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    A third decline in four months for pending home sales

    Rising prices are a factor

    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.

    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.

    © 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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    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 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.

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

    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 ...
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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 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.

      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...
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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, 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

      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.
      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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, 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.

      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...
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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-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.”

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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'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

      "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.

      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."

      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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      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. 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.

      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. ...
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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 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.

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

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

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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) 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.

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

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

      “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 ...
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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 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.

      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...
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      How well do those wearable activity monitors work?

      Researchers find they monitor some activity more accurately than others

      Wearable tech was big in 2015 and promises to be even bigger in 2016. Consumers have been buying wearable activity trackers that promise to monitor physical activity, sleep, diet, and other health data.

      But how well do these things work?

      Researchers at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and RTI International decided it was a fair question. After their study, they conclude that these wearable gadgets are better at measuring some metrics than others.

      Lead author Kelly Evenson and her team studied 22 published articles researching the ability of Fitbit and Jawbone – two popular activity trackers – to measure steps, distance, physical activity, calories, and sleep.

      Accurate step count

      The researchers concluded that the devices do a good job of counting steps. Both were accurate in the lab and in the field. Only one study assessed distance tracking for the Fitbit, finding that the device tends to over-estimate at slower speeds and under-estimate at faster speeds.

      Using several different comparison measures, other researchers found that both tracker brands under-estimated calories used and over-estimated total sleep time.

      So if you want to keep track of your steps, the researchers say either device should work fine. If you want an accurate count of calories and sleep time, there might be issues.

      Tips for making them more accurate

      "When researching information on the trackers, we learned several tips users may be able to implement to make their tracker more accurate," Evenson said.

      To promote accuracy, the authors conclude you should wear the tracker in the same position each day. Enter personal details like height and weight correctly at initial set-up, and update if there is significant change in weight.

      If possible, calibrate the length of your walking stride.

      "Wearable devices that track physical activity, sleep and other behaviors are growing significantly in popularity," said Robert Furberg, senior clinical informaticist at RTI International and co-author of the study. "We conducted this review to understand how accurate these devices are."

      Jump in sales

      In fact, sales of wearable tech this year have been stunning. International Data Corporation (IDC) reports total shipment volume for the third quarter of the year was 21.0 million units, up 197.6% from the 7.1 million units shipped in the third quarter last year.

      Competition is intense. According to IDC, Fitbit held the advantage in the third quarter with 22.2% of the market. Apple was second at 18.6%. Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi was third at 17.4%.  

      Wearable tech was big in 2015 and promises to be even bigger in 2016. Consumers have been buying wearable activity trackers that promise to monitor physica...
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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 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

      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.

      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...
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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.

      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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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) 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.
      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...
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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) 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.
      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)...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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, 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.

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

      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.

      The Cure House of Louisville, Ky., is recalling an undetermined amount of cured pork products. The products did not undergo federal inspection....
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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 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.

      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...
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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, 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).

      SmartLipo365 of Dallas, Texas, is recalling all lots of Smart Lipo (800, 900, 950 mg) capsules. The product contains sibutramine, desmethylsibutram...
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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, 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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, 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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.  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.

      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. ...
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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-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/.

      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-...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 home can make a big difference on your daily life.

      Sustainable home improvement store TreeHouse just released its list of top smart-home products. From thermostats that know when you're sleeping, door locks and lighting controls that you manage from your phone, and ceiling fans that sense when you're in the room, 2015 has been a year of innovation in the world of smart-home technology.

      "2015 was huge because we saw products become easier to use and less expensive,” said the company’s president and co-founder, Jason Ballard. 'Smart home' no longer means building the Jetsons' house. It means adding products to your home that make it safer and healthier."

      Here is TreeHouse’s list of the top seven smart-home products of the year.

      • Combination Smoke Alarms. The smoke and carbon monoxide detector combinations that hit the market this year offer features like industrial-grade smoke sensors, self-tester functions, and durability to last up to a decade. With one brand in this category, Nest Protect, you can hush the alarm straight from your phone.
      • Smart Sprinklers. Use your laptop to schedule watering times and automatically adjust for the weather. The Rachio Intelligent Sprinkler Controller boasts a 20-50% savings on watering bills.
      • Home Security. Now easier to install than ever, smart locks and video cameras allow you the ability to lock and unlock your door from your phone. Nest Cam has live streaming, night vision, and activity alerts, and with August Lock, you can create virtual keys for guests.
      • Smart Thermostats. Nest thermostats are a best-seller over at TreeHouse. Another consumer favorite is the Ecobee smart thermostat, which features the ability to monitor the temperature in multiple rooms. Both brands have been popular choices for people buying their first smart-home tool.
      • Lighting. Make it seem like you’re home when you’re not, with geofencing technology — the biggest lighting innovation since LED. Your lights can welcome you home or turn off automatically when you leave. Most brands in this category let you change the color of the lighting in your home, and some, like Philips Hue, can even keep you informed about the weather.
      • Air Quality Monitors. These smart devices monitor the air in your home and tell you how to make it better. The Foobot detects volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, carbon dioxide, temperature, and humidity.
      • Smart Fans. Big Ass Fans’ residential ceiling fan was the only product over $500 to make the list. The company’s Haiku fan knows when you enter or leave a room and even offers a ‘Whoosh’ mode that simulates a natural breeze.
      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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      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 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.
      Tactics including illegal visits to consumers at their homes and workplaces, empty threats of legal action, lying about consumers’ rights, and exposing con...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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.

      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.

      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
      After rising for two weeks in a row, first-time applications for state unemployment benefits have posted a decline.T...
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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 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.

      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...
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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%.

      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.

      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%....
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

      Mortgage applications last week surrendered nearly all the gains they made the previous week.The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) weekly survey sho...
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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 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

      .

      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...
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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, 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.

      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...
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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, 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 (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.”

      Not much Christmas cheer in the home construction industry this month.The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index...
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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 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.

      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...
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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' 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.

      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...
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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 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).

      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...
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      Stella & Chewy's recalls dog and cat food

      The products may contain Listeria monocytogenes

      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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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. 

      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...
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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'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.  

      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...
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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.

      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/.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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. 

      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.

      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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      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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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.

      Retail sales were up a tiny 0.2%, or $448.1 billion, in November, according to Commerce Department figures that were adjusted...
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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-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).  

      Lucy's Weight Loss System is recalling all lots of Pink Bikini White powder capsules The product contains diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammat...
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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 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.

      Polaris Industries of Medina, Minn., is recalling about 2,230 RZR XP Turbo recreational off-highway vehicles (ROVs). The vehicles' oil drain line c...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.  

      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...
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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 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

      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.

      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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      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 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.

      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...
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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.

      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.

      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.  

      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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      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 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.”

      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...
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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 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.  

      Morrilton Packing of Morrilton, Ark., is recalling approximately 12,146 pounds of boneless ham product. The product contains soy, an allergen not l...
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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 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.”

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      Much of the controversy over electronic cigarettes has centered around their nicotine content, but a study by Harvard researchers has found a chemical link...
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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 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 above its class. The Pilot, meanwhile, earns praise inspired design and a high level of creature comforts, making it “the quintessential family mover” in the competitive crossover SUV segment.

      “Repositioned further up the luxury scale, the Volvo XC90 offers stylish looks inside and out, an advanced touch screen that rivals Tesla while delivering safety and performance consistent with the Swedish automaker’s brand image,” DeLorenzo said.

      Meanwhile, winners will be revealed at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit January 11.

      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...
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      Illinois sues company offering foreclosure rescue services

      Complaint claims company charged big upfront fees but offered little or no help

      There aren't nearly as many foreclosures now as there were a few years ago, but that doesn't mean there are not struggling homeowners out there.

      And where there are struggling homeowners, you are likely to find operators willing to help head off a foreclosure – for a price.

      Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a lawsuit against a suburban Chicago company and its owner, charging the enterprise with running a mortgage rescue operation that charged homeowners about $20,000 in upfront fees, then provided little, if any, help.

      The suit against Carrey Services Inc. seeks to close the business and obtain restitution for consumers.

      "In most cases, the only thing these so-called businesses accomplish is taking money from already struggling homeowners," Madigan said.

      Targeted Latinos

      According to the complaint, the defendants ran ads in Spanish-language newspapers and primarily targeted the Latino community with loan modification services. Madigan claims the business owner met with consumers and made them sign various loan modification documents, but never provided the consumers with copies.

      In many cases, Madigan said the documents were printed in English even though most consumers were Spanish-speaking.

      Making matters worse, Madigan says the defendants charged upfront fees greater than the amount allowed under state law. Then, after failing to do any work, the defendants refused to provide refunds and, in many cases, were unresponsive when the Attorney General's Office got involved.

      To many, the mortgage foreclosure crisis may be recent history that ended with the improving housing market, but Madigan says her office has filed 57 lawsuits over the illegal collection of upfront fees by mortgage rescue operations or other violations of the Mortgage Rescue Fraud Act.

      Other scams

      There are several types of foreclosure rescue scams that keep law enforcement officials busy. According to Freddie Mac, the most common occurs when a homeowner receives a solicitation in the mail that promises short-term financing from a “private investor” offering to pay off a delinquent loan.

      The homeowner is told he or she can stay in their home and rent back from the investor, who is actually the new owner. That's because the beleaguered homeowner is convinced to transfer the title of the home to the investor as collateral.

      But after that, the new owner can do anything with the home. Despite promises that the former owner can rent it, the house is usually sold or rented to someone who can pay more.

      There aren't nearly as many foreclosures now as there were a few years ago, but that doesn't mean there are not struggling homeowners out there.And whe...
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      Home improvement projects you shouldn't do yourself

      The five most and least regretted DIY projects

      Three-quarters of homeowners tackled a home improvement project over the last year, but according to a new survey by home design site, Zillow Digs, 40% of these do-it-yourselfers ended up wishing they hadn't. What may seem like the affordable route towards completing a project can quickly turn into a DIY disaster, leaving many wishing they'd hired a professional.

      "With seemingly endless DIY tips and how-to videos available today, home improvement projects appear easier and more accessible than ever before," says Kerrie Kelly, Zillow Digs home design expert, adding that DIY doesn't always equal cost-efficiency.

      Big projects, big headaches

      "While some DIY projects can save you money, involving a professional for larger-scale projects, especially those that require specialized skills, can help eliminate headaches and costly mistakes," Kelly says.

      Nearly a quarter of homeowners surveyed said their larger-scale project – like building a deck or renovating a basement – went over budget. Big projects like these left over half of homeowners surveyed (53%) unhappy with some aspect of the result.

      Minor projects, however, like replacing light fixtures or cabinet hardware were relatively painless to most homeowners, leaving less than 20% wishing they hadn't taken them on.

      What other home improvement projects left folks wishing they'd gone with a pro? Here is Zillow Digs' list of the most and least regretted DIY projects:

      The five most regretted

      • Adding a room or expanding/altering an existing one
      • Refacing or refinishing cabinetry
      • Refinishing a basement or attic
      • Replacing or installing new carpeting
      • Refinishing or reinstalling new hardwood floors

      The five least regretted

      • Replacing light fixtures
      • Replacing cabinet hardware
      • Painting one or more rooms
      • Installing new kitchen appliances
      • Replacing plumbing fixtures

      Choosing a contractor

      If one of your projects happens to have won a spot on the ‘most-regretted’ list, hiring a contractor may be the first step towards completing it with your budget – and sanity –  intact.

      According to the experts at HGTV.com, step one in the selection process is to ask around. A word-of-mouth referral from a friend, relative, or neighbor can be invaluable – a trusted friend will be able to answer questions like, “What made it a positive experience” or “Would you use the same contractor again?”

      Looking at credentials, interviewing candidates, and checking references should all come before having a contractor sign on the dotted line. A few simple steps is all it takes to find the right person for the job, ensuring you’ll be left with total confidence and a great result.

      Three-quarters of homeowners tackled a home improvement project over the last year, but according to a new survey by home design site, Zillow Digs, 40% of ...
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      At least 80 Boston College students now sick after fast food meals

      News just gets worse for Chipotle

      When you are a restaurant chain with a positioning statement declaring you have “food with integrity,” you'd better make sure you don't have to close locations because of a foodborne illness.

      That is the irony currently besetting Chipotle Mexican Grill, a fast casual chain that's a favorite with young consumers who value fresh, natural, and organic over convenient, predictable, and inexpensive.

      But since late October, Chipotle has temporarily closed restaurants in Washington and Oregon because of links to an E. coli outbreak. This week it was forced to temporarily close its store at Cleveland Circle in Boston after as many as 80 Boston College students who ate there got sick.

      Among the sickened students were two Boston College basketball players, who then missed Sunday's game, where the depleted Eagles squad was upset at the hands of UMass Lowell.

      Norovirus suspected

      Health officials in Boston are still investigating but do not think the foodborne illnesses are E. coli, though that's not exactly good news for the beleaguered restaurant chain. Rather, the suspicion points to norovirus, the kind of affliction more likely to show up on a cruise ship.

      Chipotle, meanwhile, is getting pummeled in the press and on Wall Street. The company's share price has plunged some 25% since the news of the E. coli outbreak broke, though losses in Tuesday trading were minor in comparison.

      In its account of the company's troubles, Bloomberg News says the weight of a food morality halo can be a heavy burden when things go wrong.

      Potential long-term damage

      “It strikes deeper at their brand because so much of their story is based on the quality of their ingredients,” brand consultant Allen Adamson told Bloomberg, “This can clearly do long-term damage if they don’t get it under control.”

      Chipotle has built its brand, and won a following, promising fresh, organic, and locally sourced ingredients. But these kinds of supply chains are notoriously hard to manage, and fresh, unprocessed food can be more susceptible to spoilage.

      And high moral standards for sourcing food can sometimes come back to bite an enterprise that is, after all, in business to make money. Bloomberg points out that Chipotle had to suspend its shipments of pork earlier this year when it learned that a major supplier didn't keep pigs in “deeply bedded barns” and didn't have adequate access to the outdoors.

      All of this ends up impacting the bottom line. On Monday, Chipotle lowered its guidance for the fourth quarter, saying the outbreak will dent profits.

      When you are a restaurant chain with a positioning statement declaring you have “food with integrity,” you'd better make sure you don't have to close locat...
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      Foreclosures continue their decline in October

      The foreclosure inventory is at its lowest rate in nearly eight years

      Both completed foreclosures and the foreclosure inventory fell during October.

      CoreLogic, a property information, analytics, and services provider reports the number of completed foreclosures nationwide decreased year over year from 51,000 in October 2014 to 37,000 in October 2015. That's a drop of 27.1% and a decline of 68.2% from the peak of 117,543 in September 2010. In addition, the foreclosure inventory declined by 21.5 percent.

      Completed foreclosures reflect the total number of homes actually lost to foreclosure. The foreclosure inventory is the share of all homes at some stage of the foreclosure process, and completed foreclosures reflect the total number of homes actually lost to foreclosure.

      Since the financial meltdown began in September 2008, there have been approximately 6 million completed foreclosures across the country, and since homeownership rates peaked in the second quarter of 2004, there have been about 8 million homes lost to foreclosure.

      Lowest foreclosure rate in eight years

      As of October 2015, the national foreclosure inventory included approximately 463,000, or 1.2% of all homes with a mortgage compared with 589,000 homes, or 1.5%, in October 2014. This is lowest rate since November 2007.

      “Improved economic conditions and more foreclosure completions have pushed the foreclosure rate lower,” said Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic. “The national unemployment rate declined to 5.0% in October, the lowest since December 2007, and the CoreLogic national Home Price Index has risen 37% from its trough.”

      CoreLogic also reports that the number of mortgages in serious delinquency (90 days or more past due), including those loans in foreclosure or Real Estate Owned declined by 19.7% from October 2014 to October 2015, with 1.3 million mortgages, or 3.4%, in this category. This is the lowest serious delinquency rate since December 2007.

      “We are heading into 2016 with the lowest foreclosure inventory in eight years thanks to escalating home values and progressive improvement in the U.S. economy. A large proportion of the remaining foreclosure inventory is clustered in New York, New Jersey and Florida,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “Equally encouraging is the drop in mortgage delinquency rates reflecting the stronger labor market and tighter underwriting since 2009.”

      Report highlights

      • On a month-over-month basis, completed foreclosures fell by 12.3% to 37,000 from the 43,000 reported in September 2015. As a basis of comparison, before the decline in the housing market in 2007, completed foreclosures averaged 21,000 per month nationwide between 2000 and 2006.
      • The five states with the highest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in October 2015 were Florida (86,000), Michigan (59,000), Texas (30,000), Georgia (25,000), and California (24,000).These five states accounted for almost half of all completed foreclosures nationally.
      • Four states and the District of Columbia had the lowest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in October 2015: the District of Columbia (76), North Dakota (239), Wyoming (515), West Virginia (571), and Hawaii (700).
      • Four states and the District of Columbia had the highest foreclosure inventory rate in October 2015: New Jersey (4.5%), New York (3.6%), Hawaii (2.5%), Florida (2.5%), and the District of Columbia (2.3%).
      • The five states with the lowest foreclosure inventory rate in October 2015 were Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Colorado -- all at 0.4%.
      Both completed foreclosures and the foreclosure inventory fell during October.CoreLogic, a property information, analytics, and services provider repor...
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      A rise in mortgage applications

      Contract interest rates were mostly higher

      Mortgage applications recovered last week from the slight decline they posted during Thanksgiving week.

      The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports applications were up 1.2% for the week ending December 4.

      The Refinance Index shot up 4%, raising the refinance share of mortgage activity to 58.7% of total applications from 56.6% the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 6.2% of total applications.

      The FHA share rose to 14.0% from 13.2%, the VA share dropped to 10.8% from 11.3% the week before, and the USDA share of total applications was unchanged at 0.7%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) inched up two basis points -- to 4.14% from 4.12%, with points decreasing to 0.43 from 0.50 (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) rose from 3.99% to 4.02%, with points moving to 0.40 from 0.33 (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 increased to 3.91 percent from 3.89 percent, with points decreasing to 0.43 from 0.49 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was unchanged from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs was up three basis points to 3.39%, with points dropping to 0.39 from 0.44 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs fell to 2.98% from 3.11%, with points decreasing to 0.30 from 0.44 (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.

      Mortgage applications recovered last week from the slight decline they posted during Thanksgiving week.The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports a...
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      Trucking industry hopes to find longer trailers under the tree

      It's asking Congress not to be naughty and promising to be nice if it gets its double trailers

      It's that most wonderful time of the year -- the time when Congress stuffs its omnibus spending deal with pet projects to make the home folks swoon and givebacks to keep the lobbyists and big contributors happy.

      This year the stuffing includes a large dose of big long trucks -- specifically double 33-foot trailers. Throw in the tractor and you have nearly 90 feet of steel rolling down the nation's highways.

      Not everyone thinks this is a great idea, but it's being discussed behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, as favors and trades are bandied around secretly by lawmakers not eager to let the voters see the sausage-making in progress.

      A coalition of highway safety advocates isn't letting the super-long truck issue slide through unnoticed, however.

      "A major national policy change to allow double 33' trailer trucks on our nation's highways being pushed by a few select trucking companies would override states' rights, jeopardize safety and damage our nation's already-crumbling infrastructure," a coalition of safety advocates wrote on Friday to the GOP and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

      FedEx & UPS

      The proposal has been floating around since at least last year, when Henry Maier, CEO of FedEx Ground, testified before a Congressional committee that the new 33-foot trailer combination would be environmentally friendly since it would reduce the total number of truck trips.

      Maier said the longer trucks would lead to 1.8 billion fewer miles driven, more than 300 million gallons of gasoline saved, and $2.6 billion in reduced costs annually in the trucking industry. 

      In their letter, the safety and consumer groups note that the Senate has twice killed the measure and blames FedEx, UPS, and other large trucking companies for trying to slip it through as a last-minute addition to the spending bill.

      "The public strongly opposes allowing oversized trucks on our roads and highways," the safety advocates said, citing an independent public opinion poll by ORC International conducted last month that found that more than 3 out of 4 Americans (77%) opposed "Double 33s."

      Senators Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) would require the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to study the safety of Double 33s and the safety advocates say that study should be authorized and completed before Congress seriously considers allowing longer trucks on the road.

      Driver fatigue

      The letter also warns against increasing allowable driving hours for truckers from 70 to 82 hours per week and argues that 80% of respondents to a Lake Research Partners poll opposed longer hours for truckers.

      "Truck driver fatigue is a major safety problem that has severe consequences as demonstrated by crashes such as the one that killed comedian James McNair and seriously injured Tracy Morgan," the letter said.

      Among those signing the letter were Jacqueline Gillan, President, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety; Clarence Ditlow, Executive Director, Center for Auto Safety; and Joan Claybrook, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

      It's that most wonderful time of the year -- the time when Congress stuffs its omnibus spending deal with pet projects to make the home folks swoon and giv...
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      Keurig bought by investor group for $13.9 billion

      It might be another company reshuffling, but what could it mean for consumers?

      Company acquisitions have been popping up more as 2015 comes to a close. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) nixed a deal between Staples and Office Depot, and GE backed out of a deal with Electrolux, but at least one major deal is continuing to go forward.

      Keurig Green Mountain, the company renowned for its single-serving coffee machines, was acquired by an investor group on Monday for $13.9 billion. The leader of the group, JAB Holding Co. (JAB), will add the company to its collection of other coffee companies – including Jacobs Douwe Egberts, Peet's Coffee & Tea, Caribou Coffee, Einstein Noah Restaurant Group, Espresso House, and Baresso Coffee.

      Bought for a bargain

      The investor group purchased Keurig for $92 a share, a mark-up of 78% according to closing prices on Friday and 89% when compared to the company's 20-day average. Although record-setting for acquisitions over $5 billion in the beverage industry, the sale comes at a bargain after taxes, depreciation, and amortization. Nevertheless, the move was a surprise to many analysts.

      “I was surprised by an acquisition. . . Selling now implies that maybe there were mounting headwinds,” said Brian Holland, analyst at Consumer Edge Research LLC.

      Indeed, Keurig Green Mountain had been suffering financially as of late. Sales of Keurig products have been slowing down, and many other brewers were becoming viable options at a more economical price point. The company's cold brewer, Keurig Kold, had also rolled out more slowly than inspected, with only limited inventory being sold during this holiday season.

      Implications 

      Despite new ownership, the internal affairs of the company will remain largely unchanged, with the current management team continuing to run the company. “Keurig Green Mountain will operate as an independent entity to ensure it will further build on its coffee and technology strength,” said Bart Brecht, chairman of JAB.

      But as far as JAB itself is concerned, things may become a little murkier from here on out. By acquiring Keurig, JAB put some of its other business relationships in jeopardy. Partnerships with Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts, for example, may be soured by the acquisition.

      Other companies in the investor group, such as Coca-Cola, benefit as a result of the deal. The beverage giant had already put a 17% stake into Keurig. Now, the company expects to make an estimated profit of $25.5 million on that investment. “We have enjoyed a strong partnership with Keurig Green Mountain, and will continue our collaboration with JAB,” said Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola CEO.

      But as always with these kinds of purchases, one has to think of what it will mean to the consumer. While there are still plenty of companies in the coffee game, the acquisition of Keurig does ultimately take one more choice away from people looking to buy a brewer. How this will ultimately affect them will be seen with time.  

      Company acquisitions have been popping up more as 2015 comes to a close. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) nixed a deal between Staples and Office Depot, ...
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      Consumers still punishing VW at the car lot

      Industry source notes price cuts are required to move vehicles

      Car companies are once again pitching new cars as Christmas presents, but chances are there will be fewer Volkswagens under the tree this year.

      Industry sources report that the VW brand continues to suffer from the diesel emissions cheating scandal. Sales of used VWs are down and so are prices.

      The buyer intelligence site Autolist has released its analysis of data through November 30. It finds the pricing data pretty much confirms the public narrative: things just keep getting worse for Volkswagen cars and dealers.

      Among the findings – even VW vehicles that have nothing to do with the emissions scandal are starting to feel its effects. Vehicles bearing the VW nameplate, but untouched by the scandal, have now fallen to 2% below their expected value, demonstrating how the scandal just keeps spreading.

      $1,500 discount

      To move VWs off the lot, dealers have been forced to keep dropping the price. Autolist reports sticker prices for vehicles directly implicated in the scandal have now fallen $1,500 to nearly 5% below their expected value.

      But even lower prices don't always help. For VWs, time on the market is running 47% above average, at 136 days.

      New Volkswagens aren't selling that fast either, and those that do sell often come with generous incentives. In its report on November new car sales, Kelley Blue Book (KBB) noted the growth average transaction price (ATP) grew only modestly, climbing just 0.4%.

      One reason was a decline in the Volkswagen Group's ATP. While VW prices dipped 0.1% from October, the ATP was down 0.2% from November 2014.

      Car companies are once again pitching new cars as Christmas presents, but chances are there will be fewer Volkswagens under the tree this year.Industry...
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      Common telephone scams and how to avoid them

      For seniors, the telephone is more dangerous than the Internet

      Most of the recent discussion surrounding frauds and scams have dealt with online threats.

      While cyber attacks are very real and growing, it's easy to loose sight of the threats that take advantage of an older technology – the telephone. That's a mistake, because the telephone is a more useful device for exploiting a scam's most vulnerable victims – senior citizens.

      After New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman learned scammers were calling people in his state, pretending to be officials from his office, he started looking into these kinds of schemes. The result is a list of what Schneiderman says are five common telephone scams that are seeing an uptick in activity.

      IRS/Tax Collection Scam

      The caller claims to be an agent or police officer from the Internal Revenue Service or Attorney General’s Office with one message: you're in trouble that can only be cleared up by sending payment, usually in a way that can't be traced or retrieved.

      Assuming you owed money or were in actual trouble, no public agency would call you on the phone demanding payment. When that happens, just hang up.

      Jury Duty Scam

      The caller claims to be an officer of the court, saying you didn't show up for jury duty. Once again, the message is “you're in trouble.” The trouble, you are told, can be avoided by making a payment.

      This scam is a lot like the IRS scam and the way to avoid it is the same. Realize that you would not get a call, and a chance to pay, if you actually missed jury duty.

      Grandparent Scam

      The caller usually starts by saying “Grandpa, it's me and I'm in trouble.” “Billy?” Gramdpa might ask. Bingo, the scammer has a name. While the emergencies vary, the scenario is usually this: the “grandson” is out of town and needs money fast -- to make bail, or to pay for automobile repairs or medical expenses.

      The best way to avoid this scam is to make sure real grand parents know about this scam and how it works.

      Lottery Scam

      The caller says you’ve won a foreign lottery and requests that you, as the “winner,” send a check or to wire money to cover taxes and fees. The caller may request your banking information in order to electronically direct deposit your winnings. This is an attempt to steal your identity and will wipe out your bank account.

      Make sure seniors in your family know that they cannot win a lottery or contest that they didn't enter. Also, legitimate contests never require a payment.

      Utility Scam

      The caller claims to be a representative of a local utility provider and, because they didn't get your last payment, they are about to cut off service. You can avoid this inconvenience, you are told, by sending payment in some untraceable way. People committing this scam have often gotten personal information from the Internet, Facebook, Instagram or other social media.

      If you think there is a slight chance your bill could have gotten lost, hang up and call your utility provider directly. Ask if your account is up to date. Ninety-nine times out of 100, it will be.

      Schneiderman says telephone scams are easy to avoid if you think of the telephone as a one-way street. It's okay to give out information over the phone if you made the call to a number you know and trust.

      Just don't give out personal information when you receive an unsolicited call. If you receive a call soliciting personal information, just hang up the phone, no matter what the caller ID says.

      Most of the recent discussion surrounding frauds and scams have dealt with online threats.While cyber attacks are very real and growing, it's easy to l...
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      Boston College basketball players sickened with E. coli symptoms

      Not yet linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill, even though they ate there

      Chipotle Mexican Grill has closed its restaurant at Cleveland Circle in Boston after a number of Boston College students who ate there got sick with E. coli-type symptoms.

      However, it isn't clear the illnesses are linked to food at the restaurant. The company issued a statement saying it closed the restaurant as a precaution as it works with local health officials, who are investigating.

      "We do not have any evidence to suggest that this incident is related the previous E. coli incident,” the statement said. “There are no confirmed cases of E. coli connected to Chipotle in Massachusetts."

      Various local Boston media outlets reported that several Boston College basketball players were among the 28 students who got sick, forcing them to miss last weekend's game against UMass Lowell.

      10th state?

      If the illness turns out to be linked to Chipotle, Massachusetts would become the 10th state where E. coli has been reported. At the end of last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) added seven more people to the number reportedly sickened in nine states. But the connection to the restaurant chain is less certain among the latest cases, as it is in the Massachusetts illnesses.

      Of the three most recent illnesses reported in November, only one ill person, whose illness started on November 10, reported eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill in the week before their illness began. The investigation is still ongoing to determine what specific food is linked to the illness.

      On Wall Street, investors have dumped Chipotle stock in recent sessions. The stock price fell 1.68% in Monday's trading, which ended before news of the Boston College illnesses broke. In after hours trading, Chipotle stock fell another 6.2%. The stock is down more than 28% from before the E. coli outbreak.

      Reeling since late October

      The restaurant chain has been reeling since late October, when E. coli illnesses were linked to restaurants in Washington and Oregon. On Friday the company issued a plan that it said committed it to become the industry leader in food safety.

      "While Chipotle’s food safety practices were already well within industry norms, I was asked to design a more robust food safety program to ensure the highest level of safety and the best quality of all meals served at Chipotle,” said Mansour Samadpour, Ph.D., CEO of IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group. “I am happy to report that our proposed program was adopted in its entirety, without any modification. While it is never possible to completely eliminate all risk, this program eliminates or mitigates risk to a level near zero, and will establish Chipotle as the industry leader in this area."

      Samadpour said work on the enhanced food safety program began immediately after outbreak reports surfaced at the end of October.

      Chipotle Mexican Grill has closed its restaurant at Cleveland Circle in Boston after a number of Boston College students who ate there got sick with E. col...
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      Little change in October in labor turnover

      Openings dipped slightly, while separations inched higher

      The Labor situation didn't change a whole lot from September to October.

      The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the number of job openings totaled 5.4 million during the month, compared with 5.5 million in September. Separations came in at 4.9 million versus 4.8 million a month earlier.

      Job openings

      The job openings rate was 3.6%, with the number of openings falling in professional and business services (-137,000) and in the West region (-132,000).

      The number of job openings (not seasonally adjusted) increased over the 12 months ending in October for total nonfarm, total private, and government. Openings rose over the year in health care and social assistance (+225,000), retail trade (+141,000), state and local government (+51,000), and federal government (+15,000).

      Job openings decreased over the year in finance and insurance (-55,000) and mining and logging (-17,000). The number of job openings increased over the year in three out of the four regions -- Northeast, South, and Midwest -- and was little changed in the West.

      Hires

      The number of hires was 5.1 million in October; there were 5.0 million in September. The hires rate was 3.6%. There was little change in the number of hires for total private and government in October and for number of hires in all industries. Hires increased in the West region over the month.

      Over the 12 months ending in October, the number of hires (not seasonally adjusted) was little changed for total nonfarm and total private, and increased for government. At the industry level, hires increased in state and local government (+33,000). The number of hires was little changed in all four regions over the year.

      Separations

      Total separations includes quits, layoffs, and discharges, among other separations. Total separations is referred to as turnover. Quits are generally voluntary separations initiated by the employee. Therefore, the quits rate can serve as a measure of workers’ willingness or ability to leave jobs.

      Layoffs and discharges are involuntary separations initiated by the employer. Other separations includes separations due to retirement, death, and disability, as well as transfers to other locations of the same firm.

      The total separations rate was 3.4%, with little change in the number of total separations in private industry, while it rose slightly for government. The number of total separations was essentially unchanged in all four regions.

      Quits

      There were 2.8 million quits in October, up 100,000 from September. The number of quits has held between 2.7 million and 2.8 million for the past 14 months, and the quits rate was unchanged in October, measuring 1.9% for the seventh consecutive month.

      The number of quits was little changed for total private industry and rose for government over the month. Quits rose in state and local government (+19,000) and nondurable goods manufacturing (+17,000), but fell in durable goods manufacturing (-15,000). Quits were little changed in all four regions over the month.

      The number of quits (not seasonally adjusted) was little changed over the 12 months ending in October for total nonfarm, total private, and government. Quits increased over the year in accommodation and food services (+58,000) and nondurable goods manufacturing (+26,000). In the regions, quits rose most in the Midwest.

      Layoffs and discharges

      There were 1.7 million layoffs and discharges in October, the same as September. The layoffs and discharges rate was 1.2%. The number of layoffs and discharges was little changed over the month for total private and edged up for government. Layoffs and discharges were little changed in all four regions.

      The number of layoffs and discharges (not seasonally adjusted) was little changed over the 12 months ending in October for total nonfarm and total private, and rose for government. The number of layoffs and discharges rose over the year in state and local government (+30,000) and mining and logging (+6,000). The number of layoffs and discharges fell over the year in professional and business services (-88,000) and transportation, warehousing, and utilities (-28,000). Layoffs and discharges fell in the Midwest over the year.

      Other separations

      In October, there were 414,000 other separations for total nonfarm, compared with 387,000 in September. Over the month, the number of other separations was little changed for total private at 338,000 and for government at 76,000.

      Over the 12 months ending in October, the number of other separations (not seasonally adjusted) was little changed for total nonfarm, total private, and government. Other separations increased over the year in finance and insurance (+22,000), information (+7,000), and federal government (+6,000). The number of other separations decreased over the year in wholesale trade (-19,000). Other separations were little changed in all four regions over the year.

      Net change in employment

      Large numbers of hires and separations occur every month throughout the business cycle. Net employment change results from the relationship between hires and separations. When the number of hires exceeds the number of separations, employment rises, even if the hires level is steady or declining.

      On the other hand, when the number of hires is less than the number of separations, employment declines, even if the hires level is steady or rising. Over the 12 months ending in October 2015, hires totaled 61.0 million and separations totaled 58.3 million, yielding a net employment gain of 2.7 million.

      These totals include workers who may have been hired and separated more than once during the year.

      The complete report is available on the BLS website.

      The Labor situation didn't change a whole lot from September to October.The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the number of job openings totaled 5.4 m...
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      Home sales and prices to rise in 2016

      CoreLogic is also forecasting a gradual increase in interest rates

      Demand for housing is expected to increase in the coming year, and, according to CoreLogic Chief Economist Dr. Frank Nothaft, that means home sales and prices will likely be on the rise.

      According to its 2016 Outlook for Housing, we can expect to see the following five things in next year's housing market:

      Higher interest rates: Homeowners who have adjustable-rate mortgages or home-equity loans will most likely see a rise in their interest rate because the Federal Reserve is expected to raise short-term interest rates approximately 1% between now and the end of 2016. Fixed-rate mortgages will also rise -- perhaps up 0.5% in the next year -- reaching 4.5% for 30-year loans. Despite this increase in interest rates, mortgage rates will remain historically low.

      Increased housing demand: More than 1.25 million new households will be formed in 2016 due to improvements in the labor market and lower unemployment rates. These new household formations will increase housing demand, specifically in the rental market.

      High demand for rental homes: Rental vacancy rates are at or near their lowest levels in 20 years, and rents are rising faster than inflation. High demand for rental homes -- both apartments and houses -- will likely continue in 2016, especially from new, young households.

      Increasing home sales and prices: Not only is the rental market hot, but overall purchase demand may lift 2016 home sales to the best year since 2007. Nationally, home prices will likely rise at a quicker rate than inflation, but not at the same rate as last year. The CoreLogic Home Price Index showed a year-over-year increase of 6% in the last 12 months; however, 2016 is only expected to see increases of 4-5%. These increases can be attributed to the improved economy, which has enhanced homeowners' feelings of financial security.

      Falling dollar volumes of single-family mortgage originations: The single-family mortgage origination decline will occur even though home equity lending is expected to rise and originations of home purchase loans will likely rise about 10% in volume next year. The growth in those two areas will be offset by a 34% drop in refinance, reflecting the higher mortgage rates and dwindling pool of borrowers with a strong financial incentive to refinance.

      While single-family mortgage originations are expected to fall, multifamily originations will likely rise. This gain reflects the higher property values and new construction that adds to permanent mortgage usage.

      "As we approach the start of 2016, the consensus view among economists is that economic growth will continue, and the U.S. will enter an eighth consecutive year of expansion in the second half of next year,” said Nothaft. “Most forecasts place growth at 2% and 3% during 2016, creating enough jobs to exert downward pressure on the national unemployment rate.”

      Demand for housing is expected to increase in the coming year, and, according to CoreLogic Chief Economist Dr. Frank Nothaft, that means home sales and pri...
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      Missouri AG suggests abusive debt collectors target minorities

      Seeks reforms to reduce "serial" debt collection lawsuits

      Aggressive and abusive debt collection practices persist, despite laws and court rulings affording debtors more protections.

      Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster says he's troubled by the fact that racial minorities appear more likely to be on the receiving end of these abuses. While it is impossible to determine who is getting the harassing phone calls, it is possible to tell who gets hauled into court.

      Koster says his state has witnessed a dramatic increase in debt-collection litigation in recent years. Charged-off debt, or debt that has been deemed uncollectable by a creditor, is often sold for pennies on the dollar. If the buyer is able to collect, the profit is huge.

      Serial law suits

      To collect the debt, Koster says these companies engage in what he calls the serial filing of debt-collection lawsuits in state court.

      Worse, he says these debt collectors file suit without bothering to find out whether a debt is even owed, what it was for, and how much it is. He says he has seen cases where the same companies sue for debts more than five or ten years old, even though the statute of limitation would normally preclude recovering a debt.

      Koster cites research which demonstrates that these litigation abuses disproportionately target racial minorities, creating “devastating long-term impacts for those who already struggle economically.”

      He says recent studies from ProPublica and other sources have shown that debt-collection lawsuits in Missouri have obtained judgments in communities with predominately minority neighborhoods.

      Missouri court takes a stand

      Earlier this year, a Jackson County, Mo., court took a firm stand on the issue of debt collectors suing consumers without finding out first if the debt was legitimate.

      Portfolio Recovery Associates LLC, one of the largest buyers of written-off debt in the U.S., tried to collect a $1,000 credit card debt from Maria Guadalupe Mejia, who insisted the debt wasn’t hers. She tried to explain that the person they were looking for was actually a man with a name that was similar, but not the same, as her name.

      In May, the judge threw out the debt collector's case, but not before the jury awarded Mejia damages of over $82 million. Despite that lesson, Gregg Lombardi, Executive Director of Legal Aid of Western Missouri, says the debt collection abuses persist.

      "Zombie debt collection agencies file thousands of cases in Missouri every year, and in virtually every one our attorneys see, they cannot prove their case in court,” Lombardi said. “They get default judgment after default judgment that they don't deserve by targeting low-income consumers who they know cannot afford to defend themselves. Then they are ruthless in collecting on those judgments.”

      Proposed reforms

      Koster has proposed reforms aimed at curbing abusive debt collection lawsuits in the state. He's proposed changes to state court rules that he said would end unscrupulous collection practices.

      The changes would require debt collectors to produce documentary proof of the debt, stop debt buyers from manipulating court procedures with stalling tactics, and strengthen the proof needed before creditors can recover for attorneys’ fees and litigation costs.

      Furthermore, consumers who want to reduce exposure to potential debt collector issues may consider consolidating their debt. Here is a link to our best debt consolidation companies resource.

      Aggressive and abusive debt collection practices persist, despite laws and court rulings affording debtors more protections.Missouri Attorney General C...
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      Feds tout benefits of CARD Act

      Still, the CFPB concedes concerns remain about some practices

      It's nice to know that every now and then a government action really does what it's supposed to do -- more or less. Case in point, the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act or CARD Act.

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has released a report that says the Act has helped reduce the cost of “gotcha” credit card fees by more than $16 billion. In fact since the reform law, total costs to consumers have fallen with the elimination of certain back-end pricing practices such as over-limit fees.

      In addition, the CFPB says credit has generally become more available to consumers and the number of new accounts has grown faster than in almost every other major consumer credit market.

      However, concerns remain about other back-end practices such as deferred-interest promotions that can hit consumers with unexpected costs.

      “The CARD Act has helped people avoid more than $16 billion in gotcha credit card fees,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “The law made it easier for consumers to evaluate costs and risks by eliminating the worst back-end pricing practices in the market. There is more work to do. But with commonsense rules in place, credit cards are safer and more affordable, credit is more available, and companies remain profitable with improved customer satisfaction.”

      Big business

      More than 60% of adults own at least one credit card account. In the first six months of 2015, more than 14.5 billion credit card transactions accounted for more than $1.4 trillion in purchase volume.

      Before the CARD Act, widespread back-end pricing practices racked up costs for consumers through hidden fees and other gotchas. The intent of the CARD Act was to create a fairer and more transparent market by protecting consumers against unexpected interest rate hikes, excessive late fees, and hard-to-avoid over-limit fees.

      The report finds that, generally, consumers are paying less for their credit cards than they did before the law, and those costs are easier to predict before they are incurred. In addition, credit availability has continued to expand for consumers. Specifically, the report found that since the CARD Act:

      • Consumers have avoided more than $9 billion in over-limit fees
      • Consumers have saved more than $7 billion in late fees
      • Total cost of credit is roughly 2% lower than before the CARD Act
      • Available credit has increased 10% since 2012
      • More than 100 million credit card accounts offer consumers free access to their credit scores

      Continued concerns

      While the CARD Act addressed many problematic practices in the market, the CFPB has outstanding areas of concern from the report, including:

      • Deferred-interest promotions that can hit consumers with back-end pricing
      • Subprime credit card companies charging much more for credit
      • Rewards programs containing obscure and incomplete terms and conditions
      • Debt collection practices that pose risks to consumers
      • Agreements that are still long and complex

      It's nice to know that every now and then a government action really does what it's supposed to do -- more or less. Case in point, the Credit Card Accounta...
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      Chipotle-linked E. coli outbreak spreads

      The CDC says 52 people infected with the outbreak strain of STEC O26 have been reported from nine states.

      Federal health officials say a foodborne illness outbreak linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants spread last week.

      The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said seven more people have been reportedly sickened in a total of nine states. But the connection to the restaurant chain is less certain among the latest cases.

      Of the three most recent illnesses reported in November, only one ill person, whose illness started on November 10, reported eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill in the week before their illness began. The investigation is still ongoing to determine what specific food is linked to illness.

      Illness reported in nine states

      The CDC says 52 people infected with the outbreak strain of STEC O26 have been reported from nine states. The majority of illnesses have been reported from Washington and Oregon during October 2015.

      The number of ill people reported from each state is as follows:

      • California (3)
      • Illinois (1)
      • Maryland (1)
      • Minnesota (2)
      • New York (1)
      • Ohio (3)
      • Oregon (13)
      • Pennsylvania (1)
      • Washington (27)

      Age one to 94

      The illnesses were first reported on October 19, 2015 and resulted in the temporary closure of a number of Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. The illness continued through November 13, 2015. The people who got sick range in age from one year to 94, with a median age of 21.

      Fifty-nine percent of people who got sick are female. Twenty people reported being hospitalized. There have been no reports of hemolytic uremic syndrome and no deaths.

      Of the most recent illnesses, only one victim reported eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill in the week before their illness began. But the CDC says 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.

      About 90% of the people who got sick reported eating at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant in the week before their illness started. However, the investigation has not identified what specific food is linked to illness.

      The CDC, along with state and local public health partners, are keeping up laboratory surveillance through PulseNet to identify additional ill persons and to interview them. The agency says consumers should contact a health care provider if they recently became ill with diarrheal symptoms after eating at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant.

      Federal health officials say a foodborne illness outbreak linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants spread last week.The U.S. Centers for Disease Co...
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      New construction may drive 2016's housing market

      Realtor.com sees strongest overall sales since 2006

      Despite the near-certainty of higher interest rates and a tight inventory of property, at least one housing forecast sees booming home sales next year – the highest since before the start of the Great Recession.

      But in its 2016 outlook, housing marketplace realtor.com says it expects most of the growth in sales to come from the new home market, which has been nearly dormant for years.

      Existing home sales and prices are expected to slow to 3% year-over-year due to higher mortgage rates, continuing tight credit standards, and lower affordability. But the new construction market is expected to see more significant gains in the coming year as new home starts increase 12% year-over-year and new home sales grow 16% over 2015.

      Total sales highest since 2006

      Home builders have been slow to start large developments in the wake of the housing crash, but realtor.com predicts total sales for existing and new homes will reach six million for the first time since 2006.

      The economy is expected to grow some 2.5% next year and continue to produce new jobs. On the downside, it's still hard to qualify for a mortgage and home prices continue to go up.

      "Next year's moderate gains in existing prices and sales, versus the accelerated growth we've seen in previous years, indicate that we are entering a normal, but healthy housing market," said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for realtor.com. "The improvements we've seen over the last few years have enabled a recovery in the existing home market, but we still need to make up ground in new construction, which we could begin to see in 2016.”

      Smoke says it will be the addition of new homes, some of which are currently in the planning phase, that will breath new life into a plodding housing market.

      Millennials, Gen-Xers and retirees

      Who is going to be buying these new homes? Smoke sees three groups as likely candidates – Millennials, younger Gen Xers, and retirees.

      Because of their number and critical place in household formation, Millennials are expected to drive housing demand next year. Currently, they make up about 30% of the existing home market. Smoke says they are seeing their incomes rise and will seek out homes that meet the needs of their growing families – putting the most weight on the safety of the neighborhood and the quality of the home.

      Realtor.com predicts Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Memphis, Boston, and Austin will be the top markets for Millennials in 2016.

      Moving up

      Young Gen Xers, who have also been a force in 2015's housing market, have rebounded from the financial crisis and are entering their prime family-raising and earning years. More than two-thirds of the buyers in this age group already own a home and will be looking to move up.

      Top markets for this group could be Atlanta, Denver, St. Louis, Charlotte, and Columbus, Ohio.

      Retirees are downsizing and will seek to lower their cost of living in 2016. Smoke says you can look for their current homes to hit the market in March or April. This group will be one of the largest buyers of new construction.

      Top markets for retirees might be Boston, Sacramento, San Diego, Sarasota, and Ft. Myers, Fla.

      Despite the near-certainty of higher interest rates and a tight inventory of property, at least one housing forecast sees booming home sales next year – th...
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      Ford Fusions and Mercury Milans recalled

      The fuel tank may crack and leak fuel

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 411,205 model year 2010-2011 Ford Fusions manufactured July 21, 2008, to March 4, 2011, and 2010-2011 Mercury Milans manufactured July 23, 2008, to December 10, 2010.

      The vehicles' fuel vapor canisters purge valves may not operate properly resulting in abnormal pressure changes in the fuel tank. The pressure changes may cause the tank to crack and leak fuel. A fuel leak in the presence of an ignition source increases the risk of a fire.

      Ford will notify owners, and dealers will update the vehicle powertrain control modules and inspect the vehicle for any diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs) for this issue and perform a leak test on the Canister Purge Valve (CPV). The fuel tank will be inspected for cracks. The CPV and fuel tank will be replaced as necessary. These repairs will be performed free of charge. The recall is expected to begin January 11, 2016.

      Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 15S34.

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 411,205 model year 2010-2011 Ford Fusions manufactured July 21, 2008, to March 4, 2011, and 2010-2011 Mercury Milans manufa...
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      Chrysler recalls Dodge Darts

      The vehicles could suffer a loss of brake assist

      Chrysler Group is recalling 105,458 model year 2013-2014 Dodge Darts manufactured February 27, 2012, to January 23, 2014, and equipped with either a 2.0L or 2.4L engine.

      Engine oil from the vacuum pump may seep into the brake booster, damaging a component within the brake booster.

      Internal damage to brake booster could result in a loss of brake assist, lengthening the distance needed to stop the vehicle and increasing the risk of a crash.

      Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the brake booster grommet for the presence of oil. If no oil is found, the vacuum tube assembly will be replaced.

      If oil is found, the vacuum pump, vacuum tube assembly, brake booster and master cylinder will be replaced.

      Parts are not currently available to remedy the vehicles. Owners will be sent an interim notification and then will be sent a second notice when remedy parts are available. 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 R63.

      Chrysler Group is recalling 105,458 model year 2013-2014 Dodge Darts manufactured February 27, 2012, to January 23, 2014, and equipped with either a 2.0L o...
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      Lipo Escultura recalled

      The weight loss dietary supplement contains sibutramine and diclofenac which are not listed on the label

      JAT Productos Naturales Corp., and JAT Natural Products Corp. of Brooklyn, N.Y., are recalling all Lipo Escultura.

      The weight loss dietary supplement contains sibutramine and diclofenac which are not listed on the label.

      Sibutramine is an appetite suppressant is a controlled substance that was removed from the market for safety reasons. It 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.

      Diclofenac is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (commonly referred to as NSAIDs). NSAIDS may cause increased risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attack and stroked, as well as serious gastrointestinal damage, including bleeding, ulceration, and fatal perforation of the stomach and intestines.

      One consumer illness has been reported.

      The recalled product is used as a weight loss dietary supplement and is packaged in a white plastic bottle with green and lime labeling with white capsules. It was sold/distributed nationwide on www.lipoesculturatreatment.com, through a retail store and a home office in Brooklyn.

      Customers should discontinue the use of this product immediately.

      Consumers with questions may contact Julio Tapia at (718) 415-2611 or (347) 867-9988 Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm (ET).

      JAT Productos Naturales Corp., and JAT Natural Products Corp. of Brooklyn, N.Y., are recalling all Lipo Escultura. The weight loss dietary suppleme...
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      Strong jobs report likely to result in higher interest rates

      Green light is flashing for Federal Reserve to finally take action

      The November jobs report, showing an increase of 211,000 new jobs during the month, is likely to have consequences – chief among them rising interest rates for just about everything.

      After repeatedly saying that a decision would be “data dependent,” it appears all but certain the Federal Reserve will vote to raise interest rates when it meets December 16. It would be the first interest rate hike in nine years.

      Over the last seven years the Fed has kept its benchmark Federal Funds Rate at 0% in an effort to spur economic growth. Despite the free money, growth has been weak, at best.

      If the Fed does, in fact, move on rates, it would signal a belief that the economy won't be hurt by the action. And no one expects more than a quarter of a percent move anyway.

      If the Fed raises once and lets several months pass before doing it again, consumers might not even notice any change in the rates on their charge cards or variable rate loans.

      Housing market could feel effects

      Mortgage rates, however, could be another story – not so much caused by the Fed raising interest rates but by what such an action means. If the Fed raises rates because it believes the labor market is getting stronger, then that effect will likely be felt in the housing market.

      “Job creation is a very important leading indicator of strong demand for housing,” said Jonathan Smoke, the chief economist at realtor.com. “The strong employment results for the last two years created an uptick in household formation, which drives demand for home purchases and rentals.”

      Demand could put some upward pressure on rates, though it shouldn't matter that much. Rates are still near all-time lows and at least two percentage points lower than at the peak of the housing boom.

      Homes getting more expensive

      Smoke says an analysis of November traffic on realtor.com suggests the residential real estate market continues to follow the normal seasonal decline in demand as we head into the New Year. The median listing price remained fairly constant over last month, down just 1% to $230,000, but up 7% year-over-year.

      Home prices are buoyed by a lack of available homes for sale. Should that trend continue into 2016, rising mortgage rates will be the least of homebuyers' concerns.

      Rather, it will be rising home prices, more competition, and sellers not as eager to accept the first offer they get.

      The November jobs report, showing an increase of 211,000 new jobs during the month, is likely to have consequences – chief among them rising interest rates...
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      Jobless rate holds steady as the economy adds 211,000 jobs

      Construction and health care added workers while mining and information lost them

      The economy cranked out 211,000 new jobs last month, but that didn't help the unemployment rate, which remained at 5.0% for a second straight month. Over the last 12 months, the jobless rate and the number of people out of work are down by 0.8% and 1.1 million, respectively.

      According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), construction, professional and technical services, and health added jobs, while mining and information saw them disappear.

      As it released the November report, BLS revised the October report to show the addition of 145,000 jobs -- 8,000 more than initially reported. October was changed also -- from 271,000 additions to 298,000.

      With these revisions, employment gains in September and October combined were 35,000 more than previously reported. Over the past three months, job gains have averaged 218,000 per month.

      The demographics

      Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men (4.7%), adult women (4.6%), teenagers (15.7%), whites (4.3%), blacks (9.4%), Asians (3.9%), and Hispanics (6.4%) showed little or no change last month.

      The number of people who have been without jobs for 27 weeks or more was little changed at 2.1 million in November and has shown little movement since June. They accounted for 25.7% of the unemployed last month.

      The civilian labor force participation rate inched higher (62.5% versus 62.4% in October), while the employment-population ratio was unchanged at 59.3% and has shown little movement since October 2014.

      Where the jobs are

      November's job growth occurred in construction (+46,000), professional and technical services (+28,000), health care (+24,000), food services and drinking places (+32,000), and retail trade (+31,000).

      Employment in mining  (-11,000) and information (-12,000) continued to decline in November. Other major industries -- including manufacturing, wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing, financial activities, and government -- were little-changed over the month.

      Average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by four cents -- to $25.25, following a nine cent gain in October. Over the year, average hourly earnings are up 2.3%.

      The full November employment report is available on the BLS website

      The economy cranked out 211,000 new jobs last month, but that didn't help the unemployment rate, which remained at 5.0% for a second straight month. Over t...
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      Cost Plus World Market recalls reading chairs

      The front leg on reading chairs sold without front leg support blocks can bend or break

      Cost Plus Management Services of Oakland, Calif., is recalling about 2,700 reading chairs.

      The front leg on reading chairs sold without front leg support blocks can bend or break, posing a fall hazard to the user.

      The company has received eight reports of front chair legs bending or breaking, including one report of an injury when a consumer fell out of the chair.

      This recall involves high-back upholstered reading chairs sold in a black and white floral print. The chairs are 37-inches tall by 30-inches wide, and have four wooden legs with the front two on casters. SKU number 473747 is printed on a UPC sticker affixed to the underside of the chair.

      The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Cost Plus World Market and World Market stores nationwide and online at www.worldmarket.com from January 2015, through September 2015, for about $300.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and inspect the front legs for support blocks. Chairs without support blocks can be returned to any Cost Plus World Market for a free exchange. Consumers should contact Cost Plus World Market or log onto www.worldmarket.com for instructions on how to inspect the chair legs for support blocks

      Consumers may contact Cost Plus World Market toll-free at 877-967-5362 from 7 a.m. to midnight (ET) daily or online at http://worldmarketcorp.com/assets/corporate_files/CPWM_Reading_Chair_Website_Sign.pdf for more information.

      Cost Plus Management Services of Oakland, Calif., is recalling about 2,700 reading chairs. The front leg on reading chairs sold without front leg s...
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      Gallup finds VW's reputation hard-hit by diesel scandal

      Three-quarters of respondents are familiar with the scandal

      Companies are often tempted to "sit out" scandals and other bouts of bad publicity, but Gallup finds that may not be possible for Volkswagen. Fully three quarters of respondents say they are familiar with the VW "dirty diesel" scandal that came to light in September.

      Not only is awareness high but consumers are taking it seriously. Four in 10 (41%) say VW's use of deceptive software to trick emissions testing equipment makes them less likely to buy a Volkswagen, while 29% say the news will have no impact on their future buying decisions. Another 28% said they would never have considered buying a Volkswagen in the first place. 

      When it comes to Volkswagen's reputation, the majority of consumers (69%) believe the emissions scandal will have a major or moderate impact on its brand, Gallup said.

      Gallup also asked respondents to use three words or short phrases to describe the Volkswagen brand. Based on a brand analysis, Gallup determined that Volkswagen's desired or projected brand could most accurately be described using words such as "reliable," "fun" and "environmentally friendly."

      But that message is no longer getting through. A mere 1.6% of respondents used these or other keywords that aligned with the Volkswagen brand, while 16% used words such as "dishonest," "liar" and "cheater" to describe the company's brand.

      Down but not out

      In Gallup's analysis, the VW brand is down but not out. It has a core group of customers who strongly believe in its brand.

      About seven in 10 fully engaged customers say the Volkswagen scandal has no impact on their decision to purchase from the brand (71%); only 37% of actively disengaged customers say the same. Instead, two-thirds of actively disengaged customers say that they are less likely to purchase a Volkswagen.

      Volkswagen's recovery will depend on rebuilding brand trust first with customers who are not fully engaged and then with new customers, Gallup analysts said.

      Legal challenges

      Besides the court of public opinion, VW faces an enormous number of competing lawsuits and regulatory actions. In New Orleans today, federal judges are trying to devise a strategy to speed things along. They're likely to consolidate most of the consumer cases and assign them to an appropriate court.

      There's not much legal controversy involved. Volkswagen has already admitted rigging its 2.0- and 3.0-liter diesel engines to produce artificially low emissions when hooked up to testing equipment. The only real issue is how consumers should be compensated for the reduced value of their cars and for punitive damages.

      The company has set aside about $20 billion to cover legal and recall costs. 

      Companies are often tempted to "sit out" scandals and other bouts of bad publicity, but Gallup finds that may not be possible for Volkswagen. Fully three q...
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      Consumers with RadioShack gift cards can now file claims

      Struggling retailer also adds Nick Cannon as Chief Creative Officer

      RadioShack may barely be breathing, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have to honor its gift cards.

      New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says consumers who have unused gift cards from RadioShack, which entered bankruptcy earlier this year, can now file claims to recover the unused balance.

      “Individuals who have unused balances on RadioShack gift cards may now apply to get their money back,” Schneiderman said. “When a company goes bankrupt, it is important that consumers are protected and this claims process will ensure just that.”

      To redeem the unused portion of a RadioShack gift card, go to OldRadioShackGiftCards.com to obtain a claim form that can be submitted electronically or by mail.

      Bankruptcy court approved

      The claims process was the outgrowth of action by 24 states and the District of Columbia that won approval from the U.S. Bankruptcy court in Wilmington, Del., in September. All U.S. consumers have until December 2 of next year to file a claim.

      Schneiderman has raised a concern about a likely scam that could grow out of this arrangement. He cautions consumers that no one associated with this settlement will contact them to ask for personal or financial information or to request any payment. Consumers asked for such information or payment, he says, should say no to those requests.

      Harnessing some star power

      Meanwhile, the beleaguered electronics retailer has announced that it has landed TV personality Nick Caannon as RadioShack's Chief Creative Officer. The company says Cannon will play an active role in the development of RadioShack-exclusive products as well as helping to further transform the retailer.

      RadioShack said it will also turn to Cannon to help the company continue to grow its educational and S.T.E.M (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives nationwide. He will maintain an office at RadioShack headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.

      "RadioShack is a brand that matters," Cannon said. "As a kid, spending time in my neighborhood RadioShack was invaluable. The maker mentality and educational approach taught me a lot and encouraged me to explore my own creativity.”

      RadioShack may barely be breathing, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have to honor its gift cards.New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says cons...
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      Fresh produce the leading cause of food-borne illness

      But pound for pound, many other foods are more dangerous

      The good thing about fresh produce is that it's healthy, low in calories, and easy to prepare. The bad thing about it is that it's often eaten raw and can therefore be contaminated with infectious agents.

      In fact, the Center for Science in the Public Interest looked at outbreaks of foodborne illness over the past ten years and found that fresh produce caused 629 outbreaks, making about 20,000 people sick, more than any other food category. 

      However, CSPI says that's no reason to stop eating fruits and vegetables. 

      “You are twice as likely to get sick from eating a serving of chicken as from eating a serving of vegetables,” said CSPI senior food safety attorney David Plunkett, co-author of the report.  “The data support improving the safety of our produce supply but don’t support eating less fruits and vegetables, which provide valuable nutrients.”

      CSPI found that seafood is the second leading cause of outbreaks, but because the number of people sickened in any one outbreak is small, it caused fewer illnesses than most foods. Measured on a pound-for-pound basis, however, seafood remains the leading cause of foodborne illness.

      9,629 outbreaks

      Over the period studied, there was a total of 193,754 illnesses reported from 9,626 outbreaks. An outbreak is defined as two or more cases of a similar illness caused by the same food source. Out of the total number of reported outbreaks, the CDC was able to identify both the food source and contaminant in less than 40 percent. CSPI only reviewed those 3,485 “solved” outbreaks.

      Poultry caused more outbreaks and illnesses than either beef or pork.

      Most outbreaks (1,283) began in restaurants, but their average size per outbreak is smaller than outbreaks that occurred in group settings such as catered events, churches, schools and prisons where large numbers of people are eating the same food.

      The study found the foodborne illness surveillance system is improving, but more needs to be done, Plunkett said. Illnesses caused by cilantro contaminated with the intestinal parasite Cyclospora illustrate the problem. It took three years of outbreaks before investigators found the source—cilantro grown in Mexican fields that were littered with toilet paper and human feces.

      “Far too many outbreaks are not getting solved quickly or are going unsolved altogether, thereby forgoing opportunities to implement corrective measures,” Plunkett said. “We need a better surveillance system.”

      The full report is available online

      The good thing about fresh produce is that it's healthy, low in calories, and easy to prepare. The bad thing about it is that it's often eaten raw and can...
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      Ersatz Yellow Pages business fined $1.2 million

      Canadian company scammed U.S. businesses, non-profits

      A U.S. federal district court has banned a Montreal company from continuing to operate an alleged business directory scam that the Federal Trade Commission says preyed on small U.S. businesses and non-profits. 

      The FTC charged in March that the defendants, Ivan Chernev, German Lebedev, and their companies, billed small businesses and nonprofits in the United States for unwanted listings in supposed online Yellow Pages business directories.

      The court halted the operation and froze the defendants’ assets pending litigation. The defendants did not respond to the FTC’s allegations and the court has entered a default judgment and order against them.

      Using a variety of business names, the defendants sent medical practices, churches, and retirement homes unsolicited invoices with the familiar “walking fingers” image, seeking $480.95 or a similar amount for a one-year directory listing. When consumers ignored the invoices, the defendants sent collection warnings demanding payment of more than $2,000. When consumers still refused to pay, the defendants sent dunning notices, posing as a third-party debt collector.

      Court order

      The court order prohibits the defendants from misrepresenting material facts about any product or service, profiting from customers’ personal information and failing to dispose of it properly, and trying to collect payments for any business directory listings. The $1.2 million judgment imposed by the order must be paid within seven days.

      The defendants are American Yellow Browser Inc.; American Yellow Group Inc.; Distribution H.E.P. Inc., also doing business as American Yellow Distribution and Medical Yellow Directories Inc.; Official Yellow Guide Inc.; Publication A.A.P. Inc., also d/b/a All American Pages and Official Yellow Guide; Publication A.Y.B. Inc., also d/b/a American Yellow Browser Inc., American Yellow Group Inc., and All American Pages Inc.; Publications A.Y.D. Inc.; Ivan Chernev, also d/b/a American Yellow Corporation Inc., General Credit Protection Inc., and Credit Bureau Recovery; and German Lebedev, also d/b/a American Yellow Directories Inc.

      The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, entered a default judgment and order against the defendants on November 20, 2015.

      A U.S. federal district court has banned a Montreal company from continuing to operate an alleged business directory scam that the Federal Trade Commission...
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      Estimated 400,000 drones to be sold during the holidays

      What you should know before unwrapping yours and launching it

      The skies over the U.S. are about to get a lot more crowded, and not with conventional aircraft.

      The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) predicts that 2015 will be a defining year for drones in the U.S. It forecasts that 400,000 consumer drones will be sold this holiday season.

      That's a scary thought for some, considering there's a news report every other week about a drone going rouge and crashing into a car, the neighbor's dog, and even the White House lawn.

      The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which traditionally is focused on keeping commercial airliners in the sky, finds that it must now deal with these thousands of small, hovering craft piloted by unlicensed consumers.

      Drone task force

      In response, the FAA has appointed a special task force to guide development of regulations to govern this exploding technology. Douglas Johnson, vice president of technology policy at CTA, is a member of the task force.

      "Collaboration and innovation contribute to the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems in the national airspace,” Johnson said. “CTA and several other organizations continue to support the Know Before You Fly consumer safety campaign encouraging responsible use of drones.”

      Know Before You Fly is the FAA's attempt to get a handle on the situation, providing largely novice pilots with basic information for the safe operation of their craft. The campaign asked pilots to:

      • Keep their aircraft below 400 feet
      • Fly with local clubs
      • Inspect aircraft before takeoff, to make sure it doesn't crash
      • Consider taking a lesson before take-off
      • Keep aircraft away from airports or stadiums
      • Don't let the aircraft get out of sight

      Don't go pro

      Drone owners are also reminded that they must preserve their amateur status. They are not to fly for payment, or for any commercial purpose, without permission from the FAA.

      "This is a crucial time for public policy concerning drones,” Johnson said. “For the U.S. to stay competitive, and for drone-related businesses and startups to thrive, we need regulatory as well as non-regulatory solutions that support both safety and innovation.”

      In the end, policymakers see drones becoming an economic force, not a passing consumer fad. With Amazon.com seriously contemplating drone delivery of packages, it's serious business for government and industry.

      “Pretty much everyone in this industry is looking forward to having the regulatory environment set in stone,” Romeo Durscher, Senior Executive at DJI Global, a drone manufacturer, told CNBC. “We're excited the FAA has realized the importance of this technology and all the possible applications that can come from it. Hopefully by the middle of 2016 we'll have those final regulations in place for commercial use of this technology.”

      Meanwhile, DJI has introduced a new geofencing system featuring continually updated airspace information, giving drone pilots up-to-date guidance on locations where flight may be restricted by regulation or raise safety concerns.

      For the first time, the company says drone operators will have, at the time of flight, access to live information on temporary flight restrictions due to forest fires, major stadium events, VIP travel, and other changing circumstances.

      The skies over the U.S. are about to get a lot more crowded, and not with conventional aircraft.The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) predicts that...
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      Non-manufacturing sector continues its growth

      However, the rate in November was a bit slower than in the previous month

      Another month of growth for the economy's non-manufacturing sector, although the pace was not as robust as we saw the month before.

      The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) says in its latest Non-Manufacturing Report On Business that the non-manufacturing index (NMI) registered 55.9% in November, down 3.2% from the October reading. Still, It was the 77th consecutive month of growth by the sector.

      A reading above 50 indicates the sector is expanding; below 50 suggests contraction.

      The Non-Manufacturing Business Activity Index was down 4.8% to 58.2%, but still reflects growth for the 76th consecutive month. The New Orders Index came in at 57.5, down 4.5%. The Employment Index, however, was down 4.2% to 55%, but still grew for the 21st consecutive month.

      Industry performance

      The 12 non-manufacturing industries reporting growth in November -- listed in order -- were:

      1. Real Estate, Rental & Leasing;
      2. Information;
      3. Retail Trade;
      4. Health Care & Social Assistance;
      5. Accommodation & Food Services;
      6. Transportation & Warehousing;
      7. Finance & Insurance;
      8. Professional, Scientific & Technical Services;
      9. Management of Companies & Support Services;
      10. Construction;
      11. Educational Services; and
      12. Public Administration.

      The six industries reporting contraction in November -- in order -- were:

      1. Mining;
      2. Arts, Entertainment & Recreation;
      3. Wholesale Trade;
      4. Utilities;
      5. Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing & Hunting; and
      6. Other Services.

      Jobless claims

      There was an uptick in initial jobless claims during the holiday-shortened week ending November 28.

      According to the Department of Labor (DOL), a seasonally adjusted 269,000 people filed applications for the first time for state unemployment benefits, an increase of 9,000 from the previous week's unrevised level. Officials say there were no special factors affecting the tally.

      The four-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly accounting and considered a better barometer of the labor market, was down 1,750 from the week before to 269,250, the lowest level in nearly 15 years.

      The complete report is available on the DOL website.

      Another month of growth for the economy's non-manufacturing sector, although the pace was not as robust as we saw the month before....
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      Job cut total drops to lowest level in more than a year

      But this could still be the worst year since '09

      Finally -- a break.

      Planned job cuts in November fell to their lowest level in 14 months following a four-month stretch that saw more than a quarter of a million payroll positions disappear.

      Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports that corporate America announced workforce reductions totaling 30,953 in November -- down 39% from October and 14% from November 2014, when 35,940 job cuts were reported.

      The November figure represents the smallest job-cut month since September 2014 when 30,477 terminations were announced, and comes on the heels of a four-month period during which 256,263 job cuts were recorded.

      So far this year, employers have handed out 574,888 pink slips, 28% more than the 450,531 through November 2014. Job cuts for the year are on pace to be the heaviest since 2009, when 1,272,030 workers were canned.

      “The fourth quarter tends to experience heavier cuts, as employers make year-end adjustments to workforce levels in order achieve earnings goals,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “The November decline could be the quiet before a December storm or it could signal a lower-than-expected downsizing to close out the year. If recent history is any indication, it could be the latter, as December job cuts have been lower than the annual average since the end of the recession.”

      The oil patch takes a breather

      While oil-related job cuts have dominated the headlines this year, they accounted for just 1,355 last month, the fewest since June.

      Industrial goods ranked as the top job-cutting industry in November, with firms in the sector announcing 7,398 planned firings -- up 109% from October. Industrial goods firms have announced 54,845 job cuts so far this year, putting them fourth behind energy, government, and retail.

      In 2008, employers announced 166,348 job cuts in December, the second highest job-cut month of that year. However, beginning in 2009, December job cuts have averaged just 35,784.

      Challenger points out that overall, the U.S. economy is fairly strong. “The increase in job cuts this year is due to a handful of industries. In fact, of the 28 sectors we track, more than half have experienced a year-over-year decline in job cuts. “Unfortunately,” he concludes, “five sectors have seen job cuts more than double. Job cuts in the energy sector have increased a staggering 708% from a year ago.”

      Finally -- a break. Planned job cuts in November fell to their lowest level in 14 months following a four-month stretch that saw more than a quarter of ...
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      Felt Bicycles recalls mountain bikes with OEM carbon fiber seatposts

      The carbon seat post originally sold with the bicycle can crack and break

      Felt Bicycles of Irvine, Calif., is recalling about 645 mountain bicycles.

      The carbon seat post originally sold with the bicycle can crack and break, posing injury and fall hazards to the rider.

      The company has received 10 reports of the seat post cracking. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves all model year 2015 Felt Double Double 30, NINEe 20 and Edict 1 mountain bicycles. The bicycles were sold with carbon fiber seat posts.

      The model name is printed on the top tube of the bicycles. The Felt logo is on the down tube of the Double Double 30 and the NINEe20, and on the top tube of the Edict 1.

      The Double Double 30 was sold in the color blue. The NINEe 20 was sold in a gray and orange color scheme. The Edict 1 was sold in a black and blue color scheme.

      The bicycles, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at bicycle specialty stores nationwide from August 2014, through September 2015, for between $2,000 and $5,500.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and contact their local Felt Bicycles dealer for a free inspection and seat post replacement.

      Consumers may contact Felt Bicycles toll-free at 866-433-5887 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (PT) Monday through Friday or online at http://www.feltbicycles.com/USA.aspx and click on “Notices” for more information.

      Felt Bicycles of Irvine, Calif., is recalling about 645 mountain bicycles. The carbon seat post originally sold with the bicycle can crack and brea...
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      Scientists: losing weight can reverse type-2 diabetes

      Removing one gram of fat from the pancreas is apparently the key

      In the last decade there has been an explosion in the number of type 2 diabetes cases, coinciding with a massive rise in obesity.

      The disease is a long-term condition caused by too much glucose, a type of sugar, in the blood.

      Now, researchers at Newcastle University in the UK say they have found a simple way to reverse it; lose weight.

      After a small trial, the scientists have concluded that reducing the amount of fat around the pancreas in type 2 diabetes patients returns organ functions to normal. They say this shows that the excess fat in the diabetic pancreas is specific to type 2 diabetes and important in preventing insulin from being made.

      When that excess fat is removed, insulin secretion increases to normal levels. In other words, they were diabetes free.

      Previous research

      This isn't the first study to suggest weight loss might reverse type 2 diabetes. Last year, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic found that bariatric surgery – reducing the size of the stomach so the patient loses weight – appeared to be effective in reversing diabetes.

      Meanwhile, like most chronic diseases, type 2 diabetes is treated with drugs, including the newly approved Jardiance.

      Roy Taylor, a professor at Newcastle University, says losing weight simply helps patients with type 2 diabetes drain excess fat out of the pancreas, and that allows function to return to normal.

      One gram of pancreas fat

      “So if you ask how much weight you need to lose to make your diabetes go away, the answer is one gram. But that gram needs to be fat from the pancreas,” Taylor said. “At present the only way we have to achieve this is by calorie restriction by any means – whether by diet or an operation.”

      In the trial, type 2 diabetes patients saw the fat levels in their pancreas decrease by as much as 1.2% over eight weeks. With an average pancreas for a person with Type 2 diabetes having a volume of 50 ml, this is the equivalent of around 0.6 grams of fat.

      The patients who had never had diabetes experienced no change in the level of fat in their pancreas. That told the scientists that the increase in fat in the pancreas is specific to people who develop type 2 diabetes.

      The fat in the pancreas may, in fact, be a trigger for the disease, and individuals vary in how much fat they can tolerate in the pancreas before type 2 diabetes develops.

      What to do

      Taylor says the research may transform the thinking about type 2 diabetes and its treatment.

      Keep in mind, this is a report of research findings. It should not be used by patients to make unilateral decisions about their care or to start or stop prescribed medications.

      If you have concerns about type 2 diabetes treatments, you should discuss them with your doctor, mentioning this study. 

      In the last decade there has been an explosion in the number of type 2 diabetes cases, coinciding with a massive rise in obesity.The disease is a long-...
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      Hillary Clinton proposes more and faster broadband

      Her plan trails that of challenger Bernie Sanders, however

      Hillary Clinton today unveiled a five-year, $275 billion "infrastructure" plan that would, among other things, offer faster broadband connections to millions. The plan is somewhat short on specifics, but basically pledges to do what federal agencies have already called for.

      The other things in the plan -- roads, bridges, etc. -- are by no means minor and it's not clear how much money would go to broadband and how much would go to more concrete infrastructure items. On Capitol Hill, after all, "infrastructure" is widely understood to mean asphalt and concrete. 

      Not that anyone over at the roads and bridges depot was jumping for joy at Clinton's plan. Brian Pallasch, chief lobbyist for the Society of Civil Engineers, called it "a promising step in the right direction" but added: “Most of these plans are constrained by our ability to raise revenue. This one is probably no different than that.”

      Redefine it

      Everyone admits, of course, that something needs to be done about broadband. The Federal Communications Commission took the first step earlier this year when it changed the definition of broadband, raising the minimum download speed from 4Mbps to 25Mbps and the minimum upload speed from 1Mbps to 3Mbps. Approximately 20% of Americans’ connections do not meet that standard.

      There are those who argue that the FCC is on the right track. By redefining broadband, it puts the onus on Internet providers to speed things up, sparing taxpayers the expense of building bigger pipes. As for expanding broadband to unserved rural areas, that is the kind of thing that is often financed by a "universal access" tax on existing users.

      Nevertheless, affordable broadband has become one of those things candidates feel obligated to promise they'll provide.  

      "High-speed internet access is not a luxury; it is a necessity for equal opportunity and social mobility in a 21st century economy," Clinton’s plan says.

      Competing plans

      Clinton's most prominent opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders, previously proposed a more ambitious $1 trillion plan that includes $5 billion a year to expand broadband networks in unserved and underserved areas.

      Sanders' critics -- and even his allies -- have noted, however, that just where that $1 trillion would come from is an open question. Unless the Democrats can clean house and regain control of Congress -- an unlikely prospect -- there's not likely to be that kind of money readily available. 

      Clinton said she would pay for her plan through "business tax reform," but didn't specify just what that might entail or how she would get it through Congress. The easiest way to please the bridge and tunnel crowd is to raise the gas tax, something no one has had the nerve to do for 22 years and Clinton isn't proposing it either. 

      Trump Broadband?

      GOP front-runner Donald Trump has not yet outlined a broadband plan but his presumably will be bigger and faster than anything anyone has ever seen.

      And, lest we forget wireless service, Clinton's plan also calls for “fostering the evolution from 4G wireless networks to 5G networks and other next-generation systems,” which she said will be needed to support connected devices, smart factories, and driverless cars. 

      Clinton's campaign said her plan would put the U.S. on a par with China and other countries that have pulled ahead in the broadband race.

      Hillary Clinton today unveiled a five-year, $275 billion "infrastructure" plan that would, among other things, offer faster broadband connections to millio...
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      Rips in your luggage after a flight? The airline has to pay

      Government reminds airlines of their responsibility

      Amid the many complaints about air travel, consumers often report that their luggage looks like it's taken a side trip through a war zone when it arrives on the baggage claim conveyor belt.

      Should this happen to you, remember that it is the airline's responsibility to get your bag to your destination without tearing it up.

      The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) recently issued a notice reminding airlines of this fact. Airlines, the government says, have to compensate passengers for damage to wheels, straps, zippers, handles, and other protruding parts of checked baggage beyond normal wear and tear.

      The government's notice also stresses that airlines are required to accept consumers' reports of mishandled bags, even if the agent doesn't think the airline is liable.

      Inspection results

      The DOT issued the reminder late last month after it said recent airport inspections discovered that airlines were denying claims, based on the parts of the luggage that showed damage.

      “These inspections demonstrate the department’s commitment to protecting consumers when they travel by air,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “While we are proud of the progress we’ve made so far, we will continue to strengthen how we monitor and enforce compliance with air travel consumer protection and civil rights rules.”

      The inspection took place at 16 U.S. airports in September. Federal inspectors said they found some airlines were refusing to accept reports from consumers when they complained about damage to their luggage while it was in the airlines' care.

      Common complaint

      At ConsumerAffairs, we hear from many airline passengers who have experienced damaged bags at the hands of airline baggage handlers. Just about every airline in our database has at least one horror story about damaged bags.

      Last week's reminder to the airlines informed the companies – which are enjoying record profits, thanks in part to baggage fees – that they will face enforcement action if they aren't in compliance with DOT rules by January 9.

      Amid the many complaints about air travel, consumers often report that their luggage looks like it's taken a side trip through a war zone when it arrives o...
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      Mortgage applications fall during holiday week

      Contract interest rates were mixed

      Mortgage applications dipped last week as consumers took a day off to observe Thanksgiving.

      According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications were down 0.2% in the week ending November 27.

      The Refinance Index plunged 6% from the previous week, sending the refinance share of mortgage activity down 2.1% -- to 56.6% of total applications.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was 6.1% of total applications; the FHA share fell to 13.2% from 13.7% the week prior; the VA share inched up 0.3% from the previous week to 11.3%; and the USDA share of total applications was unchanged at 0.7%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) slipped two basis points -- to 4.12% from 4.14%, with points increasing to 0.50 from 0.49 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) was unchanged at 3.99%, with points rising to 0.33 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 rose to 3.89% from 3.87%, with points unchanged at 0.49 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs fell three basis points to 3.36%, with points increasing to 0.44 from 0.43 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs dropped from 3.19% to 3.11%, with points rising to 0.44 from 0.38 (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.  

      Mortgage applications dipped last week as consumers took a day off to observe Thanksgiving.According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly...
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      Virgin America traveler gets barred from his flight

      The reason? The flight crew said that they "didn't feel comfortable" having him on board

      Many of us have had less than stellar experiences at the airport. After all of the long lines, changing gates, and hoops to jump through, it can be even more frustrating if you don't even manage to get on your flight. That is the story of one traveler who missed his flight, not because of a cancellation, but because the flight crew and captain would not let him on the plane.

      The traveler, Robert B. Abtahi, is a prominent Texas lawyer, the vice-chair of the Dallas Plan Commission and, perhaps not coincidentally an Irani-American. He was trying to board his Virgin America flight to Dallas from LaGuardia Airport when the gate agent told him that the crew did not “feel comfortable” having him aboard.

      The reason for these feelings? Apparently, Abtahi had cut off one of the flight attendants earlier that day while entering the airport through a revolving door.

      “[The gate agent] said I cut in front of a flight attendant on my way inside the airport and that they didn't feel comfortable with me on the flight,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “I said if that was the case then I would apologize. She went back on the phone and said I wasn't allowed on the flight.”

      A "misunderstanding"

      The decision to keep passengers off of a flight ultimately rests with the captain, so the traveler did end up missing his flight. In the end, he was able to travel back home on an American Airlines flight.

      Although Virgin America has not officially explained why the passenger was kept off his flight, the company says it's sorry the event happened, calling it a “misunderstanding.” The company has offered Abtahi two free flights and said it is willing to reimburse him for the American Airlines ticket that he purchased.

      Instead, Abtahi asked Virgin to donate the two free tickets to the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, which aids refugees fleeing persecution. He told the Dallas Morning News that all he had wanted was an apology and that he doesn't “like the idea of throwing freebies at the problem.”  

      Travelers react

      Not only did a few freebies not make Abtahi happy, the whole affair turned off at least one frequent flyer who wrote to us about the incident.

      "I fly about 75K a year, mostly with United out of SFO. I have been considering switching, perhaps to Virgin America. But I follow a simple rule. If a company does stupid things, and they get caught in the media, then I don't do business with them," said Nadia, a ConsumerAffairs reader who asked that we not use her full name.

      "The fact that a Virgin employee could extract 'revenge' against a random customer in the name of security and that employee keeps his/her job is in my view a stupid thing," Nadia said. "Won't be considering Virgin America anytime soon now."

      Many of us have had less than stellar experiences at the airport. After all of the long lines, changing gates, and hoops to jump through, it can be even mo...
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      2016 likely to hold more dangerous data breaches

      Consumers could be collateral damage in cyber war

      This year has been marked by a series of serious data breaches, exposing the personal information of millions of U.S. consumers.

      One of the most serious was reported in October, when hackers broke into an Experian system and gained access to confidential information about 15 million consumers who had applied for credit at T-Mobile.

      Experian Data Breach Resolution has surveyed the landscape and offered predictions for what 2016 holds in terms of keeping consumer data secure. While some current issues remain relevant, there are a few emerging areas that organizations should watch out for to be better prepared.

      Making major mistakes

      "We saw different types of breaches this year, and one of the major mistakes companies often make is taking a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Michael Bruemmer, vice president at Experian Data Breach Resolution. “Unfortunately, the reality is that no data breach is the same, and a wide variety of unique circumstances need to be considered in a data breach response plan."

      One of the trends Experian foresees is the escalation of cyber-attacks among nations. When that happens, consumers and businesses tend to become collateral damage.

      As nation-states continue to move their conflicts and espionage efforts to the digital world, the company predicts there will be more incidents aimed at stealing corporate and government secrets or disrupting military operations.

      When that happens, one of the risks is exposure of information about millions of individuals. On the other hand, business data might be compromised more in 2016, or we could see an increase in large public-sector data breaches that expose millions of personal records.

      New-age warfare

      "This is new-age warfare and, as individuals, we need to pick up the pieces if we have been affected and our personal information has been exposed," said Bruemmer. "The public should not be complacent about identity protection. It's important to practice good security habits on an ongoing basis and monitor accounts frequently to catch fraud early."

      Experian Data Breach Resolution also predicts hackers with a political or ideological agenda will become more active, trying to damage the repuation of a company or cause. There have already been a few over the last couple of years.

      These hackers aren't in it for the money, meaning companies must revise their response plans and consider all possible scenarios.

      "This was the new twist to the data breach landscape in 2015, with thieves leveraging stolen data to embarrass or harm companies," said Bruemmer. "Unfortunately, consumers are the pawns in the game, and they are victimized in the process.”

      Personal harm or embarrassment

      Being associated with the organization under attack, consumers may also suffer personal harm or embarrassment if their information is exposed. If an organization has a polarizing or controversial mission, it should consider this scenario and how it will take care of its constituency should a breach occur, Bruemmer said.

      And that leads us to the 2016 presidential race. Bruemmer says political campaigns are likely to be tempting hacking targets.

      "For a fame-hungry criminal or motivated detractor, this is an attractive platform,” Bruemmer said.

      Bruemmer says all candidates, parties, and organizations had better be prepared by securing their systems and having incident response plans in place.

      This year has been marked by a series of serious data breaches, exposing the personal information of millions of U.S. consumers.One of the most serious...
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      Cascara: the intersection of coffee and tea

      An eco-friendly beverage made from coffee waste

      In the specialty coffee world, there's a new kid on the block: Cascara.

      Also known as “coffee cherry tea,” Cascara (which means “husk,” “peel” or “skin” in Spanish) is made from the dried skins of coffee cherries. The pulped skins are collected after the seeds have been removed from the cherries, then shipped off after sun-drying.

      Similar drinks – called quishr or hashara – have long been brewed in Yemen and Ethiopia. But Aida Batlle, a fifth-generation coffee grower in El Salvador, is to thank for bringing the beverage state-side.

      At a coffee cupping a decade ago, she detected a pleasant scent emanating from the husks of some recently milled coffee. “Immediately I got curious with it,” says Batlle, in an interview with NPR. “And I just picked through it, cleaned it, and then put it in hot water to see what it was like. Then I called my customers at the time, and I was like, 'Oh, my God you have to try this. I'm going to send you a sample.”

      Coffee, tea, or both?

      Although it comes from the coffee plant, Cascara doesn't taste anything like coffee. It is often described as having a sweet, fruity, hibiscus-like taste. "It's a tropical, berry fruit that just happens to be coffee," says Megan Wood, co-owner of 44 North Coffee Roasters. "It's not tea – it's 100 percent coffee. But it smells like herbal tea.”

      The caffeine content is also pretty low. One analysis found the caffeine content in cascara to be comparable to black tea. “Even at the strongest, longest brew, the caffeine content of cascara comes in 111.4 mg/L, compared to broad range of about 400-800 mg/L in brewed coffee,” explains Square Mile Coffee Blog co-founder Anette Moldvaer.

      It's eco-friendly

      Cascara has made fans in the sustainability community because of its eco-friendly method of production. “Normally coffee cherries are considered a by-product of the coffee-making process and are either discarded as waste or used as compost. Now these cherries are being reused to produce a unique drink of their own,” says Fresh Cup Magazine.

      While cascara currently occupies a fairly small niche in the coffee world (some may still find it difficult to track down), Peter Giuliano of the Specialty Coffee Association of America says it fits into a bigger food trend.

      “Like in butchery, people are interested in eating the whole animal. In food, people are more and more interested in eating the whole farm, so to speak. We have been throwing away perfectly good coffee fruit for a long time, and there's no real reason for it, because it tastes delicious.”

      Since it's still fairly new to the U.S., there is no exact recipe for brewing the perfect cup – cafés across the globe have been getting creative. Some serve it hot, some serve it cold. “Cascara Fizz” is offered at New England's Blue State Coffee, as well as the Blue Bottle Café in both New York and California. Slipstream in Washington, D.C., serves it as a soda.

      In the specialty coffee world, there's a new kid on the block: Cascara.Also known as “coffee cherry tea,” Cascara (which means “husk,” “peel” or “skin”...
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      Planet Fitness drops free tanning from promotional package

      New York attorney general wins agreement for better staff training

      In its marketing for its premier Black Card level membership, Planet Fitness will no longer include “unlimited” tanning.

      That's the result of an agreement late last month with the New York Attorney General's office, which investigated the tanning operations at the 98 Planet Fitness gyms in the state.

      The company and its franchisees also agreed to provide adequate training to employees who oversee indoor tanning services and not to make health-related claims to promote red lamp devices. The company also agreed to pay $50,000 in costs and penalties.

      “This agreement is part of a continuing effort to protect consumers from the documented skin cancer risks of indoor tanning,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “I am especially concerned with rising cancer rates associated with indoor tanning, particularly for young people, and businesses that offer indoor tanning should market their services truthfully.”

      Raises cancer risks

      Schneiderman says indoor tanning increases the risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer – which is responsible for 9,000 deaths in the United States each year. Indoor tanning has also been linked to the risk of other skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. While usually not fatal, these cancers can cause noticeable disfigurement.

      Schneiderman says UV exposure can also harm the immune system and cause premature skin aging. New York State tanning law currently prohibits tanning for children under 17 and requires parental consent for children between the ages of 17 and 18.

      Investigators from Schneiderman's office visited several Planet Fitness franchise locations that offer tanning services and reported numerous violations of New York State tanning laws. Alleged violations included failure to provide required warnings and acknowledgment forms to consumers and failure to provide protective eyewear at no additional cost.

      Red light devices

      A number of Planet Fitness locations offered LED or red light Beauty Angel treatments that were advertised as providing various health related benefits. However, Schneiderman says these red lamp devices are approved only for cosmetic purposes by the FDA.

      Planet Fitness and its franchised locations have stopped promoting red lights for medical or health benefits after being notified of its potentially false and misleading advertising of these services.

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees that indoor tanning is dangerous, especially to young people.

      “Although indoor tanning devices operate on a timer, the exposure to UV rays can vary based on the age and type of light bulbs,” the agency said. “Indoor tanning is designed to give you high levels of UV radiation in a short time. You can get a burn from tanning indoors, and even a tan indicates damage to your skin.”

      A 2014 study led by California medical researchers estimated that more than 400,000 cases of skin cancer may be related to indoor tanning in the U.S. each year, causing 245,000 basal cell carcinomas, 168,000 squamous cell carcinomas, and 6,000 melanomas.  

      In its marketing for its premier Black Card level membership, Planet Fitness will no longer include “unlimited” tanning.That's the result of an agreeme...
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      Elevated breast cancer risk for African American women using hormone supplements

      The overall increase in risk was as high as 50% in one study

      African American women who use certain types of female hormone supplements face a sharply increased risk of breast cancer, a new study finds. Previous studies had found a higher risk for white women, but it wasn't known whether the same effects would be seen in black women.

      The study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found the overall increase in risk was 50%, with even higher increases for recent and long-term users.

      The study looked specifically at postmenopausal African American women who used female hormone supplements containing estrogen and progestin ("combination" therapy).

      "The present findings establish that combination therapy in black women is associated with increased risk of estrogen receptor positive breast cancer, similar to the pattern in white women," said corresponding author Lynn Rosenberg, ScD, associate director of the Slone Epidemiology Center and principal investigator of the Black Women's Health Study, one of the studies that contributed to this conclusion. "Our findings highlight the importance of black women limiting their use of combination therapy."

      This is a report of research findings. It should not be used by patients to make unilateral decisions about their care or to start or stop prescribed medications. If you have concerns about female hormone supplements, you should discuss them with your doctor, mentioning this study. 

      White women show similar results

      Similar to findings in white women, use of combination therapy was associated with increased risk of estrogen receptor positive breast cancer, with risk increasing as the duration increased. The risk declined after cessation of use but was still somewhat elevated up to 10 years later.

      There was no increase in risk associated with use of estrogen alone, nor was there any increase in risk of estrogen receptor negative breast cancer associated with use of either combination therapy or estrogen alone.

      According to Rosenberg, the latter point is particularly important because recent national cancer statistics indicate that breast cancer incidence has been increasing among African American women and converging to the rate of white women, while the death rates continue to diverge between the groups.

      Researchers from the Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University led the investigation using data from the four large studies of black women included in the AMBER (African American Breast Cancer Epidemiology and Risk) Consortium.

      African American women who use certain types of female hormone supplements face a sharply increased risk of breast cancer, a new study finds. Previous stud...
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      A slowdown in manufacturing

      The contraction is the first in three years

      For the first time in 36 months, economic activity in the manufacturing sector has contracted, even as the overall economy grew for the 78th consecutive month.

      According to the Manufacturing Institute for Supply Management (ISM) Report On Business, the November Purchasing Management Index (PMI) came in at 48.6%, down 1.5% from October and the first contraction since November 2012.

      A reading above 50% indicates an expansion of the manufacturing economy; anything below that suggests contraction.

      The report also shows the New Orders Index fell 4% last month to 48.9%. The Production Index registered 49.2%, 3.7%s below the previous month. The Employment Index, on the other hand, rose 3.7% to 51.3%.

      The weaker-than-expected report “indicates that the tepid global economy, coupled with the strong dollar making American-made goods more expensive, is taking a toll here at home,” Bankrate.com Senior Economic Analyst Mark Hamrick told ConsumerAffairs.

      “Fortunately, the U.S. economy hasn't relied on manufacturing to do the 'heavy lifting' on growth for many years,” he noted, adding the fact that the employment component actually expanded “helps to soften the blow of word of the contraction overall since we're ultimately most concerned about the plight of the job market.”

      Sector performance

      Ten out of 18 manufacturing industries reported contraction in November, with lower new orders, production, and raw materials inventories accounting for the overall softness in November.

      Of the 18 manufacturing industries, five reported growth in the following order:

      1. Printing & Related Support Activities;
      2. Nonmetallic Mineral Products;
      3. Miscellaneous Manufacturing;
      4. Food, Beverage & Tobacco Products; and
      5. Transportation Equipment.

      The 10 industries reporting contraction in November -- listed in order -- were:

      1. Apparel, Leather & Allied Products;
      2. Plastics & Rubber Products;
      3. Machinery;
      4. Primary Metals;
      5. Petroleum & Coal Products;
      6. Electrical Equipment, Appliances & Components;
      7. Computer & Electronic Products;
      8. Furniture & Related Products;
      9. Fabricated Metal Products; and
      10. Chemical Products.
      For the first time in 36 months, economic activity in the manufacturing sector has contracted, even as the overall economy grew for the 78th consecutive mo...
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      Home prices show solid year-over-year increase in October

      Low supply and strong demand are behind the rise

      If you're a homeowner hoping that your abode was worth more in October than it was a year earlier, you should like this.

      CoreLogic's Home Price Index (HPI) shows prices were up both year-over-year and month-over-month in October.

      According to the HPI, home prices nationwide -- including distressed sales -- increased by 6.8% from October 2014 to October 2015 and 1.0% from September to October.

      Distressed sales include real estate-owned (REO) and short sales.

      “The rise in home prices over the past few years has largely been a healthy trend,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “The shadow inventory has been reduced significantly and home equity levels are now approaching pre-recession levels.”

      Looking ahead

      The CoreLogic HPI Forecast indicates that home prices will increase by 5.2% on a year-over-year basis from October 2015 to October 2016, and the projected month-over-month gain is negligible (0.1%) from October 2015 to November 2015.

      The CoreLogic HPI Forecast is a projection of home prices using the CoreLogic HPI and other economic variables. Values are derived from state-level forecasts by weighting indices according to the number of owner-occupied households for each state.

      “Many markets have experienced a low inventory of homes for sale along with strong buyer demand, which is sustaining upward pressure on home prices,” said CoreLogic Chief Economist Dr. Frank Nothaft, adding that these conditions are likely to persist into the new year. “A year from now, as we finish out October 2016,” he added,” we expect the CoreLogic national Home Price Index appreciation to slow to 5.2%.”

      If you're a homeowner hoping that your abode was worth more in October than it was a year earlier, you should like this.CoreLogic's Home Price Index (H...
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      IRS offers tips for year-end charitable giving

      Careful records are a must for claiming your deduction

      If you plan on making a donation to your favorite charity as the year draws to a close, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) wants you to know that several tax law provisions have kicked in over the past few years.

      Among them are:

      Rules for charitable contributions of clothing and household items

      • Household items include furniture, furnishings, electronics, appliances, and linens. Clothing and household items donated to charity generally must be in good used condition or better to be tax-deductible. A clothing or household item for which a taxpayer claims a deduction of over $500 does not have to meet this standard if the taxpayer includes a qualified appraisal of the item with the return.
      • Donors must get a written acknowledgment from the charity for all gifts worth $250 or more. It must include, among other things, a description of the items contributed.

      Guidelines for monetary donations

      • You must have a bank record or a written statement from the charity in order to deduct any donation of money -- regardless of amount. The record must show the name of the charity and the date and amount of the contribution. Bank records include canceled checks, and bank, credit union and credit card statements. Bank or credit union statements should show the name of the charity, the date, and the amount paid. Credit card statements should show the name of the charity, the date, and the transaction posting date.
      • Donations of money include those made in cash or by check, electronic funds transfer, credit card, and payroll deduction. For payroll deductions, you should retain a pay stub, a Form W-2 wage statement, or other document furnished by the employer showing the total amount withheld for charity, along with the pledge card showing the name of the charity.
      • These requirements for the deduction of monetary donations do not change the long-standing requirement that you obtain an acknowledgment from a charity for each deductible donation (either money or property) of $250 or more. However, one statement containing all of the required information may meet both requirements.

      Reminders

      The IRS offers the following additional reminders to help you plan your holiday and year-end gifts to charity:

      • Qualified charities. Check that the charity is eligible. Only donations to eligible organizations are tax-deductible. Select Check, a searchable online tool available on IRS.gov, lists most organizations that are eligible to receive deductible contributions. In addition, churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, and government agencies are eligible to receive deductible donations. That is true even if they are not listed in the tool’s database.
      • Year-end gifts. Contributions are deductible in the year made. Thus, donations charged to a credit card before the end of 2015 count for 2015, even if the credit card bill isn’t paid until 2016. Also, checks count for 2015 as long as they are mailed in 2015.
      • Itemize deductions. For individuals, only taxpayers who itemize their deductions on Form 1040 Schedule A can claim deductions for charitable contributions. This deduction is not available to individuals who choose the standard deduction. This includes anyone who files a short form (Form 1040A or 1040EZ). A taxpayer will have a tax savings only if the total itemized deductions (mortgage interest, charitable contributions, state and local taxes, etc.) exceed the standard deduction. Use the 2015 Form 1040 Schedule A to determine whether itemizing is better than claiming the standard deduction.
      • Record donations. For all donations of property, including clothing and household items, get from the charity, if possible, a receipt that includes the name of the charity, date of the contribution, and a reasonably-detailed description of the donated property. If a donation is left at a charity’s unattended drop site, keep a written record of the donation that includes this information, as well as the fair market value of the property at the time of the donation and the method used to determine that value. Additional rules apply for a contribution of $250 or more.
      • Special Rules. The deduction for a car, boat, or airplane donated to charity is usually limited to the gross proceeds from its sale. This rule applies if the claimed value is more than $500. Form 1098-C or a similar statement, must be provided to the donor by the organization and attached to the donor’s tax return.

      If the amount of a taxpayer’s deduction for all noncash contributions is over $500, a properly-completed Form 8283 must be submitted with the tax return.

      If you plan on making a donation to your favorite charity as the year draws to a close, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) wants you to know that several t...
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