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VW Dirty Diesel Scandal tops the list of 2015 consumer outrages

Cellphones, airbags, for-profit colleges, football, and floors were also in the news

"This is almost unbelievable," Daryl Allen, a semi-retired engineer, commented after reading ConsumerAffairs' first story on the Volkswagen "Dirty Diesel" ...

Photo"This is almost unbelievable," Daryl Allen, a semi-retired engineer, commented after reading ConsumerAffairs' first story on the Volkswagen "Dirty Diesel" scandal last Sept. 18.

The story reported that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California's clean air regulators had charged that VW -- one of the most trusted brands on earth -- had installed secret software on its TDI Clean Diesel engines to enable them to pass emissions tests while polluting merrily the rest of the time at up to 40 times the legal limit.

Volkswagen's response did nothing to instill confidence. It admitted the software existed, but top executives claimed to have no idea how it got there or who was responsible, while promising to get to the bottom of it. Critics compared this to O.J. Simpson's claim that he would stop at nothing to find the fiend who murdered his wife and her friend.   

By year's end, VW had fired numerous executives and engineers but had made little progress on recalling and fixing the millions of cars affected worldwide. It faces billions of dollars in potential fines and costs and untold damage to its brand. 

By any measure, VW's brand suicide was the top consumer story of the year. Although it directly affected fewer than half a million VW owners in the U.S., it fed into the hands of those who believe that businesses routinely lie, cheat, and steal.

The end of two-year cellphone contracts

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Photo © blackday - Fotolia

The way consumers buy wireless service changed in 2015, as one carrier after another moved away from the two-year contract that subsidized the cost of the device. The move was led by prepaid providers, like Cricket Wireless, that sold phones and wireless service on a month to month basis.

Among the Big Four providers, T-Mobile became a disruptive force when it dropped the two-year contract and offered to pay the early termination fees other providers charge if consumers would leave their two-year contracts early.

In August, Verizon became the last cell phone carrier to abandon the two-year contract for new subscribers. As a result, it also abandoned the phone subsidy. Now, customers at all providers pay full price for their phones – either up front or in monthly installments that usually extend for – you guessed it – two years.

For-profit schools retrench

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Photo © rosinka79 - Fotolia

A slower but no less ignominious fate befell Corinthian Colleges, Inc., the once-high-flying chain of for-profit colleges that collapsed into bankruptcy after the U.S. Education Department began restricting the free flow of taxpayer money to Corinthian students.

Congressional hearings and numerous investigations had uncovered charges that Corinthian and other for-profit schools had been inflating or lying about post-graduation job-placement rates, teaching courses whose credits were not accepted by reputable universities or state professional-licensing boards, even engaging in what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau called “predatory lending scheme[s].”

While Corinthian's collapse was dramatic, it was by no means the only for-profit school affected. Across the country, for-profit schools large and small were feeling the heat as state and federal agencies began probing charges that the schools preyed on vulnerable prospective students, enticing them into taking out government-backed loans that they would be hard-pressed to pay back. 

Takata airbag shrapnel

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DOT Photo

Takata Corporation's reputation wound up as shredded as a blown airbag by year's end. After neglecting to disclose the dangers of its airbag inflators, which caused numerous deaths and injuries, the company was fined $70 million by federal regulators and stood to lose $130 million more if it did not comply with the dictates of a court order, or if new violations were found.

Millions of vehicles have already been recalled and millions more are awaiting repairs. Several major automakers have decided to not use Takata airbag inflators that have ammonium nitrate in future models, including Ford, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan.

Pressure on the company did not just come from business partners. U.S. senators were vocal about making sure that Takata was held responsible for its products, even if the result is bankruptcy. They called the fines “meager” and stated that they would not deter the company from “continuing reprehensible and irresponsible behavior that costs countless preventable injuries and lives.”

A close second was FCA US (a/k/a Chrysler) agreeing to pay up to $105 million to settle federal charges that it dragged its feet on critical safety recalls, including fires in various Jeep models. 

Fantasy sports – gambling or skill?

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Photo (c) Daniel Thornberg - Fotolia

The courts will eventually rule, but, for now, the fantasy sports controversy is raging at the state level. 

New Jersey Governor and GOP presidential candidate Chris Christie may have summed it up best in a recent debate when he said, “We have $19 trillion in debt, we have people out of work, we have ISIS and al-Qaeda attacking us, and we’re talking about fantasy football? Can we stop? Enough on fantasy football, let people play. Who cares?”

Well, obviously a lot of people do.

Regulators in Nevada and New York claimed that these enterprises were gambling operations that require a license. Major daily fantasy sports (DFS) enterprises – primarily FanDuel and DraftKings – insist they are games of skill.

The games, incredibly popular nationwide, were declared illegal gambling by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who filed suit to enforce a cease and desist order.

A New York Supreme Court justice granted a motion to enjoin DraftKings and FanDuel “from doing business in the State of New York, accepting entry fees, wagers or bets from New York consumers in regards to any competition, game or contest run on” their websites, but that was suspended by an appeals court.

One thing you CAN bet on: This isn't likely to be resolved in the short term.

Rising rent impedes home buying 

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Photo © vlad imir - Fotolia

Renters in 2015 found themselves stuck between rising rents and stagnant wages, making it harder for them to save for a down payment on a house. The collapse of the housing market and the wave of foreclosures that followed prompted millions of people who, before 2007, might have been homeowners, to remain renters.

As home prices plunged and interest rates dropped to record lows, a house payment was nearly the same as some car payments. Yet many kept renting because they either didn't have the down payment or couldn't qualify for a mortgage under the stricter rules imposesd after the financial crisis of a few years ago.

A look at Census Bureau figures revealed a significant disparity in the incomes of people who owned homes and those who were renters. Homeowners on average earn $65,514 per year, compared to $31,888 for renters. Despite challenges faced by renters, one study found that renters, as a consumer group, could benefit from targeted financial literacy education in order to improve their chances of becoming home buyers.

Same-sex marriage recognized

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Photo © rdstockphoto - Fotolia

In late June, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is legal and protected by the Constitution. While the social impact of the decision was extraordinary, the economic implications for same-sex couples were also notable.

At the time, researchers estimated that states would experience an economic surge from same-sex marriages to the tune of $2.5 billion, mostly in industries that deal in the institution of marriage, such as florists, wedding and event planners, and catering companies. Tourism, researchers believed, would also feel the impact.

At the federal level, same-sex couples are able to enjoy federal marriage benefits for the first time. Couples had been denied these rights in the past if their state did not recognize their union, but the Supreme Court decision effectively overrode this obstacle.

Social Security benefits remain flat

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Photo © Kimberly Reinick - Fotolia

It's all because of the low rate of inflation.

Social Security recipients -- seniors mostly -- who were hoping to find a little something extra in their monthly checks next year have come up empty. For only the third time in 40 years they will not be getting a cost-of-living increase when we turn the corner into 2016. Strange as it may sound, it's all because consumer prices haven't been rising fast enough.

The Social Security Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) is based on the percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). And, because consumer prices were actually lower over the past year, monthly Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for nearly 65 million recipients will not increase in 2016. 

Still there is a bit of good news. About 70% of recipients who have Medicare premiums deducted from their monthly checks won't see a premium increase next year. However, the 30% not covered by something called the “hold harmless” clause, including people with higher incomes, federal retirees, and new Medicare enrollees, could see their premiums rise as much as 52%.

China flooring uprooted

PhotoTakata and FCA (Chrysler) aside, safety recalls don't usually attract too much attention. And when's the last time anyone recalled a floor? Lumber Liquidators became the first when it pulled all its Chinese-made laminate flooring amid concerns about chemical emissions.

Initial alarm was raised early in the year by Wall Street short seller Xuhua Zhou, who claimed that flooring from the company contained “toxic” levels of the suspected human carcinogen formaldehyde. In May, CBS News’ “60 Minutes” aired a report about the issue.

Lumber Liquidators' stock price plunged in the wake of the charges. The company faced an investigation by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission as well as hundreds of lawsuits after the CBS News “60 Minutes” report.

In early March, Lumber Liquidators began offering free indoor air quality screening to customers who had purchased laminate flooring sourced from China. In November, the company committed to a new policy requiring its suppliers to end all use of reprocessed vinyl plastic in vinyl flooring and to limit lead content to less than 100 parts per million.

Using the human body to fight cancer

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Photo (c) National Archives

In 2015, medical researchers took another step toward achieving the Holy Grail of medicine – a cure for cancer. In the last two years, researchers speculated that the body's T-cells could be programmed to attack cancer cells, as an alternative to injecting drugs into the body, that often damaged healthy cells as well as cancerous ones.

In July, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco were able to “edit” human genes, replacing components of T-cells with stronger elements that can protect the body against many chronic diseases, including diabetes and cancer.

Two weeks later, former President Jimmy Carter announced he had cancer of the liver that had moved to the brain. After undergoing two months of immunotherapy, a new cancer treatment that stimulates the patient's immune system to work harder, or smarter, to attack cancer cells, the former President announced he was cancer-free.

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Additional reporting by Mark Huffman, James Limbach, Sarah Young and James R. Hood

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AT&T will ditch two-year contracts in 2016

Instead, customers are being steered to "AT&T Next"

AT&T will kick off the new year by scrapping two-year contracts, instead steering customers to its AT&T Next plan, joining Verizon and T-Mobile and leaving...

PhotoAT&T will kick off the new year by scrapping two-year contracts, instead steering customers to its AT&T Next plan, joining Verizon and T-Mobile and leaving Sprint as the sole major carrier still offering contracts and subsidized phones. 

What's the difference? Primarily, instead of AT&T subsidizing your phone, it will be financing it for you. Previously, customers signed a two-year contract and AT&T underwrote the cost of a new phone in exchange for the guarantee of two years of revenue.

Now, AT&T will be selling phones at full price -- think $1,000 for an iPhone 6S -- and financing it for two years while providing connectivity at the going rate. 

To hear AT&T tell it, customers are swarming all over the new plan.

“With $0 down for well-qualified customers, the ability to upgrade early and down payment options available with even lower monthly installments, our customers are overwhelmingly choosing AT&T Next,” reads an AT&T statement quoted by Consumerist. “Starting January 8, AT&T Next will be the primary way to get a new smartphone at AT&T. This does not apply to business customers under a qualified wireless service agreement.”

Six of one ...

It works out about the same for the consumer. You will probably be paying about the same on a per-month basis and could theoretically take your phone and go to a different carrier if you wanted. Of course, you'd have to pay off the phone first, which would amount to something roughly similar to the early cancellation fee you would have paid if you were still bound by a two-year contract.

Then there's the little matter of the connectivity and data charge. The two-year contracts, in some instances, had at least some price protection. Under the new AT&T plan, which is similar to Verizon and T-Mobile's, the company can more easily change the rate it charges you for data. 

Of course, it can do that under the two-year agreement too in some circumstances. And, to be fair, without an agreement the consumer should also be able to buy less data per month as usage habits change.

Another option

There is another way to handle your wireless needs. You can buy an "unlocked" phone and purchase wireless connectivity from whatever carrier offers you the best deal. You'll need to front the money for the phone or finance it yourself, which could be good or bad depending on the state of your personal finances.

Wireless bills being what they are, you will still need some patience and concentration to decipher exactly how much you're paying and why but this option puts a little more control in your hands. 

The "unlocked" option is becoming more attractive as new entrants flock to the wireless scene. One of the most promising is Project Fi from Google. Bring your own phone and pay $20 per month plus $10 per GB for data. No contract, no muss, no fuss. That's the promise anyway. We haven't tried it yet but plan to do so soon.

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D.C. bans plastic take-out trays and cups

It's the latest city to try to rid itself of polystyrene foam containers

Lunchtime in D.C. isn't just lobbyists escorting Congressmen into steakhouses. The city's diners, food trucks, and take-out joints fill thousands of plasti...

PhotoLunchtime in D.C. isn't just lobbyists escorting Congressmen into steakhouses. The city's diners, food trucks, and take-out joints fill thousands of plastic, foam, and paper containers with lunches that are eaten curbside, in the park, or at someone's desk.

But starting Friday, Jan. 1, the list of legal to-go containers shrinks. It will be illegal in 2016 to use polystyrene foam food and drink containers. Styrofoam, in other words.

It's not really all that surprising. Many cities, including New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, have already banned the little white foam boxes.

The Washington ban was enacted back in 2014 when the D.C. Council voted to require businesses to use compostable disposable dining products. The primary goal is to improve the health of the Anacostia River, in the hope that someday it will once again be safe for swimming and fishing.

Fines for violators start at $100 and rise to $3,200 for repeat offenders, but District officials say they don't expect a lot of resistance. 

The D.C. Department of Energy and Environment has been publicizing the ban, using a "FoamFreeDC" campaign, and officials say foam containers began disappearing ahead of the deadline. 

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A third decline in four months for pending home sales

Rising prices are a factor

© karelnoppe - FotoliaRising prices and limited inventory combined in November to send pending home sales down 0.9% to an index of 106.9.In relea...

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© karelnoppe - Fotolia

Rising prices and limited inventory combined in November to send pending home sales down 0.9% to an index of 106.9.

In releasing its monthly report, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) said modest gains in the Midwest and South were offset by larger declines in the Northeast and West. The decline was the third in four months.

Still, the Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, is 2.7% above November 2014, the 15th straight monthly year-over-year increase. However, last month's annual gain was the smallest since October 2014.

Slowing trend continues

November's dip in contract activity continues the modestly slowing trend seen ever since pending sales peaked to an over nine year high back in May. "Home prices rising too sharply in several markets, mixed signs of an economy losing momentum and waning supply levels have acted as headwinds in recent months despite low mortgage rates and solid job gains," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. "While feedback from Realtors continues to suggest healthy levels of buyer interest, available listings that are move-in ready and in affordable price ranges remain hard to come by for many would-be buyers."

With existing housing inventory is already below year ago levels and new home construction is still deficient, Yun thinks it's likely that supply constraints and faster price appreciation will reappear once the spring buying season begins.

"Especially with mortgage rates likely on the rise, affordability issues could creep up enough to temper sales growth -- especially to first-time buyers in higher priced markets," he added.

NAR projects existing-home sales will finish 2015 at a pace of around 5.25 million -- the highest since 2006, but roughly 25% below the prior peak set in 2005. The national median existing-home price for all of this year will be close to $220,700, up roughly 6.0% from a year ago.

Regional performance

  • The PHSI in the Northeast decreased 3.0% to 91.8 in November, but is still 4.3% above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index rose 1.0% to 104.9, and is now 4.1% above November 2014.
  • Pending home sales in the South were up 1.3% to an index of 119.9 and are 0.5% above where they were a year ago.
  • The index in the West dropped 5.5% to 100.4, but is up 4.5% year-over-year.

 

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Jobless claims

Separately, there was a big jump last week in the number of first-time applications for state unemployment benefits.

The Department of Labor (DOL) reports initial jobless claims shot up by 20,000 in the week ending December 26 to a seasonally adjusted total of 287,000. The previous week's level was unrevised, and the DOL reports that there were no special factors affecting last week's compilation.

The four-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly tally and regarded as a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was up 4,500 -- to 277,000.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

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Volkswagen recalls Audi A3 Cabriolets

The driver or front passenger side air bag may not deploy properly

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 904 model year 2015 Audi A3 Cabriolets manufactured June 5, 2014, to April 1, 2015. The recalled vehicles ...

PhotoVolkswagen Group of America is recalling 904 model year 2015 Audi A3 Cabriolets manufactured June 5, 2014, to April 1, 2015.

 

The recalled vehicles have a driver or front passenger seat whose cover may be incorrectly stitched, preventing the side air bag from properly deploying in the event of a crash.

 

Improper side air bag deployment may increase the risk of injury in the event of a crash.

 

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will replace the driver's and/or front passenger's seatback cover, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in February 2016.

 

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-822-8987. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 74C9.

 

 

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Database of 191 million voters left exposed on Internet

It's not clear who's responsible for the security slip-up

Sometimes stuff is stolen in cleverly organized break-ins. Other times, it's just left sitting out on the street. That's more or less the case with a datab...

PhotoSometimes stuff is stolen in cleverly organized break-ins. Other times, it's just left sitting out on the street. That's more or less the case with a database of 191 million registered voters that was reportedly left exposed and unprotected on the Internet.

The wide-open database was discovered by security researcher Chris Vickery, who reported his findings to Databreaches.net and security blog Salted Hash.

So far no one has nailed down exactly who's responsible, although fingers are beginning to point to Nation Builder, a digital campaign platform headquartered in Los Angeles. The company denies that it's responsible but says it may have contributed some of the leaked data.

“While the database is not ours, it is possible that some of the information it contains may have come from data we make available for free to campaigns," said NationBuilder founder and CEO Jim Gilliam. "From what we've seen, the voter information included is already publicly available from each state government so no new or private information was released in this database.”

“We strongly believe in making voter information more accessible to political campaigns and advocacy groups, so we provide cleaned versions of that publicly accessible information to them for free. We do not provide access to anyone for non-political purposes or that would violate any state’s laws," Gilliam said.

Public or private?

But there are varying opinion on whether all of the leaked information is legally public. The Sacramento Bee reported that California Secretary of State Alex Padilla is working with Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office to determine whether any privacy laws were broken.

California law specifies that voter data is private, according to the Bee. The nearly 18 million plus voter file is only available for political, election, scholarly, journalistic, or governmental purposes.

Other states regard voter data as public, but some place restrictions on how it may be used or distributed. The information in the database did not include Social Security numbers or financial data but could still be used for marketing campaigns or for more nefarious purposes.

The rental value of the database was estimated at $270,000 by experts Vickery consulted.

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Consumers spending fuel savings on new cars

The rest of the economy got little benefit in 2015

One significant economic event that marked 2015 was falling gasoline prices. Prices headed lower in late 2014 and continued the trend most of 2015, except ...

PhotoOne significant economic event that marked 2015 was falling gasoline prices. Prices headed lower in late 2014 and continued the trend most of 2015, except for the late winter/early spring refinery maintenance period.

As the year ends, the national average price of gasoline is right around $2, saving consumers about $20 to $25 a fill-up from just a couple of years ago. You would think, then, that these lower prices would do something to ignite the economy -- but that wasn't the case.

Economic growth for the year will be about 2%, and consumer spending just a bit higher than that. So, where did the money go?

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a lot of it went into savings. The agency reports the personal savings rate rose 5.6% in October and 5.5% in November – smart for consumers but not doing much for the economy.

Low interest rates and fuel savings

However, there is one area where consumers feel free to spend that fuel savings – at a new car dealer. New cars sales have continued to rise month after month, encouraged by low interest rates and fuel savings. If, for example, a consumer is saving around $100 a month on gasoline, it makes a car payment a little more affordable.

Industry analysts expect December to be another blockbuster month for car sales, once all the figures are in. Kelley Blue Book  predicts December will cap the biggest year of U.S. new-car sales on record, with total light vehicle sales of roughly 17.5 million, representing a 6.1% jump from 2014 totals. The previous high was 17.35 million units in 2000.

“December has become one of the biggest sales months of the year, helped by year-end targets and prominent holiday sales events,” said Tim Fleming, analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “As we move into the new year, expect this strength to continue, although at a slower rate than this year. In 2016, Kelley Blue Book forecasts sales in the range of 17.5 million to 18 million units, which would represent another record-breaking year.”

Fourth-best month on record

Automotive site Edmunds.com says December 2015 will be the fourth best-selling month on record, surpassing the previous December record of 1,537,655 sales registered in 2004. This month’s performance will propel the industry to 17.5 million sales in 2015, besting the previous record high of 17.35 million new car and truck sales in 2000.

"It's truly remarkable that the auto industry is finishing off its best year ever just six years after the depths of the Great Recession," said Edmunds.com Director of Industry Analysis Jessica Caldwell. "Low-APR offers and tumbling gas prices are making it easy for shoppers to buy or lease a new car, but don't overlook the products themselves. If you're buying a new car today, you're getting a safer, more fuel-efficient and more technologically-packed vehicle than ever before. Automakers are doing a great job giving the people what they want in a new car."

Even so, Kelley Blue Book sees several factors that could disrupt the new-car sales momentum, including rising interest rates and an increasing supply of off-lease units that could weaken used-car prices.  

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Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon trucks recalled

The console compartment door may not remain closed in the event of a crash

General Motors is recalling 8,763 model year 2016 Chevrolet Colorado trucks manufactured August 25, 2015, to September 24, 2015; and GMC Canyon trucks manu...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 8,763 model year 2016 Chevrolet Colorado trucks manufactured August 25, 2015, to September 24, 2015; and GMC Canyon trucks manufactured August 28, 2015, to September 24, 2015.

 

The recalled vehicles have a console compartment lid latch assembly that may fail to keep the compartment door closed in the event of a crash. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 201, "Occupant Protection in Interior Impact."

 

If the console compartment door does not remain closed in a crash, the contents inside may strike the vehicle occupants, increasing their risk of injury.

 

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the console compartment door latch assembly, 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 16370.

 

 

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Whole Foods to pay $500,000 for overcharging NYC consumers

The high-end chain denies that the overcharges were intentional, but the incident may be damaging

Whole Foods and New York City Consumer Affairs agree that Whole Foods is paying $500,000 to settle charges that it overcharged NYC customers for some items...

PhotoWhole Foods and New York City Consumer Affairs agree that Whole Foods is paying $500,000 to settle charges that it overcharged NYC customers for some items, but that's about all they agree on.

Far from settling a dispute that broke into the open last June, the combatants appear to be hardening their positions. 

NYC Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) Commissioner Julie Menin said the agreement followed "the troubling and repeated mislabeling of pre-packaged goods at Whole Foods last year" and said her department would "continue its vigilance in making sure New Yorkers are protected every time they check out at the grocery.”

Whole Foods grumbled that "the DCA has misrepresented this agreement" and said there was never any indication that the over-pricing was intentional or that it extended beyond the borders of New York City.

"WFM has had in place preexisting pricing and weights/measures programs including a third party auditing and training program and a 100 percent pricing accuracy guarantee that gives customers a full refund on any item inadvertently mispriced. These are pre-existing programs that go above and beyond the DCA’s requirements," Whole Foods said.

Non-NYC complaints

Whole Foods  Dec. 29, 2015, 7:55 p.m.
Consumers rate Whole Foods

But, Whole Foods' contentions notwithstanding, it's not just New York City consumers who are complaining about alleged overcharging.  

"I make a point to review my receipts before loading groceries into the car. I keep checking because more often than not, I would find that I've been overcharged," said Nancy of San Francisco in a recent ConsumerAffairs review. "It started when I was charged $45 for a whole fryer chicken. The butcher labeled it as organic chicken breasts instead of an organic whole fryer chicken which should cost $12. I had to go back to the same store to get a refund which was inconvenient for a mother with 2 toddlers. That easily could have gone unnoticed."

Nancy said the chicken mispricing wasn't an isolated incident.

"My biggest concern is that accurate pricing at Whole Foods has become the customer's responsibility. That shouldn't be the case. On many occasions, I am double charged. Just recently, I was charged for 2 packs of hot dogs instead of one," she said.

Besides mislabeling, Whole Foods prices are just plain too high, many consumers argue. Ken of Scotch Plains, N.J., said he has stopped going to Whole Foods because of "stratospheric" prices.

"Our local high end grocery stores (Kings and Wegmans) are so superior in every way and at bargain prices compared to Whole Foods. Don't know how they will stay in business," Ken commented.

New York shakedown?

Whole Foods complained that Ms. Menin's department had initially demanded a $1.5 million penalty.

"While WFM refused to consider the DCA’s initial demands of $1.5 million, we agreed to $500,000 in order to put this issue behind us so that we can continue to focus our attention on providing our New York City customers with the highest level of quality and service," Whole Foods huffed.

Ms. Menin sounded a bit more pleased with the settlement.

"We are happy to have reached an agreement with Whole Foods that will help to ensure New Yorkers are better protected from overcharging,” she said. “Whether it’s a bodega in the Bronx or a national grocery store in Manhattan, we believe every business needs to treat its customers fairly and, with this agreement, we hope Whole Foods will deliver on its promise to its customers to correct their mistakes."

Quarterly audits

Besides the $500,000 penalty, Whole Foods swallowed a number of other requirements, including: 

  • quarterly in-store audits of at least 50 products from 10 different departments at all New York City stores to help ensure products are accurately weighed and labeled, and to correct all inaccuracies;
  • in the event that DCA inspectors identify mislabeled pre-packaged foods at a Whole Foods Store, that store must immediately remove all mislabeled products and, within 15 days, Whole Foods must check the accuracy of that product’s pricing, as well as 20 additional products from the same department, at all New York City stores;
  • implement and enforce policies and procedures that require employees not estimate the weight of a package but rather individually weigh each package and only label the package with a label that is based on the weight of the actual contents; and,
  • conduct training sessions for all New York City employees who are involved in weighing and labeling products.
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Subway hatches plan for cage-free eggs

It's the latest mass market food processor to do so

Subway is the latest to jump on the cage-free-egg bandwagon, announcing that by 2025,...

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An "old-school" henhouse (Photo (c) ITamar-K, Wikimedia Commons)

Subway is the latest to jump on the cage-free-egg bandwagon, announcing that by 2025, all of its restaurants will be using eggs from chickens whose yearning to breathe freely has been granted, unlike longtime Subway pitchman Jared Fogle, who has been imprisoned for paying minors for sex.

Subway thus joins McDonald's, Taco Bell, KFC, Dunkin' Donuts, Panera, and a fast-growing collection of food vendors claiming that only the most freely ranging chickens have been recruited to produce their eggs.

In fact, says Subway, it is not the latest but was among the first to go cage-free when it began serving breakfast back in 2010. It already uses cage-free eggs in Australia and eggs from free-range hens in Europe.

“We know how important it is for consumers to feel confident that the food they eat is ethically sourced, and our customers care deeply about animal welfare,” said Elizabeth Stewart, Subway’s director of corporate social responsibility.

Subway's cage-free egg commitment coincides with a new advertising campaign undertaken partly to compensate for the downfall, disgrace, and conviction of Fogle, who for years displayed his lessened girth and attributed it to the "fresh" processed-meat sandwiches that supposedly constituted the bulk of his diet.

Artificiality eschewed

The new ad campaign also celebrates Subway's plans to eliminate artifical color, flavors, and preservatives by 2017 and eliminate antibiotics from its protein products in the U.S. by 2025.

The cage-free movement may be in danger of becoming a ploy for marketers, but it has its roots in a serious concern about the filthy, unhealthy conditions that characterized most chicken ranches until the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) launched a drive to improve conditions for chickens and, in the process, produce healthier food for humans.

But the recent boasts of major food producers don't necessarily say all that much about the day-to-day lives of the millions of hens who help feed a hungry nation. (Roosters are about as useless to chicken ranchers as baby bulls are to dairy farmers; roosters are killed pretty much immediately and baby bulls, if they're lucky, live a few months before being served up as veal). 

Cage-free vs. free-range

There's a lot of confusion surrounding all of this, as we noted a few weeks ago in "If a chicken can't cross the road, are its eggs organic?" First, to be certified organic, a food product must meet USDA regulations having to do with the feeding of the animal. They must be fed vegetarian feed that is free of pesticides and antibiotics.

The terms "cage-free" and "free-range" are not regulated by the USDA and are largely voluntary, like "natural," another popular but unregulated label moniker. This Humane Society chart can help decipher the jumble of marketing claims and egg labels:

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Thus, "cage-free" eggs may come from a hen who is locked up in a henhouse for most of her life, even though she is not confined to a tiny cage, as was once the case. While such chickens may be let out for brief periods, their lives are certainly far from "natural," depending on your definition of normalcy.

The Humane Society defines "pasture-raised" chickens as the freest of the lot. Eggs from such hens are likely to be more expensive, as the number of chickens lost to predators tends to be higher and collecting the eggs is much more labor-intensive, similar to seeking beige-colored Easter eggs.

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Employees may be on the move in 2016

Careerbuilder survey finds younger employees, especially, are getting restless

Immediately after the Great Recession, people who had jobs felt lucky to be employed. With the jobless rate at over 10%, there wasn't a lot of moving aroun...

PhotoImmediately after the Great Recession, people who had jobs felt lucky to be employed. With the jobless rate at over 10%, there wasn't a lot of moving around.

That seems to be changing.

With the labor market showing signs of new life in 2015, a lot of employees are likely to look for better jobs in 2016. At least, that's the conclusion of a new Harris Poll conducted for Careerbuilder.com.

The survey found that 21% of employees are determined to leave their current employers in 2015, an increase of 5% from those who expressed that sentiment in last year's survey. Younger workers expressed the strongest desire to make a move.

Of the 18 to 34 age group, 30% said they expect to have a new job by the end of 2016, compared to 23% the previous year.

“Just because a person is satisfied with their job doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t looking for new work,” said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder. “Because of this, it’s critical to keep up with your employees’ needs and continue to challenge them with work they feel is meaningful.”

Job hunting tips

Careerbuilder has some advice for people looking to move on. While regularly checking job listings is a good start, it isn't enough.

These days, you have to take advantage of social media and use it strategically. For example, if you’re looking for a job in finance, Careerbuilder says LinkedIn might be the most valuable social media site to keep updated. If you're looking for a job at a media company, Twitter might be a better resource.

Also, it's a good idea to follow the profiles or pages of companies you want to work for to stay up to date on job openings and announcements.

Be creative in your approach. Just because a certain interview tactic or style was successful for one candidate doesn't mean it is the best strategy for you. Take into consideration your personal experiences, preferences and career goals and use them to position yourself as a unique candidate.

Network with your peers. The more people you know, the wider your network of contacts. But most of the time it is the people who know you best who will be in the best position to help. Let them know you are on the move.

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Asking about resolutions can be a powerful motivator

Researchers find a question is better than a suggestion

Sometimes it's not what you say but how you say it. That's especially true, researchers say, when it comes to New Year's resolutions. And it turns out, fol...

PhotoSometimes it's not what you say but how you say it. That's especially true, researchers say, when it comes to New Year's resolutions. And it turns out, following a look at more than 100 studies, that the best way to get someone to follow their resolutions is to ask them about it.

"Will you exercise this year?" is a simple question that could be a game-changing technique for people who want to influence their own or others' behavior, according to the study, which spanned 40 years of research.

The research is the first comprehensive look at more than 100 studies examining the "question-behavior effect," a phenomenon in which asking people about performing a certain behavior influences whether they do it in the future. The effect has been shown to last more than six months after questioning.

Why it works

"If you question a person about performing a future behavior, the likelihood of that behavior happening will change," said Dave Sprott, a co-author of the study and senior associate dean of the Carson College of Business, Washington State University.

The basic idea is that when people are asked "Will you recycle?" it causes a psychological response that can influence their behavior when they get a chance to recycle. The question reminds them that recycling is good for the environment but may also make them feel uncomfortable if they are not recycling. Thus, they become motivated to recycle to alleviate their feelings of discomfort.

Overall, the researchers' findings suggest questioning is a relatively simple yet effective technique to produce consistent, significant changes across a wide domain of behaviors. The technique can sway people toward cheating less in college, exercising more, recycling, or reducing gender stereotyping.

The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology by marketing researchers from the University of California, Irvine, the University at Albany, State University of New York, the University of Idaho, and Washington State University.

Benefits of using the technique

"We found the effect is strongest when questions are used to encourage behavior with personal and socially accepted norms, such as eating healthy foods or volunteering," said Eric R. Spangenberg, first author and dean of the Paul Merage School of Business, University of California, Irvine. "But it can be used effectively to even influence consumer purchases, such as a new computer."

"It is pretty easy to ask a question, and it can be done in a variety of means, such as ads, mailers, online media, and interpersonal communications," said Sprott.

The researchers found the question-behavior effect to be strongest when questions are administered via a computer or paper-and-pencil survey, and when questions are answered with a response of 'yes' or 'no.' They also found that those using the technique are better off not providing a specific time frame for the target behavior.

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A rebound in consumer confidence

Consumers' assessment of the job market was a bit stronger in December

After declining moderately in November, the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index showed a little improvement this month, rising 3.9 points from Nov...

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Home prices on the rise in October

The Federal Reserve interest rate increase raises questions about the future

The price of homes posted a slightly stronger year-over-rear increase in October than we saw during the previous month. Prices also rose on a month-over-mo...

PhotoThe price of homes posted a slightly stronger year-over-rear increase in October than we saw during the previous month. Prices also rose on a month-over-month basis.

Year-over-year

The S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index (NHPI), covering all nine U.S. census divisions, was up 5.2% from October 2014. The annual increase for September over September was 4.9%.

The 10-City Composite increased 5.1% in the year to October versus 4.9% previously, while the 20-City Composite’s year-over-year gain was 5.5% compared with 5.4% in September.

San Francisco, Denver, and Portland continue to report the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities with another month of double-digit price increases of 10.9% for all three. Twelve cities reported greater price increases in the year ending October 2015 versus the year ending September 2015.

Phoenix had the longest streak of year-over-year increases, reporting a gain of 5.7% in October 2015 -- the eleventh consecutive increase in annual price gains.

“Generally good economic conditions continue to support gains in home prices,” said David M. Blitzer, managing director and chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Among the positive factors are consumers’ expectations of low inflation and further economic growth as well as recent increases in residential construction including single family housing starts.”

Month-over-month

Before seasonal adjustment, the NHPI posted a gain of 0.1% month-over-month in October. The 10-City Composite was unchanged and the 20-City Composite showed a 0.1% month-over-month advance in October.

After seasonal adjustment, the NHPI posted a gain of 0.9%, while the 10-City and 20-City Composites both increased 0.8% month-over-month. Ten of 20 cities reported increases in October before seasonal adjustment; after seasonal adjustment, all 20 cities increased for the month.

Looking ahead

The recent action by the Federal Reserve, wherein they raised the Fed funds target rate by 25 basis points, along with spreading expectations of further increases in 2016, are leading some to wonder if mortgage interest rates might rise.

“Typically, increases in short term interest rates lead to smaller increases in long term interest rates,” Blitzer noted. “The latest economic projections published by the Fed following the recent rate increase suggest that the Fed funds rate will be around 2.6% in September 2017 compared to a current rate of about 0.5%. These data suggest that potential home buyers need not fear runaway mortgage interest rates.”

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Feds sue alleged debt collection lawsuit mill

CFPB charges Georgia law firm with "churning out lawsuits" while using faulty data

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau charges that a Georgia law firm is little more than a lawsuit mill, filing one debt-collection lawsuit after anoth...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau charges that a Georgia law firm is little more than a lawsuit mill, filing one debt-collection lawsuit after another using "deceptive court filings and faulty evidence."

The firm of Frederick J. Hanna & Associates would be required to pay a $3.1 million penalty and agree to stop filing lawsuits without verifying the debt. It would also be required to stop its alleged practice of intimidating consumers with deceptive court filings.

“The Hanna firm relied on deception and faulty evidence to coerce consumers into paying debts that often could not be verified or may not be owed,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Debt collectors that use the court system for purposes of intimidation should reconsider how their practices are harming consumers.”

The Hanna firm paid $120,000 in a 2011 case filed in Georgia 

The Hanna law firm focuses exclusively on debt collection litigation, and its three principal partners, Frederick J. Hanna, Joseph Cooling, and Robert Winter, play an active role in the company’s business strategies and practices, the CFPB said.

The firm performs debt collection activities on behalf of clients that include banks, credit card issuers, and companies that purchase and sell consumer debt. It typically files lawsuits if its efforts do not lead to collections.

The proposed court order would resolve a lawsuit the CFPB filed in July 2014.

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FAA, states spar over regulating drones

Feds say they have authority over anything mechanical that flies

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) unveiled its online registration system for drones just in time for Christmas, and just in time to fly straight i...

PhotoThe Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) unveiled its online registration system for drones just in time for Christmas, and just in time to fly straight into stiff headwinds from local and state governments that are claiming jurisdiction over some aspects of drone operations.

Governments around the country have been busily passing laws restricting where and when drones can be operated. But the FAA is taking the position that it has jurisdiction over anything that flies by mechanical means, setting up the likelihood of a long-running air war over who controls the skies.

The New York Times reports that more than 20 states have already established laws regulating drones. Major cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami have done the same.

Most of the laws restrict drones from flying over schools, homes, near police and fire operations, and airports. The FAA's rules are much simpler and, according to an FAA advisory, require drone operators to:

• Fly below 400 feet altitude.
• Keep your unmanned aircraft in sight at all times.
• Never fly near manned aircraft, especially near airports.
• Never fly over groups of people, stadiums, or sporting events.
• Never fly near emergency response efforts.

Too lax

This is not going over well with local officials. In California, Ted Gaines, a Republican state senator, said he would reintroduce a drone-control bill that Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed earlier this year, saying the FAA's rules were too lax.

“We are a nation under the threat of terrorism, and the risks to our citizens and to our children are only greater with hundreds of thousands of these drones expected to be sold during the holidays,” Gaines said, the Times reported.

The FAA is not budging, however, saying a "patchwork quilt" of local regulations would be far more dangerous than its one-size-fits-all approach. It issued an advisory last week saying that it is the top regulator of airspace and has the authority to handle regulation of drones and any other kind of aircraft, with its rules pre-empting any local laws or regulations.

Good-cop approach

The FAA is taking a good-cop approach to drones, at least for now, even going so far as to remind drone owners that they do not need to pay anyone for help registering their machines.

"The FAA also reminds unmanned aircraft owners there's no need to work with a 'drone registration' company to help file an application for a registration number. The registration site is designed to be simple and easy to use for every hobbyist," it said in an advisory last week.

The agency is even offering assistance for those who can't navigate the form, raising the question of whether someone who can't fill out a simple form should be flying a drone.

"Email UAShelp@faa.gov.Live phone support will be available starting December 25 from 7am to 5pm Eastern, seven days a week. Phone assistance is available at 844-244-3565," the FAA advisory said.

The registration site is at www.faa.gov/uas/registration

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Consumers may have spent more than expected this holiday season

Preliminary figures show a solid advance over last year

Despite early concerns that consumers weren't in a spending mood this year, it appears U.S. retailers had a pretty good holiday shopping season after all....

PhotoDespite early concerns that consumers weren't in a spending mood this year, it appears U.S. retailers had a pretty good holiday shopping season after all.

MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse shows retail sales grew nearly 8% from last year during the critical period from Black Friday to Christmas Eve. Last year's increase was just 5.5%.

Driving much of the increase were consumers who shunned the malls and instead purchased items from their computers and mobile devices. Online sales were up 20% over last year.

Amazon.com was the beneficiary of some of that increase. The online retailer said the holiday season broke records for sales, and also resulted in a surge of new Amazon Prime members.

“This was another great holiday season to be a Prime member, and we welcomed three million new members in the third week of December alone,” said Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon.com. “Over 200 million more items shipped for free with Prime this holiday, and members doubled their viewing hours of Prime Video compared to last year with the Amazon Original Series The Man in the High Castle leading the way as the most watched TV season ever on Prime Video.”

Digital in demand

Amazon said it shipped to over 185 countries this year and reported the biggest holiday season ever for sales of Amazon digital devices. In fact, Amazon devices were top-selling products across all of the items available on Amazon.com this holiday season. The top selling device was Fire, while the Fire TV Stick was third.

Stores were crowded over the weekend as many shoppers waited for after-Christmas bargains. Others wasted no time in using the gift cards they received.

A survey by American Express found 57% of consumers expected to shop on December 26. Thirty-five percent said they planned to shop the bargains for themselves, while another 21% said they planned to get a head start on next year.

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TSA may begin rejecting some states' drivers licenses

A 10-year-old law requiring more secure licenses has been ignored by many states

Will your driver's license be enough identification to let you board your next airline flight? It may not be if the TSA begins enforcing a 10-year-old law ...

PhotoWill your driver's license be enough identification to let you board your next airline flight? It may not be if the TSA begins enforcing a 10-year-old law that sets minimum standards states must meet when issuing licenses.

In 2005, Congress passed the Real ID Act, following recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. It's supposed to make driver's licenses harder to forge and would also set up a national database that law enforcement and immigration agencies could refer to.

But many states have not adopted the standards and some even have laws prohibiting their DMVs from cooperating with the feds, citing privacy concerns.

The issue is becoming more than a debating topic in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), TSA's parent agency, says it may order the TSA to begin rejecting driver's licenses that don't meet the federal standard as soon as next year.

120 days' notice

DHS says it will give 120 days' notice before it begins enforcing the requirement. Passengers with noncompliant licenses will either have to produce an alternative form of ID or, presumably, take the bus.

DHS has issued extensions to some states that have had problems implementing the new standard but says there will be no more exemptions. 

A passport is an acceptable ID but whether anything else would be is open to question. 

It's just one more thing for travelers to worry about in 2016. 

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Ford recalls Escapes and Focus STs

The vehicle could hesitate or the engine could stall

Ford Motor Company is recalling 9,017 model year 2013 Escape vehicles manufactured January 11, 2012, to April 1, 2013, and 2013-2014 Focus ST vehicles manu...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 9,017 model year 2013 Escape vehicles manufactured January 11, 2012, to April 1, 2013, and 2013-2014 Focus ST vehicles manufactured May 03, 2012, to October 14, 2013.

 

Insufficient compression in the engine wiring harness splices to the Manifold Absolute Pressure (MAP) sensor may provide incorrect signals to the powertrain control module (PCM).

 

The incorrect signals could cause the vehicle to hesitate or the engine to stall, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the current crimped splices with new splices, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin January 4, 2016.

 

Owners may contact Ford customer service 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 14S17-S1.

 
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Airlines, rental cars, and flowers make the holiday Grinch list

Consumers encounter the usual holiday snafus

It's a most wonderful time of the year, except when it isn't. The Christmas holiday season is a time that'...

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Photo (c) Tennesseevols33 - Wikimedia Commons
It's a most wonderful time of the year, except when it isn't. The Christmas holiday season is a time that's especially prone to disappointments and disruptions, as travel and partying replace the daily routine.

This year, as in previous years, consumers have run into numerous holiday humbugs, with rental cars, airlines and such niceties as flower deliveries topping the list.

Airlines

Weather delays were common this year, as freakishly warm weather blanketed much of the country, leading to thunderstorms, tornadoes, and heavy fog in many areas. 

"I am currently sleeping in CLT (Charlotte) because my flight was cancelled due to "weather" issues. This is the third time this year. My flight is from CLT to PGV (Pitt-Greenville, NC)," said Stefan, a disgruntled American Airlines traveler. "American airlines has no sympathy for this. Every single time they use this excuse as 'since it is due to weather issues, we will take no responsibility for your missed flight.' ... They look at you with their cold, dead eyes in the face and say 'tough luck.'"

Jennifer of Norwalk, Ill., found little holiday spirit about Spirit Airlines: "I do not know any other industry that can operate like this one -- You buy a ticket for travel. They cancel the flight for "crew delays" and offer only one option: flight tomorrow a.m."

Things weren't much better for Spirit passenger Shikaha of Canton, Mich.: "My flight was scheduled on Dec. 24 at 9.15 p.m. to Dallas, and we formed a line to board. Then we were told that our flight was delayed and the same flight was boarded with LA passengers! We are still at the airport today, Dec 25th, 2015."

El Kheir of Burke, Va., claims an even worse holiday with Delta: "Christmas 2015, 150 passengers treated like other than human beings. ... The flight was delayed 10 times, people sent to a miserable hotel. ... Before leaving we asked if sure the flight will be at 8:15 a.m., they said yes, but again they delayed it and same story: the pilot did not show up. Please use any donkey, camel, bus ... but not Delta airlines."

Rental issues

An Avis car rental went awry and threw a curve into the travel plans of Rahul, of Miramar, Fla. 

"I did my car reservation with AVIS on 11/16/2015 for 12/25/2015 for San Juan, Puerto Rico. Since this is the Christmas week and San Juan is fully packed with tourists so AVIS sold out all reserved cars to other customer on higher rates who just walked in and never had any reservations," Rahul said. "When I went to the car pick-up location the sales person told me that they are sold out and she can't give me the car even her system was showing that I have reservation. And they never sent any kind of notification to us that they don't have cars and our reservation is cancelled."

Rahul said Avis would not even give him a ride to his hotel or help him find a cab, forcing him and the rest of his party to walk more than two miles with their luggage.

"I have spent almost $7-$8K on this trip and we can't go anywhere because we don't have our car which we had reserved 40 days ago," Rahul said.

Things were no better over at Alamo, according to Ingrid of San Francisco.

"We rented a SUV three months ago to drive our 5 kids from SF to Park City, Utah. When we arrived to pick up the car, they said it was no more available because the car was broken (but they forgot to tell us about it)," Ingrid said. "As it is Christmas Day, they told 4 cars were available for us at the airport. We changed our reservation. When we arrived at the Alamo desk at the airport ($80 of taxi round trip), there was still no car for us and no other car available at the other rental companies. How can it be worse?"

Flowers

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Photo submitted by Marie-Claire

"I ordered the white magnolia center piece as a Christmas gift for my parents," said Susan of Dansville, Mich., in a review of FromYouFlowers.com. "When we arrived Christmas Day I was very disappointed. There were no magnolia leaves or roses in the arrangement. They had been replaced with cheaper fill, pine and daisies. The candles were so short we had to blow them out before we were done with dinner."

Steve of Bloomington, Ill., also chimed in about FromYouFlowers.

"I ordered a Snowman Surprises Holiday Campanula Plant $54.99 with a delivery charge of $19.99. I had to select a date for delivery from a calendar that would only allow certain dates to be chosen," Steve said. "I selected 12/24/15 for a delivery date. It was confirmed and I paid. Called today to see how my Mother enjoyed the flowers and she said NOTHING WAS DELIVERED!"

JustFlowers.com made the Grinch list for Marie-Claire of Bruceton Mills, W.Va. 

"I ordered a gold/silver/white arrangement for my daughter's wedding anniversary, because I knew these colors were her theme this year. A RED and white one was delivered. My complaint to JustFlowers.com so far has only yielded a canned reference to their website indicating that substitutions were permitted," Marie-Claire said. "So far Customer Service is totally unresponsive. I will call a local florist in the future and order directly from a local business."

All that glitters ...

Ordering jewelry online works well sometimes. Other times ... well, not so much. 

"I ordered two identical necklaces and was told they would be shipped by 12/21 after the purchase," said Susan of Elkton, Md., in a review of The Bradford Exchange. "I called and called about the tracking information ... I was told they "will get there." On 12/23 we received one of the two and not the other. I called again and was told it was on its way. Today I looked up the order number and it says will be shipped by 2/06, 2016!"

Kitchen calamities

All of these mishaps are fairly typical of the holidays, as are the sudden and unexpected failure of kitchen appliances that can lead to dinner disasters. And then there's the perennial problem of the disintgrating baking dish.

Photo
Photo submitted by Sherry

Sherry of Middleboro, Mass., was one of many consumers who discovered the phenomenon. 

"Today, I began slow roasting a pork shoulder in the oven. The temperature was at 300 and the dish had been in the oven for about 25 minutes," Sherry said. "I opened the oven door to see if I should add any liquid and the large baking dish shattered with such force that glass shards were stuck in my sweater and flew in all directions throughout the kitchen. There was no warning of the dish beginning to fail, just a loud shattering sound that was similar to someone throwing a glass onto the floor."

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Amazon-UPS ties may be fraying

Consumers not thrilled with any of the current delivery options

Amazon is having second, or maybe even third, thoughts about its relationship with UPS. The giant retailer ...

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Same group of consumers drawn to products that fail

"Harbingers of failure" have uncanny ability to sniff out products that just aren't going to make it

Were you a Diet Crystal Pepsi fan? Maybe you developed a taste for Frito Lay Lemonade. How about watermelon-flavored Oreos?If you liked one of those pr...

PhotoWere you a Diet Crystal Pepsi fan? Maybe you developed a taste for Frito Lay Lemonade. How about watermelon-flavored Oreos?

If you liked one of those products, chances are you liked all three. Researchers at MIT wondered who exactly buys products that eventually get jerked from the shelves. They discovered it's the same group of consumers.

The researchers call these consumers "harbingers of failure" and suggest they provide a new window into consumer behavior.

"These harbingers of failure have the unusual property that they keep on buying products that are taken from the shelves," said MIT marketing professor Catherine Tucker, co-author of a paper detailing the study's results.

Talent for sniffing out turkeys

It's amazing, says Tucker – these star-crossed consumers can sniff out flop-worthy products of all kinds.

"This is a cross-category effect," she said. "If you're the kind of person who bought something that really didn't resonate with the market, say, coffee-flavored Coca-Cola, then that also means you're more likely to buy a type of toothpaste or laundry detergent that fails to resonate with the market."

For manufacturers and marketers, the implications are clear. If the harbingers of failure are rushing out to purchase your products, it's not a good sign. In a way, it's like high school – you only want the cool kids buying your product.

"It's not just how many people are buying them, it's how many of the right people are buying them and how many of the wrong people aren't buying them," said Duncan Simester, an MIT marketing professor and another co-author of the study. "The common wisdom is that people liking your product is a good thing. But what we've done in this research is identify a group of people who you really want to have hate your product. And that changes the paradigm of market research."

JC Penney tried it

There have been rare examples of  a company trying to get rid of what it thought were the “wrong” kinds customers. Think back to 2012 when JC Penney purposefully alienated its middle American customer base as it tried to transition to a younger, hipper crowd – the cool kids. The results were disastrous and the retailer ended up going back to its former business model.

The MIT professors say their numbers are persuasive. When they studied convenience store sales and were able to identify harbingers of failure, they say that they found when the percentage of total sales of a product accounted for by these consumers increases from 25% to 50%, the probability of success for that product decreases by 31%.

And it's really bad news if they buy a product at least three times. After that, the probability of success for that product drops 56%.

But it would be a mistake to label these harbingers of failure as “losers.” Simester says they are simply more adventurous consumers – people willing to take risks.

And we should thank them. They try the watermelon-flavored Oreos so we don't have to.

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Christian faith slipping but still strong in the U.S.

"No religious affiliation" up 5% since 2008

Like cable TV, the Christian faith is losing adherents though at a much slower rate than the cord-cutting phenome...

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Photo © Christos Georghiou - Fotolia

Like cable TV, the Christian faith is losing adherents though at a much slower rate than the cord-cutting phenomenon, according to Gallup. 

This Christmas Eve finds more than three-quarters of Americans identify with a Christian relgion, little changed from 2014, but down from 80% eight years ago. About 5% of Americans identify with a non-Christian religion, while 20% have no formal religious identification, which is up five percentage points since 2008.

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These results are based on interviews conducted each year since 2008 as part of Gallup Daily tracking. The general trends in the data over this eight-year period are clear: As the percentage of Americans identifying with a Christian religion has decreased, the percentage with no formal religious identification has increased. The small percentage of Americans who identify with a non-Christian religion has been essentially constant over this time period.

In Gallup surveys in the 1950s, over 90% of the adult population identified as Christian, with only a small percentage claiming no religious identification at all or identifying with a non-Christian religion.

Despite these changes, America remains a predominantly Christian nation, with 94% of those who identify with a religion saying they are Christian.

Age differences

The percentage of Christians is highest among older Americans and decreases with each progressively younger age group. This trend reflects the high number of "nones" -- those without a formal religious identity -- in the younger generations, as well as a higher proportion of non-Christians among them.

PhotoOne key to the future of Christian representation in the U.S. population will be shifts in the religious identification of today's youngest cohorts, Gallup said. Traditionally, Americans have become more likely to identify with a religion as they age through their 30s and 40s and get married and have children. If this pattern does not occur in the same way it has in the past, the percentage of Christians nationwide will likely continue to shrink.

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Tax Club accomplices nailed in credit card 'laundering' case

PayBasics helped process credit card payments

Not too long ago, the Federal Trade Commission went after the Tax Club, a work-at-home scheme that it said fleeced consumers of thousands of dollars each. ...

PhotoNot too long ago, the Federal Trade Commission went after the Tax Club, a work-at-home scheme that it said fleeced consumers of thousands of dollars each. Now it has nailed an alleged accomplice, PayBasics.

“Our investigation didn’t stop with the scammers who took people’s money,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We’re also shutting down the operators who processed and hid their shady transactions.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, PayBasics helped the defendants behind the Tax Club fraud to open and maintain merchant accounts used to process credit card payments for sales made by a number of different third-party scammers. 

The complaint says PayBasics helped maintain Tax Club's alleged credit card laundering scheme, processing more thn $1 million in payments and sometimes setting up shell companies to launder the proceeds.

One of those who lost money in the scheme was Nicholas of Washington, Ill., who posted a ConsumerAffairs review about his experience:

"The Tax Club took me for over $25,000.00. They were to help me with the business. They also had their affiliates call me and offer their service and they don't do what they promise and when I call them I only got the answer machine and ask me to leave a message. ... But I got a letter from the FTC that they took them to court and they got money from them."

Court order

Under the terms of proposed stipulated federal court order, the PayBasics defendants are prohibited from acting as a payment processor or contracting with a payment processor to provide payment processing services to a merchant. In addition, they are prohibited from acting as sales agents for high-risk clients in need of payment processing.

The proposed order also contains a monetary judgment against the defendants of $1.02 million, which is suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay. To partially satisfy the judgment, company executives will be required to sell a Tesla Model S and a Range Rover SUV, turning over any proceeds of those sales that exceed $5,000.

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Cable bills going up ... again

The higher prices may chase away more consumers

Cable TV bills will be going up early next year, just as they do most years. That's likely to drive even more consumers away from cable, which in turn is l...

PhotoCable TV bills will be going up early next year, just as they do most years. That's likely to drive even more consumers away from cable, which in turn is likely to produce more price increases.

The TV/cable/streaming video business is in a transitional period and it's a little hard to tell what's going to come out the other end, although it's likely to be something that is a combination of Netflix and traditional cable, delivered via the Internet.

Until then, the cable business is stuck with high fixed costs -- all that cable to maintain -- as well as rising programming costs as it produces more new programming to compete with Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming providers.

What that means is higher bills for consumers who have not yet cut the cord. Time Warner, Comcast, Dish, and AT&T are all putting the final touches on the price hikes they'll impose in 2016.

Monthly increases

Here are some of the expected monthly increases, as reported by Bloomberg Business:

  • Time Warner: sports programming goes from $2.25 to $5;
  • Comcast: broadcast channels go from $1.75 to $5, regional sports to $3;
  • Dish: $2 to $8 per month, depending on the bundle;
  • AT&T U-Verse: $2 to $4; and
  • DirecTV: $4 to $8.

Dish subscribers will pay $2 to $8 more per month on TV packages. AT&T’s U-Verse customers will see a monthly increase of between $2 and $4, while satellite-TV provider DirecTV, bought by AT&T this year, will increase its monthly bill between $4 and $8.

Won't this drive away customers? No doubt it will. After all, 71% of cord cutters say they dropped cable partly because of cost, surveys show, but the cable companies say the licensing fees they're paying for programming are rising so fast that they lose money on some customers, which means their bottom line actually improves if those customers get mad and go away.

Time Warner, for example, says the cost it pays to carry local channels has gone up nearly 100% in recent years while the cost of some sports programming has risen 116%.

The higher prices may be a hardship for some consumers but, except for rabid sports fans and news junkies, most cable programming can be found elsewhere -- either on over-the-air channels or on streaming video.

HBO, Showtime, and other premium channels are moving at least some of their programming to the Internet and reruns of popular broadcasts and premium shows are showing up on streaming channels more quickly so those who bail out to save money won't be completely without entertainment options.

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Are you Facebook dependent? It's not necessarily a bad thing

Dependency and addiction aren't the same thing, after all

Do you check Facebook several times a day? Maybe you play games with friends, post your opinions, check feedback on your posts, and look for chances to mee...

PhotoDo you check Facebook several times a day? Maybe you play games with friends, post your opinions, check feedback on your posts, and look for chances to meet new friends.

If so, you may have a Facebook dependency. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, says Amber Ferris, an assistant professor of communication at The University of Akron's Wayne College.

Ferris, who studies Facebook user trends, says the more people use Facebook to fulfill their goals, the more dependent on it they become. However, she says this is not the same as an addiction.

Ferris and her colleagues studied 301 Facebook users who post at least once a month. They found that people who perceive Facebook as helpful in gaining a better understanding of themselves go to the site to meet new people and to get attention from others. Also, people who use Facebook to gain a deeper understanding of themselves tend to have agreeable personalities but lower self-esteem than others.

"They might post that they went to the gym. Maybe they'll share a post expressing a certain political stance or personal challenge they're facing. They rely on feedback from Facebook friends to better understand themselves," Ferris says.

Ferris explains that some users observe how others cope with problems and situations similar to their own "and get ideas on how to approach others in important and difficult situations." Other Facebook dependency signs point to users' needs for information or entertainment. In other words, a user knows about the local festival scheduled for this weekend thanks to Facebook.

Personality traits

Ferris' colleague Erin Hollenbaugh uncovered personality traits common among specific types of Facebook users.

For example, people who use Facebook to establish new relationships tend to be extroverted. Extroverts are more open to sharing their personal information online but are not always honest with their disclosures, Ferris says.

The most positive posts online come from those who have high self-esteem, according to Ferris.

"Those who post the most and are the most positive in posts do so to stay connected with people they already know and to gain others' attention," Ferris says. "This makes a lot of sense - if you are happy with your life, you are more likely to want to share that happiness with others on social media."

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Higher One to pay restitution to nearly one million college students

Regulators say company omitted key information about fees in its marketing materials

Nearly one million college students who received financial aid payments through Higher One, an institution-affiliated party of WEX Bank, were victims of de...

PhotoNearly one million college students who received financial aid payments through Higher One, an institution-affiliated party of WEX Bank, were victims of deceptive practices, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

The affected students will share $31 million in restitution, according to the terms of a settlement between the financial institutions and the government. In addition, the financial institutions will pay a total of nearly $4 million in civil penalties.

When colleges and universities hand out financial aid to students, they use a firm such as Higher One to actually make the payments. After tuition and fees are paid directly to the schools, the rest of the aid, such as money for books, supplies, and living expenses, can be disbursed to students through Higher One's "OneAccount."

The OneAccount is a debit card-based product that is offered in partnership through financial institutions. WEX Bank has offered the OneAccount since May 4, 2012, according to FDIC.

Omitted important facts

After an investigation, the FDIC concluded that the Higher One website and marketing materials, which were approved by WEX Bank, omitted important facts about certain fees, features, and limitations of the OneAccount in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Left out, the complaint alleges, were details about other disbursement methods available to students, a full and complete fee schedule, and the availability of fee-free ATMs. As a result of these material omissions, FDIC charges Higher One improperly collected $31 million in fees from students from May 4, 2012, to July 15, 2014, the period covered by the enforcement action.

"It is important that financial products offered to college students under the sponsorship of their universities are clear, transparent, and trustworthy," FDIC Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg said. "Today's action holds both the bank and its student card partner accountable for the practices related to the products they offered to college students and provides restitution to those students harmed by these practices."

In trouble before

This is not Higher One's first brush with regulators. In 2012, it was required to pay $11 million to 60,000 students over the ATM transaction fees it charged.

If you are an affected student, the FDIC says you do not have to take any action to collect compensation. The financial institutions will contact you.

At the same time, former students should be on guard against scammers who claim to be representing one of the parties and demand some kind of “fee.” No payment of any kind is required to receive compensation.

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Daily fantasy sports declared illegal in Illinois

But state is considering a new law exempting the games from gambling regulations

In an opinion requested by two state legislators, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says she believes daily fantasy sports games provided by enterpris...

PhotoIn an opinion requested by two state legislators, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says she believes daily fantasy sports games provided by enterprises like FanDuel and DraftKings constitute illegal gambling, in violation of Illinois law.

While not carrying any legal force, the attorney general's opinion provides a clear indication that the state government would have grounds to stop the games in Illinois, joining New York and Nevada, though the latter has ruled games may seek licenses.

The opinion was sought by two members of the Illinois legislature who sit on the Criminal Committee. Rep. Elgie Sims, Jr., is chairman of the committee and Rep. Scott Drury is vice-chairman.

“It is my opinion that the daily fantasy sports contests offered by FanDuel and DraftKings clearly constitute gambling under subsection 28-1(a) of the Criminal Code of 2012 and that the exemption set forth in subsection 28-1(b) does not apply,” Madigan wrote.

Move to legalize?

Unlike New York, however, Illinois may move to change state law to make the highly popular games legal. Madigan disputes the claim that daily fantasy sports are protected under a 2006 federal law, pointing out that law specifically leaves it up to the states to determine whether the games are, in fact, gambling.

Madigan notes that legislation is currently pending in both Illinois legislature chambers to create a new act – the Fantasy Contests Act. The proposed law, Madigan says, would specifically exempt fantasy contests from the general prohibition against gambling.

Without passage of the law, says Madigan, Illinois residents playing daily fantasy sports games are breaking the law.

“Absent legislation specifically exempting daily fantasy sports games from the gambling provisions, it is my opinion that daily fantasy sports contests constitute illegal gambling under Illinois law,” Madigan concluded.

In October, Nevada ordered a halt to daily fantasy sports games in the state, ruling that they are unlicensed gambling. The following month, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman obtained a court order prohibiting New Yorkers from playing the games, though FanDuel successfully argued for a stay, pending an appeal.

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How do electronic toys affect the quality and quantity of language in infant playtime?

One study finds that it may stifle important parent-child communication

In an increasingly chaotic world, quality time between parents and children can come at a premium. Financial, work, or other familial circumstances can inh...

PhotoIn an increasingly chaotic world, quality time between parents and children can come at a premium. Financial, work, or other familial circumstances can inhibit the amount of direct play time between a parent and child, making it more important than ever to optimize the quality of play time when it comes your way. But could electronic toys be putting a damper on the quantity and quality of play time with your child?

According to an article published online by JAMA Pediatrics, electronic toys that produce lights, words, and songs were associated with decreased quantity and quality of language compared to playing with books, puzzles, or blocks.

Different types of toys

The experiment, conducted by Anna V. Sosa, Ph.D., of Northern Arizona University and her colleagues, used audio recordings of 26 parent-infant pairs in their homes, each with children who were 10 to 16 months old.

Participants were given three sets of toys: electronic toys (a baby laptop, a talking farm, and a baby cell phone); traditional toys (chunky wooden puzzle, shape-sorter, and rubber blocks with pictures); and five board books with farm animal, shape, or color themes.

The results? The electronics did most of the talking.

Fewer vocalizations

While playing with electronic toys, there were fewer adult words used, fewer conversational turns with verbal back-and-forth, fewer parental responses, and less production of content-specific words than when playing with traditional toys or books. Children also vocalized less while playing with electronic toys than with books. 

Suffice it to say, this lack of communication is not ideal. During a period of time in which kids' brains are tripling in size, getting the most out of play is crucial.

Traditional toys, however, are not the only route to optimizing play time says the study.

Engaging children

While study findings may appear to have provided a basis for discouraging the purchase of electronic toys, the potential benefits of these types of toys were not outright dismissed. The study simply concluded that digital features should be utilized to engage children with the real world instead of closing them off from it.

"Any digital enhancement should serve a clear purpose to engage the child not only with the toy/app, but also transfer that engagement to others and the world around them to make what they learned meaningful and generalizable,” the study concluded.

“Digital features have enormous potential to engage children in play, but it is important the child not get stuck in the toy/app's closed loop to the exclusion of real-world engagement.”

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Hyatt Hotels discloses data breach

But company provides little other information

If you stayed in a Hyatt Hotels property and paid with a credit or debit card, your card may have been compromised.The hotel chain says it has found ma...

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John Deere recalls zero turn lawn mowers

A fuel hose could have been cut during manufacturing

Deere & Company of Moline, Ill., is recalling about 150 John Deere zero-turn lawn mowers. A fuel hose could have been cut during manufacturing, all...

PhotoDeere & Company of Moline, Ill., is recalling about 150 John Deere zero-turn lawn mowers.

 

A fuel hose could have been cut during manufacturing, allowing fuel to leak, posing a fire hazard.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves John Deere models Z445, Z645, Z655, and Z665 zero-turn mowers with serial numbers beginning with 1GXZ, manufactured from August 10, 2015 through September 9, 2015. A complete list of serial numbers included in this recall is on the firm’s website.

 

The mowers are green and yellow with yellow wheels. The model number is on the front of the machine, near the operator footrest. The serial number is located behind the seat, in front of the engine.

 

The mowers, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at John Deere independent dealers nationwide from August 2015, through November 2015, for between $4,800 and $6,500.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using these recalled zero-turn lawn mowers and contact a John Deere dealer for a free repair. After identifying four reports of cut fuel hoses during the manufacturing process, John Deere is contacting all registered owners of the recalled lawn mowers directly.

 

Consumers may contact Deere and Company at (800) 537-8233 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (ET) or online at www.deere.com then click on USA, then select Product Recall Information on the drop-down menu under Services & Support for more information.

 

 

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The same products cost more if they're marketed to women, study finds

Women urged to shop in men's sections as the 'pink tax' persists

Being a woman isn’t cheap. One recent study confirmed this, finding that women fork over significantly more on average than men for virtually the same prod...

PhotoBeing a woman isn’t cheap. One recent study confirmed this, finding that women fork over significantly more on average than men for virtually the same products. If it’s designed with a woman in mind, the price will be escalated, according to a study conducted by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA).

The study was designed to reflect an average consumer lifecycle, from infant to senior, in order to mirror the experiences of consumers of all ages. Prices on toys and accessories, children’s clothing, adult clothing, personal care products, and home health care products for seniors were examined.

The trend of higher prices for women’s products was pervasive and startling. Across all five industries, women’s products cost close to 7% more than essentially the same products for men.

The Pink Tax

The largest discrepancy, according to DCA findings, was on personal care items. Razors, hair care products, and adult clothing cost 15% more on average if aimed at women (a fact that most women could probably already attest to).

Could different ingredients have something to do with the price discrepancy?

To address this question, the DCA spoke with Dr. Gary Kelm, a 35-year veteran in personal care product formulation at Procter & Gamble. Kelm explained that women often pay a premium for ingredients that look good on the label but usually make up less than 1% of the product.

“These ingredients yield no significant benefit to the consumer, but legally enable a brand to advertise the use of that ingredient and the potential benefits it could confer,” the DCA study states. “Examples include natural extracts and botanical ingredients, which are frequently used in women’s products.”

And the “pink tax” starts early for girls.

In the toy aisles

The study also provided a few case studies on children’s products, such as bike helmets, scooters, and shampoo. Indeed, similar — even identical — products were priced much higher if their target demographic was female.

One product highlighted by Julie Menin, commissioner of the DCA was a children’s scooter. A side-by-side comparison of the two scooters shows that the two are structurally identical. One, however, is pink. The pink version, called a “girl’s scooter,” was twice as expensive as the red one, labeled a “sports scooter.”

Since the report came out on Dec. 18, Target, which has run into trouble over price disparities before, has lowered the price of the scooter and blamed a “system error” for the discrepancy, according to the Washington Post.

What can you do?

While the DCA report notes that in some instances there are legitimate reasons for the price gaps, it points out that women generally can’t avoid higher prices. It costs more to be a woman, plain and simple.

There are no federal laws that outlaw the practice of gender-based price inequality, but they are policed on the state and local levels. California outlawed the practice in 1996 after a state study found that a “gender tax” cost women approximately $1,351 more annually.

Women can take action by switching out of the women’s section entirely, by writing letters to Congress, or even by reporting price discrepancies on social media. Raising awareness, as always, is a vital part of fighting injustice.

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Online retailers selling out of popular gift items

That could mean a lot of people will be getting a gift card

Bad news for shopping procrastinators. To get a popular gift item at this point you're probably going to have to make a last minute trip to the mall.Ad...

PhotoBad news for shopping procrastinators. To get a popular gift item at this point you're probably going to have to make a last minute trip to the mall.

Adobe, which provides software to many retailers, tells the Washington Post that about 14% of the most popular gifts are out of stock at online retailers.

It specifically cites Star Wars toys and popular games like Pie Face as showing the “out of stock” label. Adobe tells the Post it's evidence that online retailers got a much bigger share of the consumer shopping budget this year.

Started on Cyber Monday

The signs actually appeared early – on Cyber Monday, to be exact. Adobe reported a record $2.98 billion was spent online that day, up 12% over last year, marking the largest online sales day in history.

Adobe reported out-of-stock rates on Cyber Monday were at an all-time high, with 13 out of 100 product views showing an out-of-stock message, over two times the normal rate.

Products with the highest out-of-stock risk included those that are hard to get now – Star Wars figures and video game bundles, Xbox One Fallout 4 and Halo Bundles, LEGO Star Wars Advent Calendar, and Fisher-Price Imaginext Supernova Battle Rover.

Because of the crush of online orders, retailers have had some difficulty keeping up. Susana, a reader from Satellite Beach, Fla., writes that she was told one of the items she ordered in mid December from Toys R Us was on its way, only to find out later it wasn't.

 

“The very next morning I get an email from Toys R Us that they will not be able to fulfill my order of the Stellospeher, but they have a 30 day policy and if not received by 1/22/16 they would cancel the order,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs Post. Are you kidding me? I try to cancel the order online, but Toys R Us does not have a way for you to cancel online.  

Going to Plan B

The fact that online merchants still can't get their hands on these coveted gifts suggests procrastinators – and there are a lot of them this year – will have to go to Plan B. And mostly likely Plan B will be a gift card.

Because of that, Starbucks predicts record sales of Starbucks Cards on Christmas Eve, citing the trend for customers to make their gift card purchases at the last minute.

Last year, it said it sold nearly 2.5 million Starbucks Cards in the U.S. and Canada on Christmas Eve – representing approximately 1,700 cards purchased per minute.

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Takata airbag death toll rises to eight as feds say pace of recalls is accelerating

Three manufacturers add models to recall list

Federal safety regulators say the U.S. death toll from Takata airbags has risen to eight, nine worldwide. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administratio...

PhotoFederal safety regulators say the U.S. death toll from Takata airbags has risen to eight, nine worldwide. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration buried the news in a press release that claimed the "pace of recall completion is accelerating rapidly" with 950,000 vehicles repaired so far.

In the latest known fatality, the NHTSA said the driver's side airbag ruptured in a 2001 Honda Accord that had spent most of its time in a high-humidity state. The accident occurred near Pittsburgh, Pa. and injured a teen-aged driver who was hospitalized and died a few days later. 

Recalls expanded

Three manufacturers, meanwhile, are expanding their list of recalled vehicles, following additional testing of the suspect airbags. 

Vehicles affected by revised passenger recalls:

  • 2005-2008 Mazda Mazda6
  • 2002-2004 Honda CR-V
  • 2005-2008 Subaru Legacy and Outback

An updated list of makes, models and model years affected by the Takata inflator recalls is available at www.safercar.gov/rs/takata/takatalist.html

Is your car included? Check here using your VIN number. 

Monitor appointed

The NHTSA also said it has appointed John D. Buretta, a partner at the law firm Cravath, Swain & Moore, to monitor the progress of the Takata recall effort and Takata's compliance with NHTSA orders.

Buretta and his team "will play a significant role in helping oversee Takata’s compliance with its obligations under NHTSA enforcement orders, and in implementing the Coordinated Remedy Program to accelerate and prioritize the largest, most complex consumer safety effort in U.S. history,” said Mark Rosekind, NHTSA Administrator.

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Have you made a digital resolution?

Here are three that may keep you more secure while online

Most New Years resolutions are quickly broken. Like that resolution to drop 10 pounds or watch less TV in the coming year.But Michael Kaiser, Executive...

PhotoMost New Years resolutions are quickly broken. Like that resolution to drop 10 pounds or watch less TV in the coming year.

But Michael Kaiser, Executive Director of the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA), says consumers should think about making – and keeping – some digital resolutions in 2016, to stay safer and more secure online.

"We live in a global, always-connected digital age, and everyone needs to adopt good habits to lead a safer, more secure online life," he said.

Kaiser says his organization has identified three reliable practices – or resolutions – that will keep people safer while they're connected.

Two-step authentication

The first is to turn on two-step authentication – also known as two-step verification or multi-factor authentication - to make their online accounts more secure.

Kaiser says many of the Internet's most popular email services, social networks, and financial institutions offer this key security step free of charge, but you must opt in to turn it on. Click here to learn more and view a list of the websites that offer two-step authentication.

Limit use of free WiFi

The second step is to limit use of free WiFi. Yes, it's convenient, but it is also not secure. Airports and coffee shops attract cyber-criminals who might look like they are casually browsing the web, but are actually trying to break into your computer to see what you're doing.

Kaiser would like consumers to limit what they do on public WiFi, and avoid logging in to key accounts like email and financial services.

Improve home security

The third step is to beef up home security. Just as you would protect it against burglars, Kaiser says you should take precautions to keep cyber-criminals out.

He says all households should take responsibility to keep their connected families safe by incorporating ongoing digital maintenance into household routines. Tips for parents can be found here.

In addition, keeping device software up to date and beefing up account passwords will make it easier to stay safe in 2016 and keep those digital resolutions.

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Flooded with email? Just wait til next year

Marketers sent more email than ever this year but with meager results

Next to the constantly ringing landline, little is more irritating than the flood of promotional email, which reaches tidal surge levels during the holiday...

PhotoNext to the constantly ringing landline, little is more irritating than the flood of promotional email, which reaches tidal surge levels during the holiday season.

And yet, consider this: despite a 68% increase in travel emails and a 36% increase in emails from retailers this year, the number of opens, clicks, transactions, and sales have been pretty much flat. 

"When we look at the holiday data, we clearly have a long way to go,” said Spencer Kollas, VP of global deliverability services at Experian Marketing Services, in a trade journal report

How bad is it? During the third quarter, marketing email volume was up nearly 25% over the previous year, while "engagement" rates were about the same.

The one bright spot Experian found for marketers was flash sales. In the third quarter, flash sales recorded 59% higher transaction rates than other retail campaigns.

Age of enlightenment

Despite the rather flat numbers this year, however, 2016 is likely to be the biggest year yet as email marketers develop new tools that let them more precisely target consumers, which could mean fewer but more appealing emails. You can thank social media for revealing all your likes and dislikes to marketers.

"We're starting to see the age of enlightenment in email,” said G.B. Heidarsson, CEO of eDataSource, a market research firm, in a Direct Marketing News report. “Brands are learning more about customers on social media and are connecting that data to the email stream.

Email experts say, in fact, that 2015 may have seen the crest of what are charmingly called "batcher-and-blaster emailers," those who indiscriminantly send emails for, let's say, snow shovels to people living in the desert. 

Scatter-shot emailing is giving way to "segmentation strategies" -- sending air-conditioner ads to desert dwellers, snow-shovel ads to Michiganders, and so forth. 

Heidarsson's firm says the number of "discrete promotional campaigns" was up 45% this year and is expected to continue rising next year.

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Boeing to pay $12 million for quality control slip-ups

The FAA says the violations did not create unsafe conditions

As you settle into your cramped coach seat for the holiday flight home, consider this: Boeing will pay $12 million in fines for quality control and supplie...

PhotoAs you settle into your cramped coach seat for the holiday flight home, consider this: Boeing will pay $12 million in fines for quality control and supplier oversight shortcomings. It faces an additional $24 million if it doesn't make all the improvements agreed to in the settlement.

“It is imperative that everyone complies with our aviation system’s high safety standards,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “This agreement is an important step toward ensuring that Boeing fully meets all applicable compliance standards going forward.”

Boeing has agreed to a series of steps that are supposed to improve "early discovery and self-disclosure of potential regulatory compliance problems, as well as the timely development and implementation of effective corrective actions," the FAA said. 

“Compliance requires all certificate holders to develop and implement internal controls that ensure they’re operating according to the highest standards,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “Boeing has agreed to implement improvements in its design, planning, production and maintenance planning processes, and has already implemented several of these improvements.”

Boeing said many of the improvements it agreed to have already been implemented.

"This agreement reflects Boeing's deep and shared commitment to safety, quality and compliance – a commitment that has helped make travel on large commercial airplanes the safest means of transportation in history," the company said. "Boeing believes that this agreement not only fairly resolves announced and potential civil penalty actions – most of which date back years, and two of which were previously announced in 2012 and 2013 – but also will further enhance Boeing's self-correcting quality and compliance systems."

Internal controls

The FAA did not say that Boeing had created unsafe conditions but highlighted the importance of stengthening internal controls and oversight of contractors and suppliers. 

The agreement settles two "initiated cases" and 11 other matters that were opened during the last several years, the FAA said. 

The first initiated case involved BCA’s tardiness in developing information for the installation of fuel tank flammability reduction equipment on Boeing 747 and 757 aircraft. The second initiated case involved the company’s insufficient corrective action after discovering that a supplier had been providing incorrectly shaped fasteners. 

The other matters involved allegations of delays in submitting required safety information, production quality control problems, and failures to implement corrective actions for those production problems.

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YouTube has a beef with T-Mobile over its video streaming policy

Google-owned company complains it is excluded from "Binge On" program

T-Mobile customers have been able to stream music from major sources without having to worry about exceeding their data caps, and this year, have been able...

PhotoT-Mobile customers have been able to stream music from major sources without having to worry about exceeding their data caps, and this year, have been able to view virtually unlimited video as well.

The carrier's “Binge-On” program last month began to include Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go as sources of binging. Noticeably absent is YouTube.

The Google-owned video content provider has aired its complaint to The Wall Street Journal. In a statement to the newspaper, the company says consumers are benefiting from reduced data charges but “that doesn't justify throttling all video services, especially without explicit user consent."

No HD YouTube viewing

According to the statement, YouTube is particularly irked that T-Mobile customers on the Binge On plan aren't able to watch HD versions of YouTube videos. Instead, they get a 480p version.

YouTube cites two issues – T-Mobile customers get poor quality YouTube videos and the data counts toward their bandwidth limits. Second, it claims T-Mobile enrolls its customers in Binge On without asking them first.

This is actually an area under study by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has adopted a net neutrality policy, meaning a network can't favor one provider's content over another.

Net Neutrality

In February, the FCC adopted a Net Neutrality Rule, specifically prohibiting service providers from creating “fast lanes” and charging content providers extra to use them. In taking the action, the Commission declared that broadband Internet service should be classified as a public utility, like telephone service, bringing it under tighter regulation.

Earlier this month, the FCC asked T-Mobile, as well as other networks that offer special rates on streaming, to provide more information about how those services work.

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A majority of new parents misuse car seats, survey shows

What to do in order to keep infants safe on their first car ride home

Parents-to-be may spend nine months with their heads buried in “What to Expect” books — but come hospital discharge day, a majority will make a big mistake...

PhotoParents-to-be may spend nine months with their heads buried in “What to Expect” books — but come hospital discharge day, a majority will make a big mistake when bringing their baby home. According to research, 95% of parents make at least one car seat-related error, endangering the life of their new bundle of joy.

For this survey, Benjamin Hoffman, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the Doernbecher Hospital at the Oregon Health and Science University and his colleagues randomly selected 291 moms who were in the hospital’s mother-baby unit between November 2013 and May 2014. Certified child passenger safety technicians were on hand to observe them as they installed their seats and positioned their babies in them. What they found may surprise you.

"Critical" mistakes

Eighty-six percent of new parents made a mistake in positioning the baby properly in the seat, and 77% didn’t install the seat properly. Researchers say half of the parents in the study made five or more mistakes; just one in five made a single error.

Eighty-nine percent of the mistakes were deemed “critical” and would increase a child’s risk of injury in a crash.

So what mistakes did new parents most often make? 

Addressing common errors

The most common mistakes were with the harness and chest clip, the study revealed— harnesses were left too loose and chest clips placed too low. Setting the seat at an incorrect recline angle and errors using the seat belt and lower anchor were common, too.

“The overwhelming majority of car seats are mis-installed,” says Hoffman, who suggests that parents check in with a car seat safety technician before their baby is born.

He also offers these car seat safety pointers:

  • Tighten the harness snugly enough so that you can’t pinch any slack between your fingers in the harness webbing

  • Make sure the chest clip is at the level of the infant’s armpit

  • In the rear-facing car seat the harness should come through the slot at or below the child’s shoulders

  • Make sure when you install the car seat that it’s tight with no more than an inch of play side-to-side and back-to-front

  • Make sure you adjust the car seat at the correct angle: If it’s too tight there’s a risk of the baby’s airway getting blocked and if it’s too reclined, it won’t protect the baby in a crash

  • Use either the seat belt or the lower anchors, but not both, to secure the car seat — unless the manual specifically says you can use both.

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New York obtains refunds from “tricky” marketer

Attorney general claims consumers were victims of deceptive negative option marketing

The state of New York has reached a settlement with Profinity, LLC, a company it says tricked consumers into signing up for a variety of membership program...

PhotoThe state of New York has reached a settlement with Profinity, LLC, a company it says tricked consumers into signing up for a variety of membership programs without knowing it.

Under the settlement, Profinity will provide total refunds of $150,000 to some New York consumers who were charged unauthorized fees and will pay $100,000 in penalties, costs, and fees. Profinity has also agreed to reform its online marketing practices.

“Consumers, some of whom were simply seeking jobs or rental apartments online, were tricked into paying for services with monthly fees that they did not want or need,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “My office will aggressively investigate companies that scam New Yorkers out of their hard earned money through misleading Internet and phone offers.”

Here we go again

The story has a sort of deja vu quality about it. In the mid 2000s, these kinds of “negative option” schemes were infuriatingly common. They worked like this:

A consumer would place an online order for a product, such as flowers. As they were finishing the transaction, a pop-up would appear, asking if they would like a $10 discount on their order. Well, who wouldn't?

But somewhere in the fine print, if there were any fine print at all, would be the disclaimer that by accepting the discount they were agreeing to enroll in a “membership” program, in which they would get a bunch of coupons each month.

Their credit card – the one they used to purchase the flowers – would be charged $9.95 a month. The company selling the “memberships,” it turns out, has an arrangement with the company selling the flowers.

This happened a lot, and outraged consumers directed their wrath at the company sharing credit card information with the company marketing the “memberships.” After a few years, these sorts of schemes became less prevalent, perhaps because the Internet gave consumers a way to warn one another -- perhaps because companies that shared consumers' credit card information realized it was bad for business.

Benefits promised

Apparently, however, they never completely disappeared. Schneiderman says Profinity deceptively marketed a variety of membership programs to consumers for a monthly fee. These programs claimed to provide benefits like grocery coupons, retail discounts, restaurant vouchers, magazine subscriptions, roadside assistance, legal referral services, tech support, identity theft protection, credit scores, and credit monitoring services.

The deception came into play, Schneiderman says, when consumers were frequently tricked into signing up for one or more of Profinity’s fee-based membership programs through misleading telemarketing calls promising “free gifts” and “risk free” trials.

In some cases, he said, consumers who had purchased products from other companies were misled into enrolling in Profinity’s membership programs during verification calls with the company’s representatives. On these calls, he said, the company misled consumers into believing that the person they were speaking to was a representative of the original company from which consumers purchased products and that the purpose of the call was to verify their purchases.

He says consumers were tricked into providing their credit or debit card information and ended up in a fee-based membership program they had no idea they were joining.

We'll dust off the advice we handed out 10 years ago. When offered “free trials” or a discount, especially in connection with a purchase made with a credit or debit card, you are likely being signed up for something you don't want and that will carry a monthly charge. Best to decline, or read the fine print very carefully.

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Kelley Blue Book launches instant car offer feature

Enter information about your vehicle and get an offer from participating dealers

The Internet has changed the way we buy cars. After doing research, a number of apps will connect you with dealers so you can compare prices on the same ne...

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PetSmart promotes online pick-ups at their stores as Christmas draws nearer

This may be just the thing for procrastinating shoppers -- but they need to act fast

Earlier this month, we reported that many delivery agencies are having trouble coping with the high volume of packages that they need to ship during the ho...

PhotoEarlier this month, we reported that many delivery agencies are having trouble coping with the high volume of packages that they need to ship during the holiday season. As we count down the last couple of days before Christmas, many procrastinating consumers will be forced to visit brick and mortar establishments to pick up their gifts.

While the idea may seem repugnant to some, given that shopping online has made things so much easier, consumers should remember that there is a middle ground – picking online orders up in stores. While this practice isn’t seen as convenient under normal circumstances, PetSmart believes it is just the thing for the pet owners in your life, and they’re offering an incentive for consumers who take advantage of it.  

PetSmart promotes pick-ups

PetSmart is offering a special discount for consumers who pick up their online orders at one of their locations today or tomorrow. This promotion works perfectly for PetSmart, since many of its items, like litter and pet food, are too heavy to ship effectively.

Eran Cohen, the company’s Chief Customer Experience Officer, points out that there is more than likely a PetSmart close by for many consumers. He believes that in-store pick-up “truly offers the best of both worlds for our pet parents – the convenience of shopping online from home or while on-the-go via a mobile device and then simply swinging by any one our conveniently located 1,440-plus stores.”

Consumers who want to take advantage of the deal will need to place an order online today, December 23. They can then pick up their order immediately or visit a location on December 24 to get 10% their purchase, though there are some exclusions – such as gift cards and charitable donations. Other items that may be excluded are listed in the company’s disclaimer

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Personal incomes and spending rise in November

But the savings rate moved lower

Just in time for the Christmas shopping season, consumers' paychecks got a little fatter.The Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) re...

PhotoJust in time for the Christmas shopping season, consumers' paychecks got a little fatter.

The Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reports that personal income rose $44.4 billion, or 0.3% in November. Disposable personal income (DPI), what you have left after paying your taxes, was up $34.5 billion, or 0.3% last month, and personal consumption expenditures (PCE) also rose 0.3%, or $40.1 billion.

Personal income increased $66.9 billion (0.4%) the month before, while DPI was up $54.0 billion (0.4%) and PCE inched ahead $3.8 billion, or less than 0.1%.

Compensation

Wages and salaries jumped $37.1 billion in November, nearly $10 billion more than the month before. Of that, private wages and salaries increased $34.4 billion, including $11.6 billion (at an annual rate) in bonuses for United Auto Workers employees associated with the ratification of their contract. Government wages and salaries rose $2.8 billion in November, compared with a $1.5 billion advance in October.

Supplements to wages and salaries increased $6.3 billion in November, compared with an increase of $6.5 billion in October.

Personal spending and saving

Personal outlays -- PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments -- surged $44.0 billion in November, a better than six-fold increase from October's $7.5 billion. PCE jumped $40.1 billion, compared with an October increase of $3.8 billion.

Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was $747.6 billion in November, down nearly $10.0 billion from October. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 5.5%, down 0.1% from the rate a month earlier.

The complete report is available on the BEA website.

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A surge in mortgage applications

Refinance applications were sharply higher

A “Santa Claus rally” in applications for mortgages.The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports applications were up 7.3% in the week ending Decembe...

PhotoA “Santa Claus rally” in applications for mortgages.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports applications were up 7.3% in the week ending December 18 following a decline a week earlier.

The Refinance Index jumped 11%, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity up to 62.8% of total applications from 60.7% the previous week.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity rose to 6.1% of total applications; the FHA share slipped to 12.9% from 14.0%; the VA share was 10.5%, and the USDA share of total applications was unchanged at 0.6%.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose two basis points -- to 4.16% from 4.14%, with points increasing to 0.47 from 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) increased from 4.01% to 4.04%, with points decreasing to 0.28 from 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA was up two basis points to 3.92%, with points increasing to 0.39 from 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs jumped to 3.45% -- the highest level since October 2014 -- from 3.38%, with points increasing to 0.41 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 dipped one basis point to 3.24%, with points increasing to 0.38 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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

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CG&C: Job cuts should slow in 2016 as hiring and pay accelerate

A “lot of churn” is seen in the labor force

“Wait till next year!”That's not just the perennial cry of Chicago Cubs fans. A leading outplacement consultancy has also taken it up when it comes to ...

Photo“Wait till next year!”

That's not just the perennial cry of Chicago Cubs fans. A leading outplacement consultancy has also taken it up when it comes to the labor market in 2016.

Challenger, Gray & Christmas says while 2015 job cuts are expected to hit a six-year high, the pace of downsizing should slow in the year ahead as hiring and wages continue to make gains.

Although year-end tabulations are still a few weeks away, U.S.-based employers announced 574,888 planned job cuts through November – 19% more than the 2014 year-end total of 483,171. At the current pace, this year is on track to be the biggest job cut year since 2009, when 1,272,030 jobs were eliminated.

The oil patch took the heaviest hits

Looking for somewhere to point the finger? Try the dramatic decline in oil prices, which prompted companies involved in exploration and extraction to make significant adjustments to workforce levels.

All told, falling oil prices were blamed for 102,738 job cuts through November, or nearly one in every five job cuts announced in 2015.

Heavy downsizing was also seen in the public sector, where military cutbacks claimed 57,000 troops and civilian personnel.

“Cuts related to oil prices were heaviest in the first half of year, dropping by more than 50% in the second half,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “With oil prices expected to remain low for the foreseeable future,” he added, “we could continue to see the industry workforce shrink in 2016, though probably not at the rate we saw in the first part of 2015.”

Challenger says a decline in oil cuts is expected to result in an overall slowdown in downsizing activity in 2016. “Job cuts may not reach the previous post-recession low, achieved in 2014, when year-end cuts fell to 483,171,” he pointed out, noting that “even if job cuts don’t fall to post-recession lows, increased hiring and wages are expected to offset the losses.”

A slowdown in job growth

The nation’s non-farm payrolls grew by an average of 210,000 jobs per month through November, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average in 2014 was 260,000 new jobs per month.

Part of the slowdown, Challenger said, “may have been related to a weakened energy sector, which was one of the strong growth areas in 2013 and 2014. However, another contributor to the slower job gains this year may have been a shrinking supply of available talent.”

A churning labor force

“There is a lot of churn in the labor force right now,” said Challenger. “We have retirees leaving the workforce; we will continue to see layoffs, even in a strong economy; and, each month upwards of 2.7 million Americans quit their jobs. So, when casual observers look at that net job gain of around 200,000 new workers each month, they can easily miss all of this other activity that suggests a very frenetic employment picture where there are still a lot of separations alongside a lot of hiring,” he added.

Challenger expects this heavy churn to continue in 2016, with around 10,000 baby boomers hitting retirement age each day. But he says, that doesn’t mean they are going to leave the labor force. “Recent improvements in the stock market might mean that more can leave the workforce if they want, but many will continue to work out of desire,”he said. “However, many will change jobs, others will cut back hours, and some may leave the workforce for a while and come back. In any case, baby boomers alone will be a significant contributor to labor force churn.”

Job prospects

Challenger says this churn, whether it’s related Baby Boomers or companies shifting strategies, creates opportunities, but that doesn't mean finding a job will be easy in 2016. Employers are still being selective and the hiring process is taking longer, as a result,” he said. “Job seekers should not expect to send out a bunch of resumes and job offers will simply come pouring in.

They will still be required to do the hard leg work. Cold calling, networking, meeting with people on a daily basis, and all of the other activities necessary to uncover the hidden job market and find the best opportunities.

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Women's favorite cars? Think small, economical, and Korean

Men, on the other hand, pick large, loud, and fast

Korean automakers seem to have answered the age-old question of what women really want. ...

Photo
Women's heart throb, the 2016 Hyundai Tucson (Photo: Hyundai)

Korean automakers seem to have answered the age-old question of what women really want. Accordng to a study by automotive research company iSeeCars.com, Korean carmakers Hyundai and Kia hold the keys to women's hearts. Men's most-desired vehicles are, not surprisingly, wildly different.

The survey, which looked at 54 million car sales, found that half of the top 10 vehicles women wanted to buy were Korean -- the Hyundai Tucson and four Kia models, the Forte, Sorento, Rio, and Soul.

Of the remaining five, two are Japanese—Nissan Versa and Mitsubishi Outlander, two are domestics—Ford Fiesta and Jeep Patriot, and one is European—Volkswagen Beetle.

Photo
iSeeCars.com

Both the car segments and the brands in the top 10 vehicles are associated with affordability and fuel economy, rather than luxury and performance. Six of the 10 cars women shop for most are small cars and the other four are small crossovers.

"The qualities women really want in a car are affordability and practicality, in contrast to the kinds of cars men are most interested in buying,” said iSeeCars.com CEO Phong Ly.

On the other hand ...

Men, the study is not the first to note, are different. Their most-wanted list focuses more on sports car and specialty vehicles, chiefly big trucks.

Photo
iSeeCars.com

The average price of the top 10 cars women want is $14,870, and all of them are priced below $20,000. In comparison, the average price of the cars on the men's top 10 list is $49,224 – more than triple the average price of the cars that women preferred. This stands in sharp contrast to the gender gap in income, where men’s income is just 18% higher than women’s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"The difference in pricing seems to speak more to women's interest in practicality, owning a car for transportation from point A to point B, and men's view of cars as status symbols," said Ly.

Photo
Sensible and speedy, the Nissan GT-R (Photo: Nissan)

For example, the Hyundai Tucson, the car most desired by women, is an SUV with about 170 horsepower, gets 23 miles per gallon, and averages under $17,000, while the number one on the men’s list is the Nissan GT-R, a sports car that has over 500 horsepower, gets 18 MPG in fuel economy, and averages more than $80,000.  

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FTC sets guidelines for 'native' advertising

Advertising shouldn't look too much like surrounding editorial content

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) outlined a simple principle for so-called "native" advertising today, also known as sponsored content: it has to be clea...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC) outlined a simple principle for so-called "native" advertising today, also known as sponsored content: it has to be clearly identified as advertising.

“The FTC’s policy applies time-tested truth-in-advertising principles to modern media,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. “People browsing the Web, using social media, or watching videos have a right to know if they’re seeing editorial content or an ad.”

The policy statement explains that an ad’s format is deceptive if it materially misleads consumers about the ad’s commercial nature, including through any implied or express representation that it comes from a party other than the sponsoring advertiser.

If the source of advertising content is clear, consumers can make informed decisions about whether to interact with the advertising and the weight to give the information conveyed in the ad, the FTC said.

Data profiling

The Center for Digital Democracy said the guidelines are a "wake-up call for digital marketers" but expressed concern that the FTC guidelines do not address the use that data profiling plays in targeting individuals.

"Increasingly, the same Big Data driven tactics that undermine user privacy—where a person is identified and tracked regardless of the device they use—is being used to create and deliver native ads," said Jeffrey Chester, the group's executive director, in an email to ConsumerAffairs. "Known as 'programmatic native,' this growing practice raises additional consumer protection concerns about user privacy. The FTC should have specifically addressed it in its guidance and not just in a footnote.

"Given the growing data-driven capability of native ads to be formatted to reflect a person’s interests and online behavior, as well as how it’s designed to work well on mobile devices and other screens, there are questions about the effectiveness of disclosure," Chester said. "What’s needed is a 21st Century set of safeguards that enable consumers to control the data used to deliver them ads, especially formats like native that are specially designed to be disguised as content."

Business guide

Also released today is “Native Advertising: A Guide for Business” to help companies understand, and comply with, the policy statement in the context of native advertising. The business guidance gives examples of when disclosures are necessary to prevent deception and FTC staff guidance on how to make clear and prominent disclosures within the format of native ads.

The policy statement and business guidance is, in part, the result of the FTC staff’s analysis of information collected at a workshop held in December 2013 entitled “Blurred Lines: Advertisements or Editorial?”, its monitoring of how native advertising is used, and relevant consumer research over the past two years.

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FDA changes rules to allow some gay men to donate blood

Men who have not had same-sex encounters for 12 months will be considered

For 30 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has prohibited gay and bisexual men from donating blood. The policy was instituted in response to...

PhotoFor 30 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has prohibited gay and bisexual men from donating blood. The policy was instituted in response to the HIV-AIDS crisis, but critics have long pointed out that the virus that causes AIDS can be spread through a number of avenues and have said that it is not fair to exclude men who have sex with other men.

The new policy provides that men who have not had sex with another man for 12 months will be permitted to donate blood.  These updated recommendations "better align the deferral period" for gay men with other men and women at increased risk for HIV infection – such as those who had a recent blood transfusion or those who have been accidentally exposed to the blood of another individual. 

The FDA was careful to note that the new policy, like the old one, applies to men who have had sex with one or more other men, something that can occur among men who consider themselves heterosexual. 

“The FDA’s responsibility is to maintain a high level of blood product safety for people whose lives depend on it,” said the FDA’s Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, M.D. “We have taken great care to ensure this policy revision is backed by sound science and continues to protect our blood supply.”

Critics still aren't happy, though. Kelsey Louie, CEO of the advocacy group Gay Men's Health Crisis, said the new policy perpetuates "the stereotype that all gay and bisexual men are inherently dangerous."

"The FDA's 12-month deferral plan would still require gay and bisexual men to be celibate for a full year before they are allowed to donate blood, regardless of marital status and safe-sex practices. Heterosexuals are given no such restrictions, even if their sexual behavior places them at high risk for HIV," Louie said.

"Best available science" 

Using the approach of following the best available science together with use of donor education materials, specific deferral questions and advances in HIV donor testing has helped the FDA reduce the HIV transmission rates from blood transfusion from 1 in 2,500 to 1 in 1.47 million, the agency said in a statement announcing the change.

“In reviewing our policies to help reduce the risk of HIV transmission through blood products, we rigorously examined several alternative options, including individual risk assessment,” said Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “Ultimately, the 12-month deferral window is supported by the best available scientific evidence, at this point in time, relevant to the U.S. population. We will continue to actively conduct research in this area and further revise our policies as new data emerge.”

Several countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, currently have 12-month deferrals for men who have had sex with other men.

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Volkswagen vows to show some humility, coins a new slogan

"Das Auto" is seen as too absolutist in the post-Dirty Diesel era

It's been a bad year for Volkswagen and an even worse year for Volkswagen owners, who find their cars' resale value trashed and fear that they have been un...

PhotoIt's been a bad year for Volkswagen and an even worse year for Volkswagen owners, who find their cars' resale value trashed and fear that they have been unwittingly poisoning their fellow Earthlings. 

But time marches on and VW is fighting to recover from the Dirty Diesel scandal. How? Why, through advertising and public relations, of course. It's taking a bold move -- ditching its "Das Auto" slogan, widely used since 2007 when it replaced the little-mourned "Fahrvergnügen."

Instead of the rather drab "Das Auto," which after all simply means "the car," VW will be rolling out its bold new slogan soon.

"Wherever our logo appears in future, it will be backed by the new brand slogan 'Volkswagen,'" a VW spokesman said, according to Reuters. "The slogan will be rolled out in stages across the world."

No, it's not a misprint. Volkswagen's new slogan will be "Volkswagen."

Reuters quoted a VW executive who attended a recent strategy session in Dresden as saying that the old "Das Auto" slogan was seen as absolutist. You know, sort of stiff and elitist. The new one -- "Volkswagen" -- well, it's supposed to be more humble.

Head-hanging

Volkswagen  Dec. 22, 2015, 5:22 p.m.
Consumers rate Volkswagen

After months of what has been seen in many quarters as arrogance and defensiveness and even outright prevarication at times, VW is trying to loosen up, show some humility, and be more open about its internal problems, even while claiming it has no idea who might have tinkered with the emissions control systems on its diesel engines.

Wags have compared this to O.J. Simpson's oft-repeated pledge to find the fiend who murdered his wife and a friend. 

But just to illustrate the depth of its commitment to a new openness, Volkswagen suggested that its executives ditch the neckties at the Dresden strategy session and some reports have even said that as a team-building exercise, top VW brass folded shirts together.

Volkswagen obviously will stop at nothing to win back consumers' confidence.

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Four home design trends that 2016 will welcome

Say hello to art deco-inspired patterns and goodbye to rustic chic

Put a lid on the chalkboard paint and give burlap the boot, because “Farmhouse Chic” is officially on its way out. According to Zillow Digs’ 2016 Home Tren...

PhotoPut a lid on the chalkboard paint and give burlap the boot, because “Farmhouse Chic” is officially on its way out. According to Zillow Digs’ 2016 Home Trends Forecast, the fad has finally been exhausted and will make its exit in the coming year. Instead, we can look forward to a blend of elegance and simplicity brought forth by Art Deco-inspired patterns and minimalistic decor.

"2016 will bring a fresh modern vibe that beautifully mixes simplicity with bold accents reminiscent of the roaring 20s,” says Kerrie Kelly, Zillow Digs home design expert. “Watch for an increase in natural colors and textures contrasted by retro art deco statement pieces."

Top four trends

Through combined data from a survey of interior design experts and an analysis of popular photos on the website, Zillow Digs has come up with some home design trends to watch for in the new year.

Here are the top four trends for 2016:

  • Art deco-inspired patterns and shapes. Art deco is expected to make a bold new comeback in 2016, but with a few modern improvements. We’ll see the style's trademark geometric patterns and honeycomb shapes woven into everything from wallpaper to artwork, adding elegance and dimension. Experts also predict gold statement lighting fixtures to rise in popularity, especially in kitchens and dining rooms.

  • Nubby wool rugs. Nubby wool or other natural fibers will be the go-to texture for 2016, especially for area rugs. Homeowners will turn away from indoor use of rough burlap and instead gravitate toward softer fibers that are more suitable for throw blankets, pillows, and rugs. Neutral hues will create the perfect indoor/outdoor vibe while softening bolder colors or dramatic statement pieces.

  • Encaustic tiles. These intricate patterned tiles get their coloring from different types of clay or minerals rather than glaze. They can be used to create a beautiful, natural-looking focal point in a variety of rooms. We can expect to see encaustic tiles pop up in kitchen backsplashes, bathroom shower tiles, accent walls, and even fireplace mantles.

  • Artisan accent pieces. Minimalism and thoughtful decor choices heed the “less is more” approach in 2016. Flea market finds, travel souvenirs, and unique artisan pieces will take center stage in home design. Look for a rise in partnerships between big box stores and global artisans to accommodate the increased demand for one-of-a-kind or handmade items.  

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CDC: new E. coli strain linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill

All five people who got sick reported eating at Chipotle

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week had good news and bad news for Chipotle Mexican Grill, the popular chain linked to foodborne...

PhotoThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week had good news and bad news for Chipotle Mexican Grill, the popular chain linked to foodborne illnesses.

First, the good news. In its latest update, the CDC reports there has been one more case in Pennsylvania of someone getting sick from E. coli. However, that person did not report eating at Chipotle.

At the same time, however, the CDC had some bad news. It said it is investigating a more recent outbreak of a different, rare DNA fingerprint of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O26 (STEC O26) linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Because it is not known if these infections are related to the larger, previously reported outbreak of STEC O26 infections, these illnesses are not being included in the case count for that outbreak. This investigation is ongoing, the CDC said.

So, it sounds like the CDC has not definitively concluded that Chipotle still has problems. Perhaps it doesn't.

Everyone ate at Chipotle

That said, the five people who have gotten sick from the new strain all reported eating at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in the week before illness started.

There is one case in Kansas, one in North Dakota, and three in Oklahoma.

As of December 18, 2015, the CDC said 53 people infected with the outbreak strain of STEC O26 have been reported from nine states. Of those, 20 had to be hospitalized. There have been no reports of hemolytic uremic syndrome and no deaths.

Most of the illnesses occurred in Washington and Oregon during October.

“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,” the CDC said in its update. “The investigation has not identified what specific food is linked to illness.”

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Health researchers say almonds deserve more respect

Often overlooked nut full of protein and essential fatty acids

During the holidays the supermarket aisles usually feature a generous assortment of nuts. After all, it's prime time for baking, and many delectable – but ...

PhotoDuring the holidays the supermarket aisles usually feature a generous assortment of nuts. After all, it's prime time for baking, and many delectable – but not always healthy – pastries use nuts as ingredients.

But many nuts, by themselves, are very healthy and are an often overlooked snack. Researchers at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences say the almond is one nut that deserves more respect.

“Almonds are a good source of plant protein -- essential fatty acids, vitamin E and magnesium,” said Alyssa Burns, a doctoral student in university's food science and human nutrition department.

Daily almonds

As part of her graduate work, Burns conducted a study over 14 weeks. She gave a daily ration of almonds to 29 pairs of parents and children.

The adults were around 35, the children between three and six. The children got a half-ounce of almonds a day, the adults 1.5 ounces.

During the trial, the adults and kids limited their snacks to their daily ration of almonds.

When parents and children were eating almonds, their Healthy Eating Index (HEI) increased for total protein foods, seafood and plant proteins, and fatty acids, Burns noted, while they ate fewer empty calories. Parents also cut down on sodium intake. Parents and children consumed more vitamin E and magnesium on average when eating almonds.

Many nuts boost health

According to the Mayo Clinic, the type of nut you eat isn't nearly as important as making sure it has heart-healthy properties, including fats and nutrients.

“Walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts — you name it — almost every type of nut has a lot of nutrition packed into a tiny package,” the Clinic staff says in a web posting. “If you have heart disease, eating nuts instead of a less healthy snack can help you more easily follow a heart-healthy diet.”

The nuts you select should have certain health-boosting properties. They should have unsaturated fats that lower bad cholesterol levels. They should also have omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3s are a healthy form of fatty acids that can promote heart-health by, among other things, preventing dangerous heart rhythms that can lead to heart attacks. Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in many kinds of fish, but nuts are one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Rich in fiber

Nuts also contain a lot of fiber, which is good for you on a number of levels, from promoting overall health to making you feel full and less likely to over-eat.

Nuts are also a source of l-arginine, a substance that may make your artery walls more flexible and less prone to blood clots.

All in all, nuts can be a healthy snack all year round – but slightly less so during the holidays when they're an ingredient in Aunt Martha's brownies.

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Cruise passengers aren't big spenders in port, study finds

They walk around, buy a few trinkets, then reboard the ship

The huge cruise ship docks and tourists pour off for a few hours in port. Is it a bonanza for local businesses? Actually, no, a new study finds.Cruisin...

PhotoThe huge cruise ship docks and tourists pour off for a few hours in port. Is it a bonanza for local businesses? Actually, no, a new study finds.

Cruising tourists spend very little money during the port of call even when they are offered an increased number of spending options, according to the study published in Tourism Management Perspectives.

The study looked at the spending patterns of cruise passengers in Bergen, Norway's largest cruise harbor, hosting more than 300 cruise ships every season.

The local tourist industry, media, port authorities and politicians often praise the ever-increasing number of cruise arrivals to Bergen, but for no good reason, according to Professor Svein Larsen at the Department of Psychosocial Science at the University of Bergen (UiB).

In their study, Larsen and colleague Katharina Wolff found that cruise passengers' expenditures do not vary as a function of spending opportunities. They compared tourists' expenditures on normal weekdays including Saturday, when shops and other services tend to be open, to expenditures on Sundays and holidays, when most shops tend to be closed.

"Even if more possibilities to spend money arise, cruise tourists do not spend more. But land tourists do," says Larsen.

"The myth that cruise passengers' expenditures are low because there is nothing to spend money on, as a Norwegian emeritus minister of trade phrased it in a local newspaper in 2013, is simply not true."

Hurry back

An earlier study by Larsen found that it is probably the length of stay on land that is the most crucial determinant of how much money cruise passengers spend. Currently, cruise tourists are normally not allowed much time in port, thus limiting their opportunity to spend money. 

"After a short morning or afternoon stroll in the city, cruise passengers typically hurry back to the ship where they can enjoy their already paid-for lunch or afternoon tea," says Larsen.

Another myth about cruise tourists is that they often return to a destination visited on the cruise on a later occasion. But the new study shows that among tourists who had visited Norway before, cruise tourists had visited as cruise tourists and land tourists had visited as land tourists. Similarly, revisit intentions, the expressed desire to come back to Bergen/Norway, are significantly higher among land tourists than among cruise tourists.

At the same time, cruise tourists express a higher wish to return as cruise tourists also in the future, and they express a higher wish to return as cruise tourists than as land tourists.

"It simply seems as if cruise tourism does not have any value as a promotor of Norway as a holiday destination at all," Larsen said.

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Southwest Airlines agrees to settle safety suit

Charges involve the maintenance of its Boeing 737 fleet

The U.S. Justice Department has announced that Southwest Airlines has agreed to settle a federal lawsuit brought against the carrier. The suit alleges that...

PhotoThe U.S. Justice Department has announced that Southwest Airlines has agreed to settle a federal lawsuit brought against the carrier. The suit alleges that the company violated Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety regulations in its maintenance of its Boeing 737s.

In April, the FAA charged Southwest Airlines with two safety violations, including one involving a loss of cabin pressure during a flight from Boston to St. Louis. The agency charged that on May 13, 2013, a Southwest Boeing 737 lost cabin pressure, the cabin’s oxygen masks deployed, and the aircraft made an emergency landing in Baltimore.

The FAA further alleged that after the event, Southwest mechanics failed to complete a mandatory inspection to check whether the change in cabin pressure damaged the aircraft and to ensure used oxygen bottles were replaced.

In August, the FAA proposed a $325,000 civil penalty against the Dallas-based carrier for allegedly operating a Boeing 737 that was not in compliance with Federal Aviation Regulations.

The penalty is the result of an inspection made on July 9, 2014, when an FAA inspector performed an aging aircraft inspection on the 737 while it was at a maintenance facility in San Salvador, El Salvador. According to the FAA, the inspector discovered that Southwest improperly recorded a temporary repair to an approximately nine-inch crease in the aluminum skin of the jetliner’s rear cargo door as a permanent repair.

Settlement terms

Under the terms of the settlement Southwest will make operational changes to improve oversight of, and control over, third parties that perform maintenance on its aircraft. Southwest also agreed to pay a $2.8 million civil penalty and up to $5.5 million in deferred civil penalties if it does not implement the operational changes set forth in the settlement agreement.

“The Justice Department believes the settlement agreement with Southwest Airlines Co. will provide meaningful improvements in safety and compliance and further ensure the integrity of FAA air safety regulations,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the settlement provides strong incentives for the company to take specific steps to address the compliance problems that the FAA investigations uncovered.

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IRS cuts 2016 standard mileage rates

Rates are being cut for business, medical, and moving mileage

If you use your car for things that are usually tax deductible, you're not going to like this.The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is cutting the 2016 op...

PhotoIf you use your car for things that are usually tax deductible, you're not going to like this.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is cutting the 2016 optional standard mileage rates used to calculate the deductible costs of operating an automobile for business, charitable, medical, or moving purposes.

Starting January 1, the standard mileage rates for the use of a car (also vans, pickups, or panel trucks) will be:

  • 54 cents per mile for business miles driven -- down 3.5 cents from 2015.
  • 19 cents per mile driven for medical or moving purposes -- down four cents from 2015.
  • 14 cents per mile driven in service of charitable organizations. The charitable rate is based on statute.

According to the tax agency, the standard mileage rate for business is based on an annual study of the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile. The rate for medical and moving purposes is based on the variable costs.

You have options

Keep in mind, though, that you always have the option of calculating the actual costs of using your vehicle rather than using the standard mileage rates.

A taxpayer may not use the business standard mileage rate for a vehicle after using any depreciation method under the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS) or after claiming a Section 179 deduction for that vehicle.

In addition, the business standard mileage rate cannot be used for more than four vehicles used simultaneously.

These and other requirements for a taxpayer to use a standard mileage rate to calculate the amount of a deductible business, moving, medical, or charitable expense are in Rev. Proc. 2010-51.

Notice 2016-01 contains the standard mileage rates, the amount a taxpayer must use in calculating reductions to basis for depreciation taken under the business standard mileage rate, and the maximum standard automobile cost that a taxpayer may use in computing the allowance under a fixed and variable rate plan.

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Government rejects Staples' acquisition of Office Depot

Staples says it may press the issue in court

It looks like the merger of Staples and Office Depot isn't going to happen without a court battle. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has rejected Staples'...

PhotoIt looks like the merger of Staples and Office Depot isn't going to happen without a court battle. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has rejected Staples' acquisition of its competitor.

In a brief statement, Staples informed investors that its efforts to placate federal regulators have failed.

“Staples’ Board of Directors and management team have worked tirelessly to complete the transaction,” the company said. “Staples has proposed divesting up to $1.25 billion of commercial contracts in an effort to create an acceptable remedy to the FTC. The FTC rejected the company’s offer without making a counteroffer.”

Staples said it is still willing to continue negotiations with the FTC to reach a settlement that addresses the government's concerns.

See you in court

But the company said it also plans to pursue litigation, in an effort to complete the deal.

“The company is confident in its legal position and looks forward to a full and impartial judicial review of the matter,” Staples said.

A couple of years ago Staples gobbled up Office Max, another office supply and electronics competitor. Then, last February it announced its takeover bid of Office Depot.

As we reported in September, there were signs at the end of the summer that regulators might balk at the merger. The FTC torpedoed a similar merger proposal in 1997, but Staples and Office Depot said there is a lot more competition in the space today.

Apparently, not enough to suit the FTC.

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Vermont dairy farm hit for illegally administering drugs to cattle

New record-keeping system required

The Department of Justice (DOJ), at the request of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has entered a consent decree of permanent injunction against Wyn...

PhotoThe Department of Justice (DOJ), at the request of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has entered a consent decree of permanent injunction against Wynsum Holsteins, a dairy farm located in West Addison, Vermont, and its partners, Anthony, Barbara, and Stephen Correia.

The company is accused of violating several provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) including offering for sale cows with illegal drug residues in their tissue, administering drugs contrary to label directions without proper veterinary oversight and supervision, and failing to maintain adequate treatment records.

Earlier warning

This isn't the first violation. Following a 2012 inspection that revealed similar violations, the FDA issued a warning letter in March 2013 and the company promised to take corrective actions. However, an FDA inspection in 2014 showed that the company failed to address their violations.

“When a company refuses to comply with federal laws we must take the necessary enforcement actions to ensure that the food that enters the American food supply is safe,” said Daniel McChesney, Ph.D., director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine’s Office of Surveillance and Compliance at the FDA. “Until Wynsum Holsteins takes corrective measures to address their violations we must order them to cease operations to make sure that food they produce does not put consumers at risk.”

The consent decree prohibits Wynsum Holsteins and its partners from -- among other things -- selling animals for slaughter until they have implemented record-keeping systems that ensure animals with illegal drug tissue residues are not sold. The systems must also ensure that drugs are not used in a manner contrary to the labeling without a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship.

Failure to obey the terms of the consent decree could also result in civil or criminal penalties.

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Existing-home sales hit the skids

The November pace was the slowest since April 2014

Sales of previously owned homes skidded in November to their lowest level in more than a year and a-half.The National Association of Realtors (NAR) rep...

PhotoSales of previously owned homes skidded in November to their lowest level in more than a year and a-half.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports existing-home sales -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops -- plummeted 10.5% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.76 million. That's the lowest since April 2014.

Last month's decline, the largest since a 22.5% plunge in July 2010, pushed sales 3.8% below a year ago -- the first year-over-year decrease since September 2014.

Many factors at play

Multiple factors led to November's sales decline, but NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun thinks the primary reason could be an anomaly as the industry adjusts to the new Know Before You Owe rule. "Sparse inventory and affordability issues continue to impede a large pool of buyers' ability to buy, which is holding back sales," he said. "However, signed contracts have remained mostly steady in recent months, and properties sold faster in November. Therefore it's highly possible the stark sales decline wasn't because of sudden, withering demand."

Yun says although real estate agents are adjusting accordingly to the Know Before You Owe initiative, the main takeaway so far has been the need for longer closing times.

"It's possible the longer timeframes pushed a latter portion of would-be November transactions into December," said Yun. "As long as closing timeframes don't rise even further, it's likely more sales will register to this month's total, and November's large dip will be more of an outlier."

Prices and inventory

The median existing-home price for all housing types last month was $220,300 -- up 6.3% from a year ago, and the 45th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

Total housing inventory at the end of November fell 3.3% to 2.04 million existing homes available for sale, and is now 1.9% lower than a year ago. Unsold inventory is at a 5.1-month supply at the current sales pace, versus 4.8 months in October.

Performance by region

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast dropped 9.2% to an annual rate of 690,000 but are still 1.5% above a year ago. The median price posted a year-over-year gain of 3.2% to $254,800.
  • In the Midwest, sales plunged 15.4% to an annual rate of 1.10 million in November and are now 2.7% below November 2014. The median price was $169,300 -- up 5.3% from a year ago.
  • The South saw a sales decline of 6.2% to an annual rate of 1.98 million and are now 5.7% below the same time a year earlier. The median price rose 6.3% to $189,400.
  • Existing-home sales in the West totaled 990,000 down a whopping 13.9% in November and are now 4.8% lower than a year ago. The median price was $319,700 -- 8.3% above November 2014.
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Economy turns in sub-par performance

Corporate profits took a hit too

The final look at the economy for the third quarter was generally dissatisfying.The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reports the "third"estimate of re...

PhotoThe final look at the economy for the third quarter was generally dissatisfying.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reports the "third"estimate of 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 2.0% after growing 2.1% in the “second” estimate and 3.9% in the second quarter.

All told, that's just shy of the average growth rate of 2.1% for the preceding 12 quarters.

More of the same

With the third estimate for the the July – September quarter, the general picture of economic growth showed little change.

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

The slowdown was due to a downturn in private inventory investment and decelerations in exports, in PCE, in nonresidential fixed investment, and in state and local government spending that were partly offset by a deceleration in imports.

Inflation and profits

The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, increased 1.3% in the third quarter, down 0.2% from the second. Excluding food and energy prices, the “core” rate of GDP inflation was up 1.3%, compared with an increase of 1.2%.

Corporate profits did not fare well in the third quarter, plunging $33.0 billion following a $70.4 billion in the second three months of the year. Consequently, taxes on corporate income fell $6.9 billion after surging $31.3 billion in the second quarter.

The complete report is available on the BEA website.

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Keep your home merry and bright to keep burglars away

Some simple steps can make an empty house look occupied

Tis the season for expensive gifts under the tree and festivities that often take people out of the house.That means it's prime time for burglars, who ...

PhotoTis the season for expensive gifts under the tree and festivities that often take people out of the house.

That means it's prime time for burglars, who see nearly every home as a target this time of year and look for signs that the occupants are elsewhere.

That's why it's important to take some precautions.

In a scene from the holiday classic “Home Alone,” Macaulay Culkin convinces would-be burglars his empty home is the scene of a festive party, using loud music, bright lights, and a Michael Jordan cut-out to carry out the ruse. (video below)

Right idea

You might not have to go to the lengths Culkin did in the movie, but security experts say the youngster had the right idea.

To keep burglars out of your home this holiday season, there are a few simple steps you can take to make it more secure.

Start with the basics. Make sure doors and windows are locked. Don't make it easy for someone to just walk in and play the role of the Grinch.

At night, turn on porch lights and place some interior lights on timers. Motion sensing lights are also effective. The neighbor's cat may trip it now and then, but that's okay. A light going on and off periodically suggests activity in a deserted house.

Since burglars sometimes peer in windows in search of loot before taking the risk of breaking in, keep valuables out of sight to reduce the temptation.

Enlist the neighbors

If you're going to be away from home for more than a day, stop the mail and newspaper, or ask a neighbor to pick them up. In fact, if neighbors know you are going to be away, they may be more likely to keep an eye on your place.

If you should suffer a break in, make sure you report it to local law enforcement as quickly as possible.

“Having a police report is essential for starting the insurance claims process when a theft or burglary occurs,” said Douglas Waldie, President of Hudson Douglas Public Adjusters, a firm providing insurance adjustment services in several states. “Many victims are overwhelmed when they have been targeted and are unfamiliar with the claims process and what they need to do to make sure they are treated fairly by their insurance company.”

Though still very much a threat, burglaries appear to be on the decline nationwide. The FBI reports there were 2.1 million burglaries in the U.S. in 2010, a decline of 2% from the year before. They were up only 2% from 2001 to 2010.

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Jet.com unable to guarantee delivery by Christmas

The self-proclaimed challenger to Amazon lags in moving the merchandise

Amazon was supposed to be quaking in its boots by now as challenger Jet.com undercut its prices and stole its most valuable customers. Instead, Jet.com is ...

PhotoAmazon was supposed to be quaking in its boots by now as challenger Jet.com undercut its prices and stole its most valuable customers. Instead, Jet.com is wiping egg off its face as its warns customers that it may not be able to deliver by Christmas.

“This year’s holiday gift rush has led to nationwide shipping delays that have affected many of our fulfillment partners,” Jet wrote on its website last week. “We can no longer confidently guarantee delivery by December 25th for any items not flagged as eligible for 2-day delivery.”

The problem is largely the result of something that's supposed to be a big plus for Jet.com -- the fact that it farms out most warehouse operations to its suppliers. This saves Jet money and makes it possible to shave 5% or so off prices but it also gives it less control over its shipments.

Amazon, by contrast, owns a huge network of warehouses itself and runs what everyone concedes is a very tight ship -- getting merchandise out the door and on its way to customers in record time.  

To hear Jet tell it, shipping delays are hitting everyone but UPS and FedEx, though strained to meet demand, say delivery rates are normal this week -- in excess of 95%. 

Jet has raised millions of dollars from investors eager to find someone who can take on Amazon and turn a profit, something that's not always at the top of Amazon's list. 

But whether Jet.com is the answer remains to be seen. After crowing in its early days that it would soon be breathing down Amazon's neck, Jet.com has been eating crow lately. It eliminated its $50 annual fee a few months ago, which in turn has caused it to cut back some of its much-hyped discounts.

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Martin Shkreli terminated as CEO of KaloBios

This comes after being charged of fraud and losing his CEO position at Turing Pharmaceuticals

Things continue to go downhill for Martin Shkreli, the infamous ex-CEO who is best known for drastically raising the price ofs Daraprim, a drug used to tre...

PhotoThings continue to go downhill for Martin Shkreli, the infamous ex-CEO who is best known for drastically raising the price ofs Daraprim, a drug used to treat HIV and parasitic infections. 

After being arrested on charges of securities fraud last week, and subsequently resigning from his position as CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, Shkreli has been fired from his positon as CEO at KaloBios Pharmaceuticals. He has also stepped down from his place on the company's board. 

The move comes after KaloBios' stock took a major hit. On the day that Shkreli was arrested, stock prices for the company dropped by 50%. Tony Chase, a board member that joined KaloBios in November when Shkreli acquired 70% of the company, has also left the company. 

Although only there for a short time, there were indicators that Shkreli was going to be using similar business tactics at KaloBios that he displayed at Turing. In early December, KaloBios acquired a drug that is designed to treat Chagas disease, a type of parasitic infection that affects nearly 300,000 people in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently gives the drug to consumers at no cost if they have an acute infection. Shkreli had been seeking FDA approval to raise the price of treatment to between $60,000 and $100,000. 

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BMW fined $40 million for Mini Cooper safety violations

Company was slow recalling models that failed to meet side-impact standards

BMW has been hit with a $40 million fine for moving too slowly to recall 2014 and 2015 Mini Cooper models that failed to meet federal safety standards for ...

PhotoBMW has been hit with a $40 million fine for moving too slowly to recall 2014 and 2015 Mini Cooper models that failed to meet federal safety standards for side-impact protection.

It's the second time the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has fined the German carmaker in recent years. It imposed a $3 million fine in 2012 for similar violations.

“NHTSA has discovered multiple instances in which BMW failed its obligations to its customers, to the public and to safety,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “The Consent Order NHTSA has issued not only penalizes this misconduct, it requires BMW to take a series of steps to remedy the practices and procedures that led to these violations.”

NHTSA said BMW failed to meet a five-day deadline for issuing a recall upon learning that certain models failed to meet safety standards.

Additional violations

The NHTSA said that a Mini two-door hardtop coupe failed a crash test in October 2014. The company responded that the vehicle was listed with an incorrect weight and would pass the test if conducted at the proper weight rating but agreed to conduct a recall to correct the incorrect weight rating on the vehicle’s Tire Information Placard. The company also said it would conduct a voluntary service campaign, short of a recall, to add additional side-impact protection.

In July 2015, the NHTSA conducted a second crash test at the corrected weight rating on a vehicle with the additional side-impact protection, and the vehicle again failed.

At that time, the NHTSA learned that BMW had not launched the service campaign it had agreed to conduct. Under its consent order with the NHTSA, BMW acknowledges that it failed to recall the noncompliant vehicles in a timely fashion.

It also acknowledges additional violations discovered in the NHTSA’s investigation, including failing in multiple recalls since its 2012 consent order to notify owners and dealers of recalls in a timely fashion and to provide required quarterly recall completion reports on time.

“The requirement to launch recalls and inform consumers in a timely fashion when a safety defect or noncompliance is discovered is fundamental to our system for protecting the traveling public. This is a must-do,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. “For the second time in three years, BMW has been penalized for failing to meet that obligation. The company must take this opportunity to reform its procedures and its culture to put safety where it belongs: at the top of its priority list.”

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New safety rules proposed for indoor tanning devices

Those under 18 would be barred from using them

The risks of using indoor tanning devices are well known. Things such as sunlamps, indoor tanning beds, and tanning booths expose you to ultraviolet (UV)...

PhotoThe risks of using indoor tanning devices are well known

Things such as sunlamps, indoor tanning beds, and tanning booths expose you to ultraviolet (UV) radiation and increase your risk of eye injury, skin damage, and skin cancer -- including melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) already requires such devices to be labeled with a visible, black-box warning stating that they should not be used by people under age 18 because the effects of exposure to UV radiation add up over one’s lifetime. Therefore, UV radiation exposure in youth and teenagers puts them at a greater risk for skin and eye damage later in life.

Improving safety

So, the FDA is now proposing a rule that would restrict their use to adults aged 18 and older. The proposed rule also would require indoor tanning facilities to inform adult users about the health risks of indoor tanning and to obtain a signed risk acknowledgment from these users.

In addition, the agency is proposing a rule that would require manufacturers and indoor tanning facilities to take more actions to help improve the overall safety of indoor tanning devices.

“There is increasing evidence that indoor tanning during childhood and early adult life increases the risk of skin cancer, including melanoma,” says Markham C. Luke, M.D., Ph.D., a dermatologist and the deputy office director of the Office of Device Evaluation at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “Hundreds of youth also are injured each year across the country due to using sunlamp products.”

In fact, those who have been exposed to radiation from indoor tanning are 59% more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never tanned indoors, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

On average, more than 3,000 emergency room visits in the United States occur each year because of injuries related to indoor tanning (based on data from 2003 through 2012), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 400 of those patients each year were younger than 18.

“The FDA is particularly concerned about children and teens being exposed to UV radiation from indoor tanning because the effects of exposure add up over your lifetime,” Luke explains. “Exposure to UV radiation from indoor tanning is a preventable cause of skin cancer. The FDA is committed to protecting public health by informing consumers of the risks of indoor tanning.”

Does this affect me?

In addition to banning use for consumers under the age of 18, adult users would have to sign a certification acknowledging that they have been informed of the health risks related to the use of indoor tanning devices. Adults would sign this certification before their first indoor tanning session, and every six months after that.

The FDA says this certification would help ensure that indoor tanning facilities are giving truthful and easy-to-read information to consumers that would help them make informed decisions.

If the second proposed rule on sunlamp products (regarding performance standards) becomes final, it would require manufacturers and indoor tanning facilities to take more actions to protect consumers. (Performance standards, among other things, help ensure devices function as intended, which can help reduce risks to consumers.)

The changes

Some key proposed changes would include:

  • Changing requirements for warning statements to make them more effective;
  • Improving eye safety by adding requirements that would limit the amount of visible light allowed through protective eyewear 
  • Improving labeling on replacement bulbs so tanning facility operators make sure they are using the correct bulbs, reducing the risk of accidental burns;
  • Preventing changes to devices (for instance, preventing manufacturers from installing stronger bulbs) without re-certifying and re-identifying the device with the FDA; and
  • Requiring all sunlamp products to have an emergency shut-off switch (or panic button) that users can easily find and identify by touch or sight.
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Turmeric offers a wide range of health benefits

But is the powerful herb really more effective than prescription medication?

Turmeric (or Curcumin), the bright orange spice that gives curry its distinctive glow, has been a staple in Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cooking for ...

PhotoTurmeric (or Curcumin), the bright orange spice that gives curry its distinctive glow, has been a staple in Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cooking for thousands of years. The bitter herb sees generous use in nearly all Indian meals — and on a possibly related note, India has among the lowest rates of lung, colon, prostate, and breast cancer.

The holistic health community has long utilized turmeric to clear infections and inflammations both in and outside of the body. But recently, Western medical practitioners have also hopped aboard the Turmeric train.

As one of the most thoroughly researched plants ever, there are currently 8,421 peer-reviewed articles published which claim to prove the numerous benefits of turmeric.

Benefits

Packed with anti-inflammatories and antioxidants, turmeric has been shown to fight free radicals, rejuvenate the cells, cleanse the liver, protect the heart, boost mood, and support the brain. It may also be helpful in treating osteoarthritis, viral and bacterial infections, stomach ulcers, cancer, and other conditions.

“It’s a very powerful plant,” says Natalie Kling, a Los Angeles-based nutritionist who recommends it to clients for joint pain. Kling says that when taken as a supplement, it helps quickly. She advises adding raw turmeric to food whenever possible.

“Sprinkling it on vegetables or mixing it into dressings is quick and effective,” Kling says. “It’s inexpensive, mild in taste, and benefits every system in the body.”

More effective than medication?

Of the studies published, many claim that the potent herb is even more advantageous than prescription drugs — one of the biggest reasons is due to the lack of side effects (other than allergic reactions).

The attention-grabbing headline, “Turmeric confirmed to be as effective as 14 drugs” has recently been in circulation around the web. But upon review of scientific studies, the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database concluded that the herb is “Likely Safe” or “Possibly Effective” for dyspepsia and osteoarthritis, and there is “Insufficient Reliable Evidence” to rate effectiveness for other indications, such as Alzheimer’s, anterior uveitis, colorectal cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and skin cancer.

"I see no reason to jump on the turmeric bandwagon," says Harriet Hall on ScienceBasedMedicine.org. "On the other hand, I see no compelling reason to advise people not to use it," adding that it's important for people to understand the state of evidence before simply going along with its touted benefits.

As a supplement

While most research is still in the animal stages or having only been conducted on humans through intravenous administration, it’s important to consult your doctor before starting this supplement to ensure that it’s safe for you.

But according to New York University Langone Medical Center, Turmeric dosages must supply 400 to 600 milligrams of Curcumin three times per day to see therapeutic benefits. 

A doctor can recommend a supplement type and dosage amount to address your health concerns.

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Study seeks to slow mental decline during aging

Holiday gatherings are a good time to notice older family members' memory issues

What's a “senior moment” and what's a sign of more serious memory issues? That's a question seniors and their families often ask, and until now there have ...

PhotoWhat's a “senior moment” and what's a sign of more serious memory issues? That's a question seniors and their families often ask, and until now there have been few clear-cut answers.

But researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Washington University in St. Louis have launched a major clinical trial to find out if mental decline in seniors can be slowed or halted through exercise and other health-related interventions.

Specifically, the trial will focus on using Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), physical exercise, and health education. Researchers will be trying to find whether they can influence cognitive processes, such as attention and memory, in older adults.

“Our overall goal is to find out how to improve memory and concentration in older people,” said Julie Wetherell, PhD, co-principal investigator and professor in UC San Diego School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry.

Timely trial

The trial starts at a time when about 10,000 Baby Boomers are turning 65 every day. In the next few decades the country’s senior population will almost double, from 43 million in 2012 to nearly 84 million by 2050.

“As our society ages, we want to preserve cognitive function and enhance it if possible,” said Wetherell. “We know the brain is capable of growing new connections into old age. If we demonstrate that one, two or all three of these interventions work, it will be good news for older people who want to maintain and improve their cognitive abilities.”

Holiday health assessment

Holiday gatherings are a good time for family members to observe the cognitive function in parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. The holidays can be especially useful if several months have passed since older and younger family members have been together.

"If you haven’t seen your elderly loved one in a while, you might be more likely to notice changes in their memory and behavior that worry you," said Dr. Gregory Jicha, of the University of Kentucky Sanders-Brown Center on Aging.

Jicha says these are some troubling signs to watch for:

  • It's normal for someone to forget a date or a name but suddenly remember it later. What isn't normal is if they ask for the same information repeatedly, or struggle to recall important dates.
  • Are they having trouble following a recipe? Problem-solving skills can deteriorate in someone with Alzheimer's disease (AD).
  • Do they get lost when driving to a familiar location? If they have difficulty completing familiar tasks, it might be a sign of AD.
  • Healthy people occasionally struggle to find the right word, but using the wrong word -- particularly if they call something by the wrong name – could be something to worry about.
  • Poor judgment: are they giving lots of money to telemarketers or charities?
  • Poor hygiene.
  • Personality changes: are they suddenly irrational, fearful, or suspicious?

Jicha says any of these observations should be discretely shared with other family members and a doctor.

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New treaty allows for more U.S.-Mexico air service

JetBlue, Delta cheer agreement, which removes numerical limits on flights

Donald Trump wants to build a wall along the Mexican border, but a new treaty between the U.S. and Mexico allows for greatly expanded air traffic between t...

PhotoDonald Trump wants to build a wall along the Mexican border, but a new treaty between the U.S. and Mexico allows for greatly expanded air traffic between the two countries. 

“Travelers, shippers, airlines, and the economies of both countries will benefit from competitive pricing and more convenient air service,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “This agreement is the result of the commitment on both sides of the border to strengthen the strong bonds of trade and tourism between our two countries, and demonstrate our shared commitment to a competitive, market-based international economic system.”

The accord “lays the groundwork to take advantage to the maximum of the boom in the airline industry happening in both countries,” said Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, Mexico’s transportation and communications minister. 

JetBlue, which operates throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, was among carriers applauding the agreement. 

"I applaud the U.S. government for its diligence in securing a forward-thinking aviation treaty with Mexico," said Robin Hayes, JetBlue president and CEO. "Across the globe the U.S.-led liberalization of the skies has proven to increase travel options for consumers, grow jobs and strengthen economies."

JetBlue has flown Mexican routes since 2006 and operates low-fare service to Cancun and Mexico City from several U.S. gateways including Boston, Mass; Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, Fla.; New York-JFK; and Orlando, Fla.

Delta Air Lines also cheered the agreement, saying it would result in additional growth between the two countries. 

"Delta’s industry-leading commitment to Mexico is strong and will continue to grow to better serve our customers in conjunction with our Aeroméxico alliance partners,” Delta said in a prepared statement.

Passengers and cargo

The agreement expands opportunities for passenger and cargo carriers to provide service between the United States and Mexico, and strengthen the economic ties between the two countries. The new agreement with Mexico includes unlimited market access for U.S. and Mexican air carriers, improved intermodal rights, pricing flexibility, and other commercial rights.

The new agreement will remove the numerical limitations on the number of airlines that may provide passengers service in all U.S.-Mexico city pairs. That means some city-pair markets might see the entrance of new carriers for the first time in many years, and airlines can consider offering new service in destinations that they could have never considered previously.  

Cargo airlines, for the first time, will have expanded opportunities to provide service to new destinations that were not available under the current agreement and will be able to offer services from the United States to Mexico and beyond Mexico to other countries. 

The agreement will expand opportunities for air services and will encourage price competition by airlines, while strengthening commitments to aviation safety and security, Foxx said. 

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American Airlines applying for scheduled flights to Cuba

Up to 20 flights a day could be operating eventually

American Airlines is looking to 2016 as the year it begins scheduled service to Cuba, now that U.S. and Cuban officials have agreed to allow regular commer...

PhotoAmerican Airlines is looking to 2016 as the year it begins scheduled service to Cuba, now that U.S. and Cuban officials have agreed to allow regular commercial flights between the two countries.

"[The] announcement is great news for our customers as it brings us one step closer to connecting the U.S. and Cuba with scheduled air service," said American's chairman and CEO Doug Parker. "As the leading carrier to the Caribbean and the leading U.S. airline to Cuba, we look forward to establishing scheduled service to Cuba in 2016, from Miami and other American hubs. We appreciate the Administration's efforts and the hard work of the U.S. negotiators to reach this arrangement."

American has operated charter service to Cuba since 1991, and this year it will operate approximately 1,200 charter flights to the country, more than any other U.S. carrier and a 9% increase from 2014.

On Dec. 12, American launched new charter service between Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and Jose Marti International Airport (HAV) in Havana, providing the only nonstop service between the West Coast of the U.S. and Cuba.

It's expected to take about 90 days for applications by American and other airlines to be processed, said Howard Kass, the airline's vice president of regulatory affairs. He said up to 20 daily flights to Havana may eventually be approved, with another 10 to other Cuban airports. 

Faster mail

In an unrelated development, mail will be moving faster between the U.S. and Cuba. Negotiators reached an understanding earlier this month to re-establish direct postal services between the two countries through the implementation of a pilot plan for the transportation of mail.

The plan will provide for mail flights between the two countries several times a week, rather than routing mail through a third country, as is now the case.

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Study debunks 'fat but fit' claim

Men of normal weight had lower death risks than overweight men regardless of fitness

The notion that being "fat but fit" is OK has been debunked by a new study which found that the protective effects of being fit are highly reduced in obese...

PhotoThe notion that being "fat but fit" is OK has been debunked by a new study which found that the protective effects of being fit are highly reduced in obese people.

Swedish researchers followed 1.3 million men for nearly 30 years to see if aerobic fitness was enough to stave off early death in those who were overweight.

The study found that men of a normal weight -- regardless of their fitness level -- were at a lower risk of death compared to those who were highly fit but obese. 

The beneficial effect of high aerobic fitness was actually reduced with increased obesity, and in those with extreme obesity there was no significant effect at all, the researchers said.

Trauma deaths

Surprisingly, the researchers found a strong association between low aerobic fitness and deaths related to trauma. 

"We could only speculate, but genetic factors could have influenced these associations given that aerobic fitness is under strong genetic control," said study co-author Peter Nordström.

The study is being published today in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

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Young-adult homeownership rates may be headed in a positive direction

Numbers hint at inbound stability as the population of 25-34-year-olds soars

Young-adult homeownership has, for decades (with the exception of a growth spurt during the housing boom), been on the decline. Longer educational careers,...

PhotoYoung-adult homeownership has, for decades (with the exception of a growth spurt during the housing boom), been on the decline. Longer educational careers, delayed marriage and childbearing, and changes in the age distribution of the population are just a few of the demographic and social shifts to blame for the downward trend.

Declines have moderated recently, however, as the young-adult population has continued to grow. According to FannieMae.com’s Housing Insights, this moderation could mean that a return to stability is on the horizon for the demographic.

“After years of steep declines, the number of 25- to 34-year-old homeowners fell only modestly in 2013 and stabilized in 2014,” says FannieMae.com, “Strong population growth could soon generate increases in the number of young homeowners, even without much improvement in homeownership rate trends.”

That’s not to say that we’re out of the woods yet. Numbers are still declining  just at a moderating pace. In other words, says the site: “The young-adult homeownership rate is no longer hemorrhaging, but bleeding continues.”

Indications of stability

During the housing bust, young adult homeownership took a major hit. Those in the 25-to 34-year-old age bracket experienced a greater decline in homeownership than any other age group, falling nearly 10 percentage points since the overall homeownership rate peaked in 2006.

Moderating declines, however, have translated into much smaller decreases in the number of young owners.

Between 2007-2012, the number of homeowners aged 25-34 fell by more than 250,000 each year but has declined less than 100,000 annually since. In fact, the decline between 2013 and 2014 was considered “statistically insignificant”  the first indication of stability in the number of young homeowners since the onset of the Great Recession, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS).

Housing market implications

With population growth among young adults poised to continue expanding rapidly, growth in the number of young homeowners can be stimulated by even the most modest of improvements.

This return to modest growth in young homeowners could have several implications on the housing industry, including:

  • The need to adjust the size, type, and geographic location of new housing construction

  • The need to expand education and counseling efforts targeted at inexperienced homeowners

  • Demand for services and technologies designed to serve youthful home buyers as they search for housing and mortgages

  • An increased demand for starter homes

Future predictions

Forecasting future homeownership rate change is difficult and full of uncertainty. However, upon analyzing three possible homeownership rate path trajectories, experts say stability is “certainly plausible.”

Given steady labor market improvements, nascent income growth, and persistently strong aspirations for homeownership among young adults, a return to stability  or at least modest improvement in homeownership rates  is headed our way.

Recent efforts to expand mortgage credit for first-time home buyers also could help nudge the young-adult homeownership rate in a positive direction.

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Netflix socks pause the video when you fall asleep

But you may need to be handy with knitting needles and a soldering iron

Who hasn't stretched out on the couch to binge watch the latest Netflix original series, only to doze off and wake up on Episode 11?But if you're weari...

PhotoWho hasn't stretched out on the couch to binge watch the latest Netflix original series, only to doze off and wake up on Episode 11?

But if you're wearing a pair of Netflix socks, it should never happen again. The socks, the company claims, can detect when you fall asleep. It stops the show so you can easily resume when you wake up.

According to Netflix, an accelerometer detects when you've stopped moving for a prolonged period of time and triggers a signal to your TV that pauses Netflix. When it thinks you've dozed off, an LED light in the cuff of the sock flashes red, warning that the pause signal is about to be sent to your TV. Any motion will stop it from firing.

Sensitive to slight movements

“The accelerometer is very sensitive to little movements, so it's good at detecting when you're just sitting still, raptly watching Netflix, and when you've actually fallen asleep,” Netflix says on its website.

The socks require some assembly and even some knitting. It also helps to be familiar with a soldering iron. Step-by-step instructions are contained the the video below.

To make a pair of program-pausing socks, Netflix says you need a pair of knit socks, an arduino microcontroller, IR LEDs, an LED indicator light, battery, momentary button, accelerometer and a foot square piece of felt.

Maybe it would be easier to drink a cup of coffee or strong tea while watching.

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More than 47,000 drug overdose deaths last year

CDC: Increase in opioid overdose deaths is "alarming"

Death from opioid drugs knows no boundaries. It has taken nearly half a million Americans in the years from 2000 t...

Photo
Photo (c) Jwh via Wikimedia Commons

Death from opioid drugs knows no boundaries. It has taken nearly half a million Americans in the years from 2000 to 2014 -- young, old, white, black, rich, poor, urban, and rural -- and the problem is getting worse, with overdose deaths increasing 14% in 2014.

Opioids include illegal drugs -- heroin and fentanyl -- and prescription pain relievers including oxycodone and hydrocodone. 

“The increasing number of deaths from opioid overdose is alarming,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “The opioid epidemic is devastating American families and communities. To curb these trends and save lives, we must help prevent addiction and provide support and treatment to those who suffer from opioid use disorders."

A report published last week in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report "shows how important it is that law enforcement intensify efforts to reduce the availability of heroin, illegal fentanyl, and other illegal opioids,” Frieden said.

Increases in prescription opioid pain reliever and heroin deaths are the biggest driver of the drug overdose epidemic, the report found. Deaths from heroin increased in 2014, continuing a sharp rise that has seen heroin overdoses triple since 2010. Deaths involving illicitly made fentanyl, a potent opioid often added to or sold as heroin, also are on the upswing.

Drug overdose deaths are up in both men and women, in non-Hispanic whites and blacks, and in adults of nearly all ages. Rates of drug overdose deaths were highest among five states: West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Ohio.

Photo
States with greatest increase in overdose deaths in 2014 (CDC phto)

Both trends worsened

The findings show that two distinct but intertwined trends are driving America’s overdose epidemic: a 15-year increase in deaths from prescription opioid pain reliever overdoses as a result of misuse and abuse, and a recent surge in illicit drug overdoses driven mainly by heroin. Both of these trends worsened in 2014.

Heroin-related death rates increased 26% from 2013–2014, totaling 10,574 deaths in 2014. Past misuse of prescription opioids is the strongest risk factor for heroin initiation and use—especially among people who became dependent upon or abused prescription opioids in the past year.

The report recommends limiting the use of opioid pain relievers and expanding access to treatment, including greater use of naloxone -- a critical drug that can reverse the symptoms of an opioid overdose and save lives.​

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Indiana alcohol regulations withstand legal challenges

Beverage company and convenience stores tried to overturn two laws

Different states have different rules and regulations when it comes to the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages.Some states prohibit sales on S...

PhotoDifferent states have different rules and regulations when it comes to the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages.

Some states prohibit sales on Sunday; others regulate where these beverages can be sold. Some states have tough laws – others are more lenient.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller says his office was called upon to defend the state's alcoholic beverage laws in two cases last week – once by a beverage manufacturer and the other case brought by convenience store operators.

In both cases, he says, the state's laws prevailed.

In the latest case, the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of Indiana’s law regulating the wholesaling of beer and liquor. In a unanimous ruling, the Court of Appeals rejected the legal challenge by Monarch Beverage Company Inc. The Indiana law prohibits beer wholesalers from also distributing liquor.

The court ruled that the law regulating wholesalers is, in fact, constitutional. Zoeller sees it as a clear victory.

2 for 2


“For the second time in a week, my office has successfully defended the laws regulating alcohol,” he said. “The appellate courts have upheld the policymaking authority of the state legislature to determine the rules for how alcohol is distributed and sold within the state, consistent with the 21st Amendment to the Constitution.”

Zoeller said it is fine for companies to test the state's laws in court, but said these rulings make clear that the proper place for seeking any changes to alcohol laws is through the legislature, not the courtroom.

Three days earlier, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the state in a separate lawsuit, filed by the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association. The suit challenged Indiana’s law regarding the retail sale of chilled beer. The 7th Circuit found that the statute is constitutional.

The trade association hoped to overturn an Indiana law that prohibits grocery stores, convenience stores, and big-box stores from selling cold beer, even though package liquor stores legally can do so. It argued the law violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

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Cure House recalls pork products

The products did not undergo federal inspection

The Cure House of Louisville, Ky., is recalling an undetermined amount of cured pork products. The products did not undergo federal inspection....

PhotoThe Cure House of Louisville, Ky., is recalling an undetermined amount of cured pork products.

 

The products did not undergo federal inspection.

 

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

 

The the following cured ham items, produced from 2009 thru Dec. 19, 2015, are being recalled:

  • Various weights of individually wrapped “Woodland’s Pork Mountain Ham” products with no label.

The recalled products bear establishment number “Est. 44888” inside the USDA mark of inspection; However, the firm was not issued a USDA grant of inspection.

 

The items were shipped to distributors in Kentucky and New Jersey.

 

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 Jay Denham at (502) 235-3792.

 

 

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Bonavista Foods recalls pork products

The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection

Bonavista Foods of Ovid, N.Y., is recalling approximately 4,338 pounds of cured pork products. The products were not presented at the U.S. point of...

PhotoBonavista Foods of Ovid, N.Y., is recalling approximately 4,338 pounds of cured pork 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 cured pork back items, imported on Nov. 17, 2015, are being recalled:

  • Combo bin containing “GRAS DE DOS DE PORC SALE sel ajoute CURED PORK FATBACK salt added PRODUCT IF U.S.A./PRODUIT DES E.U.A.” with a packaging date of Nov. 30, 2015, and package code 306.
  • 50-lb. boxes of “CURED PORK FATBACK PRODUCT OF THE U.S.A” with a packaging date of Nov. 27, 2015.

The recalled products bear establishment number “Est. 17978” inside the USDA mark of inspection. They were shipped to a warehouse and retail locations in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Canada.

 

The problem was discovered during routine FSIS surveillance activities of imported products.

 

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 Angelo Gaetano at (607) 869-9939.

 

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Smart Lipo dietary supplement capsules recalled

The product contains sibutramine, desmethylsibutramine and phenolphthalein, which are not listed on the label

SmartLipo365 of Dallas, Texas, is recalling all lots of Smart Lipo (800, 900, 950 mg) capsules. The product contains sibutramine, desmethylsibutram...

PhotoSmartLipo365 of Dallas, Texas, is recalling all lots of Smart Lipo (800, 900, 950 mg) capsules.

 

The product contains sibutramine, desmethylsibutramine, and phenolphthalein, which are not listed on the label.

 

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.

 

Phenolphthalein is an ingredient previously used in over-the-counter laxatives, but because of concerns of carcinogenicity, it is not currently approved for marketing in the U.S. Health risks associated with phenolphthalein could include potentially serious gastrointestinal disturbances, irregular heartbeat, and cancer with long-term use.

 

These undeclared ingredients make the product an unapproved new drug for which safety and efficacy has not been established.

 

The company has not received any complaints associated with this product to date.

 

Smart Lipo is marketed as a dietary supplement and is packaged in bottles of 30 capsules in 800mg, 900mg and 950mg per capsule. The recalled product, which includes all expiration dates, was sold in stores, Centro Naturista in Richardson, Texas, SmartLipo365 in Arlington, Texas, and distributed nationwide via the Internet.

 

Customers should immediately discontinue the use of these products.

 

Consumers with questions may contact SmartLipo365 by calling 972-757-8136 Monday through Friday from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. (CT).

 

 

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The real problem with driverless cars: human drivers

Self-driving cars obey traffic laws, confusing human drivers who often don't

There's a big problem with driverless cars: human drivers. Google's fleet of autonomous vehicles has been involved in accidents at twice the normal rate, a...

PhotoThere's a big problem with driverless cars: human drivers. Google's fleet of autonomous vehicles has been involved in accidents at twice the normal rate, all of them technically the fault of human drivers.

The self-driving cars that Google and others have been testing on public streets keep getting rear-ended, apparently because they're too law-abiding and too careful.

The cars, after all, are programmed to obey all traffic laws. When they come to a stop sign, they stop. If a bicyclist is taking up part of a lane, they don't swerve across the double line to go around, they slow down or stop. If a pedestrian looks like he might be about to cross the street, the car stops.

All of this may help explain why none of the cars have been involved in an accident involving injuries or fatalities. But it is presenting programmers with the need to develop algorithims that are a little more flexible than the ones that Google uses to look up the date of the Norman Invasion or other clear-cut factlets.

Licensed human

That's partly behind the reasoning the California DMV is using to map out new regulations for driverless cars. Basically, it wants them equipped with a licensed human who can take charge when the software runs out of options or makes a choice that is logical but may not be ideal.

Google has decried the DMV's proposal as a wrong turn for the autonomous vehicle movement, but the DMV says its first responsibility is to the public, and it's not yet ready to abandoned human ingenuity for rote software.

Google says it's working to make its cars react more like humans, making them a bit more aggressive without being reckless.

As for California's proposed regulations, top federal regulators say they're concerned at the possibility that different states will develop a "patchwork" of laws that would hinder a nationwide rollout of self-driving cars.

"Nimble, flexible ..."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) doesn't yet have a position on California's proposal that every car come equipped with a human driver, said Mark Rosekind, the agency's administrator.

He said his agency favors a "nimble, flexible" approach to writing rules for driverless cars. States, of course, have long set their own rules about licensing and registering cars and drivers, so it is going to require some flexibility and nimble footwork by Rosekind's agency if it intends to impose a single standard nationwide.

Meanwhile, consumers are coming up with their own proposals. An Automotive News reader, Jerry Segers, had a simple suggestion for the problem of self-driving cars being rear-ended:

"Perhaps all that is needed is a sign on the rear and [sic] of the car that reads 'Driverless Car' much like there are 'Student Driver' signs on driver training cars. This would put the public on notice that this car will obey the law much like a student driver. This would increase the caution of other drivers until the time when most cars are driverless," Segers wrote.

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What borrowers should know about a new student loan repayment option

Plan could help borrowers' cash flow, but other factors should be considered

Consumers with student loan debt may have a new repayment option under a new Department of Education regulation that recently took effect.The Revised P...

PhotoConsumers with student loan debt may have a new repayment option under a new Department of Education regulation that recently took effect.

The Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) plan will allow 5 million more direct loan borrowers to cap their monthly student loan payment amount at 10% of monthly discretionary income, without regard to when the borrower first obtained the loans.

As the name implies, the REPAYE Plan improves upon the original Pay As You Earn Plan, while extending its protections to all student borrowers with direct loans.

Besides the monthly payment cap, REPAYE will wipe the ledger clean after 20 years for those who borrowed only for undergraduate study and 25 years for those who borrowed for graduate study. It also provides new protections against ballooning loan balances for borrowers whose income-driven payments can't keep up with accruing interest.

But before you rush to sign up, consider this.

Might not be a perfect fit

“Just because a new program is announced, it doesn’t mean that it is going to be a perfect fit for every borrower,” said Bruce McClary, spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). “It takes a clear understanding of the benefits available through each option and how those are applicable to a person’s unique circumstances.”

So, what does this new program mean, exactly, in dollars and “sense?” McClary says it could be substantial for consumers with huge student loan balances, struggling to make ends meet.

Discretionary income for this purpose is calculated as the difference between adjusted gross income, taken from the tax return, and 150% of the current poverty line. For this year, that payment would be 10% of what is earned over $17,655 divided by 12 months.

Here's an example; a person earning $30,000 a year would see payments capped at a budget-friendly level of about $102.88 a month.

Why now?

Policymakers are concerned that consumers struggling with student loan debt, many of whom are Millennials, are so financially stressed they can't afford other things – in particular, they are having a difficult time buying houses because they can't save for the down payment. This, in turn, is a strong drag on the economy.

But what really has policymakers worried is the upward trend in student loan defaults. Those defaults can have a long-lasting impact on a borrower’s financial well-being. A record of late or missed loan payments impacts a borrower’s credit history by making any new loan requests -- for cars or homes -- more expensive or just extremely difficult to qualify for.

There is a downside.

McClary says borrowers need to proceed with caution. For some, this new payment option might mean the monthly payment doesn't cover both interest and principal payments, which means the balance could keep growing.

That makes it harder to get other types of loans, from credit cards to mortgages, because the borrower’s credit capacity is tapped out.

Another risk? McClary says the lower monthly payment under REPAYE could lead the borrower to pay substantially more over the life of the loan when compared to a Standard Repayment plan.

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More than 1,000 merchants offering free shipping today

Stores promise it will get there by Christmas Eve

With so many merchants providing free shipping this holiday season, it's almost a moot point. But for more than 1,000 retailers, today is Free Shipping Day...

PhotoWith so many merchants providing free shipping this holiday season, it's almost a moot point. But for more than 1,000 retailers, today is Free Shipping Day.

To find which retailers are taking part, go to FreeShippingDay.com. While delivery by Christmas Eve is guaranteed, consumers might take that with a hint of skepticism since no one at this point can know the kind of last minute demands delivery services will face.

A few retailers providing free shipping today are also sweetening the deal. For example, Soma is offering 50% off your highest priced item when you purchase and ship two or more things. Puma is knocking $20 off all orders over $100.

As we noted back in October, more online retailers have adopted free shipping this year as a way to set themselves apart – so much so that consumers increasingly have come to expect it during the holidays.

Target and Best Buy were among the first big box retailers to commit to it this year. Amazon uses free shipping to sell Prime memberships and offers it during the holidays on regular purchases over $35.

Free shipping removes one of the major drawbacks to online shipping. Getting a product for $5 off does little good when you have to pay $6 in shipping costs.

Of course, someone has to pay for shipping – UPS and Fed EX don't work for free. Retailers paying for shipping are reducing their profit margin on the sale and hoping to make it up on volume and gaining new customers. Either way, consumers stand to win.

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Shkreli out on bail, and as Turing Pharmaceutical CEO

32-year old hedge fund manager posts $5 million bond

Hedge fund manager and drug company executive Martin Shkreli, who endured a humiliating early morning perp walk from his Manhatten apartment Thursday, is b...

PhotoHedge fund manager and drug company executive Martin Shkreli, who endured a humiliating early morning perp walk from his Manhatten apartment Thursday, is back home after being freed on $5 million bail.

Shkreli has also suffered another indignity – being forced out as CEO of Turing Pharmaceutical, a company he founded and a name that under Shkreli's leadership has become synonymous with price gouging.

Turing today announced the resignation of Shkreli as CEO and the appointment of Ron Tilles to the position of Interim Chief Executive Officer. Tilles is currently chairman of the board and will remain in that capacity.

"We wish to thank Martin for helping us build Turing Pharmaceuticals into the dynamic research focused company it is today, and wish him the best in his future endeavors,” Turing said in a statement.

Under Shkreli, Turing bought the rights to a 60-year old drug called Daraprim, used in some HIV treatments and to fight a parasitic infection called toxoplasmosis. Shkreli promptly increased the price of the drug from $13.50 a pill to $750, without really giving a reason.

Alarming price hikes

This happened to take place against a backdrop of generally rising drug prices – price hikes so high that many doctors were starting to complain.

Back in April, we reported on a study by researchers in Oregon which found that the price of drugs to treat multiple sclerosis (MS) was rising at “an alarming rate.” The study determined that MS drug costs surged five to seven times higher than overall prescription drug inflation for drugs in a similar class between 1993 and 2013. Some drugs rose as much as 30% per year.

Researchers found that old drugs like Betaseron, Avonex, and Copaxone originally cost $8,000 to $11,000 a year. They now cost in the range of $60,000.

Rising drug costs were undoubtedly destined to become a political issue, but it is also very likely that Shkreli's high-profile celebration of Daraprin's overnight surge in profit margin attracted even more critical attention.

Shkreli's current troubles have nothing to do with drug prices. Rather, federal regulators have charged him with several counts of securities fraud, in his associations with a drug company and hedge fund he managed.

The New York Times reports some other pharmaceutical companies may be privately cheering Shkreli's troubles, since it takes the heat off them. Some of the heat, anyway.

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Infant seats confound 95% of families

The seats provide important safety protection but are too hard to install, study finds

If anything is more frustrating than the average infant car seat, it's hard to say what it is, a fact borne out by a recent study conducted by researchers ...

PhotoIf anything is more frustrating than the average infant car seat, it's hard to say what it is, a fact borne out by a recent study conducted by researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University.

The researchers surveyed 291 families being discharged from the hospital with a healthy newborn. Each family was asked to position the newborn in the car seat and, if not already done, install the car seat. Certified car safety technicians evaluated the positioning and installation, noting and correcting all instances of misuse.

The researchers found that 95% of families made at least one error in car seat use, and 91% made a serious error. The most common errors included loose harness and car seat installation, low chest clip, and incorrect recline angle.

Although 15% of families had, in fact, worked with a certified car safety technician, 83% of them still had at least one error in use. Factors that contributed to a higher rate of car seat misuse included lower socioeconomic status, lower educational attainment, and non-English primary language.

More work needed

While families should be encouraged to work with certified car seat technicians prior to hospital discharge, more needs to be done to ensure infant safety, the researchers said in the study, scheduled for publication in The Journal of Pediatrics.

"Car safety seats are much more difficult to use correctly than they should be," notes Dr. Benjamin D. Hoffman, who headed the study team. "Vehicle and car seat manufacturers must work together to develop systems that are easier for consumers to use and understand. Further, health systems should provide resources and support both before and after birth, especially to the most vulnerable infants, to ensure the safe use of car seats."

Hoffman noted that in 2013, car accidents resulted in approximately 8,500 infants requiring hospitalization or emergency department visits and 135 infant deaths. When used properly, car seats can reduce the risk of infant death and injury by 71%.

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Which airlines serve the healthiest food?

Consumer website rates Virgin America highest, Frontier lowest

Let's start by noting that you are lucky to get any food when flying coach on a U.S. airline. That said, when passengers are served food at 30,000 feet, ju...

PhotoLet's start by noting that you are lucky to get any food when flying coach on a U.S. airline. That said, when passengers are served food at 30,000 feet, just how healthy is it?

That was the question DietDetective.com set out to answer. Its report rates the food for 12 airlines, with five stars being the highest rating and no stars being the lowest. The survey includes health ratings, average calories per airline, cost, comments, best bets, food offerings, calories, and exercise equivalents.

“This year Virgin America wins the top spot again with the "healthiest" food choices in the sky with Delta and JetBlue tied for second,” said Charles Platkin, editor of DietDetective.com and a professor at Hunter College and the City University of New York School of Public Health.

Frontier Airlines received the lowest score, and Platkin says was the least cooperative.

Virgin America gets four and a half stars

Virgin America achieved four and a half stars with an average calorie count – including meals, snack boxes, and individual snacks – of 352.27 calories.

Delta flew away with a four star rating but an average calorie count of 512. JetBlue also achieved a four star rating. Its average calorie count was lower than both Virgin America and Delta – 327.

When flying, Platkin says you are likely to get hungry. Though security restrictions are much tighter than they used to be, he suggests travelers bring food with them, or purchase it after passing through security.

Bringing your own

Water is one of those things you'll probably have to buy at the concourse snack bar or gift shop. But it's important, Platkin says, because dehydration can lead to -- or increase -- hunger, jet lag, and fatigue.

He says low-calorie cereals are also a good choice. Look for portable choices at under 120 calories per cup. You can also look for cereal in a cup. It's portion controlled in 1.5-ounce packs that are easy to store and easy to use, he says.

Fruit and salads are very healthy but can't always stand up to the rough treatment air travel often entails. You can buy them at the airport and pay a little more than if you made them at home, but Platkin says it is always a better alternative to what is served on board.

For ease and convenience, it's hard to beat an energy bar. Although they tend to be high in calories and fat, Platkin says they are sure to be healthier than a slice of pizza or a candy bar at the airport.

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Study: Anxiety may contribute to dementia

Anxious individuals had a 48% higher risk

Those afflicted with anxiety may be even more anxious to learn of a new study that finds people who experienced high anxiety any time in their lives had a ...

PhotoThose afflicted with anxiety may be even more anxious to learn of a new study that finds people who experienced high anxiety any time in their lives had a 48% higher risk of developing dementia compared to those who had not.

The USC study was based on findings from the Swedish Adoption Twin Study of Aging, which traced 28 years of data involving 1,082 participants -- twins, fraternal and identical. The study subjects completed in-person tests every three years, answered several questionnaires, and were screened for dementia throughout the study.

Many other studies have explored the link between dementia and psychological variables such as depression and neuroticism. However, this study established that the anxiety-dementia link was independent of the role of depression as a risk factor.

"Anxiety, especially in older adults, has been relatively understudied compared to depression," said Andrew Petkus, the study's lead author and postdoctoral research associate of psychology in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. "Depression seems more evident in adulthood, but it's usually episodic. Anxiety, though, tends to be a chronic lifelong problem, and that's why people tend to write off anxiety as part of someone's personality."

A final draft of the study was made available online last week in Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association.

"Frantic, frazzled people"

The researchers noted that the subjects had self-reported various levels of anxiety, which may or may not meet the clinical diagnostic threshold of a psychiatric anxiety disorder. Even so, the twin who developed dementia had a history of higher levels of anxiety compared to the twin who did not develop dementia.

The subjects with anxiety who later developed dementia "are people that experience more than usual symptoms of anxiety," said study co-author Margaret Gatz. 

"They are people who you would say operate at a 'high level of anxiety,'" said Gatz. "They are frantic, frazzled people."

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What will kitchens of the future look like?

Smart appliances and the interconnectivity they offer will provide new opportunities

Connectedness is key in the kitchens of the future. Whether you’re looking to reduce food waste, cook to address your personal health profile, or stay bett...

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One-third of consumers likely to try ad-blockers

70% of survey respondents dislike ads that block content

The advertising industry is always shocked and amazed to learn that many consumers don't like ads. It's a little surprising that this always comes as a sho...

PhotoThe advertising industry is always shocked and amazed to learn that many consumers don't like ads. It's a little surprising that this always comes as a shock. After all, people have complained for years about billboards, radio and TV spots, and all the junk mail that fills their virtual and physical in-boxes, so it shouldn't be surprising that they don't like website ads very much either.

The vital difference, of course, is that it's increasingly easy for consumers to ditch most of the ads they see online by using a free ad-blocker. And fully one-third of U.S. consumers say they're very or somewhat likely to do just that in the next three months, according to a new survey by Digital Content Next, previously known as the Online Publishers Association.

Even allowing a substantial discount on these figures, DCN still estimates that around one in ten Americans (9%) will actually end up using ad-blocking software in just the next three months. Over the next year or so, no one really knows just what the figure might be.

Previous studies have shown a 41% increase in the use of ad blockers over the last two years -- dubbed by one industry observer as "the biggest boycott in human history."

Given that advertising is what pays the bills for the content consumers enjoy on websites, this is a pretty ominous finding.

Ominous finding

“On a scale of one to 10, my concern is at a level eight or nine -- our industry has ignored consumer concerns and now these same consumers are speaking up by installing ad-blocking software," said DCN CEO Jason Kint. "We need leaders across the industry to focus on providing better experiences, transparency and controls that will solve this issue.”

Not surprisingly, the DCN study found that 70% of respondents said they dislike ads that expand over content or automatically begin playing with sound. Separately, 68% said they were concerned about ads tracking their online behavior, and 57% said that ads were causing their web pages to load too slowly.

In a separate report released earlier this year, PageFair predicted that ad blockers could cost publishers around $22 billion in lost advertising revenues globally this year, adding that the figure is set to go up as adoption of ad blockers becomes more widespread.

Feds to the rescue?

How bad is it? Well, it's bad enough that one DCN executive is suggesting turning to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for protection. This is ironic since it's the FTC that polices advertising and is not seen as an ardent ally of the ad biz.   

But Chris Pedigo, DCN's senior vice president for government affairs, says many ad-blockers do more than just block ads. Some basically shake down advertisers and publishers who wanted to be "white-listed." Such deals are not usually disclosed to consumers and could be considered deceptive, Pedigo suggested in a recent DCN commentary.

"Regardless of what ads should be shown or whether they should be shown at all, I think we can all agree that disrupting an important dialogue between consumers and publishers and shaking down publishers to whitelist ads are not the hallmarks of a healthy ecosystem," Pedigo wrote. "It would be helpful for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to examine whether these business practices and agreements are undermining the ability of content creators and consumers to find a value exchange that works for both. The FTC plays an important role in keeping our industry healthy by working with good faith actors to establish best practices, shining a light on new, emerging technologies and bringing enforcement cases to end shady business practices."

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Composting food waste remains your best option, study says

With landfills brimming, composting trash-bound food waste is vital to reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Intercepting landfill-bound food scraps by composting them is something many have done for years, thinking it’s the right thing to do. Well, a new Universi...

PhotoIntercepting landfill-bound food scraps by composting them is something many have done for years, thinking it’s the right thing to do. Well, a new University of Washington study confirms that it is.

The study calculated the environmental benefits associated with keeping these organic materials out of landfills and found that food waste generates "significantly more" of the greenhouse gas methane when buried in landfills than when it’s composted.

"Putting your food waste in the compost bin can really help reduce methane emissions from landfills, so it's an easy thing to do that can have a big impact," said Sally Brown, a UW research associate professor of environmental and forest sciences.

Keep on composting

Brown’s study, set to appear in the January 2016 issue of Compost Science & Utilization analyzes new changes to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency model that helps solid waste planners estimate greenhouse gas emission reductions based on whether materials are composted, recycled, burned, or thrown away.

With compost, the model calculates how much methane is produced over time in landfills as organic materials decay. It also considers how much methane from landfills is currently captured in collection systems versus being released into the atmosphere. The results are overwhelmingly in support of composting food waste rather than sending it to landfills.

In the U.S., about 95% of food scraps are still thrown away and eventually end up in landfills. The scenario is better for yard waste — grass clippings, leaves, and branches — with more than half diverted to compost facilities instead of landfills.

So how can you help?

Curbside pickup

More than one-third of all waste that enters landfills could be composted instead. So if you live in a place where compost is an option, use it — and pat yourself on the back for doing so. With landfills brimming, conserving space in existing landfills remains imperative to reducing potent greenhouse gas emissions.

Seattle and King County were among the first municipalities nationwide to adopt food waste composting and curbside pickup. Other leaders include San Francisco, New York City, and the states of Vermont and Massachusetts. There are now more than 90 cities that offer the service.

But even if you’re not a resident of these municipalities, you can help. Composting locally at the neighborhood or community-level yields many benefits: improved local soils, greener spaces, enhanced food security, fewer food deserts, less truck traffic hauling garbage, and increased composting know-how and skills that can be reinforced in the next generation. Local, small-scale composting helps community participation and education flourish.

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Making bicycling safer for kids with ADHD

How the disorder influences their ability to safely cross intersections and how to prevent accidents

There has long been a correlation between children affected by ADHD and higher numbers of bicycle accidents at intersections, and a new University of Iowa ...

PhotoThere has long been a correlation between children affected by ADHD and higher numbers of bicycle accidents at intersections, and a new University of Iowa study has discovered why.

According to the study, it’s because kids with ADHD are impulsive and struggle to pay attention: two traits that work against them when it comes to accurately judging how much time is available to cross the street.

"Crossing roads on a bicycle requires decision and action," says Molly Nikolas, an assistant professor in the UI Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences and corresponding author of the study. "What we found is children with ADHD have deficits in both areas."

ADHD — a behavioral disorder marked by impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and inattention — affects almost six million kids in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With so many affected, it’s important to understand the ‘why’ behind these accidents in order to address the ‘how’ in preventing them.

Less precise timing

Using a real-time bicycle simulator, UI researchers studied how 63 children — 27 with ADHD — crossed 12 intersections with continuous cross traffic. The children, all between the ages of 10 and 14, rode stationary bikes surrounded by three screens that projected images of a typical Midwest town.

They discovered that overall, the children with ADHD selected about the same size gaps between cars as the others in the study, but their timing entering the roadway was less precise. As a result, the children with ADHD had less time to spare than the children not affected by the disorder.

"What we found is the timing issues were more related to symptoms of inattention while the decisions about which gaps to cross were related to hyperactivity and impulsivity—all core symptoms of ADHD," Nikolas says.

So what steps can parents and caregivers take to help prevent accidents?

Longer gaps

Researchers say teaching kids to look for longer gaps between cars may be the best way to help kids with ADHD cross busy intersections.

“Even if their timing remains off, if they have a big enough gap, they will be okay,” said Nikolas. “If we can have some intervention or prevention strategies that focus on the decision making, that may help compensate for the timing deficit.”

Russell Barkley, a clinical psychologist at the Medical University of South Carolina and author of several books about ADHD, recommends parents gradually expose their children with ADHD to different scenarios while bicycling. He also says ADHD medications can help some children.

"It has shown to decrease general accidental injury risks in ADHD youth by 31 percent to 43 percent over untreated ADHD populations by age 10 to 12," he says. "It has also improved the driving performance of ADHD teens and young adults."

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VW turns to Kenneth Feinberg to settle diesel claims

Famed attorney handled the 9/11 and BP settlements

Volkswagen has announced the appointment of attorney Kenneth Feinberg to design and administer a program to address claims related to the 2.0L and 3.0L TDI...

PhotoVolkswagen has announced the appointment of attorney Kenneth Feinberg to design and administer a program to address claims related to the 2.0L and 3.0L TDI vehicles affected by the diesel emissions scandal.

If that name sounds familiar, it should. Feinberg has been the point man for major claims settlements for more than a decade. His appointment is the clearest signal yet that Volkswagen is prepared to write some big checks.

“We are pleased to announce the retention of Kenneth Feinberg,” said Michael Horn, President and CEO, Volkswagen Group of America. “His extensive experience in handling such complex matters will help to guide us as we move forward to make things right with our customers.”

That experience includes being appointed by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to administer the September 11th Victims Fund. In 2010, when a BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, spilling millions of gallons of crude, President Obama and BP's chairman agreed on Feinberg to run the claims process that handed out billions of dollars in checks.

Major step

“This is a major step in resolving Volkswagen’s diesel challenges,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “The company’s TDI customers are some of its most loyal and passionate, which is why many have felt so disappointed by the events of the past few months. Feinberg’s experience in organization and resolving matters between customers and large corporations is exactly what VW needs right now.”

Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Autotrader, cut straight to the chase.

“Kenneth Feinberg has become the go-to money dispenser for companies with problems that require payouts to customers,” she said.

Starting immediately

In good news for affected owners, VW said Feinberg will immediately get to work on designing an independent claims process for consumers who own the affected vehicles.

Horn said the company hopes to have a claims program in place as soon as it is practicable.

“In order to do so, we will need the input not only of Volkswagen, but also vehicle owners, their lawyers, and other interested parties,” Horn said.

For consumers with a vested interest in the outcome of this latest development, information is available here.

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Nissan recalls GT-Rs built to be sold in Puerto Rico

The Gross Vehicle Weight Rating and Gross Axle Weight Rating information is missing

Nissan North America is recalling 18 model year 2015-2016 GT-Rs manufactured February 24, 2014, to June 16, 2015 to be sold in Puerto Rico. The rec...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 18 model year 2015-2016 GT-Rs manufactured February 24, 2014, to June 16, 2015 to be sold in Puerto Rico.

 

The recalled vehicles have a Certification Label that is missing the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) and Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR) information. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of 49 CFR Part 567, "Certification."

 

Due to the label missing the GVWR/GAWR information, the operator may overload the vehicle, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will apply a corrected label, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

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

 

 

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Chrysler recalls Jeep Cherokees

Water may leak into the Power Liftgate Control Module

Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 32,784 model year 2015-2016 Jeep Cherokees manufactured February 18, 2015, to September 10, 2015 and equipped with the p...

PhotoChrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 32,784 model year 2015-2016 Jeep Cherokees manufactured February 18, 2015, to September 10, 2015 and equipped with the power liftgate option.

 

Water may leak into the Power Liftgate Control Module and result in a high resistance short circuit. A short circuit in the module increases the risk of a fire.

 

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the module and connectors for corrosion, replacing the damaged components as necessary. The mastic shield will be removed and the module will be covered with a water shield. These repairs will be performed free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is R67.

 
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Ace Bayou re-announces recall of bean bag chairs

The zippers on the bean bag chairs can be opened by children who can then crawl inside, get trapped and suffocate or choke on the bean bag chair’s foam bead

The recalled bean bag chairs have two zippers, including an outer zipper that does not have a pull tab and another zipper directly underneath that zipper. ...

PhotoThe recalled bean bag chairs have two zippers, including an outer zipper that does not have a pull tab and another zipper directly underneath that zipper.  Although the outer zipper on the bean bag chair does not have a pull tab, children can open it. Once they have opened the outer zipper, they can open the inner zipper which contains the foam beads and crawl inside.

Children can suffocate or choke on these foam beads. The voluntary standard requires non-refillable bean bag chairs to have closed and permanently disabled zippers. Ace met the voluntary standard’s requirement for a warning label.

The two deaths involved a 13-year old boy from McKinney, Texas died and a 3-year-old girl from Lexington, Ky. who suffocated from lack of air and inhaling the chair’s foam beads. Both children were found inside the chairs.

The recalled chairs with zippers that can be opened were sold in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors and fabrics. They include round or L-shaped, vinyl or fabric, and are filled with polystyrene foam beads.

They were sold in a variety of colors, including purple, violet, blue, red, pink, yellow, Kelly green, black, port, navy, lime, royal blue, turquoise, tangerine and multi-color.  The round bean bag chairs were sold in three sizes, 30, 32 and 40 inches in diameter. The L-shaped bean bag chair measures 18 inches wide by 30 inches deep by 30 inches high. “ACE BAYOU CORP” is printed on a tag sewn into the bean bag chair’s cover seam. They were made in China.

The recalled bean bag chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at Bergner's, Big Lots, Bon-Ton, Boston Store, Carson's, Elder-Beerman, Herberger's, Meijer, Pamida, School Specialty, Wayfair, Walmart and Younkers stores and online at Amazon.com, Meijer.com, Walmart.com and other websites from 1995 to 2013 for between $30 and $100.

To prevent another death, consumers should check the outside zipper on their bean bag chair to ensure that it has a metal staple to disable the outer zipper. If it does not have a metal staple, take the recalled bean bag chair away from children immediately and contact Ace Bayou for the free repair kit to permanently disable the zipper.

Consumers may contact Ace Bayou toll-free at 855-571-8151 from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online atwww.acebayou.com and click on “Recall Information” for more information.

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Focus Bicycles recalls Izalco Max bicycles

The headset could cause the carbon-fiber fork steer tube to crack

Focus Bicycles USA of Carlsbad, Calif., is recalling about 501Focus Izalco Max bicycles in the U.S. and Canada. The headset could cause the carbon-...

PhotoFocus Bicycles USA of Carlsbad, Calif., is recalling about 501Focus Izalco Max bicycles in the U.S. and Canada.

 

The headset could cause the carbon-fiber fork steer tube to crack, posing a fall hazard.

The firm has received 11 reports of incidents outside the U.S., including one reported injury in France. No incidents have been reported in the U.S.

 

This recall involves the 2014-2015 Focus Izalco Max bicycles with Acros-brand upper headsets. The headsets are black with the word “Acros” printed in white on the upper headset.

 

The bicycles, manufactured in Germany or Taiwan, were sold at independent bicycle retailers nationwide,  and online at www.bikebling.com andwww.carbonconnection.com from January 2014 through August 2015 for between $1,800 and $9,500.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and contact Focus Bicycles to schedule a free repair.

Consumers may contact Focus Bicycles USA toll-free at 877-753-4480 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (PT) Monday through Friday or online at http://recall.focusbikesusa.com/.

 

 

 
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California DMV wants driverless cars to have a brake pedal and steering wheel

It also wants at least one licensed driver in each car

Car makers and technology companies are driving like mad to test and develop driverless cars. But California, the state with more autonomous cars on the ro...

PhotoCar makers and technology companies are driving like mad to test and develop driverless cars. But California, the state with more autonomous cars on the road than any other, is putting on the brakes.

The state's Department of Motor Vehicles is proposing an outright ban on "driverless" cars -- meaning cars with no licensed driver. It wants to have at least one licensed driver onboard any car that rolls along public roads, so that someone can take control if things go awry.

The DMV also wants to require a steering wheel and brake pedal. Again, just in case. 

“The primary focus of the deployment regulations is the safety of autonomous vehicles and the safety of the public who will share the road with these vehicles,” said DMV Director Jean Shiomoto in a prepared statement. “We want to get public input on these draft regulations before we initiate the formal regulatory rule making process.”

"Gravely disappointed"

Google, which sees itself as leading the autonomous car derby, reacted negatively.

“Safety is our highest priority and primary motivator as we do this,” spokesman Johnny Luu wrote in an e-mail to Automotive News. ”We’re gravely disappointed that California is already writing a ceiling on the potential for fully self-driving cars to help all of us who live here.”

It's not as dramatic as it sounds. For one thing, the DMV is required by a law passed in 2012 to adopt regulations governing self-driving vehicles. It would be surprising if it simply said, in effect, "anything goes."

Or as Shiomoto's statement put it: "The draft regulations are designed to address complex questions related to vehicle safety, certification, operator responsibilities, licensing and registration, privacy, and cyber-security."

The thing about regulations is that, unlike laws. they can be changed as conditions and politics warrant, so whatever the DMV does this year can be modified down the road as autonomous cars are perfected.

Significant impact

Nevertheless, any rule adopted by California will have significant impact on the future of autonomous cars. Google's self-driving cars have been plying the streets of Palo Alto for years and have run up more than a million miles, according to Google. The state is likely to remain Ground Zero for autonomous vehicles in the future. 

Besides being home to Google and other high-tech companies, California is by far the largest state and has more registered vehicles -- nearly 30 million -- than any other state. Texas is second with about 23 million.

Google, which started testing its self-driving cars in Austin, Texas, this summer, issued a statement saying the proposed California regulations woud hamper the development of technology that could prevent car crashes and improve mobility for those who don't drive.

The proposal hits hardest at those that could be dreaming of deploying fleets of robotic taxis that would pick up passengers, drop them off at their destination, and then continue on, driverless, to their next pick-up.

The DMV has scheduled two public hearings for early next year to take testimony on the proposed regulations. It has also asked California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology (PATH), a research program of the University of California, Berkeley, to conduct a review of the "behavioral competencies necessary to safely operate autonomous vehicles."

The goal of the peer review is to engage industry experts, researchers, and other stakeholder organizations in more in-depth technical discussions of behavioral competencies in the context of the regulations. This peer review will also supplement feedback gathered in the public workshops. 

The full text of the draft for autonomous vehicle deployment regulations and the workshop notice is available on DMV Autonomous Vehicles.

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With Christmas a week away, retailers step up the bargains

Consumers have been unpredictable this season, making retailers nervous

If you waited to buy presents, you're in luck. With the shopping days dwindling down to a precious few, retailers are pulling out all the stops to attract ...

PhotoIf you waited to buy presents, you're in luck. With the shopping days dwindling down to a precious few, retailers are pulling out all the stops to attract last minute consumer dollars.

And chances are there will be plenty of spending in the next few days, although consumers this season have spread their purchases out over a longer period of time and have shopped for the very lowest price.

Part of that may be because of limited budgets and growing financial pressures. Or it could be due to the incredible competition and the technology tools that make it easier to compare.

Can't decide

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), most consumers have put off purchases because they haven't decided what to buy. In a recent survey, more than 44% said they are still weighing their choices between gifts.

At the same time, nearly 29% said they wait until mid to late December because their friends and family haven’t given them enough ideas as to what they want and 22% are waiting for the best deals on holiday merchandise. One in five admit they are simply a procrastinator.

“While we witnessed an early start to the holiday shopping season and an extraordinary Thanksgiving weekend, some of the busiest shopping days of the year are still to come,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “We expect retailers will be competitive on price and value options in the final stretch, including extended store hours and in-store events, as well as online deals and free shipping offers. Even an unseasonably warm winter cannot keep last-minute shoppers from putting off their holiday purchases anymore.”

Target announces sale

Saturday is expected to be a huge shopping day, but Target is counting on Sunday being a big day. It has rolled out its Wrap It Up Sale, running Sunday through Christmas Eve.

The deals include:

  • $150 off on a Parrot Bebop Drone ($349.99)
  • $50 off on a Magnavox 40” LED TV ($249.99)
  • $13.99 “Inside Out” and “Minions” DVDs
  • $50 off on an  Xbox One ($299.99)
  • 15% off all men’s and women’s fragrances

Sunday only, Target is also discounting all gift cards by 10%.

Other retailers are likely to follow suit. Walmart is still promoting deals on its website, including an iPad Mini for $199, an RCA 32” HDTV for $159, and a Toshiba laptop for $269.

And the deals will likely continue after Christmas. The NRF survey found two-third of shoppers said they are planning to shop – both browsing and buying – retailers' after-Christmas sales.

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Supreme Court won't hear Westgate's appeal

Notorious timeshare operator could face more lawsuits

The Supreme Court has declined to hear a challenge by timeshare operator Westgate Resorts to a $500,000 court judgment for what a Tennessee judge called "i...

PhotoThe Supreme Court has declined to hear a challenge by timeshare operator Westgate Resorts to a $500,000 court judgment for what a Tennessee judge called "intentional and fraudulent conduct."

It's not the $500,00 that troubles the high-flying resort company but rather the likelihood that similar suits will follow now that the nation's highest court has let the lower court's judgment stand.

Westgate is headed by real estate magnate David Siegel, whose quest to build a massive 90,000-square-foot home modeled on the Palace of Versailles was the subject of a TV documentary.

In the Tennessee case, timeshare buyers Nathan and Patricia Overton accused Westgate salespeople of using "high-pressure tactics" and making promises that turned out to be untrue during an eight-hour sales pitch.

The Overtons purchased a timeshare unit in Gatlinburg, Tenn., in 2011 for slightly less than $40,000 and said they were promised they would be able to use additional nights at other Westgate resorts for only $59 more per night, the Orlando Sentinel reported. But when they tried to book those nights, they were told they didn't qualify, according to court testimony.

Westgate Resorts Dec. 17, 2015, 7:55 p.m.
Consumers rate Westgate Resorts

Westgate has not commented on the Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case but the National Timeshare Owners Association has taken notice.

“This could be just the beginning of many more legal challenges ahead. The Overton case exposed and put on record various Westgate sales, training and compliance practices which violated the consumer protection and timeshare act,” said Gregory Crist, president of the NTOA, the Sentinel said.

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Tech support company under investigation by Washington AG for defrauding consumers

Charges against iYogi include overcharging for services and infecting customer computers with malware

We all know that the business world revolves around computers and technology now, and when problems occur, it’s a simple matter to call technical support t...

PhotoWe all know that the business world revolves around computers and technology now, and when problems occur, it’s a simple matter to call technical support to resolve the issue. Life at home, though, is also becoming more and more connected to electronics – and when problems occur there you don’t have a dedicated team on the payroll.

Consumers, especially ones who are not as computer literate as members of younger generations, rely on many different companies to provide them with answers to their computer problems. It is especially egregious, then, when a company takes advantage of that vulnerability. That is allegedly the case with one India-based company called iYogi, which is under investigation by the Washington state attorney general for defrauding consumers.

Defrauding consumers

Washington AG Bob Ferguson filed suit against iYogi this week, stating that consumers who used their services were overcharged and defrauded in various other ways. For example, the company is alleged to have charged customers $80-$199 in order to upgrade their operating systems from Windows 7 to Windows 10. The catch? This very upgrade is offered for free by Microsoft.

Worse yet are the charges of iYogi employees infecting consumer computers with malware, Ferguson said. After establishing remote access with a computer, employees allegedly created warning pop-ups that alerted the user to possible virus infections. For a fee of $80-$380 dollars, the company offered to repair the machine and remove the viruses.

“After gaining remote access to the consumer’s computer, iYogi identifies complex-looking files and claims these infected files harm the computer. . . iYogi misleads the consumer into believing he or she must download iYogi’s diagnostic software to fully identify these alleged computer problems,” said Ferguson.

False claims

iYogi also seems to have a bad streak when it comes to relations with tech firms and other businesses. The company has stated that it has partnerships with other notable businesses like Microsoft, HP, and Apple. However, this may not be the case; Microsoft has stated that they receive numerous complaints about iYogi but are not partnered with them.

“Tech support scams have become a scourge on the Internet. . . These individuals not on the phone to help consumers. They’re on the phone to take consumers’ money,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s chief legal officer.

Before this investigation started, iYogi had already had a suit filed against them by one of their American partners. They allege that iYogi was supposed to open a U.S. call center in Maine, but cancelled the deal after a three-month trial and has yet to pay them. 

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Lifelock agrees to pay $100 million to settle lawsuits, FTC charges

The company was accused of used deceptive advertising and failing to secure consumers' personal data

LifeLock has agreed to pay $100 million to settle a class action lawsuit and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) contempt charges. The FTC alleges that the comp...

PhotoLifeLock has agreed to pay $100 million to settle a class action lawsuit and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) contempt charges. The FTC alleges that the company violated the terms of an earlier federal court order that required the company to secure consumers’ personal information and prohibits the company from deceptive advertising. 

“This settlement demonstrates the Commission’s commitment to enforcing the orders it has in place against companies, including orders requiring reasonable security for consumer data,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “The fact that consumers paid Lifelock for help in protecting their sensitive personal information makes the charges in this case particularly troubling.”

LifeLock said the allegations concerned past practices and noted that as part of the settlement, LifeLock neither confirms nor denies the allegations of the parties.

“The allegations raised by the FTC are related to advertisements that we no longer run and policies that are no longer in place. The settlement does not require us to change any of our current products or practices. Furthermore, there is no evidence that LifeLock has ever had any of its customers' data stolen, and the FTC did not allege otherwise," the company said in a prepared statement.

Class action

LifeLock Dec. 17, 2015, 5:56 p.m.
Consumers rate LifeLock

Of the $100 million, $68 million will be used to fund consumer redress expected to be ordered in a class action case and $32 million will be ussed to fund consumer redress in cases brought by various state attorneys general, the company said. Any leftover funds will revert to the FTC.

The FTC alleged that LifeLock violated four components of a 2010 federal court order. First, the FTC alleged that from at least October 2012 through March 2014, LifeLock failed to establish and maintain a comprehensive information security program to protect users’ sensitive personal information including their social security, credit card, and bank account numbers.

Second, the filing alleged that during this period LifeLock falsely advertised that it protected consumers’ sensitive data with the same high-level safeguards used by financial institutions.

Third, the FTC alleged that, from January 2012 through December 2014, LifeLock falsely advertised  that it would send alerts “as soon as” it received any indication that a consumer may be a victim of identity theft. Finally, the FTC alleged that the company failed to abide by the order’s recordkeeping requirements.

The company said the settlement closed the book on the pending cases.

“The FTC’s approval is a key component of a comprehensive settlement designed to enable LifeLock to move forward with a singular focus on protecting our members from threats to their identity."

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Study: energy drinks may harm young men's health

The more men buy into energy drink marketing campaigns, the less sleep they get

Energy drinks are highly popular, especially with young people who never quite acquired the taste for coffee.Two researchers at Texas Tech suspected th...

PhotoEnergy drinks are highly popular, especially with young people who never quite acquired the taste for coffee.

Two researchers at Texas Tech suspected that high-powered marketing aimed at young people – young men in particular – had more to do with it. They set up a research study to measure how young men are influenced by energy drink marketing and what effects it has on their health.

One of the researchers, Mike Parent, an assistant professor of counseling in Texas Tech’s Department of Psychological Sciences, says the marketing campaigns all have a common theme – action.

“Men watch media ads about energy drinks in which they’re connected with a hypermasculine lifestyle – extreme sports, etc.,” Parent said. “The men don’t really pursue the same kind of lifestyle, but the marketing works – the energy drinks make them feel more connected to that sort of a life. So, the attitudes and energy drink usage interact.”

Common thread

The study found a common thread. Men who bought into the media messages were more likely to use energy drinks, and the more energy drinks the men had, the more they reported trouble sleeping.

The people most likely to be influenced by energy drink marketing were younger white men. Older men were less likely to associate masculine ideology with a caffeine-filled beverage. Racial minorities were influenced to a degree, but it didn't translate into energy drink use.

Parent says consumers need a better understanding of energy drinks. “Currently, there is little labeling of things like basic actual caffeine content of these sorts of drinks,” he said. “Many men might be drinking them, thinking it’s the ‘alpha male energizing complex,’ or whatever, that is giving them energy – but it’s just caffeine.”

Overlooked caffeine

Parent said he began to notice the trend when many males students began showing up for counseling, complaining of insomnia. He said they were largely unaware that they were drinking enormous amounts of caffeine daily.

As we reported earlier this year, ingredients such as guarana, ginseng, and taurine have caffeine concentrations that are equal to, or higher than, caffeine found in coffee. Ingesting high doses of any of these substances can be very dangerous.

An international research team, led by Dr. Fabian Sanchis-Gomar of Madrid, Spain, concluded that energy drinks are the cause of many sudden cardiac deaths in young, healthy individuals.  

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The smartest smart-home products of 2015

Improve your home's air quality or even create virtual keys for guests

Looking to boost your home’s IQ? Whether in the interest of saving money, time, or the environment, incorporating some eco-efficient products into your hom...

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Banks quick to raise prime rate after Fed rate hike

But depositors shouldn't expect to earn more on their money

Major banks wasted no time in reacting to the Federal Reserve's move to hike the Federal Funds rate for the first time since 2006.Wells Fargo was the f...

PhotoMajor banks wasted no time in reacting to the Federal Reserve's move to hike the Federal Funds rate for the first time since 2006.

Wells Fargo was the first to act, raising its prime rate – the rate charged to the bank's most credit-worthy customers – a quarter point to 3.5%. By the end of the day it was joined by Citi, JP Morgan Chase, and most other major banks.

But Wells Fargo said it was not increasing the interest rate paid on deposits by an equal amount. In fact, it said it wasn't raising the rate at all. It may be a few days before the other banks make their intentions clear, but analysts suggested most would follow Wells Fargo's example.

Depositors already earn almost nothing on their money, so the Fed move will only raise the cost of borrowing money, not what it earns.

For consumers, a hike in a bank's prime rate normally translates into higher interest on adjustable rate loans, such as a home equity line of credit.

Consumers looking for higher rates on deposits will likely have better luck with independent community banks, which may be more likely to pass on the benefits of higher rates to depositors.

For major banks, the increased spread between interest on loans and on deposits will go to the bottom line.

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EZCORP to pay millions for illegal debt collection tactics

Infractions by the payday lender included illegal home visits to consumers

Tactics including illegal visits to consumers at their homes and workplaces, empty threats of legal action, lying about consumers’ rights, and exposing con...

PhotoTactics including illegal visits to consumers at their homes and workplaces, empty threats of legal action, lying about consumers’ rights, and exposing consumers to bank fees through unlawful electronic withdrawals have gotten EZCORP into hot water with the feds.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has ordered the company to refund $7.5 million to 93,000 consumers, pay $3 million in penalties, and stop collection of remaining payday and installment loan debts owed by roughly 130,000 consumers. EZCORP is also barred from future in-person debt collection.

“People struggling to pay their bills should not also fear harassment, humiliation, or negative employment consequences because of debt collectors,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Borrowers should be treated with common decency. This action and this bulletin are a reminder that we will not tolerate illegal debt collection practices.”

Loads of unlawful activities

Until recently, EZCORP, headquartered in Austin, Tex., and its related entities provided high-cost, short-term, unsecured loans, including payday and installment loans, in 15 states and from more than 500 storefronts. It did this under names including “EZMONEY Payday Loans,” “EZ Loan Services,” “EZ Payday Advance,” and “EZPAWN Payday Loans.”

On July 29, 2015, after the CFPB launched its investigation, EZCORP announced that it would cease offering payday, installment, and auto-title loans in the U.S.

The CFPB found that EZCORP collected debts from consumers through unlawful in-person collection visits at their homes or workplaces, risked exposing consumers’ debts to third parties, falsely threatened consumers with litigation for non-payment of debts, and unfairly made multiple electronic withdrawal attempts from consumer accounts, causing mounting bank fees.

Specifically, the CFPB’s investigation found that EZCORP:

  • Visited consumers’ homes and workplaces to collect debt in an unlawful way;
  • Illegally contacted third parties about consumers’ debts and called consumers at their workplaces despite being told to stop:
  • Deceived consumers with threats of legal action;
  • Lied about not conducting credit checks on loan applicants;
  • Required debt repayment by pre-authorized checking account withdrawals;
  • Exposed consumers to fees through electronic withdrawal attempts; and
  • Lied to consumers, saying that they could not stop electronic withdrawals or collection calls or repay loans early.

Terms of enforcement

Under the consent order, EZCORP must:

  • Pay $7.5 million to 93,000 consumers;
  • Stop collection of its remaining payday and installment debt;
  • Stop illegal debt collection practices; and
  • Pay a civil penalty of $3 million.
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Going full vegetarian too hard to swallow? Consider "Flexitarianism"

Why cutting back on meat (even a little bit) can mean huge health benefits

Vegetarianism is loaded with health and environmental benefits. From lower rates of heart disease and some forms of cancer to a reduction in carbon dioxide...

PhotoVegetarianism is loaded with health and environmental benefits. From lower rates of heart disease and some forms of cancer to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, Earth’s plant-eaters reap many benefits.

But for some, the idea of committing to a full-fledged vegetarian diet can be a little daunting. If going full herbivore seems scary and unfulfilling: first of all, you’re on the right track. Listening closely to the needs of your body is always your best bet as far as living a healthy lifestyle. And secondly, there is an alternative.

By adopting a “less meat, more plants” lifestyle called Flexitarianism, you can reap the benefits of a vegetarian diet while still enjoying those animal proteins on occasion. How?

The three-quarters rule

Here are a few tips on how to adopt a plant-based diet:

  • If you enjoy large meals, use a big plate and fill the plate three-quarters full of veggies, saving the last quarter for protein. The more colors on the plate, the better. This will lead to a full, happy stomach — and in one meal, you’ll have gotten one-third of your vegetables for the day!

  • Swap out meat for a plant-based protein. Instead of eating a protein for all three meals, seek out plant-based proteins such as quinoa, lentils, beans, nuts, and seeds.

  • Be careful not to load up on pasta and breads. It is possible to gain weight when switching to a vegetarian diet if you resort to carbs to satisfy a growling tummy. When switching to a more plant-based diet, consider the goals of eating healthy, plant-based options.

Ethical options

For those times when you are craving meat, try to consume conscientiously and in moderation.

“Meat represents a lot of nutrients in a compact package,” says William Hart, PhD, associate professor of human nutrition at St. Louis University. “There is nothing wrong with eating a four-ounce steak,” he tells WebMD. “It’s the 12 or 16-ounce steaks that get us into trouble.”

In addition to eating meat in moderation, consider choosing ethically raised meat. The availability of ethically raised meats has been a game changer, even for vegetarians. When looking at the ingredients in meat replacements, many vegetarians are beginning to think that the ethically raised real meat may be better for health.

“When I was vegan, I was super weak,” says Mariel Hemingway, actress and author of Healthy Living from the Inside Out. “I love animals, and we should not support anything but ethical ranching; but when I eat meat, I feel more grounded. I have more energy.”

A “less meat, more plants” style of eating can help improve the quality of your life. In addition, it’s associated with higher levels of short-chain fatty acids in the gut, and research suggests that it lowers the risk of heart disease, inflammatory diseases, and type 2 diabetes.

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FBI arrests drug company CEO

Martin Shkreli, best known for dramatically raising drug prices, faces charges of securities fraud

Martin Shkreli, the 32-year old hedge fund trader turned drug company CEO, has been making news lately, for all the wrong reasons.The trend continues a...

PhotoMartin Shkreli, the 32-year old hedge fund trader turned drug company CEO, has been making news lately, for all the wrong reasons.

The trend continues as Reuters now reports the FBI has arrested Shkreli on charges of securities fraud. Reuters reports it actually witnessed the arrest.

According to the report, the arrest is related to Shkreli's tenure as head of the hedge fund MSMB Capital Management and CEO of a biopharmaceutical firm, Retrophin. According to a report by Bloomberg News, the young trader is accused of illegally converting the stock of Retrophin to other uses. He faces a civil suit as well.

Shkreli has been in the public eye since his drug company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, purchased an old drug called Daraprim, used to treat parasitic infections and, in some cases, HIV. The company immediately raised the price of the drug from $13.50 a tablet to $750 a pill.

“Should have raised it more”

The firestorm of criticism that followed didn't seem to phase him. Shkreli infamously said at a Forbes conference in early December he regretted not raising the drug's price even more.

Shkreli did not appear at a Senate hearing last week, but most likely his ears were burning. His name – and that of his company – came up repeatedly as lawmakers heard from medical professionals about the problem of skyrocketing drug prices.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), ranking Democrat on the Special Committee on Aging, made it clear that the issue of drug prices will stick around through much of the year ahead.

“My biggest challenge today is to not lose my temper—the facts underlying this hearing are so egregious it’s hard not to get emotional about it,” McCaskill said . “It’s imperative that we find out if our system is being taken advantage of by companies or individuals that seek deep profits while contributing little or nothing to advances in medical treatment.”

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U.S. poised to lift ban on oil exports

Provision of year-end budget deal would allow U.S. oil to be sold on world market

The government funding bill headed toward President Obama's desk contains a provision that seemed to come out of nowhere – a lifting of the 40-year ban on ...

PhotoThe government funding bill headed toward President Obama's desk contains a provision that seemed to come out of nowhere – a lifting of the 40-year ban on U.S. oil exports.

Republicans pushed that proposal back in August, but Democrats blocked it. Most seemed to think the issue was dead.

But in end-of-the-year deal making, Democrats traded their acceptance of lifting of the ban for new renewable energy incentives. Of course, not all Democrats were opposed to allowing U.S. oil producers to sell their oil overseas.

In the newly oil-rich state of North Dakota, the state's two senators – Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Republican John Hoeven, worked together to persuade other lawmakers to go along.

Heitkamp said she has worked for more than a year to repeal the export ban, meeting with members of Congress – especially Senate Democrats – and top White House officials to explain why lifting the ban makes sense.

Tough sell

Heitkamp admittedly had the tougher job, since Republicans were already in favor of lifting the ban. One by one, Heitkamp found members of her party who saw the merits of her point of view.

Hoeven said he has repeatedly called for repealing the ban and worked persistently to get it included in year-end legislation. The senator, who serves on the Energy Committee, is a co-sponsor of bipartisan legislation lifting the ban that passed the committee this summer.

“Lifting the ban on crude oil exports is a triple win – it will create jobs and grow our economy. It will keep the price of gasoline lower at the pump for consumers because of more supply, and it will bolster national security through energy security,” said Hoeven.

He points to studies at the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the non-partisan Brookings Institute and the Harvard Business School as supporting a resumption of U.S. oil exports, stopped in the 1970s during persistent shortages and rising prices.

Gasoline exports have never been banned

Current law does not block exports of U.S. gasoline, only oil. In the last year, since a price war launched by Saudi Arabia, the growing U.S. oil industry has been stopped in its tracks.

Hoeven says a study by IHS, a global provider of data and analysis, projects that lifting the ban will attract an estimated $750 billion in new investments and create nearly 400,000 additional jobs in the U.S. between 2016 and 2030.

“This deal to lift the 40-year old ban on exporting oil is a huge win for North Dakota and it reinforces the importance of good-faith, bipartisan negotiations and legislating,” said Heitkamp.

What's it mean for consumers?

Consumers worried that a resumption of U.S. oil exports will end the low gasoline prices they currently enjoy might have a point. However, every credible source suggests there is so much oil, both in the U.S. and around the world, and demand is actually leveling off, that supply is likely to outpace demand for the foreseeable future. Exports of U.S. oil will just make the current oil glut larger.

If U.S. refiners are allowed to sell as much gasoline on the world market as they want, and it hasn't raised prices, it might follow that exporting oil currently sitting in storage tanks might not have an impact either.

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Jobless benefit claims reverse course

The Conference Board forecasts moderate economic growth

After rising for two weeks in a row, first-time applications for state unemployment benefits have posted a decline.T...

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

After rising for two weeks in a row, first-time applications for state unemployment benefits have posted a decline.

The Department of Labor (DOL) reports initial jobless claims were down 11,000 in the week ending December 12, to a seasonally adjusted 271,000. The previous week's level of 282,000 was unrevised.

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

The four-week moving average, which strips out the volatility of the weekly report and is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, came in at 270,500, a decrease of 250 from the previous week's unrevised average.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

Photo
© Melpomene - Fotolia

Economic outlook

The Conference Board's Leading Economic Index (LEI) rose in November for a second consecutive month.

The forecaster of economic performance for the next 3-6 months was up 0.4%, following a 0.6% increase in October. It was flat in September.

“The U.S. LEI registered another increase in November, with building permits, the interest rate spread, and stock prices driving the improvement,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, Director of Business Cycles and Growth Research at The Conference Board. “Although the six-month growth rate of the LEI has moderated, the economic outlook for the final quarter of the year and into the new year remains positive.”

The LEI, essentially a composite of several individual indicators, is constructed to summarize and reveal common turning point patterns in economic data in a clearer and more convincing manner than any individual component

The ten components of the LEI include:

  1. Average weekly hours, manufacturing
  2. Average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance
  3. Manufacturers’ new orders, consumer goods, and materials
  4. ISM Index of New Orders
  5. Manufacturers' new orders, non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft orders
  6. Building permits, new private housing units
  7. Stock prices, 500 common stocks
  8. Leading Credit Index
  9. Interest rate spread, 10-year Treasury bonds less federal funds
  10. Average consumer expectations for business conditions
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Rolls-Royce Phantoms recalled

The side curtain air bags may not been manufactured properly

BMW of North America is recalling 13 model year 2015-2016 Rolls-Royce Phantoms manufactured May 22, 2015, to September 23, 2015. The recalled vehic...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 13 model year 2015-2016 Rolls-Royce Phantoms manufactured May 22, 2015, to September 23, 2015.

 

The recalled vehicles have left and right side curtain air bags that may not been manufactured properly.

 

As a result, the air bags may not position themselves as intended during deployment, increasing the risk of occupant injury in the event of a vehicle crash.

 

Rolls-Royce will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the side curtain air bags, as necessary, free of charge.

 

The recall is expected to begin January 11, 2016. Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-367-6372.

 

 

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Federal Reserve raises key interest rate

Rate has been at 0% since late 2008, last hike was in 2006

In one of the best-telegraphed moves in history, the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee has voted to raise the Federal Funds interest rate by 0.25%....

PhotoIn one of the best-telegraphed moves in history, the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee has voted to raise the Federal Funds interest rate by 0.25%.

The tiny rate hike is significant only because the Fed has kept the rate at 0% since 2008, part of its effort to keep the economy on life support in the wake of the financial crisis and Great Recession.

After several false starts – Wall Street thought it would happen in September – there was little doubt the Fed would move at the December meeting. The only question was whether it should raise rates. There are plenty of economists who argued against it.

The reason? The economy is still weak and inflation is nowhere in sight. In the past the Fed has raised rates to dampen inflation and cool an overheating economy. That's clearly not the environment now.

So why raise?

So why is the Fed doing it? Some have speculated that, as bizarre as this might sound, the Fed wants higher rates so it can lower them again if the economy begins to falter.

Former Obama Administration economic advisor Larry Summers has argued on his blog that raising rates now, just for the sake of raising rates, is a serious mistake, especially if it slows an already slow economy.

“There is certainly a real risk that slow speed becomes stall speed becomes recession,” Summers wrote. “On average mature recoveries like the present one last less than an additional three years. And given how low rates are and the political aversion to the use of fiscal policy a substantial slowdown could have very severe consequences.”

Impact on consumers

In truth, whether this rate hike shoves the economy into a recession is by far the biggest potential impact it will have on consumers. While it is true that credit card rates are often influenced by the Federal Fund Rate, a quarter percent rise is unlikely to be noticed much if you're already paying about 15% on your balance.

And yes, if you have a savings account at your local bank, you might see a little more interest – but a tiny bit.

Consumers who own stocks and bonds will also feel the impact. In anticipation of the Fed rate hike, the value of “junk,” or high-risk bonds, has plunged in recent weeks. Some think stocks are poised for a sell-off over the next few months.

A Bank of America poll of fund managers found 58% expect the Fed to raise rates three more times in the coming 12 months. A net 43% of regional fund managers expect China’s economy to weaken in 2016, up from a net 4% last month.

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If a chicken can't cross the road, are its eggs organic?

The nation's eggmen can't agree on whether organic and cage-free are the same thing

Everyone has been flocking to organic eggs lately, expecting them to be healthier, tastier, and just generally superior to ...

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Photo © Anatolii - Fotolia

Everyone has been flocking to organic eggs lately, expecting them to be healthier, tastier, and just generally superior to "industrial" eggs. But a report by Cornucopia, a farm policy research group, says many of the eggs don't deserve the label. It blames the government for lax enforcement.

“It’s obvious that a high percentage of the organic eggs on the market are illegal and should, at best, be labeled ‘produced with organic feed,’ rather than bearing the USDA-certified organic logo,” Corucopia's Mark Kastel said, pointing to a lengthy report that focuses on widespread abuses in organic egg production and marketing.

An organization of egg ranchers says Cornucopia is getting its feathers ruffled over unrealistic standards.

"With a nation of more than 300 million people and a world population of approximately 6 billion and expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, we know that egg farmers play an important role in producing an abundance of affordable, safe food," says United Egg Producers, motto: "By egg farmers, for egg farmers."

"UEP and our farm members believe in consumer choice and therefore produce eggs in modern cage, cage-free and organic production systems as well as producing other specialty shell egg products," say the eggmen, highlighting the intramural egg industry debate over whether organic eggs come only from cage-free hens. 

The Cornucopia study profiles exemplary management practices employed by many family-scale organic farmers while spotlighting abuses at so-called “factory farms,” some confining hundreds of thousands of chickens in industrial facilities and representing these eggs to consumers as “organic.”

To win the U.S. Agriculture Department's "organic" seal, eggs are supposed to come from chickens that wander around on their own, pecking at grass, seeds, insects and getting plenty of fresh air and exercise. But the Cornucopia report says many supposedly organic eggs come from chickens that are cooped up all day. Even if they're eating organic feed, the resulting eggs won't be truly organic, the group says.

Eggs eyed

PhotoPerhaps taking their lead from the NSA and other super-spy government agencies, Cornucopia spent six years conducting surveillance of egg ranchers and didn't count as many chickens in the barnyard as the number of "organic" eggs on supermarket shelves would indicate. 

“For this report, we have visited or surveilled, via aerial photography/satellite imagery, a large percentage of certified egg production in the United States, and surveyed all name-brand and private-label industry marketers,” Kastel said.

Kastel puts the blame on the feds. He accuses the USDA’s National Organic Program of gross malfeasance in neglecting to protect consumers from fraud and ethical farmers from unfair competition, as Congress charged the agency to do.

Chickens confined

Still, it takes a lot of eggs to feed a hungry nation and Cornucopia's report focuses not on the size of some of the mammoth agribusinesses but rather on their organic livestock management practices. It says that most of these giant henhouses, some holding approximately 200,000 birds, provide no legitimate access to the outdoors, as required in the federal organic regulations.

“Many of these industrial-scale operators are gaming the system by providing tiny enclosed porches, with roofs and concrete or wood flooring, and calling these structures ‘the outdoors,’” said Paul Nehring, a livestock producer quoted in the report. “Many of the porches represent just 3% to 5% of the square footage of the main building housing the birds. That means 95% or more of the birds have absolutely no access whatsoever to the outdoors.” 

Whether any of this really has a measurable impact on an egg's nutritional value isn't the issue, organic farmers say. They, and many consumers, say they want to protect farm animals from abuse and substandard living conditions.  

“If one animal has the legal right to be outdoors, then all animals have the same right, whether they choose to take turns or if they all choose to be outside at the same time,” said Jim Riddle, a Minnesota organic farmer and former chairman of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), quoted in the report.

The full Cornucopia report is available online

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Holiday house fires and how you can avoid them

Tips to keep in mind before watching those chestnuts roast over an open fire

Preparing for holiday guests often entails breaking out the candles, preheating the oven, and readying the firewood. Flames and electricity play a central ...

PhotoPreparing for holiday guests often entails breaking out the candles, preheating the oven, and readying the firewood. Flames and electricity play a central role in casting a warm glow over holiday gatherings. Unfortunately, the holiday season sees more fire-related emergencies than any other time of the year because of this.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), 30% of home fire and 38% of home fire deaths occur during the months of December, January, and February, and candle fires are four times more likely to occur in December.

So protect your home and family by keeping in mind these important holiday fire safety tips:

Stay vigilant

One-fifth of holiday-related fires start right in the heart of the home: the kitchen.

“Chimney fires, cooking fires and even children playing with matches are significant causes of home fires this time of year,” said Tom Allen of Hudson Douglas Public Adjusters, LLC, who adds that it is critical to keep properly operating smoke detectors and fire extinguishers on hand.

While decorative lights and candles can add to the splendor of the season, it’s important to stay vigilant in order to protect your family and home. Keep a close eye on children and guests, and be sure that all decorations are at least three feet away from heat sources such as fireplaces, portable heaters, radiators, heat vents, and candles. Fires started in the living room, family room or den account for one out of every six emergencies.

“Don’t overload circuits or use holiday lights that are frayed,” says Allen. “Turn off the holiday lights and extinguish fires and candles when people are going to bed or leaving the property.” The American Red Cross suggests designating one person to walk around your home to make sure all candles and smoking materials are properly extinguished after guests leave.

Christmas tree fires

On average, one in every 22 home fires started by a Christmas tree results in death. Although not common, Christmas tree fires are likely to be very serious if they do occur.

So how can you avoid them?

In addition to keeping trees away from heat sources, Allen suggests purchasing a flame retardant metallic or artificial tree.

“If you do purchase a real tree, make sure that it has fresh, green needles that aren’t easily broken,” says Allen. “Keep live trees as moist as possible by giving them plenty of water.”

It’s fun to decorate for the holidays, but be sure to use extra caution when flames are involved. According to the American Red Cross, nearly 47,000 fires occur during the winter holidays, claiming more than 500 lives and causing more than 2,200 injuries.

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Researchers find security flaw in Target mobile app

Consumers who used the company's wish list app may have had their personal information compromised

Target just can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to the holiday season. After the company’s huge data breach at the end of 2013, which compromised the...

PhotoTarget just can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to the holiday season. After the company’s huge data breach at the end of 2013, which compromised the personal information of over 100 million consumers, another security flaw has been found this year.

Although smaller in scope, consumers who have used Target’s wish list mobile app may have had some of their personal information put in jeopardy, including their addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, and shopping registries.

The flaw was found by researchers at the Avast security firm. They determined that the mobile app’s Application Program Interface (API) was very easy to access over the Internet. Because of this, anyone who is able to determine how a user ID is generated can gain access to consumer files.

“If you created a Christmas wish list using the Target app, it might be accessible to more people than you want to actually receive gifts from,” said the researchers in a blog post. “The Target app keeps a database of users’ wish lists, names, addresses and email addresses. But your closest family and friends may not be the only ones who know you want a new suitcase for your upcoming cruise!”

Meanwhile, Target disabled portions of its wish list app on Tuesday until the problem could be resolved. “We apologize for any challenges guests may be facing while trying to access their registry. . . Our teams are working diligently overnight to resume full functionality,” said Molly Snyder, a Target communications manager. 

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Longer trailers derailed, cybersecurity bill moves ahead in Congress

The omnibus spending bill is like Santa's sack -- lots of goodies for those both naught and nice

An old saying has it that no one's life, liberty, or property is safe when a legislature is in session. This is never more true than when Congress is wrapp...

PhotoAn old saying has it that no one's life, liberty, or property is safe when a legislature is in session. This is never more true than when Congress is wrapping up its annual omnibus spending bill, which funds the government for the next year. All sorts of last-minute trickery and tomfoolery can and often does occur.

On the other hand, sometimes earlier trickery and tomfoolery is deleted at the last moment. That seems to be the fate of a measure that would have forced all states to allow double 33-foot semi-trailer trucks, known as "Double 33s."

The measure was heavily lobbied by trucking interests, but safety advocates raised such a fuss that the measure was deleted from the final version of the bill.

"Double 33s would have resulted in a degradation of safety on our roads and highways at a time when fatalities are on the rise. Funding bills are becoming magnets for special interests seeking to add riders that roll back safety laws and regulations that would never pass Congressional oversight and public review," said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

But, on the other side of the ledger, the bill includes an extension of the “tired truckers” provision enacted in last year’s spending bill. This provision takes away truck drivers “weekends off” and pushes them to work up to 82 hours a week. 

"Crashes such as the one which seriously injured Tracy Morgan and killed James McNair are jarring reminders of why this provision, known as the Collins amendment, should be stopped," Gillan said.

Cybersecurity

Privacy advocates are angrily complaining that a controversial cybersecurity bill has been "gutted" of privacy protections that had been included in earlier measures.

“It’s clear now that this bill was never intended to prevent cyber attacks,” said Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, which has been fighting the measure for months. “It’s a disingenuous attempt to quietly expand the U.S. government’s surveillance programs, and it will inevitably lead to law enforcement agencies using the data they collect from companies through this program to investigate, prosecute, and incarcerate more people, deepening injustices in our society while failing to improve security.”

“Congress has failed the Internet once again,” she added. “Now it’s up to President Obama to prove that his administration actually cares about the Internet. If he does he has no choice but to veto this blatant attack on Internet security, corporate accountability, and free speech.”

It's too soon to say what else lurks in the spending bill. The next few days will tell the tale. 

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A new generation arrives in the workplace

What will Generation Z bring to the table that’s different from Generation Y?

As Generation Z (defined as those between 16 and 20) starts shopping for briefcases and baby boomers head out the door, a generational shift in the workpla...

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Healthcare.gov extends sign-up deadline two days

Procrastinators have until just before midnight Thursday

Consumers selecting health care policies on government exchanges have a little more time to do so, in order to have coverage beginning January 1, 2016....

PhotoConsumers selecting health care policies on government exchanges have a little more time to do so, in order to have coverage beginning January 1, 2016.

Normally, the deadline for arranging coverage is December 15. The Obama Administration said it is extending the deadline to 11:59 pm PT, Thursday December 17.

The administration said it is taking the action because of “unprecedented demand at HealthCare.gov and our Marketplace Call Center.”

“Hundreds of thousands have already selected plans over the last few days, and approximately 1 million of you have left contact information to hold your place in line,” Healthcare.gov said on its website. “We want to make sure all of you have access to affordable coverage. This additional 48 hours will give you a chance to come back and complete your enrollment for coverage starting January 1.”

The agency says consumers who provided contact information on the web or at the call center will receive an email or call when they can finish enrolling.

There will be another enrollment period in January, but coverage obtained then won't take effect until March. Under the Affordable Care Act, consumers who don't have health coverage will face a penalty at tax time.

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Reseachers link anti-depressants to autism

Study says it could be one of several contributing factors

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a highly complex developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Its si...

PhotoAutism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a highly complex developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Its signs usually appear in early childhood.

Once fairly rare, today it is increasingly, and distressingly, common. According to government health officials, one in every 68 children born in the U.S. in 2014 showed ASD symptoms.

“There is no known single cause of autism, but increased awareness and early diagnosis/intervention and access to appropriate services/supports lead to significantly improved outcomes,” according to the Autism Society.

Search for causes

While there is no known cause, there is plenty of speculation and the search for causes has become the intense object of research. Professor Anick Bérard of the University of Montreal and its affiliated CHU Sainte-Justine children’s hospital, is among the latest researchers to offer a theory.

She believes taking anti-depressants during pregnancy greatly raises the risk of having an autistic child. Her findings are published in JAMA Pediatrics.

“The variety of causes of autism remain unclear, but studies have shown that both genetics and environment can play a role,” Bérard said. “Our study has established that taking antidepressants during the second or third trimester of pregnancy almost doubles the risk that the child will be diagnosed with autism by age seven, especially if the mother takes selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, often known by its acronym SSRIs.”

Extensive data

The Canadian researchers worked with data from the Quebec Pregnancy Cohort and studied 145,456 children between the time of their conception up to age 10. The study included data about the mother’s use of antidepressants and the child’s eventual diagnosis of autism, as well as other details that helped the team to focus in on the specific impact of antidepressant drugs.

Among the factors taken into consideration: genetic predisposition and family history; maternal age; depression; and socio-economic factors such as being exposed to poverty.

“We defined exposure to antidepressants as the mother having had one or more prescription for antidepressants filled during the second or third trimester of the pregnancy. This period was chosen as the infant’s critical brain development occurs during this time,” Bérard said. “Amongst all the children in the study, we then identified which children had been diagnosed with a form of autism by looking at hospital records indicating diagnosed childhood autism, atypical autism, Asperger’s syndrome, or a pervasive developmental disorder. Finally, we looked for a statistical association between the two groups, and found a very significant one: an 87% increased risk.”

The researchers conclude that it is “biologically plausible” that anti-depressants are causing autism if used at the time of brain development in the womb. They say the findings are “hugely important” as six to 10 percent of pregnant women are currently being treated for depression with antidepressants.

For women who are pregnant, or may become pregnant, no unilateral action should be taken without first discussing it with a health care provider. If you have concerns, reference this study in your discussions.

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Consumers having easier time paying credit card bills

Balances are way up, but delinquency rates are way down

Experian released a report this week that, at first blush, looks like bad news. But a closer reading might indicate consumers might not be so bad off.T...

PhotoExperian released a report this week that, at first blush, looks like bad news. But a closer reading might indicate consumers might not be so bad off.

The Experian Third Quarter Market Intelligence Brief shows consumer credit card debt has reached is highest level since the fourth quarter of 2009. Some economists might see that as worrisome.

If consumers are loading up credit card balances because they can't make ends meet, there's no question that's something to be concerned about. But if debt is rising because consumers are making more purchases and have confidence they can pay it back, that might be different.

Delinquency rates plunge

Delinquency rates would suggest whether consumers are struggling with the rising debt. The third quarter numbers suggest they aren't.

According to Experian, credit card delinquency rates on outstanding balances 60 or more days past due have decreased 71% during the three month period. Combining those indicators with the national unemployment rate dropping 50% during the same span, the authors contend, illustrates a positive economic outlook on credit card trends among lenders and consumers.

“Overall credit card limits have increased 102% since Q4 2009 with $82 billion originated in Q3 2015,” said Kelly Kent, vice president of Experian Decision Analytics. “The increase in limits from lenders and the steady climb in credit card debt combined with exceptional delinquency rates signals greater confidence among consumers as they are showing more assurance in managing their credit since the recession.”

Experian said it expects to see credit card debt increase in the current quarter, since consumers historically spend more, and put much of that spending on plastic, during the holiday season.

Cautionary interpretation

Credit card website CardHub.com raised concern last week when it reported its analysis of data shows consumers erased almost all of their first-quarter credit card paydown during the second quarter of the year, racking up a staggering $32 billion in new balances.

In the third quarter, it reported consumers added another $21 billion to the tab, making for the largest second and third quarter binges since CardHub began conducting this study in 2009 – a finding that coincides with the Experian report.

But CardHub's interpretation of the data is more cautionary, saying the projected 2015 net increase of $68.5 billion in new credit card debt puts the country perilously close to a tipping point, at which balances become unsustainable and delinquency rates could skyrocket.

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Report sees surge in household robots by end of the decade

One in 10 homes may have a robot by 2020

A new report from Juniper Research predicts that more than one in 10 U.S. households will own a robot by 2020 – fewer than five years from now.If that ...

PhotoA new report from Juniper Research predicts that more than one in 10 U.S. households will own a robot by 2020 – fewer than five years from now.

If that sounds startling, consider this – one in 25 households already have one.

To understand the prediction, you need to understand what Juniper means by “robot.” While most of us conjure the image of R2D2, Juniper is talking about so-called ‘task’ oriented robots assigned to take over household chores, such as lawn mowing or vacuum cleaning.

Examples of these devices include iRobot’s Roomba and Droplet Robotics’ Sprinkler. They offer convenience for consumers and provide an improvement in overall housekeeping.

Work in progress

Our popular conception of a robot, a human-like device with artificial intelligence, remains a work in progress, but according to Juniper is on its way.

The report says the performance of these more complex robots, such as SoftBank’s Pepper, while improving, are limited by current technology. But technology is changing. To meet consumer expectations, smarter, more contextually-aware robots are on the drawing board.

To get there Juniper sees the need for more computing power and a big increase in efficiency if processing is to be offloaded from the cloud. As a result, evolution in chip design, such as IBM’s TrueNorth, will become important in the future.

Price and trust

Research and development costs pose one impediment to rapid robot development. Trust is another issue. The Juniper researchers cite studies that indicate that trust between robots and humans is rapidly eroded, even if a robot is able to perform better than a human on average.

“The state of consumer robotics could be compared to the PC in the late 70s,” said research author Steffen Sorrell.”Venture capitalist and corporate investment has ramped up tremendously recently – they know that this is the start of a paradigm shift in the way we use and interact with machines.”

The good and the bad

Robots are already in use in many hospitals and the report predicts healthcare will be the fastest-growing field for robots. With an aging population, robots are being designed to assist the elderly with simple daily life functions.

But some really smart people see a rather large downside to rapid development of robots with artificial intelligence. Stephen Hawking, for one, has warned that machines, if they become too clever, could kill off the human race.

It's not that the robots are evil, Hawking says. It's just that their goals might not be aligned with ours.

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New residential construction soars in November

And the outlook for home building in the months ahead is brighter

New home construction took off in November following a slump the month before.A joint release from the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and ...

PhotoNew home construction took off in November following a slump the month before.

A joint release from the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development puts privately-owned housing starts at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,173,000 -- up 10.5% from the revised October rate of 1,062,000. It's also 16.5% above the same month a year ago.

Ground-breaking for single-family homes was up 7.6% last month to a rate of 768,000, while starts for apartment buildings -- those with five units or more -- totaled 398,000, a gain of 68,000 over October.

“This month’s housing starts report is the first solid, meaningful report on new construction we’ve seen since the early spring,” said realtor.com Chief Economist Jonathan Smoke. “The monthly and yearly trends in both starts and permits were statistically significant, meaning the data are finally communicating a clear and positive trend.”

Building permits

Regarding building permits, authorizations for construction of privately-owned housing units shot up 11.0% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,289,000 -- is 19.5% above the November 2014 rate of 1,079,000.

Permits for single-family construction came to 723,000, 1.1% above the revised October figure of 715,000. Authorizations of units in buildings with five units or more were at a rate of 539,000, down 127,000 from October.

The surge in permits would appear to bode well for the year ahead.

“We expect starts to increase 12% in 2016,” said Smoke, “reaching 1.23 million starts for the year, which will be the highest year for starts since 2007, when the 30-year fixed conforming mortgage rate averaged 6.34 percent.”

The complete report is available on the Census Bureau website.

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Mortgage applications back down again

Contract interest rates were little-changed

Mortgage applications last week surrendered nearly all the gains they made the previous week.The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) weekly survey sho...

PhotoMortgage applications last week surrendered nearly all the gains they made the previous week.

The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) weekly survey shows applications were down 1.1% in the week ending December 11.

The Refinance Index, meanwhile, was up 1%, sending the refinance share of mortgage activity up 2% -- to 60.7% of total applications.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity fell to 6.0% of total applications, the FHA share was unchanged at 14.0%, the VA share rose to 11.2% from 10.8 percent the week prior, and the USDA share of total applications slipped to 0.6% from 0.7% a week earlier.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) was unchanged at 4.14%, with points increasing to 0.45 from 0.43 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate was unchanged from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dipped to 4.01% from 4.02%, with points decreasing to 0.30 from 0.40 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA was down one basis points from 3.91% to 3.90%, with points decreasing to 0.31 from 0.43 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs fell to 3.38% from 3.39%, with points decreasing to 0.35 from 0.39 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose two basis points to 3.25%, with points increasing to 0.36 from 0.30 (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 application.

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Kawasaki expands recall of Teryx ROVs

Sticks or other debris can break through the vehicle’s floor board

Kawasaki Motors U.S.A., of Irvine, Calif., is recalling about 19,500 Teryx recreational off-highway vehicles (ROVs). Sticks or other debris can bre...

PhotoKawasaki Motors U.S.A., of Irvine, Calif., is recalling about 19,500 Teryx recreational off-highway vehicles (ROVs).

 

Sticks or other debris can break through the vehicle’s floor board and protrude into the foot rest area, posing an injury hazard to the operator and front passenger.

 

About 11,000 ROVs were recalled for the same hazard in July 2014, and 7,000 for a different hazard in August 2012.

 

The company has received 628 incident reports of debris cracking or breaking through the floor boards of the vehicles, including eight reports of injuries to riders’ lower extremities.

 

The recall involves 2012 and 2013 model year Teryx4 750 4x4 (four seats) and 2014, 2015, 2016 model year Teryx 800 4x4 (two seats) and 2014, 2015 and 2016 model year Teryx4 800 4x4 (four seats) recreational off-highway vehicles.

 

These four-wheel off-highway vehicles have automotive style controls and seating for two or four. The Teryx 800 has side-by-side seating for two people, two doors, a roll bar with hand holds and a cargo bed. The Teryx4 750 and Teryx 4 800 have side-by-side seating for four people, four doors, a roll bar with hand holds and a cargo bed.

 

The models come in three different styles: Non-EPS, EPS and EPS LE. The LE style has a roof and aluminum wheels. The model name is printed on the driver’s side of the hood or on the left and right front fender.

 

The 2012 Teryx4 750 model comes in blue, camo, green, yellow, and red. The 2013 Teryx4 750 model comes in black, camo, green, red, white, and yellow. The 2014 Teryx4 800 model comes in green, camo, yellow, and orange.

 

The 2015 Teryx4 800 model comes in green, orange, white, camo, and black. The 2016 Teryx4 800 model comes in camo, white, green, red, and gray.

 

The 2014 Teryx 800 model comes in camo, green, and blue. The 2015 Teryx 800 comes in green, white, black and camo. The 2016 Teryx 800 comes in green, gray, camo, and white.

 

The ROVs, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Kawasaki dealers nationwide from November 2011, through November 2015, for between $13,400 and $16,300.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled vehicles and contact an authorized Kawasaki dealer to schedule a free repair, consisting of the installation of floor board guards and replacing damaged floorboards. Consumers with previously repaired vehicles should contact Kawasaki dealers to receive this additional repair.

 

Consumers may contact Kawasaki toll-free at 866-802-9381 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (PT_ Monday through Friday or online at www.kawasaki.com and click on Recall/Safety Info at the bottom of the page for more information

.

 

 

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BMW recalls M3 Sedans, M4 Coupes and M4 Convertibles

The vehicle could suffer a loss of power to the rear axle

BMW of North America is recalling 42 model year 2015-2016 M3 Sedans manufactured May 30, 2015, to September 2, 2015; 2016 M4 Coupes manufactured July 3, 20...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 42 model year 2015-2016 M3 Sedans manufactured May 30, 2015, to September 2, 2015; 2016 M4 Coupes manufactured July 3, 2015, to September 11, 2015; and 2015-2016 M4 Convertibles manufactured May 29, 2015, to August 4, 2015.

 

The affected vehicles have a driveshaft with a slip-joint that may not have been filled with grease, resulting in failure of the slip-joint over time. The resulting loss of power to the rear axle would cause the vehicle to stop moving, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the driveshaft, replacing it as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin January 8, 2016.

 

Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417.

 

 

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Register your drone, then insure it

They're aircraft and you need insurance to protect yourself against claims

It's expected that as many as half a million drones will be under Christmas trees this year. While that may be a nightmare for pilots of manned aircraft, i...

PhotoIt's expected that as many as half a million drones will be under Christmas trees this year. While that may be a nightmare for pilots of manned aircraft, it's a dream come true for personal injury lawyers.

"This is the best Christmas present we could get," a New York City attorney chortled. "These things will be crashing into everything you can think of and there are going to be some serious consequences."

The Federal Avaiation Administration yesterday issued its rules requiring drone owners to register their devices, a step that will help fix blame but won't do anything to prevent novice drone operators from flying into houses, cars, pets and people. 

So what happens if you or someone in your family unwraps a sparkling new drone and promptly flies into onto a freeway, causing a chain-reaction pile-up that results in deaths and injuries?

Aside from possible criminal charges, you can expect to be hit by a litigation pile-up as accident victims seek their pound of flesh. Think your homeowners or renters policy will cover you?

It might, but then again, it might not. Check with your agent but don't take his word as gospel. It's best to read the policy carefully yourself to be sure. Better yet, seek coverage that specifically covers drones.

Small aircraft

A drone is legally classified as a small aircraft. Many homeowners and renters policies exclude coverage for damages caused by recreational aircraft and for aviation accidents in which the policyholder or a family member is the pilot.

The fact is, it's a grey area and likely to remain so for a few years, until there's been enough litigation to build some predictable legal precedents. But any way you look at it, flying a drone is a high-risk activity, legally speaking. 

"Previously, the worst thing you could do from a liability standpoint was build a swimming pool in your yard," said the New York attorney, who asked to remain anonymous. "The likelihood of disaster is higher than with any other type of home addition. But the drone may be a close second."

Members covered

To date, there's not much coverage out there specifically intended for drones. One rather large exception, however, is the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a membership organization that etends $2.5 million in personal liability coverage to all of its members.

Membership is $75 per year, which also gets you all the usual organization benefits -- newsletters, educational materials, online instruction and, perhaps the most important benefit of all, lobbying. The group takes credit for working with Congress to establish the rather relaxed rules covering drones. 

"Our work with Congress helped establish the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, exempting recreational, unmanned aircraft from regulation. And the FAA now considers our National Model Aircraft Safety Code to be a legitimate means of operating recreational, unmanned aircraft in the national airspace," its website boasts.

Best Buy is selling AMA memberships and other retailers are handing out safety brochures, some of which recommend that consumers join the group.

Skeptical about whether there's really a liability risk associated with drone ownership? The AMA is taking no chances. All members must accept this waiver:

I exempt, waiver, and relieve the Academy of Model Aeronautics, Incorporated (AMA) from all current or future liability claims caused by negligence. Note: This waiver means that if I am involved in any claim or suit I will not sue the AMA, Inc.    

Obviously, the AMA is concerned enough to cover itself. You should be too.

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Senate passes act that would ban gag clauses used by companies nationwide

The Consumer Review Freedom Act has received bipartisan support and will move on to Congress for approval

Last month, we reported that the Consumer Review Freedom Act was making its way through the Senate. The new piece of legislation would eliminate the use of...

PhotoLast month, we reported that the Consumer Review Freedom Act was making its way through the Senate. The new piece of legislation would eliminate the use of gag clauses by companies, which have silenced many negative consumer opinions in the past. These non-disparagement agreements are usually hidden in the fine print of contracts that consumers sign and allow a company to censor negative reviews and comments in public forums.

Well, as of Monday, the new piece of legislation cleared its biggest hurdle towards becoming a law yet after being cleared by the Senate. If it is passed by a full Congress, the act would become law and become enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an entity that would ensure that all consumers have their voices heard.

Passed unanimously

The act was passed by unanimous consent by the Senate and did not meet any contention from the delegates, having not even come up for debate on the floor. This comes as a relief to many consumers who have had to go to extreme lengths to pursue claims of unfair censorship. Although most courts assert that individual gag clauses are unenforceable, being able to get heard at the judicial level is not easy.

One consumer quipped that until her case against KlearGear garnered national attention, lawyers “wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.” The whole process can be very expensive, something that companies count on when enforcing their gag clauses.

While the state of California was the first to ban gag clauses at the state level, the initiative has had some trouble passing at the national level. However, this newest version of the Consumer Review Freedom Act has had bipartisan support, something that may very well tip the balance in its favor in the future. 

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Verizon says 5G rollout will start in 2017

The network will reportedly be as fast as Google Fiber

Verizon Communications keeps dropping teases about its forthcoming 5G network, said to be capable of speeds 200 times faster than the network's current 5Mb...

PhotoVerizon Communications keeps dropping teases about its forthcoming 5G network, said to be capable of speeds 200 times faster than the network's current 5Mbps average.

That's about as fast as Google Fiber's 1Gbps and could spell trouble for Google as it tries to expand into the nation's biggest markets after successful roll-outs in smaller cities like Kansas City and Austin. AT&T; is also stepping up deployment of its 1Gbps network and says it will outbuild Google.   

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam said at a recent Business Insider conference that the company will begin tests of 5G at its headquarters next month, planning for a slow commercial rollout in 2017.

Verizon said in September that the network would be arriving sooner than you might think, but McAdam's recent statements have lent a little more specificity to that promise. 

Assuming tests at its headquarters are successful, further testing will be done in Boston, San Francisco, and New York City before the network is made available commercially. 

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Netflix fiddles with software to speed up streaming

The result should be better quality video with less bandwidth

Netflix is trying to get better mileage out of its video streaming operation, the largest on the Web. If it works, the result should be better-looking vide...

PhotoNetflix is trying to get better mileage out of its video streaming operation, the largest on the Web. If it works, the result should be better-looking video for everyone and a reduction in bandwidth usage of 20% or so. That's important, since Netflix uses about one-third of all data on the Internet during peak times. 

Basically, the change will tailor video encoding partly to content instead of to users' reception capabilities.

Netflix, like everyone else, has always encoded several versions of each piece of video -- super high-quality for those with ultra-fast connections, low-res versions for those with super-slow connections, and so forth.

But, as Variety tells it, someone at Netflix came to the realization that it would make more sense to encode videos based on their content.

“You shouldn’t allocate the same amount of bits for ‘My Little Pony’ as for ‘The Avengers,’” explained Netflix video algorithms manager Anne Aaron in the Variety report. That's because animated shows require much less data than complex productions originally meant for the big screen. 

Reviewers and reporters who have seen side-by-side tests of the traditional encoding methods and the new one say it's impossible to tell them apart. If that holds true for everyone, Netflix will have saved itself and its customers a lot of bandwidth. Those with slow-speed and mobile connections should also see improved quality on at least some titles.

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Office Christmas parties aren't what they used to be

More subdued, less alcohol and hanky-panky

Big companies often have big holiday parties, but in the seven years since the financial crisis, these celebrations have tended to be smaller, more subdued...

PhotoBig companies often have big holiday parties, but in the seven years since the financial crisis, these celebrations have tended to be smaller, more subdued affairs.

Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a firm usually focused on employment issues, decided to peer through the decorations to see how businesses are handling the annual merry-making.

It found just over 80% of the companies it polled plan to have a holiday party this year. Some 13% of the respondents said employees are looking forward to their first holiday party after one or more years of not having one.

So if parties are any gauge, some – not all – companies appear to be doing a little better this year.

Business barometer

“With the notable exception of the oil industry, where falling prices have caused many companies to make significant cutbacks, most industries are enjoying the fruits of a growing economy,” said John Challenger, CWO at Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Most employers view holiday parties as a way to mark the end of the year. If it has been a good year, they want to reward their employees. In fact, it's not uncommon for end-of-the-year bonuses to be handed out at the annual Christmas party.

If it has been a challenging year, many employers view a party as a way to boost morale and promote cohesion amongst employees.

Challenger says a new issue will likely get some consideration in some offices this year.

“It is difficult to say if the recent shooting in San Bernardino, which occurred during a workplace holiday party, will prompt companies to cancel or alter their party plans,” he said. “We speculate that most employers will not let fear dictate the decision to move forward with parties. However, we do expect that event, at the very least, to prompt further discussion within the party-planning groups.”

Long tradition

Office Christmas parties have a long tradition. In Charles Dickens' “A Christmas Carol,” published in 1843, the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to the scene of an office Christmas party he attended in his youth.

In the modern era, office parties have been famous for too much alcohol and sexual encounters among co-workers – the two things most likely related. In today's litigious and sensitive times, that can lead to massive headaches for HR to deal with.

Perhaps because of that, along with recent economic events, many employers and employees have just decided to skip it. In the survey, 19% of companies said they would not be having a party this year.

“Holiday parties may be falling out of favor,” said Challenger. “Some companies may have cut them during the recession and found that they weren’t really missed. Parties can be a morale booster, but they can also be a source of stress for many employees.”

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Tips for flying with little ones

How to keep kids happy while up in the sky

If paying Grandma a holiday visit requires a plane ride now that’s she’s moved to Florida, you may be wondering how you’ll ever survive the in-flight exper...

PhotoIf paying Grandma a holiday visit requires a plane ride now that’s she’s moved to Florida, you may be wondering how you’ll ever survive the in-flight experience with offspring in tow.

It can be anxiety-inducing, but as the old saying goes, preparation is the key to success. Here are few tips for keeping kids happy while you’re up in the air.

Plan ahead

Bring plenty of your child’s favorite snacks in case he or she gets hungry before the in-flight meal is served. A hungry child will let you, and every other passenger, hear about it.

Dress them in layers to be sure they’ll stay comfy no matter the temperature. Emergency layers are also good to have in case of … other accidents.

And while packing toys in your carry-on is a good idea, it may be a smart move to save your child’s number one favorite toy for later. Skyscanner Chief Strategy Officer Bonamy Grimes has a clever solution for making it all better in a moment of desperation.

“Stock up on toys, but make sure you hold back a favorite teddy that you bring out on the plane, and keep one in reserve for the way back,” says Grimes. Also, he adds: “There is always the risk of losing a cherished companion in transit, which is heart-breaking, so whenever you buy them a soft toy, buy two and if the worst happens, substitute New Porky for Left-On-Plane Porky.”

Flying is fun

Sitting in a chair in the sky is much more novel to kids than it may be to you. So make it fun!

“Point out the small houses, the clouds, the setting sun,” says Skyscanner CEO Gareth Williams. “If you’re desperate, get them to count how many passengers are on the flight. And if you can, get a visit to the cockpit. Even adults enjoy it.”

If your kids are afraid of flying, Skyscanner Writer Oskana Ermolaeva recommends making it into a game. “My daughter used to be afraid of flying. To cure this condition, I played role games with her,” said Ermolaeva.

“Let your child be a pilot or flight attendant. Play everything that normally happens on board," she says. "This really helps to avoid pre-flight and in-flight panic.”

On the plane

It goes without saying: a bored child is a pain in the rear — so keep plenty of entertainment on hand. Oskana recommends an iPad on long-haul flights.

“Don’t be afraid of your child becoming gadget-addicted,” says Oskana. “It is just a flight — let kids do what is interesting for them even if at home you limit the time they spend on a computer or playing games.”

Bring notebooks and drawing utensils for younger children, and perhaps a book or Kindle for older children. The value of an iPod and headphones also goes up tenfold while up in the air with kids.

Finally, remember to take care of yourself. When you’re in good form, you’ll be more able to cope with the inevitable challenges of parenting.

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Star Wars is a marketing force to be reckoned with

Companies spend big to associate themselves with the expected blockbuster

When Disney paid $4 billion for LucasFilm in 2012, Wall Street let out a collective gasp. What were they thinking?The main LucasFilm property was the S...

PhotoWhen Disney paid $4 billion for LucasFilm in 2012, Wall Street let out a collective gasp. What were they thinking?

The main LucasFilm property was the Star Wars franchise, which many entertainment analysts said was getting a little moldy around the edges.

No one is second-guessing the move now. After its world premier in Hollywood on Monday night, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is not only expected to break box office records, but the record for breaking records.

With all the buzz surrounding the film – the first in the series premiered in 1977 – businesses have lined up to associate themselves with the latest installment, which reunites Han Solo and Chewbacca.

In fact, it's very possible that sponsorship sales will equal ticket sales. A new report by Nielsen helps explain why.

Connects with consumers

According to Nielsen N-Score, which measures celebrities’ endorsement potential, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill all rate above the average N-Score for a TV/film actor. Ford, who starred in many other movies since the first Star Wars, has the highest N-Score of the three major returning cast members – 100 out of 100 – as 90% of Americans are aware of him and 56% rate him as influential.

The biggest Star Wars fans are more likely to be Gen Xers, but enthusiasm for the franchise appears to span across races and age groups. While fans are predominantly white, minority households are more likely than the average American household to have Star Wars fans -- especially Asian-Americans and Hispanics.

As a result you'll see no shortage of Star Wars-themed products in the next few weeks.

Lunch boxes

Curver, a member of the Keter Group, is plastering Star Wars images on its collection of home and personal storage items. The collection includes lunch boxes, bins, and home storage items for multiple uses.

Lunch boxes are a traditional spot for movie characters, as many Baby Boomers may remember transporting sandwiches to school in some type of Disney-themed container.

Even car companies are getting in on the act. Chrysler has outfitted some of its white Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat and Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat as storm troopers. They also have a Kylo Ren-inspired black Dodge Viper ACR. The resemblance is uncanny.

The cars are prowling the streets of Los Angeles in the days leading up to the December 18 opening.

Pet names

Nationwide Insurance, in an effort to promote its pet insurance policies, issued a press release noting that Star Wars has inspired many pet names. After analyzing its database of more than 550,000 insured pets, Nationwide says these are the top 10 pet names related to the movie franchise:

  1. Luke
  2. Yoda
  3. Chewbacca
  4. Leia
  5. Rebel
  6. Vader
  7. Obi Wan
  8. Han Solo
  9. Jedi
  10. Boba Fett
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Feds complete work on rule on tracking foodborne illnesses

USDA says retailers will be able to track sources of ground meats more easily

The Agriculture Department’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has put the finishing touches on a measure that it says will improve the agen...

PhotoThe Agriculture Department’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has put the finishing touches on a measure that it says will improve the agency’s ability to determine the source of foodborne illnesses linked to ground beef.

The new rule requires that all makers of raw ground beef products keep adequate records of the source material so that the agency can quickly work with the suppliers to recall contaminated product. This, the FSIS says, will help stop foodborne illness outbreaks sooner when they occur.

When retail stores produce ground beef by mixing product from various sources but fail to keep clear records that would allow investigators to determine which supplier produced the unsafe product, outbreak investigations take longer to get off the ground.

This new requirement complements expedited traceback and traceforward procedures announced in August 2014 that the agency says enhances its ability to quickly and broadly investigate food safety breakdowns in the event of an outbreak connected to ground beef.

“This is a common-sense step that can prevent foodborne illness and increase consumer confidence when they purchase ground beef,” said Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Al Almanza. “In the event that unsafe product does make it into commerce, these new procedures will give us the information we need to act much more effectively to keep families across the country safe.”

New record-keeping regulations

Under the new final rule, the FSIS is amending its record-keeping regulations to require that all official establishments and retail stores that grind raw beef products maintain the following records:

  • the establishment numbers of establishments supplying material used to prepare each lot of raw ground beef product;
  • all supplier lot numbers and production dates;
  • the names of the supplied materials, including beef components and any materials carried over from one production lot to the next;
  • the date and time each lot of raw ground beef product is produced; and
  • the date and time when grinding equipment and other related food-contact surfaces are cleaned and sanitized.

These requirements also apply to raw beef products that are ground at an individual customer’s request when new source materials are used.

“The traceback mechanism provided for in this final rule will facilitate recall efforts that could stop outbreaks and prevent additional foodborne illnesses,” said Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Brian Ronholm.

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Trump's doctor says his health is better than anybody's

He would, however, be the oldest prez candidate ever elected to a first term

Quick, what's the first word that comes to mind when someone mentions Donald Trump? Loud, brash, arrogant, confident?How about old?Trump, who will...

PhotoQuick, what's the first word that comes to mind when someone mentions Donald Trump? Loud, brash, arrogant, confident?

How about old?

Trump, who will be 70 by Election Day, would be the oldest presidential candidate elected to a first term in U.S. history. But not to worry. A memo from Trump's physician distributed by the Trump campaign says the candidate's health is not only excellent. It's even better than that!

"If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual elected to the presidency," says a memo attributed to Dr. Harold Bornstein, who goes on to exclaim that Trump's latest physical showed only "positive results."

Of course, when a physician says a test was positive, it's usually bad news -- meaning that the condition the test was looking for actually exists. But maybe Dr. Bornstein has been picking up Trump's speech habits.

He goes on to say that Trump's blood pressure and lab results were "astonishingly excellent." And not only that: "Mr. Trump has suffered no form of cancer, has never had a hip, knee or shoulder replacement or any other orthopedic surgery," Bornstein added.

Trump's only surgery was an appendectomy at age 10, said Bornstein, a New York City gastroenterologist.

Trump received a medical deferment from military duty in 1968 because of bone spurs, a malady not mentioned by Bornstein. 

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Five reasons to buy a house in December

Why homes on the market during this month go so quickly

Looking to buy a house this month? If you said ‘yes,’ you are in the minority — and that’s just one of the many reasons December is the smartest month to b...

PhotoLooking to buy a house this month? If you said ‘yes,’ you are in the minority — and that’s just one of the many reasons December is the smartest month to buy a house. 

Houses that are on the market this month tend to go fast, and for good reason, according to Tim Deihl, associate broker at Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty.

"A seller who's looking to move a piece of real estate during the holidays is a seller who needs to sell,” says Deihl. “Nobody in their right mind would pick that as the most convenient time to list their property.”

But those who do choose to sell at the end of the year are often under pressure and highly motivated to cut a deal.

Buyer benefits

If you’re looking for a new home for the holidays, take note of these benefits to buying during the month of December:

  • Bargain prices. December is known for many things — chocolate Santas, holiday parties, chaotic shopping malls — but not for purchasing a home. With fewer buyers in the marketplace, the available homes are priced to go fast. The likelihood of multiple offers and escalator clauses also decreases.

  • Motivated sellers. If a house is on the market in December, there’s usually a reason. Sellers may be looking to move due to job relocations, financial hardships, or personal change of circumstance. This can work to your benefit when it comes to negotiating a deal and asking for a closing date that works with your schedule.

  • Tax benefits. Purchasing in December is good for your bottom line when tax time rolls around. Close by December 31, and you can deduct property taxes, mortgage interest, origination points on your loan, and interest costs.

  • Lending lull. With everyone off celebrating (or stuck in traffic), December is traditionally a lean month for mortgage brokers. With so few loans in the pipeline, underwriting turnaround times will be fast.

  • Vendor availability. The office phones of moving companies are usually pretty quiet during the month of December. You’ll be able to secure movers on short notice and for the time slots you prefer.

Downsides?

The biggest downside of buying in December, says Deihl, is the limited supply of for-sale homes. Sellers tend to avoid the end of the year due to the short days, wintry weather, and conventional wisdom that says buyers are otherwise occupied.

“You won’t have tons of inventory to pick through,” he says, adding that you could consider looking at homes that aren’t on the market. Looking into “old expires” — homes that were for sale several years ago but never sold — is one strategy.

Another strategy for dealing with a desolate marketplace is to call brokers who sell a lot of homes in your target area. “Ask them about homes that aren't yet listed, but are being prepped for sale and will be ‘coming soon,’” says Deihl. “If they make the right calls to the right agents, they will trip over those deals.”

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Drone owners must register aircraft by Dec. 21

FAA hopes to get a handle on the thousands of new drones being sold during the holidays

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has acted on the recommendations issued last month by its Registration Task Force, submitting a new rule requirin...

PhotoThe Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has acted on the recommendations issued last month by its Registration Task Force, submitting a new rule requiring drone enthusiasts to register their aircraft by December 21.

The requirement covers all small, unmanned aircraft weighing more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds, including payloads such as on-board cameras.

“Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiast are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely. I’m excited to welcome these new aviators into the culture of safety and responsibility that defines American innovation.”

Under the new rule, owners of small, unmanned aircraft who previously operated an unmanned aircraft exclusively as a model aircraft prior to December 21, 2015, must register no later than February 19, 2016.

Online registration an option

If a drone were purchased for use as a model aircraft after December 21, 2015, it must be registered before the first flight outdoors. Owners may send in a paper form or go online to complete the process.

To register, drone owners will need to provide their name, home address, and e-mail address. Upon completion of the registration process, the web application will generate a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership that will include a unique identification number for the UAS owner, which must be marked on the aircraft.

The normal registration fee is $5, but in an effort to encourage as many people as possible to register quickly, the FAA is waiving this fee for the first 30 days, from Dec. 21, 2015 to Jan 20, 2016.

“We expect hundreds of thousands of model unmanned aircraft will be purchased this holiday season,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “Registration gives us the opportunity to educate these new airspace users before they fly so they know the airspace rules and understand they are accountable to the public for flying responsibly.”

Earlier this month, the Consumer Technology Association predicted as many as 400,000 drones would be sold during the holiday period.

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Beyond a debt-free holiday: getting ahead in 2016

Don't wait until January to start building a financially better new year

One way to get a handle on your finances is to not go overboard during the holidays. Getting your spending under control in November and December goes a lo...

PhotoOne way to get a handle on your finances is to not go overboard during the holidays. Getting your spending under control in November and December goes a long way towards starting the year the right way.

More than 90% of Americans will celebrate a holiday this winter, gearing up to spend an average of $830 according to a recent Gallup poll. But before you spend the last days of 2015 at the mall, running up oppressive credit card balances, consider these tips for keeping holiday spending under control:

  • Make a list: write down everyone you need to buy for or give a gift to, and make a plan for what you want to do for each.
  • Downsize: So many of us exchange gifts with extended family, among a group of friends, or even at work. Lead the way in suggesting that you draw names and buy for one.
  • Stick to a budget: be honest with yourself about what you have to spend.
  • Shop your House: "re-gifting" isn't always a bad thing. You may already have something that someone would truly appreciate.
  • Avoid too much glitter: It's easy to get carried away with Christmas decorations, but they cost money. Save your spending money for the people in your life.

Build on your savings

After the holidays, carry your financial discipline over into 2016. You'll improve your chances of getting ahead financially. The personal finance experts at USA.gov have come up with six steps to help you do that.

  1. Check your credit report: every consumer may look at their credit report from all three credit reporting agencies once a year. It can help you avoid identity theft and also help you understand your credit score, a system used by banks, credit card companies, and other businesses to figure out how likely you are to pay back money you borrow. Here is how to do it.
  2. Manage your debt: The first step is to stop putting things on your credit card until you can pay for them at the end of the month. Remember that you don't have to go it alone on the road to financial security. A credit counselor can help guide you to becoming debt-free.
  3. Don't fall for a scam: when a product or opportunity sounds too good to be true, it usually is. While scams change constantly, you can learn the warning signs that can help you spot frauds and scams. ConsumerAffairs has written about them extensively.
  4. Know your mortgage rights: how to finance a home can be one of the biggest decisions you'll make. If you are buying a home in 2016, shop for the mortgage as carefully as you shop for the home.
  5. Don't rush big financial decisions: when choosing between financial products and services, it's easy to feel pressured into making snap decisions. But snap decisions are usually the wrong decisions. If a salesperson is pressuring you to decide, it's always best to walk away.
  6. Save, save, save: Yes, it's harder to do these days, but take advantage of every opportunity to put money away, even if it's just a few dollars. Set goals and priorities for those savings and stick to them.
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Report urges consistent regulation of ride-sharing services

Different jurisdictions have different policies regarding these new services

The current battle over whether daily fantasy sports (DFS) enterprises constitute unlicensed gambling is yet another example of how new technologies have p...

PhotoThe current battle over whether daily fantasy sports (DFS) enterprises constitute unlicensed gambling is yet another example of how new technologies have proved to be disruptive forces against the status quo.

In the case of DFS, New York has sought to outlaw it, while Nevada has sought to regulate it.

Now, all it takes is a smartphone app to turn entire industries upside down. Airbnb is doing it to hotels – transportation network companies (TNC) like Uber and Lyft are doing it to taxis, limousines, and rental car agencies.

"Smartphone applications and GPS data are making feasible transportation services that have never before been realized on a large scale, and these services have the potential to increase mobility while reducing congestion and emissions from surface transportation if regulated wisely to encourage concurrent ride sharing," said Brian Taylor, chair of the study committee that wrote a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Consistent regulation

The report calls for a consistent approach to regulating these new industries that will meet the public's mobility needs while achieving greater policy consistency among these new services.

On the positive side, the availability of on-demand transportation services through smartphone apps is making it easier and cheaper for consumers to get around.

The growth in these services appears to be part of a recent rebound in taxi and public transit use. As of June 2015, Uber provided more than 1 million rides daily worldwide, while Lyft operated in 60 U.S. cities with more than 100,000 drivers.

On the downside, these services might be completely unregulated in some jurisdictions and tightly controlled, or even prohibited, in others. That creates confusion among users.

Most large cities with sizeable street-hail markets extensively regulate taxis, while smaller cities where dispatch service is the norm tend to have lighter regulation.

While taxis tend to be tightly regulated, competing TNCs are not. That can put the legacy transportation services at a disadvantage.

What consumers stand to lose

Consumers can lose as well if some of these taxi companies can't survive. The authors of the report note that regulated taxis offer critical transportation for people with disabilities in many areas, while most TNCs do not, mainly because they aren't required to.

Some 10% of the U.S. population has a physical limitation and about 3.6 million people use a wheelchair. Another 11.6 million use a cane, crutches, or a walker.

If taxi fleets give way to independent, unregulated TNCs, the authors worry there could be a dramatic decline in transportation options for the disabled.

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Rising lot and labor costs take toll on builder confidence

There is optimism, though, heading into 2016

Not much Christmas cheer in the home construction industry this month.The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index...

PhotoNot much Christmas cheer in the home construction industry this month.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI), a gauge of builder confidence in the market for newly constructed single-family homes, dropped one point in December -- to 61.

“For the past seven months, builder confidence levels have averaged in the low 60s, which is in line with a gradual, consistent recovery,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “With job creation, economic growth and growing household formations, we anticipate the housing market to continue to pick up traction as we head into 2016.”

The survey

The HMI, which is derived from a monthly survey that NAHB conducts, measures 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.

All three HMI components posted modest losses in December. The index measuring sales expectations in the next six months fell two points to 67, the component gauging current sales conditions was down one point to 66, and the index charting buyer traffic dropped two points to 46.

Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the West increased three points to 76 while the Northeast rose a point to 50. The Midwest, meanwhile, dropped two points to 58 and the South fell one point to 64.

“Overall, builders are optimistic about the housing market,” noted NAHB Chairman Tom Woods, “ although they are reporting concerns with the high price of lots and labor.”

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Consumer inflation AWOL in November

Both food and energy costs were lower

If you're looking for signs of inflation, good luck.The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was unchanged last...

PhotoIf you're looking for signs of inflation, good luck.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was unchanged last month, thanks to declines in the cost of food and energy. For the last 12 months, prices are up a modest 0.5% before seasonal adjustment.

Food costs

Food prices were down 0.1%, marking the first decline since March. The food at home category dropped 0.3%, with every major grocery store food group except fruits and vegetables (+0.6%) falling. Prices for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs fell for a third straight month (-0.6%). Also posting declines were the costs for dairy and related products (-0.6%), cereal & bakery products, and nonalcoholic beverages (-0.5%). Other food at home was down 0.3%.

Over the past 12 months, food at home has increased just 0.3%, the smallest 12-month increase since the period ending June 2010. The food away from home category was up 0.2% and has jumped 2.7% over the last 12 months.

Energy

The cost of energy fell 1.3% in November following a 0.3% increase the month before. The decline was led by gasoline prices, which were down 2.4% after rising 0.4% percent in October. Also declining were natural gas (-1.9%) and fuel oil (-1.3). Electricity costs, conversely, rose 0.3% on top of an advance of 0.4% in October.

Core inflation

The “core” rate of inflation, which strips out the volatile food and energy categories, rose 0.2% in November, the same as in September and October. Fueling the increase were prices for shelter, medical care, airline fares, new vehicles, and tobacco. Cost for recreation, apparel, household furnishings and operations, and used cars and trucks all declined.

Over the past 12 months, the core rate of inflation is up 2.0%, with about two-thirds of that due to rising housing costs (+3.2%). Also on the rise during that period were medical care (+2.9%), education, motor vehicle insurance, tobacco, alcoholic beverages, personal care, recreation, and new vehicles. The prices of apparel, airline fares, communication, household furnishings & operations, and used cars & trucks posted declines.

The complete CPI report is available on the BLS website.

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A pretty good October for air travelers

Airline on-time performance showed improvement

In the midst of the peak traveling season, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has some good news for those who choose to go by air.The nation' airl...

PhotoIn the midst of the peak traveling season, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has some good news for those who choose to go by air.

The nation' airlines posted an on-time arrival rate of 87.0% in October -- a surge of 7% from the same month in 2014 and up 0.5% from the previous month. According to the DOT's Air Travel Consumer Report, that's the third highest of the 250 months with comparable records.

That's not the only thing positive about October. The carriers canceled just 0.5% of their scheduled domestic flights in October, versus the 1.1% cancellation rate posted in October 2014. That's the second lowest of the 250 months with comparable records; only September 2015’s 0.4% rate was lower.

And, if that's not enough, there was only one tarmac delay of more than three hours on a domestic flight and one tarmac delay of more than four hours on an international flight. The DOT is investigating those delays.

The consumer report also includes data on chronically delayed flights, the causes of flight delays, and statistics on mishandled baggage reports filed by consumers. Also covered are aviation service complaints regarding a range of issues such as flight problems, baggage, reservations and ticketing, refunds, consumer services, disability, and discrimination.

The consumer report also includes reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of animals traveling by air, as required to be filed by U.S. carriers.

The complete report is available on the DOT website.

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Reesna recalls Fuel Up Plus and Fuel Up High Octane dietary supplement sexual enhancers for men

The products contain containing undeclared hydroxythiohomosildenafil, an analogue of sildenafil

Reesna Inc., of Canoga Park, Calif., is recalling all lots of Fuel Up Plus and Fuel Up High Octane dietary supplement sexual enhancers for men. The...

PhotoReesna Inc., of Canoga Park, Calif., is recalling all lots of Fuel Up Plus and Fuel Up High Octane dietary supplement sexual enhancers for men.

 

The products contain containing undeclared hydroxythiohomosildenafil, an analogue of sildenafil. Sildenafil is an FDA-approved drug for the treatment of male Erectile Dysfunction (ED), making Fuel Up an unapproved drug.

 

Sildenafil may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs such as nitroglycerin and may lower blood pressure to dangerous levels. Consumers with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease often take nitrates.

 

No illnesses or injuries have been reported to the company to date in connection with this product.

 

The product was sold to distributors and retail stores nationwide and via Internet sales.

 

Customers should not consume Fuel Up and should return it immediately to the place of purchase for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Romy Navarro at 818-576-0576, Monday through Friday, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, (PST).

 

 

 

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Stella & Chewy's recalls dog and cat food

The products may contain Listeria monocytogenes

Photo source: Stella & Chewy'sStella & Chewy's is recalling four of its products sold in the U.S. and Canada. The products may contain Lister...

Photo
Photo source: Stella & Chewy's

Stella & Chewy's is recalling four of its products sold in the U.S. and Canada.

 

The products may contain Listeria monocytogenes.

 

The recall affects a total of 990 cases (964 cases in the U.S. and 26 cases in Canada), and was prompted by a positive test confirming Listeria monocytogenes in Stella's Super Beef Dinner Morsels for Dogs 8.5 oz. frozen bags, lot #165-15, "Use by 6-25-2016,"

 

The following products from Lot # 165-15 are being recalled:

Product Description

Size

 UPC

Lot #

Use By

Frozen Stella's Super Beef Dinner Morsels for Dogs

8.5 oz.

186011 001554

165-15

6/25/2016

Frozen Stella's Super Beef Dinner Morsels for Dogs

4 lb.

186011 001370

165-15

6/25/2016 & 6/26/2016

Frozen Duck Duck Goose Dinner Morsels for Cats

1.25 lb.

186011 001455

165-15

6/25/2016

 

In addition, the following products, which have not tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, are being recalled:

Product Description

Size

 UPC

Lot #

Use By

Frozen Chick Chick Chicken Dinner Morsels for Cats

1.25 lb.

186011 001448

160-15

7/2/2016

Frozen Chick Chick Chicken Dinner Morsels for Cats

1.25 lb.

186011 001448

152-15

7/2/2016

 

The full product recall list and additional information may be found at: http://www.stellaandchewys.com/stella-chewys-recall-notice/.

 

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

 

 

 

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Ted Cruz' secret weapon? It's the same one Obama used in his campaigns

Secretive research firms build "psychographic" voter profiles based on Facebook Likes and other data

What do you think of the presidential candidates and the issues they've been raising? They may have a better idea of your thoughts than you do thanks to re...

PhotoWhat do you think of the presidential candidates and the issues they've been raising? They may have a better idea of your thoughts than you do thanks to research spanning tens of millions of Facebook users, harvested largely without their knowledge or permission.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has been closing in on front-runner Donald Trump in recent weeks and a big part of the reason may be the research commissioned for him by a billionaire benefactor, according to The Guardian and an earlier report by Politico.

Trump’s presidential campaign is using psychological data assembled, sliced, and diced by paid researchers at Cambridge University. These professionals have been gathering detailed psychological profiles of the U.S. electorate using a massive pool of mainly unwitting Facebook users. 

The Cambridge researchers are affiliated with Cambridge Analytica, which claims to collect "up to 5,000 data points on over 220 million Americans, and use more than 100 data variables to model target audience groups and predict the behavior of like-minded people."

The firm — owned in part by reclusive hedge fund magnate and leading Republican donor Robert Mercer — is using so-called “psychographic profiles” of U.S. citizens to help Cruz win votes, despite concerns about the ethical implications of the practice. 

Cruz is not the first candidate to benefit from this relatively new stealth weapon. The Obama presidential campaigns used similar research techniques and other candidates may be doing the same this year. Republican Ben Carson is also said to be a client of the firm, though on a much smaller scale than Cruz. 

Facebook Likes

The Cambridge researchers compile psychological data based on a treasure trove of Facebook “likes,” allowing them to match individuals’ traits with existing voter datasets -- identifying gun owners, for example.

The Guardian reported that its analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings shows Cruz’s campaign has paid Cambridge Analytica at least $750,000 this year. The company has received even more from Super Pacs to which Mercer and others have contributed. 

The Guardian reported that in an interview, Cruz said his approach is consciously modeled on Obama's -- "a data-driven, grassroots-driven campaign – and it is a reason why our campaign is steadily gathering strength.”

Is the Cambridge Analytica data the reason Cruz has lately been uniting factions within the GOP beyond his evaneglical and Tea Party base? Does it matter? It's up to voters to decide.

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New York AG asks consumers for help in investigating broadband providers

Volunteers can follow these steps to submit a report and fill in vital information for the state

At the end of October, we reported that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was going to be investigating three of his state’s largest broadband pr...

PhotoAt the end of October, we reported that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was going to be investigating three of his state’s largest broadband providers to see if consumers were getting what they paid for when it came to Internet speeds. The investigation is ongoing, but now the state is asking consumers for help.

In order to see whether or not promised Internet speeds are up to par, the state is asking consumers to test their connections and send in their results. This will allow the state to gather vital missing data that will allow their investigation to move forward.

Filling in the gaps

Schneiderman and his office are asking volunteers for help because the available FCC test information that his team has received may not tell the whole story. In the FCC report, connections are measured only by how quickly data moves across a user’s ISP network – a distance referred to as the “last mile.”

This is problematic because it leaves out information about how the speed is measured across other interconnected networks. Some have asserted that Internet speeds suffer during this process depending on whether or not broadband providers have connected with long-haul Internet traffic carriers.

By having volunteers send in their reports, Schneiderman and his office hope that the information that they’re missing can be filled in so that they can move forward.

Submitting information safely

In order to test their connections and send in a report, consumers can visit a third-party website called InternetHealthTest.org. All a visitor of the site needs to do is press “Start Test” to begin generating a report.

After a report has been generated, consumers can visit this site to take a screen shot of their results. The site provides a step-by-step process on how to submit a report, including information on how to take a screen shot and what to do if you have a Mac versus a PC.

The advantage of collecting information this way is that it protects the privacy of those who are submitting information. The site does not require any personal information, such as browser history or an IP address – though the attached form does ask for a name and zip code.

Schneiderman is hopeful that these tests will help New Yorkers get the Internet speeds they deserve. “New Yorkers should get the Internet speeds they pay for. Too many of us may be paying for one thing, and getting another. . . By conducting these tests, consumers can uncover whether they are receiving the Internet speeds they have paid for,” he said. 

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Holidays a good time to teach financial literacy to kids

Experts say the biggest hurdle for parents seems to be talking about money

Financial literacy education should start early, and perhaps there is no better time than the holidays, when everyone tends to spend a little more freely, ...

PhotoFinancial literacy education should start early, and perhaps there is no better time than the holidays, when everyone tends to spend a little more freely, to help children learn about and better manage money.

Kicking off the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans last year, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said helping young Americans build a sound financial foundation is not only important for their futures, it can also strengthen the economy for generations to come.

 The U.S. Mint publishes resources for school teachers to use in class. Common Cents is a unit plan containing lessons that introduce first and second graders to the basics of using coins. Quarter Explorer lets players earn quarters by answering questions about 50 state quarters and the states that appear on them. They also have to budget their money.

Subject just doesn't come up

And even though most parents say that financial education is important, nearly half do not talk about money with their children on a regular basis. Thirty-eight percent admitted to bringing up the subject of money with children only as “the need arises.”

Talking to kids about money is often more of a problem in affluent households. In a recent white paper, Glenn Kurlander, Managing Director at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, says he finds his wealthy clients seem to fear “the money conversation” the most, mainly because they don't want their kids to know how much money the family has.

“Our kids aren’t idiots, and most of them will figure it out,” Kurlander writes. “And if they don’t, they’ll hear it from their friends who have either figured it out themselves or heard it from their parents.”

Give them an allowance

Among Kurlander's advice for parents, regardless of income, is to give kids an allowance, to help them to learn how to live on a budget. And the holidays may be a good time to get started.

If a child is giving presents to family and friends, a set amount of money at his or her disposal will require careful budgeting. It also provides a good opportunity for a parent to talk to a child about the need to manage money – otherwise, someone on the child's list might not get a present.

There is no shortage of games and apps, designed to make learning sound financial principals fun, but to date there have been few studies to determine if or how well they work.

"The number of financial education resources to choose from is overwhelmingly large, " a Presidential council recently reported. "At the same time, quality and efficacy indicators are sorely lacking and there is no clear relationship between the quality of a program and its availability."

Whatever the method, personal finance experts say it is important that the message is delivered. There is an abundance of research showing children who save are more likely to go to college, have better control over their spending, have a more positive outlook on life, and are more financially literate overall.

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New portable sensor might soon help you avoid food poisoning

First version of the portable device sniffs out smallest traces of gluten

Imagine going into a chain restaurant, ordering your favorite meal, then scanning it with a small device, just to make sure it doesn't harbor some nasty bu...

PhotoImagine going into a chain restaurant, ordering your favorite meal, then scanning it with a small device, just to make sure it doesn't harbor some nasty bug that could make you sick.

Soon you'll be able to do it. A company called 6sensor Labs says it is developing consumer products to help consumers know what is in their food. The first product is called the Nima, a device the company describes as a portable and accurate food allergen sensor.

“We believe meal time should be about the enjoyment of your food and your company, and not the worry about the potential repercussions of eating something unknown,” the company says on its website. “We exist for you to eat with confidence and stay healthy!”

The first version of the Nima will only identify allergens – in particular, gluten. While only a small number of consumers have to avoid gluten for medical reasons, a gluten-free diet has become trendy in recent years, leading to a host of gluten-free foods.

Sniffs out the tiniest traces of gluten

But it can be very difficult to get every trace of gluten out of food, which is where the Nima, no bigger than your smartphone, does its work.

In the future, 6sensor Labs says the Nima, and other devices still on the drawing board, may detect harmful bacteria, including Salmonella and E. coli.

Last month, Time listed Nima as one of its “25 Best Inventions of 2015.” Time noted that after a sample is dropped into the well of the device, a proprietary antibody, loaded in a disposable cartridge, mines it for traces of gluten. If they exist, a frowning face lights up; if not, a smile appears.

“My hope is that people are going to be able to eat socially without accidentally getting sick,” Shireen Yates, a 6SensorLabs co-founder who is gluten-sensitive, told Time.

The firm also hopes to apply its technology to detect other food allergens, including peanuts and dairy.

The Nima is taking pre-orders for delivery early in 2016. It sells for between $200 and $250.

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Safety concerns hover over self-balancing scooters

This year's hot gadget gets a little too hot sometimes

First it was VW diesels. Then Chipotle burritos. Now it's hoverboards. The list of 2015 hazards just goes on and on. And sometime...

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Photo via Amazon.com

First it was VW diesels. Then Chipotle burritos. Now it's hoverboards. The list of 2015 hazards just goes on and on. And sometimes, rumors spread faster than, well, hoverboard fires.

The latest development: Amazon reportedly pulled some hoverboards from its site, according to a TechTimes report. The action, which apparently was short-lived, followed reports of at least nine hoverboard-related fires in recent weeks, including a recent incident in Chappaqua, N.Y.

TechTimes may have been right, but when ConsumerAffairs checked at mid-morning, Amazon had a full page of boards and self-balancing scooters. 

TechTimes said the first report of the disappearing hoverboards came from Mashable, which said it noticed that Swagway boards had vanished. Mashable inquired and was told that Amazon had sent a notice to all hoverboard vendors asking for certification that their boards met various UL and UN safety standards. Swagway said its boards already met all the safety standards.

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Photo: Westchester County Fire Department

In the Chappaqua case, the fire department said the board was charging in the Westchester County home when it malfunctioned and caught fire, charring the floor. No one was hurt and the homeowner quickly extinguished the flames. 

Major airlines last week banned hoverboards because of the risk of battery fires and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is keeping an eye on the growing casualty count.

The agency says it has received 10 reports of hoverboards catching fire from consumers in nine states and 29 reports of people being treated at an emergency room after falling off their board. In London, a teen was killed when he hovered into a bus.

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Half of consumers now prefer non-traditional holiday decor

Creative ideas drawn from the web inspire new decorating ventures

The Ghost of Christmas Past may wear a white robe, but the Ghost of Christmas Decorating Trends Past wears cardboard ornaments, fragile glass balls of ever...

PhotoThe Ghost of Christmas Past may wear a white robe, but the Ghost of Christmas Decorating Trends Past wears cardboard ornaments, fragile glass balls of every color, and a wig made of tinsel (probably).  

But a new era of holiday decorating seems to be dawning, as new poll results indicate that the most wonderful time of the year is getting a makeover.

In a U.S. nationwide survey to identify the latest Christmas decorating trends, including preferences on style, lights, and color themes, only 47% of consumers chose decorating styles considered traditional, which means the majority of consumers are now exploring new ways to decorate for the holidays.

Fueled by creativity

Perhaps thanks to the wealth of information on the internet through sites like Pinterest, more people are infusing their own unique style into holiday decorating.

“People have access to more Christmas decorating ideas than ever before and they're incorporating them into newer design styles to make their holidays unique and memorable,” says Frank Skinner, director of Marketing for Christmas Lights, Etc.

"We're seeing a renaissance in Christmas decorating styles,” says Skinner. “More people are experimenting with different ways to express their holiday creativity.”

Whimsical touches

With creativity playing an ever-larger role in holiday decorating, the theme ‘traditional with a twist’ has come to be favored by many. Over 14% of consumers say they’ve decked their halls using a whimsical/fun style.

Joyce Miller-Konstantinow, owner and designer of Blooms & Rooms Design Studio represents one example of this growing new trend.

“My favorite is and always has been a whimsical twist on traditional decorations,” she says, adding that even a traditional holiday song can be an inspiration for her color scheme.

“This year, my inspiration is ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside,'" says Miller-Konstantinow. "I use red and white plaids and cable knitted pillows accented with snow, red berries, and hot chocolate."

New takes on color

The way consumers incorporate color into their holiday decorating is also changing.

The top Christmas color among the 2,000 participants surveyed may surprise you: while red came in a close second place, white was the winner at 78%. Green was selected by 69%, and gold and silver came in at 35% and 28%, respectively, leaving the shimmery duo secure in their roles as accent colors only.

Color also gets in on the ‘traditional with a twist’ theme; many are opting to put a new spin on classic colors. Jeff Rice, owner of Décor Designs, for example, recommends substituting traditional holiday colors with fun variations.

“Try chartreuse or olive green mixed with traditional red or perhaps use copper and bronze accents instead of silver and gold,” he says.

He also echoes the idea of choosing colors to match other holiday elements.

“Pick a favorite wrapping paper, stocking, tree skirt or ornament and build your color story around it," says Rice. “Adding a neutral third color like cream or bronze will unify and balance other non-traditional, contrasting colors.”

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Renters face another year of rapidly rising monthly costs

Harvard researchers see record number of consumers paying more than 30% of their income on rent

The housing story of 2015 was rising rents. It could be much the same in 2016, according to a report by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.It...

PhotoThe housing story of 2015 was rising rents. It could be much the same in 2016, according to a report by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

It's been a common refrain in the aftermath of the financial crisis. With fewer people able to buy homes, there has been more competition for rental housing.

Even with apartment construction accelerating at its fastest pace in nearly three decades, the rental vacancy rate this year is at its lowest point since 1985. Rents are rising at an inflation-adjusted rate of 3.5% a year.

As a result, the Harvard researchers found the number of renters paying more than 30% of their incomes on rent is at a record level and there are no indications that number will decline in 2016.

Moderate income households also affected

It's true that lower-income households are most likely to experience this squeeze, but the report finds that rental cost burdens now affect even moderate-income renters earning as much as $45,000 per year.

“Record-setting demand for rental housing due to demographic trends, the residual consequences of the foreclosure crisis, and an increased appreciation of the benefits of being a renter has led to strong growth in the supply of rental housing over the past decade both through new construction and the conversion of formerly owner-occupied homes to rentals,” said Chris Herbert, Managing Director of the Joint Center For Housing Studies at Harvard.

Herbert says the housing market has been unable to meet the need for housing that is within the financial reach of many families and individuals with lower incomes. In large part, it is a supply and demand issue.

In the wake of the financial crisis much of the nation's homebuilding activity came to a screeching halt. Construction is still not back to pre-crisis levels, yet there has been almost no let up in household formation.

Renters finding it harder to buy

The impact is being particularly felt in the rental market, where renters often don't have the option of buying a home. Rising rents and stagnant incomes, meanwhile, make it difficult to save for a down payment.

Earlier this year a report by real estate marketplace Zillow found renting to be “less affordable than ever before.” In a comparison with home purchases, Zillow reported people who buy homes should expect to pay 15.1% of their income towards mortgage payments, which is still less than what they spent historically. From 1985 through 2000, homeowners spent about 21.3% of their monthly income on mortgage payments.

But if you are renting, Zillow said you should expect to put 30.2% of your monthly income toward rent – the highest percentage on record. Before the real estate bubble and bust, U.S. renters were spending, on average, about 24.4% of their incomes on rent.

The Harvard researchers worry about the consequences. They note that in 2014, lower-income households who paid more than half their incomes on rent spent 38% less on food, 55% less on healthcare, and 45% less on retirement savings than those living in affordable housing.  

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Wyndham settles FTC charges it mishandled customers' data

Hackers got access to credit card info on three separate occasions

A long-running dispute over companies' responsibility to protect customers' data concluded last week as Wyndham Hotels and Resorts settled charges that its...

PhotoA long-running dispute over companies' responsibility to protect customers' data concluded last week as Wyndham Hotels and Resorts settled charges that its security practices unfairly exposed consumers' credit card information to hackers.

Under terms of the settlement, the company will establish an information security program, conduct annual information security audits, and enforce the use of safeguards by its franchisees.

“This settlement marks the end of a significant case in the FTC’s efforts to protect consumers from the harm caused by unreasonable data security,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “Not only will it provide important protection to consumers, but the court rulings in the case have affirmed the vital role the FTC plays in this important area.”

Wyndham noted that the settlement "does not hold Wyndham liable for any violations, nor require Wyndham to pay any monetary relief" and said it initially disputed the allegations 'based on our strong belief that we have had reasonable data security in place, and that the FTC’s position could have had a negative impact on the franchise business model."

In a prepared statement, the hotel chain said the settlement "sets a standard for what the government considers reasonable data security of payment card information."

Wyndham also noted that it "made prompt efforts to notify the hotel customers whose information may have been compromised, and offered them credit monitoring services and said that "to date Wyndham has not received any indication that any hotel customers experienced financial loss as a result of these attacks."

Court order

Wyndham Vacation Resorts Dec. 13, 2015, 4:55 p.m.
Consumers rate Wyndham Vacation Resorts

The proposed stipulated federal court order requires Wyndham Hotels and Resorts to obtain annual security audits of its information security program that conform to the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard for certification of a company’s security program.  In addition, the order requires Wyndham’s audit to:

  • certify the “untrusted” status of franchisee networks, to prevent future hackers from using the same method used in the company’s prior breaches;
  • certify the extent of compliance with a formal risk assessment process that will analyze the possible data security risks faced by the company; and
  • certify that the auditor is qualified, independent, and free from conflicts of interest.

The order also requires that in the event Wyndham suffers another data breach affecting more than 10,000 payment card numbers, it must obtain an assessment of the breach and provide that assessment to the FTC within 10 days.

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Bravo recalls select chicken and turkey pet foods

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Bravo Pet Foods of Manchester, Conn., is recalling a select lot of Bravo Chicken Blend diet for dogs & cats with a best used by date of 11/13/16. T...

PhotoBravo Pet Foods of Manchester, Conn., is recalling a select lot of Bravo Chicken Blend diet for dogs & cats with a best used by date of 11/13/16.

 

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

 

Three additional items that did not test positive for Salmonella, but were manufactured on the same day, are also being recalled.

 

Pets with Salmonella infections may be lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some will have only decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain. Infected but otherwise healthy pets can be carriers and infect other animals or humans.

 

The company has received no reports to date of illness in either people or animals associated with these products.

 

The products were sold to distributors, retail stores, Internet retailers, and directly to consumers in the U.S.

 

The following product is being recalled because of the possible presence of Salmonella:

ProductItem #SizeBest Used by DateUPC
Bravo Blend Chicken diet for dogs & cats - chub21-1022 lb.(32oz.) chub11-13-16829546211028

 

The following products DID NOT test positive for Salmonella , but are being recalled as they manufactured on the same day as the above product:

ProductItem #SizeBest Used by DateUPC
Bravo Blend Chicken diet for dogs & cats - chub21-1055 lb. (90 oz.) chub11-13-16829546211059
Bravo Blend Turkey diet for dogs & cats - patties31-5085 lb. bag of 8 oz. patties11-13-168829546315085
Bravo Balance Turkey diet for dogs - patties31-4013 lb. bag of 4 oz. patties11-13-16829546314019

 

 

 

 

 

The recalled product should not be sold or fed to pets, but disposed of in a safe manner.

 

Customers should return to the store where they purchased the product and submit the Bravo Recall Claim Form available on the Bravo website

http://www.bravopetfoods.com/consumerrecall.html for a full refund or store credit.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Bravo toll free at (866) 922-9222 Monday through Friday, 9:00 am – 4:00 pm (EST) on online at at http://www.bravopetfoods.com/.

 

 

 

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Nissan model year 2015 Rogues

It may be possible to shift out of the "Park" position without depressing the brake pedal

Nissan North America is recalling 33,880 model year 2015 Rogues manufactured February 10, 2015, to May 13, 2015. Due to a problem with the shift se...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 33,880 model year 2015 Rogues manufactured February 10, 2015, to May 13, 2015.

 

Due to a problem with the shift selector knob, it may be possible to shift out of the "Park" position without depressing the brake pedal. As such, these vehicles fail to conform to the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114, "Theft Protection and Rollaway Prevention."

 

If the shift selector can be moved out of the "Park" position while the brake pedal is not depressed, the vehicle may unexpectedly roll, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the shift selector knob, as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in December 2015.

 

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

 

 

 

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Daily fantasy sports resume limited games in New York

FanDuel wins appeal, but won't accept new deposits until a final ruling is made

Many daily fantasy sports (DFS) players who live in New York were able to field teams over the weekend, as an appellate court granted an emergency injuncti...

PhotoMany daily fantasy sports (DFS) players who live in New York were able to field teams over the weekend, as an appellate court granted an emergency injunction, staying a judge's order from earlier in the day that appeared to signal the end of these games.

Confused? You're hardly to blame. With so much money at stake, the DFS enterprises of Fan Duel and DraftKings will pull out all the legal stops to keep the games alive. This high-stakes game is far from over.

The DFS games, incredibly popular nationwide, were declared illegal gambling by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who filed suit to enforce a cease and desist order. Early in the day, it appeared that he had won.

New York Supreme Court Justice Manuel J. Mendez granted Schneiderman's motion to enjoin DraftKings and FanDuel “from doing business in the State of New York, accepting entry fees, wagers or bets from New York consumers in regards to any competition, game or contest run on” their websites.

Initial victory

"We are pleased with the decision, consistent with our view that DraftKings and FanDuel are operating illegal gambling operations in clear violation of New York law,” Schneiderman said in the aftermath of Mendez's decision. I have said from the beginning that my job is to enforce the law, and that is what happened today."

But the celebration might have been premature. FanDuel's legal team raced to an appeals court, which suspended Schneiderman's victory, at least for the time being.

“On behalf of our users in New York, we are pleased to report that this afternoon, an appellate court in New York granted our request for an emergency stay of the injunction issued this morning,” FanDuel said in a statement Friday. Based on the appellate court’s ruling, New Yorkers can continue to enjoy FanDuel contests while the legal process moves forward.”

New Yorkers back in the game, sort of

And be assured, this matter will be throughly hashed out in court. In the meantime, players who have money deposited in FanDuel can continue to play games. However, the company said it is not accepting new deposits of funds until a final decision on the legality of the enterprise is reached.

“The Appeals Court decision is not permanent,” FanDuel pointed out. “This decision will be reviewed by a panel of judges early next month.”

Nevada has also officially determined that both FanDuel and DraftKings are running unlicensed gambling operations, but Nevada has far fewer players than New York. The loss of revenue from the Empire State would hurt both companies, should Schneiderman's ban ultimately prevail.

Mid November action

Schneiderman went to court against both DraftKings and FanDuel in mid November, claiming 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.”

Schneiderman accused both companies of winking at the law, maintaining in public that they run games of skill, but privately evoking the profits of gambling to investors.

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Hanging holiday lights: a hazard to your feet?

Precautions to take so you can avoid landing in the hospital

Behind every strand of holiday lights hung is a person who triumphed over a tangle. But not everyone is so lucky as to have a knot be their biggest problem...

PhotoBehind every strand of holiday lights hung is a person who triumphed over a tangle. But not everyone is so lucky as to have a knot be their biggest problem: for some, hanging holiday lights can become a health hazard.

“About 200 people a day suffer decoration-related injuries,” says Patty Davis, a spokeswoman for Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The annual quest towards home illumination sent about 13,000 people across the country to the emergency room last year, according the CPSC.

“It’s such a great time of the year, but then we see a mix of different injuries related to the holiday season,” says Dr. Michael Hocker, chief of emergency medicine at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. “We see a lot of people falling off ladders.”

Falling off ladders leaves many individuals with traumatic brain injuries, foot injuries, or even the inability to live independently.

Foot injuries

Injuries to the foot are especially common, as landing directly on your feet after falling off a ladder can cause serious heel injuries. With the heel bone being the key player that it is, everyday moments will become very painful and walking across uneven surfaces will be difficult.

“A heel bone fracture is a terrible, life changing event, and I see too many of these cases around the holidays after people fall off their ladders,” said Pedro Cosculluela, M.D., a Houston Methodist orthopedic surgeon who specializes in the treatment of foot and ankle problems.

“Heel bone fractures are commonly associated with skin and soft tissue injuries, which need immediate medical attention because they can quickly lead to infection,” explains Cosculluela. “The biggest complication these patients face isn’t the surgery, but wound healing, as traditional, long incisions can injure the skin’s blood supply which lengthens the healing process.”

He encourages people to take extra precautions when hanging holiday lights.

Precautions

Keep those spirits as bright as your home's exterior without landing in the hospital. Just follow these tips:

  • Hire out if you can afford it. If you’re planning an all-out, Griswoldian light extravaganza, consider hiring a pro to reduce the risk of falling off a ladder.
  • Assess your physical abilities and limitations. Individuals with risk factors such as balance issues or those taking blood thinners should avoid climbing ladders.
  • Survey the weather. If a winter storm rolls in, you may want to reschedule your decorating efforts. No need to hang lights when it’s ten degrees below zero and icy.
  • Make sure you have firm footing. Inspect the ladder prior to use. Be sure it extends to at least three feet above the roof. Secure it to the house while in use to prevent falls, and have a helper hold the ladder.
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Is Trump's campaign hurting his brand?

At best, his brand has been muddied, experts say

Donald Trump's brash and divisive presidential campaign may or may not win him a term in the most prized Washington real estate, but, win...

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Staff photo

Donald Trump's brash and divisive presidential campaign may or may not win him a term in the most prized Washington real estate, but, win or lose, it could have an effect on his global brand.

Unlike Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, entrepreneurs of a more modest bent, Trump puts his name on everything from office buildings to casinos to apartment complexes. He even owns a large winery in Virginia which produces -- what else? -- Trump wine.

As Trump's comments about Muslims, Mexicans, and other groups have become harsher, his negative poll numbers have risen and the question now being asked in marketing circles is whether Trump's campaign will seriously besmirch the brand he has built over the years. The answer seems to be, it's too soon to tell.

For one thing, Trump's empire is privately held so revenue figures aren't available. For another, real estate deals tend to be long-term -- leases last for years and no company or individual is likely to break a lease just because they suddenly despise the name plastered atop their building.

But what about Trump's hotels, golf courses, and casinos? It's no big deal for consumers to switch hotel reservations or tee off at the course down the road. 

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Trump Hotel & Towers, Chicago (Trump photo)

Muddied the brand

Long-term, Trump's months in the spotlight may take a toll. Marketing experts, quoted today by Advertising Age, say he has muddied his brand because it was founded on one platform and now represents another.

Brands and people who linked themselves to Trump before the current campaign thought they were signing up for luxury, not a political campaign, said Stagwell Group founder Mark Penn, who has been a senior adviser to politicians including the Clintons and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.

One marketing expert said it's likely that brands and individuals who have contracts with Trump are leafing through those contracts, looking for the expiration date. The impact could be especially harsh in the retail and entertainment sectors, where companies are reluctant to be seen as taking controversial political stands.

NBC lost no time distancing itself from Trump when he made insulting comments about Mexican immigrants, calling them "killers and rapists." It refused to air Trump's Miss USA pageant, which wound up being broadcast on an obscure channel with only a fraction of the NBC audience. 

Over the summer, Macy's yanked Trump brand merchandise from its stores after his anti-Mexican comments. 

Twirled itself in knots

Major brands almost without exception avoid like the plague any suggestion that they are anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, etc., and quickly distance themselves from any slips of the tongue. 

Remember just a few years ago when the chairman of Barilla pasta said he would never use a gay family in a commercial? Barilla twirled itself in knots as it backtracked, apologized, and quickly put together an advisory board that inluded gay activists and ethnic minorities. Chairman Guido Barilla was not heard from again.

In the short term, most experts agree, it is Trump's hotels and casinos and his retail products such as lamps and mirrors that are likely to suffer from a consumer backlash.

Trump's wine business could also suffer a hangover. The wine store clerk sneered and made a rude comment under his breath yesterday when I bought a bottle of Trump Meritage. When I posted a photo of it on Facebook, the response was instant.

"You are drinking that crap?" one friend asked incredulously. "I would never drink it, just on principle."

"If he (Trump) only opened his mouth to drink wine, the world would be a better place," one commenter sniped.

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High volume of packages slows down UPS and other delivery agencies

Consumers may need to wait a few extra days to get their purchases

Now that Black Friday and Cyber Monday have concluded, many consumers are counting the days until their purchases arrive at their doors. Unfortunately, the...

PhotoNow that Black Friday and Cyber Monday have concluded, many consumers are counting the days until their purchases arrive at their doors. Unfortunately, they might be waiting a little bit longer than they anticipated.

The United Parcel Service, better known as UPS, is having trouble keeping up with the season of giving. They've begun renting extra vehicles to deal with the huge amount of deliveries they need to make but still find themselves behind; on-time deliveries for the company have dropped to 91% from the 97% rate it boasted a year ago, according to an analysis by ShipMatrix Inc.

All hands on deck

It all comes down to manpower, and UPS is having trouble finding enough employees and vehicles to get the job done in some areas. “Volumes are coming in much higher than planned,” said CEO John Haber, of Spend Management Experts. “You can only process so much volume so quickly.”

In order to deal with worker shortages, the company has adopted a pseudo-“all hands on deck” policy. Corporate managers from Atlanta have been relocated to work at nearby delivery centers to deal with all of the extra packages.

The company admits that some areas exceeded their expectations when it came to estimated peak deliveries. It says that this can happen from time to time and that management teams are often sent to affected areas to deal with the additional workload.

1.5 billion packages

UPS is not the only delivery company that is slowing down to meet demand, though. Other entities like FedEx and the U.S. postal service are also dealing with an increased volume of packages. FedEx's on-time rate dropped to around 95% as a result. UPS will receive most of the spotlight, though, because it tends to make more residential deliveries.

UPS, FedEx, and the USPS are estimating that they'll need to deliver a combined 1.5 billion packages this holiday season, an increase of 10% from last year. Although there is a lot of work to do, each entity will be trying hard to make sure every package is delivered before the holidays end.  

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Airlines banning hoverboards, regulators investigating safety issues

The batteries can catch fire and riders can fall off or smash into something

The hoverboard has quickly gone from being a curiosity to being the hot holiday item and, now, to being a fire hazard that is being banned by airlines and ...

PhotoThe hoverboard has quickly gone from being a curiosity to being the hot holiday item and, now, to being a fire hazard that is being banned by airlines and examined by regulators up in arms.

The most pressing problem is that the batteries can catch fire, leading Delta, American, and United airlines to announce that they are banning the boards, along with British, Virgin America, Alaska, and JetBlue. 

Of course, there are plenty of other things that can go wrong too. You can fall off the hoverboard or smash into something or someone. Just yesterday, a 15-year-old British youth was killed when his hoverboard collided with a bus in west London, the BBC reported

“We want to get to the bottom of what’s going on with these products,” said Patty Davis, spokeswoman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The CPSC started receiving reports in August of emergency-room trips as consumers suffered injuries after falling off the self-balancing scooters. That was followed by reports of fires, usually when the devices are charging.

Cheap knock-offs

A British agency detained 17,000 hoverboards at the border recently, saying they did not have fuses, which increases the risk of the battery catching fire or exploding.

Some manufacturers blame cheap knock-off boards from China for the problems. 

“Smaller competitors are coming out of the woodwork and purchasing the cheapest parts possible from manufacturers, and by doing this, they are putting the public in danger," said Tony Le, CEO and founder of Glitek, a leading provider of the self-balancing boards, in an email to ConsumerAffairs. “Obviously, I want everyone to buy a Glide, but beyond that I want them to purchase from a reputable dealer for their family’s safety."

Just how it's possible for consumers to know which boards are safe is, of course, a question. The most obvious answer is to check that the device has the "UL" label, indicating that it has passed muster with at least one safety testing agency.

At least one major retailer, Overstock.com, has said it will stop selling the boards because of safety issues.

Although U.S. laws vary widely from one spot to another, the United Kingdom has banned hoverboards from all public roads and has said they may be used only on private property with the owner's consent.

If all this leaves you wondering what we're talking about, a hoverboard -- also called a "rideable" or "self-balancing scooter" is basically a skateboard on steroids. It uses a gyroscope to keep the device upright; the rider controls it by leaning in one direction or another to speed up, slow down and so forth.

In keeping with the current desire to make everything look like a circus ride, hoverboards have LED lights, many have Bluetooth-driven speakers, and of course they come in a variety of bright cheap plastic colors. They can cost as little as $200.

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Rayon isn't bamboo; feds slap retailers who said it was

Nordstrom, Bed Bath & Beyond, J.C. Penney among those fined for mislabeling

Bamboo and rayon aren't the same thing, the Federal Trade Commission is reminding several large retailers. It's also requiring them to stop mislabeling and...

PhotoBamboo and rayon aren't the same thing, the Federal Trade Commission is reminding several large retailers. It's also requiring them to stop mislabeling and misrepresenting rayon products and ordered them to pay penalties totaling $1.3 million.

Under the court orders settling the FTC’s charges, Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. will pay $500,000; Nordstrom, Inc. will pay $360,000; J.C. Penney Company, Inc. will pay $290,000; and Backcountry.com LLC will pay $150,000 for allegedly violating the FTC Act and the agency’s Textile Rules.

“It’s misleading to call bamboo that has been chemically processed into rayon simply ‘bamboo,’” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. “With consumers in the midst of their holiday shopping, it’s important for them to know that textiles marketed as environmentally friendly alternatives may not be as ‘green’ as they were led to believe.”

The complaints allege that the four companies broke the law by continuing to misrepresent or mislabel rayon products as “bamboo” despite receiving warning letters from the FTC in 2010 and a synopsis of previous litigated cases against marketers for deceptively labeling rayon products as bamboo.

The commission charged the companies falsely and deceptively selling the mislabeled products, despite knowing that doing so was illegal and could subject them to civil penalties.

Charges detailed

Specifically, Bed Bath & Beyond’s mislabeled items, also sold through its subsidiary buybuy BABY, included dozens of “bamboo” textiles, including “Aden + Anais Bamboo 3-Pack Muslin Swaddles” and “Bamboo Blend Napkins.”

Nordstrom sold similar products online and in its stores, including a “Gypsy 05 Bamboo Racerback Hi-Lo Dress” and “Degree Six Clothing The Bamboo Long Sleeve Tee.”

J.C. Penney sold numerous “bamboo” products in its stores and online, including “Muk Luks 4-pk Men’s Bamboo Socks.” It also falsely claimed “bamboo” gave the products antimicrobial properties.

Similarly, Backcountry.com sold “bamboo” textiles, such as “Bridgedale Bamboo Crew Sock – Men’s.” Backcountry also made anti-microbial claims for its “bamboo” products.

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Ford makes major commitment to electric vehicles

Automaker plans to invest $4.5 billion by 2020

While Chevrolet has a head start in the electric vehicle (EV) race, Ford has ambitious plans to catch up.Ford says it is is adding 13 new electrified v...

PhotoWhile Chevrolet has a head start in the electric vehicle (EV) race, Ford has ambitious plans to catch up.

Ford says it is is adding 13 new electrified vehicles to its portfolio by 2020, when more than 40% of the company’s global brands will have an electric version. The company says it's prepared to spend $4.5 billion to get there.

The first product of this new push will go into production next year. The next generation Ford Focus electric will reportedly have a fast-charging battery that can get to 80% after being plugged in for just 30 minutes, delivering a range of about 100 miles.

The current model takes about three hours to fully charge and has a slightly shorter range.

Other features

Other features of the Focus electric include a customizable instrument display to help a driver see real-time EV power usage, to help maximize vehicle efficiency.

Since the battery will recapture some power through braking, the Focus Electric will have a system to coach the driver on the most efficient braking techniques, to maximize the power gain. Ford executives say the goal may be efficiency, but the car still has to be fun to drive.

“The challenge going forward isn’t who provides the most technology in a vehicle but who best organizes that technology in a way that most excites and delights people,” said Raj Nair, executive vice president of product development. “By observing consumers, we can better understand which features and strengths users truly use and value and create even better experiences for them going forward.”

The expansion to offer an electric version of 40% of its worldwide brands in five years is an ambitious move. Currently, about 13% of Ford brands have an electric option. The expansion will not only include fully electric plug-ins, but hybrids and plug-in hybrids as well.

The Chevy Volt

Ford has plenty of competition in this arena. Chevrolet introduced the plug-in hybrid Volt in the 2011 model year and added enhancements in 2012.

Earlier this year, Chevy announced plans for its new Chevy Bolt, a car with a higher mileage range and a lower price tag than the Volt.

“The message from consumers about the Bolt EV concept was clear and unequivocal: Build it,” said GM North America President Alan Batey, at this year's North American Auto Show. “We are moving quickly because of its potential to completely shake up the status quo for electric vehicles.”

But it isn't clear that it's consumer demand that is driving the expansion of high-mileage electric vehicles. In fact, in this era of low gasoline prices, consumers have recently voted with their pocketbooks for trucks and SUVs over more efficient vehicles.

In large part, it is government regulations that are pushing automakers toward electrics, since companies have fuel economy benchmarks they must meet in the future.

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Report finds U.S. consumers look at smartphones 8 billion times daily

Is there anything that might persuade consumers to give up their phones? There might be

There may come a day when every child born in the U.S. is issued a smartphone as he or she leaves the hospital. Otherwise, how are they going to be able to...

PhotoThere may come a day when every child born in the U.S. is issued a smartphone as he or she leaves the hospital. Otherwise, how are they going to be able to cope?

Deloitte garnered some attention for its newly released 2015 Global Mobile Consumer Survey with this factoid: if you added up all the times all U.S. consumers look at their smartphones in a single day, you'd get a number around 8 billion.

Increasingly, we're looking at these devices when we are also engaged in other activity – like driving, working, talking to a friend, shopping, or watching television.

In its analysis of the data, Deloitte researchers conclude that consumers are more distracted than ever before. In fact, this year's survey results show unprecedented levels of multitasking while interacting with mobile devices.

Texting

The most common use of a smartphone is still sending and receiving text messages. Upon waking, 17% of smartphone owners say they check their phones before doing anything else.

Before turning in for the night, 13% of smartphone users say they look at their phone one last time.

According to Deloitte, consumers have no intention of ever switching off their smartphones.

Then again, they might if something else came along.

Replacing smartphones with AI

In its Hot Consumer Trends of 2016, Ericsson Consumerlab holds out the prospect that artificial intelligence (AI) might completely replace smartphones within the next five years.

The report notes that the screen age began in the 1950s, with television. Then computer screens were added to the mix. Now smartphones are a constant fixture.

But screens are an old technology. Consumers constantly complain about the small screens on their devices and the speed at which the batteries run down.

“The contradictory demands for power-draining larger screens and a longer battery life however, highlight a need for better solutions, such as the use of intelligent assistants to reduce the need to always touch a screen,” the authors write. “In fact, 85% of smartphone users think wearable electronic assistants will be commonplace within 5 years.”

Bring it on

In fact, smartphone users appear to be all in for a switch to AI capabilities. Half of those surveyed would like to be able to talk to their household appliances as though they were people.

They would also like to see AI take over many common activities, such as searching the net, getting travel directions, and as personal assistants.

What isn't exactly clear is what such a device or interface would look like. But you can be sure that somewhere, engineers are working on it.

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Study finds 28% of young doctors suffer from depression

Rate has increased over last five years

Increasingly, the mental state of the health care professionals treating U.S. consumers is being called into question.A startling new study, published ...

PhotoIncreasingly, the mental state of the health care professionals treating U.S. consumers is being called into question.

A startling new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, says more than one in four young doctors in the early stages of their careers may be suffering from depression.

The research team, led by a current resident at Harvard and a University of Michigan Medical School psychiatrist who specializes in studying physician mental health, suggests the grueling years of training for a medical career may deserve some of the blame.

This is obviously not a good thing for the young doctors, but beyond that it is also bad for the patients they care for -- both now and in the future. Depressed doctors are known to be more likely to make mistakes or give worse care.

Eyebrow-raising data

The researchers assembled data from 54 studies done around the world to conclude that 28.8% of physicians-in-training have signs of depression. What raised eyebrows was a small but significant increase in the rate of depression over the five decades covered by the study.

“The increase in depression is surprising and important, especially in light of reforms that have been implemented over the years with the intent of improving the mental health of residents and the health of patients,” says Srijan Sen, M.D., Ph.D., senior author of the new study, and a member of U-M’s Depression Center.

In other words, being a doctor should have gotten easier. However, that doesn't seem to be the case.

The years doctors spend as interns and in residency are marked by long hours, intensive on-the-job learning, low rank within a medical team, and a high level of responsibility for minute-to-minute patient care.

Burned out physicians

Another recent finding may lend support to the study's authors. In a follow up to a 2012 report that found 48% of physicians are suffering from burnout, Mayo Clinic researchers found the problem has gotten worse in the last three years.

“Burnout manifests as emotional exhaustion, loss of meaning in work, and feelings of ineffectiveness,” said Tait Shanafelt, M.D. “What we found is that more physicians in almost every specialty are feeling this way and that’s not good for them, their families, the medical profession, or patients.”

The study concludes that when a doctor suffers from burnout, it leads to poor care, physician turnover, and a decline in the overall quality of the health care system. In the previous survey 48% of physicians met the burnout criteria, with highest rates occurring in the “front lines” — general internal medicine, family medicine, and emergency medicine.

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Credit card debt remains a major question mark for the economy

Two independent reports see consumers moving back to carrying large balances

To understand how the American consumer is doing, it's important to keep an eye on credit card debt.Despite the fact that 2015 started with a lot of pr...

PhotoTo understand how the American consumer is doing, it's important to keep an eye on credit card debt.

Despite the fact that 2015 started with a lot of promise, with consumers paying down nearly $35 billion in balances during the first quarter, a new report suggests things started to go downhill after that.

Credit card website CardHub.com  reports an analysis of data shows consumers erased almost all of their first-quarter paydown during the second quarter, racking up a staggering $32 billion in new balances.

Third quarter binge

In the third quarter, consumers added another $21 billion to the tab, making for the largest second and third quarter binges since CardHub began conducting this study in 2009.

As a result, CardHub is flashing a warning sign, saying the projected 2015 net increase of $68.5 billion in new credit card debt puts the country perilously close to a tipping point, at which balances become unsustainable and delinquency rates skyrocket.

Here are a couple of other discouraging facts from the study: The $21.3 billion in new credit card debt in the third quarter was the largest third quarter buildup since the Great Recession. It's 71% higher than the post-recession average.

Eight of the past 10 quarters show year-over-year regression in the way consumers are handling credit card debt. The conclusion? The authors suggest consumers are reverting to the bad habits they had before the downturn.

“Hopeless” amount of debt

Meanwhile, another credit card site, CreditCards.com, has released a survey showing a growing number of consumers believe they will never get out of debt.

Of those who have debt, 21% said they believe they are stuck with it for life. That's up from 18% in last year's survey and a big jump from 9% in 2013.

But not all consumers have debt, and here is a bit of good news. This year, 22% of those surveyed said they were debt-free, compared to just 14% last year.

The data paints a picture of two very different types of consumers who are now on two distinct financial paths – one healthy, the other not so much.

Since the Great Recession, one group has taken on more and more debt, to the point that it has given up hope of ever paying it off. Others, meanwhile, have reduced their debt balances and adopted sounder financial habits after years of becoming addicted to credit.

Paying it off each month

Despite the CardHub study showing rising credit card balances, an American Bankers Association (ABA) report has found that more consumers – about 30% – pay their balances down to zero every month – a post-recession high.

"You're talking about two distinct groups there, so it's not surprising," said James Chessen, chief economist with the ABA. "Generally, I'm bullish on consumers and how they have been handling their debt. However, there are some delinquencies, and there are some people who for various reasons have difficulty paying their obligations."

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'Gun TV' -- a shopping channel for guns

Firearm safety segments will be featured each hour

It's kind of surprising that it's taken so long for a cable and online shopping channel dedicated solely to guns and accessories but, at last, the vacuum i...

PhotoIt's kind of surprising that it's taken so long for a cable and online shopping channel dedicated solely to guns and accessories but, at last, the vacuum is being filled by something called -- what else? -- "Gun TV."

The channel is based in Palm Springs, Calif., not far from San Bernardino, where 14 people were killed and many more injured in an assault by two individuals wielding assault weapons. 

"Gun TV" is expected to debut January 20, later expanding to 24-hour programming.

The idea is pretty simple. Like QVC or the old Home Shopping Network, show hosts will display and demonstrate various guns, which viewers can then order online. 

The channel will "drive an important social responsibility message using a national platform to reach the masses," its promoters claim.

"The channel will initially air from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., with the goal of running 24 hours a day. Partially an educational network, the channel will air three minutes of firearm safety segments every hour," according to Gun TV's YouTube page.

It goes on to say that the channel will "address the need for education, information and safety regarding firearms commerce in America, while responsibly offering extraordinary access to purchasing the most diverse representation of firearms in the world."

But no, the channel won't be just about guns. It will also include such things as "women's concealed weapons apparel" and odes to "generational grandfather, father, son big game hunting and camping."

Ordering a gun from the channel won't be quite as simple as ordering a candlestick from QVC. The channel will take orders from viewers and then channel them to a licensed gun retailer near the purchaser's home.

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Report: death of brick-and-mortar retail greatly exaggerated

Younger consumers, especially, like the in-store shopping experience

As retailers race toward Christmas Day, one of the major trends of the current shopping season has been the accelerated movement of consumers toward online...

PhotoAs retailers race toward Christmas Day, one of the major trends of the current shopping season has been the accelerated movement of consumers toward online purchases.

Black Friday, always a huge day for retailers who roll out door-buster bargains, saw more in-store sales shift to online last month. Adobe reported online sales for Cyber Monday, thought to be diminishing in the grand scheme of holiday sales promotions, set a one-day sales record.

But a survey of consumers by iVend Retail, finds it's much too early to start writing off the stores. Consumers, it seems, like them and think they have a number of advantages.

Instant gratification

“The instant gratification of receiving a product immediately and not having to pay for shipping,” the authors note. “Being able to touch, try on or examine a product up close to be sure it is exactly what is needed or desired. Knowledgeable store associates who can help shoppers find the right item and add a personal touch. For each of these reasons, the store is – and will be for the foreseeable future – where retailers generate the most profit.”

But the report suggests there are greater challenges for brick-and-mortal retailers -- challenges beyond the higher cost of overhead. In the survey, both U.S. and Canadian consumers rated the online shopping experience easier and more problem-free than shopping in a store.

Over the years, online retailers have used technology to personalize service and make transactions smoother, and may be largely responsible for the surge in online sales.

However, there is some good news for store operators. Younger consumers appear to favor the in-store shopping experience more than their parents' generation. In fact, it is consumers over the age of 55 who now seem to prefer online shopping to trekking to the mall. Stores that can entice these younger shoppers now may have loyal customers for years to come.

Make stores more like online

Based on the survey, the authors have some suggestions for store operators. One is to greet consumers when they enter the store and offer to send personalized loyalty offers to their phones, borrowing a page from online retailers' playbook.

“When shopping online, consumers are used to receiving exclusive promotional offers as they shop more frequently with their favorite brands,” the authors write. “Why should the store be any different?”

New technologies allow brick-and-mortar retailers to send targeted offers to entice customers to spend more when they are in the store. Reinforcing the store with online capabilities satisfies the customer’s expectations, which are being driven and shaped by their online experiences.

In other words, making the in-store shopping experience a bit more like the online experience just might extend a store's relevance and longevity.

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Retail sales inch higher in November

Wholesale prices post first gain in three months

Retail sales were up a tiny 0.2%, or $448.1 billion, in November, according to Commerce Department figures that were adjusted...

Photo
© Stuart Miles – Fotolia

Retail sales were up a tiny 0.2%, or $448.1 billion, in November, according to Commerce Department figures that were adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes.

The increase lifted sales 1.4% above the same month a year ago.

Contributing to the increase -- the second in as many months -- were gains by grocery stores, clothing and accessories stores, and sporting goods, hobby, book & music stores (+ 0.8% each). Food services & drinking places also advanced by 0.7%.

The November increase was limited by declines at gas stations (-0.8%), auto & other motor vehicle dealers (-0.6%), and furniture and home furnishing stores (-0.3%).

Core retail sales, which strip out auto, gasoline station, and building material & supplies sales, jumped 0.6% following an October increase of 0.3%.

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

Photo
© mybaitshop – Fotolia

Producer prices

The Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand, more commonly known as wholesale prices, posted a 0.3% gain last month after falling 0.4% and 0.5% in October and September, respectively.

Figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the PPI is down 1.1% for the 12 months ended in November -- the tenth consecutive 12-month decline.

Final demand services led the advance with a gain of 0.5%, thanks largely to an increase of 6.2% in apparel, jewelry, footwear, and accessories retailing. On the other hand, prices for securities brokerage, dealing, investment advice, and related services fell 3.9%.

Prices for final demand goods were down 0.1%, with over 90% due to a 0.6% drop in the cost of energy, with gasoline prices down 1.3%. Prices for residential natural gas, electric power carbon steel scrap, and corn also moved lower. Conversely, prices for fresh fruits and melons jumped 11.6%, with the cost of eggs for fresh use, jet fuel, and pharmaceutical preparations also increasing.

The core PPI, which excludes the volatile food and energy categories, edged down 0.1% but is up 0.5% over the last 12 months.

The full report may be found on the Labor Department website.

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Lucy's Weight Loss System recalls Pink Bikini dietary supplement

The product contains diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug

Lucy's Weight Loss System is recalling all lots of Pink Bikini White powder capsules The product contains diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammat...

PhotoLucy's Weight Loss System is recalling all lots of Pink Bikini White powder capsules

 

The product contains diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, which can increase the risk of fatal heart attack or stroke, especially if it is used long-term or in high doses, or if the consumer has heart disease.

 

This undeclared ingredient makes this product an unapproved new drug for which safety and efficacy have not been established.

 

The company has not received any complaints or reports of adverse events related to this recall to date.

 

The product is used as a weight loss dietary supplement and is packaged in clear bottle in white powder capsules, with an expiration date of 7/30/2017.

 

It was distributed nationwide to consumers via PinkBikini.BigCartel.com and Waisted With Lucy Retail stores.

 

Customers who have the recalled product stop using and discard it.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Lucy's Weight Loss System at (682)-308-0199 or by email at pbfitme@gmail.com on Monday thru Friday 10:00am to 5:30pm (CST).  

 

 

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RZR XP Turbo recreational off-highway vehicles recalled

The vehicles' oil drain line can leak

Polaris Industries of Medina, Minn., is recalling about 2,230 RZR XP Turbo recreational off-highway vehicles (ROVs). The vehicles' oil drain line c...

PhotoPolaris Industries of Medina, Minn., is recalling about 2,230 RZR XP Turbo recreational off-highway vehicles (ROVs).

 

The vehicles' oil drain line can leak, posing a fire hazard.

 

The company has received two reports of RZR XP Turbos with oil leaks and two reports of the vehicles catching fire. No injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves model year 2016 Polaris RZR XP Turbo recreational off-highway vehicles with Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs) 3NSVDE925GF454105 through 3NSVDE923GF459495.

 

RZR XP Turbos were sold in graphite, orange and blue color schemes. A “Turbo” decal is located on the right and left front fenders and a “RZR” decal on the right and left rear fenders.

 

The VIN is on the driver’s side rear frame rail, above the PVT cover. VINs are not sequential and not all VINs in the range are included in this recall.

 

A complete list of recalled vehicles including VINs is available here.

 

The ROVs, manufactured in Mexico, were sold at Polaris dealers nationwide from September 2015, through November 2015, for about $25,000.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled vehicles and contact their local Polaris dealer to schedule a free repair. Polaris is contacting its customers directly and sending a recall letter to each registered owner.

 

Consumers may contact Polaris toll-free at 888-704-5290 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at www.polaris.com and click on Product Safety Recalls for more information.

 

 

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Hyundai recalls Genesis Coupes

The driveshaft may disconnect from the differential

Hyundai Motor America is recalling 10,800 model year 2013-2015 Genesis Coupes manufactured December 28, 2011, to April 6, 2015, equipped with manual transm...

PhotoHyundai Motor America is recalling 10,800 model year 2013-2015 Genesis Coupes manufactured December 28, 2011, to April 6, 2015, equipped with manual transmissions.

 

If the differential and the suspension rear crossmember were not properly aligned during vehicle assembly, the bolts that secure the differential may loosen.

 

If the rear differential loosens from its mounting position, the driveshaft may disconnect from the differential, resulting in a loss of propulsion and an increased risk of a crash.

 

Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will verify the proper assembly of the differential, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on January 11, 2016.

 

Owners may contact Hyundai's customer service at 1-855-671-3059. Hyundai's number for this recall is 135.

 

 

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Polaris recalls snowmobiles

The steering pitman arm or drag link can crack Polaris snowmobiles.

Polaris Industries of Medina, Minn., is recalling about 4,700 Polaris snowmobiles. The steering pitman arm or drag link can crack and result in a l...

PhotoPolaris Industries of Medina, Minn., is recalling about 4,700 Polaris snowmobiles.

 

The steering pitman arm or drag link can crack and result in a loss of steering, posing a crash hazard.

 

The company has received 11 reports of cracked or broken steering pitman arms of which eight reported loss of steering and three reported a crash. One injury was reported, but without details as to the extent of the injuries. No property damage claims have been received.

 

This recall involves the following model year 2015 snowmobiles:

  • 600 RUSH PRO-S,
  • 600 RUSH PRO-X,
  • 600 SWITCHBACK PRO-S,
  • 600 SWITCHBACK PRO-X,
  • 600 SWITCHBACK ADVENTURE,
  • 800 RUSH PRO-S,
  • 800 RUSH PRO-X,
  • 800 SWITCHBACK PRO-S, 800
  • SWITCHBACK PRO-X,
  • 550 INDY Voyageur 155, and
  • 550 INDY Adventure 155.

The 2015 600 / 800 AXYS RUSH and Switchbacks were solid in black, red/ white, and silver / black color schemes. The AXYS RUSH and Switchbacks have either “600” or “800” decal on the hood along with either “RUSH” or “Switchback” on the rear of the left and right sides of the rear suspension tunnel. The 550 INDY Adventures and Voyageurs were sold in red or blue and have either “Adventure” or “Voyageur” decals on the left and right engine compartment side panels.

 

The following model names and numbers are being recalled:

 

Polaris Model Year 2015 Snowmobiles

Model Name(s)

Model Number

600 RUSH PRO-S

S15DP6PS / SA / SL

600 RUSH PRO-X

S15DF6PEL

600 SWITCHBACK PRO-S

S15DS6PS / SA / SL

600 SWITCHBACK PRO-X

S15DR6PEL

600 SWITCHBACK ADVENTURE

S15DA6PSL / SM
S15DA6PEL

800 RUSH PRO-S

S15DP8PS / SA / SL

800 RUSH PRO-X

S15DF8PS
S15DF8PEL

800 SWITCHBACK PRO-S

S15DS8PS / SA / SL

800 SWITCHBACK PRO-X

S15DR8PS / EL

550 INDY Voyageur 155

S15CU5BSL / EL

550 INDY Adventure 155

S15CJ5BSL / EL

 

The snowmobiles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Polaris dealers nationwide from April 2014, through November 2015, for between $8,000 and $13,600.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled snowmobiles and contact their local Polaris dealer to schedule a free repair. Polaris is contacting its customers directly and sending a recall letter to each registered owner.

 

Consumers may contact Polaris toll-free at 888-704-5290 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at www.polaris.com and click on “Product Safety Recalls” for more information.  

 

 

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Fiat Chrysler fined again, agrees to buy back 1.5 million defective vehicles

More than 1 million fire-prone Jeeps are included in the buyback program

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will pay a $70 million fine for failing to report claims of death and injury to U.S. auto safety regulators as required by law. I...

PhotoFiat Chrysler Automobiles will pay a $70 million fine for failing to report claims of death and injury to U.S. auto safety regulators as required by law. It will also offer to buy back more than one million defective vehicles, including fire-prone Jeeps. 

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the company acknowledged that it violated federal requirements to repair vehicles with safety defects. In a consent order issued by NHTSA, Fiat Chrysler commits to take action in getting defective vehicles off the roads or repaired. 

Owners of more than half a million vehicles with defective suspension parts that could cause the vehicle to lose control will have the opportunity to sell their vehicle back to Fiat Chrysler. 

Owners of more than a million Jeeps that are prone to deadly fires either will have the chance to trade their vehicle in for above its market value, or will receive a financial incentive to get their vehicle remedied.

The consent order requires FCA to notify vehicle owners eligible for buybacks and other financial incentives that these new options are available.

$105 million

FCA also agreed to a total potential penalty of $105 million, the largest ever imposed by the Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It will pay a $70 million cash penalty and spend $20 million to meet requirements of the consent order with NHTSA. Another $15 million could come due if future violations are found.  

The enforcement action comes after a July 2 public hearing at which NHTSA officials outlined problems with Fiat Chrysler’s execution of 23 vehicle safety recalls covering more than 11 million defective vehicles. Fiat Chrysler has since admitted to violating the Safety Act in three areas: effective and timely recall remedies, notification to vehicle owners and dealers, and notifications to NHTSA.

“Today’s action holds Fiat Chrysler accountable for its past failures, pushes them to get unsafe vehicles repaired or off the roads and takes concrete steps to keep Americans safer going forward,” said Foxx. 

The automaker also agrees to unprecedented oversight for the next three years, which includes hiring an independent monitor approved by NHTSA to assess, track, and report the company’s recall performance.

“Fiat Chrysler’s pattern of poor performance put millions of its customers, and the driving public, at risk,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said. “This action will provide relief to owners of defective vehicles, will help improve recall performance throughout the auto industry, and gives Fiat Chrysler the opportunity to embrace a proactive safety culture.”

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GM pays $594.5 million to settle hundreds of claims in ignition switch scandal

The company has paid out nearly $7 billion so far, with more payment expected in the future

New figures have been released in connection to GM's faulty ignition switch scandal. According to a report from compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg, GM ha...

PhotoNew figures have been released in connection to GM's faulty ignition switch scandal. According to a report from compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg, GM has paid out $594.5 million to settle 399 claims against its company.

Roughly 4,343 claims were filed against the company via the GM fund, meaning that around 9.2% of all cases were considered eligible for payments. These included 124 death claims and 275 injury claims related to the ignition switch issue.

Public backlash

Trouble started for GM when it was reported that older model cars had a tendency to slip out of the “run” position while being operated, effectively killing the engine and leaving drivers without power steering, brakes, or airbags. Many consumers were outraged at what they perceived to be complacency on the part of the company.

“GM killed over 100 people by knowingly putting a defective ignition switch into over 1 million vehicles. Yet no one from GM went to jail or was even charged with criminal homicide. . . GM killed innocent consumers,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the non-profit Center for Auto Safety.

GM conducted a companywide safety review after the news broke, which prompted several recalls that affected millions of vehicles. The company estimated in September that the recalls had cost over $5.3 billion, and additional charges and lawsuits pushed that number to $6.9 billion.

Settling the issue

Despite heavy costs, the company is expected to have to pay out more money before all is said and done. A recent quarterly report shows that 217 wrongful death and injury lawsuits remain to be addressed, as well as 122 additional lawsuits that claim the recalls reduced vehicle values for owners. Company officials believe that the fines have been fair and are committed to resolving the issue in good faith.

“We faced the ignition switch issue with integrity, dignity and a clear determination to do the right thing both in the short and long term,” said GM spokesman Jim Cain.   

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Dog Parker lets dog owners store their pets while running errands

Owner hopes that as many as 100 will be available in NYC by the spring of 2016

Having a dog is a big commitment; you have to make sure it's fed and looked after every day, which can be a problem if you already have a full schedule. If...

PhotoHaving a dog is a big commitment; you have to make sure it's fed and looked after every day, which can be a problem if you already have a full schedule. If you can't leave your pooch at home, you might have to bring it along for many of your daily tasks, like going to the store. Many establishments might not allow pets inside, but if the weather is too cold or too hot it becomes unreasonable to leave them tethered outside. What, then, is a dog owner to do?

A new start-up business in New York City may have the answer to that question. Instead of tying your pet up out in the elements, Dog Parker would provide pet owners with a rentable kennel that is stationed outside a store or other business. For a small hourly fee, consumers could rent space in these curbside kennels and pick their faithful companions up when they're finished shopping.

Cost-effective convenience

The start-up was created when Chelsea Brownridge, a resident of Brooklyn, ran into a snag when making plans with friends. They wanted to take a walk in Prospect Park, which her dog Winston would love, but wanted to stop to get breakfast as well. She wouldn't be able to bring Winston inside, so he had to stay home.

To correct this grave injustice, Brownridge came up with her idea of a curbside kennel. The first Dog Parker was successfully tested outside of a Brooklyn eatery. Brownridge is hopeful that she can make as many as 100 of them available by late spring of 2016.

After paying a $25 membership fee, consumers can use the kennels at a rate of 20 cents per minute, or $12 an hour. For a person only looking to use them while they run inside the store, the hourly rate won't be much of a hassle for the convenience they provide. The kennels come in three different sizes, are temperature controlled, and come equipped with a webcam so that owners can check on their dogs while they're away.

Brownridge also notes that each kennel is secure, follows the same sanitation rules that doggy daycares have to follow, and are cleaned regularly. The kennels have gotten a mix of responses from consumers, but many store owners could use the product to attract customers. “We've had a couple of people use it in the past couple of weeks. . . I'm just happy to have another service I can offer my customers,” said Keith Goldberg, a coffee shop owner.

Curbing abuse

While the idea has its merits, many consumers and critics point out that the Dog Parker could be abused by pet owners. They provide a way for bad dog owners to cheaply store their animals for hours, which could be harmful to many pets not accustomed to such treatment.

Brownridge reiterates that the crates should only be used for short periods of time, but has set up measures in hopes of curbing any abuse. Each kennel will have a time limit of three hours. If a dog stays for any longer than that, it is taken to a boarding facility where owners will have to pay a fee to retrieve it.  

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Report: middle class Americans are outnumbered by upper and lower classes

Pew Research Center says the shift took place early this year

Middle class consumers are now in the minority. Call it income inequality, call it a demographic shift – whatever the reason, the Pew Research Center re...

PhotoMiddle class consumers are now in the minority.

Call it income inequality, call it a demographic shift – whatever the reason, the Pew Research Center reports its analysis of American household income data shows that the middle class is now outnumbered by a combination of the classes above and below it.

Pew says the shift occurred early this year. At that time, 120.8 million adults were in middle-income households, compared with 121.3 million in lower- and upper-income households combined. Pew researchers say it could signal a tipping point for the country.

The middle class has long been an American ideal. In the years after World War II, its ranks swelled with a generation that fought a war and lived through a depression. Politically, it was seen as a stabilizing force for democracy.

Driving economic growth

Economically, it was a powerful engine for growth, increasing demand for entry-level homes, cars, furniture, and an endless list of household goods.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, many politicians have decried the shrinking middle class, with more consumers going deep into debt and struggling just to keep their heads above water.

What has happened, the researchers say, is that some in the middle class have now fallen into the lower class, but even more have moved into the upper class.

“Fully 49% of U.S. aggregate income went to upper-income households in 2014, up from 29% in 1970,” the authors write. “The share accruing to middle-income households was 43% in 2014, down substantially from 62% in 1970.”

New economic realities

Part of the shift can be tied to the new economic realities facing middle class consumers, who have fallen behind since the financial crisis. In 2014, the Pew report says, the median income of these households was 4% less than in 2000.

Not only did incomes decline, but because of the housing crash many middle class consumers have seen their net worth drop, either because their home lost value, or because they lost their home to foreclosure.

Meanwhile, those who are doing well are doing very well. In 2015, 20% of American adults were in the lowest-income tier, up from 16% in 1971. On the opposite side, 9% are in the highest-income tier, more than double the 4% share in 1971.

What exactly is middle class these days? The Pew researchers say they define it this way: adults whose annual household income is two-thirds to double the national median, about $42,000 to $126,000 a year in 2014 dollars for a household of three.

Are you in the middle class? You can find out using this calculator.

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American, United add service levels, free snacks return to United

"Premium economy" offers more legroom on international flights

Thanks to cheap oil, strong traffic and a blizzard of new fees for once-free services, airlines are awash in profits. Now they're making a few adjustments ...

PhotoThanks to cheap oil, strong traffic and a blizzard of new fees for once-free services, airlines are awash in profits. Now they're making a few adjustments to soothe their fed-up passengers.

United, for example, says it will once again hand out free snacks in coach, starting in February 2016. Flights departing before 9:45 a.m. will feature the "stroopwafel" -- a caramel-filled waffle. Later flights will feature sesame sticks, rice crackers, and so forth.

"We're refocusing on the big and little things that we know matter to our customers and shape how they feel about their travel experience," said Jimmy Samartzis, United's vice president of food services and United Clubs. "We're bringing back complimentary snacks that are a nod to our global presence."

Class distinctions

United Airlines Dec. 10, 2015, 1:43 p.m.
Consumers rate United Airlines

But forget the sugar plums. The thoughts dancing through United and rival American's heads mostly involve rejiggering their classes of service to squeeze out a few more cents per seat-mile. 

American is establishing a "premium economy" service for international passengers, something United already has. It's intended to be a netherworld between business class and coach.

United's version consists mostly of seats with more leg room while American says it will add slightly wider seats, on-demand headphones, and priority boarding. Passengers also will be able to check two bags for free.

Domestic passengers, however, won't be getting all these seating options, at least not yet, although Diane of Shediac, New Brunswick, might have been willing to pay for a little more room on a recent flight from Las Vegas to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

"The flight from Las Vegas to Newark was for a duration of four hours and 46 minutes. We boarded a Boeing 737-900 jet in coach at 23:00 hrs. We were squeezed in small seats where we could not move or stretch our legs. It was the worst flight and I will never take United Airlines again," Diane said in a ConsumerAffairs review.

At the other end of the scale, American and United, as well as Delta, are working on a new "no-frills" fare -- their version of Spirit Airlines, which charges extra for just about everything except a seat.

Strong profits

How good a year is it? The airlines haven't had a year like this in decades and are banking on an even stronger one next year.

The world’s airlines are set to post a collective record net profit of $33 billion for 2015 and are forecast to post another record net profit of $36.3 billion in 2016, according to IATA, an industry group.

North American carriers are expected to account for more than half of global profits while Latin American and African carriers post small losses.

It's not all clear skies ahead. Carriers are concerned about whether the terrorist attacks in Paris could prompt a drop in tourist travel next year.

IATA chief economist Brian Pearce acknowledged industry concern and said there had been a “sharp fall” in travel, particularly from Asia, after the Paris attacks in November. But he added that previous experience with events such as the 9/11 attacks had shown that air travel does rebound.

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Donating to charity: making an intelligent choice

A few simple steps to make sure your donation goes to the right place

Winter may be cold, but it won’t feel quite so chilly when you’re basking in the warm glow of giving. According to the Network for Good, 31% of all giving ...

PhotoWinter may be cold, but it won’t feel quite so chilly when you’re basking in the warm glow of giving. According to the Network for Good, 31% of all giving occurred in December last year, and 12% occurred in the last three days of the year.

It's an ideal time to donate: the need of those served by America’s charities is elevated, as is the number of people who find themselves thinking of those less fortunate. And less altruistically, but still important, donors need to make their end-of-year giving decisions by December 31 to qualify for a tax deduction in this calendar year.

Before you donate, however, be sure to do some research -- finding out as much about a charity as you can will help you avoid fraudsters who try to take advantage of your generosity.

Before you donate

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers a Charity Checklist that is sure to help you steer clear of scams, ensuring that your donation will go straight to the people and organizations you want to help.

First on the FTC checklist, ask for detailed information about the charity, such as name, address, and phone number. Then, take to the web: searching the name of the organization along with the word “complaints” or “scam” is one way to learn about its reputation.

Next, call the charity. Find out if the organization is aware of the solicitation and has authorized the use of its name. The organization’s development staff should be able to help you.

And finally, before you take off your Skeptic's Spectacles, find out if the charity or fundraiser is registered in your state by contacting the National Association of State Charity Officials. You can check to see if the charity is trustworthy by contacting the Better Business Bureau's (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator Watch, or GuideStar.

Highest-rated charities

If you are a part of the 69% of Americans who donates to charity, the FTC offers a reference guide of the highest and lowest-rated charities to allow you to make the most intelligent philanthropic choice possible. Seventy percent of all the charities evaluated are reported to spend at least 75% of their budget on the programs and services they exist to provide (no ‘Human Funds’ in this group).

Here are just a few of the winners, by category:

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Feds propose safer rear-impact guards for semi-trailers

The guards prevent "underride," a deadly outcome when cars rear-end semis

Federal safety regulators want to improve the odds that occupants will survive if their car rear-ends a semi-trailer truck. To do that, the...

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File photo

Federal safety regulators want to improve the odds that occupants will survive if their car rear-ends a semi-trailer truck. To do that, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is proposing new rules that would require stronger rear impact guards on trailers and semi-trailers.

“A key component of [the Transportation Department's] safety mission is ensuring that trucking, an essential element in our transportation system, operates not just efficiently, but safely,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “Today’s proposal is another important step in that effort.”

Most trailers and semitrailers are already required to have bars, known as rear impact guards, hanging down from the back of the trailer to prevent "underride" -- an inoffensive term for a terrible outcome.

When a car rear-ends a truck, there is a possibility that it will "underride" the rear of the truck, which is normally higher than the car. That can result in the occupants of the car being severely injured or killed, often through decapitation.

The current federal standard calls for rear-impact guards on trucks that can withstand a 30-mile-per-hour impact. The new standard would bump that up to 35 miles per hour. Canada already has a 35-mph standard.

“Robust trailer rear impact guards can significantly reduce the risk of death or injury to vehicle occupants in the event of a crash into the rear of a trailer or semitrailer,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind.

NHTSA said most new trailers on the road today already meet the standard; it estimates that the annual cost of installing and maintaining the guards, including the increased fuel consumption resultiing from the bumpers' added weight, would be about $13 million.

Newer guards performing better

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IIHS photo

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has been asking NHTSA for a stronger underride standard since 2001, after testing bars on trailers built by three companies to federal standards. Cars with crash-test dummies slammed into the bars, which buckled or broke in several tests. The trailers often broke through the windshields.

Tests the insurance institute conducted showed some trailer guards that met Canadian regulations didn’t perform well when cars crash into them at an angle, said David Zuby, chief research officer for the group. Many manufacturers already are designing guards that are stronger, he said.

However, in a 2014 report, IIHS said newer guards were performing better. The non-profit institute ran a 2010 Chevrolet Malibu into the back of a Vanguard trailer hitched to a parked rig. The car hurtled toward the trailer at 35 mph, smashing into the outer half of the trailer's rear underride guard.

"When the test was over, the Malibu ended up behind the trailer — not crushed beneath it — because the Vanguard's underride guard held up. That's important because serious injuries and death can occur," the IIHS report said. 

"The Vanguard's underride guard performed great — a big improvement from our earlier tests," said Sean O'Malley, senior test coordinator for the Institute.

Truckers optimistic

The trucking industry is generally supportive of the NHTSA proposal. Sean McNally of the American Trucking Association said the guards have been in use for some time.

“While we believe the best underride guard is still the one that doesn’t need to be used, ATA is optimistic this proposal will be a step forward for highway safety,” McNally said in a statement emailed to Claims Journal, an insurance industry publication.

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Senate committee opens probe into drug price hikes

Lawmakers hear from healthcare professionals who say treatment now out of reach for many patients

Barely controlled outrage simmered just below the surface in a Dirksen Office Building committee room Wednesday as a Special Committee on Aging opened hear...

PhotoBarely controlled outrage simmered just below the surface in a Dirksen Office Building committee room Wednesday as a Special Committee on Aging opened hearings on drug prices.

In particular, the prices of older drugs that have skyrocketed in recent months for no apparent reason.

The hearing focused mainly on four pharmaceutical companies: Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Turing Pharmaceuticals, Retrophin Inc, and Rodelis Therapeutics. All four own drugs that have seen recent and significant spikes in price.

$13.50 to $750 a pill

For example, Turing recently purchased an old drug called Daraprim, used to treat parasitic infections and, in some cases, HIV. The company immediately raised the price of the drug from $13.50 a tablet to $750 a pill.

Turing is owned by young hedge fund mogul Martin Shkreli, who infamously said at a Forbes conference last week his only regret is not raising the drug's price even more.

None of the pharmaceutical companies were represented at the hearing. Rather, the lawmakers heard from physicians and others on the front lines of health care about the difficulties and expense involved in getting access to once-common drugs.

“My biggest challenge today is to not lose my temper—the facts underlying this hearing are so egregious it’s hard not to get emotional about it,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO). “It’s imperative that we find out if our system is being taken advantage of by companies or individuals that seek deep profits while contributing little or nothing to advances in medical treatment.”

Express Scripts to the rescue?

Just days before the hearing, Express Scripts announced an action that could well address the inflated price of Turing's Daraprim a lot faster than Congress can. The company announced it would partner with Imprimis Pharmaceuticals to create an alternative to Daraprim.

Its new drug compound, the company said, will sell for $1 a pill.

"Leveraging our expertise to improve access and affordability to an important medication is the right thing to do for HIV patients and others who could benefit from a combination of pyrimethamine and leucovorin," said Dr. Steve Miller, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Express Scripts. "We believe we now have an extremely cost-effective way to provide access to a Daraprim alternative.”

Miller said Express Scripts will share the new drug compound with other payers to make sure all patients who need the drug have access to the treatment at the lowest possible price.  

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Shopping for the holidays without blowing your budget

Listing and re-gifting can help you come out on top

It goes without saying, the holidays can be rather hectic. The shopping malls are as busy as your brain, and there are a million and a half things to do. I...

PhotoIt goes without saying, the holidays can be rather hectic. The shopping malls are as busy as your brain, and there are a million and a half things to do. It can be overwhelming. But getting organized and getting creative are two surefire ways to come out on top.

Make a list

List-making can be a real organizational game changer, enabling you to lasso and pin down those rogue holiday to-dos bouncing around in your head. Gifts – as well as food, decorations, and hospitality items needed – can all be listed out for easier brain processing.

Elizabeth Kiss, associate professor at Kansas State University and family resource management specialist for K-state Research and Extension, suggests putting dollar amounts next to things so that you can keep track of what you're spending.

"Once you have all of your different lists together, I imagine it will be an eye-opener for how much you plan to spend,” said Kiss. “It typically is for me.”

You can then ask yourself, said Kiss, "Is this how much I am able to spend? If not, on what can I scale back? How could I do something differently that perhaps won't cost as much money – or any money?"

The art of re-gifting

Speaking of tightening the belt on your budget, good news: re-gifting is no longer frowned upon – and you'll be in great company if you choose to do it. It often gets a bad name, but in a survey by Bookoo, 92% of consumers believe it's completely acceptable to regift items.

Though it's common year round, the holidays are the most popular time of year for people to wrap up presents that they previously received from someone else. More than 62 percent of those surveyed said they plan to regift an item to a friend, neighbor, or colleague.

Among those surveyed, some of the more experienced re-gifters shared their secrets. Popular techniques included:

  • Rewrapping the item to look new

  • Inspecting the item and removing any gift cards or receipts from the previous giver

  • Planning ahead to make sure they do not give the gift to anyone associated with the original giver

A heartfelt touch

While most respondents suggested sticking to more commonly acceptable items when re-gifting – such as home decor pieces, antiques, books, toys, and jewelry – Kiss suggests sprinkling in some sentiment, too.

62 percent of people surveyed said they regift because they think that someone will appreciate the item more than they do. An item that has been passed down through the family or something that person could use that you're not using could, indeed, be the best gift to give.

"Include a nice, heartfelt message to go with it,” said Kiss. “If you can trace the history of some of these items, it can be a wonderful thing for that person.”

And though re-gifting isn't solely about saving money, you probably will. Eighty-two percent of those questioned said they saved as much as $150.

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Gallup: Best-known presidential candidates are the least-liked

To know them is not to love them

Name recognition isn't the same as popularity. Case in point: the 2016 presidential candidates. The ones we know the bes...

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Graphic © freshidea - Fotolia

Name recognition isn't the same as popularity. Case in point: the 2016 presidential candidates. The ones we know the best -- Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Jeb Bush -- are the ones we like the least, a Gallup poll finds.

Trump vies with Clinton as the race's best-known candidate and is by far the least-liked of the field, with 59% viewing him unfavorably and 32% favorably, yielding a net favorable score of -27.

These ratings are based on Gallup's latest two-week rolling average, from Nov. 23-Dec. 7, 2015, largely before Trump made his controversial remarks about Muslims entering the U.S. on Monday.

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Bush rounds out the three most well-recognized presidential candidates, with 78% of Americans having an opinion of him. Like Trump, Bush's image is deeply underwater, as his unfavorable rating exceeds his favorable rating by 14 percentage points.

By comparison, Clinton's image problem is more subdued, with a net favorability of -4. But her net-negative favorable score represents a significant slide from her score of +11 in March, when she was not only the best-known but best-liked candidate.

When Gallup first began tracking candidate images on July 8, several candidates were already known by a solid majority of Americans. In addition to Clinton, Trump, and Bush, more than half of Americans were familiar with Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, and Ted Cruz. A little over half of Americans (52%) knew Marco Rubio. But several candidates were known only to a minority of Americans, including Ben Carson, Bernie Sanders, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich.

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But over the past several months -- in particular after four Republican presidential debates and two Democratic debates -- Americans' familiarity with many candidates has grown considerably. Carson has seen the largest gain in the percentage of Americans able to rate him, from 36% in the initial reading to 66% today.

That 30-percentage-point gain compares with a 22-point increase for Sanders. Fiorina has registered a 19-point gain, while Kasich and Rubio have seen more modest gains over the campaign, at 14 points and 9 points, respectively.

Largest gain

The candidates' net favorable scores, a key gauge of popularity, have not moved as dramatically as their familiarity scores. Compared with when Gallup began tracking these measures in early July, Christie's negative net favorable score has improved by a modest four points to reach -5, the biggest gain of any candidate from either party.

Meanwhile, Bush's net favorable score has fallen 11 points, the most of any candidate, from a -3 in July to -14 today, giving him the second-worst score of any candidate -- behind Trump.

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What's the best way to avoid the flu?

Consumers not convinced a flu shot is all that helpful

Health officials spend the better part of the fall months urging consumers to roll up their sleeves and get a flu shot. They say it's the best way to avoid...

PhotoHealth officials spend the better part of the fall months urging consumers to roll up their sleeves and get a flu shot. They say it's the best way to avoid getting sick.

But it's not clear if consumers are buying that message. The Harris Poll asked more than 2,000 adults what they think is the best way to avoid getting the flu and fewer than half – just 43% – said getting a flu shot.

In fact, 42% said they think "people take the flu season too seriously."

Fewer than half require flu shots

Maybe consumers would take flu shots more seriously if healthcare workers did. University of Michigan medical researchers looked into U.S. hospital policies that require doctors, nurses, and other health care providers to get vaccinated against the flu.

Surprisingly, the researchers report that fewer than half the hospitals they surveyed have such a policy, despite the fact these healthcare providers come in contact with the people most vulnerable to the flu every day.

In all, only 42.7% of those who responded from 386 hospitals said their hospital required flu vaccination of all healthcare providers. About 10% more said their hospital would require it for the following flu season.

“Vaccination of healthcare workers has been shown to significantly reduce patients’ risk of influenza and its complications, including pneumonia and death, compared with vaccination of patients alone,” said Dr. Sanjay Saint, senior author of the new study. “To put it bluntly, American hospitals have a lot of work to do.”

Avoiding the flu

How do consumers plan to avoid getting the flu? The most common answer, given by 69% of respondents, was frequent hand washing. Nearly as many thought being well rested and maintaining a healthy diet would protect them.

Getting a flu shot ranked only a little higher than taking vitamins and using hand sanitizers.

To be clear, health officials say everyone – especially people who work in a healthcare setting – should get a flu shot.

And despite what 42% of consumers think, getting the flu can be a pretty big deal. In addition to productivity lost in the workplace from sick days, people can and do die from the flu – mainly the very old and very young.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says its most recent data indicates that flu season is just getting started in the United States. Activity is still low across most of the country. Increases in activity are expected in the coming weeks.

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Samsung's Galaxy s7 may complicate holiday wish lists

The new phone won't show up until early next year

If a new smartphone is on your Christmas wish list, maybe you should think about postponing that request for a while. Some interesting developments appear ...

PhotoIf a new smartphone is on your Christmas wish list, maybe you should think about postponing that request for a while. Some interesting developments appear to be percolating in the tech world.

Most of the excitement this week has surrounded leaked details about the next generation flagship phone from Samsung. A number of tech publications have reported that the Samsung Galaxy s7 will hit the market in the first quarter of 2016.

GSMArena.com published what it said are pictures of the S7, which it acquired from third party accessory maker ITSKINS. Two S7 models are said to be in the works, one about the same size as the Galaxy S6 but the other significantly larger.

We know less about the interior of the phone, but Computerworld reports the S7 will run faster than Apple's standard, and get the Qualcomm 820 system-on-a-chip.

Ludicrous speed

“And it’ll be clocked at some sort of ludicrous speed, we’re told, equipped with a heat-pipe-based cooling system to stop you burning your fingers,” Computerworld predicted.

Having introduced the iPhone 6s a few months ago, Apple isn't even close to an upgrade cycle. But for consumers who are ready to move up from the iPhone 6, there are some new options.

Apple now lets consumers buy an unlocked iPhone from the Apple store and pay in installments. That means you aren't locked into buying the phone from your carrier.

New Windows phone

At the low end of the scale, Microsoft has just released its least expensive Windows phone yet. The Lumia 550 retails for around $139.

The phone features a 4.7 inch 1280 x 720 display, 4G LTE connectivity, and 28 days standby battery life. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint have been optimized for mobile use, with built in editing tools.

For consumers looking for a bargain carrier for their new phone, Cricket Wireless has announced the return of its annual holiday promotion. Consumers will get a $100 credit on their bill when they switch a number to Cricket between now and January 7.

Previously announced holiday offers, such as an instant discount on the Samsung Galaxy Grand Prime and the LG G Stylo, and FREE 4G LTE devices after a mail-in rebate with the Cricket Visa Promotion Card, can be combined with this switcher offer, the company said.

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Legal betting operation takes aim at daily fantasy sports

New licensed enterprise could pose challenge to DraftKings and FanDuel

Currently, there's a stand-off between regulators in Nevada and New York and major daily fantasy sports (DFS) enterprises.The states claim these games ...

PhotoCurrently, there's a stand-off between regulators in Nevada and New York and major daily fantasy sports (DFS) enterprises.

The states claim these games are gambling operations that require a license. The companies – primarily FanDuel and DraftKings – insist they provide games of skill.

While both arguments make their way through the courts, a veteran sports book operation has signaled which way it thinks the argument will go. Vic Salerno, who has guided over 100 licensed book operations in Nevada, has applied to Nevada regulators to offer a variety of fantasy sports contests through Nevada casinos.

His new company, US Fantasy (USF), is likely to emerge as a legal alternative to FanDuel and DraftKings, while legal issues in New York are resolved.

Pending approval by Nevada regulators, these games would be offered as an intra-state skill game utilizing pari-mutuel systems. USF says its format is specifically designed for regulatory oversight.

“Practical solution”

“US Fantasy immediately provides a practical solution to the current issues surrounding DFS,” the company said in a release.

DFS has, to date, hit roadblocks in just two states. But USF claims California, Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and others are now actively seeking a regulated consumer protected fantasy sports solution.

USF says its games can be played through traditional terminals at brick and mortar facilities, or with mobile devices and online. It says it has designed-in consumer protections, with age verification, money laundering controls, and segregated player cash accounts.

Where possible, the company said it hopes to co-mingle contest pools among the states to create mega-contests.

"Our unique contests figure to dramatically grow the popularity of fantasy sports in Nevada,” Salerno said. “We strongly anticipate increased customer traffic and revenue for the host casino properties and a taxable benefit for the State."

Left unsaid is Salerno's belief that his licensed operation could be poised to become the new face of daily fantasy sports in the U.S.

If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck...

And as to the question of whether daily fantasy sports will be found to be gambling, Rutgers University gambling expert Lia Nower, director of the Center for Gambling Studies, says the answer is fairly obvious.

“I doubt most people could tell the differences between DFS and sports betting,” Nower said. “Most people, except those who run Major League Baseball, that is.”

In fact, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and Major League Soccer are all major investors in DraftKings. Last year, the National Basketball Association signed a four-year agreement with FanDuel that included an equity stake.

“Isn’t it ironic, they ban Pete Rose for life from baseball and take away his chances at the Hall of Fame for gambling, but MLB can invest millions in, essentially, the same activity and hope for a profit,” said Nower.

But FanDuel and DraftKings will be far from losers if DFS is declared to be gambling. If sports betting becomes legal, Nower says they’re positioned to make billions.

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ISM forecasts continued economic growth in 2016

Weekly jobless claims came in higher

The nation’s purchasing and supply management executives appear bullish in their outlook for the U.S. economy in the year ahead....

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© tangrf - Fotolia

The nation’s purchasing and supply management executives appear bullish in their outlook for the U.S. economy in the year ahead.

The Institute for Supply Management's (ISM) Semiannual Economic Forecast calls for a continuation of the economic recovery that began in mid-2009.

The manufacturing sector expects its revenues to increase in 16 manufacturing industries, with capital spending up 1.0% and employment expanding buy 0.2%

The non-manufacturing sector predicts that 15 of its industries will see higher revenue, with capital expenditures rising 7.5% and employment growth of 1.7%.

Manufacturing

Sixty-three percent of survey respondents expect a 4.1% net increase in overall revenues for 2016, compared with a rise of 1.4% this year. The 16 manufacturing industries expecting revenue improvement in 2016 over 2015 -- listed in order -- are:

  1. Furniture & Related Products;
  2. Nonmetallic Mineral Products;
  3. Computer & Electrical Products;
  4. Miscellaneous Manufacturing;
  5. Printing & Related Support Activities;
  6. Textile Mills;
  7. Fabricated Metal Products;
  8. Primary Metals;
  9. Chemical Products;
  10. Paper Products;
  11. Transportation Equipment;
  12. Food, Beverage & Tobacco Products;
  13. Wood Products;
  14. Plastics & Rubber Products;
  15. Machinery; and
  16. Electrical Equipment, Appliances & Components.

Non-manufacturing

Sixty percent of supply management executives in the non-manufacturing sector see a 3.2% net increase in overall revenues in the year ahead versus a 2.7% increase for 2015 over 2014 revenues. The 15 non-manufacturing industries expecting revenue improvement in 2016 over 2015 -- listed in order -- are:

  1. Construction;
  2. Mining;
  3. Professional, Scientific & Technical Services;
  4. Accommodation & Food Services;
  5. Transportation & Warehousing;
  6. Information;
  7. Retail Trade;
  8. Utilities;
  9. Management of Companies & Support Services;
  10. Arts, Entertainment & Recreation;
  11. Wholesale Trade;
  12. Public Administration;
  13. Other Services;
  14. Finance & Insurance; and
  15. Educational Services.

 

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Jobless claims

First-time applications for state unemployment benefits were up for a second straight week.

According to the Department of Labor (DOL), initial jobless claims rose 13,000 in the week ending December 5, to a seasonally adjusted 282,000. The previous week's total was unrevised.

The four-week moving average was 270,750 -- still close to a 15-year low -- an increase of 1,500 from the previous week's unrevised average of 269,250.

The latter category, because it is less volatile than the weekly tally, is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.  

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Nearly 50 vehicles earn IIHS top safety award

Small overlap crash protection, front crash prevention were the keys

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has named 48 vehicles as recipients of its TOP SAFETY PICK+ for earning good ratings in all five crashwor...

PhotoThe Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has named 48 vehicles as recipients of its TOP SAFETY PICK+ for earning good ratings in all five crashworthiness evaluations and an advanced or higher rating for front crash prevention.

An additional 13 models qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK.

“We asked auto manufacturers to do more this year to qualify for our safety awards, and they delivered,” said Adrian Lund, IIHS president. “For the first time, a good rating in the challenging small overlap front crash test is a requirement to win, in addition to an available front crash prevention system. How that system rates determines whether a vehicle will earn TOP SAFETY PICK+ or TOP SAFETY PICK.”

Tougher standards

The baseline requirements for both awards are good ratings in the small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraint tests, as well as a standard or optional front crash prevention system.

The 48 winners of the “plus” award have a superior- or advanced-rated front crash prevention system with automatic braking capabilities. These vehicles must stop or slow down without driver intervention before hitting a target in tests at 12 mph, 25 mph, or both.

Models with a basic-rated front crash prevention system, which typically only issues a warning and doesn’t brake, qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK.

IIHS inaugurated TOP SAFETY PICK in the 2006 model year to help consumers home in on vehicles with the best safety performance. The TOP SAFETY PICK+ accolade was introduced in 2012 to recognize vehicles that offer an advanced level of safety.

Last year when IIHS announced the initial winners of the 2015 awards, 33 models qualified for TOP SAFETY PICK+ and 38 qualified for TOP SAFETY PICK. The ranks then grew to 51 TOP SAFETY PICK+ and 48 TOP SAFETY PICK winners. IIHS releases ratings as it evaluates new models, adding to the ranks of winners throughout the year.

Redesign does the trick

The 2016 winner’s circle includes some redesigned models with improved frontal crash protection and autobrake features, which help to prevent or mitigate certain frontal crashes.

The 2016 Nissan Maxima and Volkswagen Passat, for example, earn good ratings in the small overlap front test, while earlier models were rated acceptable. Nissan also improved occupant protection in rear crashes and rollovers, boosting the Maxima’s head restraints and seats rating from marginal to good and its roof strength rating from acceptable to good.

The Maxima’s optional front crash prevention system is rated superior, and the Passat’s is rated advanced. Both midsize cars earn the plus award.

The Chrysler 200 is the only domestic model to qualify for a 2016 TOP SAFETY PICK+ award. One other vehicle from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles -- the Fiat 500X -- earns the Institute’s highest award for 2016.

Ford has just one winning model this year, the F-150 SuperCrew, which earns TOP SAFETY PICK. The large pickup is the only Ford with a good small overlap rating.

Some don't measure up

A number of previous winners are missing from the new lists, including many small and midsize cars. Last year, vehicles with an acceptable small overlap rating could qualify for either award if their other four crashworthiness ratings were good.

An available front crash prevention system was required only for TOP SAFETY PICK+ and not TOP SAFETY PICK. More than 20 winners of the 2015 TOP SAFETY PICK award and four plus-award winners don’t qualify under the 2016 criteria.

The Toyota Highlander and Sienna, for example, are available with an advanced-rated autobrake system, but less-than-good ratings in the small overlap front test put the midsize SUV and minivan out of contention for a 2016 accolade. The pair earned 2015 plus awards.

Lack of an available front crash prevention system is the issue with several vehicles with good small overlap ratings. The Audi Q3, for example, no longer qualifies for TOP SAFETY PICK because it doesn’t have front crash prevention.

IIHS wasn’t able to test the autobrake systems on the Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class (formerly the M-Class), Nissan Rogue, and Nissan Sentra in time for this initial release of winners. These TOP SAFETY PICKs may be upgraded to TOP SAFETY PICK+ following IIHS tests.

The M-Class earned a 2015 TOP SAFETY PICK+ and is rated superior for front crash prevention. The Rogue and Sentra earned 2015 TOP SAFETY PICK awards.

“Consumers who purchased a winning 2015 model that doesn’t qualify this year needn’t worry that their vehicles are now less safe,” said Lund. “As vehicles continue to improve, however, we think it’s important to recognize that progress and encourage further advances by making our ratings more stringent. This year’s winners are certainly safer than the vehicles that earned our first TOP SAFETY PICK awards 10 years ago.”

Greater availability of Autobrake

Among the TOP SAFETY PICK+ winners, there are 31 models with an available superior-rated front crash prevention system and 17 models with an advanced rating.

The Scion iA, a TOP SAFETY PICK+ winner, is the first low-priced car with a standard autobrake system. With a base price of about $16,000, the iA is rated advanced for front crash prevention and is the only minicar to earn a 2016 IIHS award. Besides the iA, autobrake is standard on just a few luxury vehicles. These include all Volvo models, some Mercedes-Benz models, and the Acura RLX.

More automakers are expected to make autobrake standard equipment in the near future under a voluntary agreement being developed by automakers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the IIHS.

“Ask for autobrake and forward collision warning features when you’re out shopping for a new vehicle,” Lund said. “Look for good ratings in IIHS evaluations and at least 4 of 5 stars from NHTSA. And remember that larger, heavier vehicles offer the best protection in a crash.”

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Morrilton Packing recalls pork product

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

Morrilton Packing of Morrilton, Ark., is recalling approximately 12,146 pounds of boneless ham product. The product contains soy, an allergen not l...

PhotoMorrilton Packing of Morrilton, Ark., is recalling approximately 12,146 pounds of boneless ham 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 Oct. 1, and Oct. 4, 2015, is being recalled:

  • 8-9-lb. Plastic wrapped packages containing a single boneless ham with the label “Cedar Falls Brand Boneless Hickory Smoked Honey Cured Ham” containing a code date I14, I22, or I15.

The the recalled product bears establishment number “EST. 10646” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and was shipped to a single distributor in Arkansas.

 

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

 

Consumers with questions may contact Sonya Chadek at (501) 354-2474.  

 

 

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Google Fiber, AT&T target major markets for fiber build-outs

Google has a list of conditions cities must agree to upfront, however

Google Fiber may be bringing its super fast one-gigabit Internet service to Los Angeles and Chicago, the nation's second- and third-lar...

Photo
Photo (c) AT&T

Google Fiber may be bringing its super fast one-gigabit Internet service to Los Angeles and Chicago, the nation's second- and third-largest cities. But first, the cities will have to agree to Google's list of conditions. AT&T, meanwhile, is taking a more proactive approach in a larger number of cities.

If Google's approach sounds a bit backwards, it's because it is. Normally, when a cable or Internet provider wants to wire a city, it has to apply and then meet a number of requirements. Most significantly, applicants usually have to agree to serve all of their service areas, not just the wealthy parts.

Google is having none of this, though. Its attitude is more along the lines that L.A. and Chicago will have to prove themselves worthy of becoming Google Fiber cities.

Google wants the cities to agree to an "efficient and predictable" permitting process. It also wants access to city property for network hubs and it wants a single person named to deal with the company in each city.

This might sound like Google is the only game in town. That was true initially when the company set up its first fiber network in Kansas City and, later, in other medium-sized cities around the country.

AT&T one-ups Google

But just as Google was putting together its very rudimentary announcement, AT&T was announcing that it would be rolling out its one-gigabit fiber network -- called AT&T GigaPower -- in parts of Los Angeles and 37 other cities. 

In fact, AT&T said GigaPower became available in parts of Los Angeles and West Palm Beach, Fla., today. AT&T says GigaPower is now available in 20 of the nation's largest metros. Google Fiber is operating in nine cities, according to a map on Google's official blog.

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Map (c) Google

Obviously, there is the potential for conflict. Google's demands for preferred access are not likely to be well-received by AT&T, which practically wrote the book on the care and feeding of telecom regulators.

There is already a notable difference in tone. 

Google's very brief announcement puts the onus for successful completion on the cities.

"While we can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to bring Fiber to Chicago and L.A., this is a big step for these cities and their leaders. Planning for a project of this size is a huge undertaking, but we’ll be sure to keep residents updated along the way," said Jill Szuchmacher, director of Google Fiber Expansion.

"Vision only matters if it’s followed by execution," sniffed AT&T's Brad Bentley, executive vice president of Internet services. "We’re able to expand the 100% fiber network quickly through our relationships with local officials. They help us execute our build plans and process permitting. Then, fiber providers cut cables to specific lengths aligned to a map of our network ahead of construction."

While both carriers make it clear they want expedited issuance of the thousands of permits that go into a major network build-out, the difference in tone is somewhat striking. 

“In the past, municipalities would ask for significant concessions like 100% coverage or building connections to schools. It was really hard to get into a new area,” said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, the Los Angeles Times reported. “What Google has done is turn the model on its head by saying, ‘If you want us to build fiber, what are you going to do for us?'”

100% coverage

It's the 100% coverage that's likely to become an issue in both Chicago and Los Angeles. While smaller cities were willing to roll over and play nicely, local politics is a tougher game in the nation's megacities, which tend to have a broader range of socioeconomic groups than smaller communities.

Leaving entire sections of the South Side of Chicago dark or ignoring L.A.'s South Central are not likely to play well. 

In some of its other cities, Google Fiber charges $70 a month for gigabit service or a onetime construction fee of $300 for a much slower but free service. In an election year when rising inequality is a major campaign issue, providing a service that only affluent consumers can afford may prove problematic. 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has sought to boost the city's tech industry and has said L.A. should be "American's most connected city." But in a statement yesterday, Garcetti didn't sound ready to abandon poorer sections of the city. 

“Expanding, improving and strengthening Internet access throughout Los Angeles is vital to further accelerating L.A.'s economic growth — and affordable service is essential to erasing a digital divide that leaves too many people without the tools to maximize potential in the 21st century,” Garcetti said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said only that Google Fiber service would be "a key ingredient for job growth."  

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Did San Bernardino terrorists finance their raid online?

Report: Syed Farook got a $28,500 loan via online lender Prosper Marketplace

Like anything else, terrorism requires funding. Assault weapons, bomb components, getaway cars, and flak jackets aren't cheap, and it's not as easy as it u...

PhotoLike anything else, terrorism requires funding. Assault weapons, bomb components, getaway cars, and flak jackets aren't cheap, and it's not as easy as it used to be to move money around the globe.

So, according to a Bloomberg Business report, accused San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook turned to Prosper Marketplace, an online peer-to-peer lender, taking out a $28,500 loan just a few weeks before he and his wife opened fire on a roomful of Farook's innocent and unarmed co-workers, killing 14 and wounding many more.

Investigators say the money was transferred to Farook's account in mid-November and may have been used to buy the guns and ammo used in the attack. 

While no one is accusing Prosper of knowingly funding terrorism, the allegations are raising questions about whether online loan platforms are adequately regulated. 

Peer-to-peer

The idea behind Prosper and other online platforms, like Lending Club, is similar to other so-called peer-to-peer services -- they bring together people who have money with those who don't, to put it very simply.

The peer-to-peer lenders are not targeted to poor credit risks. Their major marketing appeal is that they offer better interest rates to borrowers and loans can often be completed more quickly than would be the case with a bank or other traditional lender.  

They also offer larger loans than most other lenders. In Farook's case, his credit rating was presumably at least adequate since he was a college graduate with a longterm employment record but it would have been difficult for him to have put together $28,000 from credit cards or other readily available sources of funding, possibly leading him to Prosper.

While lenders have some flexibility in choosing which loans they participate in, the individual identity of borrowers is not revealed, so it would not have been possible for ISIS or its backers to fund Farook directly. But simply by making relatively large sums of money available quickly, the online lenders could be unwittingly aiding terrorists and other criminals, the Bloomberg report suggests.

No bells or whistles

Analysts say Farook would not have set off any bells and whistles in any cases. He was not known to be on any watch list, had no criminal record, had a good job, a college degree, and all the outward trappings of a solid middle-class life. 

Even so, the online loan industry may have been facing increased regulation even before the Farook case. The U.S. Treasury Department recently announced that it was conducting a "request for information" about online lending. That's often the first step in the lengthy process of crafting new regulations.

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VW finds only 36,000 vehicles affected by CO2 scandal

This corrects a previous estimate by the company that 800,000 vehicles could be affected

There has been no shortage of bad news coming from Volkswagen lately. The company has suffered multiple emissions scandals and faces an uphill climb as the...

PhotoThere has been no shortage of bad news coming from Volkswagen lately. The company has suffered multiple emissions scandals and faces an uphill climb as they try to recall millions of vehicles equipped with defeat devices meant to cheat nitrogen oxide emissions standards.

Although things are still pretty bleak, the company can breathe a sigh of relief after getting the results of their internal investigation; it found that only 36,000 vehicles (instead of a previously estimated 800,000) have issues with carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Carbon dioxide scandal

The CO2 issue was originally discovered after a company review of processes and workflows connected to models with diesel engines. Investigators discovered that carbon dioxide and fuel consumption figures were set too low for an unspecified number of vehicles during the carbon certification process.

At the time, company officials did not know exactly how many vehicles were affected, but they had an estimate – and the economic implications did not look good. “Based on present knowledge around 800,000 vehicles from the Volkswagen Group could be affected. . . An initial estimate puts the economic risks at approximately two billion euros (about $2.19 billion),” the company said in a statement.

Now that the affected number of vehicles has been reduced to 36,000, the company will probably be looking at a diminished economic impact. However, VW has not confirmed this estimate yet. “The negative impact on earnings… has not been confirmed,” said VW. “Whether we will have a minor economic impact depends on the results of the remeasurement exercise.”

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More consumers receiving foreclosure settlement checks from SunTrust

Other aid is also being offered, including loan modifications

Some consumers in North Carolina and Virginia who lost their homes to foreclosure are getting checks this month from SunTrust Mortgage.It stems from a...

PhotoSome consumers in North Carolina and Virginia who lost their homes to foreclosure are getting checks this month from SunTrust Mortgage.

It stems from a national settlement negotiated years ago between five major mortgage companies, 49 states, and the District of Columbia. The cash payments complete the settlement, which also includes mortgage modifications and other benefits.

The recipients are consumers who lost their homes to foreclosure due to alleged misconduct by SunTrust, resulting in premature or unauthorized foreclosures, violations of homeowners’ protections, and the use deceptive documents and affidavits.

As part of the settlement, SunTrust has agreed to adhere to tougher standards to prevent future foreclosure abuses like robo-signing, improper documentation, and misplaced mortgage and foreclosure paperwork.

Who's eligible

Eligible North Carolina consumers who had mortgages serviced by SunTrust, lost their homes to foreclosure between January 1, 2008 and December 31, 2013, and applied for relief by the June 4, 2015 deadline, should receive their payment within days. Checks of approximately $1,330 each are being mailed to 1,454 affected borrowers in North Carolina.

“This is welcome relief for North Carolina families who suffered foreclosures done wrong,” said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.

About 1,980 Virginia borrowers who were harmed by mortgage servicing and foreclosure practices at SunTrust are also receiving checks. They began hitting the mail on Tuesday.

Dangerous scams

"Our nation and our Commonwealth are still recovering from the effects of the housing crisis, but settlements like this have helped provide some measure of relief as well as critical changes in the way mortgage servicing companies do business," said Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. "Borrowers who qualified for the settlement should keep a close eye out for their settlement payments, as well as any potential scams related to this settlement because high profile settlements can attract dishonest criminals trying to take advantage of the situation."

Herring underscored the potential danger of scammers trying to take advantage of confusion and misinformation. He said borrowers should carefully examine any interactions or correspondence they receive to ensure it is legitimate and not a scammer trying to take advantage of this high-profile settlement.

Because of the settlement, Herring says there has been broad reform of the mortgage servicing process, as well as financial relief for borrowers who are still in their homes through direct loan modification relief, including principal reduction and refinancing for underwater mortgages.

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Study finds dangerous flavoring compounds in e-cigarettes

The most hazardous is diacetyl, which can cause "popcorn lung"

Much of the controversy over electronic cigarettes has centered around their nicotine content, but a study by Harvard researchers has found a chemical link...

PhotoMuch of the controversy over electronic cigarettes has centered around their nicotine content, but a study by Harvard researchers has found a chemical linked to severe respiratory disease in more than 75% of flavored e-cigarettes.

Diacetyl is a flavoring chemical that can cause bronchiolitis obliterans, commonly known as "popcorn lung" because it first appeared in workers who inhaled artificial butter flavor in microwave popcorn plants.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers found diacetyl and two other potentially harmful compounds in many flavored e-cigs, including those targeted to young people with flavors such as cotton candy, “Fruit Squirts,” and cupcake.

“Recognition of the hazards associated with inhaling flavoring chemicals started with ‘popcorn lung’ over a decade ago. However, diacetyl and other related flavoring chemicals are used in many other flavors beyond butter-flavored popcorn, including fruit flavors, alcohol flavors, and, we learned in our study, candy-flavored e-cigarettes,” said lead author Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment sciences.

Dangers are well-known

The dangers of inhaling diacetyl are well-known and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) warns employers about the risks posed to workers exposed to the chemical.

The study, published today in Environmental Health Perspectives, notes that there are currently more than 7,000 varieties of flavored e-cigarettes and e-juice (nicotine-containing liquid that is used in refillable devices) on the market.

E-cigarettes are not currently regulated, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a proposed rule to include e-cigarettes under its authority to regulate certain tobacco and nicotine-containing products.

In the study, Allen and colleagues tested 51 types of flavored e-cigarettes and liquids for the presence of diacetyl, acetoin, and 2,3-pentanedione, two related flavoring compounds that the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association lists as “high priority,” meaning they may pose a respiratory hazard in the workplace.

At least one of the three chemicals was detected in 47 of the 51 flavors tested. Diacetyl was detected above the laboratory limit of detection in 39 of the flavors tested. Acetoin and 2,3-pentanedione were detected in 46 and 23 and of the flavors, respectively.

“Since most of the health concerns about e-cigarettes have focused on nicotine, there is still much we do not know about e-cigarettes. In addition to containing varying levels of the addictive substance nicotine, they also contain other cancer-causing chemicals, such as formaldehyde, and as our study shows, flavoring chemicals that can cause lung damage,” said study co-author David Christiani, Elkan Blout Professor of Environmental Genetics.

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How the North American Car of the Year nominees set themselves apart

Kelley Blue Book analysts sees style and performance as common themes

Getting on the list of finalists for the North American Car and Truck of the year is a pretty big deal, and should provide a signal to consumers interested...

PhotoGetting on the list of finalists for the North American Car and Truck of the year is a pretty big deal, and should provide a signal to consumers interested in value and reliability.

The judging is done by a group of journalists who cover the auto industry and the annual award presentation is now in its 23rd year. 

Making the final cut for 2015 are the Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Civic, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Honda Pilot, Nissan Titan XD and Volvo XC90. Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor of Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com, says it's an impressive field.

Big improvement

“Chevrolet’s Malibu is a superior car inside and out over its predecessor,” DeLorenzo said. “There’s more generous rear seat room and a high quality interior that features state of the art connectivity in the MyLink system.”

DeLorenzo says the Honda Civic has set itself apart in the compact car market with a strong emphasis on amenities and style. He says the introduction of the first turbocharged engine in Honda’s lineup provides excellent performance and fuel economy.

“Mazda MX-5 Miata originally rekindled America’s love for small, two-seat roadsters and this generation harkens back to that iconic first model by being smaller, lighter and more fun to drive than ever,” DeLorenzo said.

Pulling power and style

As for the truck finalists, the analyst cites the Titan XD for pulling power abo