $499.98 at Best Buy

Smartphones

  • iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus – $250 Gift Card for Unsubsidized Purchases and $50 Off for 2-Year Subsidized Plans at Target
  • $250 Savings on any Samsung smartphone ($150 savings + $100 Black Friday Gift Card) at Walmart

Computers

  • 13.3″ MacBook Pro or 21.5″ iMac for $899.99 at Best Buy
  • Toshiba Satellite CL45 14″ Laptop for $119.99 at Office Depot and OfficeMax
  • Bonus Deal! – ASUS 15″ Laptop for $129 at Amazon

Other Electronics

  • Save Up To $100 On Apple Watches at Best Buy
  • Beats Studio Headphones for $169 at Walmart
  • Canon EOS Rebel T5 digital SLR camera 18-55mm lens and 75-300mm lens with a bag for $399.99 at Kohl’s

While buying a non-sale item on Black Friday will cost you, the BestBlackFriday.com editors say missing a Black Friday doorbuster exacts a price as well.

Last year the site followed the prices for hundreds of the top Black Friday electronics for a few months into April to see how much their prices went up. It found the average doorbuster electronic price goes up by $48.43 after Black Friday. HDTVs increase by $63.79, and video game consoles increase by $50.85.

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Trouble brews for kombucha

Regulator says the tea violates US limits on alcohol content

Fermented tea drink Kombucha -- said to aid digestion and gut health -- has been shown to include higher than regulation levels of alcohol. At 0.5%, the pr...

PhotoFermented tea drink Kombucha -- said to aid digestion and gut health -- has been shown to include higher than regulation levels of alcohol. At 0.5%, the probiotic brew crosses the dividing line between alcoholic and non-alcoholic, causing federal regulators to begin sending warning letters to some kombucha companies.

Kombucha is produced by way of fermentation and undergoes secondary fermentation even after the bottle has been shipped -- meaning that the trace levels of alcohol can multiply to much higher levels.

“Nobody’s saying, ‘let me get a six-pack of kombucha and get wasted tonight,’ ’’ said Hannah Crum, president of Kombucha Brewers International -- but authorities maintain that warning labels must be enforced.

More than just a number

0.5% may seem like a tedious amount to worry about, but the issue is complex.  Those who cannot drink because of health or religious reasons, for instance, deserve to know what they’re drinking. Other factors -- like minimum age requirements, special taxes, and other regulations governing alcoholic beverages -- also come into play.

“If this category is going to grow from toddler to grown up, it has got to provide transparency [in labeling],” says Bill Moses, chief executive of California-based kombucha brewer KeVita Inc.

The drink is cloudy, but its popularity is clear

Kombucha sales have soared in recent years, likely in conjunction with the nation’s growing infatuation with health and wellness. Sales of the beverage totaled $529 million last year, up from $128 million in 2009.

With sales continuing to trend upward, it is important that warning labels are as accurate as possible.

“What we’re concerned about,” says Alcohol bureau spokesman Tom Hogue, “is that when a consumer picks up a product, they know the product is alcoholic.”

Companies can be fined up to $11,000 a day for exceeding the alcohol limit.

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Essential Republican leadership qualities: square jaw, deep voice

Study finds GOP voters like a manly candidate while Dems prefer a softer leader

It's widely thought that taller political candidates have an advantage over their shorter counterparts, although Jeb Bush has had occasion to question that...

PhotoIt's widely thought that taller political candidates have an advantage over their shorter counterparts, although Jeb Bush has had occasion to question that theory in recent months.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, would perhaps agree with a new study that finds a deep voice and a square jaw are important assets for conservative politicians. For politicians on the liberal side, it's more important to have gentle features. That's the conclusion of two recent scientific articles from Aarhus University in Denmark.

The findings run counter to the ideal of a democratic society -- you know, the one that says voters carefully study the issues and then choose the candidate whose approach they think is most likely to produce a good outcome. 

Sorry, say researchers Lasse Laustsen and Michael Bang Petersen from the university's Department of Political Science.

"A deep tone of voice appeals to conservative voters. More generally, conservative voters seem to have a preference for politicians who look physically strong and masculine, while liberal voters prefer those who have less dominant features and seem more accommodating, perhaps even slightly feminine," said Laustsen.

Whether this explains Hillary Clinton's appeal to liberal voters is a question each voter must decide for him- or herself.

One could argue that voters shouldn't be swayed by physical characteristics, but John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says that's beside the point.

"What Laustsen and Petersen do is both exciting and important. Some people may be uncomfortable knowing that our preferences are determined by forces that we don't entirely understand. But of course, as scientists we still have to deal with it," said Hibbing, who didn't take part in the Laustsen and Petersen's research.

A menacing world

As for why Republicans prefer basso profundo candidates, Laustsen says you have to dig a little deeper.

Republican voters prefer strong politicians -- or politicians whose deep voices make them sound like they are strong -- because they believe the world is a more dangerous and menacing place than Democratic voters, he said.

"If you hold up images of objects that people consider dangerous or unpleasant, for example of large spiders, and then measure the production of sweat from people's fingertips (skin conductance response), you get an indication of spontaneous physical reaction. In these cases, conservative voters react more strongly than liberal ones. This could indicate a large visceral difference in the way these voter groups perceive the world," Laustsen said.

Some might suggest that the research is useful for voters because it can help them understand why they instinctively react positively or negatively to a given candidate.

But Laustsen and Petersen are skeptical.  

"Some American research indicates that participants in lab tests are able to determine which of two unknown candidates they like more after having been exposed to images of them for less than 0.1 second. This suggests that these processes are really fast and subconscious. So I think it's hard to rein in," Laustsen said.

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Make your house a “safe house” for the holidays

A few fixes here and there can keep everyone healthy and happy

For many people, the arrival of the holiday season means increased numbers of people trooping through their homes.If you're among them, you'll want to ...

PhotoFor many people, the arrival of the holiday season means increased numbers of people trooping through their homes.

If you're among them, you'll want to make sure your home is inviting and safe for your guests. To help prepare your home for visitors, the remodelers at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) offer tips designed to increase safety and accessibility for older family members and friends who visit.

“Welcoming loved ones to your home is a cherished holiday tradition,” said NAHB Remodelers Chair Robert Criner, a remodeler from Newport News, Virginia. “By making some simple home modifications, you can ensure that family and friends will enjoy a comfortable visit and be able to maneuver around your house without trouble this year.”

What to do

Here are some tips that the NAHB Remodelers say will help eliminate situations that could cause stress for visitors with age-related balance and vision issues, and at the same time create a safer, more comfortable environment for all your guests:

  • Secure area rugs with non-slip pads or double-sided carpet tape so that they are snug to the floor. Temporarily remove throw rugs, including bathroom mats, to prevent guests from tripping on the edges.
  • Check that stair railings inside and out are tightly fastened. Make repairs where needed.
  • Put night lights in bathrooms, the guest bedroom, hallways, and perhaps in the kitchen. Make sure there is a lamp or light switch within reach of the guest bed so that your visitor can keep a light on until safely tucked in. Well-lit outdoor walkways and entrances are also key for coming or going when it is dark.
  • Rake leaves, salt for ice, and shovel snow from sidewalks and driveways to prevent falls.
  • Add non-slip treads or a mat to the shower. Be sure the shower your guest will use has a non-slip floor. To enhance traction, apply non-slip strips or a suction-attached non-slip mat.
  • Choose the best seat for your guests' comfort -- not too high, not too low. A firm cushion can prevent them from sinking too low into the seat, and arms can help a person easily get up and down.
  • Move objects or even furniture that a person usually has to maneuver around. Secure cords to the wall or baseboards with hooks to prevent tripping. Clear stair steps of any objects, such as shoes, books, and other personal items that tend to collect on the lower treads.
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The best and worst gift cards to buy this season

Convenience and rewards help cards stand out

Gift cards are one of the most popular items to give and receive for the holidays. Easy to purchase, easy to travel with, and always appreciated -- they mo...

PhotoGift cards are one of the most popular items to give and receive for the holidays. Easy to purchase, easy to travel with, and always appreciated -- they most certainly make holiday shopping easier.

With six out of ten people saying they’d like to receive a gift card this year, it’s no wonder they have consistently been the most requested gift for the past eight years. But while gift cards certainly make holiday shopping easier, a new study finds that certain gift cards may be falling short.

Some retailers offer better terms on their gift cards than others.

Not all gift cards are created equal

Personal finance website GOBankingRates.com has researched and compiled a list of the ten best -- and five worst -- gift cards to buy this season. To come up with its ranking, GOBankingRates surveyed gift card offerings from 30 major retailers and providers on 10 factors that most affect gift card appeal, including ease of purchase and redemption as well as avoiding costs.

The ten best gift cards are as follows: 

  1. Nordstrom
  2. Amazon
  3. Walmart
  4. Starbucks
  5. Lowe’s
  6. Macy’s
  7. JCPenney
  8. Target
  9. Toys“R”Us
  10. Best Buy

And here are the five worst gift cards:

  1. MasterCard
  2. American Express
  3. eBay
  4. H&M
  5. Google Play

Ease of use, incentives and rewards are all factors

"The best gift cards stood out by offering a convenient and cheap way to give with features like free shipping or the option to send a gift card digitally,” said Elysa Kirkham, lead reporter on the GOBankingRates study. “Some retailers even reward customers who buy and use their gift cards.”

Of the gift cards in the winner’s circle, none charge a purchasing fee or have an expiration date.

Rewards were also a factor in determining the best gift cards. Starbucks, for example, offer customers a $5 off coupon just for registering their Starbucks gift card and joining My Starbucks Rewards while Nordstrom donates 1% of gift card purchases.

So, before saying, “Go Go Gadget Gift Card” while checking off your holiday shopping list, keep in mind that not all are created equal: Nordstrom, Amazon, and Walmart offer the best gift cards for holiday shoppers, while MasterCard, American Express, and eBay have the worst, according to GOBankingRates.com.  

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Consumer confidence takes it on the chin

Job market jitters get the blame

After posting a modest decline in October, the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index posted a substantial decline this month, dropping to 90.4 from ...

PhotoAfter posting a modest decline in October, the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index posted a substantial decline this month, dropping to 90.4 from 99.1 in October.

At the same time, the Present Situation Index fell from 114.6 to 108.1, and the Expectations Index plunged more than 10 points -- from 88.7 to 78.6.

“The decline was mainly due to a less favorable view of the job market,” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “Heading into 2016, consumers are cautious about the labor market and expect little change in business conditions.”

The view from the consumer

Consumers’ assessment of current conditions was less positive in November. Those saying business conditions are “good” slipped from 26.8% to 24.4%. However, those who said conditions are “bad” also decreased -- from 18.3% to 16.9%.

Consumers were less upbeat about the current state of the job market. Those who believe jobs are “plentiful” decreased from 22.7 percent to 19.9 percent, while those who think jobs are “hard to get” increased to 26.2% from 24.6%.

Consumers’ optimism about the short-term outlook dropped sharply in November. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months decreased from 18.1% to 14.8%, while those who said business conditions will worsen edged up to 11.0% from 10.4%.

The outlook for the labor market was also more pessimistic. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead fell from 14.4% to 11.6%, while those expecting there will be fewer jobs increased from 16.6% to 18.7%.

The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to increase dipped from 18.1% to 17.2%, while the proportion expecting a decline rose from 10.5% to 11.8%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen around what consumers buy and watch. The cut-off date for the preliminary results was November 12.

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Home prices post across-the-board gains in September

Strength comes largely from the West

Home prices across the U.S. continued to rise in September, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices.Year-over-yearThe National Index, ...

PhotoHome prices across the U.S. continued to rise in September, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices.

Year-over-year

The National Index, covering all nine U.S. census divisions, recorded a slightly higher year-over-year gain with a 4.9% annual increase in September 2015 versus a 4.6% increase in August 2015. The 10-City Composite was up 5.0% in the year ending in September, compared to 4.7% in the previous year. The 20-City Composite’s year-over-year gain was 5.5% versus 5.1% in the year ending in September.

After adjusting for the CPI core rate of inflation, the S&P/Case Shiller National Home Price Index rose 3% from September 2014 to September 2015.

San Francisco, Denver, and Portland reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities, with double-digit price increases of 11.2%, 10.9%, and 10.1%, respectively. Seventeen cities reported greater price increases in the year ending September 2015 versus the year ending August 2015. Phoenix had the longest streak of year-over-year increases, reporting a gain of 5.3% in September 2015 -- the tenth consecutive increase in annual price gains.

“Home prices and housing continue to show strength with home prices rising at more than double the rate of inflation,” said David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “The general economy appeared to slow slightly earlier in the fall, but is now showing renewed strength.”

Month-over-month

Before seasonal adjustment, the National Index posted a gain of 0.2% month-over-month in September. Both the 10-City Composite and 20-City Composite reported gains of 0.2% month-over-month. After seasonal adjustment, the National Index posted a gain of 0.8%, while the 10-City and 20-City Composites both increased 0.6% month-over-month. Fifteen of 20 cities reported increases in September before seasonal adjustment; after seasonal adjustment, 19 cities increased for the month.

Blizter says that while interest rate increases from the Federal Reserve may be in the cards, he doesn't expect a major impact on the housing market.

“While this will make news,” he said, “it is not likely to push mortgage rates far above the recent level of 4% on 30 year conventional loans. In the last year, mortgage rates have moved in a narrow range as home prices have risen; it will take much more from the Fed to slow home price gains.”

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Economic growth still limping along

But it's not as bad as first indicated

The Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) has taken a second look at how the economy was doing during the summer. And while things are a ...

PhotoThe Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) has taken a second look at how the economy was doing during the summer. And while things are a little better than they were in the “advance” report issued a month ago, there's a long way to go.

According to the BEA, 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 2.1% in the third quarter of 2015.

While an improvement over the 1.5% growth rate reported earlier, it's a far cry from the 3.9% surge in the second quarter.

This latest estimate is based on more complete source data than what was available for the "advance" estimate issued last month. The new data shows the decrease in private inventory investment was smaller than previously estimated. A third and “final” estimate will be released in December.

Ups and downs

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

The deceleration in real GDP from the second quarter to the third quarter came from a downturn in private inventory investments and decelerations in exports, PCE, nonresidential fixed investments, in-state and local government spending, and in-residential fixed investments that were partly offset by a deceleration in imports.

The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, rose 1.3% in the third quarter – up 0.2% from the second. Excluding food and energy prices, the “core rate” of GDP inflation was 1.3%; it was 1.2% in the second three months of the year.

The complete GDP report is available on the BEA website.

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Exmark recalls Quest riding mowers

The mowers' fuel filters can become brittle and fractured

Exmark Manufacturing of Beatrice, Neb., is recalling about 500 2015 Quest riding mowers in the U.S. and Canada. The fuel filters on the mowers can ...

PhotoExmark Manufacturing of Beatrice, Neb., is recalling about 500 2015 Quest riding mowers in the U.S. and Canada.

 

The fuel filters on the mowers can become brittle and fractured, allowing fuel to leak and posing a fire hazard.

 

The firm has reported one incident of fuel leaking. No injuries have been reported.

 

The 2015 Quest riding mowers are red, black and gray. “Exmark” is printed on the sides and in front of the operator seat. “Quest” is printed on the front of the riding mowers. The model number and serial number are located on a decal affixed to the frame, under the seat.

 

The recalled mode number is QTS452CEM34200. Quest mower has serial numbers ranging from 315606482 to 315628458.

 

The mowers, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at hardware, lawn and garden stores nationwide from November 2014, through October 2015, for about $3,700.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled mowers and contact an Exmark dealer to schedule a free repair. Consumers with registered mowers will receive a letter and a fuel filter, and may contact an Exmark Dealer if they are uncomfortable with the replacement procedure.

 

Consumers may contact Exmark toll-free at 800-667-5296 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at http://www.exmark.com/Service-And-Support/Recalls/ for more information.

 

 

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Five things shoppers should know before Black Friday

It may not be necessary to fight the crowds at the mall

This week is a make-or-break time for the nation's retailers. All are hoping to draw consumers to their Black Friday deals, at a time when consumers appear...

PhotoThis week is a make-or-break time for the nation's retailers. All are hoping to draw consumers to their Black Friday deals, at a time when consumers appear to be in the diver's seat, with an increasing array of options.

The deals started weeks ago, both in stores and online, though retailers will likely save their best doorbusters for the big day itself.

The National Retail Federation's (NRF) Thanksgiving Weekend Survey estimates as many as 135.8 million consumers may shop on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and/or Sunday. That's in line with last year's results.

“The importance of Thanksgiving weekend to both retailers and consumers will never change,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “However, retailers have already given consumers several good reasons to start their holiday shopping earlier.

Before getting out your credit card, here are five things weekend shoppers should know.

The deals will be staggered

Shoppers looking for the best bargains this week will need to stay alert all the way to Cyber Monday. The NRF says it expects retailers will offer exclusive savings each day of the promotional weekend.

In years past, Black Friday was largely confined to one day, and at big box retailers it was over very quickly. That produced a lot of complaints from consumers who lined up in the middle of the night, only to find the item that drew them to the store was sold out in the first few minutes.

Retailers responded by staggering their promotions, giving more consumers a chance. And as important as Black Friday weekend is to retailers, that's not the only weekend in which you'll find bargains.

“It’s important to remember, there will be several important weekends to keep an eye on before we wrap up the holiday season,” Shay said.

Not everything is marked down on Black Friday

There's no question that many items will be marked down to bargain levels on Black Friday, but remember that not everything will be. In fact, a study conducted in 2012 found that some non-sale items were downright expensive on Black Friday.

The study, by Shop Advisor, tracked the prices of 252 toys from the first day of Autumn and found that in the 54 days from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24, the day with the lowest percentage -- 46 percent -- of products on sale below their initial holiday season price was Black Friday.

As a matter of fact, Black Friday turned out to be the day on which shoppers begin to see prices spike on select items. On Black Friday itself, 24% of the toys on Shop Advisor's list were priced above their initial holiday season price. The company's survey last year pretty much confirmed that trend remains intact.

More doorbusters are available online

Each year more consumers do more of their holiday shopping online, and retailers have taken notice. As a result, it might not be necessary to get up at dawn or brave the mob at the mall to get a bargain.

This year Amazon.com has been particularly aggressive rolling out its Black Friday deals. It's rolling out new Black Friday deals each day throughout the week.

Brick and mortar retailers are also making some of their best bargains available on their websites. Sam's Club has most of its top doorbuster electronics available online with free shipping, including the PS4 Uncharted Bundle, Xbox Gears of War Bundle, a Vizio 58-inch HDTV, the iPad Air 2, and many other popular items.

Dell has all of its deals online, and the prices are the same as, if not better, than stores that are selling their products in traditional brick and mortar locations.

Free shipping is really important

Buying online is extremely convenient, but if you have to pay for shipping, that can erode any savings you might have realized. So when shopping at an online retailer, check out the shipping charge policy.

An increasing number of retailers now provide free shipping, at least during the holiday period. But make sure you read the fine print. It's likely there is a minimum purchase amount required in order to get that perk.

For the best savings, find online stores with no minimum purchase requirement and, as a bonus, will pay for shipping on any returns.

Patience pays off

If none of this weekend's bargains catch your eye, you shouldn't settle. There will be more bargains to come.

With a less-than-robust economy, retailers will be under pressure to move merchandise. By the middle of December, we could see an all-out price war.

Last year, Shop Advisor found the best day to snag a bargain was not Black Friday, but December 18.

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Chipotle-linked E. coli reported in three more states

CDC says common meal ingredient is the likely source

The E. coli outbreak linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants has widened to three additional states – New York, Minnesota, and Ohio.The Centers fo...

PhotoThe E. coli outbreak linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants has widened to three additional states – New York, Minnesota, and Ohio.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports at least 45 people have been reported sick with the E. coli strain STEC 026.

“The epidemiologic evidence available at this time suggests that a common meal item or ingredient served at Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants in several states is a likely source of this outbreak,” CDC said in its latest update.

The CDC says 43 of 45 people who became ill reported eating at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant in the week before their illness started. Health officials are still investigating to determine what specific food is linked to the illness.

Company response

“We take this incident very seriously because the safety of our food and wellbeing of our customers is always our highest priority,” said Steve Ells, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle. “We are committed to taking any and all necessary actions to make sure our food is as safe as possible, and we are working diligently with the health agencies.”

The news of the latest outbreaks did not go down well on Wall Street. Chipotle stock plunged 12.5% in Friday's trading.

As of now, there are six states in which the STEC O26 strain of E. coli has shown up. In addition to New York, Minnesota, and Ohio, there are the original states – Washington, Oregon, and California.

Of the 45 people who have become ill, the CDC said 16 required admission to a hospital. To date, there have been no reports of hemolytic uremic syndrome and no deaths.

What to do

The CDC says consumers who become ill after eating at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant should inform a doctor immediately. Symptoms of E. coli include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, pale skin tone, fatigue, irritability, bleeding from the nose or mouth, decreased urination, and small, unexplained bruises.

Symptoms usually occur two to eight days after exposure to tainted food.

Chipotle says the additional cases do not necessarily mean the problem is spreading. The company says investigators have suggested that in incidents like this, it is not unusual to see additional cases after the initial incident as the investigation moves forward.

The company believes the source of the problem appears to have been contained during a period in late October.

“We offer our sincerest apologies to those who have been affected,” said Ells. “We will leave no stone unturned to ensure the safety of our food – from enhancing the safety and quality assurance program for all of our fresh produce suppliers, to examining all of our food safety procedures from farm to restaurant, and expanding testing programs for produce, meat and dairy items before they are sent to our restaurants.”

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Ford scraps Takata airbag inflators

It joins Honda, Toyota, and Nissan in moving away from the troubled devices

Ford is taking evasive action, becoming the fourth automaker to scrap Takata airbag inflators. Honda, Toyota and Nissan did the same earlier, following a d...

PhotoFord is taking evasive action, becoming the fourth automaker to scrap Takata airbag inflators. Honda, Toyota and Nissan did the same earlier, following a disastrous round of nearly 20 million recalls attributed to the inflators, which can fling shrapnel-like shards of metal into the passenger compartment.

“Ford Motor Company products currently in development will not be equipped with Takata airbag inflators that use ammonium nitrate,” Ford spokeswoman Kelli Felker said in a prepared statement, Automotive News reported.

Ford has recalled about 1.5 million vehicles, including Mustangs and Ranger pickups, that contain the troubled part, blamed for at least eight deaths and hundreds of injuries. 

Felker said the company may continue to buy other parts from Takata, which also makes seat belts.

Takata has agreed to pay a $70 million fine imposed by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It is liable for an additional $130 million if it is found to violate its consent order with NHTSA or violates other safety laws.

Slow going

Despite the expense and excitement the recalls stirred up, the actual pace of the attempt to recall and replace the faulty inflators is not exactly neck-snapping.

Of the 23.4 million inflators recalled on 19.2 million vehicles sold by 12 automakers, it's estimated that only 22.5% had been replaced by Oct. 9, the Detroit Free Press reported

The delays are blamed mostly on the sheer number of recalls, a shortage of replacement parts, and the complexity of the procedure.

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Samsung offers free e-gift cards to consumers who sign up for Samsung Pay

Those who successfully sign up can register to claim a free $50 e-gift card to Best Buy

Mobile payment options may soon become a hotly contested domain for several different companies. Though it has somewhat stagnated since its initial success...

PhotoMobile payment options may soon become a hotly contested domain for several different companies. Though it has somewhat stagnated since its initial success, Apple Pay is currently being used by 14% of households with eligible credit cards. As of September, 79% of its users said that they had completely replaced contactless plastic credit and debit cards with their iPhone and Apple Watch.

Now it seems that Samsung is ready to fully commit to mobile payment options too, and it is giving consumers plenty of incentive to try out their service. The company has started offering free e-gift cards to customers who sign up for Samsung Pay.

Free e-gift card

You won't be able to use Samsung Pay wherever you want, but the device works in much the same way that Apple Pay does. By utilizing Near Field Communications (NFC), consumers can link their credit card to their phones and use it for shopping purposes directly from their device.

“It makes transactions super easy. Just swipe up to launch the app, secure with your fingerprint, and hover over the card reader to pay,” boasts Samsung.

Consumers who activate the mobile payment system between November 20 and December 31 will be able to register to claim a $50 Best Buy e-gift card from the company – but they will need a Samsung phone to do this. Eligible phones include the Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+, and Note 5. Participating carriers include Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular.

Samsung Pay has been fairly successful in South Korea, with more than one million users signed up throughout the country. Making the transition to the U.S. market has been difficult though, which is why they are now offering the gift card. Samsung Pay is available on Google Play for free for all compatible devices.  

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Highway bill a train wreck, safety advocates warn

Highway bill is a real turkey, safety advocates complain

For months, there've been fears that Congress would fail to pass a new highway spending bill. Now there are fears that it will pass a deeply flawed measure...

PhotoFor months, there've been fears that Congress would fail to pass a new highway spending bill. Now there are fears that it will pass a deeply flawed measure that's loaded with industry givebacks and safety loopholes.

The legislation in question -- the DRIVE Act, H.R. 22 -- has passed the House and Senate and a conference committee is now working out differences between the two verions of the bill, providing a speedy on-ramp for all kinds of last-minute tomfoolery.

For example, both versions of the bill include a provision being heavily lobbied by the trucking industry. It would allow teen truck and bus drivers to get behind the wheel of an 80,000-pound big rig or passenger-carrying bus despite polls showing overwhelming public opposition. One such poll, conducted by ORC International, found 77% of the public opposes the provision.

Another industry favorite would allow car dealerships to provide loaner or rental cars to consumers even though they have safety recalls that have not been fixed. Car dealers have argued that it would be too expensive and time-consuming to perform all safety recalls and have claimed that some recalls aren't really safety-related.

Driving hours

Other provisions hotly contested by safty groups would provide exemptions from federal rules on the limits of working hours for truck drivers and truck size and weights for certain industries such as logging, ready-mix concrete, dairy, and construction materials.  

"It is time for Congress to get serious about reducing the growing carnage on our roads and highways especially when we have commonsense and cost-effective solutions at hand," said Catherine Chase of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "Congress needs to listen to the public, not to trucking and auto interests that prescribe remedies that jeopardize public safety."

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Stitch Fix now offers maternity clothing

It's convenient, but not for women on a tight budget

Popular online subscription and personal shopping service Stitch Fix recently welcomed a new addition: Stitch Fix Maternity.The site, which previously ...

PhotoPopular online subscription and personal shopping service Stitch Fix recently welcomed a new addition: Stitch Fix Maternity.

The site, which previously only offered regular and petite-sized women’s clothing, is the busy woman’s dream. Simply fill out a “Style Profile” and the company’s personal stylists learn your unique taste, size, and lifestyle.

Then, just specify a date and five new articles of clothing will appear on your doorstep. Take a few days to try on the garments, buy what you like, and return the rest. No more scouring the racks in busy shopping centers or waiting in lines.

Life made easier for busy moms

The website, which gained popularity as a personal shopper for busy working moms, couldn’t ignore users’ cries for maternity clothing. Many Stitch Fix users are not only working moms, but working moms with growing families.

“You asked, and we listened,” says the site. “Now, when you’re expecting, you can feel comfortable and stylish through every stage of your pregnancy.” Just add your due date to your Style Profile, and Stitch Fix Maternity has you covered from first trimester to post-baby bump.

They get me

“I feel like my stylist really ‘got’ me,” says Cathy on FiscallyChic.com.

The website prides itself on its excellent personal stylists trained not only to understand your unique style preferences but the demands of your lifestyle.

“As a mom of a toddler, I appreciate clothes that are easy to clean/take care of,” says Cathy. “I also plan on breastfeeding, so nursing-friendly articles of clothing would be nice.”

The stylists at Stitch Fix take into account all of these maternity-specific wishes when selecting customers’ clothing.

Not for women on a tight budget

Although the service could be invaluable for busy women with little time to shop, the prices are not necessarily a bargain.

“The prices at Stitch Fix are going to be much more than you’re going to find at the thrift store or on the sales rack. This service is designed specifically for women who aren’t on an extremely tight budget who want to dress fashionably without spending a lot of time shopping,” says Crystal on MoneySavingMom.com.

The average cost of a Stitch Fix Maternity garment is $45. There is a $20 styling fee which is applied as credit to any items you purchase. If you buy all five items, you get 25% off the entire purchase. Whatever you do not wish to keep, you can send back. Return shipping is free.  

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Feds remind companies they need permission to debit consumer accounts

Companies must also stop debiting an account when the customer asks them to do so

There's nothing companies like more than automatically debiting your checking or credit/debit account each month. Automatic debits can also be convenient f...

PhotoThere's nothing companies like more than automatically debiting your checking or credit/debit account each month. Automatic debits can also be convenient for consumers but only if companies play by the rules.

To be sure they're doing so, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has issued a bulletin reminding companies that they must get a customer's permission before they begin dipping into the their account.

The bulletin also reminds companies that they are required by law to provide notifications to consumers that clearly describe the terms of preauthorized auto debits. In addition, the bureau is publishing action letters for consumers seeking to revoke a company’s authorization to auto-debit an account.

“This bulletin makes clear that companies must get a consumer’s authorization before automatically debiting their account,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Consumers also have the right to stop these charges at any time. They can use our action letters or submit a complaint to the Bureau if they are having problems managing or stopping auto-debits.”

The CFPB said it is concerned that some companies may be failing to meet the legal requirements for obtaining authorizations from consumers for recurring auto-debits. Also, the CFPB said it has observed that one or more companies provided consumers with a notice of the terms for preauthorized auto-debits that failed to disclose critical information, such as the amount and timing of the payments the consumer agreed to.

If consumers are not given clear information on the terms of auto-debits, they may not be able to manage payments or ensure their account balance is large enough to avoid being hit with overdraft or non-sufficient fund fees.

Stopping auto-debits

Under federal law, consumers have the right to stop automatic debits from their account. A consumer may decide after authorizing a merchant or lender to make withdrawals from their account that they want to revoke authorization.

For example, a consumer may decide to use a different payment method for future payments, or they may want to stop a single payment because they lack enough money in the account when the payment is scheduled.

Companies are sometimes not very good about responding to such requests, so the CFPB is releasing sample letters that consumers can use to revoke a company's permission to debit their account. 

The sample letters are available on the CFPB website.

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Toy safety for the holidays -- and all days

Here are some tips for keeping your children safe

The holiday season can be stressful enough, so you don't need worrying about the toys you buy for your kids to add to it.Along those lines, there is so...

PhotoThe holiday season can be stressful enough, so you don't need worrying about the toys you buy for your kids to add to it.

Along those lines, there is some good news. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports there's been a decline in toy recalls in the past few years, so that should take some of the pressure off parents.

In 2015, CPSC issued 25 toy recalls, compared with 172 in 2008. But, even with that decline, too many toys that are unsafe continue to show up at U.S. ports. Thankfully, they never get into kids' hands.

The agency also receives reports of kids who have suffered toy-related injuries -- and even deaths. A report released for calendar year 2014 shows an estimated 183,800 toy-related injuries and 11 deaths. For toy-related deaths and injuries, it is important to note that although a toy was associated with many of the incidents, the toy was not necessarily the cause of the death or injury.

What to do

The CPSC offers the following tips on what you can do to help keep your little ones safe:

  • Choose age appropriate toys by reading the age label on the toy. For children younger than three, avoid toys with small parts, which can cause choking. In particular avoid deflated or broken balloons, small parts, or small balls.
  • Scooters and other riding toys, such as skateboards and in-line skates, go fast -- and falls could be deadly. Helmets and safety gear should be worn properly at all times and they should be sized to fit. Avoid riding a scooter on a street or roadway with other motor vehicles.
  • Magnets -- Children's magnetic toys are covered by a strong safety standard that prevents magnets from being swallowed. High-powered magnet sets, which are covered by a mandatory standard, also have small magnets that are dangerous and should be kept away from children. Whether marketed for children or adults, building and play sets with small magnets should also be kept away from small children.
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Etsy teams up with retailers in ‘Etsy Wholesale’ venture

Is the line between artisanal and mass produced blurring?

Imagine a world where “organic avocados” and a “quirky screenprinted dish towel” were on the same shopping list for the same store. Well, Etsy has done jus...

PhotoImagine a world where “organic avocados” and a “quirky screenprinted dish towel” were on the same shopping list for the same store. Well, Etsy has done just that.

Handmade and vintage online marketplace Etsy has announced that it will begin selling items of its most popular sellers in stores.The site has partnered with Whole Foods Market, The Land of Nod, Lou & Grey, and most recently, Macy’s.

Combining small business values with big business reach

The initiative was introduced back in September and aims to reimagine wholesale as a vital part of the growing Etsy economy, while still upholding the site’s values and charm.

“A goal for many Etsy Wholesale sellers is to grow their business through relationships with large retailers, but the traditional wholesale practices of these retailers can present operational and financial challenges that can be insurmountable when applied to small independent designers,” says the Etsy News Blog.

Etsy Wholesale was launched in April of this year, and -- as of late September -- the Etsy Wholesale community has grown to include nearly 11,000 retailers and more than 4,500 sellers. A great way to help sellers meet demand and scale their business, yes, but the question of whether these partnerships cast an unwanted, mass-produced glow on sellers’ products remains.

An increasingly blurry line between artisanal and mass produced?

Growing pains are unique for a company that focuses on handmade products and small businesses. “Etsy treads a fine line between charting new paths to expansion and upholding the handmade ethos of its origins,” says The New York Times.

As the company has grown, popular sellers have struggled under the weight of buyer demand. Bringing manufacturers and retailers into the fold certainly mitigates this problem.

Financial and ethical terms of use are laid out by Etsy in a specific set of guidelines. Many of the six guidelines focus on respect for the seller and the seller’s intellectual property. For example, the last guideline uges companies to "work with Etsy sellers to respect their values and preferences related to the production process and material selection of their products."

In the end, fair relations between retailers and sellers is key to the success of the collaborations.

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At Walmart, Cyber Monday will start Sunday night

Retailer says this will let consumers get their shopping done earlier so they can get a good night's sleep

In the huge hoopla over Black Friday, and which stores will and won't be open on Thanksgiving, Cyber Monday has sort of been overlooked. After all, it almo...

PhotoIn the huge hoopla over Black Friday, and which stores will and won't be open on Thanksgiving, Cyber Monday has sort of been overlooked. After all, it almost seems a relic of a bygone era.

In the old days – 10 or 12 years ago – Cyber Monday was a pretty big deal. After Black Friday was in the books, consumers would return to work on Monday and take advantage of the boss's broadband Internet to order gifts online.

Consumers waited until Monday because, by and large, they didn't have access to high-speed Internet at home. Now that just about everyone is on broadband, they aren't waiting until Monday to order things.

8 p.m. start time

Even so, Walmart is calling attention to Cyber Monday by doing to it what it did to Black Friday a few years back – start it early. The retailer says it will make all of its Cyber Monday deals available starting at 8 p.m. ET Sunday.

The company says it's moving up the schedule to provide a simpler and more convenient experience for customers who are searching the Web on Sunday night and often waiting up past midnight to do their shopping. Now, they say, everyone can get a good night's sleep. 

“It can be exhausting for working parents and millenials to stay up past midnight to shop online, only to wake up early the next day to get ready for work,” said Fernando Madeira, President and CEO, Walmart.com. “By starting Cyber Monday hours earlier on Sunday evening and quadrupling the number of Cyber Monday specials, we’re making it easier for customers to get ahead of the busiest online shopping day of the year and save on the best gifts.”

Cyber Monday bargains

Walmart says some of the deals include $500 off an LG 65-inch HDTV and a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 for $599, a savings of $200. Both items will be available with free shipping.

Other Cyber Monday deals include:

  • Air Hogs Star Wars Remote Control X-34 Landspeeder – $19, plus free shipping to store
  • 14-ft. Trampoline with Enclosure – $189, plus free shipping
  • Porter Cable 3-Tool Combo Kit – $79, plus free shipping
  • Air Hogs Video Drone – $75, plus free shipping
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Pfizer to merge with Allergan, move its HQ to Ireland

The "inversion" will save billions in taxes

Have you noticed that every merger lately creates the largest company of its kind in the world? The latest is Pfizer's $150 billion merger with Allergan. I...

PhotoHave you noticed that every merger lately creates the largest company of its kind in the world? The latest is Pfizer's $150 billion merger with Allergan. It will not only create the biggest drug maker in the world but will also move a top American corporation out of the country.

The deal is what's usually referred to as reverse merger, one in which a smaller company supposedly takes over a larger one. In this case, Dublin-based Allergan is buying New York-based Pfizer, which is 11 times larger. It's also an "inversion," meaning that the company's legal address will move from New York to Dublin.

The reason is simple: the tax rate is much lower in Ireland, so the deal will save the new company billions of dollars in U.S. taxes each year. Pfizer has been paying an effective tax rate of about 25%, thought to be the largest of big pharmas, and CEO Ian Read has complained that the high tax rate puts his company at a competitive disadvantage.

The merger is expected to produce an effective tax rate below 20%. Allergan now pays around 15%. 

President Obama, among others, has complained about a rash of inversions, calling them "unpatriotic." The Treasury Department last week informed lawmakers that it would soon release new "guidance" on inversions, saying it would "reduce further the economic benefits of corporate inversions," the Wall Street Journal reported.

Congress not happy

Congress isn't happy about the wave of inversions either, but it hasn't done anything to ease the tax burden on corporations, or on individuals either for that matter. In this time of Thanksgiving, in fact, you might want to ask yourself: when's the last time a government entity thanked me for being a loyal taxpayer?

Critics of the merger will say that it will reduce innovation and drive up drug prices but Pfizer and Allergan executives say the opposite is the case. 

“The proposed combination of Pfizer and Allergan will create a leading global pharmaceutical company with the strength to research, discover and deliver more medicines and therapies to more people around the world,” Read said in a prepared statement. "Through this combination, Pfizer will have greater financial flexibility that will facilitate our continued discovery and development of new innovative medicines for patients, direct return of capital to shareholders, and continued investment in the United States, while also enabling our pursuit of business development opportunities on a more competitive footing within our industry.” 

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Fewer New York shops ask for ID when selling cigarettes

Study finds compliance fall-off after tougher law goes into effect

In 2014 New York City enacted a law that raised the minimum age to buy cigarettes, from 18 to 21. The law was aimed at reducing smoking rates, especially a...

PhotoNew York City enacted a law in 2014 that raised the minimum age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21. The law was aimed at reducing smoking rates, especially among young people.

A law, of course, is only as effective as its enforcement. And researchers at NYU and UCLA have found that compliance with identification (ID) checks has significantly decreased since the law went into effect last year.

Before the law changed, researchers say 29% of retailers sampled were non-compliant. After the change, 38% of sampled retailers failed to ask for ID when selling cigarettes to young people.

Researchers also examined new minimum price laws for cigarettes and found a similar pattern.

Troubling pattern

"This study reveals a troubling pattern of non-compliance with ID check and minimum price laws among some retailers in New York City," said lead author, Dr. Diana Silver, an associate professor of public health policy at NYU's College of Global Public Health. "Without serious attention to strengthening enforcement of its current laws, New York City will fail to realize the full potential of its efforts to reduce smoking."

There could be several reasons for the lack of enforcement. For one thing, a lot of retailers might still be unaware that the age limit has risen.

Researchers note the new law did not go into effect until nine months after its enactment.

Multiple jurisdictions

Then, there's the fact that enforcement measures for retailer tobacco laws involve five different city and state agencies. Researchers say they all have unique protocols, and in many cases no additional resources were allocated for inspection, prosecution, and follow-up of those violating the new laws.

Under federal law, states are required to make sure non-compliance with ID check laws never fall below 20%. Dr. James Macinko, one of the study's authors, says the current level of non-compliance is troubling.

"In addition, sales below legal minimum prices present additional challenges for controlling access to cigarettes not just among youth, but among the entire city's population," he said.

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Disappointment and promise in search for MS cure

One Biogen experimental treatment falls short, another raises hope

Each year researchers make progress in finding new treatments for chronic diseases. In the battle against multiple sclerosis (MS), Biogen Idec has been par...

PhotoEach year researchers make progress in finding new treatments for chronic diseases. In the battle against multiple sclerosis (MS), Biogen Idec has been particularly active.

Last month the pharmaceutical company reported disappointing results from a Phase 3 trial of the drug natalizumab, developed as a potential MS treatment.

Natalizumab demonstrated a “statistically significant effect on upper limb function,” suggesting some patients benefited from reduced relapses. In the end, however, researchers concluded it wasn't quite enough.

“While we’re disappointed with these results, we believe this research will provide the MS community important insights into this more advanced patient population, and the benefits that natalizumab may provide in areas such as upper limb function,” said Alfred Sandrock, M.D., Ph.D., group senior vice president and chief medical officer at Biogen. “Given the challenges of treating this advanced stage of MS, these results underscore the importance of treatment early in the course of disease with effective disease-modifying therapies before a patient advances to SPMS.”

Anti-LINGP-1

The company, however, is developing another treatment that might hold more promise. As we reported a year ago, Phase 1 trials of anti-LINGO-1 showed encouraging results in reducing nerve damage in laboratory animals, leading researchers to hope it might be able to also reduce nerve damage in MS patients.

Earlier this year, Biogen completed a Phase 2 trial (RENEW) of the anti-LINGO-1 molecule, saying it demonstrated a “statistically significant improvement” in recovery of optic nerve conduction latency, the time for a signal to travel from the retina to the brain’s visual cortex. It's a hopeful sign, the company says.

“RENEW is the first study to show repair of the human central nervous system (CNS) through remyelination, and the results support our ongoing development of this molecule,” Sandrock said. “We believe the anti-LINGO-1 data point toward a potential new approach to treating demyelinating diseases, and we look forward to the ongoing Phase 2 SYNERGY study results to further clarify the potential of this investigational therapy in MS.”

Repairs nerve damage

When someone has MS, their immune system begins to attack myelin, a substance in the body that forms insulation around the nerves in the central nervous system.

When this insulation is damaged, so are the nerves, making it more difficult for them to send messages to and from the brain and spinal cord. This is responsible for the main symptoms associated with MS.

The Phase 1 trial provided hope when it showed it could repair nerves in lab animals. This Phase 2 trial suggests it can, in fact, repair nerve damage.

Currently, a separate Phase 2 clinical trial studying the impact of anti-LINGO-1 on improving and slowing disease progression among participants with relapsing forms of MS is underway. The company reports the results are expected in 2016. Among the study's aims is to investigate the potential for anti-LINGO-1 to repair MS brain lesions.

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Tumbleweed rolls into the app store

The news just sort of blows by in bite-sized bits

You’d be more likely to spot a unicorn than a Millennial behind a newspaper. Let’s face it, if it’s not 140 characters or less, or sprinkled into a social ...

PhotoYou’d be more likely to spot a unicorn than a Millennial behind a newspaper. Let’s face it, if it’s not 140 characters or less, or sprinkled into a social media feed, news becomes far less likely to reach this generation.

That’s not to say that this demographic goes newsless.

According to research conducted by the Media Insight Project, 82% of Millennials get their news from online sources and 85% say keeping up with the news is at least somewhat important to them. It’s just that they don’t often go directly to news providers.

News on­ the ­go

Enter, Tumbleweed: a mobile news app geared specifically towards Millennials that features curated, credible news that you can edit and share. Inside the app, you’ll find a stream of bite-­sized news stories all divided into categories such as global, sports, technology, and entertainment. It’s simple, almost effortlessly consumed, and visually appealing to boot.

“The worry,” say the authors of the study 'How Millennials Get News', “is that Millennials’ awareness of the world is narrow, their discovery of events is incidental and passive, and that news is just one of many random elements in a social feed.” Tumbleweed seems just the ticket to assuage this worry.

Relevant and interesting to young adults

An app that feels like the lovechild of Instagram and Gawker, Tumbleweed is, well . . . #winning.

“We’ve created THE place for Millennials to find credible, relevant news that can then be customized and shared to create a conversation; a tool to spread knowledge and information in a new and fun way,” says co-­founder Cisco Adler.

With headline titles ranging from “KFC and Chill” to “Obama Speaks on Paris Attacks,” it’s a newsfeed that is a refreshing mix of fun and informative. The feed updates frequently, and at the top right of the picture accompanying each story, you’ll see a number indicating how long until the story “expires” and drops off your feed.

Tiny bits of news

On the flip side of the app’s concise nature, however, is the obvious fact that if one or two lines of a story is not enough for you, you will have to go elsewhere. Tumbleweed is more of a bird’s­ eye view than a comprehensive look at the day’s popular news stories.

Nonetheless, Tumbleweed is a beneficial app for the generation short on both time and attention spans.

The app is now available for free download in the App Store.

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Dog barks too much? Try this

Ultrasonic device trains dogs to stop incessant barking, manufacturer claims

Dog owners who are tired of hearing about every squirrel Fido sees in the backyard may benefit from PetSafe’s Outdoor Ultrasonic Bark Deterrent.The dev...

PhotoDog owners who are tired of hearing about every squirrel Fido sees in the backyard may benefit from PetSafe’s Outdoor Ultrasonic Bark Deterrent.

The device,­­ which looks just like a birdhouse,­­ picks up on excessive barking when placed within a 50­-foot range and emits an ultrasonic sound. The high­pitched sound is unpleasant to dogs but inaudible to humans. The idea is that, over time, dogs will negatively associate the sound with their own barking. When the barking stops, so does the sound.

While most users purchase the device for use on their own dogs, many others have used it as a way to stop nuisance barking in neighbor’s dogs.

“We’ve been bothered by a neighbor’s dog that comes out periodically day and night and just barks for 10-­30 minutes­­ usually facing our house. We got this product, found a spot in the trees facing the dog and set it up. It’s really worked as advertised,” says R. Potter on Amazon.com.

Of the many solutions to excessive barking in dogs, this is one that will please those not keen on the idea of a shock collar. The sound is harmless, yet annoying ­­-- a gentle reminder to the dog to stop barking.

Not effective on all dogs

While many say the product did indeed make their days a little less ruff, it is important to note that it does not work on all dogs. Every pup is different. Age, hearing ability, and temperament are factors listed by PetSafe as possible impediments to the unit’s effectiveness.

Among the product’s most commonly reviewed downfall is how quickly it runs through batteries.

“Works well when it has batteries. Sucks batteries dry in no time and ends up being more expensive than what was paid for,” says Mick T. on Amazon.com.

The company suggests turning off the device when not in use to improve battery life and says a reduction in barking can be expected within two weeks. While results are not guaranteed, the product has an overall rating of 3.5 stars out of 5 on PetSafe.com.

PetSafe’s Outdoor Ultrasonic Bark Deterrent is weatherproof, durable, and runs on 1 9-­volt alkaline battery, which is not included. It is available at PetSafe.com for $69.99. 

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Existing-home sales tumble in October

Three of the four geographic regions posted declines

Sales of previously-owned homes fell in October even though mortgage interest rates were below 4% for a third straight month.The National Association o...

PhotoSales of previously-owned homes fell in October even though mortgage interest rates were below 4% for a third straight month.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, fell 3.4% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.36 million. Even with that decline, sales are 3.9% above the year-ago pace of 5.16 million.

A pullback in contract signings the last couple of months is getting the blame.

"New and existing-home supply has struggled to improve so far this fall, leading to few choices for buyers and no easement of the ongoing affordability concerns still prevalent in some markets," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "Furthermore, the mixed signals of slowing economic growth and volatility in the financial markets slightly tempered demand and contributed to the decreasing pace of sales."

Still, Yun remains optimistic. "As long as solid job creation continues,” he said, “a gradual easing of credit standards even with moderately higher mortgage rates should support steady demand and sales continuing to rise above a year ago."

Pricing and inventory

The median existing-home price for all housing types in October was $219,600 -- 5.8% above October and the 44th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

Total housing inventory at the end of October dropped 2.3% to 2.14 million existing homes available for sale, and is now 4.5% lower than a year ago. Unsold inventory is at a 4.8-month supply at the current sales pace, compared with 4.7 months in September.

Sales by region

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast were at an annual rate of 760,000 in October, unchanged from September, but 8.6% above a year ago. The median price posted a year-over-year gain of 1.3% to $248,900.
  • In the Midwest, sales dipped 0.8% percent to an annual rate of 1.3 million, but are 8.3% higher than they were in October of 2014. The median price was $172,300, up 5.7% from a year ago.
  • Sales in the South fell 3.2% to an annual rate of 2.14 million in October, but are still 0.5% above October of 2014. The median price was $188,800, up 6.2% from the same month last year.
  • Existing-home sales in the West plunged 8.7% to an annual rate of 1.16 million, but remain 2.7% above October of 2014. The median price shot up 8.0% to $319,000.
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Time to plan for next year's health flexible spending arrangements

You may be able to carry over money

Not that you don't have enough to do with the holidays approaching, but the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is reminding those who are eligible that this is...

PhotoNot that you don't have enough to do with the holidays approaching, but the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is reminding those who are eligible that this is the time to begin planning to take full advantage of their employer’s health flexible spending arrangement (FSA) during 2016.

FSAs provide employees a way to use tax-free dollars to pay medical expenses not covered by other health plans. Because eligible employees need to decide how much to contribute through payroll deductions before the plan year begins, many employers are offering the option to participate during the 2016 plan year.

If you want to contribute during the new year, you must make this choice again for 2016 -- even if you contributed in this year. Self-employed individuals are not eligible.

How it works

Those who elect to participate may contribute up to $2,550 during the 2016 plan year, the same as in 2015. Amounts contributed are not subject to federal income tax, Social Security tax, or Medicare tax. If the plan allows, the employer may also contribute to your FSA.

Throughout the year, employees can then use the money to pay qualified medical expenses not covered by their health plan, including co-pays, deductibles, and a variety of medical products and services ranging from dental and vision care to eyeglasses and hearing aids. Interested employees should check with their employer for details on eligible expenses and claim procedures.

Carryover option

Under the use or lose provision, participating employees must often incur eligible expenses by the end of the plan year, or forfeit any unspent amounts. But under a special rule, employers may -- if they choose -- offer participating employees more time through either the carryover option or the grace period option.

Under the carryover option, an employee can carry over up to $500 of unused funds to the following plan year; for example, an employee with $500 of unspent funds at the end of 2016 would still have those funds available to use in 2017.

Under the grace period option, an employee has until 2½ months after the end of the plan year to incur eligible expenses -- for example, March 15, 2017, for a plan year ending on Dec. 31, 2016. Employers can offer either option, but not both, or none at all.

Employers are not required to offer FSAs. Accordingly, interested employees should check with their employer to see if they offer an FSA.

More information about FSAs is available in IRS Publication 969.  

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Nissan recalls 2015 Altimas and 2016 Maximas

The brakes may not function properly

Nissan North America is recalling 119 model year 2015 Altima and 2016 Maxima vehicles manufactured October 6, 2015, to October 7, 2015. The vehicle...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 119 model year 2015 Altima and 2016 Maxima vehicles manufactured October 6, 2015, to October 7, 2015.

 

The vehicles have front brake calipers whose mounting bolts may not be properly tightened. If the bolts were not properly tightened, the caliper may detach and reduce braking ability, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will check the brake caliper mounting bolts, tightening them as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in early December 2015.

 

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

 

 

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VW dirty diesel scandal expands to at least 85,000 more vehicles in U.S.

3.0-liter diesels in VW, Audio and Porsche models also used illegal "defeat devices"

A Porsche Cayenne dieselLike a cloud of billowing smoke, the Volkswagen dirty diesel scandal just keeps expanding. The Environmental Protection Agenc...

Photo
A Porsche Cayenne diesel

Like a cloud of billowing smoke, the Volkswagen dirty diesel scandal just keeps expanding. The Environmental Protection Agency now says that at least 85,000 additional VW, Audi and Porsche vehicles are equipped with software allegedly designed to cheat emissions tests.

The EPA said today that Volkswagen and Audi officials yesterday admitted that the software that fudges on emissions tests was present on all vehicles powered by the VW group’s 3.0-liter diesel V-6 engine since the 2009 model year.

Previously, it had been thought that the deceptive software was present on about half a million 2.0-liter TDI diesel models and about 10,000 3.0-liter engines. But now the EPA and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) say the software exists on an additional 75,000 VW, Audi and Porsche cars and SUVs.

In a related development, a CARB official said it is "likely" VW will buy back at least some of the cars containing the 2.0-liter TDI "Clean Diesel" engines.

CARB Chairman Mary Nichols told a German newspaper the agency expects that vehicles with the first generation of VW’s 2.0-liter diesel engine will require a hardware “retrofit” to bring their emissions into compliance. The trouble is, Nichols said, such retrofits have struggled to achieve their intended goals in the past.

“We have seen in the past that retrofit devices just don’t work as well as they are intended to, even if it is being done by the original manufacturer,” Nichols told Handelsblatt. “So I think it is quite likely that they will end up buying back at least some portion of the fleet from the current owners.”

Volkswagen has lately been downplaying the likely cost of the scandal, painting a positive picture for financial analysts at the same time it cuts its capital budget 8% to free up money to repair or replace the affected models.

Software changes

“We are fully cooperating with the environmental authorities and working on concrete measures that will resolve this situation,” said Jeri Ward, Audi of America communications chief. “We’ll need some software changes in the future that will ultimately resolve this and there are more discussions that will be needed with the agencies.” 

Ward acknowledged that the software was used on all 3.0-liter diesels since the 2009 model year, according to Automotive News.

VW, Audi and Porsche have halted sales of diesel models pending the outcome of the inquiry.

VW executives met with officials of the EPA and CARB yesterday and informed them that the illegal "defeat devices" had been found on the additional models.

The illicit software basically recognizes when a car is undergoing an emissions tests and activites pollution-control equipment that is automatically turned off when the test is ended.

 

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This Apple feature could give you a huge bill at the end of the month

Wi-Fi Assist kicks in when your signal is spotty, but it uses your cellular data to do so

You would be hard-pressed to find a more dedicated following of smartphone users than those that buy Apple iPhones. Whether on the news or in person, we've...

PhotoYou would be hard-pressed to find a more dedicated following of smartphone users than those that buy Apple iPhones. Whether on the news or in person, we've all seen the huge lines of people that flock to Apple stores when the company releases a new product.

On the opening weekend of the iPhone 6S, Apple reportedly sold over 13 million of their new phones, a new record. Despite the strong sales numbers, consumers have been having some trouble with a new feature of iOS9, the latest iteration of Apple's operating system. Wi-Fi Assist is meant to help users boost their Wi-Fi signal if they are experiencing spotty coverage. Unfortunately, having it enabled on your phone can really eat through your data plan and rack up a huge phone bill.

Using up data

For some consumers, this feature will not be a problem at all; if you pay for an unlimited data plan, then it won't really matter if you're utilizing more data to boost your signal. However, if you're like the tens of millions of consumers with a metered data plan, then this might be cause for alarm.

The feature is enabled by default on your phone, so if you do not know about it then you may be unintentionally using much more data than you realize. Users have complained that they went from 1-3 GB of data usage per month to 4-7 GB per month when the feature was active.

In one recent case, a family was charged over $2,000 on their monthly bill for data overages, an increase of over 10 times their usual bill. CBS5's ConsumerWatch reported that the son of this family had received a text message warning him that he was reaching his monthly limit, but that it was only at 65% at the time.

Apparently, the boy habitually used his phone in his room, which has lower signal strength to the family's Wi-Fi than other areas of the house. Wi-Fi Assist kicked in to boost his signal by using his cellular data, but it came at a great cost. Fortunately for the family, AT&T later admitted that the text alert should have been sent to the mother, since she was the primary account holder. As a result, they credited their account for the full amount.

Other consumers will not be as lucky if they go over on their data plans. If you are currently using iOS9 and want to turn Wi-FI Assist off, go into Settings and tap on the “Cellular” option. Scroll all the way to the bottom of this menu and you will see the “Wi-Fi Assist” option; toggle the slider to the left to turn it off.  

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Should you buy or should you rent?

Zillow launches a new calculator to help answer the question

Unless you inherited the family homestead, there is probably a monthly cost to putting a roof over your head. You either pay rent to a landlord or pay a mo...

PhotoUnless you inherited the family homestead, there is probably a monthly cost to putting a roof over your head. You either pay rent to a landlord or pay a mortgage to a bank.

But which is “cheaper,” and which makes the most sense for you? As you might expect, there are a lot of variables involved.

Once upon a time it was a ready assumption that buying was a better option. You built equity each month as the value of the home rose.

But then the housing market collapsed and millions of homeowners were trapped in homes that were suddenly worth less than what the owner paid. In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, it was extremely hard to get a mortgage, so more people rented.

Advantages not immediately apparent

That made homes look very affordable while rents quickly escalated. Today, home prices have risen, but rents have also continued to climb. So figuring the advantages of owning over renting, and vice versa, aren't immediately apparent.

Enter Zillow, the online real estate marketplace, that has unveiled a new rent-vs-buy-calculator. The calculator is set up to show you how many years it will take before the cost of buying equals the cost of renting - the breakeven horizon.

Time is a key factor. The longer you stay in a home, the more the equation tilts toward buying. If you stay in your home past the breakeven horizon, Zillow says you should consider buying. If you'll move sooner, renting might be a better option.

Over an extended period of time, you might have added home repair expenses by owning that you wouldn't have by renting. But your monthly payment will be fairly stable, with a small portion of the payment going toward equity each month.

In most cases, you can expect your monthly rent to increase each year – sometimes by a lot. The National Association of Realtors recently warned that rents in many areas are increasing far beyond household income.

Calculator's results

We used the calculator to determine whether it was better to buy or rent in suburban Richmond, Va., an area where homes have appreciated in line with the national average. The calculator determined that after two years, the total cost of homeownership – down payment, mortgage, taxes, and insurance – for a $287,000 home would be $114,636.

The total cost to rent something comparable would be $48,211, leaving you $66,425 ahead, including the money you didn't have to spend on a down payment. After two years, your purchased home will have $95,164 in equity, If you rented, and invested what you would have spent on a down payment, earning a return of 6%, you would have made around $6,823 over two years.

The calculator's conclusion? Looking at gross costs, equity and investment potential, it's better for you to buy than rent, if you plan to live in your home more than two years and five months.

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Judge refuses to toss Trump students' suit against Trump University

Trump said any misrepresentation came from Trump University, not from him personally

A federal judge has refused to dismiss a class action suit that claims Donald Trump's Trump University ran seminars that were little more than infomercials...

PhotoA federal judge has refused to dismiss a class action suit that claims Donald Trump's Trump University ran seminars that were little more than infomercials.

Lead plaintiff Tarla Makaeff sued Trump and Trump University in 2010, claiming she spent $60,000 for one of the three-day workshops and got no benefit from it. Trump moved for summary judgment dismissing the claims but U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel denied most of Trump's requests, Courthouse News Service reported.

Donald Trump argued that he cannot be held liable for unfair competition and false advertising because he himself did not make any misrepresentations to students. But Makaeff testified that she paid for the program after seeing slides with statements from Trump such as, "You'll learn inside secrets from me," and, "This is the next best thing to being my apprentice."

Signed, sealed ...

Another plaintiff, Sonny Low, testified that he received a letter, signed by Trump, that included the statement: "My hand-picked instructors and mentors will show you how to use real estate strategies." Low said that letter was the main reason he ponied up the tuition.

Curiel found that the students provided sufficient evidence that they relied on core misrepresentations from Trump. He found that Trump also can be held personally liable for the students' claims for restitution for unfair competition and false advertising, even though they paid Trump University and not Trump.

He also allowed the students to press their claims against Trump and Trump University for financial elder abuse, violations of the New York General Business law, and violations of Florida's Misleading Advertising Law.

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Gluten-free food products reportedly getting tastier

Manufacturers have been motivated by a big increase in demand

Gluten-free diets are recommended for people with celiac disease, a condition that makes it hard for them to digest the protein found in many grains.Tr...

PhotoGluten-free diets are recommended for people with celiac disease, a condition that makes it hard for them to digest the protein found in many grains.

Truthfully, there aren't that many consumers who have that condition. Only an estimated 1% of the population suffers from celiac disease and another 4% might have a form of wheat allergy.

Despite that small market, there has been a proliferation in recent years of gluten-free food products. That's because a growing number of consumers have decided they should avoid the grain protein too.

According to the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), consumers looking for gluten-free foods in their grocery store would have been hard pressed to find much. The few products that were on the market were probably dry, bland, and badly textured—overall, not very appetizing.

Improving the taste

But IFT says it's a different ball game now. Kelly Hensel, senior digital editor of Food Technology magazine, writes that food manufacturers have embraced the new demand for gluten-free food and have attempted to turn out products that look, feel – and most importantly – taste better.

Without gluten to hold the food product together, manufacturers are using rice flour, potato flour and teff to form the primary structure of gluten-free goods, especially baked goods. Gums, such as xanthan and cellulose, also act as binders to hold the baked goods together. Proteins like egg, soy, dairy, or pulse are important in adding structure.

Gluten is also useful in preserving the shelf-life of food. To fulfill that function, food companies are using enzymes and mold inhibitors, which have proved effective as anti-staling ingredients to improve shelf-life.

Surging sales

Hensel writes that the U.S. gluten-free food market reached sales of $8.8 billion in 2014, an increase of 63% from 2012.

The Celiac Foundation is slightly perplexed at the sudden enthusiasm for a gluten-free diet. It notes that the gluten-free diet “appeals to about 30% of American adults” but is also “widely misunderstood.” The foundation says there are nine things you need to know before starting a gluten-free diet. Number one on the list?

“Some people need to ditch gluten, others just want to. But for most people, it’s not necessary.”

But the people who have to avoid gluten for health reasons can probably thank all those people who have voluntarily gone gluten-free. The huge demand for these products undoubtedly spurred manufacturers' recent efforts to improve the gluten-free experience.

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FCC expands hearing aid compatibility rules for wireless devices

Rules expanded to cover Wi-Fi and LTE calling

What with rock concerts, earbuds, traffic noise, and smartphones constantly plastered to our heads, it's not surprising that hearing problems are becoming ...

PhotoWhat with rock concerts, earbuds, traffic noise, and smartphones constantly plastered to our heads, it's not surprising that hearing problems are becoming more common. There are about 48 million people currently estimated to suffer from at least some degree of hearing loss in the U.S.

Riding to the rescue is the Federal Communications Commission, which yesterday took steps to ensure that present and future wireless devices comply with hearing aid compatability rules.

Until now, the hearing aid compatibility rules generally were limited only to handsets that used traditional cellular networks. The commission expanded those rules to cover IP-based technology like Wi-Fi calling and voice-over-LTE. 

The new rules also require that future technologies comply with the hearing aid compatibility rules.

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Thanksgiving troubles -- who needs them?

Here's a sure-fire way to keep dinner guests healthy and happy

The last thing you want to do (probably) when you have friends and family over for Thanksgiving dinner is send them home sick.The best way to keep ever...

PhotoThe last thing you want to do (probably) when you have friends and family over for Thanksgiving dinner is send them home sick.

The best way to keep everyone healthy is to make sure you handle the dinner's centerpiece -- the turkey – safely. Because a lot of people don't have experience roasting the bird, the Agriculture Department (USDA) offers a range of resources -- from smartphone apps to its Meat and Poultry Hotline -- to help you get through any food preparation problems this holiday season, wherever and whenever they may arise.

“Unsafe handling and undercooking of your turkey can lead to serious foodborne illness,” said Al Almanza, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. “USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has a variety of food safety resources to help with any questions related to preparing Thanksgiving dinner, including our Meat and Poultry Hotline that will be staffed with helpful experts on Thanksgiving Day.”

Cook like a pro

More than 46 million turkeys will be eaten this Thanksgiving. Cooking one can be tricky, and trying to figure out when it's done is often the hardest task. But it doesn’t have to be if you use a food thermometer. Three simple steps and you're there:

  1. Place the thermometer in the innermost part of the thigh, the innermost part of the wing, and the thickest part of the breast.
  2. Read the temperature to make sure the bird has reached a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.
  3. Take the turkey out of the oven, and serve it.

Make a plan

For big Thanksgiving dinners, planning is very important. You can assess your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer to plan out your meals and your shopping list. When you're trying to figure out if you can use something you already have at home, keep the FoodKeeper application handy.

The FoodKeeper is a mobile application that offers storage advice on more than 400 different food and beverage items and can help you decide what you can keep and what you should throw out. It also offers handy guidance on leftovers, which you’ll probably have a lot of after the big meal.

First-hand advice

If you have questions about your Thanksgiving dinner, you can call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) to talk to a food safety expert. Last November it received more than 3000 calls mostly about Thanksgiving dinner.

You can also chat live with a food safety expert at www.AskKaren.gov, available from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday, in English and Spanish.

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Lawsuit charges e-cigarettes contain cancer-causing chemicals

Companies fail to warn of the chemicals as required by California law, suit alleges

A non-profit group has filed lawsuits against e-cigarette manufacturers, claiming they failed to warn consumers about two cancer-causing chemicals and the...

PhotoA non-profit group has filed lawsuits against e-cigarette manufacturers, claiming they failed to warn consumers about two cancer-causing chemicals and the health effects of nicotine.

The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) said it purchased e-cigarettes, e-liquids, and other vaping products from major retailers including RiteAid and 7-Eleven between February and October 2015 and found that 90% contained formaldehyde or acetaldehyde or both.

A test on one e-cigarette found the level of formaldehyde was more than 470 times higher than the California safety standard.

Testing for formaldehyde and acetaldehyde was conducted by an independent lab accredited by the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation. The two chemicals are known to cause cancer and are also linked to genetic damage, birth defects, and reduced fertility, the lawsuits argue. Under California’s Prop 65 consumer protection law, companies must warn consumers when their products expose users to chemicals that can cause cancer and/or birth defects.

Those named in the lawsuits include RJ Reynolds (Vuse brand), Fontem/Imperial Tobacco (blu brand), and NJOY.

In all, the nonprofit has launched legal actions against more than 60 companies for failing to warn consumers about exposure from e-cigarettes to nicotine and/or one or both of the two cancer-causing chemicals, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, as required by California law.

Teen usage growing

The organization charged that teen use of e-cigarettes is skyrocketing: among 8th and 10th graders, twice as many say they use e-cigarettes as compared to those who smoke traditional cigarettes, with 17% of high school seniors nationally saying they smoke e-cigarettes.

“The tobacco industry is banned from targeting teens in cigarette ads, but they and the rest of the e-cigarette industry use all of the banned tactics in marketing e-cigarettes,” said Michael Green, Executive Director of CEH. “Parents should know that vaping presents real risks to young people. It’s long past time for this industry to end its predatory and deceptive marketing.”

In February, CEH sued 19 e-cigarette companies for failing to warn consumers about the reproductive health threats from nicotine in their products. In one settlement reached in those cases, the e-cigarette company Sapphire Vapor agreed to legally binding restrictions on sales and marketing to teens and prohibited the use of unverified health claims.

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Erasing an ex-partner from your Facebook life

New tools designed to spare users those awkward moments

In the old Soviet Union, when a party official ran afoul of the Politburo and party doctrine, any public reference to him in official media or historical r...

PhotoIn the old Soviet Union, when a party official ran afoul of the Politburo and party doctrine, any public reference to him in official media or historical records quickly disappeared. It was called becoming an “unperson.”

Facebook is borrowing a page from the old Kremlin playbook, making it possible for users to remove any photos or references to a former lover or spouse.

Since so many people seem to live on their Facebook page, the current constant exposure to that now-ended side of life is like constantly bumping into your former significant other, at the supermarket, dry cleaner, and nearly everywhere you go on a daily basis. Awkward.

Available options

“Facebook is a place for sharing life’s important moments, which for many people include their romantic relationships, Kelly Winters, Facebook Product Manager, writes on the company blog. “When a relationship ends, we’ve heard from people that they sometimes have questions about the options available to them on Facebook.”

Winters says Facebook is now testing tools that will allow users to shield themselves from the sight of their former partners getting on with their lives without them. Now, when a user indicates his or her relationship status has changed, the user will be prompted to give the new tools a try.

You can view less of a former partner’s name and profile picture on Facebook without having to take the heavy-handed step of unfriending or blocking them. Their posts won’t show up in News Feed and their name won’t be suggested when people write a new message or tag friends in photos.

Limiting photos, videos and status updates

You can also limit the photos, videos, or status updates a former partner will see. You'll be able to edit who can see past posts with a former partner and untag yourself from posts with that person.

“This work is part of our ongoing effort to develop resources for people who may be going through difficult moments in their lives," Winters writes. “We hope these tools will help people end relationships on Facebook with greater ease, comfort and sense of control.”

If you happen to be coming off a bad break up, you can give these Facebook tools a test drive immediately on the mobile platform. Winters says the company will tweak the tools based on user feedback.

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Online lender rapped for allegedly deceiving borrowers

Integrity Advance is accused of misrepresenting the cost of loans

Online lender, Integrity Advance, LLC, and its CEO, James R. Carnes, have run afoul of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).According to the...

PhotoOnline lender, Integrity Advance, LLC, and its CEO, James R. Carnes, have run afoul of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

According to the agency, the company’s contracts did not disclose the costs consumers would pay under the default terms of the contracts. The CFPB also accuses the company of unfairly using remotely created checks to debit consumers’ bank accounts even after the consumers revoked authorization for automatic withdrawals.

The bureau has filed an administrative lawsuit seeking redress for harmed consumers, as well as a civil money penalty and injunctive relief.

From May 2008 through December 2012, the Delaware-based online lender offered loans ranging from $100 to $1,000, and consumers typically applied for the loans by entering their personal information into a lead generator website.

Upfront information missing

Under the default terms of Integrity Advance’s contracts, the loans would roll over four times -- causing additional charges to accrue with each rollover -- before the company applied any of the payments to the principal amounts. However, the costs on the disclosures were based on the assumption that the loans would not roll over and would instead be repaid in full by the first payment.

Integrity Advance never informed consumers of the total costs of their loans if those loans were rolled over, even though the contracts were set up to roll over automatically. Under the default terms of the contracts, consumers would end up paying finance charges more than double the amount originally borrowed: $765 in finance charges for a typical $300 loan.

The unlawful practices alleged by the CFPB include:

  • Hiding the total cost of loans: Consumers were given contracts with disclosures based on repaying the loan in a single payment, even though the default terms of the contract called for multiple rollovers and additional finance charges. For example, under Integrity Advance’s default payment schedule, a consumer borrowing $300 would ultimately pay $765 in finance charges -- $675 more than the $90 finance charge disclosed in Integrity Advance’s contract.
  • Requiring repayment by pre-authorized electronic funds transfers: Integrity Advance violated federal law by requiring consumers to agree to repay their loans via pre-authorized Automated Clearing House (ACH) payments. The Electronic Fund Transfer Act says repayment of loans cannot be conditioned on consumers’ pre-authorization of recurring electronic fund transfers.
  • Continuing to debit borrowers’ accounts after consumers canceled the authorization: Integrity Advance’s contracts with consumers included a provision allowing the company to use remotely created checks if a consumer successfully canceled his or her authorization for ACH withdrawals. The provision was hidden in the loan agreement, and the company used it to take consumers’ funds when consumers believed they did not owe money to Integrity Advance.
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Behind on your taxes? You may lose your passport

Congress tightens the screws on taxpayers

Congress can't agree on much, but it seems to agree that being delinquent in paying your income tax -- or being behind in wading through the paperwork -- i...

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Photo © pamela_d_mcadams - Fotolia

Congress can't agree on much, but it seems to agree that being delinquent in paying your income tax -- or being behind in wading through the paperwork -- is grounds for revoking your passport.

This might not sound too bad to most people, but it sounds awful to the 7 million or so Americans living abroad. They need their passport almost daily to attend to chores we take for granted at home. 

They're also likely to have trouble receiving notices from the Internal Revenue Service because of unreliable mail delivery in much of the world and differences in address formats that often don't fit with the IRS' rigid addressing system.

But there it is, buried deep in the massive highway-funding bill, which contains all sorts of provisions that have little or nothing to do with highways. The measure, inserted by nominally tax-hating GOP solons,  has been approved by both the House and Senate and is now in the final moments of being considered by a conference committee before being given final approval.

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$50,000 threshold

How much would you have to owe to lose your passport? The bill specifies $50,000 of unpaid taxes, penalties, and interest. That may sound like a lot, but it doesn't take long for penalties and interest to add up. Throw in a year or two of back taxes and any middle-income wage earner or independent contractor could be in trouble.

In the "gig economy," in fact, it's easier than ever to get into trouble with the IRS, since the taxpayer must try to make accurate quarterly payments based on estimated income. Anyone who's done this for more than a few years will tell you it's a recipe for big penalty and interest payments.

Politicians are fond of noting -- sometimes to their detriment -- that more than 40% of Americans pay no income tax at all so Congressional thinking is apparently that it's OK to make up for it by being more penurious with those who do.

The Wall Street Journal says the punitive measure would apply, in most cases, only to those who have been hit with a lien or a levy, something that is not that unusual for the self-employed or for high wage-earners who find themselves in a dispute with the IRS.

If passed in its present form, the measure would take effect Jan. 1 and would apply to existing tax debts. So enjoy the holidays. And pay your taxes. 

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Consumers going deeper into debt

New York Fed report shows most borrowing for houses and cars

U.S. consumers continue to run up household debt across nearly all sectors, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.The New...

PhotoU.S. consumers continue to run up household debt across nearly all sectors, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

The New York Fed measures borrowing for mortgages, student loans, credit cards, and auto loans, while keeping tabs on loan delinquencies. The report is designed to help community groups, small businesses, state and local governments, and the public understand and monitor how consumers are using debt.

As of September 30, 2015, consumer households owed a total of $12.07 trillion, a $212 billion increase from the second quarter of 2015. Overall household debt remains 5% below its peak of $12.68 trillion in the third quarter of 2008, just before the financial crisis.

Home loans account for most debt

Mortgage balances remain the biggest area of consumer debt, and this sector increased in the third quarter, to $8.26 trillion – up slightly from the second quarter. Interestingly, balances on home equity lines of credit (HELOC) went down by $7 billion, to $492 billion.

One area of debt may bear watching. Auto loan balances continued to climb, fueled by robust car sales and rising transaction prices. Outstanding car loan balances increased for the 18th straight quarter, rising $39 billion to $1.09 trillion.

New auto loans totaled $151 billion in the third quarter, with $33 billion of this amount taken out by consumers with credit scores below 620, meaning they fell into the subprime category. That's a 10-year high.

“The growth in auto loan balances and originations has been very robust,” said Donghoon Lee, research officer at the New York Fed. “Credit conditions have remained attractive for auto purchasers with both prime and subprime credit.”

Student loan debt rises faster than credit cards

Student loan debt also increased, but slowed from its recent pace. Student loan balances increased by $13 billion, a little faster than credit card debt, which rose $11 billion.

The news about delinquencies was mixed. On the bright side, home foreclosures hit a 17-year low. The percentage of mortgage loans 90 days or more overdue fell to 2.3%. The number of consumers with a bankruptcy notation added to their credit report fell 14%.

But on the student loan front, the report shows 11.6% of student loan debt is either 90 days overdue or in default.

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How to get top Black Friday deals without the crowds

Some great deals are online if you know where to look

Each year it seems less necessary to battle the crowds in order to snag a deal on Black Friday. And data suggests consumers are growing a little weary of t...

PhotoEach year it seems less necessary to battle the crowds in order to snag a deal on Black Friday. And data suggests consumers are growing a little weary of the annual in-store mayhem.

A survey by Ibotta, a retail cash-back app, found that 65% of consumers believe Black Friday is not as important as it once was. Nearly half said they expect the best deals to appear after Black Friday and others expect to do most of their shopping online.

It's a fact that more and more holiday shopping is done from a PC or smartphone. But will you miss any spectacular deals if you decided to do all of your Black Friday shopping online?

Where the deals are the same

Phil Dengler, principal at BestBlackFriday.com, spends a lot of time comparing and cataloging Black Friday deals. Each year he sees continued movement toward parity between online and brick-and-mortar bargains.

We asked him if there are places where we can get the same in-store deals without leaving the house.

Sam's Club has pretty much all of its top doorbuster electronics available online with free shipping, including the PS4 Uncharted Bundle, Xbox Gears of War Bundle, a Vizio 58-inch HDTV, the iPad Air 2 and many other popular items,” Dengler told ConsumerAffairs.

As you might expect, he says Dell has all of its deals online, and the prices are the same as, if not better, than stores that are selling their products in traditional brick and mortar locations.

“For example, Dell's Xbox One bundle is available online only and is actually the best overall Xbox One deal in our opinion,” Dengler said. “They also have a variety of laptops and HDTVs at comparable prices to most other stores.”

Amazon and eBay – two online only stores – also will compete with in-store deals. Dengler says Amazon has the best overall price for the highly popular 32-inch HDTV. eBay has a great deal on the 16GB iPad Air 2 that is comparable to any in-store offer.

Where you'll have to brave the crowds

Where, then, will you have to brave the crowds to get the best deals? Dengler says Walmart, Best Buy, Target, and Kohl's are still only selling some of their very top items in-stores.

“If you shop only online, you will miss out on those particular deals, but you should be able to make up the difference when it's all said and done,” he said.

And what you might lose in savings, you might gain in sanity. Research from SOASTA finds 73% of U.S. consumers who do any online holiday shopping credit online and mobile shopping with helping to keep their holiday spirit intact and prevent them from feeling jaded and frustrated this holiday season.

SOASTA CEO Tom Lounibos says the stakes couldn't be higher this year for online retailers, who he says need to be ready to deliver “flawless” web and mobile performance on Thanksgiving Day and beyond for the expected crush of shoppers who have decided to skip the mall this year.

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Toyota recalls vehicles with braking issue

The vehicles may brake unexpectedly

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 30,812 model year 2013-2015 Avalon and Avalon Hybrid vehicles manufactured October 19, 2012 to Octobe...

PhotoToyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 30,812 model year 2013-2015 Avalon and Avalon Hybrid vehicles manufactured October 19, 2012 to October 27, 2015; and 2013-2015 Lexus ES350 and ES300h vehicles manufactured June 18, 2012 to July 6, 2015.

 

The vehicles are equipped with a Pre-Collision System (PCS) as optional equipment that may unexpectedly activate and apply the brakes when the radar detects a steel joint or plate in the roadway as an object.

 

Unexpected braking increases the risk of a crash.

 

Remedy parts for a permanent fix for this issue are not yet available. Beginning November 16, 2015, Toyota sent owners an interim notification and dealers will temporarily disable the PCS.

 

When the improved PCS components are available for the permanent remedy, owners will be mailed a second notification. These repairs will be performed free of charge.

 

Owners may contact Toyota at 1-888-270-9371. Toyota's numbers for this campaign are F1V and F2E.

 

 

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Fit Firm and Fabulous recalls Ultimate Herbal Slimcaps

The product contains sibutramine, which is not listed on the label

Fit Firm and Fabulous is recalling Ultimate Herbal Slimcap capsules. The product contains sibutramine, which is not listed on the label. It makes U...

PhotoFit Firm and Fabulous is recalling Ultimate Herbal Slimcap capsules.

 

The product contains sibutramine, which is not listed on the label. It makes Ultimate Herbal Slimcap an unapproved drug for which safety and efficacy have not been established.

 

Sibutramine is known to substantially increase blood pressure and/or pulse rate in some patients and may present a significant risk for patients with a history of coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias or stroke.

 

The company says it has not received any reports of adverse events related to this recall.

 

The product, a dietary supplement marketed for weight loss, is packaged in 30-count bottles, labeled Part 1 of 3, UPC 5 42423 25422 1. The recalled product includes lots 05/02/2015 to 05/01/2017, and was distributed Nationwide via the website.

 

The firm has notified its distributors and customers by telephone and has arranged for return or destroy of all recalled products.

 

Customers who have the recalled product should stop using and discard it.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Fit Firm and Fabulous by e-mail at customerservice@fitfirmandfabulous.com Monday through Friday from 9 am – 5 pm (EST).  

 

 

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Hyundai recalls Sonatas with brake light issue

The stop lamp switch plunger may remain extended when the brake pedal is released

Hyundai Motor America is recalling 304,900 model year 2011-2012 Sonatas manufactured December 11, 2009 to June 30, 2011. The brake pedal stopper pa...

PhotoHyundai Motor America is recalling 304,900 model year 2011-2012 Sonatas manufactured December 11, 2009 to June 30, 2011.

 

The brake pedal stopper pad can deteriorate allowing the stop lamp switch plunger to remain extended when the brake pedal is released.

 

If the brake light switch plunger does not retract as it should when the brake pedal is not being pressed, the brake lights may stay illuminated preventing accurate communication to drivers following behind that the vehicle ahead of them is slowing or stopping. Additionally, if the brake switch plunger is not retracted, then the transmission can be shifted out of PARK without depressing the brake pedal. Either condition increases the risk of a crash.

 

Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will replace the brake pedal stopper pad with an improved part, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on January 11, 2016.

 

Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-855-671-3059. Hyundai's number for this recall is 136.

 

 

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FTC loses cybersecurity case against medical lab

Judge finds no evidence anyone was harmed, questions credibility of witness

The Federal Trade Commission routinely holds companies responsible for data breaches that exp...

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LabMD's Michael Daugherty (Photo: MichaelJDaugherty.com)

The Federal Trade Commission routinely holds companies responsible for data breaches that expose consumers' private data to intruders. But the commission's recent loss in the case of LabMD raises questions about its ability to prevail in other consumer cybersecurity cases.

The agency had sought to hold the medical testing lab responsible for a data breach that exposed the records of 9,000 patients. But LabMD fought back, refusing to sign a consent order and arguing that there was no proof any consumer had suffered any actual harm as a result of the breach.

Late last week, FTC Chief Administrative Law Judge Michael Chappell agreed and dismissed the commission’s complaint.

"FTC spent millions of taxpayer dollars to pursue its baseless case against LabMD, an innovative and successful provider of cancer diagnostics," said Daniel Epstein of Cause of Action Institute, which defended LabMD. "Although FTC’s ostensible justification for this boondoggle was 'data security,' it produced no evidence that even a single patient was harmed by LabMD’s alleged inadequacies."

Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said the agency is considering an appeal. “Commission staff is disappointed in the ruling issued by the administrative law judge in this case," she said. 

The judge's ruling was a pyrrhic victory for LabMD, which went out of business in 2014, at least partly because of the long struggle with the FTC, according to former CEO Michael Daugherty.

“Yeah we won, but what did we win?  We’re dead,” he said, according to a Wall Street Journal report.  The experience turned Daugherty into a crusader against what he considers government abuse. He wrote a book, "The Devil Inside the Beltway," later made into a TV series.  

Supposed whistleblower

The FTC's case was based on information it received from Tiversa, a for-profit company that provides data security services to clients. Tiversa had found a 1,718-page document on the LabMD servers containing patient data and had then tried to sell its security services to LabMD.

When LabMD declined to pay up, Tiversa reported it to the FTC, claiming LabMD had mishandled sensitive patient data. But Judge Chappell, in a lengthy decision, said the FTC had not proven that allegation and that there was inadequate evidence that any patients had been harmed by the potential data exposure.

In fact, the judge said, there was no evidence that anyone other than Tiversa had accessed the data. He said the FTC had not "identified even one consumer that suffered any harm" as a result of inadequate LabMD security.

The judge said it was problematic for the FTC to rely on a for-profit company that acted as a whistleblower only after its sales overtures were rejected and said that Tiversa CEO Robert Boback was "not a credible witness."

“At best, Complaint Counsel has proven the 'possibility' of harm, but not any 'probability' or likelihood of harm." Judge Chappell wrote.

"Facts never mattered"

Cause of Action's Epstein said the "facts never mattered to the FTC" and said the "purpose of this case was to intimidate other businesses that might consider standing up for their rights, and to make LabMD pay for speaking out against the government."

For its part, Tiversa said in a statement that it had acted "appropriately and legally."

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Bill passes Senate that would stop companies from blocking negative reviews

The Consumer Review Freedom Act would ban gag clauses nationwide

One of the first things that many consumers do when they want to buy an item or use a service is to check its reviews online. You can usually count on othe...

PhotoOne of the first things that many consumers do when they want to buy an item or use a service is to check its reviews online. You can usually count on other people to give an honest appraisal of a product's or service's strengths and weaknesses because they (hopefully) don't have an affiliation with it.

This became something of a problem for many companies over time. If what they were selling was not received well, these entities could count on negative criticisms being posted in online forums, which could be detrimental to sales. This would eventually lead to companies adopting “non-disparagement” or “gag” clauses that would try to prevent consumers from posting anything but positive reviews online.

Cases involving these gag clauses have been well-documented, with many disgruntled consumers exclaiming about the unfairness of it all. Many courts have held that the clauses are not legally enforceable, and California has gone so far as to ban them. Still, there has been no federal law that has restricted their use.

Well, that may be changing now. A new bill has recently passed through the Senate that would prevent companies across the country from attaching gag clauses to their products.

The new legislation has been dubbed “The Consumer Review Freedom Act” and would establish consumer rights so that they could give fair assessments of products and services. The new law has been tweaked several times, but the newest version recently passed the Senate's Commerce Committee.

“Reviews offering blunt and honest criticism play an increasingly important role in helping customers select the best products and services,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chair of the Commerce Committee. “The Consumer Review Freedom Act is needed so consumers can benefit from the experiences of others through the open exchange of information.”  

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FDA approves GMO salmon

The modified salmon grow faster and eat less

The first genetically modified salmon will be swimming your way shortly. The Food and Drug Administration has approved AquaBounty Technologies’ application...

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Pandora buys Rdio as music sphere gets more crowded

But don't worry. The "future of music" is secure, Pandora CEO pledges

There are lots of streaming music and on-demand music services out there -- maybe a few too many. Pandora is doing its part to rearrange the clutter, annou...

PhotoThere are lots of streaming music and on-demand music services out there -- maybe a few too many. Pandora is doing its part to rearrange the clutter, announcing a deal to buy the assets of bankrupt Rdio for $75 million.

“We are defining the next chapter of Pandora’s growth story,” said Brian McAndrews, Pandora's CEO. “Adding live music experiences through Ticketfly was a transformative step. Adding Rdio’s impressive technology and talented people will fast-track new dimensions and enhancements to our service."

"I couldn’t be more optimistic about ... the future of music,” McAndrews added, just in case anyone thought that music would soon be going extinct.

The deal sandwiches Pandora into the on-demand music sphere, competing directly against such major players as Apple Music, Spotify, and well-heeled newcomers such as Google's YouTube Music.

Which is which?

How can you tell one streaming service from another? Good question. The common wisdom is that it's the app that makes the difference, since streaming is increasingly a mobile phenomenon driven by iOS and Android apps.

Pandora, a pioneer in the streaming space, has always billed itself as more of a music service than a technology service. It boasts of having a "team of highly trained musicologists [who] analyze hundreds of attributes for each recording," powering its Music Genome Project which selects music for each listener's perceived tastes.

Seguing into streaming won't be as easy as firing up a few new servers. Pandora will have to negotiate new licensing deals with all the major labels while facing a growing band of competitors.

Consumers can expect cut-rate and even free deals over the next few years as the warring entrants battle it out. But don't put too much time and energy into building a profile in any single service, as the casualty count is likely to be high.

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Should you have prescription drug coverage?

You should, if you think there's a chance you'll get cancer

Not everyone chooses to have health insurance coverage that pays some of the cost of prescription medication.While health insurance policies sold in th...

PhotoNot everyone chooses to have health insurance coverage that pays some of the cost of prescription medication.

While health insurance policies sold in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace are required to have some drug coverage, it's still an option for those on Medicare.

Is it coverage you should have? A new study suggests the answer is yes, if you think you are at risk of getting cancer.

A study by the University of Colorado (CU) Cancer Center found the cost of even common cancer treatment drugs could be “catastrophic” for patients without some kind of coverage.

General coverage not enough

“I think what this research says is that general health insurance isn’t enough. You have to have prescription drug coverage,” said Cathy J. Bradley, the paper’s first author.

There have been two recent and important changes to cancer treatment: the development of new, targeted treatments for cancer, which tend to be very expensive and also tend to be taken orally and in patients’ homes, and the ACA, which has increased access to health insurance.

“Targeted cancer therapies tend to come in the form of pills taken at home. Many of these new therapies are expensive,” Bradley said. “This combination of more expensive medicines taken outside the hospital setting means less compliance. Or we see people choosing to alter their prescribed regimens by skipping doses. When you start to dial back from recommended doses, at some point the drug loses its effectiveness.”

Income breakdown

The Colorado study looked specifically at women treated for breast cancer. Women with household income below $40,000 were less than half as likely as women with annual household income greater than $70,000 to continue hormonal therapy.

Hormonal therapy for patients with estrogen, or progesterone-positive breast cancers can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence by as much as 50%.

Bradley says the rising costs of cancer care is a reason for insurers and healthcare consumers to rethink the definition of “catastrophic” illness. She concludes that women without prescription drug coverage, especially if they are from low-income households, may choose not to comply even with a relatively low-cost treatment regimen.

It's not just an extended stay in a hospital that can bankrupt you, Bradley says. So can relatively “low cost” cancer medications.

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Rx for older adults: walk faster, longer

Study finds walking can reduce risk of heart disease in seniors by 50% or more

Looking for an easy, inexpensive way to improve your health? Start walking, then start walking farther and then, finally, start walking faster.In a nut...

PhotoLooking for an easy, inexpensive way to improve your health? Start walking, then start walking farther and then, finally, start walking faster.

In a nutshell, that's the finding of a large community-based study of older Americans that found modest physical activity was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. This was true even among men and women older than age 75 at baseline -- a rapidly growing population for whom regular activity has been advised, but with little empirical evidence.

"Our study of older Americans shows that, even late in life, moderate physical activity such as walking is linked to lower incidence of cardiovascular disease," commented Luisa Soares-Miranda, Ph.D., a member of the research team.

"It appears that whether one increases the total distance or the pace of walking, CVD risk is lowered. Fortunately, walking is an activity that many older adults can enjoy," Soares-Miranda said.

Mean age

Led by senior author, Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., Dr.P.H., dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, the researchers studied a group of American adults whose mean age was 73 at the start of the study and who were then followed for 10 years.

Information on various usual activities was assessed at the beginning of the study and regularly updated throughout. When the researchers evaluated different aspects of physical activity by the men and women during this ten-year period -- a greater pace, walking distance, and leisure activity -- each was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

The study found that, after adjustment for other risk factors and lifestyle behaviors, those who were more active had significantly lower risk of future heart attacks and stroke. Adults who walked at a pace faster than three miles per hour (mph) had a 50%, 53%, 50% lower risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, and total heart disease, respectively, compared to those who walked at a pace of less than two mph.

Those who walked an average of seven blocks per day or more had a 36%, 54%, and 47% lower risk of CHD, stroke, and total CVD, respectively, compared to those who walked up to five blocks per week.

Those who engaged in leisure activities such as lawn-mowing, raking, gardening, swimming, biking, and hiking also had a lower risk of CHD, stroke, and total CVD, compared to those who did not engage in leisure-time activities.

The findings were similar in both men and women, in those above or below age 75 at baseline, and including only those with similarly good or excellent self-reported health.

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AMA panel urges ban on direct-to-consumer prescription drug ads

Doctors say consumers demand these drugs, driving up prices

It's hard to watch an hour of network television without seeing at least one commercial for a prescription medication.The images on the screen may show...

PhotoIt's hard to watch an hour of network television without seeing at least one commercial for a prescription medication.

The images on the screen may show a happy, energetic individual or couple, while the voice over describes some very scary potential side-effects. But some consumers are often left to wonder – why am I being shown this ad when a doctor has to prescribe this medication for me? I can't just go to the store and buy it.

Exactly, says the American Medical Association (AMA).

Physicians at the AMA's Interim Meeting this week voted to recommend a ban on direct-to-consumer advertising of presciption medication. The doctors say consumers bombarded with these ads start pressing their doctors to prescribe it, and all too often the doctor gives in.

No coincidence

It's no coincidence, the AMA says, that these drug ads have proliferated at the time prescription drug prices have skyrocketed.

“Today’s vote in support of an advertising ban reflects concerns among physicians about the negative impact of commercially-driven promotions, and the role that marketing costs play in fueling escalating drug prices,” said AMA Board Chair-elect Patrice A. Harris, M.D., M.A. “Direct-to-consumer advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate.”

The AMA cites data from the market research firm Kantar Media, showing ad dollars spent by pharmaceutical companies have increased by 30% over two years, and now total $4.5 billion.

NIH not convinced

Although a number of consumer groups agree with the new AMA policy, a report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is far from clear-cut. While acknowledging the explosive growth in drug advertising, NIH says research suggests these ads are both “beneficial and detrimental” to public health.

But the rest of the world has concluded these ads have little benefit. Besides the U.S., New Zealand is the only other country in the world that allows direct-to-consumer prescription drug ads.

The physicians attending the AMA meeting also voted for a new AMA policy, convening a physician task force and launching an advocacy campaign to promote prescription drug affordability by demanding choice and competition in the pharmaceutical industry and greater transparency in prescription drug prices and costs.

“Physicians strive to provide the best possible care to their patients, but increases in drug prices can impact the ability of physicians to offer their patients the best drug treatments,” Harris said. “Patient care can be compromised and delayed when prescription drugs are unaffordable and subject to coverage limitations by the patient’s health plan. In a worst-case scenario, patients forego necessary treatments when drugs are too expensive.”

The new AMA policy also responds to growing concerns that consolidation in the pharmaceutical industry will lead to more anti-competitive behavior, with the potential to further drive up drug prices.

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Where to get cash for unwanted gift cards

Companies will buy them, but not at face value

Chances are you'll receive one or more gift cards this holiday season. If you receive more than you need, or for stores that don't interest you, there are...

PhotoChances are you'll receive one or more gift cards this holiday season. If you receive more than you need, or for stores that don't interest you, there are alternatives to letting them collect dust in a drawer.

Several companies in recent years have gotten into the business of buying unwanted gift cards and reselling them. It's convenient for consumers, but it comes at a price. Understandably, these companies take a cut.

Still, it may be better than letting a gift go to waste. Here are three places where you can redeem unwanted gift cards for cash.

Coinstar

You may be familiar with Coinstar as the operator of supermarket kiosks that take your loose change and give you cash in return. Not surprisingly, Coinstar has gotten into the gift card purchase business, placing bright yellow kiosks in many of the same locations as the change-redeeming kiosks.

How much of the value of your gift card can you get? It depends on a number of factors. But once you slide your card into the slot, Coinstar says it will make you an offer on the spot. If you accept the offer, you get your cash right at the store.

Coinstar says it accepts gift cards from more than 150 well-known stores and restaurants. It pays up to 85% of the card's current value, for cards with at least $20 still remaining.

To prevent fraud, the company says consumers redeeming gift cards will need to provide a phone number, driver’s license or state ID, credit card, and email address.

GiftCards.com

Some web-based businesses are also in the gift card repurchase game. At GiftCards.com, you enter the information about your card and find out how much of the value you can regain.

Like Coinstar, GiftCards.com looks at a number of factors to determine how much it will pay. If you strike a deal, you may receive payment through PayPal, Automated Clearing House (ACH), or check. Typically, the company says payments are processed within two business days.

CardCash.com

CardCash.com is another online company that will purchase unwanted gift cards. It has many of the same conditions and requirements as its competitors and pays using PayPal, ACH, or check. But it has among the more generous payouts in the industry – up to 92% of current value.

Chances are there could be lots of unwanted gift cards by the time January or February rolls around. A recent survey by the National Retail Federation found gift cards are still among the most popular holiday gifts, with 56% of consumers saying they plan to give at least one this year.  

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November's 10 best new car deals

Kelley Blue Book predicts these deals will continue to drive car sales higher

The holiday car commercials have begun again, enticing consumers to think big when buying Christmas presents for that special someone.And in fact, sale...

PhotoThe holiday car commercials have begun again, enticing consumers to think big when buying Christmas presents for that special someone.

And in fact, sales data confirms that new car sales usually rise late in the year as some generous consumers put an Audi or Lexus under the tree. Dealers usually come up with lot of end-of-the-year incentives and promotions to move cars off their lots.

Kelley Blue Book (KBB) has surveyed American showrooms and compiled a list of what it says are the best deals in November, taking into account sale price, lease terms, and financing

"New-car sales were strong in October, and a long list of attractive offers this month should continue to draw shoppers off the fence and into dealer showrooms," said Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book's KBB.com. “Our list of notable November deals includes a wide variety of vehicle types, ranging from practical hatchbacks to premium luxury models, along with several versatile SUVs."

November's best deals

And they aren't all the newest models. While the Lexus GS luxury sedan has been enhanced for the 2016 model year, Nerad says the 2015 model takes the top spot on KBB's list with an impressive lease offer. The 2015 Lexus can be leased for $1,999 down and $409 a month for 36 months.

Second on the list is the 2015 Nissan Leaf, with 0% financing for 60 months and $5,000 cash back. Third is the 2016 Acura ILX, which can be leased for $229 a month for 36 months with $2,499 due at signing.

The 2015 Hyundai Veloster is fourth, with a nice discount off its MSRP and $3,500 cash back. The 2015 Buick Encore is fifth, on a 24 month lease at $175 a month and $1,675 down.

The 2015 Volkwagen Tiguan is sixth on the list, with a 36 month lease for $179 a month and $2,499 down. The 2015 Infinity Q50 comes with a lease deal of $3,499 and $309 for 39 months.

Rounding out the top 10, the 2015 Hyundai Sonata with 0% financing; a lease of the 2015 Ford Flex for $219 a month; and the 2015 Dodge Dart, with $3000 cash back.

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The do's and dont's of choosing a tax preparer

You have to be careful; after all, it's YOUR money

It's almost the holiday season, and that means you'll soon be receiving your federal tax forms for the 2015 tax year.Is this the year you finally decid...

PhotoIt's almost the holiday season, and that means you'll soon be receiving your federal tax forms for the 2015 tax year.

Is this the year you finally decide to hire a pro to do your taxes? If so, here are some tips from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for choosing that person wisely:

Select an ethical preparer

  • Taxpayers entrust some of their most vital personal data with the person preparing their tax return, including income, investments, and Social Security numbers.

Ask about service fees

  • Avoid preparers who base their fee on a percentage of the refund or those who say they can get larger refunds than others. Taxpayers need to ensure that any refund due is sent to them or deposited into their bank account, not into a preparer’s account.

Be sure to use a preparer with a preparer tax identification number

  • Paid tax return preparers must have a current PTIN to prepare a tax return. It is also a good idea to ask the preparer if she belongs to a professional organization and attends continuing education classes.

Research the preparer’s history

  • Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if the preparer has a questionable history. For the status of an enrolled agent’s license, check with the IRS Office of Enrollment (enrolled agents are licensed by the IRS and are specifically trained in federal tax planning, preparation, and representation). For certified public accountants, verify with the state board of accountancy; for attorneys, check with the state bar association.

Ask for e-file

  • Any paid preparer who prepares and files more than 10 returns for clients generally must file the returns electronically.

Provide tax records

  • A good preparer will ask to see records and receipts. Do not use a preparer who is willing to e-file a return using the latest pay stub instead of the Form W-2. This is against IRS e-file rules.

Make sure the preparer is available after the filing due date

  • This may be helpful if questions come up about the tax return. Taxpayers can designate their paid tax return preparer or another third party to speak to the IRS concerning the preparation of their return, payment/refund issues, and mathematical errors. The third party authorization checkbox on Form 1040, Form 1040A and Form 1040EZ gives the designated party the authority to receive and inspect returns and return information for one year from the original due date of the return (without regard to extensions).

Review the tax return and ask questions before signing

  • Taxpayers are legally responsible for what’s on their return, regardless of whether someone else prepared it. Make sure it’s accurate before signing it.

Never sign a blank tax return

  • If a taxpayer signs a blank return, the preparer could then put anything he wants on the return -- even his own bank account number for the tax refund.
  • Preparers must sign the return and include their PTIN as required by law.
  • The preparer must also give the taxpayer a copy of the return.

Most tax return preparers are professional, honest, and provide excellent service to their clients. However, dishonest and unscrupulous tax return preparers who file false income tax returns do exist. Always check any return for errors to avoid potential financial and legal problems. See information about Abusive Return Preparers, and learn How to Make a Complaint About a Tax Return Preparer.

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Are waiters unhappy if you don't order enough food?

Yes, because the smaller your bill, the smaller their tip

Consumers who frequent restaurants on a regular basis may be familiar with the “waiter sigh.” Or the “waitress frown.”They tend to appear when an order...

PhotoConsumers who frequent restaurants on a regular basis may be familiar with the “waiter sigh.” Or the “waitress frown.”

They tend to appear when an order is taken and everyone at the table decides they would like water to drink instead of a soft drink. Or heaven forbid if the couple, neither of whom eat very much, decide they'll split an entree.

Are we imagining it, or is it a thing? Apparently, it's a thing.

According to “BitchyWaiter,” who edits a blog for waiters, the wait staff really does hate it when you order water instead of a beverage, even though everyone realizes water is healthy and we probably should drink more of it.

“The thing is though, a glass of tap water doesn’t add to our check average, which means it does not increase our tip, and the bottom line is that servers want to do things that are going to make them more money,” BitchyWaiter explains.

When the average beverage cost is around $2, and eight people at a table opt for water, that's $16 off the bill.

Do you want fries with that?

Restaurant management, of course, also likes a large bill and may put pressure on staff to recommend appetizers and specials. That's where the McDonald's upsell question, “do you want fries with that,” came from.

But the poor server is on the front line, dependent on tips, which is usually based on a percentage of the check. A smaller check means a smaller tip.

On the blog Manners Matter, a poster using the handle Out To Dinner writes that consumers have an obligation to spend freely when they visit restaurants, especially if it is a nice restaurant.

“My thought is that the nicer restaurants aren't trying to whisk me in and out, and set up portion sizes and reservation times based on people staying and enjoying their meal,” she wrote. “It also seems cheap to me to go to a nice restaurant and not order a decent amount of food. If you don't feel like spending money, don't go to a nice restaurant.”

More prevalent outside the U.S.

It seems this way of thinking is more prevalent outside the U.S. Posting a review on Trip Advisor, a consumer complained that his party was discriminated against at a Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam because he and his wife didn't order enough food.

“We were told straight up by the guy taking orders that we were not ordering enough to justify us staying for a sit-down dinner,” the reviewer wrote. “He said it was very busy and they would rather give our seats to someone else who would order more. We ended up having to order a 11 euro meal just so we could stay and eat.”

Apparently this rule is taken very seriously at some restaurants in China. The website First To Know posted pictures last month showing customers allegedly beaten by a restaurant owner for their miserly order.

It's a shame some accommodation can't be reached between restaurants and increasingly health and weight conscious consumers who enjoy a night out but really don't want to eat and drink very much.

A first step may have been taken by Joe's Crab Shack, the first major restaurant chain to do away with tipping, at least on a trial basis. Instead, all servers will get raises.

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Initial jobless claims down moderately

Analysts say substantial job creation should continue

The unemployment line was a little shorter last week.The Department of Labor (DOL) reports first-time applications for state unemployment benefits drop...

PhotoThe unemployment line was a little shorter last week.

The Department of Labor (DOL) reports first-time applications for state unemployment benefits dropped by 5,000 in the week ending November 14 to a seasonally adjusted 271,000. The previous week's level was unrevised.

Economists at Briefing.com say this level suggests that nonfarm payrolls will likely show an increase in the neighborhood of 200,000 when the November employment report comes out next week.

The four-week moving average, which is not as volatile as the weekly calculation and is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was up 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 270,750 from the unrevised reading the week before.

The complete report is available on the DOL website

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Consumers beware: health data collected by apps and personal devices are not covered by privacy laws

The loophole results from new technologies not being included in an older law

New technologies are constantly making it easier for the average consumer to track and manage their own health. There are numerous apps, tests, and devices...

PhotoNew technologies are constantly making it easier for the average consumer to track and manage their own health. There are numerous apps, tests, and devices that cover everything from measuring your blood sugar to tracking your weight-loss goals.

These devices have helped millions of people save time and energy by letting them take their health into their own hands. Consumers beware, though: much of the personal information that you put into these health-based technologies can easily be picked up by third parties on the web. And the worst part? None of this information is currently protected by medical data privacy laws.

No coverage

This information was discovered quite accidentally by a security expert, according to a ProPublica report. While examining the tech used for a home paternity test that she'd purchased, the expert found that making a small change to the information in the browser's address bar allowed her to see health information for over 6,000 other consumers.

As surprised as she was about this apparent breach of medical data privacy law, the fact that she could access this health directory is not actually illegal. In the U.S., health data is something that is very stringently protected by the government. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires medical providers to keep your health information private and secure. Those that fail to due so face stiff penalties for their negligence.

However, HIPAA is not a universal law. Only certain organizations – such as health care practitioners, health insurance companies, and “health care clearinghouses” – have to follow it, along with any employees that work for them. Any apps or devices that record health data do not have to be so careful with your information. In fact, they can do anything they want with that data.

Glaring weakness

After making her discovery, the security expert immediately reported what she thought was a violation to the Department of Human Services. They replied, telling her that there was nothing they could do about the breach since at-home apps and personal devices do not fall under their jurisdiction.

But why is there such a glaring weakness in this privacy law? When HiPAA was first created, those who drew it up did their best to make sure that there were as few loopholes as possible that could be exploited. Unfortunately, the law was created more than 20 years ago when much of the technology that we have now did not even exist. There were no provisos made for things like apps or personal health devices, so they simply aren't covered under the law.

This giant loophole has been a problem for years now in different areas of the world. ProPublica reports that the full paternity and drug test records of an Australian business were easily found using a Google search in 2011. Police were able to use public genealogy records just last year to match DNA to crime suspects. Of course, there is always the threat that a third party could do something much more insidious things with the personal information and health data of many consumers.

In order to rectify this lack of coverage, Congress asked the HHS and FTC in 2009 to make recommendations on how to update HIPAA. The organizations were charged with working together to find a solution on how to handle health data that is collected by new technologies - but six years later that report has still not been completed.

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New York raises the ante against DraftKings and FanDuel

Attorney general seeks preliminary injunction, shutting them down

A day after a New York judge refused a bid by Fanduel and DraftKings to slap a temporary restraining order on New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, ...

PhotoA day after a New York judge refused a bid by Fanduel and DraftKings to slap a temporary restraining order on New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Schneiderman has gone to court against the two daily fantasy sports (DFS) enterprises.

Schneiderman is seeking a preliminary injunction against the two companies, which already face a cease and desist order the attorney general issued last week.

In the court filing, Schneiderman lays out his case that the two companies constitute illegal gambling under state law.

“Under New York law, a wager constitutes gambling when it depends on either a (1) 'future contingent event not under [the bettor’s] control or influence' or (2) 'contest of chance.' So-called Daily Fantasy Sports (“DFS”) wagers fit squarely in both these definitions,” Schneiderman wrote. “DFS is nothing more than a rebranding of sports betting. It is plainly illegal.”

Disputing the game of skill argument

Schneiderman went on to reject the two companies' argument that their games involve skill, not chance. He says chance plays just as much of a role, if not more, than it does in games like poker and blackjack.

“A few good players in a poker tournament may rise to the top based on their skill; but the game is still gambling,” Schneiderman declared. “So is DFS.”

Schneiderman goes on to charge both FanDuel and DraftKings are winking at the law, maintaining in public that they run games of skill, but privately evoking the profits of gambling to investors.

He says DraftKings has also embedded gambling keywords into the programming code for its website. Some of these keywords include “‘fantasy golf betting,’’ “weekly fantasy basketball betting,” ‘‘weekly fantasy hockey betting,” “weekly fantasy football betting,” “weekly fantasy college football betting,” “weekly fantasy college basketball betting,” “Fantasy College Football Betting,” “daily fantasy basketball betting,” and “Fantasy College Basketball Betting.” This increases the likelihood that search engines, like Google, will send users looking for gambling straight to the DraftKings site.

Nevada was first

New York is the second state to find that DFS amounts to gambling. In October, Nevada gaming officials reached the same conclusion.

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 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.”

Under current law, Burnett says, if you are going to operate such games – as DraftKings and FanDuel do – then you must be licensed.

The Nevada decision isn't nearly the problem for the two companies, however, that New York's action is. That's because a large percentage of players in both companies' games live in New York.

In light of the state attorney general's action, both companies have barred New Yorkers from playing until the matter runs its course in court, resulting in a significant drop in revenue.

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More Corinthian College students eligible for debt relief

Joint investigation by feds and California finds more evidence that placement rates were misrepresented

More former Corinthian College students may be eligible for debt relief following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education and California Attor...

PhotoMore former Corinthian College students may be eligible for debt relief following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education and California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

The investigation concluded that Corinthian's Wyotech and Everest programs misrepresented their placement rates, leading prospective students to overestimate their chances of getting lucrative jobs, encouraging them to take on large student debts that many are now unable to repay.

The findings from this investigation apply to Everest and Wyotech locations in California, as well as Everest University online programs based in Florida, and add to the existing findings concerning programs at Heald College, the agencies said in a joint news release.

The findings apply to Corinthian campuses that served approximately 85,000 Wyotech and Everest students. Earlier this year, the Education Department created an expedited debt relief process for Heald students who attended programs with misstated placement rates. The new findings will be referred to the administrator of the debt relief program.

Former Corinthian students can learn more about debt relief here

"Corinthian preyed on vulnerable students who are now buried under mountains of student debt," said Attorney General Harris. "Today's joint investigation findings will expand the pool of Corinthian students eligible for streamlined student loan relief options, helping them rebuild their lives and pursue a brighter future. I thank the Department of Education for joining my office to keep Corinthian accountable for their actions and providing debt relief to students who were misled."

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Donuts to your door? Dunkin' starts delivery & mobile ordering tests

Why walk all the way across the street? Let the donuts come to you

It's never safe to draw assumptions, but, generally speaking, dedicated donut munchers are not diehard exercise fanatics. So it may come as good news to le...

PhotoIt's never safe to draw assumptions, but, generally speaking, dedicated donut munchers are not diehard exercise fanatics. So it may come as good news to learn that Dunkin' Donuts is starting delivery tests in Dallas and mobile ordering in Portland, Maine, this week.

In Portland, members of the DD Perks rewards program who have iPhones can download an app linked to their loyalty card for payment and accumulation of points. Using the app, DD Perksters can skip the line and go directly to a pick-up counter or drive-through.

In Dallas, Dunkin' is working with DoorDash, which will bring you your donuts within 45 minutes during regular donut-munching hours. DoorDash is also delivering buckets of chicken for KFC and 7-Eleven essentials in some markets and is about to start service for Taco Bell.

In-N-Out Burger, on the other hand, recently sued DoorDash, saying it was dishing up burgers without the chain's permission. Want burgers? Show up in person. 

The mobile payment and ordering app being tested in Portland is similar to Starbucks' existing app. Not to be left at the curb, Starbucks is testing to-your-desk delivery through Postmates.

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'Tis the season for scams

The end of the year can have its own special dangers for consumers

The end of the year seems to always bring the scammers out of the woodwork. Maybe because it's the holiday season, they feel the pressure to increase their...

PhotoThe end of the year seems to always bring the scammers out of the woodwork. Maybe because it's the holiday season, they feel the pressure to increase their bottom line as well.

A new AARP Fraud Watch Network survey found nearly 70% of consumers failed a quiz about common holiday scams and how to avoid them, suggesting consumers remain highly vulnerable. The brief quiz is related to charitable giving, gift cards, package deliveries, and use of public Wi-Fi.

"While most of us focus on family and friends during the holidays, fraudsters are zeroing in on our wallets and bank accounts," said AARP Illinois Communications Manager Gerardo Cardenas. "We're encouraging consumers to elevate their awareness of some emerging and frequent scams, and to also share the information with their families to help keep them safe this holiday season."

Potential threats

Here are a few of the scams that seemed to trip up the consumers taking the quiz:

A scammer will create a copycat ecommerce website, offering unbelievable deals on impossible-to-find merchandise. The scammer promotes the site by sending out millions of spam emails, with links sending unsuspecting victims to the site.

You can guess what happens next. Victims either enter their credit card information for the fake merchandise or click on a link that downloads nasty malware.

Consumers who buy gift cards often are unaware that a scammer may have already drained money from the card. All he has to do is go to a store's gift card rack, write down or electronically scan the numbers off the cards, then check online or call the toll-free number to see if someone has bought the cards and activated them.

Once a card is activated, he'll drain the funds and by the time you try to use the same card the money is long gone.

Consumers can avoid this by purchasing gift cards directly from the retailer or restaurant. Ideally, the cashier should load the amount at checkout. Be sure to examine both sides of the card and look for signs of tampering such as an exposed PIN.

Be on the lookout for phony charities. This time of year scammers will pull on heartstrings and pretend to be collecting for a worthy cause. In one of the more popular holiday scams, scammers will misuse the name of a genuine organization or make up their own to take advantage of people's good will and holiday spirit and steal their money.

To avoid this scam, only donate to charities you know. If you aren't sure, you can check it out at sites like charitynavigator.org.

Tax scams

Not all end-of-the-year scams center around the holidays. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says her office has noted an uptick in IRS-related scams tied to the upcoming tax season.

Madigan says a number of Illinois residents have been contacted by callers who pose as IRS officials. The scammers then try to scare people into sending money to pay for allegedly unpaid taxes.

And don't be fooled if your caller ID registers the call from the IRS. Madigan says it easy to “spoof” caller ID devices and cause them to display what appears to be legitimate call from the tax agengy, with identifiers such “IRS” or the (202) area code for Washington, D.C.

Madigan says the person on the other end of the line is not a government employee, but a scammer. If you get one of these calls, just hang up.

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Vizio's Smart TVs are too nosy, class action claims

Company charged with using "invasive software tracking" to collect information about consumers

You've heard of being too smart for your own good. That's basically the charge being leveled against Vizio Smart TVs by Palma Reed, the lead plaintiff in a...

PhotoYou've heard of being too smart for your own good. That's basically the charge being leveled against Vizio Smart TVs by Palma Reed, the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed in federal district court in San Francisco.

The trouble with the Vizio is that while you're watching TV, the TV is allegedly watching you. No, it isn't listening to your conversation with your dog, but it's using "invasive tracking software" to record which shows are watched and collect identifying information that can be linked to "particular households, and perhaps, particular people," as we reported earlier this month, based on a ProPublica investigation. 

In addition to recording data on what you watch, Vizio TVs also connect to your home's IP address, allowing them to collect a lot more information, drawing on all of the Internet activity on your home network.

The bundled data is then sold to third parties who use it to build marketing profiles, Reed charges, Courthouse News Service reported.

Vizio has claimed that the Video Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits cable TV and video rental companies from selling information about customers' viewing habits, does not apply to it.

Reed claims Vizio went to "great lengths" to conceal its tracking software from customers. She says Vizio hid references to the content tracking in "obscure settings menus," to prevent customers from discovering and understanding it.

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Sour note: music pirate gets three-year prison sentence

RockDizMusic was the second-largest music piracy site, testimony indicated

The song was sweet for awhile there. Rocky Ouprasith was rockin' the web with his site RockDizMusic.com, a music piracy website and cyberlocker that let co...

PhotoThe song was sweet for awhile there. Rocky Ouprasith was rockin' the web with his site RockDizMusic.com, a music piracy website and cyberlocker that let consumers browse and download pirated music.

But yesterday was the day the music died. Ouprasith was sentenced to 36 months in prison by a federal district court judge in Alexandria, Va. In addition, Ouprasith was sentenced to serve two years of supervised release and was ordered to forfeit $50,851.05 and pay $48,288.62 in restitution. 

Ouprasith, 23, of Charlotte, N.C., had pleaded guilty to one count of criminal copyright infringement in August.

Ouprasith admitted that he obtained digital copies of copyrighted songs and albums – including “pre-release” songs that were not yet commercially available to consumers – from online sources. He encouraged and solicited others, referred to as “affiliates,” to upload digital copies of copyrighted songs and albums to websites, including RockDizFile.com, that were hosted on servers in Russia, France, and the Netherlands, and that hosted hyperlinks to content being offered for download on RockDizMusic.com. 

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, RockDizFile.com was the second-largest music piracy site in the U.S. in 2013. Ouprasith admitted that he either ignored or pretended to take remedial action in response to complaints from copyright holders.

In October 2014, federal law enforcement authorities shut down RockDizMusic.com and RockDizFile.com, and law enforcement authorities in the Netherlands and France seized file-hosting servers utilized by Ouprasith.

According to court documents, the market value of Ouprasith’s illegally-pirated material was more than $6 million.

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FTC adopts new rule to ban payment methods used by scam artists

It will be harder for scammers to dip into your bank account

Scam artists are fond of using payment methods that let them get their hands on your money quickly, irretrievably, and with few traces. The Federal Trade C...

PhotoScam artists are fond of using payment methods that let them get their hands on your money quickly, irretrievably, and with few traces. The Federal Trade Commission is trying to make it a lot harder for them to get by with it.

The commission has approved amendments to its Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), including a change that will help protect consumers from fraud by prohibiting four types of payment methods favored by con artists and scammers.

“Con artists like payments that are tough to trace and hard for people to reverse,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC’s new telemarketing rules ban payment methods that scammers like, but honest telemarketers don’t use.”

The TSR changes will stop telemarketers from dipping directly into consumer bank accounts by using certain kinds of checks and “payment orders” that have been “remotely created” by the telemarketer or seller. These two payment mechanisms make it easy for unscrupulous telemarketers to debit bank accounts without consumers’ permission, and can make it difficult to reverse the transactions with consumers’ banks.

In addition, the amendments will bar telemarketers from receiving payments through traditional “cash-to-cash” money transfers – provided by companies like MoneyGram, Western Union, and RIA. Scammers rely on cash transfers as a quick, anonymous, and irretrievable method to extract money from consumer victims – once it is picked up by the recipient, the money is gone.

Cash reload

The TSR changes also will prohibit telemarketers from accepting as payment “cash reload” mechanisms – such as MoneyPak, Vanilla Reload, or Reloadit packs used to add funds to existing prepaid cards. Scammers use the cash reload mechanism to apply the funds to their own prepaid debit cards and disappear with the money. In 2015, major cash reload providers replaced cash reload mechanisms with a swipe reload process, a safer alternative not affected by the TSR amendments.

The amendments address changes in the financial marketplace to ensure consumers remain protected by the TSR’s antifraud provisions, but are narrowly tailored to allow for innovations with respect to other payment methods that are used by legitimate companies, the FTC said.

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Smart cup tells you when you've had enough

Water glass considers personal factors to keep user hydrated

To stay adequately hydrated, most health providers suggest drinking eight cups of water each day.But if that one-size-fits-all approach to water consum...

PhotoTo stay adequately hydrated, most health providers suggest drinking eight cups of water each day.

But if that one-size-fits-all approach to water consumption seems a bit arbitrary to you, well, there's now a smart cup that tells you exactly how much liquid your body needs.

The Pryme Vessyl is an “intelligent” cup that computes a number of personal factors to determine each user’s hydration needs throughout the day. Developed by Mark One, it retails for $99 in select Apple retail stores in the U.S. and Canada and online.

The developers say they worked to “debunk the myths around hydration,” arguing that consuming just the right amount of water each day keeps users mentally sharp and physically strong.

Hydration algorithm

The stylish cup automatically tracks your water consumption and incorporates this data into a hydration algorithm, alerting the user to his or her hydration needs at each point during the day. The cup takes into account factors such as height, age, weight and sex, as well as changing variables like sleep and exercise, to help you understand your personal hydration needs.

It's compatible with the Apple Health App on iOS and Jawbone UP, allowing users to track physical activity and adjust their hydration needs accordingly.

To get started, just download the Pryme app and enter a few facts about yourself, like birth date and sleeping habits. After that, the cup automatically tracks each sip and, the developers say, continuously helps you stay at your optimal hydration.

Illuminated line

You can keep up with your needs by observing an illuminated line on the side of the cup that rises and falls based on how well you are meeting your needs. You activate the device by picking it up and tilting it.

“It’s clear that a marathon runner will have different hydration needs than a sedentary office worker, yet as a society we’re content with relying on the myth of eight glasses of water per day, regardless of lifestyle,” said Nic Barnes, Head of Brand for Mark One. “We developed Pryme to help you understand that it’s not about how much you need in a day, it’s about how much you need right now. At your Pryme, you are mentally sharp and physically strong. We want you to Pryme for your moments of greatness.”

The Pryme cup may have another useful purpose. Consumers who use it are less likely to drink from plastic water bottles that constantly end up in landfills or the ocean.

And though the company has not suggested something is even on the drawing board, a smart martini glass or beer mug – telling users when they've had enough alcohol – might also be a useful product.

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Amazon.com to start holiday deals this weekend

But consumers should be mindful of shipping costs when shopping online

Amazon.com is another retailer that isn't waiting for Black Friday to start its deals. The company says the deals start Friday, November 20 and will run fo...

PhotoAmazon.com is another retailer that isn't waiting for Black Friday to start its deals. The company says the deals start Friday, November 20 and will run for a solid eight days.

But Amazon isn't rolling out the deals all at once. It plans to add its specials every five minutes through Black Friday. There will be special deals Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, what Amazon calls Deals of the Day – 10 on Thanksgiving Day and 10 on Black Friday.

“Customers can truly sit back and relax with their family and friends this holiday season knowing that they will be notified as soon as the products they’ve had their eye on are about to go on sale. . . Year after year, more and more customers shop for deals on Amazon from the comfort of their own home, and we continue to make that process even more convenient for them,” said Steve Shure, Vice President, Amazon Consumer Marketing. “And with App Only Deals, customers will have plenty of options when it comes to scoring great deals from Amazon.”

Spending migrates online

It's likely that more holiday shopping will move online this year. According to Adobe's shopping forecast, online holiday sales could surge 11%, hitting $83 billion dollars.

With so many people shopping for deals online, Phil Dengler, principal at BestBlackFriday.com, says it's critical for consumers to be aware of shipping terminology, lest savings be eroded by the cost of getting the purchase delivered.

“Buying a cheaper item online from a store that has a free shipping minimum can literally kill all of the savings because of shipping costs,” Dengler told ConsumerAffairs. “In order to simplify that information, we have put together a guide that will make the life of any online Black Friday shopper considerably easier and less stressful.”

Shipping guide

The guide shows that free shipping for holiday sales is fast becoming the norm, but not all retailers will pick up the tab for a small purchase. However, a growing number will, and consumers should look for “no minimum purchase required,” while being aware of spending minimums some retailers may impose.

According to the guide, Amazon requires a $35 minimum purchase for free shipping for non-Prime members. Target and Best Buy, however, have no minimum purchase requirements this holiday season.

While it doesn't really matter for large electronic orders – since the purchase is likely to be $100 or more – free shipping is a huge factor for small orders, especially when the savings aren't particularly large to begin with. It won't pay to save $5 on a $10 item if you end up spending $6.95 to have it delivered.

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New home construction down sharply in October

Permits for construction in the months head, though, were higher

Ground-breaking for new homes fell in October to their lowest level in seven months.Figures released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of...

PhotoGround-breaking for new homes fell in October to their lowest level in seven months.

Figures released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show housing starts plunged 11% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,060,000. The decline puts the construction rate 1.8% below the same time last year and the lowest since last March.

The news wasn't all bad though. October marked the seventh month in a row that starts were above 1 million -- the longest stretch in nearly eight years.

Single-family housing starts took a hit last month, falling 2.4% below the revised September figure of 740,000 -- to 722,000 units. The October rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 327,000, compared with 439,000 the month before.

Realtor.com Chief Economist Jonathan Smoke sees the latest numbers as a sign that the industry needs stronger growth.

“At our current pace of activity and taking into account loss of housing stock due to disaster and dilapidation, we're building new units at less than half the pace at which we are forming households," he noted, adding, "the housing shortage only worsens if this remains the picture. Tight supply of homes for sale and low vacancies will continue to be the norm, and along with that, higher rents and prices."

Building permits

Although construction was down in October, developers were making plans for the months ahead.

Building permits for privately-owned housing units were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,150,000 – up 4.1% from September and 2.7% higher than the same month last year.

Authorizations for single-family homes were up 2.4% from September at a rate of 711,000. Permits for of units in buildings with five units or more were at a rate of 405,000, a gain of 31,000 from the previous month.

The increase in permits in October is a promising sign, according to Smoke.

"Permits by definition lead starts, so the pace of permit activity slowing to a level lower than the pace of starts signals a declining market," he said. "The decline in starts and completions this month is the result of that scenario last month."

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

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Mortgage applications post a gain

Contract interest rates were mostly higher

In a week that included an adjustment for the Veterans Day holiday, mortgage applications were headed higher.According to the Mortgage Bankers Associat...

PhotoIn a week that included an adjustment for the Veterans Day holiday, mortgage applications were headed higher.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) weekly survey, applications rose 6.2% for the week ending November 13.

The Refinance Index was up 2%, although the refinance share of mortgage activity dipped to 58.6% of total applications from 59.8% the previous week.

The average loan size for purchase applications rose to a survey high of $301,200.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was 6.3% of total applications, the FHA share was 14.4%, the VA share rose to 11.7% from 10.9%, and the USDA share of total applications was unchanged at 0.7%.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose 6 basis points -- from 4.12% to 4.18%, its highest level since July, with points unchanged at 0.45 (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) edged up to 4.05% from 4.04%, with points slipping to 0.33 from 0.38 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA was up three basis points to 3.90%, with points increasing to 0.37 from 0.25 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs climbed to 3.40%, its highest level since July, from 3.35%, with points increasing to 0.45 from 0.35 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs dropped two basis points to 3.18%, with points increasing to 0.45 from 0.28 (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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Kona Wo bicycles recalled

The bicycle fork can crack or break

Kona Bicycle Company of Ferndale, Wash., is recalling about 530 Kona Wo bicycles. The bicycle fork can crack or break, posing a fall hazard. ...

PhotoKona Bicycle Company of Ferndale, Wash., is recalling about 530 Kona Wo bicycles.

 

The bicycle fork can crack or break, posing a fall hazard.

 

The company has received one report of the bicycle fork breaking at the junction of the crown. No injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves all 2014 Kona Wo bicycles with a charcoal black frame and silver decals. The word "Wo" is on the top tube of the frame and the word "Kona" is on the down tube of the frame and on the side of the seat.

 

The bicycles, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at authorized Kona dealers nationwide from September 2013, through July 2014, for about $1,700.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and contact Kona or an authorized Kona dealer for a free replacement and installation of the bicycle fork.

 

Consumers may contact Kona at 800-566-2872 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (PT) Monday through Friday, online at http://www.konaworld.com/wo_recall.cfm for more information.

 

 

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Tyson Foods recalls chicken wings

The product has an “off odor” scent and may be adulterated

Tyson Foods of Pine Bluff, Ark., is recalling approximately 52,486 pounds of chicken wings. The product has an “off odor” scent and may be adultera...

PhotoTyson Foods of Pine Bluff, Ark., is recalling approximately 52,486 pounds of chicken wings.

 

The product has an “off odor” scent and may be adulterated.

 

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

 

The following fully cooked buffalo style chicken wing item was produced on October 24, 2015 and October 25, 2015:

  • 28-oz. retail bags containing multiple pieces of “Tyson Any’tizers Fully Cooked Hot Wings CHICKEN WING SECTIONS COATED WITH A FLAVORFUL HOT, TANGY SAUCE” with use by/sell by dates of October 24, 2016 and October 25, 2016, packaging dates 2975PBF0508-23/2985PBF0500-01 and case codes 2975PBF0508-23/2985PBF0500-01.

The recalled product bears establishment number “P-13456” inside the USDA mark of inspection as well as on the back of the bag above the heating instructions.

 

The items were shipped to retail locations nationwide.

 

Customers who purchased this products are urged not to consume it, but throw it away or return it to the place of purchase.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Tyson Foods’ consumer relations (toll free) at 866-328-3156.

 

 

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REI recalls outdoor rocker chairs

The chair can tip backward while rocking

Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), of Kent, Wash., is recalling about 30,500 evrgrn campfire rocker chairs. The chair can tip backward while rockin...

PhotoRecreational Equipment Inc. (REI), of Kent, Wash., is recalling about 30,500 evrgrn campfire rocker chairs.

 

The chair can tip backward while rocking, posing a fall hazard to the user.

 

The company has received four reports of children who have tipped over in the rocker chairs while in the store.

 

This recall involves REI evrgrn Campfire Rocker chairs. The collapsible rocking chairs were sold in blue, gray, green, and orange fabric supported by four metal tubes and wooden rockers at the base and are intended for outdoor use.

 

A small black tab is attached to the edge of the fabric seat containing the word “evrgrn”. The chair comes in a portable bag whose color matches that of the fabric seat.

 

The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at REI stores nationwide and online at www.REI.com from April 2015, through August 2015, for about $100.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and contact REI for a free replacement or a full refund.

 

Consumers may contact REI at 800-426-4840 from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. (PT) daily or online at www.REI.com and click on Product Recalls at the bottom of the page for more information.

 

 

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American Airlines changes frequent flier program to reward dollars spent

The change benefits business travelers, hurts occasional pleasure fliers

American Airlines, newly merged with US Airways, is changing its frequent flier program to reward dollars spent instead of miles flown. The change benefits...

PhotoAmerican Airlines, newly merged with US Airways, is changing its frequent flier program to reward dollars spent instead of miles flown. The change benefits big-spending corporate travelers and hurts occasional pleasure fliers.

But before you denounce American for following the money, it's worth noting that the change brings it into line with the way most airlines reward their frequent fliers these days.

American Airlines Nov. 17, 2015, 8:41 p.m.
Consumers rate American Airlines

United and Delta made a similar switch over the last few years, joining Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America. 

Travel industry watchers weren't surprised by the change and, in fact, said they had been expecting it once the merger was finalized. 

The change basically follows modifications in the way fares are set. Once upon a time, fares tended to reflect miles flown -- a 2,000-mile trip cost more than a 600-mile junket. But not today. Fares are now set by a complex formula that includes route density, when the flight is booked, demand for seats on the travel date, and so forth. 

Book at the last minute and you may be paying $2,000 for that center seat while your neighbor on the aisle paid only $200 because he booked two months in advance.

Awarding frequent flier premiums on dollars rather than miles also puts the program back into synch with its original goal -- rewarding the most profitable passengers. Airlines make a lot more money on business travelers, who not only fly more often but tend to make costly last-minute reservations and book business-class seats when they think they can get by with it. 

5 miles per dollar

Like United and Delta, American will award a minimum of five miles for every dollar spent on the base fare and fees, excluding taxes. Elite members will get more miles per dollar spent.

Redemption levels also will be modified, starting in March, with fewer points required for Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and for some shorter domestic flights. But trips to Europe and Asia, and travel in premium cabins, will require higher redemptions.

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Cage-free eggs might become golden eggs

Fast food demand could be a bonanza for producers

This week Taco Bell became the latest fast food chain to pledge to use only cage-free eggs in its food products, joining the likes of McDonald's, Panera Br...

PhotoThis week Taco Bell became the latest fast food chain to pledge to use only cage-free eggs in its food products, joining the likes of McDonald's, Panera Bread, Starbucks, and many others.

While McDonald's has said the transition would take up to 10 years, Taco Bell said it would be able to make the switch in one year. Panera plans to do it in five years.

The restaurant chains are responding to a persistent campaign by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which says the conditions under which most U.S. eggs are produced do not meet the criteria of being humane.

“This is a watershed moment in a decades-long effort to eliminate the cruelest confinement from our food supply,” HSUS president and CEO Wayne Pacelle said in September, after the McDonald's announcement. “McDonald’s admirable move makes clear that egg production's future is cage-free.”

Economic consequences

If it is true that future egg production will be cage-free, massive changes have to take place, likely having economic consequences for consumers and industry players.

The numbers tell the story.

According to The New York Times, the U.S. produces some 43.56 billion eggs each year. McDonald's purchases about 2 billion of those eggs – roughly 4% of the national supply. Now that it has extended breakfast to all day, it is likely to use even more.

How many of those eggs in the national supply are currently cage-free? Not that many.

United Egg Producers reports that as of September 2015, organic and cage-free shell egg production accounted for just 8.7% of the current table egg layer flock – or 23.6 million hens.

Of this number, 4.2% are organic – about 11.4 million hens – and 4.5% are cage-free, the remaining 12.2 million hens. While organic eggs may also be cage-free, they are already more expensive than regular, cage-free eggs.

So what happens when the nation's fast food chains suddenly push suppliers for cage-free eggs instead of those produced in current, small-cage operations?

Prices could rise a lot

“If the industry has difficulty making this transition, the price of cage-free eggs could rise a lot,” Corrine Alexander, an agriculture economics professor at Purdue University, told ConsumerAffairs. “Right now, because avian influenza has affected the layers, and production is down by 11%, retail egg prices are up 50%. So for Taco Bell, this change is occurring at a time when egg prices are already high.”

And it's likely to go higher, at least for the restaurant chains that will be competing for the small supply of cage-free eggs. Where there is demand, however, supply will follow, and there will be likely be a surge in cage-free producers.

But the real question that will impact consumers – can that supply ramp up quickly enough to meet the demand? If it can't, restaurants will have two choices – become less profitable or pass along the cost of higher priced eggs to consumers.

What about the huge commercial egg operations that currently dot the Midwest? They have millions of hens, confined in tiny cages, producing hundreds of millions of eggs.

If these operations converted all or some of their production to cage-free, it would seem they would either have to reduce the number of hens – reducing egg production – or vastly increase the space required. Many may opt for the status quo.

Bonanza for small producers

However, the sudden demand for cage-free eggs might prove to be a bonanza for rural America, which frankly hasn't had many economic breaks recently. Small landowners may be well-suited to set up cage-free egg operations. Cage-free is not the same as free-range – hens are still kept indoors, in a confined space – just not nearly as confined as a tiny cage.

Instead of selling their eggs at the local farmers' markets, these small, independent producers would need to be tied into a distributor network that could efficiently get their eggs to restaurants. And with the price of cage-free eggs surging during the first years of the transition, these small operations could be profitable indeed.

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CIA chief: Paris attacks should be a wake-up call

Encrypting private communications helps terrorists, Brennan argues

Tourists outside Notre Dame Cathedral prior to the Paris attacks (Staff photo)For years, privacy advocates, technology giants, and some consumers hav...

Photo
Tourists outside Notre Dame Cathedral prior to the Paris attacks (Staff photo)

For years, privacy advocates, technology giants, and some consumers have argued that government surveillance of ordinary citizens is an unwarranted intrusion and must be stopped. CIA director John Brennan says the Paris terrorist attacks show it's time for such "handwringing" to stop.  

“I do hope that this is going to be a wake-up call,” Brennan said at a Monday conference in Washington, said by ISIS to be among its next targets.

London Mayor Boris Johnson went even further and blamed Edward Snowden for the attacks. Snowden is the former NSA contractor who two years ago released vast volumes of surveillance data and, said Johnson, taught terrorists "how to avoid being caught."

There's no firm evidence that Snowden's revelations led directly to Friday's attacks, but Brennan said "a number of unauthorized disclosures" about the extent of federal surveillance has made it "more challenging" for intelligence agencies.

Dana Perino, press secretary to former President George W. Bush put it a bit more succinctly on Twitter.

Photo

Congress has been largely receptive to the argument that more needs to be done to head off terror attacks and cyberintrusions. The Senate last month passed the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) on a 74-21 vote. A conference committee is now working out differences with the House, which had earlier passed a similar measure.

Last month's decisive vote came despite intensive lobbying and public appeals by Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Wikipedia, Yelp, Sprint, and other technology firms that said it was unnecessary and would do nothing to prevent cybersecurity and terror attacks. 

Presidential candidates are already seizing on Friday's attacks to build a case for stronger intelligence measures. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush yesterday called for restoring NSA's ability to collect virtually all telephone and Internet records, something Congress outlawed last June.

Sleeper cells

But with Western civilization under attack by amorphous forces like ISIS, intelligence agencies and law enforcement say they need to be able to intercept communications that could alert them to impending attacks and help them to find "sleeper cells" -- ISIS adherents who are lying in wait to stage attacks when ordered to do so.

Privacy and civil liberties groups say that argument sounds good, but they contend that there's scant evidence such surveillance really does any good. They note that France passed tough new surveillance laws after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January but still failed to detect and intercept the terrorists who carried out last Friday's attacks that killed at least 129 people.

CISA does not address all of the intelligence community's shopping list. Intelligence agencies basically want to have access to any and all data handled by telecommunications carriers and web hosts, whether encrypted or not. 

The White House has not taken a firm position either way but cautioned a few months ago that a major terrorist attack could sway public opinion in favor of intensified surveillance, leading to Congressional action. 

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GM Aveo gets zero stars in Latin American crash test

U.S. safety advocates say there should be no "double standard" in auto safety

The little Chevrolet Aveo is the best-selling car in Mexico, but a Latin American auto safety group says it may also be the most dangerous. The Aveo recent...

PhotoThe little Chevrolet Aveo is the best-selling car in Mexico, but a Latin American auto safety group says it may also be the most dangerous. The Aveo recently got a grand total of zero stars out of a possible five in recent crash safety tests conducted by our southern neighbor. 

That may not be too surprising considering that the Aveo is such a basic, no-frills car; its cheapest model doesn't even have airbags. But it's not just the Aveo. The safety advocates say that Chevrolet has consistently flunked similar tests over the past five years.

"When I learned that the Chevrolet Aveo was being sold in Mexico without airbags, I was not surprised at the test results but was surprised and distressed that GM would make such a callous corporate decision to withhold such an essential safety feature from families," said Joan Claybrook, president emeritus of Public Citizen and former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "For consumers in Mexico it appears that the GM logo on the Chevrolet Aveo really stands for 'Grave Mistake.'"

Safety crusader Ralph Nader said there "should be no double standard between safety features and vehicles sold in the U.S. and vehicles sold in developing countries by major auto manufacturers. Unless, that is, these manufacturers devalue the safety and lives of motorists in poorer countries."

The tests were conducted by the Latin New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), an organization that says it operates throughout Latin America, working to improve occupant protection and car safety. 

General Motors did not respond to a request for comment.

"Worst performing"

“In our recent safety ranking of manufacturer crash performance analyzing the more than sixty car models we’ve tested, Chevrolet is the worst performing major global manufacturer,” said Alejandro Furas, Latin NCAP Secretary General.

The release of the Aveo ratings precede Wednesday's launch of a United Nations conference in Brazil that comes at the midpoint of the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety. 

Latin NCAP rates test cars on how close each vehicle is to meeting minimum UN safety standards. Many countries in the region still fall far short of these goals, although some auto manufacturers’ models, particularly Honda, excelled in the most recent tests.

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Delta customers will no longer be able to count larger pets as checked baggage

Affected consumers will need to pay more and be careful with planning and booking flights

For many people, taking a trip with your whole family means bringing beloved pets as well. Up until now, Delta had allowed larger animals to be flown as ch...

PhotoFor many people, taking a trip with your whole family means bringing beloved pets as well. Up until now, Delta had allowed larger animals to be flown as checked baggage, but they recently decided that they will end this practice starting next year.

Some exceptions

The change will go into effect on March 1, 2016, and will make it necessary for bigger animals to be flown via Delta's cargo service. Consumers who often fly with larger pets, and have booked flights after that date, will be notified by the airline.

Despite the change, many smaller animals, such as small dogs and cats, will still be allowed to fly as checked baggage – though the standard fee will still apply. Some larger animals will also still be accepted as well due to special circumstances. These include such animals traveling with military members under active transfer orders, service animals, and animals used for emotional support.

Delta wants to reassure its passengers that they still care about pets; in fact, they claim that the change is a direct result of that caring. “Many of us at Delta are pet lovers and we know that they are important members of the family. . . This change will ultimately ensure that we have a high-quality, consistent service for pets when their owners choose to ship them with Delta Cargo,” said Bill Lentsch, Senior Vice President of Airport Customer Service and Cargo Operations.

Increased cost and planning

The change in policy raises costs for consumers if they decide to fly with a larger pet. The Atlanta Journal Constitution calculates that the cost for shipping a pet can vary greatly in price – from $193 to $1,481.18.

Even if the you can manage the increased cost, there is additional effort involved in the new process too. Pets shipped via the cargo service must have a separate booking that is completed two weeks before the departure date. Dropping your pet off at the airport may be a bit of a hassle too, since they need to be delivered to, and received from, the cargo area.

Even after taking preliminary steps, consumers are not guaranteed that their pets will ultimately make it on the same flight as them. If this happens, there may be more than a few disgruntled pet owners waiting at the airport to see when their four-legged friends will arrive.  

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VW dealers' latest problem: not enough cars

Diesels disgraced but sales of gas-powered VWs are surging

A 2015 Tiguan (Photo: VW)When it broke a few months ago, VW's "dirty diesel" scandal was seen as a disaster that would cause consumers to shun Volksw...

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A 2015 Tiguan (Photo: VW)

When it broke a few months ago, VW's "dirty diesel" scandal was seen as a disaster that would cause consumers to shun Volkswagens. Instead, VW dealers are complaining they don't have enough cars to keep up with the demand.

Sales of diesel-powered cars remain frozen but gas-powered cars have been surging off dealer lots, thanks in part to heavy incentives like the $2,000 loyalty discount VW is offering to returning owners.

VW dealers have been in a funk for the last year or two, complaining that Volkswagen sales were weak because of higher prices and poorer gas mileage relative to the competition. But the heavy incentives and cut-rate financing have changed that equation and the most popular models are now selling well, or at least they would be if dealers could keep enough in stock, according to a report in Automotive News.

Both Passats and Golfs -- the best-selling VWs -- are in short supply at dealers around the country, as is the Tiguan, a compact SUV that has never sold very well despite its sporty handling and European styling. Last month was the Tiguan's best sales month so far, helped partly by the incentives and a lower price for the 2016 model.

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FAA warns of drone registration scam

An official registration program isn't even set up yet

Photo: FAAScam artists sometimes get ahead of themselves. Take the ones claiming they can help you register your drone.While it's true that the F...

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Isis Pharmaceuticals may change its name

Paris attacks may have been the last straw

Talk about your public relations nightmare. The name of your company, which has proudly adorned your letterhead for a quarter-century, suddenly is the name...

PhotoTalk about your public relations nightmare. The name of your company, which has proudly adorned your letterhead for a quarter-century, suddenly is the name of the most-hated terrorist group on the face of the earth.

After holding out for months as ISIS committed one atrocity after another, Isis Pharmaceuticals has finally signaled that it is ready to consider a name change, according to a report by CNN Money. The Paris terrorist attack was apparently the last straw.

CNN quotes company spokesman Dr. Wade Walke as saying no decision has been made and no alternative name has been selected.

When it was founded, Isis Pharmaceuticals was named for the Egyptian goddess associated with good health. When the terrorist group appropriated the name, Isis Pharmaceuticals steadfastly refused to consider a name change, saying in essence, “we had it first.”

Defiantly dismissive

A few months ago, CNBC's Jim Cramer asked company CEO Stanley Crooke about the negative connotations attached to the name. At the time, Crooke was defiantly dismissive.

“Our investors should be more sophisticated,” Crook said in the interview. “I don't want to capitulate to terrorists by changing my name. They can change their name.”

Isis Pharmaceuticals trades under the stock symbol ISIS and the stock suffered a nearly 4% decline in Monday's trading, the first following the Paris attacks. It bounced higher in early trading Tuesday.

The company'’s best known product may be the KYNAMRO injection, which is an apo-B synthesis inhibitor for patients with homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia; and for the reduction of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol.

It reportedly has a pipeline of 38 drugs in development for the treatment of various diseases, including cardiovascular and metabolic diseases; severe and rare diseases, which include neurological disorders; and cancer.

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Papa John's franchisee pleads guilty to wage theft

Owner must pay $280,000 in fines and faces jailtime

The owner of nine Papa John's franchises located in New York City is looking at jail time and a hefty fine for not paying his employees according to minimu...

PhotoThe owner of nine Papa John's franchises located in New York City is looking at jail time and a hefty fine for not paying his employees according to minimum wage requirements. The owner, Abdul Jamil Khokhar and BMY Foods, Inc. pleaded guilty to wage theft charges and will have to pay nearly $300,000, while Kokhar has been sentenced to 60 days in jail.

“Wage theft is a crime and a Papa John's franchisee is now going to jail for cheating his employees and trying to cover it up,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Schneidman's office led the investigation, which found that Papa John's employees were not being paid the proper time-and-a-half overtime rate when they worked over 40 hours per week. In order to avoid paying extra, the franchisee had his employees use fake names after they had worked 40 hours so that it looked like the time worked was spread out to multiple workers on the books.

Obviously, this practice is illegal because it defrauds workers of their proper wages and defrauds the state on the company's tax return. As a result, the franchisee has been ordered to pay $230,000 back to its employees for lost wages and an additional $50,000 in civil penalties.

“The Attorney General's successful criminal prosecution of this employer, together with the Department of Labor's civil consent judgment against the enterprise, show that employers will not get away with covering up violations of state and federal wage laws,” said Mark H Watson, Jr. of the Wage and Hour Division at the U.S. Department of Labor.  

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Lumber Liquidators adopts new safety standards for vinyl flooring

The policy is aimed to weed out chemicals found in reprocessed plastic

Lumber Liquidators has committed to a new policy intended to block chemicals found in reprocessed plastic from its flooring products. The policy requires t...

PhotoLumber Liquidators has committed to a new policy intended to block chemicals found in reprocessed plastic from its flooring products. The policy requires the company's suppliers to end all use of reprocessed vinyl plastic in vinyl flooring and to limit lead content to less than 100 parts per million.

The company is also requiring suppliers to eliminate the use of ortho-phthalates in all vinyl flooring purchased and has committed to regular independent laboratory testing by Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)-certified laboratories to monitor compliance.   

Testing by the Ecology Center (Michigan) found that the reprocessed vinyl plastic is often contaminated with lead, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, phthalates, and other toxic chemicals.  

In at least 69% of the floors’ inner layers tested from six major retailers, lead was present at elevated concentrations. Testing revealed lead levels as high as 10,000 ppm and cadmium at 20,000 ppm. The contamination results from the global trade in plastic waste, which is often recovered from the wire and cables from old computers and other electronics, according to the recent Healthy Building Network report Post-Consumer Polyvinyl Chloride in Building Products.

Lumber Liquidators previously reached a multi-million-dollar settlement with the U.S. government over its use of illegally imported wood in flooring products. 

Phased in

Lumber Liquidators worked with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families’ Mind the Store Campaign to develop the framework for these standards, which are expected to be phased in over the next year.

“We are encouraged by Lumber Liquidators’ decision to sell vinyl flooring made without reprocessed plastic,” said Mike Schade, Mind the Store campaign director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.  “This is a positive step and we hope other major flooring and home improvement retailers will join Lumber Liquidators in eliminating this unnecessary plastic.”

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FanDuel, DraftKings strike out in New York court

Attorney general's cease and desist order stands, at least for now

If you were a betting sort, you might have put your money on the daily fantasy sports (DFS) giants FanDuel and DraftKings to roll over New York Attorney Ge...

PhotoIf you were a betting sort, you might have put your money on the daily fantasy sports (DFS) giants FanDuel and DraftKings to roll over New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in court.

But you would have been a loser on that one.

A New York judge Monday rejected the companies' separate pleas for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against Schneiderman's cease and desist order last week, when he declared DFS to be illegal gambling and not allowed within the Empire State.

“We also requested an expedited hearing schedule to resolve this matter as quickly as possible,” DraftKings said in a statement as it went to court. “We believe this TRO is necessary and warranted to protect DraftKings’ business while we pursue our legal action to prevent the New York Attorney General from denying New Yorkers the right to continue playing the daily fantasy sports games they love.”

Nothing to restrain

But Schneiderman argued against the TRO, pointing out that his office had not actually taken any action that could be restrained – it simply issued a cease and desist order. The judge agreed, meaning the attorney general's cease and desist order remains in force.

In making their ill-fated arguments, FanDuel and DraftKings warned they would “face irreparable harm” should Schneiderman's order stand. That's because both companies are heavily dependent on hundreds of thousands of DFS players from New York.

Going into the weekend, FanDuel issued a statement, saying the full slate of contests covering all sports would go on, but that not everyone could play.

“However, we will stop allowing new deposits on the site, from New York, as of today,” the company said. “All users in New York can and will be able to continue to withdraw their money as always.”

Back to court

But think of this showdown as a best-of-seven series – not a single contest. FanDuel and DraftKings will get another day in court soon in which to argue their games are not gambling. The judge ordered the two sides back in court Nov. 25. But at this point, Schneiderman leads the series, 1-0.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reports the loss of New York revenue last weekend and the prospect of further losses has prompted DraftKings to cut back its aggressive advertising campaign, that rivaled brewers before the start of the NFL season.

The newspaper reports the company has been asking media for adjustments to its fourth quarter advertising commitments. In a statement, DraftKings said it is “always in dialogue” with its media partners.

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A November dip in builder confidence

Nobody's panicking, though

There seems to be a bit of concern among builders in the market for newly constructed single-family homes.The National Association of Home Builders (NA...

PhotoThere seems to be a bit of concern among builders in the market for newly constructed single-family homes.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) slipped three points to 62 this month from an upwardly revised October reading.

“The November report is pullback from an unusually high October, and is more in line with the consistent, modest growth that we have seen throughout the year,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “A firming economy, continued job creation and affordable mortgage rates should keep housing on an upward trajectory as we approach 2016.”

HMI performance

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 losses in November. The index measuring sales expectations in the next six months fell five points to 70, and the component gauging current sales conditions decreased three points to 67. The index charting buyer traffic inched up a point to 48.

“Even with this month’s drop, builder confidence has remained in the 60s for six straight months -- a sign that the single-family housing market is making long-term headway,” said NAHB Chairman Tom Woods, a home builder from Blue Springs, Mo. “However, our members continue to voice concerns about the availability of lots and labor.”

Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the West increased four points to 73 while the Northeast rose three points to 50. The Midwest and South, on the other hand, held steady at 60 and 65, respectively.

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Consumer prices inch upward in October

Prices were subdued across the board

The cost of living rose in October, but it's nothing to get excited about.Figures released by the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS...

PhotoThe cost of living rose in October, but it's nothing to get excited about.

Figures released by the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show the consumer price index (CPI) was up a tiny 0.2% last month and that over the last 12 months, prices are up by the same amount.

Food costs

Food prices posted their smallest increase since May -- just 0.1%, with the index for food at home also up 0.1%. Four of the six major grocery store food group indexes rose were higher last month, with cereals and bakery products advancing 0.8%, and fruits and vegetables up 0.5% for the fourth monthly increase in a row. Nonalcoholic beverages and other food at home were also higher.

The cost of meats, poultry, and fish declined (-0.5%). Egg prices dropped 4.8% after sharp increases during the summer, while dairy and related products also declined (-0.2%).

Over the past 12 months, food at home is up 0.7%. The index for food away from home rose 0.2% in October and is up 2.9% over the last 12 months. Overall food prices have jumped 1.9% over the last 12 months.

Energy prices

After plunging 4.7% in September, energy prices were up 0.3% last month. Major energy components were mixed, with gasoline (+0.4%) and electricity (+0.4%) higher. In contrast, fuel oil (-1.1%) and natural gas (-0.7%) declined.

All major energy components were down over the past 12 months, with fuel oil index plunging 32.9%, gasoline down 27.8%, natural gas down 11.0%, and electricity 0.5% lower.

Over the last 12 months, overall energy prices have plummeted 17.1%

Core inflation

Prices excluding the volatile food and energy categories -- the “core rate” of inflation -- were up just 0.2% in October, the same as in September. The largest contributors were medical care (+0.7%) and shelter (+0.3%). Prices for personal care, airline fares, recreation, alcoholic beverages, and tobacco also rose.

Costs of apparel, new vehicles, household furnishings and operations, and used cars and trucks all declined in October. The core rate is up 1.9% over the last 12 months

The complete CPI report is available on the BLS website.

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PNY recalls portable lithium polymer battery packs

Batteries can overheat and vent flames

PNY Technologies of Parsippany, N.J., is recalling about 56,800 portable lithium polymer battery packs in the U.S. and Canada. Batteries can overhe...

PhotoPNY Technologies of Parsippany, N.J., is recalling about 56,800 portable lithium polymer battery packs in the U.S. and Canada.

 

Batteries can overheat and vent flames, posing fire and burn hazards.

 

The company has received one report of venting with flames. No injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves portable lithium polymer battery packs with model number T10400 that are used to charge USB-enabled smartphones, tablets and other USB-powered devices.

 

The batteries are black or grey hand-held devices, 4 inches x 2.75 inches x 0.75 inches, with two USB outputs and four blue LED lights. PNY is laser-printed along the bottom on the front of the battery.

 

The battery packs, manufactured in China, were sold at Best Buy, Office Depot, Office Max and other retail stores nationwide and online at amazon.com and frys.com from January 2014, through August 2015, for about $50.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled batteries and contact PNY for a free replacement rechargeable battery.

 

Consumers may contact PNY Technologies toll-free at 888-316-1194 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday, online at www.pny.com and click on “Product Recall” under the “Support” menu at the bottom of the page, or by email at Tech-Support-T10400@pny.com.

 

 

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BMW recalls vehicles with child restraint anchor issue

The child seat may not fully engage both lower anchors

BMW of North America is recalling 7,162 model year 2016 528i, 528i xDrive, 535i, 535i xDrive, 535d xDrive, M5, 550i, 550i xDrive and 535d sedans. T...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 7,162 model year 2016 528i, 528i xDrive, 535i, 535i xDrive, 535d xDrive, M5, 550i, 550i xDrive and 535d sedans.

 

The vehicles have an inboard lower anchor for child restraints on the left rear seat that may have been bent downwards, preventing the child seat from fully engaging both lower anchors. As such, these vehicles may fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 225, "Child Restraint Anchorage Systems."

 

If the child seat is not properly attached to the lower anchors, the child's risk of injury in the event of a crash is in creased.

 

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and, if necessary, repair the inboard lower anchor on the left rear seat, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin December 24, 2015.

 

Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417.

 

 

 

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Homestat Farm recalls organic steel cut oats & chia product

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Homestat Farm of Dublin, Ohio, is recalling some of its 42-oz. packages of Organic Steel Cut Oats & Chia with Flax And Rye Flakes. The product may ...

PhotoHomestat Farm of Dublin, Ohio, is recalling some of its 42-oz. packages of Organic Steel Cut Oats & Chia with Flax And Rye Flakes.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

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

 

The recalled product was distributed on a limited basis in Sams Club retail stores located in Alaska, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Minnesota, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

 

The product comes in a 42-oz carton, UPC 8 35882 00620 4, marked with Best Buy: 03/16/17-1, 03/16/18-1, 03/19/17-1, 03/19/17-2, 03/23/17-1, 03/23/17-2, 03/24/17-1, 03/26/17-1, 03/26/17-2, 04/08/17-2. The best buy date can be found embossed on the bottom flap of box next to the bar code.

 

Customers who purchased the recalled product should return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-800-819-3918 Monday – Friday from 10am – 4pm.

 

 

 

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T-Mobile's Binge On plan has a downside

The plan isn't exactly in keeping with Net Neutrality principles

T-Mobile made a lot of noise last week with its announcement of "Binge On," a promotion that will let customers watch as many movies as they want on some s...

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For-profit education company pays $95.5 million settlement

The settlement dismisses claims of illegal recruiting and consumer fraud

The Department of Justice announced today that they have finally reached a settlement with Education Management Corporation (EDMC) for charges of illegal r...

PhotoThe Department of Justice announced today that they have finally reached a settlement with Education Management Corporation (EDMC) for charges of illegal recruiting, consumer fraud, and other violations. The for-profit education company has agreed to pay $95.5 million to settle these allegations.

The case against EDMC actually stretches back all the way to 2007 after two Education Management employees complained about the company's deceptive recruiting practices. One employee filed charges in federal court through use of the False Claims Act– a piece of legislation that allows a citizen to sue if they know that fraud has been committed against the government; in essence, the citizen would be suing in the government's name. By 2011, the Department of Justice, four states, and the second employee would join the case.

Unfair compensation and fraud

The primary charge that EDMC faced was their alleged practice of paying admissions personnel based on the number of students that they were able to enroll in the school, which violates the Higher Education Act's (HEA) Incentive Compensation Ban. Employees who had good enrollment numbers were able to reap bonuses like all-expense paid vacations with loved ones to destinations like Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Las Vegas.

Additionally, the company faced numerous charges of consumer fraud involving deceptive and misleading recruiting practices. The company is charged with using “hyperaggressive boiler room tactics” to recruit students and collect tuition money. It is estimated that nearly $11 billion was collected by the company between July of 2003 and June of 2011 using these tactics.

“Companies cannot enrich their corporate coffers at the expense of students seeking a quality education, or on the backs of taxpayers who are funding our critical financial aid programs,” said U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton. “Today's global settlement sends an unmistakable message to all for-profit education companies: the United States will aggressively ferret out fraud and protect innocent students and taxpayer dollars from this kind of egregious abuse.”

Historic resolution

The $95.5 million settlement was reached after examining EDMC's ability to pay and financial condition, which has declined as of late. However, the New York Times reports that if the case had gone to trial then the company could have been faced with paying a billion-dollar verdict.

Attorneys involved with the case believe, however, that justice has been carried out against EDMC and that it sets a good example. “This historic resolution exemplifies the Justice Department's deep commitment to protecting precious public resources; to defending American consumers; and to standing up for those who are vulnerable to mistreatment, abuse, and exploitation,” said U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.  

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AAA: Cheap gasoline will get even cheaper

Auto club predicts national average price below $2 a gallon by Christmas Day

It was just a little more than a year ago when oil prices collapsed, dragging gasoline prices lower as well. While consumers have held their breath, waitin...

PhotoIt was just a little more than a year ago when oil prices collapsed, dragging gasoline prices lower as well. While consumers have held their breath, waiting for prices to go back up, they haven't.

And they won't anytime soon, says AAA.

In fact, the auto club reports gasoline prices have fallen for ten consecutive days, reaching a national average price of $2.16 per gallon. And they are likely to go lower still.

By Christmas Day, AAA predicts the national average price of self-serve regular will be below $2 a gallon for the first time since 2009. It's already well below that level in wide areas of the U.S.

The average price of gasoline in South Carolina is $1.91 a gallon. It's $1.92 in Alabama and $1.93 in Texas.

Refinery problems fixed

One reason the national average price is falling so quickly is that prices have begun to decline in the Midwest, more in line with other parts of the country. Midwestern pump prices have been volatile in recent months because of refinery problems that have reduced the flow of product.

AAA says most of those issues have been resolved, including at the ExxonMobil refinery in Joliet, Illinois, which has reportedly concluded its scheduled maintenance and returned to production. This and other refinery restarts in the Midwest have led to large weekly and monthly price discounts in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.

The Western states continue to experience the highest gasoline prices. In addition to Hawaii, the perennial leader in expensive fuel, California has an average gasoline price of $2.80 a gallon, followed by Nevada at $2.67 and Washington at $2.52.

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Government finalizes proposal of food safety rules

Regulations set safety standards for domestic and foreign produce producers

In 2011, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broad authority to regulate the food suppl...

PhotoIn 2011, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broad authority to regulate the food supply.

It's taken four years, but the FDA is finally implementing final rules that would implement three key areas of the law: establishing enforceable safety standards for produce farms; making importers accountable for verifying that imported food meets U.S. safety standards; and establishing a program for the accreditation of third-party certification bodies, also known as auditors, to conduct food safety audits of foreign food facilities.

The rules are aimed at improving the safety of the food consumers purchase by helping U.S. and foreign producers head off potential food threats before they occur.

Overlooked threat

Except for occasional high-profile outbreaks, foodborne illness is a largely unnoticed problem in the U.S. But the numbers are actually huge. An estimated one in six Americans gets sick from food each year.

Most cases are not severe and some victims might not be completely aware they are sick. But government data shows food poisoning sends 128,000 people to the hospital each year and 3,000 people die.

“The recent multi-state outbreak of Salmonella in imported cucumbers that has killed four Americans, hospitalized 157 and sickened hundreds more, is exactly the kind of outbreak these rules can help prevent,” said Michael R. Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. “The FDA is working with partners across the government and industry to prevent foodborne outbreaks. The rules will help better protect consumers from foodborne illness and strengthen their confidence that modern preventive practices are in place, no matter where in the world the food is produced.”

The guts of the law

The three areas make up the gut of FSMA:

  • Produce Safety Rule: sets up safety and sanitary standards for produce, from growing to packing. U.S. farms would all have to meet the same safety standard.
  • Foreign Supplier Verification Programs Rule: This requires food importers to verify that foreign suppliers are producing food in a manner that meets U.S. safety standards. This is an element strongly supported by the U.S. food industry, which has claimed foreign producers weren't being held to the same strict standards U.S. producers are.
  • Accredited Third-Party Certification Rule: this establishes a way to accredit third-party certification bodies, called auditors, to conduct food safety audits and to certify that foreign food facilities meet U.S. standards. In some cases the FDA will use these auditors to certify the integrity of imported food products.

In 2013, the Agriculture Department estimated that imported food accounted for about 19% of the U.S. food supply. That included about 52% of the fresh fruits and 22% of the fresh vegetables consumed by Americans.

The FDA has now finalized five of the seven major rules that implement the core of FSMA.  

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Electronics firm is speeding up battery charging times

Reportedly restores 48% of capacity in just five minutes

The battery in your smartphone may have the annoying habit of running down at the most inopportune times. That means taking time out to connect it to a cha...

PhotoThe battery in your smartphone may have the annoying habit of running down at the most inopportune times. That means taking time out to connect it to a charger.

But Chinese electronics manufacturer Huawei says it has vastly reduced charging time for a lithium-ion battery. The company has produced a video demonstrating how its prototype battery can regain 48% of its charging capacity after being plugged in for only five minutes.

The battery isn't ready for prime time just yet. It needs a special charger to produce those lightening fast results and the battery is still too large to work in many conventional smartphones.

But it has certainly gained the attention of the technology press. Engadget suggests this could be a huge step forward, since previous efforts have done little to improve the efficiency of the lithium-ion battery.

Announcing itself as a rival

Huawei unveiled its creation at the Battery Symposium in Japan, announcing itself as a rival to Qualcomm's Quick Charge and Samsung's Adaptive Fast Charging, both of which are currently available.

Qualcomm Quick Charge technology is designed into a product by the manufacturer. Since Quick Charge 2.0 is compatible and interoperable, a certified adapter can be used with a non-Quick Charge 2.0 device, though the fast charging benefits of Quick Charge 2.0 will not be available.

Samsung says its Adaptive Fast Charging can allow your battery can go from zero to up to 50% in about 30 minutes. Wired Fast Charge is compatible with the Samsung Galaxy S6, Galaxy Note 4, and later models of the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note series. The Fast Charge wall charger will charge other Micro USB devices.

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Marriott buying Starwood, creating world's biggest hotel chain

Why should airlines and telecom companies be the only ones to consolidate?

The name of the game these days is consolidation -- merger, in other words. And in that vein, Marriott International says it will snap up Starwood Hotels &...

PhotoThe name of the game these days is consolidation -- merger, in other words. And in that vein, Marriott International says it will snap up Starwood Hotels & Resorts World Inc., for about $12 billion.

The companies say the merger will create a “more comprehensive portfolio,” consisting of more than 5,500 hotels with 1.1 million rooms worldwide. Revenue is estimated at $2.7 billion.

“We have competed with Starwood for decades and we have also admired them. I’m excited we will add great new hotels to our system and for the incredible opportunities for Starwood and Marriott associates.  I’m delighted to welcome Starwood to the Marriott family,” said J.W. Marriott, Jr., Executive Chairman and Chairman of the Board of Marriott International.

In a news release, the companies said that the boards of directors of both firms had unanimously approved the merger, saying it would "combine Starwood’s leading lifestyle brands and international footprint with Marriott’s strong presence in the luxury and select-service tiers, as well as the convention and resort segment."

Starwood hotel brands include Westin, Sheraton, Four Points, St. Regis, W, and Meridien. There's no word yet on what effect the merger will have on the companies' traveler loyalty programs. 

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Too much screen gazing can make you sick

It's not good for your eyes and it can trigger motion sickness

We appreciate you reading this article, but for your eyes' sake you might consider taking a short break when you're finished.That's because there's gro...

PhotoWe appreciate you reading this article, but for your eyes' sake you might consider taking a short break when you're finished.

That's because there's growing concern among health professionals that adults – not just kids – are getting too much screen time, causing eye strain and other ailments.

A number of recent studies suggest looking at screens for extended periods of time can even give rise to a queasy feeling. Taiwanese researchers found extended use of console video games is linked to motion sickness in adults.

“During exposure to console video games, there are differences in postural activity (movement of the head and torso) between participants who later experience motion sickness and those who do not, confirming a prediction of the postural instability theory of motion sickness,” the authors wrote.

In a trial, the researchers found motion sickness was reported by 67% of adults and by 56% of children who played video games for an extended period.

Unnatural environment

Cyriel Diels, a cognitive psychologist and researcher at the UK's Coventry University Center for Mobility and Transport, tells The New York Times that motion sickness is often brought on by being in “an unnatural environment,” created by the screen. Diels says it's a fundamental problem few have talked about – until now.

Verizon reports consumers' use of digital media has surged almost 50% since 2013, and many of those screens consumers stare at are very small. More than 75% of that growth is related to the use of mobile apps. In fact, Verizon says staring at smartphone and tablet screens now account for more than 60% of the time consumers spend on digital media.

In terms of time, Verizon says the average consumer spends five hours and 38 minutes each day viewing digital media. Last year, a threshold of sorts was crossed as U.S. adults spent more time on mobile devices than they did on PCs.

Besides motion sickness, Verizon warns about “digital eye strain.” You might be suffering from it if you have that uncomfortable feeling of dry, itchy or burning eyes and blurry vision.

What to do

Here are a few steps that can help you avoid it:

  • Keep your screen a reasonable distance from your eyes. If you are in the classic pose of head bent forward and hands drawn up in front of your face, that's too close.
  • Don’t forget to blink! Believe it or not, we tend to forget to blink when staring at a screen. Around 15-18 blinks per minute is normal. Blinking is important because it keeps our eyes hydrated.
  • Control the brightness of your screen. Settings that are either too bright or not bright enough can hurt your eyes.
  • Optimize your display settings. An adjustment in text size and contrast can make a big difference.
  • Take a break every once in a while. Verizon suggests the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, take a break from your screen for 20 seconds, and focus on something 20 feet away from you. This relaxes the muscles that support your eyes.
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What air travelers find most annoying about fellow passengers

Invasions of limited personal space top the list

There are plenty of unpleasant things about air travel. Many of them have to do with how commercial aviation operates these days. You just have to read our...

PhotoThere are plenty of unpleasant things about air travel. Many of them have to do with how commercial aviation operates these days. You just have to read our readers' comments to see that.

However, some of the annoyances of modern air travel are caused by fellow passengers. A new report by the American Customer Satisfaction Index finds airlines are among the lowest-rated industries when it come to customer satisfaction.

Sometimes it's the airlines' fault. Sometimes it might not be.

Travel Math surveyed 1,097 air travelers to find out which passenger behaviors they find most aggravating.

Personal space invasion

Since personal space is at a premium in coach these days, it may not be surprising that travelers take the most offense when their limited personal space is invaded.

According to the survey, the most annoying thing about other passengers is when the person behind you kicks the back of your seat. Interestingly, leisure travelers took more offense at this than business travelers – perhaps because frequent fliers are more accustomed to it.

The second biggest gripe is sitting next to a passenger with strong body odor. Women also take offense at sitting next to a man who has been rather generous in applying cologne.

Number three on the list is when the passenger seated in front of you decides to recline his or her seat all the way back. Sure, he or she is comfortable but you've got a seat back about six inches from your nose.

Common grievances

The rest of the list is pretty much a recitation of grievances every air traveler has experienced at one time or another.

There's the passenger who takes off his shoes. Really? No one wants to smell that.

How about the passenger who is obviously ill but still gets on a crowded aircraft, germs and all?

Some passengers hit the airport lounge before take off, perhaps to steel their nerves, then have another cocktail or two in the air. Besides the smell, the loud voice and slurred words can be annoying to lots of survey respondents.

Then, there are passengers who don't need alcohol in order to be obnoxious. They are a talkative lot and are convinced the passenger next to them, trying to concentrate on a book or magazine, is dying to hear what they have to say.

While not directly experiencing annoying behavior, plenty of travelers have observed it. Among the most commonly observed offenses are travelers rushing up to crowd the boarding gate, people saving seats with suitcases, parents allowing children to misbehave, and travelers standing still on the moving sidewalk.

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Housing affordability slips in third quarter

California leads the way in lack of affordability

Rising home prices and interest rates produced a slight decline in housing affordability in the third quarter according to the National Association of Home...

PhotoRising home prices and interest rates produced a slight decline in housing affordability in the third quarter according to the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (HOI), which was released today.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (HOI) shows 62.2% of new and existing homes sold between the beginning of July and end of September were affordable to families earning the U.S. median income of $65,800. That's down 1% from the second quarter.

The national median home price increased slightly from $230,000 in the second quarter to $231,000 in the third quarter. Meanwhile, average mortgage rates edged higher -- from 3.99% to 4.18% in the same period.

"The decline in the index was slight and affordability remains good," said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "With mortgage rates near historic lows and home prices advancing at a modest pace, this is an excellent time to buy."

Most affordable markets

Syracuse, N.Y., was rated the nation's most affordable major housing market, switching places with Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, Ohio-Pa., which fell to the second slot on the list. In Syracuse, 91.7% of all new and existing homes sold in this year's third quarter were affordable to families, earning the area's median income of $68,500.

Rounding out the top five affordable major housing markets in respective order were Harrisburg-Carlisle, Pa.; Indianapolis-Carmel, Ind.; and Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Meanwhile, Glens Falls, N.Y. claimed the title of most affordable small housing market. There, 92.6% of homes sold during the quarter were affordable to families, earning the area's median income of $65,400.

Smaller markets joining Glens Falls at the top of the list included Sandusky, Ohio; Kokomo, Ind.; Springfield, Ohio; and Rockford, Ill.

Least affordable markets

For the 12th consecutive quarter, San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, Calif. was the nation's least affordable major housing market. There, just 10.5% of homes sold in the third quarter were affordable to families, earning the area's median income of $103,400.

Other major metros at the bottom of the affordability chart were located in California. In descending order, they included Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale.; Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine.; San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara.; and Santa Rosa-Petaluma.

All five of the least affordable small housing markets were also in California. At the very bottom of the affordability chart was Santa Cruz-Watsonville, Calif., where 16.5% of all new and existing homes sold were affordable to families, earning the area's median income of $87,000. Other small markets at the lowest end of the affordability scale included Salinas; Napa; San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles; and Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-Goleta, respectively.

"Attractive home prices and interest rates, along with firming job growth, are helping housing markets across the country to gradually improve," said NAHB Chairman Tom Woods, a home builder from Blue Springs, Mo. "While this bodes well for housing in the coming year, builders continue to face challenges, including a lack of available lots and skilled labor."

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Ford recalls Mustangs with seat belt issue

The front and rear seat belts and child seat tether anchors may be damaged

Ford Motor Company is recalling 1,900 model year 2016 Ford Mustangs manufactured September 26, 2015, to October 1, 2015. The front and rear seat be...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 1,900 model year 2016 Ford Mustangs manufactured September 26, 2015, to October 1, 2015.

 

The front and rear seat belts and child seat tether anchors may have been damaged in shipping from the supplier to the vehicle assembly plant and may not adequately restrain the occupant in a crash. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard numbers 208, "Occupant Crash Protection," and 225, "Child restraint anchorage systems."

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If the restraint components do not function as intended, the occupants may not be properly restrained in the event of a crash, increasing their risk of injury.

 

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front and rear seat belt assemblies and the child seat tether anchors, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on December 14, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 15C13.

 

 

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Under fire, daily fantasy sports continue on

Meanwhile, a lawmaker wants to probe sports leagues' ties to the industry

Despite New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's declaration this week that daily fantasy sports (DFS) is illegal gambling, millions of consumers will...

PhotoDespite New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's declaration this week that daily fantasy sports (DFS) is illegal gambling, millions of consumers will field their fantasy NFL teams this weekend.

The battle over DFS and whether it is a game of skill or chance will likely go on for some time. In the meantime, millions – maybe billions – of dollars will change hands.

Money may, in fact, be the root of the controversy.

The two major DFS enterprises, DraftKings and FanDuel, bring in an enormous amount of money from players, and they spread it around. The two companies have inked deals with professional sports leagues and this year they became the largest advertisers on network television, eclipsing even brewers.

Too many ads?

After Schneiderman's broadside this week, ADWEEK speculated that DFS enterprises may have made themselves a target by spending too much on advertising.

“DFS companies have been launching ads at sports fans from every direction,” ADWEEK reported. “Basically, every major American sports venue is covered in signage. Segments are sponsored on ESPN, the NFL's RedZone Channel, and anywhere else sports is discussed on TV. There are also podcasts, radio shows and digital banners promising 'real money' for winners. DraftKings even plasters the PATH train that connects New Jersey and New York."

But is it a case of states seeing all that money and cynically reaching for their cut, or has the extremely high profile DFS has achieved awakened regulators who are suddenly asking, “Hey, why isn't this considered gambling?”

Simple question

What happens next will likely depend on whether DFS' current exemption under gambling laws as “games of skill” holds up. Recently interviewed by CNBC on the subject, Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath wasn't buying the "game of skill" argument.

“Do they have to pay something to play?” Namath asked. “And do they win something? It's gambling.”

Let's take Namath's questions and apply it to professional golf. A pro golfer pays a small fee to enter a tournament, in hopes of winning a large cash prize.

But no one thinks that's gambling because the pro golfer is counting on his skill to put him in the money. So the question should be asked – are people who play DFS in the same league, in terms of skill, as professional golfers?

How about poker players? Winning at poker inarguably requires a large amount of skill, yet it is classified as gambling. More than likely, these questions will be decided in court.

Congressional interest

Meanwhile, Congress is about to get involved. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) says the Energy and Commerce Committee will hold hearings, especially since the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has said it has the authority to investigate the industry. And Pallone says he thinks any probe should go beyond DraftKings and FanDuel.

“The legal ambiguity surrounding the industry and its relationship with professional sports makes this issue ripe for Congressional review,” Pallone said. “As we prepare for a hearing, it will be important to hear from the FTC about what it would need to enact regulations on the industry.”

Pallone suggests any regulations also cover the conduct of the major professional sports leagues and their personnel, many of whom, he says, have financial interests in DFS.

Pallone and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) held a news conference last month outside MetLife Stadium to call attention to what they called “the hypocrisy of the professional sports leagues” in opposing sports betting while supporting daily fantasy sports.

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"Spear phishing" attacks exploit consumers' email habits

Phishing victims exceeded the U.S. population last year

Here's a number that might take a second or two to digest: in 2014 there were about 400 million successful cyber-attacks in the U.S.That's more than th...

PhotoHere's a number that might take a second or two to digest: in 2014 there were about 400 million successful cyber-attacks in the U.S.

That's more than the U.S. population, estimated to be nearly 319 million last year.

“That means everyone in the country may have been breached,” said Arun Vishwanath, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University at Buffalo and an expert in cyber deception. “Everyone. Including me and you.”

What is particularly dangerous is something he calls “spear phishing.” That's a tightly targeted, malware-carrying attack that sends links or attachments in what often appear to be genuine-looking email messages.

Spear phishing

These messages bear the imprint of a known or trusted organization. Maybe your bank, the electric company, or government agency.

When a recipient clicks on a link or attachment, he or she launches the malware – intrusive software that runs programs in the background that can cause all sorts of mischief.

A great deal of time and effort has gone into educating consumers about phishing threats, and why they shouldn't click on links in suspicious emails. Yet, consumers continue to do it.

Vishwanath says this training ignores users’ habits and instead focuses exclusively on how users process information. He's compiled a research report that examines these email habits and phishing outcomes.

“The findings point to a joint operation of habits and information processing, something that most social scientists have ignored,” Vishwanath said. “We can’t just focus on one aspect of that use, yet that’s what we’re doing and it explains why phishing is successful.”

Taking advantage of habits

Hackers have figured it out, Vishwanath says. Their phishing schemes work because the perpetrators take advantage of people who are habitual in the way they respond.

He says email systems, especially when accessed on mobile devices, are built around user habits.

"They encourage users to repeatedly check for messages, establishing routines that turn their devices into a casino game, with users opening emails like reckless gamblers habitually pulling the arms of slot machines without thinking of the long-term consequences," Vishwanath said.

In the meantime, spear phishing is successful 17% to 35% of the time, which is highly damaging when you consider how many phishing emails go out each day.

Example

Being able to recognize a phishing email is a first step to avoiding this scam. Microsoft has some advice and has dissected an example. But in the end, this might be enough.

Vishwanath says his research suggests that the training, which teaches people to recognize suspicious emails, is based on the presumption that the phishing problem can be accounted for by information processing.

It can't, he says.

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Google self-driving car gets pulled over for driving too slowly

Project members say that the prototypes cannot exceed 25 mph due to "safety reasons"

There has been a lot of press over the past year about the advent of self-driving cars. While many drivers feel uneasy about giving up control of their veh...

Photo

There has been a lot of press over the past year about the advent of self-driving cars. While many drivers feel uneasy about giving up control of their vehicles, companies like Google have been performing extensive tests on them to see if they would be viable in the near future. But when that day comes, consumers might hope that they're not as slow as the Google vehicle that was pulled over yesterday for traveling too far under the speed limit.

Dealing with slow drivers is a constant source of ire for drivers around the world, so you can imagine how some of them must have felt when they were stuck behind one of Google's self-driving prototypes in Mountain View, CA., yesterday. Police in the area noticed traffic backing up behind the vehicle and noted that it was going 24 mph in a 35 mph zone.

Luckily, these same police officers were tech savvy enough recognize that the vehicle was a self-driving model, despite the human safety driver who was in the car at the time. They pulled the vehicle over to alleviate traffic and reportedly “made contact with the operators to learn more about how the car was choosing speeds along certain roadways and to educate the operators about impeding traffic,” according to a police blog post.

Later, via its Google+ page, the team responsible for the car project explained that prototype cars are set not to exceed 25 mph due to “safety reasons.”

'We want them to feel friendly and approachable, rather than zooming scarily through neighborhood streets. . . Like this officer, people sometimes flag us down when they want to know more about our project. . . After 1.2 million miles of autonomous driving (that's the human equivalent of 90 years of driving experience), we're proud to say we've never been ticketed!,” said Google.

Regardless of its clean record, there will be many drivers on the road hoping that they aren't stuck behind one of these prototypes again.  

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Holiday shoppers aren't waiting until Black Friday

Surveys show many consumers have already started on their shopping

Black Friday has always been considered the official launch of the holiday shopping season, but there are signs that it's changing.The National Retail ...

PhotoBlack Friday has always been considered the official launch of the holiday shopping season, but there are signs that it's changing.

The National Retail Federation’s Consumer Holiday Spending Survey shows 56.6% of those celebrating the holidays had already started shopping by early November, up from 54.4% last year and 16% from the 49% who had started by this time in 2008.

That's in line with a survey by BestBlackFriday.com, which found as many as 68% of shoppers predicted they would get started on their Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving.

Sea change

“Thanksgiving weekend shopping has evolved tremendously over the past few years and can no longer be seen as the ‘start’ of the holiday season, though there’s no question it’s still important to millions of holiday shoppers and retailers of all shapes and sizes,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “There is a real sea change happening in retail when it comes to the how, when, where, and why of holiday shopping. Consumers today are looking for great prices and value-add promotions earlier than ever before, and retailers have answered these demands in several different ways already this holiday season.”

Phillip Dengler, a principal at BestBlackFriday.com, says retailers have begun to use the term “Black Friday sale” in pretty much every month of the year to describe even the most basic sales.

“While the term is not completely diluted yet, many shoppers feel as though they can get a great deal before Black Friday even begins,” Dengler told ConsumerAffairs. “For that reason, some people are now avoiding the day completely and finishing their shopping early in order to avoid the headaches that some associate with the Black Friday experience.”

Weak numbers

If consumers have already done some of their holiday shopping in October, that may not bode well for retailers this season. The Commerce Department reports October retail sales were up only slightly during the month, much less than expected. If those sales included some holiday shopping, it might say something about how much – or rather, how little – consumers plan to spend this year.

Despite the early spending on gifts, Dengler believes that the deals centered around Black Friday should draw out plenty of shoppers, both in stores and online.

“More doorbusters than ever will be available online this year, so more people will have the opportunity to shop online on Black Friday as opposed to camping out in front of their local Walmart or Best Buy,” he said. “While Thanksgiving is eating into Black Friday's total sales figures, we still consider it a part of Black Friday since many of the sales will overlap.”

Shay agrees, saying he believes many of the season’s best deals are yet to come, meaning there’s still plenty of shopping to be done over Thanksgiving weekend and in December, when shipping promotions begin to ramp up.  

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Made-in-China Buick headed for America

It will be the first Chinese-made Big 3 light vehicle to be sold in the U.S.

Are you one of those people who buys "American" cars in hopes of supporting U.S. workers and the domestic economy? If so, you may want to take a careful lo...

PhotoAre you one of those people who buys "American" cars in hopes of supporting U.S. workers and the domestic economy? If so, you may want to take a careful look before driving off in a Buick Envision, a crossover that's quite popular in China, where it is manufactured.

Automotive News reports that General Motors is going ahead with plans to sell the Envision in the U.S., possibly as early as this spring. GM has not officially confirmed its plans and called the report "speculation."

GM reportedly thinks it can sell 30,000 to 40,000 of the cars annually, thanks in part to Americans' renewed love affair with light trucks, now that gas prices have sunk and some consumers have become disillusioned with hybrids, "clean diesels", and other fuel-sippers.

If GM goes ahead with its plans, the Envision will become the first Chinese-made light vehicle to be sold in the U.S. under a Big 3 brand.

The United Auto Workers Union is not pleased and, in August, called the prospect of a Chinese-made Buick "alarming."

Volvo, which is now owned by a Chinese company, began importing a Chinese-made vehicle to the U.S., the S60 Inscription, earlier this year. 

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Pilot says Allegiant fired him for putting safety first

The pilot returned to the airport after acrid smoke filled the cabin

A former Allegiant Air pilot says he was sued for putting his passengers' safety first. In a lawsuit, Jason Kinzer says he had 141 passengers and four crew...

PhotoA former Allegiant Air pilot says he was sued for putting his passengers' safety first. In a lawsuit, Jason Kinzer says he had 141 passengers and four crew members on board the day his airplane filled with acrid smoke and an engine caught fire.

The flight, Allegiant 864, had just left St. Petersburg, FL., June 8 headed for Hagerstown, MD., when Kinzer says the passenger compartment began filling with "acrid smoke." Kinzer declared an emergency and asked air traffic controllers for permission to return to St. Petersburg, Courthouse News Service reported.

At that point, a controller who had the airplane in view advised Kinzer that one of his engines appeared to be on fire.

As he put the plane on the ground, Kinzer was preparing to order an evacuation when, the suit alleges, a company official came on the radio without identifying himself and commanded him to hold off on the evacuation.

"Entirely unwarranted"

Kinzer did so anyway and, after landing safely, he and another crew member carried a paraplegic passenger off the airplane. Allegiant fired him on July 23, in a seven-sentence letter of termination that called the evacuation "entirely unwarranted."

In other words, Kinzer says in the lawsuit, Allegiant Air fired him for "not placing company profits above safety."

Allegiant, a low-cost carrier based in Nevada, was accused by airline unions in April of having a "disconcerting" number of flights that had to return, be diverted, or abort their takeoffs because of mechanical issues. 

In a letter to a Congressional committee, the union noted that top Allegiant executives once worked for ValuJet, another low-cost carrier and were in positions of responsibility when ValuJet Flight 592 crashed into the Florida Everglades "due to a cargo compartment fire caused by errors committed by contract maintenance employees."

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Court shuts down tech support scam blamed for $17 million in consumer losses

The scammers allegedly claimed to represent Microsoft, Apple and other major companies

The feds, working with Pennsylvania and Connecticut state officials, have tracked down a band of alleged tech support scammers who allegedly robbed consume...

PhotoThe feds, working with Pennsylvania and Connecticut state officials, have tracked down a band of alleged tech support scammers who allegedly robbed consumers of more than $17 million by pretending to represent Microsoft, Apple, and other major tech companies.

“We’re pleased the court shut down these scammers, who defrauded consumers out of millions of dollars by preying on their lack of technical expertise,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Our goal is now to get money back for the victims in this case, and keep the defendants out of the scam tech support business.”

The defendants allegedly used internet advertisements and popups that appeared to be from well-known technology companies to lure consumers into calling them. When consumers called, they were further misled into thinking their computers were riddled with viruses, malware, or security breaches, and were given a high-pressure sales pitch for tech support services that were unnecessary and, sometimes, harmful.

Call center

As alleged in the federal court complaint filed by the FTC and the attorneys general of Pennsylvania and Connecticut, consumers who responded to the phony ads were routed to a call center operated by the defendants, where telemarketers would frequently misrepresent that they were “a Microsoft agent,” “Google support,” or “work with AT&T,” among other affiliation claims.

The telemarketers would then convince consumers to give them remote access to their computers, navigate to harmless portions of the computer, such as the Windows Event Viewer, and mislead consumers into thinking their computer was infected with viruses and malware.

Consumers would then be fooled into signing up for technical support plans and repair services often costing hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. In some cases, the alleged technical support consisted of deleting harmless files, but in other cases, defendants “technicians” would make changes that could potentially harm the performance of the computer, according to the complaint.

A preliminary injunction requires the defendants to shut down their operations and freezes their assets. 

The defendants in the case are Click4Support, LLC; iSourceUSA LLC, also doing business as Click4Support and UBERTECHSUPPORT; Innovazion, Inc., also doing business as Click4Support Tech Services; Spanning Source LLC, also doing business as Click4Support; Bruce Bartolotta, also known as Bruce Bart; George Saab; Chetan Bhikhubhai Patel; and Niraj Patel.

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More than a third of U.S. adults are obese

But latest CDC data shows youth obesity has leveled off

Obesity in America is becoming more common, especially among the aging population.In its latest Data Brief, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent...

PhotoObesity in America is becoming more common, especially among the aging population.

In its latest Data Brief, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated 36.5% of U.S. adults were obese during the latest monitoring period, 2011-2014.

While recent concern has focused on obesity among children, the CDC report found the people most likely to be obese are middle-aged adults aged 40–59 and older adults aged 60 or over.

Obesity is a more serious condition than merely being overweight. The difference is determined by the body mass index (BMI), which is a formula based on a person's height and weight.

Having a BMI between 25 and 30 is considered overweight. Having a BMI of 30 or more is considered obese.

In its report, the CDC found the prevalence of obesity was higher in women than in men. Among all youth, no difference was seen by sex.

Encouraging sign

And among youth, the obesity rate has leveled off at 17%. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, says that's the report's one sign of progress.

“The obesity rate is declining for the youngest children, and has held steady for all children over the last two measurement periods,” Lavizzo-Mourney said. This reinforces our confidence that America's children are moving toward a healthier weight, and that bodes well for the long term health of our nation.”

At the same time, Lavizzo-Mourney said the fact that the adult obesity rate is rising is a cause of concern. She notes that rates are highest among Hispanic and black teenagers and adults. And women, she says, have overtaken men in the obese category.

Areas of action

“We will continue to address these inequities, and the many barriers to growing up and living a healthy life, Lavizzo-Mourney said. “Nutritious, affordable foods are out of reach for too many families, young people still see far too many ads for sugar-laden snack foods and beverages, and too few of our communities provide adequate safe, accessible spaces for kids to be active.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is spending an additional $500 million in 2015 on anti-obesity programs.

The CDC says the prevalence of obesity among adults is still higher than the Healthy People 2020 goal of 30.5%. Although the overall prevalence of childhood obesity is higher than the Healthy People 2020 goal of 14.5%, the CDC says there are signs of progress among the youngest children in the survey, those aged 2–5 years.

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Green features may add value to a home when it's time to sell

Solar panels that generate electricity could increase the selling price

Real estate professionals will tell you that some home improvements will add value to your home. Others, not so much.For years it was an article of fai...

PhotoReal estate professionals will tell you that some home improvements will add value to your home. Others, not so much.

For years it was an article of faith that adding a deck or updating a kitchen would pay off when it came time to sell. Putting in a swimming pool, on the other hand, didn't add a premium.

Lately, something else has helped sell a house. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) noted in 2013 that going green seemed to make a house more desirable. It said a survey found that buyers placed a high importance on energy efficiency when searching for a home.

Things that affect monthly energy costs were frequently cited as the most important. Some 39% of home buyers said heating and cooling costs were the most important green feature of a home, followed by energy efficient appliances and lighting, at 24% each.

Boost from solar power

New research by the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a home appraisal expert found supporting evidence, suggesting that installing photvoltaic (PV) solar arrays, capable of generating electricity, adds a premium when a home is sold. In other words, a buyer is willing to pay extra for a home that produces some of its electricity from the sun.

The importance of green features also varies regionally, with northeastern and southern buyers placing more importance on a home’s heating and cooling costs in their decision making process.

The researchers engaged a team of seven appraisers from across six states to determine the value that PV systems added to single-family homes, using the industry-standard paired-sales valuation technique, which compares recent sales of comparable homes to estimate the premium buyers would pay for PV.

Around $15,000

The new findings pretty much were in line with a 2013 Berkeley Lab study that found buyers were willing to pay $15,000 more for a home with the average-size solar PV system, around 3.6 kilowatts.

"These results will benefit appraisers, real estate agents, and mortgage lenders who increasingly encounter PV homes and need to understand the factors that contribute to, and detract from, market value," said study co-author Ben Hoen, a researcher in the Energy Technologies Area of Berkeley Lab.

The study found a lot of variables, since what buyers were willing to pay often hinged on the underlying system and market characteristics. Factors influencing the premium include the size of the system, the available incentives and installed prices at the time of sale, and the underlying retail electricity rates. The appraisers said any formula to determine added value needs to take all these factors into consideration.

PV systems are becoming more of a factor in the existing home market. Berkeley Labs says there were more than a half million U.S. PV home systems in 2014, underscoring the need for new, reliable, and consistent valuation options.

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Wholesale prices continue their decline

Retail sales rose -- but not by much

Wholesale prices -- officially known as the Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand -- dropped a seasonally adjusted 0.4% i...

Photo
© mybaitshop – Fotolia

Wholesale prices -- officially known as the Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand -- dropped a seasonally adjusted 0.4% in October following a decline of 0.5% in September.

According to figures released by the Department of Labor (DOL), the PPI is down 1.6% for the 12 months ending in October, a record 12-month decline for the index, which was introduced in November 2009.

In October, 70 percent of the decrease in the final demand index can be traced to prices for final demand services, which moved down 0.3 percent. The index for final demand goods declined 0.4 percent.

Final demand services

The cost of final demand services fell 0.3% percent in October after declining 0.4% a month earlier. Over 70% of the decline last month can be traced to margins for final demand trade services, which dropped 0.7% percent. The index for final demand services excluding trade, transportation and warehousing slipped 0.1%. In contrast, prices for final demand transportation and warehousing services inched up 0.1%.

Within the services sector, margins for fuels and lubricants retailing, were down 15.8% followed by apparel, jewelry, footwear, and accessories retailing. Loan services (partial); portfolio management; wireless telecommunication services; and health, beauty, and optical goods retailing also declined.

On the other hand, prices for truck transportation of freight rose 0.3%, with food retailing and deposit services (partial) also increasing.

Final demand goods

The index for final demand goods moved dipped 0.4% in October, the fourth consecutive decrease. Leading the decline, the index for final demand goods less foods and energy fell 0.3%. Prices for final demand foods decreased 0.8%.. The index for final demand energy was unchanged.

Over one-third of the October decline in the final demand goods index is attributable to prices for light motor trucks, which were down 1.8%. Prices for chicken eggs, iron and steel scrap, beef and veal, boxed meat, and electric power also moved lower. In contrast, gasoline prices rose 3.8%, with pharmaceutical preparations and corn also advancing.

The complete report is available on the DOL website

Photo
© Stuart Miles – Fotolia

Retail sales

Heading into the all-important holiday shopping season, the report on retail sales was something less than impressive.

The Commerce Department reports sales in October, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were up a tiny 0.1% or $447.3 billion. On a year-over-year basis, sales rose 1.7%.

Advancers and decliners

Strengths, what there were of them, were found in miscellaneous store retailers (+1.8%), nonstore retailers (+1.4%), building equipment and supplies (+0.9%), health and personal care stores (+0.7%), and food service & drinking places (+0.5%).

Providing a drag were the 0.9% drop in gasoline sales, auto and parts sales (- 0.5%), electronics and appliance store sales (-0.4%), and food & beverage store sales (-0.3%).

Stripping out auto, gasoline station, and building material & supplies sales, core retail sales were up 0.3% in October after being flat the month before.

Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza thinks the may be worse to come. "Without stronger retail spending numbers," she says, "there is going to be a lot less cheer this holiday season."

The full October retail sales report can be found on the Commerce Department website.

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The nation's airlines step it up a notch

On-time performance in September was up from the previous year and month-over-month

If you traveled by air during September, there's a good chance you got to your destination when you were supposed to.The Department of Transportation’s...

PhotoIf you traveled by air during September, there's a good chance you got to your destination when you were supposed to.

The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report shows airlines posted an on-time arrival rate of 86.5% in September, up from both the 81.1% on-time rate a year earlier and the 80.3 percent reported in August 2015.

The September on-time rate was the fourth highest of the 249 months with comparable records, the second highest for any September, and above the September average of 82.73% in the previous 20 years. September 2001 was not included in the averages.

That's not the end of the good news. The carriers reported airlines reported no tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights during September and no tarmac delays of more than four hours on international flights.

Additional information

The consumer report also includes data on consumer complaints, cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays filed with the Department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) by the reporting carriers.

In addition, there are statistics on mishandled baggage reports filed by consumers with the carriers, passengers denied confirmed space (oversales/bumping), and aviation service complaints filed regarding a range of issues such as flight problems, baggage, reservation and ticketing, refunds, consumer service, disability, and discrimination.

Incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of animals traveling by air are also covered.

The complete report can be found on the DOT website.

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STIHL recalls lawn and landscaping equipment

The gasoline tank vent can become dislodged and cause fuel to leak

STIHL Inc., of Virginia Beach, Va., is recalling about 156,000 gas-powered edgers, trimmer/brushcutters, pole pruners and KombiMotors in the U.S. and Canad...

PhotoSTIHL Inc., of Virginia Beach, Va., is recalling about 156,000 gas-powered edgers, trimmer/brushcutters, pole pruners and KombiMotors in the U.S. and Canada.

 

The gasoline tank vent can become dislodged due to incorrect factory installation and cause fuel to leak, posing a fire hazard.

 

The company has received 319 reports of the fuel tank vents coming loose and fuel leaking. No fires or injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves STIHL edgers with model number FC 56 C, trimmer/brushcutters with model numbers FS 40 C, FS 50 C, FS 56 C and FS 56 RC, pole pruners with model number HT 56 C and KombiMotors with model number KM 56 RC. The model number is located on the starter cover at the rear of the engine. The engine size is about 28 cc.

 

The products are gray and orange with “STIHL” on the engine cover. The serial number range for all of the recalled units is 501830112 through 504083576. The serial number is located on the label on the bottom of the engine.

 

The equipment, manufactured in the U.S., was sold at authorized STIHL dealers nationwide from November 2014, through September 2015, for between $200 and $400.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled products and return them to an authorized STIHL dealer for a free inspection and repair.

 

Consumers may contact STIHL at 800-610-6677 between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday, by email at stihlrecall@stihl.us or online at http://www.stihlusa.com/information/recalls/gasoline-tank-vent/.

 

 

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VW “cheating” software may be legal in Europe

Automaker might avoid some of the heaviest sanctions

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accused Volkswagen of violating the law when it was discovered that software in some diesel cars man...

PhotoIn the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accused Volkswagen of violating the law when it was discovered that software in some diesel cars manipulated emissions in order to fool testing equipment.

The scandal quickly spread to Europe, where Volkswagen is based and where it sells more cars. European counterparts to the EPA began their own investigations, hauling VW executives before investigating panels.

But it's possible the software is not illegal in Europe.

The software at issue is what governs VW's TDI emissions. It is able to detect when the vehicle is attached to a testing device and regulates the emissions output to meet official guidelines. Once the test is over, it readjusts emissions that may be up to 40 times above legal levels in the U.S.

In a letter to a member of the British Parliament, Paul Willis, Managing Director of Volkswagen Group UK, first raised the possibility that VW hadn't actually broken a law when it deployed software to get around strict emissions levels.

Not problematic

“I would now like to share with you that we have just received confirmation that the KBA does not regard the use of this technology in the EU as problematic and thus, being in line with the current legislation,” wrote in a letter to Member of Parliament Louise Ellman.

Meanwhile, the New York Times quotes an EU spokeswoman as saying the EU had no formal view on whether the vehicles sold in the U.S. had a defeat device in the EU legal sense. She said the probe of cars sold in Europe is ongoing.

What's it mean for Volkswagon? Potentially billions of dollars. The company likely faces economic penalties in the U.S., but should European authorities conclude the software is legal, the German automaker could potentially reap huge savings in fines and legal fees.

Greater economic impact

According to the Times, most of the 11 million cars that have the software defeat device are in Europe, with only 500,000 or so in the U.S. It could turn out that VW's biggest economic hit will come in reduced demand for its cars, because of the adverse publicity.

Last month Kelley Blue Book reported that the average auction price for Volkswagen diesel models dropped by nearly 16% since the news broke of the emissions crisis. The brand's gasoline-powered vehicles weren't spared, with their auction prices declining an average 2.9%.

"According to Kelley Blue Book Field Analysts, some auctions are still holding off on selling the affected Volkswagen inventory," Tim Fleming, analyst for Kelley Blue Book said last month. "While Volkswagen diesel auction prices are in decline, we could see larger fluctuations depending on how this inventory is handled."

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Feds look to ban smoking in public housing across the country

The goal is to improve air quality and reduce effects of secondhand smoke

Smoking is at its lowest point in the U.S. since the 1960s – which is something that anti-smoking advocates can be very happy about. However, that doesn't ...

PhotoSmoking is at its lowest point in the U.S. since the 1960s – which is something that anti-smoking advocates can be very happy about. However, that doesn't mean that their work is finished. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is currently trying to pass a federal law that would make smoking illegal in all public housing across the country.

If the proposal is passed, every public housing agency (PHA) in the U.S. would have to adapt no-smoking policies for all living units, indoor common areas, offices, and outdoor areas within 25 feet of any housing or administrative buildings. While this would not apply to electronic cigarettes, an addendum could be made in the future to include them in the rule as well.

It is estimated that the change would affect over 700,000 units across the country – 500,000 of which are inhabited by the elderly and those with disabilities.

Potential benefits

There are several benefits to adapting this new law, according to HUD. In addition to reducing the risk of fires and lowering maintenance costs, the ban on smoking would drastically improve indoor air quality in public housing spaces. This would go a long way toward reducing secondhand smoke as well, a fact that HUD is well aware of.

“The argument about secondhand smoke is over. . . It's harmful, and we believe it's important that we have an environment that's healthy in public housing,” said federal housing secretary Julián Castro, in a statement to the New York Times.

Individual PHAs would be able to take the smoking ban a step further if they wanted to by forbidding smoking in all areas, including outside areas like playgrounds. They would just need to be sure that the smoke-free policies are included in tenant leases and addressed at public meetings and residence engagement activities.

Not meant to cause evictions

Residents who are worried about punishments for breaking these rules do not have to worry about facing criminal charges. PHAs would treat infractions like other nuisance issues, such as noise complaints. HUD is adamant that they would not want breaking these rules to result in eviction of residents.

“The purpose is to go smoke-free and to have healthier communities,” said Castro. “My hope is that housing authorities would work with residents to prepare them for this change so that any kind of punitive measures like evictions are avoided at all costs.”

The general public will have 60 days to express their opinions about this proposal before it is voted on. If passed, PHAs would have 18 months after the decision date to fully adopt the policies.  

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VW grants amnesty to employees with knowledge of cheating practices

They better come forward quickly though -- it only extends until the end of November.

With all of the controversy surrounding Volkswagen and their emissions scandals, the company has decided to extend a period of amnesty to all of its employ...

PhotoWith all of the controversy surrounding Volkswagen and their emissions scandals, the company has decided to extend a period of amnesty to all of its employees so that they can come forward with any information about cheating within the organization.

While airing out any other potential problems could help VW move forward accordingly, employees better act quickly – the amnesty period will only be extended until the end of the month. Employees that come forward before November 30 will be able to keep their jobs and avoid damage claims from the company.

Amnesty period

Executives have made it clear that they want all available information on further cheating as quickly as possible. “In this process, every single day counts. . . We are counting on your cooperation and knowledge as our company's employees to get to the bottom of the diesel and CO2 issue,” said Herbert Diess, head of the VW brand, in a letter posted on the company's corporate intranet.

Eligible staff members will be protected by the amnesty because of provisions included in the company's collective bargaining agreement. This doesn't mean that there won't be some repercussions to coming forward though. Depending on the nature of the information, employees may be transferred or given other job responsibilities in the future.

Manipulating data

The amnesty offer comes after employees reportedly told the company about the carbon emissions issue that was exposed last week. Employees admitted that they had tampered with emissions data in order to reach the goal set by former VW CEO Martin Winterkorn.

Engineers at the company manipulated tire pressure readings and mixed diesel fuel with motor oil to make vehicles appear to use less gas. These practices stretched from 2013 until the spring of this year.

“Employees have indicated in an internal investigation that there were irregularities in ascertaining fuel consumption data,” said a VW spokesman. “How this happened is subject to ongoing proceedings.”

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KFC to test home delivery in California

Will use DoorDash to make the deliveries

Pizza restaurants deliver to your door. So do many Chinese restaurants. Now, KFC is getting in on the convenience-food market by announcing a partnership w...

PhotoPizza restaurants deliver to your door. So do many Chinese restaurants. Now, KFC is getting in on the convenience-food market by announcing a partnership with DoorDash for home delivery of chicken dinners.

KFC says the concept will roll out first in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Orange County. If all goes as expected, the company says home delivery will expand to other cities in the coming months.

The link-up with DoorDash will allow KFC stores to deliver complete meal replacements. As an example of what a family of four might order, KFC suggests its heavily-promoted $20 Family Fill Up, which comes with eight pieces of chicken, two large mashed potatoes and gravy, one large coleslaw, and four biscuits.

"Decades ago, people traveled from miles around to visit Colonel Sanders' original Corbin, Ky., restaurant to taste his now world famous Original Recipe Chicken,” said KFC US chief information officer, Chris Caldwell. “Through our partnership with DoorDash, customers will now be able to order an affordable meal combination like the $20 Family Fill Up or individual $5 Fill-Up, or choose from the menu a la carte style."

Reviving Colonel Sanders

KFC, which recently hired a series of popular comic actors to portray Colonel Sanders in television commercials, says there is growing momentum behind all types of on-demand delivery products.

The trial follows DoorDash's successful test and partnership with fellow YUM Brands chain Taco Bell over the summer.

And while pizza and Chinese restaurants that deliver food to customers usually have to hire and manage their own delivery personnel, DoorDash simplifies things for a large chain like KFC. It will be compensated through a delivery charge.

"Just two years ago, DoorDash was in one market and three cities. Today we're in 18 markets, more than 250 cities, and forging strategic partnerships with national brands like KFC," said Tony Xu, CEO and co-founder of DoorDash.  

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Child care centers urged to offer more outdoor play

Attacking obesity might really be as simple as child's play

Concerns about childhood obesity usually come down to questions of diet and exercise. In recent months, health experts have placed the greater emphasis on ...

PhotoConcerns about childhood obesity usually come down to questions of diet and exercise. In recent months, health experts have placed the greater emphasis on diet, pointing out that limiting calories is more effective than trying to work off pounds.

Still, exercise can't be overlooked. Beyond weight control, it contributes to overall health – especially for growing bodies.

And it's still a fact that in the 21st century, lifestyles have become more sedentary for children, who spend more of their times engaged with electronic devices.

The National Football League has partnered with First Lady Michelle Obama in a “Play 60” campaign, urging every child to get in at least 60 minutes of outdoor, active play every day. Yet researchers at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center  report only three in 10 children in pre-school child care had at least 60 minutes each day for recess, as guidelines recommend.

Missed opportunities

"These opportunities may be especially important for children who lack opportunities to be active at home," said Kristen Copeland, MD, a researcher in the Division of General and Community Pediatrics and senior author of the study. "That's why what happens in the child care centers has important and lasting effects for children's total daily levels of activity."

When the researchers studied 380 children, ranging in age from 3 to 6 years old, enrolled at 30 different child care centers from November 2009 through January 2011, they were disappointed in what they saw.

Ninety percent of those centers reported scheduling two or more outdoor sessions each day, yet only 40% of children had fully taken part. Thirty-two percent had no time outdoors.

But the study also found that the child care centers played a key role in whether children were active or sedentary. If the center provided the opportunity for at least an hour a day of outdoor play, the children enrolled there were more active over a 24-hour period than children attending centers that didn't schedule at least 60 minutes of outdoor activity.

Essential activity

"We know daily physical activity is essential for children's growth and development,” Copeland said. “It improves cardiovascular and bone health and has been linked to improved mood, attention, and cognitive performance. Yet, few preschoolers are meeting daily physical activity recommendations of 60 minutes or more per day."

Copeland acknowledges that child care centers in areas of inclement seasonal weather face a special hardship in meeting the guidelines. These centers, she says, should make better use of indoor spaces and encourage teachers to take children outdoors briefly on cold days.

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Walmart to offer Black Friday deals online

Joins other major retailers in opening stores Thanksgiving Day

Walmart's Black Friday ad has leaked, and surprising no one, it shows the nation's largest retailer will join other heavyweights Target, Toys R Us, and Bes...

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Why shopping in a department store might yield better deals

Brick and mortar retailers under more pressure to cut prices

It's no secret that more consumer shopping has moved to the Internet. But if you plan to do most of your holiday shopping online this year, you may be miss...

PhotoIt's no secret that more consumer shopping has moved to the Internet. But if you plan to do most of your holiday shopping online this year, you may be missing out on some steep discounts.

Think about it. Who loses when consumers spend their money online? It's the brick-and-mortar retailers who pay rent and stock inventory to meet demand that just might not be there.

Wall Street faced this realty Wednesday when Macy's reported its earnings. The retailer missed estimates, coming in at 36 cents per share in the third quarter, down 20 cents from last year.

“We are disappointed that the pace of sales did not improve in the third quarter, as we had expected,” said Terry J. Lundgren, chairman and chief executive officer of Macy’s, Inc. “Spending by domestic customers remained tepid, especially in key apparel and accessory categories. Simultaneously, the slowdown in buying by international visitors continued to significantly impact Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s stores in tourist centers, which are some of our company’s largest-volume and most profitable locations.”

Money shift

But that doesn't mean consumers weren't spending money in the third quarter. They just weren't spending as much of it at Macy's.

As a result, Macy's had plenty of inventory going begging, inviting mark downs. And herein lies a potential opportunity for consumers.

Assuming that other brick-and-mortal retailers are having the same experience – falling traffic and lower sales – then going to the mall might yield the biggest savings this holiday season. No matter what the Black Friday deals may be, brick-and-mortal retailers may be forced to slash prices, simply to move merchandise.

“Heading into the fourth quarter, we are shifting our organization into overdrive to focus on sales-driving activities in the holiday shopping season, when Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s shine as destinations for gift-giving and self-purchase,” Lundgren said. “We also will be opening stores in several of our nameplates in the fourth quarter, including a new Bloomingdale’s at Ala Moana in Honolulu.”

It's true that online shopping is more convenient and many of the best deals have been migrating to the Internet, but this year might hold special opportunity. If brick-and-mortar retailers are feeling economic pressure, it may be worth a trip to the mall.

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Jobless claims hold steady

Job openings were little-changed in September

The number of workers filing for first-time state unemployment benefits is holding its own.The Department of Labor (...

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

The number of workers filing for first-time state unemployment benefits is holding its own.

The Department of Labor (DOL) reports there were 276,000 initial jobless claims on a seasonally adjusted basis in the week ending November 7 -- the same as the previous week.

On the other hand, there was upward movement in the four-week moving average.

That category, which is less volatile then the weekly tally and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was up by 5,000 from the previous week to 267,750.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

 

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(c) zimmytws - Fotolia

Job openings and labor turnover

In a separate report, DOL's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says the number of job openings was little changed on the last business day of September at 5.5 million. There was also little change in hires and separations.

Job openings

The job openings rate for the month was 3.7%, while the number of job openings was little changed for total private and government positions.

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

Job openings rose over the year for several industries with the largest increases occurring in professional and business services (+311,000), health care and social assistance (+191,000), and retail trade (+184,000). Vacancies decreased over the year in mining and logging (-16,000).

The number of openings was little changed for the month in all four regions, but increased over the year: South (+283,000), West (+259,000), Midwest (+208,000), and Northeast (+102,000).

Hires

The number of hires was 5.0 million in September -- little changed from August, with the hires rate at s 3.5%. The number of hires was little changed for total private and government in September.

There was little change in the number of hires in all industries and regions over the month, while over the 12 months ending in September, the number of hires (not seasonally adjusted) was little changed for total nonfarm, total private, and government.

At the industry level, hires decreased in educational services (-74,000), finance and insurance (-43,000), and mining and logging (-13,000).

There was little change in the number of hires in all four regions over the year.

Separations

Total separations includes quits, layoffs and discharges, and other separations, and is referred to as turnover. Quits are generally voluntary separations initiated by the employee. Therefore, the quits rate can serve as a measure of workers’ willingness or ability to leave jobs. Layoffs and discharges are involuntary separations initiated by the employer.

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

There were 4.8 million total separations in September, little changed from August. The total separations rate was 3.4%. The number of total separations was little changed for total private and government. In September, total separations were little changed in all industries and regions.

Quits

There were 2.7 million quits in September, about the same as in August. The number of quits has held between 2.7 million and 2.8 million for the past 13 months after increasing steadily since the end of the recession. The quits rate was unchanged in September at 1.9% for the sixth consecutive month.

The number of quits was little changed for total private and government over the month. Quits were little changed in all industries and regions over the month. The number of quits (not seasonally adjusted) was little changed over the 12 months ending in September for total nonfarm and total private but decreased for government (-31,000).

Quits increased over the year in accommodation and food services (+66,000) and durable goods manufacturing (+22,000). Quits decreased over the year in state and local government (-31,000) and finance and insurance (-24,000). Quits were little changed in all four regions.

Layoffs and discharges

There were 1.7 million layoffs and discharges in September, little changed from August. The rate held steady at 1.2%. The number of layoffs and discharges was little changed over the month for total private and government, and were little changed in all four regions. Seasonally adjusted estimates of layoffs and discharges are not available for individual industries.

The number of layoffs and discharges (not seasonally adjusted) was little changed over the 12 months ending in September for total nonfarm, total private, and government. The number of layoffs and discharges rose over the year in other services (+54,000). Layoffs and discharges decreased over the year in educational services (-17,000) and federal government (-7,000). Layoffs and discharges were little changed in all four regions over the year.

Other separations

In September, there were 387,000 other separations for total nonfarm, little changed from August. Over the month, the number of other separations was little changed for total private at 315,000 and increased for government to 72,000. Seasonally adjusted estimates of other separations are not available for individual industries or regions.

Over the 12 months ending in September, the number of other separations (not seasonally adjusted) was little changed for total nonfarm, total private, and government. Other separations increased over the year in federal government (+4,000). The number of other separations decreased in finance and insurance (-15,000) and in information (-5,000). Other separations were little changed in all four regions over the year.

Net change in employment

Large numbers of hires and separations occur every month throughout the business cycle. Net employment change results from the relationship between hires and separations. When the number of hires exceeds the number of separations, employment rises, even if the hires level is steady or declining.

Conversely, when the number of hires is less than the number of separations, employment declines, even if the hires level is steady or rising.

Over the 12 months ending in September 2015, hires totaled 60.9 million and separations totaled 58.2 million, yielding a net employment gain of 2.7 million. These totals include workers who may have been hired and separated more than once during the year.

The full report is available on the BLS website.

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Deadline for required retirement plan distributions approaches

In most cases you have to receive a payment by the end of the year

If you were born before July 1, 1945, the clock is ticking. Well, that way too, but we're talking about Uncle Sam's clock here.In this case, you genera...

PhotoIf you were born before July 1, 1945, the clock is ticking. Well, that way too, but we're talking about Uncle Sam's clock here.

In this case, you generally are required by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to receive payments from your individual retirement arrangement (IRA) and workplace retirement plan by Dec. 31.

Known as required minimum distributions (RMDs), these payments normally must be made by the end of 2015. However, if you are a first-year recipients of these payments -- you reached age 70½ during 2015 -- you can wait until as late as April 1, 2016 to receive your first RMDs.

To clarify, anyone born after June 30, 1944, and before July 1, 1945 is eligible for this special rule. Though payments made to these taxpayers in early 2016 can be counted toward their 2015 RMD, they are still taxable in 2016.

Who else is affected?

The required distribution rules apply to owners of traditional, Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) and Savings Incentive Match Plans for Employees (SIMPLE) IRAs but not Roth IRAs while the original owner is alive. They also apply to participants in various workplace retirement plans, including 401(k), 403(b), and 457(b) plans.

An IRA trustee must either report the amount of the RMD to the IRA owner or offer to calculate it for the owner. Often, the trustee shows the RMD amount on Form 5498 in Box 12b. For a 2015 RMD, this amount is on the 2014 Form 5498 normally issued to the owner during January 2015.

The special April 1 deadline applies only to the RMD for the first year. For all subsequent years, the RMD must be made by Dec. 31. For example, a taxpayer who turned 70½ in 2014 (born after June 30, 1943, and before July 1, 1944) and received the first RMD (for 2014) on April 1, 2015, must still receive a second RMD (for 2015) by Dec. 31, 2015.

Calculating your RMD

The RMD for 2015 is based on the taxpayer’s life expectancy on Dec. 31, 2015, and the account balance on Dec. 31, 2014. The trustee reports the year-end account value to the IRA owner on Form 5498 in Box 5. Use the online worksheets on IRS.gov or find worksheets and life expectancy tables to make this computation in the Appendices to Publication 590-B, Distributions from Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs).

For most taxpayers, the RMD is based on Table III (Uniform Lifetime Table) in IRS Publication 590-B. So for a taxpayer who turned 72 in 2015, the required distribution would be based on a life expectancy of 25.6 years. A separate table, Table II, applies to a taxpayer whose spouse is more than 10 years younger and is the taxpayer’s only beneficiary.

Though the RMD rules are mandatory for all owners of traditional, SEP and SIMPLE IRAs and participants in workplace retirement plans, some people in workplace plans can wait longer to receive their RMDs. Usually, employees who are still working can, if their plan allows, wait until April 1 of the year after they retire to start receiving these distributions. See Tax on Excess Accumulations in Publication 575. Employees of public schools and certain tax-exempt organizations with 403(b) plan accruals before 1987 should check with their employer, plan administrator or provider to see how to treat these accruals.

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Inaffit recalls Natureal capsules

The product contains the banned substance, sibutramine

Inaffit, LLC is recalling all lots of Natureal light green and dark green capsules. The product contains sibutramine, an appetite suppressant that ...

PhotoInaffit, LLC is recalling all lots of Natureal light green and dark green capsules.

 

The product contains sibutramine, an appetite suppressant that was withdrawn from the U.S. market in October 2010. Sibutramine is known to increase blood pressure and/or pulse rate in some patients substantially, and may present a significant risk for patients with a history of coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias or stroke.

 

This undeclared ingredient makes this product an unapproved new drug for which safety and efficacy have not been established.

 

The product is used as a weight loss dietary supplement and is packaged in clear bottle with light green and dark green capsules.

 

The recalled product includes lots Manufactured 3/12/2015, Expiration Date 3/11/2017. It was distributed from the Natureal office, 14707 South Dixie Highway, Suite 213, Palmetto Bay, FL 33176 and nationwide to consumers via http://www.natu-real.com/.

 

Inaffit is notifying its customers by email and is arranging for return.

 

Customers who are currently in possession of recalled the recalled product should stop using it and discard it.

 

Consumers with questions regarding this recall can contact Inaffit, LLC by email at returns@naturealfls.com.  

 

 

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Zenobia Company recalls Ground Flax Seed Meal

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Zenobia Company of Yonkers, N.Y., is recalling Ground Flax Seed Meal. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella No illnesses have bee...

PhotoZenobia Company of Yonkers, N.Y., is recalling Ground Flax Seed Meal.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

 

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

The recalled product, labeled “Ground Flax Seed Meal,” is packaged in 4-oz. and 16-oz. resealable plastic bags, or 50 pounds bulk, with UPC #'s 00575004, 00575016, 00575111

 

It was distributed nationwide through online mail order from 6/15/15 - 11/4/15.

 

Customers who purchased the recalled product should discard it and contact the company for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-877-890-5244, Monday - Friday, 9am - 5pm, (EST).

 

 

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New York classifies daily fantasy sports as illegal gambling

Move may lead to regulation of massive new industry

Just like Nevada, the state of New York has found daily fantasy sports (DFS) to be illegal gambling and ordered a halt within the state.But unlike Neva...

PhotoJust like Nevada, the state of New York has found daily fantasy sports (DFS) to be illegal gambling and ordered a halt within the state.

But unlike Nevada, with its much smaller population of players, New York makes up a significant source of players, pumping money into major DFS enterprises like FanDuel and Draft Kings.

In letters to the two companies, obtained by ESPN, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said his office's review of DraftKings' and FanDuels' games found them to constitute illegal gambling.

Disappointed

“We are very disappointed that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman took such hasty action today, particularly since he did not take any time to understand our business or why daily fantasy sports are clearly a game of skill,” DraftKings said in a statement. “We strongly disagree with the reasoning in his opinion and will examine and vigorously pursue all legal options available to ensure our over half a million customers in New York State can continue to play the fantasy sports games they love.”

DFS was determined to be a “game of skill” under a 2006 law regulating gambling, shielding it from regulation under the law. But Schneiderman says the facts suggest otherwise – people wager things of value on outcomes they cannot control. That, he says, is gambling.

A month ago, the Nevada gaming commission reached the same conclusion. 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 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.”

Compromise?

In it's reaction to Scneiderman's latest action, DraftKings said other regulators, including the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), have taken what it calls “a reasoned, informed and measured approach to the daily fantasy sports business.”

“We hope this trend continues along with due consideration for over 56 million sports fans across the country who enjoy playing fantasy sports,” the statement said. “We remain committed to working with all relevant authorities to ensure that our industry operates in a manner that is transparent and fair for all consumers.”

That seems to suggest the way may be open to reclassify DFS so that governments can regulate it, and perhaps get a piece of the action. With its association with major media and sports leagues, DFS generates billions of dollars -- enough for everyone, it would seem.

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Pressure builds on for-profit colleges targeting veterans

Four Democrats back bill to limit federal money

Four members of the U.S. Senate, all Democrats, are backing legislation that would further limit the amount of revenue for-profit schools can get from fede...

PhotoFour members of the U.S. Senate, all Democrats, are backing legislation that would further limit the amount of revenue for-profit schools can get from federal aid.

The lawmakers – Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have introduced the Protecting Our Students and Taxpayers (POST) Act, that would prohibit for-profit colleges and universities from receiving more than 85% of their revenue from the federal government and change the calculation of federal revenue to include all federal funds.

Current law allows for-profit schools to receive up to 90% of revenue from federal programs, but the lawmakers say it contains a very large loophole, allowing these schools to receive a lot more.

Loophole

“Money from the new Post 9/11 GI Bill and from Department of Defense tuition assistance programs isn’t counted, which leaves hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars virtually unregulated,” Durbin said. “Consequently, these schools aggressively target veterans and servicemembers who too often don’t receive the quality of education they deserve. We can’t let this invitation to exploit our veterans continue.”

At issue is what students pay to attend for-profit schools and what they get out of it. After 2010, the U.S. government put rules in place to hold colleges accountable for students who couldn't get jobs after graduation. The high level of student loan default rates was another concern.

In July, the Obama administration enacted rules to choke off the flow of federal dollars to schools whose graduates don't do well in the job market. It was intended to save taxpayer dollars and protect students from running up debt for a degree doing them little good.

Protecting veterans

Warren said POST builds on that effort, while extending needed protections for military veterans.

“Too many servicemembers and veterans have been targeted by predatory for-profit colleges, and our men and women in uniform deserve better,” said Warren. “The POST Act will tighten the rules and help protect veterans by closing the loophole that permits for-profit schools to prey on our servicemembers.”

Earlier this year for-profit Corinthian College closed its doors after the U.S. government sued it for predatory lending.

The four senators point out another for-profit school, ITT Tech, is under investigation by at least 18 state attorneys general and the U.S. Department of Justice and is being sued by the New Mexico Attorney General, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The lawmakers say for-profit institutions of higher education enroll about 10% of all college students, but take in 20% of the Department of Education’s federal student aid funds and account for 40% of student loan defaults.  

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Just how effective are values-related boycotts?

Thanks to social media, they may look bigger than they are

The Facebook flare-up over Starbucks' Christmas holiday cups, which were devoid of any Christmas symbolism, drives home a recent trend of consumers picking...

PhotoThe Facebook flare-up over Starbucks' Christmas holiday cups, which were devoid of any Christmas symbolism, drives home a recent trend of consumers picking fights with businesses.

In this case, Christian activists complained that Starbucks, which reflects the progressive values of the Pacific Northwest, didn't reflect Christian values, or at least not enough.

We've seen it over and over on both sides of the political divide. It wasn't long ago that the chairman of Chick-Fil-A sparked a boycott by gay activists when he mentioned in an interview that he did not support gay marriage.

There seems to be segments of consumers, both left and right, who insist companies with which they do business reflect their ideological and cultural values. But Lars Perner, Ph.D, of the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business, believes these consumers are a minority.

“Today, there is so much choice that it is easier to avoid those businesses that one finds objectionable,” Perner told ConsumerAffairs. “It is also easier to organize and exchange information on social media.”

Role of social media

The role of social media in magnifying this phenomenon shouldn't be overlooked. Today, activists don't require media coverage – they can create their own.

In the case of the Christian upset about the Starbucks cups, his Facebook video complaint went viral, drawing thousands more to his cause. These kinds of boycotts are easy, Perner says. Starbucks offends you? There's always Dunkin' Donuts or 7-Eleven.

“It becomes more difficult to boycott a firm like Amazon.com, where some consumers object to the firm’s labor practices, since many rely on that for a large part of their shopping, Perner said.

And the aforementioned boycott of Chick-Fil-A? It didn't last that long because, well, because the food is really good.

Food values

Food is another consumer sphere that now seems steeped in values conflict. A number of firms in the food business have sought to differentiate themselves by adopting a moral stance around how the food is produced and where it comes from.

Whole Foods' handle is “food with integrity.” McDonald's has struggled in recent years, while markets and restaurants have made a virtue of offering “locally sourced” food, purchased from nearby producers.

“My understanding is that the preference for local sourcing has more to do with sustainability in that it supposedly takes less energy to transport food locally,” Perner said. “It is not as clear if there is a net energy saving since the local climate and soil may not be optimal for growing all types of crops. For some, this may also be an extension of the idea of buying local in order to support the local economy.”

Increasingly polarized world

We live in emotional times and in an increasingly polarized world. Businesses must tread carefully though this minefield, lest they accidentally offend a segment of increasingly easily-offended consumers.

But in the recent Starbucks case, and cases like it, the company may win more than it loses.

“This campaign actually provides a fair amount of publicity for Starbucks and may serve as a trigger to induce people who go to Starbucks occasionally to go in that particular day,” Perner said.

In other words, angry consumers mounting an attack on Starbucks might prompt infrequent Starbucks customers to suddenly develop a thirst for double lattes.

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Google Chrome updates to cease for Windows XP and other older operating systems

Because older OS's don't get support from makers, they are at greater risk of contracting viruses and malware

Despite the release of newer operating systems, like Microsoft's Windows 10, there is a still a dedicated following of tech users who prefer older systems ...

PhotoDespite the release of newer operating systems, like Microsoft's Windows 10, there is a still a dedicated following of tech users who prefer older systems like Windows XP, Vista, and older Mac OS's. While some of the security features may be out of date, it is just too hard for some people to move away from something that they're comfortable using.

Unfortunately, keeping these older systems might be much harder in the future. Google has announced that it will stop updating their popular web browser, Google Chrome, for older operating systems by April of 2016. So far, that includes Windows XP, Windows Vista, Mac 10.6, Mac 10.7, and Mac 10.8.

Increased risk of viruses and malware

This change does not mean that users running these older systems won't be able to use Google Chrome; it just means that the browser will not be fully updated or secure. Google states that they are taking this step because the five operating systems had stopped receiving official support from their makers.

“Such older platforms are missing critical security updates and have a greater potential to be infected by viruses and malware,” said Mark Pawliger, Chrome Director of Engineering.

This is not the first time that Google has said that they'll pull back from older systems. Earlier this year, the company stated that older systems, like Windows XP, were a big problem because so many consumers and organizations were continuing to use it, despite it not being supported by Microsoft anymore. This means many high-profile organizations, such as the U.S. Navy, could be at greater potential risk when it comes to hackers and cyber attacks.  

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Uber and Lyft to donate thousands of free rides to veterans

The move is meant to provide reliable transportation to jobs, interviews, and employment opportunities

With today's celebration of Veterans Day, it is important to honor the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country. While many soldiers fight...

PhotoWith today's celebration of Veterans Day, it is important to honor the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country. While many soldiers fight and die overseas, those that return to us can often lose themselves in the very country they fought to defend.

Homelessness is one chief concern for veterans who come back home – the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that there are over 49,000 veterans who experience homelessness every day in this country. Many come back to limited resources that can make it difficult to hold a job or find a new one. With this in mind, Uber and Lyft, ride-sharing companies that have flourished in recent months, have decided to offer free rides for veterans who need transportation to jobs and interviews.

Rides for veterans

This decision comes at a time when many veterans need it most. The National Coalition for the Homeless has found that roughly 68% of veterans live in cities that do not have reliable public transportation; this has led to many of them missing job opportunities or needed services because they couldn't get around.

Uber has pledged that it will contribute up to 10,000 free rides for five veteran organizations connected to the Department of Labor's Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program. Lyft has abstained from providing a specific number, but says that it will also be “donating thousands of rides” to veterans.

The rides will be given by employment counselors who work with veterans regularly. Organizations hope that this will allow veterans to get on-demand rides to jobs, interviews, and other employment opportunities, like job fairs or hiring events.

Donate a ride today

In order to extend the service, Uber has announced that its passengers will also be able to help veterans secure transportation too. On Veterans Day, the company plans on allowing riders and drivers the chance to donate $5 towards a veteran's ride.

The event will take place in over 150 cities across the U.S. To donate, consumers only need to open the Uber app and slide the toggle to “VETS DAY” and order an UberX. When the ride is complete, a message will be sent with information on the $5 donation. Reply “Yes” to this message to complete the donation.  

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Rethinking safe blood pressure levels (again)

New study urges lower targets for seniors

While not exactly controversial, what your blood pressure should be has become a topic of debate within the medical community.It started in 2013, when ...

PhotoWhile not exactly controversial, what your blood pressure should be has become a topic of debate within the medical community.

It started in 2013, when an American Medical Association panel on hypertension issued new guidelines, suggesting patients over 60 were fine with a blood pressure reading of 150/90. Blood pressure goals were also eased for adults with diabetes and kidney disease.

The following March researchers at Duke University ran an analysis and determined that an estimated 5.8 million adults no longer needed blood pressure medicine under the new guidelines.

Since then, opposing views advocating the lower 120/80 blood pressure benchmark have been heard loud and clear. The latest is a new study conducted by the University of Utah, University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Columbia University. If found that 16.8 million Americans could potentially benefit from lowering their systolic blood pressure – the top number – to 120, much lower than current guidelines of 140 or 150.

The scientists reached their conclusions based on results from the Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial (SPRINT). Their initial analysis, reported back in September, showed that using medications to reach a lower target of 120 mmHg could greatly reduce risk for heart failure, heart attack, and death, compared to a target of 140 mmHg.

Broad implications

“SPRINT could have broad implications,” said lead author Adam Bress, of the University of Utah College of Pharmacy. “Millions of Americans whose blood pressure is under control according to current guidelines may be considered uncontrolled if new guidelines adopt the intensive target of less than 120 mmHg studied in SPRINT.”

The research carries two implications that health care providers must weigh. It suggests 16.8 million Americans could be at risk. It also suggests that same number almost certainly would need to be on prescription medication to reach the lower blood pressure goal.

In other words, it's not only a matter of life and death – billions of dollars are at stake.

“Physicians are going to need to decide how far outside the SPRINT inclusion criteria to go,” said co-author Rachel Hess, a professor of internal medicine and population health sciences at the University of Utah School of Medicine. “It’s going to be a tough decision.”

What to do

If you are concerned about your blood pressure levels, have a frank discussion with your healthcare provider. Make sure he or she is aware of the current debate over safe blood pressure levels and discuss where your levels should be.

Lifestyle factors can also have a large influence on blood pressure. Eating a nutritious, balanced diet low in sodium, getting plenty of exercise, maintaining a normal weight, and avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol have all been shown to help promote healthy blood pressure.

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Feds move to block United-Delta gate swaps in NYC area

The swaps would make United impregnable at Newark airport, Justice Department charges

United and Delta airlines have been hoping their plan to swap slots at Newark Liberty International Airport and John F. Kennedy Airport will fly, but the J...

PhotoUnited and Delta airlines have been hoping their plan to swap slots at Newark Liberty International Airport and John F. Kennedy Airport will fly, but the Justice Department has filed an antitrust suit challenging the shuffle.

Under the airlines' scheme, United would acquire 24 slots at Newark from Delta. Add that to the 902 slots United already has and it would be virtually impregnable, the lawsuit charges.

“A slot is essentially a license to compete at Newark,” said Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.  “United already holds most of them, and as a result, competition at Newark is in critically short supply.

"United is already extracting a ‘Newark premium.’ Airfares at Newark are among the highest in the country while United’s service at Newark ranks among the worst," Baer said. "Allowing United to acquire even more slots at Newark would fortify United’s monopoly position, and weaken rivals’ ability to challenge that dominance, leaving consumers to pay the price.”

Baer said United now has 73% of the available slots at Newark and doesn't even use all of them, letting about 82 a day go unused, thus blocking competitors. No other airline has more than 70 slots at Newark.

The feds' lawsuit said the 35 million passengers who use Newark each year would face higher fares and fewer choices if the deal goes through.

Consumers benefit ... sometimes

The federal complaint also details how consumers benefit when slots are held by United’s airline rivals.  In response to the department’s concerns expressed during its review of the United/Continental merger in 2010, United divested 36 slots at Newark to Southwest Airlines. 

That allowed Southwest to introduce new low-fare competition to United on five routes resulting in substantially lowered fares and increased service on five routes into and out of Newark, as shown in this graph:

Photo

United is defending the transaction, saying New York is the most competitive market in the country and claiming that the deal “benefits our customers and the region.”

Political swamp

Both Newark and JFK are operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, generally regarded as a political swamp infested with cozy political deals masquerading as bureacratic ineptitude.

In September, United CEO Jeff Smisek was abruptly dismissed following an internal United investigation of corruption involving the Port Authority.

The infamous "Bridgegate" scandal, involving aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was said to revolve around political spoils flowing from the Port Authority. Two top Christie aides who were Port Authority officials were indicted for using the Authority's resources for political ends.

Supposed investigations by Christie's office, the New Jersey Attorney General, and the U.S. Attorney went nowhere, just like the Fort Lee drivers who were trapped in their cars when approaches to the George Washington Bridge were blocked in some undefined act of political gamesmanship. 

Bridgegate and similar scandals did little to remove suspicisions that politics is a rougher game in the New York area than in much of the country and that Gov. Christie's modus operandi might be seen as harsh by primary voters in such sylvan regions as New Hampshire and Iowa. 

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Indictments unsealed in largest-ever financial hacking

Defendants raided financial institutions, news publishers, ran illicit Bitcoin site, feds charge

The Justice Department has unsealed indictments against several defendants in what's being called the largest theft of customer data from a U.S. financial ...

PhotoThe Justice Department has unsealed indictments against several defendants in what's being called the largest theft of customer data from a U.S. financial institution in history.

Gary Shalon and several others are accused of orchestrating a massive series of computer hackings against financial institutions and news publishers, as well as operating unlawful Internet casinos and illicit payment processors. Shalon also allegedly owned an illegal U.S.-based Bitcoin exchange service known as Coin.mx. 

Shalon and another defendant, Ziv Orenstein, were arrested by Israeli police in July and remain in custody pending extradition to the U.S. A third defendant, Joshua Aaron, remains at large.

 “As set forth in the indictment, these three defendants perpetrated one of the largest thefts of financial-related data in history – making off with the sensitive information of literally thousands of hard-working Americans,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “These charges were made possible in large part because those victims came forward and worked with the Department of Justice to hold the perpetrators accountable."

Financial sector hacks

The indictment charges that from approximately 2012 to mid-2015, Shalon, working with Aaron and others and stole personal information of over 100 million customers of the victim companies. Their network intrusion at one bank resulted in the theft of personal information of more than 80 million customers, making it the largest theft of customer data from a U.S. financial institution in history. 

The indictment charges that Shalon and Aaron also conspired to artificially manipulate the price of certain stocks publicly traded in the United States. Shalon and his co-conspirators sought to market the stocks in a deceptive and misleading manner to customers of the victim companies whose contact information they had stolen in the intrusions, the indictment charges. 

Shalon and his co-conspirators earned hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit proceeds, of which Shalon concealed at least $100 million in Swiss and other bank accounts, the indictment alleges.

Shalon, 31, of Savyon, Israel; Aaron, 31, a U.S. citizen who resides in Moscow and Tel Aviv; and Orenstein, 40, of Bat Hefer, Israel, are each charged with multiple offenses, each carrying maximum prison terms ranging from five to 20 years.

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Consumer group charges loophole allows continued payday lending in Ohio

Current law is supposed to cap rates at 28% APR

Like a number of states, Ohio passed a law in 2005 to rein in payday loans. Since then, the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) reports payday lenders hav...

PhotoLike a number of states, Ohio passed a law in 2005 to rein in payday loans. Since then, the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) reports payday lenders have used a loophole to keep trapping consumers in debt.

In a new report, the CRL claims that payday lenders in Ohio are collecting more in fees than before the law limiting what they can charge.

“Rather than operating under the intended regulatory structures, payday and car title lenders exploit Ohio’s Second Mortgage Loan Act and Ohio’s Credit Services Organization (CSO) Act to continue their debt trap lending, with no limits on charges,” the authors write. “Under the Second Mortgage Loan Act, these lenders make loans directly; while those operating under the CSO Act pose as brokers for loans originated by thirdparty lenders, such as Ohio-based NCP Finance, and still carry triple-digit APRs.”

Healthier than ever

Instead of the new law forcing payday lenders out of business, the CRL report says they are healthier than ever. It counts 836 storefronts in Ohio that make payday or car title loans, the majority of which offer both.

It found that payday and car title loans collected more than $502 million in loan fees from Ohioans annually, twice as much as what payday loans charged in 2005.

The 2005 law passed by the Ohio legislature capped interest rates at 28% APR. While that might sound high, payday lenders say they can't be profitable at that rate. Their loan amounts are small and only for a two week term. However, more often than not the borrower can't repay the loan after two weeks and must take out a new loan with a new set of fees.

“Ever since 2008, predatory payday lenders have been subverting Ohioans’ mandate to cap interest rates, continuing to charge triple-digit interest rates,” the authors write. “Some lenders charge higher rates than the triple-digit rates allowed under the state’s original payday loan law.”

Note of frustration

In a note of frustration, the report said Ohio’s legislature and regulators have the authority to enforce the voter-mandated 28% rate cap, but over the last seven years have not done so.

The solution, the report concludes, lies at the national level, with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). While the CFPB cannot cap rates, it can establish regulations to make sure lenders look at a borrower’s ability to repay the loan without re-borrowing or defaulting on other obligations.

Remove those borrowers, the CRL contends, and there will be few customers taking out payday or car title loans – in Ohio and everywhere else.

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U.S. foreclosures post year-over-year decline

Mortgages in serious delinquency also were lower

Foreclosures of homes across the nation continued to tail off during September.According to CoreLogic, a property information, analytics, and data-enab...

PhotoForeclosures of homes across the nation continued to tail off during September.

According to CoreLogic, a property information, analytics, and data-enabled services provider, the foreclosure inventory declined by 24.3% and completed foreclosures were down 17.6% from the same time a year ago.

The National Foreclosure Report also shows the number of foreclosures nationwide decreased year-over-year from 67,000 in September 2014 to 55,000 this past September. The number of completed foreclosures in September 2015 is a drop of 52.8% from the peak of 117,438 in September 2010.

Completed foreclosures reflect the total number of homes lost to foreclosure. Since the financial meltdown began in September 2008, there have been approximately 6 million completed foreclosures across the country; and since homeownership rates peaked in the second quarter of 2004, there have been about 8 million homes lost to foreclosure.

As of this past September, the national foreclosure inventory included approximately 470,000, or 1.2%, of all homes with a mortgage compared with 621,000 homes, or 1.6 percent, in September of last year.

“The largest improvements in the foreclosure inventory continue to be in judicial states on the East Coast such as Florida and New Jersey,” said Sam Khater, deputy chief economist for CoreLogic. “While the overwhelming majority of states are experiencing declines in their foreclosure rates, four states experienced small increases compared with a year ago.”

CoreLogic also reports that the number of mortgages in serious delinquency (defined as 90 days or more past due, including those loans in foreclosure or REO) declined by 21.2% from September 2014 to September 2015 with 1.3 million mortgages, or 3.4%, in this category.

This is the lowest serious delinquency rate since December 2007. The foreclosure rate (defined as the share of all loans in the foreclosure process) was at 1.2% as of September, which is back to the December 2007 level.

“The rate of delinquencies continues to drop back closer to historic norms powered by improved economic conditions and tighter post-recession underwriting standards,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “As we head into 2016, based on almost every major metric, the fundamentals underpinning the housing market are healthier than any time since 2007.”

Report highlights

  • On a month-over-month basis, completed foreclosures increased by 49.5% to 55,000 from the 37,000 reported in August 2015. The one-month surge in foreclosures was partially the result of an annual public auctioning of thousands of tax-foreclosed properties in Wayne County, Mich., of which Detroit is the county seat. As a basis of comparison, before the decline in the housing market in 2007, completed foreclosures averaged 21,000 per month nationwide between 2000 and 2006.
  • The five states with the highest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in September 2015 were: Florida (91,000), Michigan (45,000), Texas (32,000), Georgia (26,000) and California (26,000). These five states accounted for almost half of all completed foreclosures nationally.
  • Four states and the District of Columbia had the lowest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in September 2015: District of Columbia (69), North Dakota (310), Wyoming (498), West Virginia (593) and Hawaii (690).
  • Four states and the District of Columbia had the highest foreclosure inventory rate in September 2015: New Jersey (4.6%), New York (3.7%), Florida (2.6%), Hawaii (2.5%) and the District of Columbia (2.4%).
  • The five states with the lowest foreclosure inventory rate in September 2015 were: Alaska (0.3%), Minnesota (0.4%), Nebraska (0.4%), Arizona (0.4%) and North Dakota (0.4%).
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Boulder Natural Meats recalls beef, pork and poultry products

The products were missing the ingredients statement and some contain milk, an allergen not listed on the label

Boulder Natural Meats of Denver, Colo., is recalling approximately 3,607 pounds of beef, pork and poultry products. The products were missing the i...

PhotoBoulder Natural Meats of Denver, Colo., is recalling approximately 3,607 pounds of beef, pork and poultry products.

 

The products were missing the ingredients statement and some contain milk, an allergen 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 products, produced on various dates, are being recalled:

  • 10 lb. vacuum sealed packages of “BN CHICKEN MILD ITALIAN SAUSAGE”
  • 10 lb. vacuum sealed packages of “BN CHICKEN HOT ITALIAN SAUSAGE”
  • 10 lb. vacuum sealed packages of “BN CHICKEN BREAKFAST SAUSAGE”
  • 10 lb. vacuum sealed packages of “FRESH CHICKEN CHORIZO SAUSAGE”
  • 8 lb. vacuum sealed packages of “COWBOY BURGERS ASPEN NATURAL MEATS”
  • 16 oz. plastic frozen tubs of “CHICKEN LIVERS”
  • 8 lb. vacuum sealed packages of “BACON & CHEDDAR CHEESE SEASONED BEEF BURGERS ASPEN NATURAL MEATS”
  • 8 lb. vacuum sealed packages of “SMOKED SALT & BALINESE PEPPER SEASONED BURGERS ASPEN NATURAL MEATS”
  • 10 lb. vacuum sealed packages of “BN PORK HOT ITALIAN SAUSAGE”
  • 10 lb. vacuum sealed packages of “BN PORK MILD ITALIAN SAUSAGE
  • 10 lb. vacuum sealed packages of “BN PORK SAGE BREAKFAST SAUSAGE”
  • 10 lb. vacuum sealed packages of “BN PORK CHORIZO SAUSAGE”

The recalled products bear establishment number “EST. 18852” and “P-18852” inside the USDA marks of inspection, and were shipped to one distributor and retail stores in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

 

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

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Boulder Natural Meats at (570) 600-2996.

 

 

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U.S. senators seek guidance to make sure that Takata is held responsible for its actions

Fines and loss of business partners may cause the company to go bankrupt, leaving many consumers in the lurch

Takata Corporation, the infamous Japanese auto parts maker, has really gone through the wringer in the last couple of weeks. After neglecting to disclose t...

PhotoTakata Corporation, the infamous Japanese auto parts maker, has really gone through the wringer in the last couple of weeks. After neglecting to disclose the dangers of their airbag products, which caused numerous deaths and injuries, the company has been fined $70 million by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with the possibility of losing another $130 million if they do not comply with the federal agency or if new violations are found.

At the same time, several major auto makers like Toyota, Nissan, and Honda have altered their relationships with the company, saying that they will not use the ammonium nitrate inflators on any vehicles currently under development. The financial burdens that the company faces have caught the attention of U.S. senators who fear that the company will go bankrupt before they are able to complete the recall of all vehicles affected by the faulty products.

“These developments raise the concern that these liabilities could overwhelm the company and lead Takata Corporation to bankrupt its U.S. subsidiary,” wrote the senators in a letter to the NHTSA on Monday.

Senators Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Edward Markey (MA) are currently seeking guidance to make sure that Takata is held responsible if they do indeed go bankrupt. Both senators recently called for stronger action to be taken against the company, calling the $70 million fine “meager” and that it would “do nothing more than change the costs of doing business and provide no meaningful deterrence for continuing reprehensible and irresponsible behavior that costs countless preventable injuries and lives.”

The real losers of the bankruptcy may very well end up being the consumers who have vehicles affected by the recall. “We have concerns about Takata's financial solvency, which is now at risk … and that as a result, consumers could be left with defective airbags that no one will be forced to fix,” said the senators in their letter.

Despite these senatorial misgivings, Takata maintains that it still holds a strong financial position. “We have a strong financial position and expect to be fully able to manage through this situation. We remain an important participant in the supply chain for airbags and a variety of other products.  We have taken, and continue to take, proactive steps, in cooperation with our customers, to increase awareness about recalls and increase recall completion rates, including managing a highly targeted digital advertising campaign, unprecedented among automotive suppliers. In addition, we recently surpassed the 10 million replacement kit milestone. We are committed to being part of the solution and continuing to advance driver safety,” said a Takata spokesman.

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Best Buy, Toys-R-Us announce Black Friday plans

Both retailers will open their doors Thanksgiving Day

Consumers are beginning to get a better idea of the holiday bargains that will be available, as two more major retailers have revealed Black Friday plans....

PhotoConsumers are beginning to get a better idea of the holiday bargains that will be available, as two more major retailers have revealed Black Friday plans.

Both Best Buy and Toys-R-Us say they will open their doors at 5 p.m. Thanksgiving Day.

“Each year, we carefully evaluate customer feedback and consumer insights to determine how we can best help those customers eager to get a jumpstart on crossing off items on their gift lists,” said Joe Venezia, Senior Vice President, Store Operations, Toys“R”Us, U.S. “We are excited to welcome shoppers into our stores, providing big savings and expert services as the holiday shopping season officially begins.”

The toy retailer stopped short of announcing specific deals but said it will have in-store “specialists” throughout the holiday shopping season to answer questions and make specific gift suggestions.

Best Buy deals

Best Buy, meanwhile, has released its Black Friday ad on its website, detailing several deals it will offer when its doors open on Thanksgiving evening. The deals include:

  • Up to $125 off iPad Air 2
  • $250 Best Buy gift card with any Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 edge or S6 edge+ smartphone with installment billing purchase or lease and activation
  • Toshiba 55-inch LED TV for $349.99
  • Insignia 40-inch LED TV for $159.99
  • Insignia 2.1 soundbar for $99.99
  • $150 off  on the new 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display
  • $150 off on the new 12-inch MacBook with 256GB flash storage in Gold, Silver or Space Gray
  • $100 off on Netgear Arlo wire-free HD security cameras, set of four 

The company says nearly 1,000 Best Buy stores in 47 states will open on Thanksgiving, with most remaining open until 1 a.m. They will then reopen at 8 a.m. Black Friday.

Online deals

With more and more sales moving online, both Toys-R-Us and Best Buy are taking steps to beef up their e-commerce offerings, not waiting for the traditional Cyber Monday event.

Best Buy says almost every item in the Black Friday ad will be available at that price online Thanksgiving Day, with additional deals throughout the weekend. Best Buy is also offering free shipping with no minimum order requirement.

Toys-R-Us says shoppers on its website will get real-time gift guidance through live chats. They can also use the company's gift finder tool to search by child's age and interests.

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Target reveals more Black Friday plans

Retailer will open at 6 p.m. Thanksgiving Day

Many retailers have decided to remain closed on Thanksgiving Day, but Target is not one of them.Target has announced more of its Black Friday plans, wh...

PhotoMany retailers have decided to remain closed on Thanksgiving Day, but Target is not one of them.

Target has announced more of its Black Friday plans, which include opening at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.

“Black Friday continues to kick off the holiday shopping season for many guests,” said Tina Tyler, Chief Stores Officer, Target. “This year Target will open our doors at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving for the millions of families who make Black Friday in-store shopping part of their tradition.”

But like a growing number of retailers, Target seems to realize that consumers increasingly prefer to make their purchases online. The company said it is also making its Black Friday deals available on its website.

10 Days of Deals

“In addition, we’re introducing ‘10 Days of Deals’ to offer a wide variety of compelling deals before, during and after Black Friday,” Tyler said.

Target says it isn't waiting for Black Friday to start introducing deals. The retailer will begin its new “10 Days of Deals” promotion, offering daily discounts on electronics, kitchenware, toys, and more from Nov. 22 through Dec. 1. As part of the “10 Days of Deals,” guests will have access to a BlackFriday presale on Wednesday, Nov. 25.

New this year, guests who spend $75 or more on Friday, Nov. 27, will receive a 20% discount to use toward a future purchase on any day between Dec. 4 and Dec. 13.

Promotional deals include:

  • 55” Westinghouse LED TV, $249.99, Reg. $599.99
  • 43” Element LED TV, Special Purchase $169.99
  • Free $150 Target Gift Card when you buy an iPad Air 2
  • Parrot Bebop Drone, $394.99, Reg. $499.99
  • Xbox One Bundle, $299.99 with Gears of War digital game download ($39.99 Value) and a free $60 Target Gift Card, Reg. $349.99
  • Free $100 Target Gift Card with purchase of any Apple Watch
  • Beats Solo 2 Headphones, $96.99, Reg. $199.99
  • Nikon CoolPix L340 digital camera, $99.99, Reg. $229.99
  • GoPro Hero+LCD, $299.99 and a free $60 Target Gift Card and a free 64GB Lexar MicroSD card ($42.99 value)
  • Fitbit Charge HR, $119.00, Reg. $149.99
  • Dyson V6 Motorhead Cordless Vacuum, $249.99, Reg. $399.99
  • 40% off all apparel and accessories for women, men, kids and baby
  • Buy one, get one 50 percent off select toys, including Star Wars, Hot Wheels, Thomas & Friends
  • 50% off top holiday home décor, including all frames and jar candles

Employee preferences

In announcing its Black Friday weekend plans, Target took pains to disclose that it consults with employees to “understand scheduling preferences” for the holidays and compensates all hourly team members who work on a national holiday, including Thanksgiving, with pay equal to time-and-a-half of their hourly rate.

The company also says all hourly employees who work certain shifts on Thanksgiving and Black Friday will receive additional compensation on top of holiday premium pay.

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Vizio Smart TVs charged with collecting even more data than most

Collecting consumer data through their home network allows company to sell marketable data to third parties

Consumers who watch television regularly are more than familiar with the concept of advertising. Companies pay a lot of money to make sure viewers know abo...

PhotoConsumers who watch television regularly are more than familiar with the concept of advertising. Companies pay a lot of money to make sure viewers know about them and their product, so it should come as no surprise that they monitor what shows people are watching to make sure they're reaching their target audience.

With the advent of Smart TVs, companies have become more knowledgeable about their consumers than ever before. Knowing if you're watching something from your DVR, via live broadcast, or on Netflix says a surprising amount about what kind of consumer you are. Vizio, however, may have crossed the line with its data collection practices by connecting to viewers' home IP addresses.

Connecting to home IP addresses

ProPublica reports that Vizio, a consumer electronics company, is doing several things that depart from regular data collection practices. In addition to recording data on what you watch and in what format you watch it in, Vizio also allows their smart TVs to connect to viewers' home IP addresses. Unlike many other Smart TV products, this feature is already enabled upon purchase, so many consumers might not know about it.

Connecting to IP addresses allows for a much more thorough form of data collection. Demographic information, such as your age, income, gender, and other marketable information becomes easily available. With that information, Vizio can create a marketing profile for you that is worth a lot of money to other companies that are looking to sell you things.

These other companies would also then be able to match your profile to any other device that you have connected to your network – a scary thought when you think about how many devices you and your family have that do this. All computers, TVs, phones, tablets, game consoles, and smart devices would become susceptible to ads that these third party companies send out.

Security and privacy concerns

You may be thinking that getting these more targeted ads may not be a big deal, but there is potentially more at stake here than that. Vizio claims that they will not be encrypting IP addresses that they share with third parties, so this can open up consumers to a number of security and privacy issues if something goes wrong.

In their report, ProPublica reiterates that this level of information sharing and gathering is illegal, but thus far Vizio has denied that they are doing anything prohibited by law.  

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Sony makes it official: Betamax is dead

Electronics maker will stop producing the cassettes next year

Sony has made a stunning announcement. Beginning in 2016, it will no longer make Betamax cassettes for video cassette recorders (VCR) and cameras.Stunn...

PhotoSony has made a stunning announcement. Beginning in 2016, it will no longer make Betamax cassettes for video cassette recorders (VCR) and cameras.

Stunning, because who knew Sony was still making the cassettes in the first place?

After all, VCRs were pretty much a thing of the past by 1999. Long before that, the Betamax VCR was consigned to the dustbin of technology history. But it wasn't always so.

Sony was the first to come out with the Betamax format in 1975. It wasn't until later that RCA introduced its own version of the video cassette format, VHS. For years, the two formats duked it out.

When you walked into video store to rent a movie – does anyone remember doing that? – on one wall were the Beta copies of movies, on the other was VHS. Slowly but surely, VHS overtook Beta in sales and popularity.

Better format

It wasn't because VHS was better – most technophiles argue Beta was the superior format. But Sony never licensed its patent to other manufacturers. If you wanted a Betamax, you had to buy a Sony.

RCA, on the other hand, licensed its VHS format to any manufacturer. So there ended up being a lot more VHS machines in consumers' living rooms than Betamaxes.

Eventually, video store operators got tired of purchasing both formats of movies and went solely with VHS.

According to Sony, the tapes have still been available in Japan, for collectors and die-hard video purists. But the last shipment will roll of the assembly line in March 2016 and an era most thought ended long ago will finally be over.

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All of a sudden, consumers are borrowing more

Non-revolving debt hit record levels in September

The financial crisis of 2008 threw millions out of work and deepened the recession. As a result, consumers who were able to not only limited their new debt...

PhotoThe financial crisis of 2008 threw millions out of work and deepened the recession. As a result, consumers who were able to not only limited their new debt, but began aggressively paying down their old debt.

Even in the face of near 0% interest rates, consumers either couldn't borrow or didn't want to. But that seems to have changed in a month's time.

In its G-19 release, the Federal Reserve reports consumer borrowing surged 10% in September. That's nearly double the rate of increase for August, which at 5.6% is more typical of the post-recession environment.

All-time high

Consumers borrowed $28.9 billion, beating the previous high set back in 2001.

What was behind the sudden desire to take out a loan? The Fed data shows it wasn't a surge in home buying. The biggest gain came in non-revolving credit; auto and student loans are prime examples of non-revolving credit.

U.S. car sales have been reaching record levels month after month, and in October, blew the doors off.

New U.S. car sales rose at a record pace, recording the best October since 2001. Sales were up double-digits for all brands, except for Volkswagen, which continues to deal with the fallout from its emissions scandals. The average transaction price was over $34,000, meaning most buyers had to take out a loan.

“We've officially passed recovery mode and are now into record new-car sales,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “All the key factors, including pent-up demand, low interest rates, easy credit and cheap gas, were in place for unprecedented October sales. Like 2005 all over again, truck sales are dominating the market, and driving not only growth but healthy profits throughout the industry. Right now it's a great time to be an automaker or dealer.”

Loading up the plastic

Consumers also put a lot of new debt on plastic. The Fed report shows revolving debt – mostly department store charge cards and credit cards – increased $6.7 billion in September, an increase of 8.7%.

So far, extremely low interest rates have not set off the feared inflation, mainly because consumers weren't taking advantage of them.

If September is any indication, it's now a new ball game.

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Report sees low gasoline prices for years to come

International Energy Agency predicts it will take more than four years for oil to reach $80 a barrel

Consumers are accustomed to having low prices for a while, only to see them suddenly move higher. It's happened with gasoline a number of times in the past...

PhotoConsumers are accustomed to having low prices for a while, only to see them suddenly move higher. It's happened with gasoline a number of times in the past.

So when gasoline prices plunged a year ago, most consumers could be forgiven if they believed this break at the gas pump would be short lived. However, it's lasted a year and a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts it will last a lot longer.

In its 2015 report, the IEA says the world is awash in a glut of oil that has depressed prices and will keep them low for years to come. In fact, the report predicts it will take until 2020 for the price of oil to climb back to $80 a barrel.

Before last year's plunge, oil was routinely trading at between $90 and $100 a barrel and had been doing so for years.

Effect on gasoline prices

What's that mean for gasoline prices? Barring refinery bottlenecks, fuel prices should remain in their present range. In the last 10 days prices have trended upward but may begin drifting lower between now and the end of the year.

AAA reported last week that stations in 41 states were selling fuel at or below $2 a gallon. Over the last week the national average price of self-serve regular has held close to $2.20 a gallon.

“The fuel savings continue to add up with pump prices in many areas below $2 per gallon,” said Avery Ash, AAA spokesperson. “It looks increasingly likely that drivers will find the cheapest gas prices for the upcoming holidays in at least seven years.”

Warning

While the IEA report is good news for motorists, it is couched in a warning. The main reason oil is so plentiful and so cheap is Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are waging a price war, hoping to gain market share from U.S. and other producers.

The IEA warns that the world is in danger of becoming over-reliant on a handful of producers, as was the case during the 1970s.

"It would be a grave mistake to index our attention to energy security to changes in the oil price," said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. "Now is not the time to relax. Quite the opposite: a period of low oil prices is the moment to reinforce our capacity to deal with future energy security threats."

But even the Saudis' ability to dominate the energy market may be numbered. The IEA finds that renewable energy is fast becoming the leading source of new energy supply world-wide.  

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Starbucks caught up in another cup-related controversy

Some Christians denounce a lack of snowflakes and reindeer on holiday cups

The holiday season approaches and Starbucks has rolled out bright red cups, adorned only with the Starbucks logo, in celebration.There's nothing to att...

PhotoThe holiday season approaches and Starbucks has rolled out bright red cups, adorned only with the Starbucks logo, in celebration.

There's nothing to attack, nothing to cause offense, right? Well, not exactly.

A few Christian activists have mounted a campaign against the coffee shop chain, saying its plain and simple design is an attack on Christmas.

A Christian evangelist took to Facebook to denounce the lack of any kind of holiday image on the holiday themed cups. Where are the snowflakes, the reindeer, the ribbons that adorned the cups in seasons past, he asked?

Joshua Feuerstein's Facebook videos have gone viral after he claimed Starbucks “hates Jesus.”

Minimalist design

Starbucks says it was simply a design decision. The cup is actually a two-tone shade of red, accentuating the green company logo. The company said it was not trying to make a statement, either for or against Christmas.

This is the second cup controversy this year for the Seattle-based purveyor of coffee. In March, it introduced the “Race Together” campaign, in which baristas were encouraged to write “Race Together” on cups, along with customers' names, in an effort to spur “a conversation about race.”

Admittedly, it was one of those corporate ideas that sounded great in the board room, but no one bothered to ask someone on the front lines how practical it was. It was quickly abandoned.

The latest “brew-ha-ha” over coffee cups seems to be an outgrowth of a growing insistence among some consumers that companies reflect their personal values in order to benefit from their support. But in this latest case, not everyone sympathetic to the Christian cause has a problem with Starbucks' cup design.

Not all Christians are offended

Conservative radio host Todd Starnes, who has written books about what he sees as the attack on traditional values, penned a piece on FoxNews.com to tell his fellow Christians to lighten up.

“It’s not the Holy Grail, folks,” he writes. “It’s a cranberry-colored, environmentally-friendly coffee cup.”

Starnes says he stopped patronizing Starbucks years ago when he decided the company wasn't catering to people like him. So he doesn't expect any secular corporation – Starbucks or any other company-- to embrace Christian values.

“It wasn’t too long ago that many of the same folks complaining about Starbucks were defending Christian-owned bakeries and flower shops.” Starnes concludes. “The way I see it, we ought not to be telling bakeries and florists how to run their business and we ought not to be telling Starbucks how to run theirs.”

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IIHS booster seat ratings hold good news for parents

Twenty of 23 seats earn the highest safety rating

Back in 2008, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety began rating boosters seats -- and the results were disappointing to say the least: Most models fa...

PhotoBack in 2008, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety began rating boosters seats -- and the results were disappointing to say the least: Most models failed to consistently provide good belt fit, the main purpose of a booster.

What a difference seven years makes. All new models evaluated by IIHS now provide good or acceptable fit for typical 4-to-8year-olds in most cars, minivans, and SUVs.

Of 23 new models evaluated, 20 earn the highest rating of BEST BET, meaning they are likely to provide good belt fit for a child in almost any car, minivan, or SUV.

Another three models are rated GOOD BETs, meaning they provide acceptable fit in most vehicles. No new models were in the Not Recommended category, nor are there any with the Check Fit designation, which identifies seats that may work for some children in some vehicles.

“Our ratings have succeeded in getting child seat manufacturers to prioritize belt fit when they design boosters,” said Jessica Jermakian, IIHS senior research scientist. “The large number of BEST BETs on the market now makes it easier for parents to shop for a seat that will work for their child in virtually any vehicle.”

The need for boosters

Booster seats are designed for kids who have outgrown harness-equipped restraints. Children ages 4-8 are 45% less likely to sustain injuries in crashes if they are in boosters than if they are using safety belts alone. Boosters serve as an important bridge until children are large enough for vehicle safety belts to fit properly by themselves. For some kids, that’s not until age 12.

Until then, booster seats should be used to make safety belts fit 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.

The IIHS online ratings (iihs.org/boosters) include many models that were evaluated in past years and are still on the market. Including the 2015 crop, as well as carryover models, there currently are 82 BEST BETs and eight GOOD BETs. Six boosters are Not Recommended, and 31 are in the Check Fit category.

“We hope manufacturers will move quickly to redesign or end production of the Not Recommended boosters and also phase out Check Fit seats and replace them with BEST BETs that perform their job reliably,” Jermakian says.

Variety of options

Top-rated boosters come in a variety of forms. Highback boosters have built-in shoulder belt guides, and their additional structure often makes it easier for children transitioning out of harness-equipped restraints to sit properly. Many manufacturers tout enhanced side impact protection on their highback seats, though IIHS doesn’t evaluate those claims.

Backless boosters come with an attached clip to position the shoulder belt. It’s important to look at how the shoulder belt fits on a child and to use the clip if it doesn’t fall across the middle of the shoulder.

The new seats for 2015 include seven dual-use models. Each of them counts twice in the evaluations, with a separate rating for highback and backless modes.

As in earlier years, several are combination or 3-in-1 seats, which start out as harness-equipped restraints and can be converted to boosters when the child outgrows the harness.

One recent improvement to combination and 3-in-1 seats is the addition of a place to stow harness straps when they are not in use. This allows parents to use the seat as a booster without having to remove the harness completely.

The least expensive booster in the new crop is the Little Tikes Backless Booster, available at Walmart for $13. The Evenflo Platinum Evolve -- a 3-in-1 seat that can be used as a forwardfacing restraint, highback booster, and backless booster -- and the Safety 1st Grow and Go -- which can be used as a rear-facing restraint, forward-facing restraint, and a booster -- each sell for about $170. 

New names, new designs

One big manufacturer, Britax, has no new or redesigned seats this year, but the names of its existing models have changed. The Frontier 90 highback is now the Frontier Clicktight, the Pinnacle 90 highback is the Pinnacle Clicktight, and the Pioneer 70 highback is simply the Pioneer. All three are BEST BETs. The Britax Parkway SG and Parkway SGL, both dual-use boosters that are BEST BETs in highback mode and Check Fit in backless mode, also are carried over.

The BubbleBum, an inflatable booster designed for portability, has a redesigned lap-belt guide intended to be easier to use. Like the earlier version, which still is on the market, the new one is a BEST BET.

There are 23 new models of booster seats for 2015, including 20 BEST BET boosters, and 3 GOOD BETs. There are no new models in the Check Fit or Not Recommended categories.

BEST BET

  • BubbleBum (backless)
  • Chicco KidFit (backless mode)
  • Chicco KidFit (highback mode)
  • Diono Cambria (backless mode)
  • Diono Cambria (highback mode)
  • Eddie Bauer Storage Booster (backless)
  • Evenflo Advanced Transitions (backless mode)
  • Evenflo Advanced Transitions (highback mode)
  • Evenflo Platinum Evolve (backless mode)
  • Evenflo Platinum Evolve (highback mode)
  • Graco Atlas 65 (highback)
  • Graco Tranzitions (backless mode)
  • Graco Tranzitions (highback mode)
  • Harmony Defender 360 (backless mode)
  • Harmony Defender 360 (highback mode)
  • Jané Montecarlo R1 (highback)
  • Lil Fan Box Seat (backless)
  • Little Tikes Highback Booster (backless mode)
  • Little Tikes Highback Booster (highback mode)
  • Little Tikes Backless Booster (backless)

GOOD BET

  • Cybex Solution M-Fix (highback)
  • Cybex Solution Q2-Fix (highback)
  • Safety 1st Grow and Go (highback)
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Cloverdale Foods Company recalls beef and pork product

The product was incorrectly labeled as beef frankfurters and contains milk, an allergen not listed on the label

Cloverdale Foods Company of Mandan, N.D., is recalling approximately 5,208 pounds of beef and pork jalapeno cheddar bratwurst product. The product ...

PhotoCloverdale Foods Company of Mandan, N.D., is recalling approximately 5,208 pounds of beef and pork jalapeno cheddar bratwurst product.

 

The product was incorrectly labeled as beef frankfurters and contains milk, an allergen not listed on the label.

 

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

 

The following product, produced on Sept. 21, 2015, and Oct. 2, 2015, is being recalled:

  • 10 oz. packages labeled as “TETON WATERS RANCH UNCURED BEEF FRANKFURTERS” with the use by dates of “12/5/15” and “12/16/15”

The recalled product bears establishment number “EST. 7603” inside the USDA mark of inspection and was shipped to three distributors and then distributed nationwide.

 

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

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Scott Russell at (701) 663-9511 ext. 224.

 

 

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Maple Leaf Foods recalls boneless pork products

The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection

Maple Leaf Foods of Manitoba, Canada, is recalling approximately 4,030 pounds of boneless pork shoulders products. The products were not presented ...

PhotoMaple Leaf Foods of Manitoba, Canada, is recalling approximately 4,030 pounds of boneless pork shoulders products.

 

The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection. Without the benefit of full inspection, a possibility of adverse health consequences exists.

 

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

 

The following Boneless Pork Shoulder Boston Butt items , imported on Oct. 31, 2015, are being recalled:

  • 62-lb. (approximate weight) cartons of “Pork Shoulder Blade Boneless ¼” COV 2X4”

The recalled products bear establishment number “007” inside Canada’s mark of inspection and were shipped to retail locations in California.

 

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

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Barry Mailloux at (905) 285-5811.

 

 

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World Variety Produce recalls Italian Pine Nuts

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

World Variety Produce of Los Angeles, Calif., is recalling two- and three-oz. Containers of Italian Pine Nuts. The products may be contaminated wit...

PhotoWorld Variety Produce of Los Angeles, Calif., is recalling two- and three-oz. Containers of Italian Pine Nuts.

 

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

The following products are being recalled:

Melissa's Italian Pine Nuts
BrandMelissa's Italian Pine Nuts
Packaging2oz (57g) Plastic Bag
UPC Code0-45255-14351-5
Use By Date (located on back panel)09.14.2016
Batch Code (located on back panel)15CNP10
Wegmans Italian Classics Pine Nuts 3oz
BrandWegmans Italian Classics Pine Nuts
Packaging3oz (85g) Square Plastic Tub
UPC Code0-77890-24823-2
Best Used By Date (located on bottom of tub)041016, 041716

 

The recalled products were sold by retailers in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

 

Customers who purchased the recalled products should destroy and dispose of them.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at hotline@melissas.com or call 1-800-588-0151, Mon-Fri 6:00 AM–6:00 PM PST.

 

 

 

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Nissan recalls vehicles with OCS issue

The occupant classification system may incorrectly classify the front passenger seat as empty

Nissan North America is recalling 919 model year 2013-2015 Altima and Pathfinder vehicles, 2013-2014 Nissan Sentra vehicles, 2013 Infiniti JX35 vehicles, 2...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 919 model year 2013-2015 Altima and Pathfinder vehicles, 2013-2014 Nissan Sentra vehicles, 2013 Infiniti JX35 vehicles, 2014-2015 Infiniti QX60 vehicles and 2014 Infiniti QX60 Hybrid vehicles.

 

The recalled vehicles received an incorrect occupant classification system (OCS) control unit during a repair. The units may incorrectly classify the front passenger seat as empty, when it is occupied by an adult.

 

If the OCS does not detect an adult occupant in the passenger seat, the passenger air bag would be deactivated. Failure of the passenger airbag to deploy during a crash (where deployment is warranted) could increase the risk of injury to the passenger.

 

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will update the OCS software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in November 2015.

 

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

 

 

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Athens Foods recalls beef product

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

Athens Foods of Cleveland, Ohio, is recalling approximately 168 pounds of beef product. The product contains soy, an allergen not listed on the label The...

PhotoAthens Foods of Cleveland, Ohio, is recalling approximately 168 pounds of beef product.

 

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

 

There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of this product.

 

The following product, produced on Sept. 23, 2015, with a best by code of 11/23/16, is being recalled:

  • 4 count trays of “Athens Steak Fiesta Blossoms.”

The recalled product bears establishment number “EST. 34306” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and was shipped to food service locations nationwide.

 

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

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Heather Lawson, customer service, at (216) 676-8500 ext. 1337.

 

 

 

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VW offers $1,000 payments to diesel owners

Executives hope this "Goodwill Package" will be step towards rebuilding consumer trust

After being involved in two emissions scandals, repairing relations with customers may very well be a long and grueling process for Volkswagen. While the f...

PhotoAfter being involved in two emissions scandals, repairing relations with customers may very well be a long and grueling process for Volkswagen. While the full gravity of the fallout is not yet certain, the company is already trying to ease tensions by offering $1,000 to consumers who own one of their diesel vehicles.

VW announced this initiative on Monday and will be splitting the $1,000 payment in two different ways -- $500 will be put onto a Visa prepaid card to be used freely by the consumer; another $500 dollars will be counted as credit towards a future VW purchase that comes with three years of roadside assistance.

While the payments may help assuage angry feelings for some consumers, others will be looking for VW to continue their work in recalling environmentally unfriendly vehicles. “We are working tirelessly to develop an approved remedy for affected vehicles,” said President and CEO of the Volkswagen Group of America, Michael Horn. “In the meantime, we are providing this Goodwill Package as a first step towards regaining our customers' trust.”

Program qualifications

In order to qualify for the $1,000 payment, consumers will have to be the registered owner or lessee of a VW diesel with a 2-liter TDI engine bought on or before November 8. Eligible owners are prompted to visit this website and enter their Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), vehicle mileage, and contact information by April 30.

Consumers will also have to bring their vehicle(s) to a dealer in order to prove ownership and activate the gift cards. Any consumer who participates in the program does not have to sign a release of claims agreement against the company.

The program is now the second initiative that VW has started to mend relations with consumers. The company previously offered a $2,000 “loyalty bonus” for anyone leasing or buying a new car. The deal ended on November 2 and was offered to VW owners or their family members, as long as they lived at the same address.  

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Nissan becomes third major car maker to cut ties with Takata

Company says they are committed to putting customer safety first

The troubles for Takata seem to keep piling up -- another major car maker decided to cut ties with the airbag distributor over the weekend. This time it wa...

PhotoThe troubles for Takata seem to keep piling up -- another major car maker decided to cut ties with the airbag distributor over the weekend. This time it was Nissan who decided it was no longer going to use the ammonium nitrate filled airbags that Takata has become infamously connected to.

The faulty airbag products are responsible for several deaths and numerous injuries due to a defect that can cause them to explode and shoot pieces of shrapnel into a car's passenger compartment.

Mass exodus

Nissan's decision comes on the heels of similar ones made by Honda and Toyota, who dropped the airbag producer last week after they were fined $70 million by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for failing to report the product defects.

“We have decided to no longer use [Takata's] inflators containing ammonium nitrate in airbags for future models . . . We will continue to put our customers' safety first and work to replace the inflators in vehicles under recall as quickly as possible,” said Nissan in a statement.

This echoes the sentiments that both Honda and Toyota released last week. Honda, who previously made up 10% of Takata's global sales, said that it was “deeply troubled” that Takata allegedly “misrepresented and manipulated test data for certain airbag inflators.”

Damage done

Takata has stated that they will be phasing out the use of ammonium nitrate in its inflators by 2018, but much of the damage to the company may already be done.

In addition to the $70 million that it has already been fined, the company stands to lose an additional $130 million if it doesn't comply with the NHTSA orders or if new violations are found.  

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Study suggests weight-loss surgery effective for adolescents

Subjects lost an average of 90 pounds three years after surgery

Bariatric surgery, a procedure to reduce the size of the stomach, has become safer and more effective since it was introduced.Recent studies have shown...

PhotoBariatric surgery, a procedure to reduce the size of the stomach, has become safer and more effective since it was introduced.

Recent studies have shown it has helped severely obese adults lose weight and keep it off, reducing the risk of obesity-related diseases.

Now, new research suggests it can do the same for severely obese children.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, is the largest analysis of bariatric results in adolescents, according to its authors. It followed 242 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 19 – all severely obese with an average weight of 325 pounds before surgery.

Previous studies have found only 2% of severely obese teenagers can lose weight and keep it off without surgery. This study found that three years after surgery, average weight had decreased by over 90 pounds, or 27%.

Most participants also had reversal of a number of important obesity-related health problems, including type-2 diabetes.

Meaningful weight-loss

"This study shows that at three years, almost 90% experienced clinically meaningful weight loss, and participants were in better health, with improved quality of life scores," said Dr. Thomas Inge, lead author of the study.

The investigators also found the young patients who had the surgery lost weight faster and recovered from obesity-related health problems better than adults who had the same surgery.

Reversal of type-2 diabetes was seen in 95% of the adolescent subjects and normalization of kidney function was seen in 86%. High blood pressure levels corrected in 74%, and lipid abnormalities reversed in 66%.

“It is possible that earlier intervention could lead to better outcomes," said Inge. "If sustained, the improvements seen in weight, blood sugar, kidney function, blood pressure, and lipid levels may translate into fewer strokes, heart attacks and other disabilities later in life."

Downside risks

There were some nutritional and other risks associated with the surgery. The researchers found that post-surgery, more than half the subjects had an iron deficiency after three years when only 5% were deficient before surgery.

In addition, 13% of patients required additional abdominal surgery, most commonly gallbladder removal, during the three-year period.

"We are also learning that once teens have crossed into these extremes of obesity, only 25% of them can achieve weights in the normal range after surgery, and over half of them remain severely obese even after surgery," said Dr. Michael Helmrath, a study co-author and adolescent bariatric surgeon at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. "Timing of surgery may prove important."

In other words, bariatric surgery isn't a magic bullet. But the only magic bullet we've found so far is to prevent kids from becoming obese in the first place.

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Survey finds gift cards getting more consumer-friendly

Fees are going down while protections are going up

Gift cards have always had issues, but they continue to be popular -- and not only among those who give them but those who receive them as well.Let's f...

PhotoGift cards have always had issues, but they continue to be popular -- and not only among those who give them but those who receive them as well.

Let's face it, it's a gift that doesn't require a lot of thought and is easy to give. For the people receiving them, gift cards eliminate the risk of getting gifts they don't like.

Everyone wins.

Now, Bankrate.com reports some of the issues that have plagued gift cards in the past have been resolved, or are on their way to being resolved. Fees associated with their use have fallen while security protecting them has risen.

Gift card survey

The financial services website has surveyed 60 widely-used gift cards to determine which have the most consumer-friendly features.

The survey found that half of the gift cards it analyzed now offer the ability to add a security code, which is important, protecting the value of the card if it is lost or stolen. That's an increase from 35% last year.

At the same time, 72% of the cards have some form of loss and theft protection, up from 68% last year. E-cards are more likely to have this protection than traditional gift cards.

"With so many recent data breaches and the transition to EMV chip credit cards, security is top of mind for many Americans," said Claes Bell, Bankrate.com banking analyst. "Retailers are taking note and have made gift cards a much safer way to spend money."

Fewer fees

The downside to gift cards is that they often come with fees attached. However, the Bankrate survey finds that general purpose gift cards – like an American Express or VISA card that can be used almost anywhere – are more likely to have fees than a store-specific card.

For example, all of the widely-held general-purpose cards in the survey charge purchase fees ranging from $3.95 to $6.95. Only 4% of store-specific cards charge purchase fees.

"Gift card gotchas are much rarer than they used to be," said Bell. "Everyone should still do their research before making a purchase, but generally, consumers don't have to worry about being swindled when buying or using a gift card from a major bank or retailer."

There is little doubt gift cards will be a popular item this holiday season. The Bankrate survey found 76% of consumers have given someone a gift card and 83% have received one.

The most common value is between $25 and $50, regardless of income levels.

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Dogs in cars -- fun but dangerous

Group tries to formulate safety standards for containment devices

Most dogs love to ride in cars and it's a common sight to see canine ears flapping out the window or a pooch perched on the driver's lap of a car rolling d...

PhotoMost dogs love to ride in cars and it's a common sight to see canine ears flapping out the window or a pooch perched on the driver's lap of a car rolling down the highway.

Neither of these practices is even remotely safe, of course. In a collision or even just a sudden stop, the dog and the car's occupants could be severely injured or killed when the dog becomes an unrestrained projectile.

But figuring out how to safely transport a pet isn't easy. There are no federal safety standards, as there are for humans, and not much reliable information available from private sources.

A Washington, D.C.-area organization, Center for Pet Safety, is trying to change that. Working with Subaru, who has partly sponsored the project, it has been trying to come up with standards based on recent tests of pet crates and carriers that it has commissioned.

Top safety picks

In its latest tests, the center selected three products that it says provide the greatest degree of safety -- the Gunner Kennels G1 Intermediate with 8’ Tie Down Straps as the 2015 Top Performing Crate and both the PetEgo Forma Frame Jet Set Carrier with ISOFIX-Latch Connection and Sleepypod Mobile Pet Bed with PPRS Handilock as the 2015 Top Performing Carriers.

The top performers surpassed all competing products in the CPS-designed studies, which included testing of crate connections and rigorous crash testing to examine crate and carrier structural integrity, the organization said.

"We recommend that owners choose the right sized crate for their dog, which is generally six inches longer than the body of the dog. We are also pleased that our crossover vehicles, which are award winners themselves for safety, accept most crate and carrier sizes,” said Michael McHale, Subaru's director of corporate communications.

More information about the tests is available on the CPS website.

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FCC turns aside pleas that it enforce "Do Not Track" requests against web giants

The agency said it has no authority over Google, Facebook, and other websites and apps

The Federal Communications Commission has advised privacy seekers to look elsewhere in their quest for someone to enforce "Do Not Track" rules against Goog...

PhotoThe Federal Communications Commission has advised privacy seekers to look elsewhere in their quest for someone to enforce "Do Not Track" rules against Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other web giants.

Consumer Watchdog, a California advocacy group, had petitioned the agency to enforce the voluntary efforts by websites to abide by consumers' requests that they not be tracked across the Internet.

But the FCC said flatly that it lacks the authority to do so. In fact, said wireline competition bureau chief Matthew DelNero, the commission has been "unequivocal in declaring it has no intention to regulate edge providers," a catch-all term covering websites and apps.

This is in keeping with the FCC's longstanding policy of not regulating content except in the rare instances when Congress has authorized it to do so. For example, the agency has the authority to take action against broadcasters who allow profanity in their programs, although it seldom does so.

Not happy

Consumer Watchdog, a frequent critic of Google and other large web operators, isn't happy with the brush-off. 

“We believe the FCC has the authority to enforce Internet privacy protections far more broadly than they have opted to do and are obviously disappointed by this decision,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director, in a prepared statement.

Noting that the FCC is formulating rules to cover broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast, Simpson said it makes no sense to keep a hands-off policy for content providers. 

“Consumers’ data will be protected in one place, but it will be a Wild West, anything goes atmosphere when it comes to giant Internet companies,” said Simpson. “Requiring that Do Not Track requests be honored is a simple way to give people necessary control of their information and is in no way an attempt to regulate the content of the Internet.”

Consumer Watchdog vowed to press state regulators, Congress and the courts to better protect Internet users’ privacy.

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It looks like a lot fewer stores will open Thanksgiving Day

Retailers appear to have reversed the recent trend

More retailers are jumping on the bandwagon of restoring Thanksgiving Day as a time for food, family, and football – not trips to the mall.Last year, a...

PhotoMore retailers are jumping on the bandwagon of restoring Thanksgiving Day as a time for food, family, and football – not trips to the mall.

Last year, a few large retailers, such as Costco and BJ's Wholesale Club, were closed on the day before Black Friday.

As we reported early last month, Staples announced that it would be closed on Thanksgiving Day, as there appeared to be something of a consumer backlash building against Black Friday intruding into Thanksgiving.

Since then, a lot more retailers have also announced they would be closed on Thanksgiving. BestBlackFriday.com has published what it says is a confirmed list of retailers that have decided it's more profitable to spend Thanksgiving with family and friends.

The retailers include Crate and Barrel, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and T.J. Maxx. REI will not only be closed on Thanksgiving, but Black Friday as well – giving employees the day off with the advice to “spend it outdoors.”

By BestBlackFriday.com's count, at least 45 chains have so far decided to return to the tradition of being closed on Thanksgiving Day. After all, most have busy e-commerce sites, which can continue to take orders between the apple pie and kick-off.

Alienating consumers

Last November, retail marketing expert Arun Jain, a professor at the University at Buffalo (UB), warned that opening on Thanksgiving Day was risky.

“It’s a pity that in the richest country in the world, we cannot reserve even a single day for family, and there is a good chance it could backfire with consumer boycotts,” he said.

A better strategy, says Jain, would be opening early Black Friday morning – the way retailers did in the not-too-distant past – and offer spectacular doorbuster bargains. According to BestBlackFriday.com, it appears a lot of retailers have taken that advice.

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Data suggests it's easier now to get a mortgage

But minorities still lag behind white consumers when it comes to getting money to purchase a home

In the wake of the housing melt-down, mortgage lenders clamped down on underwriting standards.Before, almost anyone could qualify for a mortgage. After...

PhotoIn the wake of the housing melt-down, mortgage lenders clamped down on underwriting standards.

Before, almost anyone could qualify for a mortgage. After 2008, you needed a good job, a 20% down payment, plenty of assets, and near-perfect credit.

Realtors complained the tighter standards made it almost impossible for the market to recover, since many qualified buyers were being shut out of the process. Now, new data suggests more qualified buyers – especially among black and Hispanic buyers – are getting access to mortgages.

In 2013, 27.6% of black consumers who applied for a conventional home loan were denied. In 2014, that number had fallen to 23.5%, according to the Zillow report, which is based on federal data.

Overall, potential buyers were also more successful. The rate of mortgage denial fell from 12.4% in 2013 to 11.2% last year.

Minorities still get fewer mortgages

Still, the Zillow report suggests minorities are not getting the mortgages at the rate white consumers are. White consumers make up 62% of the population but constitute 69.5% of all conventional loan applicants.

In 2014, black consumers made up 12% of the U.S. population, but only 3% of conventional loan applicants.

Hispanic consumers make up 17.3% of the U.S. population, but represent only 6.1% of applicants for a conventional mortgage.

Bad experience

One reason fewer black consumers are applying for home mortgages may be because home ownership didn't work out so well for them during the housing bubble.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University last month reported that when home prices crashed after 2008, white homeowners may have lost money but black homeowners lost more, primarily because they had been steered into expensive subprime mortgages.

In the years when home prices were rising by double digits each year, white buyers increased their wealth by 50% but black buyers lost 47% of their wealth, a fact researchers call “stunning.”

"They say that in real estate timing is everything, but blacks had a loss across the decade—even when their purchase time was impeccable," said Sandra Newman, one of the authors. "They would have done better if they'd stayed renters."

White homeowners made money if they bought early in the boom, before prices had reached unrealistic valuations. But timing wasn't much of a factor for black homeowners, the study found.

The main factor was the neighborhood. If it was predominantly black, the report said it was more likely to have lower housing prices, lower appreciation, and declining rates of homeownership.  

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When it comes to smartphones, consumers still prefer iPhones

But Android remains the most popular operating system

Consumers buy more iPhones than any other mobile device, but Google's Android operating system maintains a slim lead over Apple's iOS.Those are the fin...

PhotoConsumers buy more iPhones than any other mobile device, but Google's Android operating system maintains a slim lead over Apple's iOS.

Those are the findings of the third quarter analysis of smartphone sales, conducted by comScore, a media analytics firm.

According to the data, Apple was the top smartphone manufacturer with 43.6% OEM market share, while Google Android led as the #1 smartphone platform with 52.3% percent platform market share.

Facebook was the top individual smartphone app.

77.4% have a smartphone

If it seems everyone in America has a smartphone, it might be because they do. The comScore data shows 192.4 million people in the U.S. owned smartphones – making up 77.4% mobile market penetration – during the three months ending in September.

Behind Apple's 43.6% share of the market was Samsung, with 27.6%. LG was a distant third with 9.4%, Motorola was fourth with 4.8% and HTC was fifth with 3.3%.

But Apple does not permit other manufacturers to use its operating system, so it trails Google's Android, which is used by much of the rest of the field.

Among smartphone owners, 52.3% are Android, 43.6% Apple, 2.9% Microsoft, 1.2% Blackberry, and 0.1% Symbian. Blackberry recently signaled a move to Android with the introduction of the Blackberry Priv, which will run on the Google platform.

Consumers increasingly are using their phones as PCs, accessing the Internet with a wide variety of apps. The overwhelming favorite in the third quarter was Facebook, deployed by 76% of users.

YouTube was second, at 61%, followed closely by Facebook Messenger at 60.9%. Google Play was the fourth most-used app at 52% and Google Search was fifth, at 51%.

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Confidence in the senior housing market continues to grow

Analysts are bullish on prospects for more growth

There's been another quarter of increased builder confidence in the single-family 55+ housing market -- the sixth in a row.The National Association of ...

PhotoThere's been another quarter of increased builder confidence in the single-family 55+ housing market -- the sixth in a row.

The National Association of Home Builders' (NAHB) 55+ Housing Market Index (HMI) was up three points in the third quarter to a reading of 60.

An index number above 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

“Builders have a positive outlook on the 55+ housing market,” said Timothy McCarthy, chairman of NAHB's 55+ Housing Industry Council. “In fact, the markets for single-family, apartments and condos are all doing quite well, and we expect that trend to continue.”

There are separate 55+ HMIs for two segments of the 55+ housing market: single-family homes and multi-family condominiums. Each 55+ HMI measures builder sentiment based on a survey that asks if current sales, prospective buyer traffic, and anticipated six-month sales for that market are good, fair, or poor (high, average, or low for traffic).

Strong single- and multi-family performances

All three components of the 55+ single-family HMI posted increases from the previous quarter: present sales rose three points to 65, expected sales for the next six months inched up one point to 67, and traffic of prospective buyers advanced three points to 46.

The 55+ multi-family condo HMI rose seven points to 50 -- the highest reading since the inception of the index in 2008. Two of the three components showed increases as well: present sales jumped 10 points to 54, and expected sales for the next six months rose seven points to 56. Traffic of prospective buyers, however, was down one point to 40.

All four indices tracking production and demand of 55+ multi-family rentals posted gains in the third quarter. Present production rose nine points to 55, expected future production and current demand for existing units jumped 11 points to 60 and 70, respectively, and future demand increased five points to 68.

“Like the overall housing market, we continue to see steady, positive growth in the 55+ market,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “With the economy and job growth continuing to improve gradually, many consumers are now able to sell their current homes at a suitable price, enabling them to buy or rent in a 55+ community.”

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GM recalls various compressed natural gas vehicles

The text of the CNG fuel-only label is smaller than the required size

General Motors is recalling 1,808 model year 2013-2014 Chevrolet Silverado HD, Chevrolet Express, and GMC Sierra HD vehicles, and model year 2013 GMC Savan...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 1,808 model year 2013-2014 Chevrolet Silverado HD, Chevrolet Express, and GMC Sierra HD vehicles, and model year 2013 GMC Savana compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles.

 

The text of the CNG fuel-only label is smaller than the required size, and as a result, may be less noticeable. Thus, the vehicles fail to comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 303 "Fuel System Integrity of Compressed Natural Gas Vehicles."

 

Text that does not conform to the required labeling size could inhibit fuel tank inspection practices and safe refueling, increasing the risk of a fire.

 

GM will notify owners and will send them a replacement label, 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 13365.

 

 

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Honda Fit vehicles with LX trim recalled

The rear grab handle brackets may puncture the side curtain air bags

American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 25,367 model year 2015-2016 Fit vehicles with LX trim manufactured April 11, 2014, to July 02, 2015 and not equipped ...

PhotoAmerican Honda Motor Co. is recalling 25,367 model year 2015-2016 Fit vehicles with LX trim manufactured April 11, 2014, to July 02, 2015 and not equipped with a sunroof.

 

The rear grab handle brackets were not manufactured properly, and as a result, may puncture the side curtain air bags upon their deployment. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 214, "Side Impact Protection" and number 226, "Ejection Mitigation".

 

If the side curtain air bags are punctured upon deployment, the outboard seat occupants may be at a higher risk of injury during a crash.

 

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the rear grab handle bracket, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin December 4, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-888-234-2138. Honda's number for this recall is JV8.

 

 

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VW rumored to offer cash cards to customers Monday

The company is trying to buy back some of the goodwill its dirty diesel scandal blew out the tailpipe

An automotive magazine reports that Volkswagen will shower diesel owners with money Monday as part of its effort to win back some of the goodwill sqsuander...

PhotoAn automotive magazine reports that Volkswagen will shower diesel owners with money Monday as part of its effort to win back some of the goodwill squandered in the "dirty diesel" scandal.

The Truth About Cars says owners of cars equipped with the 2.0-liter TDI engine will get a $500 cash card they can use anywhere and a second card, worth between $500 and $750, that they can use only at VW dealers. Volkswagen has confirmed it will make an announcement Monday but hasn't gone into detail. 

VW is mired in an avalanche of lawsuits, investigations and regulatory probes following the revelation that its popular TDI "clean diesel" models were equipped with software that reduced noxious emissions when the cars were being tested, then reverted to a dirtier operating mode when the test was over.

The cash awards program will reportedly be announced Monday, Nov. 9. After that date, VW owners can go to www.vwdieselinfo.com/ and input their VIN number to find out if they qualify. About half a million cars with the dirty diesels were sold in the U.S.

The program is, for now, restricted to the 2.0-liter TDI engines found in post-2009 Volkswagen Golf, Jetta, Beetle and Passat models and Audi A3 diesels but could later be expanded to the 3.0-liter engines found in larger VWs, Audis and Porsches, the magazine said.

Cash to customers

In addition to handing out cash to customers, VW is offering dealers a subsidy that lets them take in VW diesels at the valuation they had prior to when the dirty diesel scandal broke this fall. Existing Volkswagen owners are also being offered a $2,000 loyalty discount. 

The subsidies and hand-outs are part of an effort to keep disgruntled customers from dumping their VW diesels and buying a different brand. Volkswagen is hoping to at least keep those disaffected consumers from dumping the brand entirely.

Whether customers will have to agree not to participate in any of the class action suits against Volkswagen in exchange for the largesse isn't known.

 

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Android adware getting more dangerous

Security firm warns new generation of malware almost impossible to remove

When you download a popular app to your Android smartphone, make sure you know the source.Lookout, a mobile security firm, has found widespread example...

PhotoWhen you download a popular app to your Android smartphone, make sure you know the source.

Lookout, a mobile security firm, has found widespread examples of extremely dangerous adware getting onto consumers' phones when they download what they believe is a legitimate app.

Lookout says there are a number of things that make this development worrisome. First, this new generation of malware roots the device when the user installs it, making it, for all intents, a system application.

“Adware, which has traditionally been used to aggressively push ads, is now becoming trojanized and sophisticated,” Lookout's Michael Bentley writes in the company blog. “This is a new trend for adware and an alarming one at that.”

And it gets worse. Consumers are downloading this dangerous new form of adware because it has been integrated into many legitimate and popular apps, including Candy Crush, Facebook, GoogleNow, NYTimes, Okta, Snapchat, Twitter, and WhatsApp.

Third-party source

Bentley says hackers simply repackage and inject malicious code into these popular applications, and then later publish them to third-party app stores. He says many of these apps are actually fully-functional, providing their usual services, in addition to the malicious code that roots the device. That means the user has no way of knowing his or her device has been compromised.

Lookout says it has found thousands of these trojanized apps in third party app stores. When a consumer downloads one of these hijacked apps, it usually means having to buy a new phone, since the malware often can't be removed.

The company says the developers of apps that have been hijacked are also victims, since their brands may suffer with the spread of the malicious adware.

Meanwhile the danger is likely to increase.

“We expect this class of trojanized adware to continue gaining sophistication over time, leveraging its root privilege to further exploit user devices, allow additional malware to gain read or write privileges in the system directory, and better hide evidence of its presence and activities,” Bentley concludes.

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Prescription drug price hikes get attention of Senate

A special committee has asked four pharmaceutical companies for information about dramatic price increases

Doctors have been complaining loudly about the dramatic price increases that have recently been applied to many prescription drugs. Pharmaceutical investor...

PhotoDoctors have been complaining loudly about the dramatic price increases that have recently been applied to many prescription drugs. Pharmaceutical investors have been buying the rights to many of these products and inflating their prices exponentially, which has really hurt consumers who rely on them to treat their many ailments.

It seems that these actions have now drawn the attention of the Senate. A special committee has recently sent letters to four large pharmaceutical companies asking for documents to explain the increased prices on certain prescription drugs.

Members of this special committee are extremely concerned about the huge price increases. “Some of the recent actions we've seen in the pharmaceutical industry – with corporate acquistions followed by dramatic increases in the prices of pre-existing drugs – have looked like little more than price gouging,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.).

“We need to get to the bottom of why we're seeing huge spikes in drug prices that seemingly have no relationship to research and development costs. I'm proud to help lead this bipartisan investigation so that we can find some answers the public wants and deserves.”

Drug price hikes

The four companies that were sent letters include Turing Pharmaceuticals, Rodelis Therapeutics, Tetrophin Inc., and Valeant Pharmaceuticals. Turing Pharmaceuticals raised the price of a drug meant to treat malaria and toxoplasmosis from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill; Rodelis Therapeutics acquired the rights to a drug meant to treat drug-resistant tuberculosis – raising the price from $17 per pill to $360 per pill; Retrophin Inc. took over rights for Thiola – a drug used to treat kidney disease – and raised the price from $1.50 per pill to $30 per pill.

The final company, Valeant Pharmaceuticals, has been asked about price increases on three different drugs that it has acquired the rights to. Nitropress, a drug used to treat cardiac arrest, rose in price from $215 per vial to $1,346 – a 625% increase. A similar price increase occurred for another cardiac drug called Isuprel, which went from costing $180 per ampule to $1,472 per ampule. The last drug, Cuprimine, is designed to treat Wilson's disease; it's price rose from $8.88 per capsule to $262 per capsule – an increase of 2,900%.

Inflating health care costs

“The sudden, aggressive price hikes for a variety of drugs used widely for decades affect patients and health care providers and the overall cost of health care. These substantial increases have the potential to inflate the cost of health care for Americans, especially our seniors, by hundreds of millions of dollars each year,” said Sen. Susan Collins (Maine).

“Given the potential harm to patients across our country who rely on these drugs for critical care and treatment, the Senate special Committee on Aging considers these massive price increases worthy of a serious, bipartisan investigation into the causes, impacts, and potential solutions.”

Each company has been asked to present all the requested information to the committee by December 2.  

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Cox fined for getting hacked

Six million subscribers' private data was accessed by hackers

Businesses are supposed to protect the confidential information they collect from customers. A breach of Cox Communications' data system in 2014 exposed th...

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Air travel expected to rise 3% during Thanksgiving holiday

Airlines are adding seats to handle the extra passengers

Consumers will be on the move this Thanksgiving holiday weekend, resulting in a significant rise in air travel, according to Airlines for America (A4A), an...

PhotoConsumers will be on the move this Thanksgiving holiday weekend, resulting in a significant rise in air travel, according to Airlines for America (A4A), an industry trade group.

In its annual forecast, the group predicts 25.3 million passengers will travel on U.S. airlines during the 12-day Thanksgiving travel period, a 3% increase over last year and the highest number since the Great Recession.

What's behind the increase? The trade group says an improving economy and still-low gasoline prices have put consumers in the mood to travel over the holiday.

Airlines are expected to add capacity, in the form of larger planes and additional routes, to handle the increase in passenger traffic.

Busiest travel days

According to the airlines' calendar, the Thanksgiving air travel period extends from Friday, Nov. 20 through Tuesday, Dec. 1. Daily passenger volumes are projected to range from 1.4 million to 2.7 million, with the busiest travel days in ranked order expected to be:

  • Wednesday, Nov. 25
  • Sunday, Nov. 29
  • Monday, Nov. 30

To avoid the rush, A4A says your best travel days during this busy period will be Thursday, Nov. 26, and Friday, Nov. 27.

Expanding capacity

“As competition continues to boost schedules and drive down airfares in 2015, customers are seeing more opportunities to fly during the holiday season,” said A4A Vice President and Chief Economist John Heimlich. “Airlines are taking delivery of new, larger aircraft to accommodate the increase in passengers.”

A4A says the continued profitability of U.S. airlines will allow them to increase capacity to meet the short-term increase in holiday demand. Airlines have been more profitable in recent years, since adding fees to baggage and other items that were once provided at no charge. Lower fuel prices have also increased profitability.

During the first nine months of 2015, the 10 largest publicly traded U.S. passenger carriers reported pre-tax earnings of $18.8 billion, resulting in a profit margin of 15.6% – up from 7.7% in 2014.

On a net basis, the group reported $17.9 billion in earnings, or 14.8% of revenues – up from 5.7% in 2014.

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AARP wants to know where candidates stand on Social Security

This year's crop of candidates don't like being pinned down

The presidential race has taken an odd turn lately, with candidates demanding the press stop asking them embarassing questions. AARP is trying to get thing...

PhotoThe presidential race has taken an odd turn lately, with candidates demanding the press stop asking them embarassing questions. AARP is trying to get things back on track by demanding that candidates "take a stand" and tell voters what their plans are for Social Security. 

“Our members and voters of all ages believe that having a plan to ensure Social Security is strong for future generations is a true test of Presidential leadership,” said AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond. “We will work to ensure that voters know which candidates have a real plan for updating Social Security and which don’t.”

To that end, AARP is launching an advertising and advocacy campaign called Take a Stand. It said it expects every presidential candidate to lay out their plans to make Social Security financially sound so current and future generations can receive the adequate benefits they’ve earned. It will include TV ads like this:

The effort, beginning in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, will expand as the election season moves forward. All plans put forward by candidates will be posted on the Take a Stand website -- www.2016takeastand.org.

Hold candidates accountable

Additionally, the effort will hold candidates accountable for laying out their Social Security plans as AARP informs voters of all candidate plans through advertising, social media, grassroots outreach and our publications, which reach 22 million households. 

“We intend to demand that candidates discuss their plans in front of the voters through the course of the entire campaign,” added AARP Senior Vice President John Hishta. “When it comes to a Social Security plan, candidates can no longer just pay lip service to voters they’re trying to court.”

So far eleven Democratic and Republican candidates have proposed plans and seven have not yet proposed any specific plans. The nonpartisan AARP does not support or oppose any political candidates, nor contribute any money to political action committees, campaigns or super PACs.

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New data sends mixed signals for the housing market

More people should be able to afford houses but there are fewer homes for first-time buyers

The surprisingly-solid gain in jobs in October's employment report sent a very strong signal.No, not that the economy is improving – which it appears t...

PhotoThe surprisingly-solid gain in jobs in October's employment report sent a very strong signal.

No, not that the economy is improving – which it appears to be.

Rather, that the creation of 271,000 new jobs last month, when the expectation was for only 180,000, means the Federal Reserve is almost certainly going to raise interest rates next month.

The financial markets have been obsessing for years over what the Fed will do about rates, even though the anticipated increase will only be a quarter point. But after nearly a decade of 0% money, even the slightest change gets magnified.

While Wall Street is focused on what this will mean for stocks and bonds, the housing market should also feel the effects. But the real estate market doesn't see rising rates as the big negative -- the equity markets do.

Strong demand

“We should see continuing strong demand for housing in the months ahead if today’s strong jobs report reflects a true return back to a strong growth trend we’ve seen over the last few years,” said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Realtor.com. “The healthy strong employment results for the past two years created an uptick in household formation, which has driven increased demand for home purchases and rentals.”

Make no mistake – Smoke believes the strong jobs report will send mortgage rates higher. But he notes that even rates topping 4% are low by historical standards. At the height of the housing bubble, the average mortgage rate was around 6%.

While that might suggest smooth sailing for the housing market, a new report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) points to some potential trouble spots.

First-time buyers declining

While first-time buyers were active in the market during several months, on an annual basis they make up an increasingly smaller segment of the market.

The NAR report says first-time buyers' share of the market declined for the third consecutive year and remains at its lowest point in nearly three decades. The market is being driven more by repeat buyers who have dual incomes.

"There are several reasons why there should be more first–time buyers reaching the market, including persistently low mortgage rates, healthy job prospects for those college–educated, and the fact that renting is becoming more unaffordable in many areas," said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun. "Unfortunately, there are just as many high hurdles slowing first–time buyers down.”

Among them, he says, are increasing rents that make it harder for would-be buyers to save enough for a down payment. Also, he says it is still too difficult to get a mortgage.

But a big obstacle, he says, is the tight inventory of available homes. Builders are constructing fewer new homes, and those that are being built tend to be more expensive, well outside the price range of a first-time buyer. There are also fewer existing homes in the entry-level price range.

A lack of entry level homes also has the effect of making those that are on the market more expensive, making this trend harder to break.

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Feds approve new treatment for HIV

There are some caveats, though

Adults and pediatric patients 12 years of age and older have a new option for treatment of HIV-1 infection.The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a...

PhotoAdults and pediatric patients 12 years of age and older have a new option for treatment of HIV-1 infection.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Genvoya (a fixed-dose combination tablet containing elvitegravir, cobicistat, emtricitabine and tenofovir alafenamide) as a complete regimen for treatment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 1.2 million people, ages 13 years and older, who are living with HIV infection, and that another 150,000 or more in this age range have HIV but are unaware of their infection.

Over the past decade, the number of people living with HIV has increased, while the annual number of new HIV infections has remained relatively stable.

The approval of a fixed dose combination containing a new form of tenofovir “provides another effective, once daily complete regimen for patients with HIV-1 infection,” said Edward Cox, M.D., director of the Office of Antimicrobial Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

Genvoya is approved for use in HIV-infected adults and children ages 12 years and older weighing at least 35 kilograms (77 pounds) who have never taken HIV therapy (treatment-naïve) and HIV-infected adults whose HIV-1 virus is currently suppressed. While Genvoya is not recommended for patients with severe renal impairment, those with moderate renal impairment can take Genvoya.

Safe and effective

Genvoya’s safety and efficacy in adults were evaluated in 3,171 participants enrolled in four clinical trials. Depending on the trial, participants were randomly assigned to receive Genvoya or another FDA approved HIV treatment. Results showed Genvoya was effective in reducing viral loads and comparable to the other treatment regimens.

However, there is a Boxed Warning alerting patients and health care providers that the drug can cause a buildup of lactic acid in the blood and severe liver problems -- both of which can be fatal. The Boxed Warning also states that Genvoya is not approved to treat chronic hepatitis B virus infection.

The most common side effect associated with Genvoya is nausea. Serious side effects include new or worsening kidney problems, decreased bone mineral density, fat redistribution, and changes in the immune system (immune reconstitution syndrome).

Health care providers are advised to monitor patients for kidney and bone side effects. Genvoya should not be given with other antiretroviral products and may have drug interactions with a number of other commonly used medications.

Genvoya is marketed by Gilead Sciences based in Foster City, California.

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Court keeps Sprint's WiMax network alive, for now

Proposed shut-down would have ended Internet service for under-served subscribers

A Massachusetts Superior Court judge has granted a preliminary injunction that has effectively stopped Sprint from turning off an aging WiMax network provi...

PhotoA Massachusetts Superior Court judge has granted a preliminary injunction that has effectively stopped Sprint from turning off an aging WiMax network providing Internet service to some 300,000 consumers.

The consumers largely make up the underserved community – low income, elderly, students, and the disabled. Sprint wants to phase out the older technology, eventually moving all customers to its newer LTE system.

It was opposed by organizations addressing the “digital divide” in the U.S., working to extend connectivity to those who might otherwise not have access.

“Today, the courts preserved a lifeline for the communities and families we serve,” said Katherine Messier, managing director of Mobile Beacon, one of the successful plaintiffs. “We hope Sprint will now work with us to ensure the elderly, disabled, students and other vulnerable populations who rely on our service can transition to LTE quickly and avoid any disruption in service.”

WiMax is a wireless technology that was deployed early in the century to provide “last mile” Internet connectivity, often in rural and sparsely populated areas.

90 day reprieve

The injunction orders Sprint to maintain the WiMax network in certain areas for 90 days to allow Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen time to migrate their users to Sprint’s LTE network.

“The injunction compels Sprint to honor its professed commitment to closing the digital divide,” said John Schwartz, the founder and president of Mobile Citizen. “It’s unfortunate it took a court order to stop Sprint from shutting off 300,000 children, families, teachers and community members from access to the American dream. But we look forward to moving ahead positively with Sprint and ensuring that everyone in our community can keep the service they rely on to connect to the larger world around them.”

Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen are providers of unlimited broadband service, at a cost of $10 a month, to 429 schools, 61 libraries, and 1,820 nonprofit organizations across the country on Sprint’s WiMax network.

The groups say many of these organizations then provide service to students, the elderly, the disabled, and other segments of the population often not able to afford commercial Internet service.

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Government rolls out “starter” retirement savings plan

After pilot program, government's myRA savings plan offered to all taxpayers

As we reported back in June, research shows half of older Americans have no retirement savings.Other research documents the difficulty young consumers ...

PhotoAs we reported back in June, research shows half of older Americans have no retirement savings.

Other research documents the difficulty young consumers face in putting money away for their retirement years.

To help people get started on a path to saving for retirement, the U.S. Treasury Department has rolled out a simple savings vehicle called myRA, after testing it with a small group of people.

The idea is indeed simple. Consumers can put a small amount of money away on a regular basis – whether it's taken from their paycheck or it comes directly out of a bank account.

It was designed for the millions of people who don't have access to employer–sponsored retirement accounts and those who have found it difficult to save anything.

Removes barriers

“myRA is designed to remove common barriers to saving, and give people an easy way to get started,” said Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. “myRA has no fees, no risk of losing money and no minimum bala