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    Economists worry cheap oil is hurting the economy

    Since when are high prices a good thing?

    You, as a consumer, no doubt think cheap oil is great. It has reduced the price of gasoline to levels not seen in nearly a decade.

    But perhaps nothing so perfectly illustrates the gulf between the interests of Wall Street and Main Street as falling oil prices, because Wall Street definitely doesn't see it the way you do.

    In recent weeks, stock prices have moved in tandem with oil prices. Oil prices plunge, so does the stock market. Oil prices rally and stocks surge.

    Bloomberg News does an excellent job of explaining why Wall Street has such a different view of oil prices, and it boils down to this: too many institutions made big bets that oil prices would keep going higher. You could say they bet the bank on it.

    Shale producers had to borrow a lot of money to fund their operations. That debt paid high interest rates and was eagerly purchased on Wall Street. Sound familiar?

    Remember the housing bust?

    A similar thing happened during the early 2000s housing boom, when subprime mortgages in particular were prized for their high interest rates. At the time, very few people thought home prices could actually go down. But they did.

    In 2008 bad mortgage bets nearly sank the economy. Today's nervousness is due in part to the fear that bad oil bets pose their own systemic risk. So when oil prices get so low that U.S. producers can't be profitable, the people who have bought their debt get very nervous.

    Making matters worse, in Wall Street's eyes, consumers are saving lots of money at the gas pump but aren't spending it. Instead, they're saving it for heaven's sake, or paying off their credit cards. So the complaint is that consumers are benefiting from low oil prices but aren't “sharing the wealth,” so to speak.

    Economists rightly point out that this can be a problem. Since the Great Recession, the one area where the U.S. economy has enjoyed strong growth has been in the oil industry. Now that industry appears to be going down for the count, and with it the huge contributions it has made to the nation's economy.

    It was hoped that the extra money flowing to consumers through lower gas prices would get spent elsewhere, providing a lift to the economy. That isn't happening, so the net effect is the slowdown in the oil industry has produced a drag on the overall economy.

    Weak growth

    But instead of blaming consumers for socking away the money they are saving at the gas pump, perhaps economists might better explain why the U.S. economy, absent the recent contribution from the oil industry, is so weak. Why haven't other sectors recovered? And why is it up to consumers to take up the slack?

    Maybe one of the reasons Wall Street has been so volatile this month is the realization that there doesn't seem to be much there to backstop the economy when the oil industry isn't providing the economic growth it has over the last few years.

    Was it always this way? Definitely not. But in the first quarters of the last two years, the U.S. economy has contracted. Will it be the same this year?

    If so, there may be a lot of blame to go around. But it may not be fair to blame American consumers who have finally caught a break in the form of lower gas prices.

    You, as a consumer, no doubt think cheap oil is great. It has reduced the price of gasoline to levels not seen in nearly a decade.But perhaps nothing s...
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    Stanford study finds T-Mobile's 'Binge On' promotion is likely illegal

    The program sounds good but violates key net neutrality principles, report says

    T-Mobile's "Binge On" promotion has perhaps been popular with consumers but, as we reported in November, critics are increasingly expressing doubts about its legality, 

    Now a Stanford Law professor who is a recognized net neutrality expert has weighed in with her opinion. Barbara van Schewick says Binge On is "aptly named – it feels good in the short-term but harms consumers in the long run.”

    Schewick's report, “T-Mobile’s Binge On Violates Key Net Neutrality Principles," offers the first comprehensive analysis of the "zero-rating" aspects of Binge On. Zero-rating, which simply means that selected content doesn't count against a user's monthly data cap, has come under scrutiny at the FCC. Policymakers are debating whether this and other "zero-rating" programs violate the Open Internet rules.

    “The program limits user choice, distorts competition, stifles innovation, and harms free speech on the Internet. If more ISPs offer similar programs, these harms will only grow worse,” Schewick's report finds.

    The report could be a game changer. It finds that Binge On violates key net neutrality principles and most likely violates the FCC’s general conduct rule and the transparency rule. In a moment when the FCC is evaluating the question of zero-rating on a case-by-case basis, these findings could move the agency to open a federal investigation.

    Picking winners

    The basic problem, as Schewick sees it, is that T-Mobile is picking winners and losers online by making Binge On video more attractive than all other video. Research shows that consumers, not surprisingly, strongly prefer zero-rated content over content that counts against their cap.

    In one survey cited by Schewick, 74% of users said that they would be more likely to watch videos offered by a new provider if the content did not count against their monthly bandwidth caps. By making Binge On video more attractive than other video, T-Mobile gives the video providers it adds to Binge On a competitive advantage.

    And although consumers generally seem to feel that T-Mobile is doing them a favor, Schewick says that, in fact, T-Mobile is constraining consumer choice. 

    Net neutrality protects peoples’ ability to use the applications of their choice, but through Binge On, T-Mobile makes additional bandwidth available to consumers without allowing them to choose how to use that bandwidth. Instead, T-Mobile reserves it only for Binge On video.

    For example, customers on T-Mobile’s lowest qualifying plan can watch “unlimited” video from Netflix and other Binge On providers, but not more than 4 1/2 hours of video per month from other providers like Amazon Prime, a Netflix competitor.

    Schewick also cites T-Mobile's requirement that Binge On content providers spend "substantial" sums of money to make their feeds technically compatible with T-Mobile's system and says that discriminates against small providers and start-ups. 

    "Binge On changes innovation on the Internet as we know it. Until now, innovators could reach people all over the world at low costs. But Binge On requires video providers to work with T-Mobile to join on the program and, in many cases, to change their service to meet the ISP’s technical requirements," she said. "As more and more ISPs develop similar programs, innovators will need to work with ISPs around the world to join their zero-rating programs – all just for an equal chance to compete. Small players, non-commercial speakers, and start-ups without the resources to work with numerous ISPs will be left behind."

    T-Mobile's other zero-rating program, Music Freedom, does similar damage to the usic industry, Schewick said. 

    Schewick also notes that Binge On video is not actually “unlimited:” If customers reach their monthly data cap through other Internet uses, they won't be able to watch any more video that month.

    "T-Mobile’s advertising misleads customers and likely violates the FCC’s transparency rule," she concludes.

    T-Mobile's "Binge On" promotion has perhaps been popular with consumers but, as we reported in November, critics are increasingly expressing doubts about i...
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    New study shows that many e-cigarette products may contain a potentially dangerous chemical

    In particular, cherry flavoring compounds carry the largest doses of said chemical

    The e-cigarette industry has been taking a lot of flak recently in the U.S. Earlier this month, we reported on a study that showed that the products actually make consumers less likely to quit smoking – a major discrepancy in claims that many companies in the industry had made. Perhaps even more worrying is that the products are becoming more and more popular amongst middle and high school-aged children.

    Now, a new study is backing up a previous study that the flavoring compounds used in many e-cigarettes pose major health hazards. Researchers at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI) have completed an analysis of nearly 150 e-cigarette flavoring products and found that many contain a potentially harmful chemical.

    May cause throat irritation

    The research team, led by Doctor Maciej Goniewicz, found that one chemical, benzaldehyde, was particularly potent in some e-cigarette flavoring compounds. Benzaldehyde is not particularly dangerous under normal circumstances – in fact, it is used in many different foods and cosmetic products. However, that fact changes under certain conditions.

    It has been shown that benzaldehyde can cause airway irritation when it is heated up and inhaled, much like it would be when smoking or “vaping” it. Out of 145 e-cigarette products that were tested, researchers found that benzaldehyde was found in 108 of them. One flavor, though, stood out from the rest. The research team found that benzaldehyde levels were 43 times higher in cherry-flavored e-cigarette products than any other type.

    While the research does show that there may be signs for concern, Dr. Goniewicz remained non-committal, stating that more research would need to be done before any solid conclusions could be drawn on the products.

    “This analysis reveals some very important implications. .  . Health care professionals should be asking patients not just whether they smoke tobacco cigarettes but also whether they vape e-cigarettes, and whether they are using flavored products,” he said. “For e-cigarette users, it’s important that they pay attention to how the products are affecting them. If they notice irritation, maybe a cough or sore throat, when they use e-cigarettes, they might want to consider switching to a different flavoring.”

    The team has published a research letter on their work in the journal Thorax

    The e-cigarette industry has been taking a lot of flak recently in the U.S. Earlier this month, we reported on a study that showed that the products actual...
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      Urban areas see home values rise as a result of consumers' shifting preferences

      New data suggests suburban living is becoming much less coveted

      Suburban living used to come with a higher price tag than city living. The split-level home with a porch and a big backyard may as well have been the spokesperson for the American dream.

      But it seems more home buyers are coveting city life these days, favoring condos in walkable, amenity-rich neighborhoods over the quiet life in suburbia. This shift in preferences has led to a two percent increase in the value of urban homes, according to Zillow.

      As homes in urban areas become increasingly more desirable, experts believe we may soon see the very nature of the suburbs changing.

      Reflects shifting desires

      Particularly in top-tier cities with young populations -- such as Boston, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. -- home buyers are looking to be part of a dense, walkable neighborhood close to their workplace.

      Experts say this trend may lead to the urbanization of suburbia.

      “In the future, this lifestyle trend will change some suburbs as we know them,” said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Svenja Gudell. “They'll start to feel more urban as buyers move further from city centers in search of affordable housing in communities that still feel urban."

      Recent phenomenon

      Since 2000, home prices in urban centers have grown 50% faster than in their surrounding metro area, notes City Observatory.

      In 2013, the average urban home was worth 1.2 percent less than the average home in the suburbs, according to Zillow data. The recent shift, analysts note, may have something to do with the aging population. 

      Older people are far less likely to live in urban neighborhoods (just 17% of the largest segment of Boomers do, according to Trulia). And millennials, who are entering peak age for urban living while also delaying starting families, have also contributed to the rise in urban home prices. 

      With city homes becoming more sought after, new data indicates that people are willing to pay much more for much less if it's where they want to live.

      On a per-square-foot basis, home values in urban areas are way up, according to new data. In Washington, D.C., for example, urban homes in 1996 cost 6% more per square foot than suburban homes. Today, they cost 41% more per square foot.

      Suburban living used to come with a higher price tag than city living. The split-level home with a porch and a big backyard may as well have been the spoke...
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      Nine out of 10 tax refunds are issued in under 21 days

      When will you get yours?

      How fast do you want your federal income tax refund -- assuming you get one? Does three weeks work for you?

      According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), 90% of refunds are issued in less than 21 days.

      The best way to check the status of yours is online through the “Where’s My Refund?” tool on the IRS website or via the IRS2Go phone app.

      "As February approaches, more and more taxpayers want to know when they can expect their refunds," said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. "There aren't any secret tricks to checking on the status of a refund. Using IRS.gov is the best way for taxpayers to get the latest information."

      Patience

      Many taxpayers are eager to know precisely when their money will be arriving, but checking "Where's My Refund" more than once a day will not produce new information. The status of refunds is refreshed only once a day, generally overnight.

      "Where’s My Refund?" has the most up-to-date information available about your refund. Taxpayers should use this tool rather than calling. You can use the tool to start checking on the status of their return within 24 hours after IRS has received an e-filed return or four weeks after receipt of a mailed paper return. It has a tracker that displays progress through three stages: (1) Return Received, (2) Refund Approved and (3) Refund Sent.

      Try the app

      The IRS2Go phone app is another fast and safe tool taxpayers can use to check the status of a refund. In addition, users can use it to find free tax preparation help, make a payment, watch the IRS YouTube channel, get the latest IRS news, and subscribe to filing season updates and tax tips.

      The app is free for Android devices from the Google Play Store or from the Apple App Store for Apple devices. Users of both the IRS2Go app and “Where’s my Refund” tools must have information from their current, pending tax return to access their refund information.

      There's really no advantage to calling about refunds. IRS representatives can research the status of your refund only in limited situations: if it has been 21 days or more since you filed electronically, more than six weeks since you mailed your paper return, or "Where’s My Refund?" directs you to contact the agency. If the IRS needs more information to process your tax return, you'll be contacted by mail.

      The IRS continues to encourage the use of e-file and direct deposit as the fastest and safest way to file an accurate return and receive a tax refund. More than four out of five tax returns are expected to be filed electronically, with a similar proportion of refunds issued through direct deposit.

      Free File offers free brand-name software to about 100 million individuals and families with incomes of $62,000 or less. Seventy percent of all taxpayers are eligible for Free File.

      All taxpayers regardless of income will again have access to free online fillable forms, which provide electronic versions of IRS paper forms to complete and file. Both options are available through IRS.gov.

      How fast do you want your federal income tax refund -- assuming you get one? Does three weeks work for you?According to the Internal Revenue Service (I...
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      Front crash prevention technology works well

      An IIHS study finds autobrake has slashed police-reported rear-end crashes

      In the first study of its kind, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has found vehicles equipped with front crash prevention are much less likely to rear-end other vehicles.

      Systems with automatic braking reduce rear-end crashes by about 40% on average, while forward collision warning alone cuts them by 23%, the study found. The autobrake systems also greatly reduce injury crashes.

      If all vehicles had been equipped with autobrake that worked as well as the systems studied, there would have been at least 700,000 fewer police-reported rear-end crashes -- 13% of police-reported crashes overall -- in 2013.

      "The success of front crash prevention represents a big step toward safer roads," says David Zuby, IIHS chief research officer. "As this technology becomes more widespread, we can expect to see noticeably fewer rear-end crashes. The same goes for the whiplash injuries that often result from these crashes and can cause a lot of pain and lost productivity."

      Still optional -- for now

      Front crash prevention is steadily becoming more prevalent, but in most cases it is offered as optional equipment. That may soon change, however. In September, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and IIHS announced an agreement in principle with automakers to make autobrake standard on all models.

      Using police reports allows researchers to identify front-to-rear crashes in order to gauge front crash prevention systems' effectiveness specifically for the type of collision they are designed to address.

      The study

      For the study, researchers looked at police-reported rear-end crashes in 22 states during 2010-14 involving Acura, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, and Volvo vehicles with optional front crash prevention.

      The crash rates of vehicles equipped with the technology were compared with the crash rates of the same models without front crash prevention. Individual vehicles with the technology were identified using trim level information or, in some cases, lists of vehicle identification numbers supplied by the manufacturers.

      A separate analysis of City Safety, Volvo's standard low-speed autobrake system, was conducted by comparing the S60 model with other midsize luxury four-door cars and the XC60 with other midsize luxury SUVs. Unlike the City Safety-equipped Volvos, none of the comparison vehicles had standard front crash prevention.

      Only rear-end crashes in which the study and comparison models struck other vehicles were considered. Crashes in which those vehicles were struck from behind but didn't strike a vehicle in front were left out since front crash prevention wouldn't be expected to prevent them.

      The analyses show that forward collision warning alone reduces rear-end crashes by 23%, while forward collision warning with autobrake reduces them by 39%. The reduction for City Safety is 41%.

      The study also shows that autobrake reduces injuries. The rate of rear-end crashes with injuries decreases by 42% with forward collision warning with autobrake and 47% with City Safety. Forward collision warning alone is associated with a 6% decrease in rear-end injury crashes, though that finding isn't statistically significant.

      "Even when a crash isn't avoided, systems that have autobrake have a good chance of preventing injuries by reducing the impact speed," says Jessica Cicchino, the study's author and the IIHS vice president for research. "Still, it's surprising that forward collision warning didn't show more of an injury benefit, given that the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) has found big reductions in injury claims with the feature."

      Caveats

      One difficulty in studying optional front crash prevention systems is that they often are packaged with other crash avoidance technologies. For example, all of the study vehicles except for some Honda Accords and most of the City Safety-equipped Volvos had adaptive cruise control. Adaptive cruise control works like regular cruise control but uses sensors to track the vehicle in front to maintain a safe following distance.

      It is possible that some of the observed benefit for front crash prevention systems in avoiding rear-end collisions is actually a result of adaptive cruise control. However, unlike front crash prevention, drivers must activate adaptive cruise control every time they use it, and the feature generally isn't used for all types of driving.

      Lane departure warning was packaged with front crash prevention on the Hondas, Subarus, and some Volvos included in the study, but it is unlikely to have affected rear-end crashes.

      Speed a factor

      Cicchino performed an additional analysis of City Safety vehicles to see how the effect of the system varied depending on a road's speed limit. The study vehicles had a version of City Safety that works at speeds up to 19 mph. (A newer version works at speeds up to 30 mph.)

      Despite its speed limitation, City Safety had the biggest effect on roads with speed limits of 40-45 mph. The equipped Volvos rear-ended other vehicles 54% less frequently than comparable vehicles on those roads. The reduction was 39% on roads with speed limits of 35 mph or less and 25% on roads with speed limits of 50 mph or higher.

      "At first blush it's surprising that this low-speed system was most effective on 40-45 mph roads," Cicchino said. "However, these roads tend to have many traffic lights, which reduce actual travel speeds in places. In addition, City Safety can come into play whenever there is congestion on a higher-speed road."

      In the first study of its kind, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has found vehicles equipped with front crash prevention are much less lik...
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      Nissan recalls model year 2013-2015 Altimas

      The secondary hood latch may remain in the unlatched position when the hood is closed

      Nissan North America is recalling 846,000 model year 2013-2015 Nissan Altimas manufactured March 6, 2012, to December 31, 2014.

      The secondary hood latch may bind and remain in the unlatched position when the hood is closed.

      If the primary latch is inadvertently released and the secondary latch is not engaged, the hood could open unexpectedly while the car is being driven, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

      These vehicles were recalled previously recalled, however the remedy plan may not have been performed consistently to remove the safety risk. To correct this issue, Nissan will re-notify all affected owners and dealers will replace the hood latch with a new one, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in mid-February.

      Nissan North America is recalling 846,000 model year 2013-2015 Nissan Altimas manufactured March 6, 2012, to December 31, 2014. The secondary hood ...
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      New car sales fall off this month

      Did the demand for trucks and SUVs catch the industry off guard?

      The month is not quite over, but Kelley Blue Book (KBB) says the trend is clear. After a series of monthly sales records in 2015, the red-hot U.S. car industry is starting off the new year with a sales dip.

      The analysts at KBB say they expect new-vehicle sales to fall 3% from January 2015. However, the company suggests the sales decline could be temporary.

      “This month’s new car sales were impacted by the historic blizzard Jonas that covered much of the East Coast in snow late in January,” Tim Fleming, analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said in a release. “Since the blizzard hit densely populated areas during a weekend, when dealerships see the most foot traffic, Kelley Blue Book anticipates sales to dip slightly; however, any lost sales will likely be postponed until February.”

      Fleming points out that January is typically the slowest month of the year for automotive sales, with consumers recovering from the holiday season. That said, January's expected decline is in comparison to last January, which presumably faced similar headwinds.

      Something else at work?

      Mike Jackson, CEO of Auto Nation, a major dealership chain, says something else may be at work. Low gasoline prices have led consumers away from the high-mileage, fuel efficient compacts that have been the focus of automakers, and toward trucks and SUVs.

      “The American people, left to their own desires, really enjoy big, comfortable, luxurious, vehicles,” Jackson said on CNBC's “Squawk Box.”

      While he also suspects a late 2015 slowdown in consumer spending is also a factor in the sales dip, Jackson said sales of trucks drove the market in 2015 and, while automakers scrambled to produce more trucks and SUVs, by the end of the year consumer demand for these vehicles was outstripping supply.

      Conflicting data

      The KBB data, however, sees a somewhat different picture. It suggests consumer demand may be slowing for Jeep, which epitomizes the SUV. Meanwhile, it also shows Honda increasing its market share with the newly redesigned Civic, a compact.

      “Low gas prices and growing consumer interest in utility vehicles helped Jeep grow nearly 25% last year, and 2016 should also be strong for the brand,” said Fleming. “However, incentive spending for the brand has been growing in addition to days to turn, indicating that consumer demand may be slowing to some degree.”

      Fleming says Honda could report 9% year-over-year strength in January. Not only is there growing demand for the model, he says, but dealerships now have more of them in stock.

      The month is not quite over, but Kelley Blue Book (KBB) says the trend is clear. After a series of monthly sales records in 2015, the red-hot U.S. car indu...
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      Mayo Clinic study urges more aggressive lung cancer screening

      Researchers say people who quit 15 years ago should be included

      So you quit smoking, maybe decades ago. That's great. But it still might be a good idea to get regular screenings for lung cancer.

      While many former smokers don't get regular screenings, researchers at Mayo Clinic want to expand lung cancer screening to include people who quit smoking more than 15 years ago.

      Doing so, they say, would find more cases, find them early, and reduce lung cancer deaths.

      “A decline in smoking rates has been, and continues to be, a critical step to reduce lung cancer risk and deaths,” lead author Ping Yang said in a release. “But, it also means that fewer people have benefited from early detection of lung cancer, because more patients don’t qualify for low-dose CT scans.”

      Who gets screened

      A medical authority, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), sets lung cancer screening criteria. Currently, CT screening is recommended only for older adults who smoked for 30 years and are still smoking, or have quit within the last 15 years.

      So last year Yang and her colleagues took a close look at all the newly-diagnosed lung cancer cases in the U.S. They found two-thirds of those patients did not fall within the criteria for lung cancer screening – meaning they didn't get screened. Yet, they got lung cancer.

      Now, Yang and her team are trying to identify specific populations who are at risk but falling through the cracks of the system. Their current study found that, compared to other risk categories, patients who quit smoking for 15 to 30 years accounted for the greatest percentage of patients with lung cancer who didn’t qualify for screening. Yet this group made up a significantly large portion of the study group.

      “We were surprised to find that the incidence of lung cancer was proportionally higher in this subgroup, compared to other subgroups of former cigarette smokers,” Yang said. “The common assumption is that after a person has quit for so many years, the lung cancer rate would be so low that it wouldn’t be noticeable. We found that assumption to be wrong.”

      More attention on former smokers

      Yang says the lesson is the need to pay attention to people who quit smoking more than 15 years ago, because they are still at higher risk for developing lung cancer.

      Yang believes screening may not be as aggressive as it should be because lung cancer rates in the U.S. are falling. They're falling because fewer people are smoking, and quitting will reduce the chances of developing the disease.

      Reduce, but not eliminate. Some people who quit years ago will still develop lung cancer. Detecting those cases early, Yang says, will save lives.

      So you quit smoking, maybe decades ago. That's great. But it still might be a good idea to get regular screenings for lung cancer.While many former smo...
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      An uptick in pending home sales

      The falling stock market could be a problem in the months ahead

      It wasn't by much, but pending home sales, which are based on contract signings, were on the rise in December.

      The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) inched up 0.1% last month to 106.8. It's now 4.2% above December 2014, and has increased year-over-year for 16 months in a row.

      The Northeast led the way in what little increase there was. “Warmer than average weather and more favorable inventory conditions compared to other parts of the country encouraged more households in the Northeast to make the decision to buy last month," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "Overall, while sustained job creation is spurring more activity compared to a year ago, the ability to find available homes in affordable price ranges is difficult for buyers in many job creating areas. With homebuilding still grossly inadequate, steady price appreciation and tight supply conditions aren't going away any time soon."

      However, Yun thinks overall demand could be somewhat curtailed in coming months with the stock market's sizeable losses since the start of the year could cause some to hold off on buying.

      "The silver lining from the market turmoil in recent weeks is the fact that mortgage rates have slightly declined," says Yun. "Buyers looking to close on a home before the spring buying season begins may be rewarded with a mortgage rate at or below 4 percent."

      Regional sales

      • The PHSI in the Northeast increased 6.1% in December to 97.8, and is now 15.3% above a year ago.
      • In the Midwest the index dipped 1.1% to 103.6, but is still 3.6% above December 2014.
      • Pending home sales in the South slipped 0.5% to an index of 119.3, but are 1.0% higher than the same time last year.
      • The index in the West was 97.5, a decline of 2.1%, but still 3.4% above a year ago.

      Looking ahead

      Existing-homes sales this year are forecast to rose 1.5% to around 5.34 million. The national median existing-home price for all of this year is expected to increase between 4 and 5%. The median is the point at which half the homes sell for more and half for less. Existing-home sales rose 6.5% last ear, while prices jumped 6.8%.

      Rents -- which have far outpaced wages in recent years -- are expected to slightly slow to 3.3% growth in 2016 from 3.6% a year ago. Multifamily housing starts are expected to reach 420,000 units this year -- the highest level since 1987.

      Jobless claims

      Switching gears, there's a report this morning from the Department of Labor (DOL) showing a substantial decline in the number of first-time applications that were filed last week for state jobless benefits.

      After an increase to a six-month high the previous week, initial jobless claims fell 16,000 in the week ending January 23 to a seasonally adjusted 278,000. The prior was revised up by 1,000 to 294,000.

      Total initial claims have ranged between 250,000 and 300,000 since July 2014.

      The four-week moving average, which many economists consider a more accurate barometer of the labor market as it lacks to volatility of the weekly headcount, fell by 2,250 to 283,000.

      The complete report is available on the DOL website.

      It wasn't by much, but pending home sales, which are based on contract signings, were on the rise in December. The National ...
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      Feds sue DeVry University, charging its ads were deceptive

      Promises that students would find jobs in their field didn't pan out, FTC suit alleges

      DeVry University is the latest for-profit college to run afoul of regulators. The Federal Trade Commission has sued DeVry, alleging that its advertisements deceived consumers about the likelihood that students would find jobs in their fields of study and would earn more than those graduating with bachelor's degrees from other colleges or universities. DeVry said it will "vigorously fight" the complaint.

      “Millions of Americans look to higher education for training that will lead to meaningful employment and good pay,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “Educational institutions like DeVry owe prospective students the truth about their graduates’ success finding employment in their field of study and the income they can earn.” 

      In its complaint, the FTC says DeVry claims that 90% of graduates landed jobs in their field within six months -- a claim the feds say is deceptive. The suit also alleges DeVry's claim that its graduates had 15% higher average incomes one year after graduation than the graduates of all other colleges or universities was deceptive.

      Melanie of Suamico, Wisconsin, recently recounted her experience with DeVry in a ConsumerAffairs review. 

      "When I graduated in 2010 with a computer bachelor's degree I was excited to get my job and start my career. Well I was fooled," she said. "I got no help from the school (even though I asked for help), I put in hundreds of resumes/apps on my own and got nothing. It is almost like the companies look at the degree that says DeVry on it and they run the opposite direction. I was thinking that I was doing something wrong, but the only thing I did wrong was trust that DeVry would help me get a job."

      DeVry says it will "vigorously fight" the charges. "DeVry University measured the employment and earnings results of its graduates in a sound, rational and transparent basis," the company said in a prepared statement

      "DeVry Group believes that the FTC’s complaint – filed 40 years after DeVry University began publishing accurate graduate employment statistics – is without a valid legal basis. In addition, the FTC’s complaint contains anecdotal examples that exaggerate the allegations but do not prove them," DeVry said. "DeVry University measures the employment and earnings results of its graduates on a sound, rational and transparent basis, and has published these results in a consistent manner over the years to provide students meaningful information." 

      Hundreds of offers

      Consumers rate Devry University

      The FTC's suit notes that a DeVry television ad showed people in business attire hanging hundreds of “offer letters” on a wall, with a voiceover that said all of the offer letters seen came from just the last year – followed by the 90% claim. The complaint alleges that DeVry counted numerous graduates as working “in their field” when they were not.

      That might sound familiar to Gary of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., who said that despite getting his degree and going $62,000 in debt, he has been unable to find a job.

      "When I joined the college they stated that they had a 92% placement for graduates within 6 months in their field of study," he said. "If I could trade my worthless degree for satisfaction of my student debts, I would do it in heartbeat."

      "The college was no help in setting me up with any interviews, they only looked at my resume and made suggestions. I have been on my own since I graduated and have had no luck," Gary added. "I currently work as a courier to pay my bills, which I could have done without a college degree."

      DOE action

      In a related action, the U.S. Department of Education is also taking action against DeVry for its marketing practices.  It is providing notice to DeVry that it will be requiring the institution both to stop certain advertising regarding the post-graduation employment outcomes of its students and to take additional steps to ensure that DeVry can substantiate the truthfulness of its post-graduation employment outcomes.

      “As required by the law and expected by the public, institutions need to be accurate in their marketing and recruiting to prospective students. And we confirm this truthfulness of advertisements through the backup information schools provide upon request,” said Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell.  “The Department and the FTC’s related announcements today are the result of much collaboration and cooperation. We are grateful to our partners at the FTC for their hard work and dedication on this matter.”

      DeVry University is the latest for-profit college to run afoul of regulators. The Federal Trade Commission has sued DeVry, alleging that its advertisements...
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      Researchers intrigued with idea Alzheimer's might be transmissible

      If true, however, it might only explain a few cases

      Researchers aren't completely sure what causes Alzheimer's disease. That said, an intriguing theory has emerged and gained a little more traction after a series of autopsies. Information about it has been published in Swiss Medical Weekly.

      The autopsies were performed on a small number of people who had died from a brain disease known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). They all had one thing in common.

      Long before their deaths, the victims had all undergone a rare procedure in which the membrane covering the brain and spinal cord is taken from a cadaver and grafted onto a healthy brain. It turns out the grafted material was contaminated with the prion protein associated with CJD.

      Signs associated with Alzheimer's

      During these autopsies, the researchers noticed something. Five of the brains being examined also had some of the signs that are associated with Alzheimer's disease.

      What does it mean? The researchers conclude that the presence of the protein in young people is “highly unusual” and suggests a causal relationship to the grafts from the cadavers. The researchers further said it is possible the transplanted material was contaminated with small traces of the protein which possibly could have also been a trigger for Alzheimer's.

      Though far from conclusive, the results fit with a few researchers' theory that, in a few cases, Alzheimer's disease might be transmissible.

      September study

      Back in September, the journal Nature published a study suggesting the abnormality that triggers Alzheimer's could, at times, be transmitted to a healthy person by transplanting tissue containing the abnormality. But even the study authors were careful to point out they were not suggesting Alzheimer's is contagious.

      However, the Swiss findings may cause further study in this area. Currently, the research into Alzheimer's is focusing on earlier diagnosis and a possible cure.

      According to the National Institute on Aging, current research ranges from the basic mechanisms of Alzheimer's to managing the symptoms and helping families cope with the effects of the disease.

      As we reported in September, Johns Hopkins has received a major grant to run clinical trials on an epilepsy drug that researchers believe will show promise as a way to prevent Alzheimer's.

      Researchers aren't completely sure what causes Alzheimer's disease. That said, an intriguing theory has emerged and gained a little more traction after a s...
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      Study finds social media a powerful tool in promoting e-cigarettes

      Researchers say new regulations must take that into consideration

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in the process of finalizing rules to regulate e-cigarettes, and just about everyone who has been following the process assumes the rules will ban sales to people under 18.

      When that happens, the focus will next shift to whether e-cigarette marketing is targeting young people who aren't allowed to buy the product. In fact, it already has.

      You may recall that tobacco companies were accused of using youth-oriented marketing gimmicks during the 1980s and 90s. A new report suggests e-cigarette marketers are turning to social media to reach their most lucrative market.

      Unfortunately for health officials, researchers at Drexel University and the University of Southern California suggest it is next to impossible to contain social media marketing.

      Influential tweets

      "As public health researchers our job is to figure out whether people are seeing messages that might lead them to make unhealthy decisions," Kar-Hai Chu, the study's author, said in a release. "If an e-cigarette tweet reaches underage users and makes them curious about trying e-cigarettes, that is something we would want to know. The results of the study could help provide guidelines and advice for many potential regulations."

      Social media has changed the game for all marketers, not just those selling e-cigarettes. Companies can easily used social media platforms to extend the reach of their advertising. Not only that, they can more narrowly target their message to a specific audience and track its reception.

      The problem the study authors see is that once an ad message goes beyond its primary target and is picked up by social media, anyone can see it, regardless off their age. It doesn't have to “go viral” to have major impact. Policymakers, the study says, need to understand that before finalizing regulations governing advertising.

      Internet a major advertising medium

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that 39.8 percent of teens who are exposed to e-cigarette advertising see it on the internet, especially on social media sites like Twitter.

      "We chose Twitter because hundreds of millions of people all over the world use it to express their opinions about important topics, so it's a huge source of information and a quick and efficient way for researchers to learn about those opinions," Chu said. "A fascinating thing about Twitter is that users choose which messages they think are important to pass on to their friends. From a marketing perspective, companies and brands are very active on Twitter, including Blu, the brand we chose for this study."

      The study followed three months of Twitter traffic, originating with tweets from the Blu e-cigarette company's official handle "@blucigs." As researchers expected, followers of @bluecigs spread the messages to others within their networks through retweets.

      "The retweet network in our data demonstrated how rapidly and widely messages diffused--reaching an exponential number of users," said Christopher Yang, a professor in Drexel's College of Computing & Informatics, who was a co-author of the paper.

      More important, he said, by the second level of followers, researchers saw a big shift in the types of users who were seeing the messages. After three months, a single tweet that originally went out to just 214 followers ended up through retweets reaching 2,600 unique users.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in the process of finalizing rules to regulate e-cigarettes, and just about everyone who has been following the p...
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      Freddie Mac: Housing market continues to improve

      There's still a long way to go, though

      Things are looking up for the U.S. housing market as we enter the new year.

      The Freddie Mac Multi-Indicator Market Index (MiMi), shows one additional state -- Missouri -- entering its outer range of stable housing activity, along with four metro areas: Rochester, N.Y.; St. Louis, Mo.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Milwaukee, Wis.

      The national MiMi value stands at 82.5, indicating a housing market that is on its outer range of stable housing activity, while showing an improvement of +0.82 percent from October to November and a three-month improvement of +2.09 percent.

      On a year-over-year basis, the national MiMi value has improved +7.23%. Since its all-time low in October 2010, the national MiMi has rebounded 39%, but is still significantly below its high of 121.7.

      Strong improvement

      "We saw another strong year-over-year improvement at 7.23 percent in this month's MiMi, the best 12-month showing in a year,” said Freddie Mac Deputy Chief Economist Len Kiefer. “The regional variation of housing activity continues to become more pronounced.

      For example, he points out, “we're still seeing declines in oil-dependent housing markets, whereas the hardest hit metros from the Great Recession continue to see some of the best improvement as they recover.

      At the same time, Kiefer notes, “other markets are seeing even stronger improvement because of robust home sales fueled by strong local economies that remain largely affordable for the typical homebuyer.”

      In the short-term, he said “we expect homebuyer affordability to remain strong with mortgage rates continuing to look very attractive to prospective homebuyers."

      Report highlights

      • Thirty-three of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia have MiMi values in a stable range, with the District of Columbia (101), North Dakota (96.5), Hawaii (95.9), Montana (95.7), and Utah (93.3) ranking in the top five. Compared with the same time last year, 21 states and the District of Columbia had MiMi values in a stable range.
      • Fifty-seven of the 100 metro areas have MiMi values in a stable range, with Austin, Texas (97.5), Fresno, Calif. (102.9), Honolulu, Hawaii (97.1), Salt Lake City, Utah (96.7), and Denver, Colo. (96.5) ranking in the top five. At the same time last year, 28 of the top 100 metros had MiMi values in a stable range.
      • The most improving states month-over-month were Oregon (+2.04%), Colorado (+1.90%), Nevada (+1.88%), Florida (+1.66%) and Maine (+1.55%). On a year-over-year basis, the most improving states were Florida (+15.72%), Oregon (+14.03%), Colorado (+13.54%), Washington (+12.73 %) and Nevada (+12.26%).
      • The most improving metro areas month-over-month were Orlando, Fla. (+2.21%), Denver, Colo. (+2.01%), Portland, Ore. (+2.00%), Albany, N.Y. (+1.87), and Phoenix, Ariz. (+1.86%). On a year-over-year basis, the most improving metro areas were Orlando, Fla. (+19.48%), Cape Coral, Fla. (+18.27%), Tampa, Fla. (+17.65%), Denver, Colo. (+16.97%), and Portland, Ore. (+16.54).
      • In November, 49 of the 50 states and 95 of the top 100 metros were showing an improving three-month trend. At the same time last year, 34 states and 69 of the top 100 metro areas were showing an improving three-month trend.
      Things are looking up for the U.S. housing market as we enter the new year.The Freddie Mac Multi-Indicator Market Index (MiMi), shows one additional st...
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      Three gains in a row for new home sales

      Sales for all of last year were up 14.5%

      Sales of new single-family homes posted their third advance in as many months during December.

      A joint release from the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development puts sales last month at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 544,000, up 10.8% from November and a year-over-year gain of 9.9%.

      For all of 2015, new home sales were up 14.5% from 2014 to 501,000.

      Can it continue?

      Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza says the new home sales increase, following a 14.7% advance in sales of existing homes, suggests housing market activity appears to be on relatively firm footing, -- at least for now.

      But she points out that heading into the new year, "amid rising uncertainty and still modest income gains, not to mention rising rates, consumers face potentially more difficult times affording and financing a large ticket purchase such as a new home."

      Pricing and inventory

      The median sales price of new houses sold in December 2015 was $288,900, down $13,100 from December 2014, while the average sales price was $346,400, a year-over-year decline of $27,100 .

      The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of December was 237,000, representing a supply of 5.2 months at the current sales rate.

      The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      Sales of new single-family homes posted their third advance in as many months during December.A joint release from the Census Bureau and the Department...
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      Mortgage applications continue their rise

      Falling interest rates are said to be a big factor

      As interest rates continue to fall, applications for mortgages continue to rise.

      According to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), applications were up 8.8% in the week ending January 22, including an adjustment to account for the Martin Luther King holiday.

      It was another strong week for refinancings, which jumped 11% after rising 19% the previous week. Despite that increase, the refinance share of mortgage activity slipped to 59.0% of total applications from 59.1% a week earlier.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was 6.9% of total applications, the FHA share was 12.7%, the VA share was 11.1%, and the USDA share 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) fell to its lowest level since October 2015, dropping to 4.02% from 4.06%, with points decreasing to 0.40 from 0.41 (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 down four basis points, from 3.93% to 3.89%, with points decreasing to 0.25 from 0.31 (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 dropped to 3.83% from 3.86%, 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 average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages slipped one basis point to 3.28%, with points decreasing to 0.37 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 plunged from 3.20% to 3.09%, with points increasing to 0.34 from 0.18 (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.

      As interest rates continue to fall, applications for mortgages continue to rise.According to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), applications were ...
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      Ford recalls older Ranger vehicles with air bag inflator issue

      Excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 361,692 model year 2004-2006 Ranger vehicles manufactured March 24, 2003, to May 4, 2006.

      The driver's side front air bag inflator could rupture upon deployment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the driver's front air bag, the inflator could rupture with metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants potentially resulting in serious injury or death.

      Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the air bag inflators, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin March 7, 2016.

      Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 16S03.

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 361,692 model year 2004-2006 Ranger vehicles manufactured March 24, 2003, to May 4, 2006. The driver's side front a...
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      Proximity to Trader Joe's might make your home worth more

      Zillow finds proximity to trendy grocery stores linked to rising home values

      Looking for a home that will quickly appreciate in values? Yes, good schools are important, but grocery stores may be even more influential.

      Real estate marketplace Zillow reports homes increase in value faster if they are close to a Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. These are stores favored by Millennials and higher-income consumers.

      Zillow says it found that between 1997 and 2014, homes near the two grocery chains were consistently worth more than the median U.S. home. At the end of 2014, homes within a mile of either store were worth more than twice as much as the median home in the rest of the country.

      "Like Starbucks, the stores have become an amenity in their own right – a signal to the home-buying public that the neighborhood they're located in is desirable, perhaps up-and-coming, and definitely improving," Zillow Group Chief Economist Stan Humphries said in a release.

      Boosts lagging neighborhood

      Zillow concludes that these two stores can actually drive home prices. All it takes is for one to open in a neighborhood that has lagged the rest of the community in value and, voila, the neighborhood starts to take off.

      The observation is contained in a book by Humphries and Zillow Group CEO Spencer Rascoff. The contention draws on Zillow's 10-year history collecting and analyzing real estate data.

      "The grocery store phenomenon is about more than groceries," said Rascoff. "It says something about the way people want to live – in the type of neighborhood favored by the generations buying homes now. Today's homebuyers seek things in neighborhoods that weren't even in real estate agents' vocabularies a generation ago: walkability, community, new urbanism – and maybe we should add words like sustainable seafood and organic pears."

      It's not a fluke, the authors insist. Home values are definitely linked to proximity to the two popular grocery stores.

      Here's what Zillow said it learned: the median home within a mile of a future Whole Foods store appreciates more slowly than other homes in the same city before the store opens.

      But once it is announced that one of these stores is moving into a neighborhood, the trend flips. Homes near the future site begin to appreciate. After the store opens, the appreciation picks up momentum.

      10% gain

      Two years after a Trader Joe's opened, the median home within a mile of the store had gone up 10% more than homes in the city as a whole over the previous year.

      The trend could mean a couple of things. First, it might mean the two companies are very good at picking real estate, choosing locations that are under-valued but about to pop.

      It could also mean that the two companies themselves are responsible for driving real estate higher. Trendy consumers – and they are often the ones with the most money – want to live near trendy stores.

      Whatever the reason, a savvy homebuyer might take the locations of these stores into account when choosing a place to live.

      Looking for a home that will quickly appreciate in values? Yes, good schools are important, but grocery stores may be even more influential.Real estate...
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      Consumer confidence up for a second straight month

      People are expecting better business conditions and higher incomes

      After increasing in December, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index was up moderately again in January, rising 1.8 points to 98.1. While the Present Situation Index was unchanged at 116.4, the Expectations Index advanced from 83.0 to 85.9.

      “Consumers’ assessment of current conditions held steady, while their expectations for the next six months improved moderately,” said Conference Board Director of Economic Indicators Lynn Franco. “For now, consumers do not foresee the volatility in financial markets as having a negative impact on the economy.”

      Little change seen in attitudes

      Consumers’ appraisal of current conditions was relatively flat in January. The percentage saying business conditions are “good” was virtually unchanged at 27.2%, while those who said business conditions are “bad” declined slightly from 18.9% to 18.5%.

      Their assessment of the labor market was modestly more positive. The proportion who see jobs as “plentiful” fell from 24.2% to 22.8%, while those who think jobs are “hard to get” dipped to 23.4% from 24.5%.

      Optimism about the short-term outlook improved somewhat. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to get better over the next six months rose from 14.5% to 16.2%, while those expecting them to worsen edged down from 10.8% to 10.3%.

      The outlook for the labor market was also slightly more optimistic. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased from 12.4% to 13.2%, while those expecting fewer jobs dropped slightly from 16.8% to 16.5%.

      The proportion of consumers looking for their incomes to increase improved from 16.3% to 18.1%. However, the proportion expecting a reduction in income also increased -- from 9.5% to 10.8%.

      The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a global provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was January 14.

      After increasing in December, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index was up moderately again in January, rising 1.8 points to 98.1. While the Pre...
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      Another increase in home prices

      The gains show further recovery from the housing meltdown

      Home prices in the U.S. continued to rise in November, according to two widely watched measures of prices.

      In the first, the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices (HPI) show that prices posted a year-over-year gain of 5.3% in November, following a 5.1% increase in October.

      The 10-City Composite was up 5.3% , while the 20-City Composite’s year-over-year gain was 5.8%.

      Portland, San Francisco, and Denver continue to report the highest year over year gains among the 20 cities with another month of double digit annual price increases. Portland led the way with an 11.1% year-over-year price increase, followed by San Francisco with 11.0% and Denver with a 10.9% increase.

      Fourteen cities reported greater price increases in the year ending November 2015 versus the year ending October 2015. Phoenix had the longest streak of year-over-year increases, reporting a gain of 5.9% in November -- the twelfth consecutive increase in annual price gains. Detroit posted a 6.3% year-over-year price, the largest annual increase this month.

      Month-over-month

      Before seasonal adjustment, the HPI was up 0.1% month-over-month in November. The 10-City Composite was unchanged, while the 20-City Composite reported gains of 0.1% month-over-month. After seasonal adjustment, the HPI, along with the 10-City and 20-City Composites, all increased 0.9% month-over-month in November.

      Fourteen of 20 cities reported gains in November before seasonal adjustment; after seasonal adjustment, all 20 cities increased for the month.

      “Home prices extended their gains, supported by continued low mortgage rates, tight supplies and an improving labor market,” said David M. Blitzer, managing director and chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Sales of existing homes were up 6.5% in 2015 vs. 2014, and the number of homes on the market averaged about a 4.8 months’ supply during the year; both numbers suggest a seller’s market.”

      Home prices continue to recover from the collapse that began before the recession of 2007-2009 and continued until 2012. Three cities -- Dallas, Denver, and Portland, Ore., -- have reached new all-time highs; San Francisco is even with its earlier peak and Charlotte N.C., is less than 1% below its previous peak.

      The S&P/Case-Shiller National HPI is about 4.8% below the peak it set in July 2006, and 29.2% above the bottom it touched in January 2012.

      FHFA HPI

      ​Separately, the Federal Housing Finance Agency's (FHFA) monthly HPI was up 0.5% in November on a seasonally adjusted basis from the previous month. The previously reported 0.5% gain in October was unchanged.

      For the nine census divisions, seasonally adjusted monthly price changes from October 2015 to November 2015 ranged from -0.4% in the West South Central division to +1.8% in the Mountain division.

      The 12-month changes were all positive, ranging from +2.6% in the Middle Atlantic division to +10.0% in the Mountain division.

      The FHFA monthly HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to, or guaranteed by, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. From November 2014 to November 2015, house prices were up 5.9%. The index levels for October and November 2015 exceeded the prior peak level from March 2007.

      The complete report is available on the FHFA website.

      Home prices in the U.S. continued to rise in November, according to two widely watched measures of prices.In the first, the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price...
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      Job growth to hold steady in 2016, CareerBuilder says

      The forecast also reveals five employment trends to watch

      Looking for a job this year?

      According to CareerBuilder’s annual job forecast, 36% of employers plan to add full-time, permanent employees in 2016 -- the same as 2015. Additionally, nearly half of employers (47%) plan to hire temporary or contract workers.

      The forecast says workers can also expect to see higher starting salaries, more teens in internships, more women and minorities in leadership, and more opportunities to move from low-skill to high-skill jobs, among other trends.

      “On average, the U.S. has added 200,000 jobs each month over the last two years, and we expect 2016 to produce similar results, if not better,” said Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder and co-author of The Talent Equation. “The market is also showing signs of broader wage pressure. While employers have been more willing to pay a premium for high-skill labor, they now have to pay more competitive wages for entry-level positions. Workers are gaining leverage.”

      Full-time, permanent hiring

      While more than a third of employers are increasing full-time, permanent headcount, 45% anticipate no change. One in ten plan to decrease staff levels, while 9% aren't sure.

      Comparing industries, financial services (46%), information technology (44%), and health care (43%) are expected to outperform the national average for employers adding full-time staff. Manufacturing (37%) is expected to reflect the national average.

      Temporary and contract hiring

      Employers are also optimistic about temporary employment. Forty-seven percent reported they will add temporary or contract workers in 2016, compared with 46% percent last year. Of these employers, 58% plan to transition some temporary or contract workers into permanent roles in 2016.

      Hot areas for hiring

      Of the employers who plan to increase the number of full-time employees in the new year, the top areas they’ll be recruiting for include:

      • Customer Service – 32%
      • Information Technology – 29%
      • Sales – 27%
      • Production – 24%
      • Administrative – 20%
      • Marketing – 18%
      • Business Development – 16%
      • Human Resources – 16 percent
      • Accounting/Finance – 15 percent
      • Engineering – 13 percent

      Small business hiring

      Small business managers are feeling better about their financial prospects in 2016 and are looking to expand their staff.

      Of businesses with 50 or fewer employees, 27% plan to hire full-time, permanent employees, versus 20% last year.

      Of those with 250 or fewer employees, 33% plan to hire full-time, permanent employees, up 4% from last year.

      Among larger companies with more than 500 employees, 42% plan to add full-time, permanent employees, on par with last year (43%).

      Hiring by region

      At 42%, the West has the highest percentage of employers expecting to add full-time, permanent headcount, followed by the South (36%), Midwest (34%), and Northeast (30%).

      However, the West also houses the highest percentage of employers expecting to decrease staff, at 12% with 10% in both the Northeast and Midwest and 9% in the South.

      Five trends to watch in the new year

      Looking at key trends that will help shape the employment landscape in 2016, several are tied to higher competition for talent, innovation in sourcing, developing high-skill workers, and a push for more diversity in leadership.

      1. Opening New Doors for Low-Skill Workers – Many employers are concerned with a growing skills gap (63%) and report extended vacancies within their organizations (48%).Thirty-three percent of employers plan to hire low-skill workers and invest in training them for high-skill jobs in 2016.
      2. Hiring younger interns – To encourage the next generation to pursue STEM-related fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and other in-demand areas, employers are building relationships with students at an early age. One quarter plan to hire high school students as interns over the next 12 months.
      3. Increasing wages at all levels – To retain and attract top performers, 83% of employers plan to increase compensation for existing employees – on par with 82% last year. Sixty-six percent will offer higher starting salaries for new employees, versus 64% last year.
      4. Reaching beyond U.S. borders – Employers will continue to look at talent pools outside the U.S. to help fill labor deficits. Nineteen percent say they will hire workers with H-1B visas in 2016, which will let them employ temporarily foreign-born workers for specialized occupations.
      5. Diversifying management – Companies are expanding demographics in their company leadership. Fifty-five percent of employers plan to hire or promote more women for management roles, and 53% plan to do the same for diverse workers. Forty-seven percent of employers plan to promote workers under the age of 30 into management roles.

      The national survey was conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder from Nov. 4 to Dec. 1, 2015, and included a representative sample of 2,338 hiring managers and human resource professionals across industries.

      Looking for a job this year? According to CareerBuilder’s annual job forecast, 36% of employers plan to add full-time, permanent employees in 2016 -- t...
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      Whole Foods recalls frozen pizza products

      The products contain uncured pork pepperoni, which is not listed on the label

      Whole Foods/North Atlantic Kitchens of Everett, Mass., is recalling approximately 73,898 pounds of pepperoni pizza products.

      The products are labeled as containing uncured beef pepperoni, but contain uncured pork pepperoni, which is not listed on the label. Some individuals have a sensitivity or intolerance to pork.

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

      The following items, produced Jan. 5, 2015, through Jan. 22, 2016, are being recalled:

      • 10-oz. vacuum-sealed packages of “WHOLE FOODS MARKETS, PIZZA, PEPPERONI, 8”
      • 19-oz. vacuum-sealed packages of “WHOLE FOODS MARKETS, PIZZA, PEPPERONI, 12”

      The recalled products bear establishment number “EST. 20234” inside the USDA mark of inspection and Sell-by dates of Jan. 12, 2015 through Jan. 30, 2016 printed on the packaging.

      The products were shipped for wholesale and retail sale in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.

      Customers who purchased these products are urged not to consume them. They should be thrown away or returned to the place of purchase.

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact the company at (512) 477-5566 ext. 20060 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday (CST).

      Whole Foods/North Atlantic Kitchens of Everett, Mass., is recalling approximately 73,898 pounds of pepperoni pizza products.   The products are label...
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      McDonald's winning back consumers

      Latest earnings report suggests restaurant chain is turning things around

      Just a year ago fast-food giant McDonald's appeared to be on the outs with consumers. Sales were down and franchise operators were on the verge of revolt over an ever-changing menu.

      But new CEO Steve Easterbrook's turnaround plan appears to be taking hold. McDonald's blew away Wall Street's fourth quarter earnings estimates Monday, reporting revenue of $6.34 billion and a profit of $1.31 per share.

      Notably, both numbers were lower from the fourth quarter a year ago, but expectations had been driven so low that the earnings beat sent the stock higher on Monday's trading.

      Out of sync

      Expectations have been falling because McDonald's simply appeared to be out of sync with the times. As restaurants promising “fresh” ingredients that were “locally sourced” ascended, McDonald's continued to see same store sales decline.

      Pressured into completely revamping its marketing, children no longer pestered their parents to go to McDonald's, where apple slices had replaced French fries in many kids' meals. But the fourth quarter results may suggest that McDonald's has figured out the 21st century consumer – not just in the U.S. but around the world.

      One reason for the restaurant chain's impressive recovery was international sales. The company reports global sales were up 5%. Global comparable sales rose 1.5%.

      All Day Breakfast

      But some analysts attribute McDonald's success to the fact consumers can now get an Egg McMuffin – and a few other breakfast items – at any hour of the day. But McDonald's didn't begin the All Day Breakfast Menu until late in the year.

      Still, business analysts say it answered consumers' primary complaint about the chain – lack of menu variety – and it was enough to provide a strong boost to the fourth quarter.

      McDonald's, it appears, is back.

      "We are demonstrating that our turnaround plan is key to restarting growth and becoming a modern and progressive burger company,” Easterbrook said in the earnings release.

      Rather than following the latest food trends, it's back to the future. So far, at least, it's paying off.

      Just a year ago fast-food giant McDonald's appeared to be on the outs with consumers. Sales were down and franchise operators were on the verge of revolt o...
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      Finally, some good news for renters in 2016

      The pace of rent increases expected to slow down a bit

      Consumers who rent their homes don't want to hear any talk about the low U.S. inflation rate. Their cost of living has gone up considerably since the Great Recession.

      With fewer people able to buy homes in the wake of the financial crisis, even at rock-bottom interest rates, more consumers have competed for available rental homes. And you don't have to be an economist to know what happens when demand exceeds supply.

      But in a new report, real estate marketplace Zillow says a little relief may be on the way this year. It expects rent increases to slow dramatically, to an annual rate of 1.1% by the end of the year.

      In December, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies warned that rental vacancy rates were at their lowest point since 1985 and inflation-adjusted rents were rising 3.5%. Making matters worse, renters' paychecks weren't growing, meaning a record number of renters paid more than 30% of their income on housing costs.

      Most rental housing

      What's changed? Contractors went on a building spree last year, focusing more of their efforts on multi-family housing units – otherwise known as apartment buildings. Most of the building activity has taken place in markets with the strongest demand.

      Because of that, Zillow said it believes rising rents will slow the most in Nashville, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Denver. Zillow says rents in San Francisco saw a 12.5% gain in 2015, but that should slow to 5.9% this year.

      That may be small consolation, however, to renters in high-priced markets like San Francisco and Los Angeles, where consumers can expect to pay 40% or more of their income on rent.

      Hot markets still hot

      "Hot markets are still going to be hot in 2016, but rents won't rise as quickly as they have been," said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Svenja Gudell. "The slowdown in rental appreciation will provide some relief for renters who've been seeing their rents rise dramatically every single year for the past few years. However, the situation remains tough on the ground: rents are still rising and renters are struggling to keep up."

      The Harvard researchers, meanwhile, warn that it may take longer for the growth in the supply of rental housing to catch up to demand. Because of demographic trends and economic reality, they say most new household formation is going to be rental.

      “The crisis in the number of renters paying excessive amounts of their income for housing continues, because the market has been unable to meet the need for housing that is within the financial reach of many families and individuals with lower incomes,” said Chris Herbert, Managing Director of the Joint Center For Housing Studies at Harvard.  

      Consumers who rent their homes don't want to hear any talk about the low U.S. inflation rate. Their cost of living has gone up considerably since the Great...
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      Home remodeling project sales expected to boom in 2016

      Lowe's hires more seasonal employees to prepare

      If you’re thinking of making improvements to your home this year, you’re not alone. Members of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) are predicting double digit growth (13.1%) this year.

      Postponed projects were the number one growth driver, with economic growth and increasing home prices tied for number two. Experts say this bump in home improvement sales may also be the result of 2014’s upswing in housing market conditions.

      According to Chris Herbert, Managing Director of the Joint Center, new construction, price gains, and sales are encouraging owners to invest in their home. Strengthening housing market conditions, he says, are “encouraging owners to invest in more discretionary home improvements, such as kitchen and bath remodeling and room additions, in addition to the necessary replacements of worn components, such as roofing and siding."

      Economic impact

      The predicted spike in home improvement sales has not gone unnoticed by home improvement stores. Lowe’s is already preparing for the forecasted boom in home remodeling projects by hiring more seasonal employees.

      The company announced recently that it hired 46,000 employees to help customers during spring and summer — 6,000 more than were hired last year.

      But experts say the foot traffic in your local home improvement store may only see a temporary increase.

      May not extend past spring

      While there are strong expectations for growth in the first half of 2016, experts say numbers may dwindle during the second half of the year.

      According to Abbe Will, a research analyst in the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center, further gains in remodeling activity could be tempered by several factors, including slowdowns in the shipments of building materials, remodeling contractor employment trends, and restrictive consumer lending environments.

      These factors, according to Will, are “lowering remodeler sentiment and could keep spending gains in the mid-single digit range moving forward."

      Remodeling ideas

      Winter days filled with HGTV may also be contributing homeowners’ itch to remodel in the spring.

      If you’re looking for cost-effective projects that will increase the value of your home, HGTV offers these 30 tips and ideas— some of which can even be done before spring (unless, of course, winter storm Jonas has your car so entrenched in snow that a trip to the hardware store is impossible.)

      If you’re thinking of making improvements to your home this year, you’re not alone. Members of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) a...
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      Carnivore Meat Company recalls frozen pet food

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Carnivore Meat Company is recalling one lot of Vital Essentials Frozen Chicken Patties Entree for Dogs.

      The following product, which may be contaminated with Salmonella, is being recalled:

      • Vital Essentials Frozen Chicken Patties Entree for Dogs, Net wt. 6-lbs., UPC 33211 00807, Lot # 11475, Best by date 20161108 (11/08/16)

      The "Best By" date code and lot # is located on the back of the package.

      The recalled product was sold in California, Florida, Georgia, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington.

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should dispose of it in a safe manner by securing it in a covered trash receptacle, and contact the company for help in obtaining replacement or a full refund from your local retailer for your original purchase.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 920-370-6542 Monday – Friday from 9:00AM - 4:00PM (CST), or be email at info@vitalessentialsraw.com.

      Carnivore Meat Company is recalling one lot of Vital Essentials Frozen Chicken Patties Entree for Dogs. The following product, which may be contami...
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      Dole Fresh Vegetables recalls salads processed in Springfield, Ohio

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Dole Fresh Vegetables is withdrawing from the market all Dole-branded and private label packaged salads processed at its Springfield, Ohio production facility.

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      The company is also temporarily suspending operations at its that facility.

      Recalled products are identified with a product code beginning with the letter “A” in the upper right-hand corner of the package and are sold in the following states and Canadian provinces:

      • Alabama
      • Connecticut
      • Florida
      • Georgia
      • Illinois
      • Indiana
      • Kentucky
      • Louisiana
      • Michigan
      • Massachusetts
      • Maryland
      • Minnesota
      • Missouri
      • Mississippi
      • North Carolina
      • New Jersey
      • New York
      • Ohio
      • Pennsylvania
      • South Carolina
      • Tennessee
      • Virginia
      • Wisconsin
      • List of provinces included in the voluntary withdrawal:
      • Ontario
      • New Brunswick
      • Quebec

      Consumers who have the recalled product not consume it, but discard it.

      Consumers with questions may call the Dole Food Company consumer response center at 800-356-3111 from 8:00am-8:00pm (ET) Monday through Friday.

      Dole Fresh Vegetables is withdrawing from the market all Dole-branded and private label packaged salads processed at its Springfield, Ohio production facil...
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      Five million more vehicles recalled after Ford pickup driver killed by airbag fragments

      The latest recall includes Ford, VW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz models, among others

      The death of a Ford pickup truck driver has touched off a massive recall of about 5 million additional vehicles equipped with Takata airbags. The new recalls include vehicle manufactured by Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Ford, who had escaped previous recalls.

      The recalls are based on continuing tests of the Takata airbags and on the investigation in to the death of a South Carolina man whose 2006 Ford Ranger struck a cow in Georgia, Automotive News reported.

      The truck's airbags deployed and the driver was struck by flying metal parts from the airbag inflator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.

      The latest recall brings the total number of vehicles recalled because of Takata airbag inflators to 28 million worldwide, 24 million in the U.S. 

      About 4 million other vehicles will be recalled due to additional testing on Takata airbags, including vehicles from Honda, VW and other automakers, NHTSA said today.

      Takata has been fined $70 million for safety violations and could face additional penalties of up to $130 million. 

      The death of a Ford pickup truck driver has touched off a massive recall of about 5 million additional vehicles equipped with Takata airbags. The new recal...
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      Former NJ Nets player sentenced to nine years in Ponzi scheme

      C. Tate George scammed victims for more than $2 million, feds charged

      Former New Jersey Nets and Milwaukee Bucks player C. Tate George has been sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in orchestrating a $2 million investment fraud scheme.

      After a three-week trial before U.S. District Judge Mary L. Cooper in September 2013, a jury deliberated for four hours before convicting George, 47, of Newark, N.J., of all of four counts of the indictment. 

      According to testimony in the case, George held himself out as the CEO of The George Group and claimed to have more than $500 million in assets under management.  He pitched prospective investors, including several former professional athletes, to invest with the firm and told them their money would be used to fund The George Group’s purchase and development of real estate development projects, including projects in Connecticut and New Jersey.  

      But, said prosecutors, the supposed "opportunity" was really nothing more than a Ponzi scheme.

      “Those who perpetrate Ponzi schemes shamelessly trade on relationships with those who trust them,” U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said.  “In this case, George relied on his sports stardom to attract unwitting investors. His crimes justified today’s lengthy sentence.”

      “By shamelessly cashing in on his celebrity C. Tate George stole $2 million from investors who trusted him as a former NBA athlete,” said Special Agent in Charge Richard M. Frankel for the FBI’s Newark Division.  “George used the money to pay other investors in the Ponzi-style scheme and lined his pockets with the rest, funding extensive renovations on his home, paying for his daughter’s sixteenth birthday party, and producing a reality video about himself.”

      During the sentencing proceeding, prosecutors asserted George had presented the court with fraudulent character witness letters arguing in favor of a light sentence.

      The prosecutors became suspicious when they noted the letters were strikingly similar. They checked with the individuals who purportedly sent the letters and found that they denied writing them.

      In addition to prison time, Judge Cooper also sentenced George to three years of supervised release, ordered him to pay $2.55 million in restitution and entered a forfeiture money judgment of $2.55 million.

      Former New Jersey Nets and Milwaukee Bucks player C. Tate George has been sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in orchestrating a $2 million inve...
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      Glassdoor predicts the 25 best jobs in America for 2016

      Survey says that data scientist is the best job available in the coming year

      Jobs site Careerbuilder recently released a survey suggesting more employees will be looking for a new job in 2016. If you plan to be one of them, what kind of job should you look for?

      Another employment site, Glassdoor.com, has released a list of what it says will be the 25 best jobs in America in 2016.

      The best position, according to the survey, is data scientist, with an estimated 1,736 job openings and a base salary of $116,840.

      Number two on the list is tax manager. Glassdoor predicts 1,574 job openings for that job with a median base salary of $108,000.

      In third place is solutions architect, with 2,906 job openings and a median base pay of $119,500.

      Filling out the top 10

      Other occupations in the top 10 include engagement manager, mobile developer, HR manager, physician assistant, product manager, software engineer, and audit manager.

      What's at the bottom of the list? Software engineer comes in at number 25. It's still a pretty good job. According to Glassdoor, it pays a median base salary of $130,000 – but is highly competitive, since Glassdoor counts only 653 openings.

      The Careerbuilder survey found that 21% of employees were determined to leave their current employers in 2016, an increase of 5% from those who expressed that sentiment in the 2014 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.”

      Jobs site Careerbuilder recently released a survey suggesting more employees will be looking for a new job in 2016. If you plan to be one of them, what kin...
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      The millennials are coming -- eventually

      It won't be long before 25-34 year-olds start shaping housing preferences

      It may take a while, but the millennial generation is poised to make a significant impact on home design, according to speakers at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) International Builders' Show.

      But first, they have to move out of their parents' homes and into a place of their own.

      About 15% of adults ages 25-34 lived with a parent, about 3% more than the highest share between 1983 and 2007 – 12%, according to NAHB Assistant Vice President for Survey Research Rose Quint. That translates into 1.3 million people who she says normally "would be out there, forming their own households, demanding their own units," either as buyers or renters.

      Speaking at a press conference on housing preferences for millennials, Gen Xers, boomers, and seniors, Quint said she had anticipated that new mortgage programs and looser mortgage insurance requirements unveiled a year ago would have led to an increase in consumers buying homes for the first time.

      But a look at the size of the typical new single-family home in 2015 found the opposite: home sizes grew to an average of 2,721 square feet, the highest yet, and an indication that the new-home market continues to be dominated by move-up buyers, rather than first-time buyers.

      "Before we see that expected pullback in square footage and price, we're going to have to see a significant return of the first-time buyer," who is more likely to buy a smaller home at a lower price point, Quint said.

      What buyers want

      This year, home buyers of all ages say they are looking for homes with separate laundry rooms, energy-star appliances and windows, exterior lighting, and a patio.

      What they don't want are rooms with cork flooring, elevators, pet washing stations, expensive outdoor kitchens and fireplaces, and two-story entryways and family rooms. And their countertops should be granite, but never laminate, according to a Fall 2015 survey of potential buyers.

      In terms of house type, buyers want a detached, single-family home: 65% of all buyers and 68% of millennials expressed that preference. That number rises to 72% with Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1979) but falls somewhat to 55% with those born before 1945, Quint said.

      Driven by smartphones

      Better Homes and Gardens Brand Executive Editor Jill Waage echoed Quint's findings on preferences for well-equipped kitchens and casual, comfortable living spaces -- especially outdoor living rooms, where millennials want to entertain their families and friends.

      What's important about this generation is their comfort with technology. Millennials "are leading the way on this," Waage said. "They are the first generation to walk into homeownership with a smartphone in their hands."

      These millennials want to use technology to make entertainment choices easier, monitor the comings and goings of packages, repairmen, and their children, and improve their health and well-being. When it comes to product choices, "they've read the ratings, comments and reviews, and they know what's worth it," and have probably created a Google alert so they know when it's on sale, she said.

      The survey results are also important to home builders in the 55+ market, said David Peskin, president of Reverse Mortgage Funding LLC (RMF), which sponsored the NAHB study on consumer preferences. “The boomer generation is currently experiencing a transition to their next phase of life,” he noted, “so the home building and finance industries should commit to better understand the wants and needs of this generation to offer the best possible solutions for them.”

      It may take a while, but the millennial generation is poised to make a significant impact on home design, according to speakers at the National Association...
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      Leading Economic Index slips in December

      Still, moderate economic growth is forecast for the near term

      The Conference Board's Leading Economic Index (LEI) posted a decline in December for the first time in three months.

      The dip of 0.2% follows increases of 0.5% in both November and October.

      Despite the decline, which was led by a drop in housing permits and weak new orders in manufacturing,” Ataman Ozyildirim, director of business cycles and growth research at The Conference Board says the index “continues to suggest moderate growth in the near-term despite the economy losing some momentum at the end of 2015. While the LEI’s growth rate has been on the decline,” he continued, “it’s too early to interpret this as a substantial rise in the risk of recession.”

      The LEI is essentially a composite average of several individual leading economic components. It is constructed to summarize and reveal common turning point patterns in economic data in a clearer and more convincing manner than any individual component – primarily because it smooths out some of the volatility of individual components.

      The ten components of The Conference Board 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, nondefense 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
      The Conference Board's Leading Economic Index (LEI) posted a decline in December for the first time in three months.The dip of 0.2% follows increases o...
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      Existing-home sales soar in December

      2015 was the best sales year since 2006

      Sales of previously-owned homes finished 2015 in fine style.

      The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports total existing-home sales -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums, and co-ops -- shot up 14.7% in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.46 million. Sales are now 7.7% above a year ago.

      Sales were robust in all four regions of the country, led by the South and West.

      November carryover

      December's rebound caps off the best year of existing sales (5.26 million) since 2006 (6.48 million). "While the carryover of November's delayed transactions into December contributed greatly to the sharp increase, the overall pace taken together indicates sales these last two months maintained the healthy level of activity seen in most of 2015," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. "Additionally, the prospect of higher mortgage rates in coming months and warm November and December weather allowed more homes to close before the end of the year."

      The median existing-home price for all housing types was $224,100, a year-over-year increase of 7.6%, marking the 46th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

      Total housing inventory at the end of December dropped 12.3% to 1.79 million existing homes available for sale, and is now down 3.8% from December 2014 (1.86 million). Unsold inventory is at a 3.9-month supply at the current sales pace, versus 5.1 months in November and the lowest since January 2005.

      "Although some growth is expected, the housing market will struggle in 2016 to replicate last year's increase in sales," Yun said. "In addition to insufficient supply levels, the overall pace of sales this year will be constricted by tepid economic expansion, rising mortgage rates and decreasing demand for buying in oil-producing metro areas."

      Regional sales tally

      • Existing-home sales in the Northeast increased 8.7% in December to an annual rate of 750,000 and are now 11.9% above a year ago. The median price was $255,700, which is 5.3% above December 2014.
      • In the Midwest, sales jumped 10.9% to an annual rate of 1.22 million for a year-over-year gain of 9.9%. The median price was up 7.5% at $171,000.
      • Sales in the South surged 14.6% to an annual rate of 2.27 million and are now 4.6% above the same month a year earlier. The median price was $196,100 -- up 6.8% from a year ago.
      • Previously-owned homes sold at an annual are of 1.22 million in the West, an advance of 23.2% for a year-over-year gain of 8.9% higher than a year ago. The median price was up 8.2% from the year before to $321,100.
      Sales of previously-owned homes finished 2015 in fine style.The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports total existing-home sales -- completed t...
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      Mahina Mele Farms recalls macadamia nut products

      The products are contaminated with Salmonella

      Mahina Mele Farms is recalling a variety of macadamia nut products after testing found the nuts were contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with these products.

      The following products are being recalled:

      PRODUCTUPCLOT #SIZE
      Izzie Macs! Macadamia Nuts689076792677026,027,0296oz (salted) plastic bag
      Izzie Macs! Macadamia Nuts689076793575026,027,0296oz (unsalted) plastic bag
      Izzie Macs! Macadamia Nuts689076792776026,027,02916oz (unsalted) plastic bag
      Izzie Macs! Macadamia Nuts689076792974026,027,02916oz (salted) plastic bag
      Bulk Macadamia nuts-026,027,0295lb bag (salted and unsalted; wholes and pieces)
      Baby Bruddah’s Mac Nut Buttah753182242019026,027,02912oz, plastic tub
      Baby Bruddah’s Chocolate Mac Nut Buttah73518224204026,027,02912oz, plastic tub

      The recalled products were distributed to retail stores in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maryland and Virginia from Oct 21- Nov 25, 2015.

      Customers who purchased the above products should not consume them and should return them to the store where they were purchased for a full refund or replacement.

      Consumers with questions may call Jason or Kollette Stith at 808 328 8987, Monday-Friday, 8-4 (HST).

      Mahina Mele Farms is recalling a variety of macadamia nut products after testing found the nuts were contaminated with Salmonella. No illnesses hav...
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      Chillafish children's balance bikes recalled

      Overinflated tires can cause the wheel rims to crack

      Mindware Corp., of Omaha, Neb., Northwest Synergy, of Redmond, Wash. and Wal-Mart Stores, of Bentonville, Ark., are recalling about 29,268 Chillafish children's bikes in the U.S. and Canada

      Overinflated tires can cause the wheel rims to crack and send pieces of the plastic rim flying, posing a laceration hazard to consumers.

      Chillafish has received 19 reports of plastic separating from the rims, including two reports of consumers being cut by flying plastic when pieces of the plastic rim were expelled.

      This recall includes all Chillafish BMXie, Chillafish Jack and Chillafish Josie balance bikes, which are designed for children ages 2 to 5 and have no pedals and or chains. The bikes are made of plastic, are about 31.5 inches long with a seat that can be adjusted from about 12.5 inches high to about 15.5 inches high and have a detachable foot support. BMXie bikes were sold in the colors blue, lime green, pink, red and yellow. Item reference number CPMX01BLU, CPMX01LIM, CPMX01PIN, CPMX01RED or CPMX01YEL is on a label on the bottom of the bike frame.

      Jack and Josie bikes have steel frames. The bikes are about 34 inches long with a seat that can be adjusted from about 14 inches high to about 17 inches high.

      Jack bikes were sold in a black and orange color scheme with flames on the crosstube and item reference number CPJJ02BLA on a label on the bottom of the bike frame.

      Josie bikes were sold in a white and pink color scheme with flowers on the crosstube and item reference number CPJJ02WHI on a label on the bottom of the bike frame.

      The bikes, manufactured in China, were sold at Sam’s Club stores nationwide and online at Amazon .com, Target.com and ToysRUs.com from November 2013, through November 2015, for between $55 and $80.

      Consumers should immediately stop children from using the recalled bikes until the tires are deflated to a pressure at or below 32 psi and contact Chillafish for a free repair. Chillafish is contacting consumers directly.

      Consumers may contact Chillafish toll-free at 888-666-7689 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday excluding holidays, or online at www.chillafish.com.

      Mindware Corp., of Omaha, Neb., Northwest Synergy, of Redmond, Wash. and Wal-Mart Stores, of Bentonville, Ark., are recalling about 29,268 Chillafish child...
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      Retirement savers get conflicting advice on market turmoil

      Advice ranges from stay the course to look out below

      Stock market volatility since the beginning of the year has investors puzzled and people saving for retirement nervous.

      The latter tend to put their money in stock mutual funds, which have seen sharp erosions so far in 2016. Many are asking what their next step should be.

      The advice that's emerging from market watchers tends to break down into two camps – stay the course and take defensive measures now and be careful about adding to positions.

      Vanguard founder Jack Bogle clearly represents the stay the course view. In an interview on CNBC this week, the mutual fund guru called the current market volatility “speculation,” and said consumers should continue investing because the underlying economy is fine.

      "In the short run, listen to the economy; don't listen to the stock market," he told interviewers on Power Lunch. "These moves in the market are like a tale told by an idiot: full of sound and fury, signaling nothing."

      Continued headwinds

      Michelle Perry Higgins, Principal at California Financial Advisors in San Ramon, Calif., is also counseling clients to hold tight, even though she acknowledges the market is likely to face strong headwinds from oil and China throughout 2016.

      “My clients’ portfolios have strong defensive barriers that include bonds and cash for short term needs,” she told ConsumerAffairs. “Therefore, there is no need to sell equities in a panic.”

      As for people sitting on large amounts of cash, she suggests the current market swoon represents an opportunity to put that money to work.

      Farther to fall?

      But others are not so sure stocks don't have farther to fall. Ari Wald of Oppenheimer is a technician who bases market calls on a reading of the charts. He tells CNBC that he believes stocks are in what he calls a non-recessionary bear market and they have not quite reached a bottom. He predicts the S&P 500 still has another 130 points or so lower to go.

      Brett Arends, a columnist for Marketwatch, also sees more potential downside, writing that the market is cheaper, but not yet cheap. He maintains the underlying value of companies in the S&P 500 still don't justify their prices, even after this month's declines.

      “None of this means the current slump must get worse anytime soon,” he writes. “The only short-term cause of a market selloff is the same: more sellers than buyers. At some point more buyers appear, while some sellers pause for breath.”

      He says Wednesday's partial recovery from a terrifying morning plunge is a “hopeful sign.” Still, he says it might be a little too early to go bargain hunting.

      Stock market volatility since the beginning of the year has investors puzzled and people saving for retirement nervous.The latter tend to put their mon...
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      Gas prices almost certain to go much lower

      Plunging oil prices not expected to go back up anytime soon

      Consumers have enjoyed falling gasoline prices for more than a year now, but no doubt there is always that nagging voice in the back on their minds whispering, “better enjoy this while you can, it won't last.”

      Well, the nagging voice may have been wrong. The continued decline in oil prices, which gained momentum this week, most likely means the current national average price, $1.86 a gallon, will go down more. Maybe a lot more.

      AAA reported this week that depressed world oil prices, now around $26 a barrel, have sent gasoline prices to their lowest level since February 2009. The average price of self-serve regular has gone down 63 out of 73 days.

      But some of the sharpest declines in world oil prices have come in the last few days, as sanctions against Iran disappeared and that country is now free to start selling its oil in an already saturated market.

      Effects have yet to show up

      On Wednesday, Gas Buddy senior petroleum analyst Patrick DeHaan Tweeted, “Keep in mind what we're watching- plunging oil prices- takes 1-2 weeks to fully be realized at your local gas station.”

      That suggests the price of gasoline will keep going down – maybe significantly – for a few more weeks until U.S. refineries begin their annual seasonal maintenance, which usually creates supply bottlenecks, driving prices up again, at least temporarily.

      DeHaan also points out that the current price of oil, adjusted for inflation, is even cheaper than it averaged during the 1950s.

      AAA reports the price of crude oil has dropped more than 70% from its June 2014 high of $107.26 per barrel. When oil prices plunged last week, breaking through the $30 a barrel mark, it was the first time that had happened since 2003.

      Revising its forecast

      All of this has caused AAA to recalculate its previous estimate of 2016 gasoline prices at between $2.25 and $2.45 a gallon. That seems downright expensive at this point.

      But the lesson here is that when it comes to oil, nothing is permanent. Today's assumptions about supply and price can be turned around by tomorrow's event.

      After all, it wasn't too long ago that many believed the world was fast approaching the time when it could not produce enough oil to meet demand. They warned of shortages and sky-high prices.

      The theory failed to foresee the shale oil revolution and the huge efficiencies in cars that has slowed the growth in demand.

      Things can change. So it might be wise not to completely tune out nagging voice in the back of your head.

      Consumers have enjoyed falling gasoline prices for more than a year now, but no doubt there is always that nagging voice in the back on their minds whisper...
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      Dogs examine eyes first when deciphering facial expressions, study finds

      This is the first evidence of emotion-related gaze patterns in non-primates

      Humans may not be the only ones who consider eyes to be the window to the soul. A new study out of the University of Helsinki found that dogs, just like humans, focus most closely on the eyes when deciphering facial expressions.

      The study, published recently in the science journal PLOS ONE, determined that dogs look first to the eyes and examine them much longer than nose or mouth areas. Ultimately, the dogs appeared to base their perception of the facial expression on the face as a whole.

      This social gazing pattern mirrors that of humans and is being called the first evidence of emotion-related gaze patterns in non-primates. The study’s findings provide modern day support of Charles Darwin’s 150-year old argument that human and non-human animal emotional expressions share evolutionary roots.

      Different reactions to threatening faces

      Using eye-gaze tracking, researchers noted that images of certain expressions  the mouths of threatening dogs, for example  piqued their attention more than others. In addition to being more attentive to threatening faces, dogs’ viewing behavior was altered upon seeing them; they looked much longer at the faces of threatening dogs. 

      This attentional bias to threatening faces may be based on an evolutionary adaptive mechanism, researchers say. The ability to detect and avoid threats represents a survival advantage.

      But it appeared this reaction to threatening faces was species-specific, as dogs had a much different reaction to threatening human faces.

      Species-specific reaction

      Instead of looking longer at the threatening face the way dogs did with conspecifics, dogs averted their gaze when a threatening human face was before them. Both reactions  longer looking and the avoidance response  are survival mechanisms, researchers say.

      “Domestication may have equipped dogs with a sensitivity to detect the threat signals of humans and respond to them with pronounced appeasement signals,” said Sanni Somppi from the University of Helsinki.

      The scientific reasoning behind the different reactions, according to researchers, is that threatening signals carrying different biological validity are most likely processed via different neurocognitive pathways.

      Dog-friendly methods were used throughout the study. Prior to the experiment, the 31 dogs who participated were clicker-trained to stay still in front of a monitor without being restrained. As a result of the positive training approach used (a treat was given no matter what reaction was exhibited), the dogs were highly motivated to perform the task. 

      Humans may not be the only ones who consider eyes to be the window to the soul. A new study out of the University of Helsinki found that dogs, just like hu...
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      Home builders bullish on 2016

      Economists cite solid job growth and rising consumer confidence

      This looks to be a good year for the housing industry, according to economists speaking at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas.

      “There are a number of positive indicators that provide solid evidence this will be a good year for housing and the economy,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. They include a firming economy, solid job growth, rising consumer confidence, higher household formations, and pent-up demand.

      Private sector job growth has been averaging 240,000 per month over the past two years, Crowe noted, while GDP growth is expected to climb slightly above last year’s level. Consumer confidence is also nearly back to its pre-recession peak.

      However, there may be some rough patches. Builders report their top concerns in the year ahead include the cost and availability of developed lots and labor, federal environmental regulations, policies which they say are making it more expensive and difficult to build homes, and building materials prices.

      Single-family gains projected

      The NAHB is forecasting 1.26 million total housing starts in 2016 -- up 13.4% from 2015.

      Single-family production is expected to reach 840,000 units this year, an 18% increase from last year. The NAHB is using the 2000-2003 period, when single-family starts averaged 1.34 million units on an annual basis, as a healthy benchmark. The housing recovery will see single-family starts steadily climb from 55% of normal production at the end of the third quarter of 2015 all the way up to 87% of normal production by the end of 2017.

      On the multifamily side, the NAHB is anticipating 417,000 starts in 2016, up 5% from last year.

      Meanwhile, residential remodeling activity is expected to register a 1.1% advance over 2015.

      A bright regional outlook – with one exception

      Below the national numbers, Nationwide Insurance Chief Economist David Berson said most regional housing markets look healthy.

      Labor market conditions, a key driver of housing demand, are strong in many metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) -- supporting faster household formations and boosting local housing activity through rising incomes. These factors indicate that most of the 400 local housing markets “should see sustained growth in the coming year,” Berson said.

      With the unemployment rate declining in 90% of MSAs over the past year, Berson said housing fundamentals are the strongest in over a decade, a trend supported by the labor market, demographics, and consumer preference to own.

      However, he noted that many MSAs with strong ties to energy exploration and production in states including Louisiana, Texas, Wyoming, and South Dakota are expected to see limited housing expansion in the near term, as low oil prices are reducing employment.

      Mortgage rates: “cheap” to low

      CoreLogic Chief Economist Frank Nothaft foresees solid fundamentals for housing in 2016.

      He calls 30-year fixed-rate mortgages running at or below 4% during the past year “cheap,” but notes that rates are expected to gradually rise one-quarter to one-half a percentage point this year -- up to 4.5%, going from what he calls, “cheap to low.”

      Nothaft added that overall home sales will rise 4-5% this year, led by a 13% gain for new home sales, with sales volume and growth strongest in the South and West. “There is stronger growth in households, population and demand for new housing” in these regions, he said.

      He predicts prices will post a roughly 4-5% gain this year from the 2015 level and will reach the 2006 peak by mid-2017.

      And, while tight mortgage credit for consumers is expected to ease slowly this year, it will remain relatively tight compared with 15-20 years ago.

      This looks to be a good year for the housing industry, according to economists speaking at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) International B...
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      Initial jobless claims surge to six-month high

      A better year for tech workers

      More people than expected found themselves standing in the unemployment line last week.

      Figures released by the Department of Labor (DOL) show a seasonally adjusted 293,000 workers filed first-time applications for state jobless benefits in the week ending January 16 -- up 10,000 from the previous week's downwardly revised total.

      That's the highest level since the first week of July. Analysts at Briefing.com had been calling for a decline in filings to 280,000.

      The DOL says there were no special factors affecting the total.

      The four-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered by some economists to be a more accurate gauge of the labor market, rose 6,500 to 285,000. The previous week's average was revised down by 250 -- from 278,750 to 278,500.

      The complete report is available on the DOL website.

      Tech sector job cuts

      In other labor news, this past year was a bit better than 2014 for workers in the technology sector.

      A new analysis of data by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that job cuts announced in 2015 by tech sector employers fell sharply from the previous year.

      The technology sector, which encompasses computer, electronic, and telecommunications firms, announced 79,315 planned job cuts in last year. That's down 21% from a 2014 total of 100,757, which was the highest total since 2009.

      While that was good for the overall tech sector, workers at computer firms weren't so fortunate. Officials there increased terminations by 5.0% -- from 59,528 in 2014 to 62,191 in 2015. Much of that came from a third-quarter surge that saw more than 47,000 announced cuts from several notable firms, including Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Intel, and Unisys.

      Overall, the tech sector was responsible for 13% of the 598,510 total job cuts announced in 2015.

      “We could see more of this in 2016, which could lead to increased turnover in the industry,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Jobs may shift from company to another, while others are lost. Overall, employment in the industry should continue to grow. So much so, that the biggest problem will be finding skilled workers.”

      More people than expected found themselves standing in the unemployment line last week.Figures released by the Depar...
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      Britax recalls child seats with carry handle issue

      The handle may fracture, causing the seat to fall

      Britax Child Safety is recalling 71,454 B-Safe 35 child seats, models E9LU65M, E9LU65P, E9LU63F, E9LU66R, E9LS63F and EXLU65M; B-Safe 35 Elite child seats, models E9LS55T, E9LS56P, E9LS55U, E9LS66C and E9LS65U; and B-Safe 35 Travel Systems, models S914900, S915400, S915200, S921900 and S01635200, manufactured October 1, 2014, to July 1, 2015.

      The recalled child restraints have handles that may develop cracks in, under, and around, the carry handle grip. The cracks may lead to the handle fracturing and the seat falling while being carried, increasing risk of injury to the infant.

      Britax will notify all registered owners, and ship them a remedy kit that includes a carry handle reinforcing bracket, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin January 22, 2016.

      Owners may contact Britax customer service at 1-800-683-2045 or Britax.Recall@Britax.com.

      Britax Child Safety is recalling 71,454 B-Safe 35 child seats, models E9LU65M, E9LU65P, E9LU63F, E9LU66R, E9LS63F and EXLU65M; B-Safe 35 Elite child seats,...
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      Consumer groups want FCC to curb targeted ads

      Websites are beyond the FCC's reach but broadband providers are not

      A coalition of consumer groups wants the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to keep broadband providers from serving targeted ads to subscribers.

      It's part of a growing wave of resistance to marketers tracking consumers and serving ads that match the profiles that are built from such tracking. On another front, Internet pioneer Brendan Eich is launching a new browser, Brave, that blocks targeted ads and inserts more general advertising.

      While websites themselves are beyond the reach of the FCC, broadband providers including telephone and wireless companies and satellite TV providers are not. and the groups say the FCC should crack down on them.

      "Providers of broadband Internet access service ... have a unique role in the online ecosystem," the organizations say in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "Their position as Internet gatekeepers gives them a comprehensive view of consumer behavior and until now privacy protections for consumers using those services have been unclear."

      The 59 organizations signing the letter include the Consumer Federation of America, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Free Press. The Electronic Privacy Information Center submitted a more detailed letter.

      "Chilling effect

      They are asking the FCC to adopt rules that would prohibit broadband providers from collecting and sharing data about consumers without their explicit consent. The watchdogs also say the FCC should require providers to notify consumers about data breaches, and should require providers to "clearly disclose" data collection practices.

      The groups also say the prospect of online surveillance "can create a chilling effect on speech and increase the potential for discriminatory practices derived from data use."

      Wheeler has said he intends to propose new privacy rules, something the FCC is able to do because of its recent decision to reclassify Internet service providers as common carriers. That move subjected broadband providers to some of the same confidentiality requirements rules as telephone companies.

      The commission currently advises broadband providers to follow the “core tenets of basic privacy protections” but has not yet enacted specific privacy regulations.

      "The capital asset of the 21st century is information, and it ends up being information about you and me," Wheeler told talk show host Charlie Rose last November. "You and I ought to have a voice in the collection of information about us. Nothing about me without me, is what the expression is."

      A coalition of consumer groups wants the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to keep broadband providers from serving targeted ads to subscribers.I...
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      Texas latest state to question daily fantasy sports legality

      Attorney General Ken Paxton draws distinction with informal fantasy leagues

      There could be more trouble on the horizon for daily fantasy sports (DFS) enterprises and players in Texas who participate.

      Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is the latest state law enforcement representative to suggest the games offered by FanDuel and DraftKings amount to illegal gambling.

      “It’s my duty as Attorney General to look to the law, as passed by the people’s representatives, to answer the questions put to this office,” Paxton said in a statement. “Paid daily ‘fantasy sports’ operators claim they can legally operate as an unregulated house, but none of their arguments square with existing Texas law. Simply put, it is prohibited gambling in Texas if you bet on the performance of a participant in a sporting event and the house takes a cut.”

      Paxton issued an opinion requested by a Texas state representative. Rep. Myra Crownover, Chair of the Committee on Public Health. She asked Paxton whether the sports leagues are permitted under Texas law and whether it is legal in fantasy where the “house” does not take a cut.

      Informal leagues are fine

      Paxton said he believes, as a general rule, informal fantasy leagues where participants split any money among themselves are legal. But, he says, DFS enterprises are wrong in claiming an actual-contestant exception, which applies only to contestants in an actual skill or sporting event. And unlike some other states, Texas law only requires “partial chance” for something to be gambling. It does not require that chance predominate, he said.

      “It is beyond reasonable dispute that daily fantasy leagues involve an element of chance regarding how a selected player will perform on game day,” Paxton wrote in the opinion. “The participant's skill in selecting a particular player for his team has no impact on the performance of the player or the outcome of the game.”

      Other states

      Texas is just the latest state to look at DFS with a skeptical eye. In New York, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has sued both FanDuel and DraftKings in an effort to force them to stop accepting players from the state.

      Additionally, Schneiderman has asked the court to order the two companies to return money spent by New Yorkers and pay civil damages. An appeals court will hear the suit and, in the meantime, has granted the two companies a stay so that New Yorkers may continue to play until the case is decided.

      Last month, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a similar opinion, saying it is her belief that DFS violates Illinois gambling laws.

      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.

      There could be more trouble on the horizon for daily fantasy sports (DFS) enterprises and players in Texas who participate.Texas Attorney General Ken P...
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      Depression more common in the winter? New study says it's not

      Large-scale survey finds no evidence of seasonal affective disorder

      Everyone knows we're more likely to be depressed in the winter. Only problem is, everyone may be wrong, according to a new study.

      The large-scale survey of U.S. adults found no evidence that levels of depressive symptoms vary from season to season, contradicting the widespread believe that seasonal affective disorder -- often referred to as "SAD" -- is a real phenomenon.

      "In conversations with colleagues, the belief in the association of seasonal changes with depression is more or less taken as a given and the same belief is widespread in our culture," says Steven LoBello, a professor of psychology at Auburn University at Montgomery and senior author on the new study, published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

      "We analyzed the data from many angles and found that the prevalence of depression is very stable across different latitudes, seasons of the year, and sunlight exposures," LoBello said.

      SAD was officially added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1987. But more recent studies have challenged the validity of earlier SAD research, including the fact that SAD is typically identified by asking patients to recall past depressive episodes over the course of the previous year or more.

      Data examined

      LoBello and lead study author Megan Traffanstedt decided to investigate whether they could find evidence for seasonal variation in depressive symptoms using data from a large-scale survey of U.S. adults.

      They examined data from a total of 34,294 participants ranging in age from 18 to 99. Using geographic location for each participant, the researchers also obtained season-related measures including the actual day of the year, the latitude, and the amount of sunlight exposure.

      The results showed no evidence that symptoms of depression were associated with any of the season-related measures. That is, people who responded to the survey in the winter months, or at times of lower sunlight exposure, did not have noticeably higher levels of depressive symptoms than those who responded to the survey at other times.

      And the researchers did not find any evidence for seasonal differences in symptoms when they specifically looked at the subsample of 1,754 participants who scored within the range for clinical depression.

      "The findings cast doubt on major depression with seasonal variation as a legitimate psychiatric disorder," the researchers conclude.

      Everyone knows we're more likely to be depressed in the winter. Only problem is, everyone may be wrong, according to a new study.The large-scale survey...
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      A December slump in new home construction

      Overall, though, 2015 was a pretty good year

      After posting a solid gain in November, new home construction skidded lower last month.

      A joint release from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development puts privately-owned housing starts in December at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,149,000, down 2.5% from November's revised estimate of 1,179,000 but up 6.4% from the same month a year earlier.

      Ground-breaking for single-family homes totaled 768,000, a drop of 3.3%; the rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 365,000, down 13,000 from the month before.

      The year as a whole wasn't that bad, though. For all of 2015, construction was started on an estimated 1,111,200 homes, up 10.8% from the previous year.

      "The gradual increase in housing production for 2015 mirrors our forecast and sets the stage for continued growth in 2016," said National Association of Home Builders Chief Economist David Crowe. "Strong job growth, rising consumer confidence and pent-up demand will keep housing on an upward trend."

      Building permits

      Building permits, a gauge of developers' intentions over the next few months were mixed for December.

      Authorizations for construction of privately-owned housing units fell 3.9% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,232,000.

      Permits for single-family home construction rose 1.8% to a rate of 740,000, while authorizations of units in buildings with five units or more were at a rate of 455,000 in December, down 71,000 from November.

      An estimated 1,178,400 building permits were issued last year an increase of 12% from 2014.

      The complete report is available on the Census Bureau website.

      After posting a solid gain in November, new home construction skidded lower last month.A joint release from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department o...
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      Consumers get a break in December as prices fall

      Lower costs for food and energy were responsible

      A drop in food and energy costs in December sent the Consumer Price Index (CPI) down a seasonally adjusted 0.1% in December, putting the increase in prices over the last 12 months at just 0.7%.

      According to the Department of Labor (DOL), energy costs plunged 2.4% last month following November's 1.3% decline. Major influences in December were gasoline (-3.9%) -- the fourth decline in the last five months -- and fuel oil (-7.8%) -- the seventh consecutive decrease. Natural gas was down 2.3% and electricity slipped 0.4%. Over the past year, fuel oil has plunged 31.4% and gasoline is down 19.7%.

      Food prices were down a smaller 0.2% in December, after declining 0.1% the month before. Food at home -- grocery prices -- fell 0.5%, the largest decline since last March. Five of the six major grocery store food groups were down, with meats, poultry, fish, and eggs (-1.4%) declining the most. Also lower were the cost of eggs (-3.4%), fruits and vegetables (-0.5%), other food at home (-0.3%) and cereals & bakery products, and nonalcoholic beverages (-0.1%). The only major grocery store food group to rise in December was dairy and related products (+0.1).

      For all of 2015, grocery prices were down 0.4%. Food away from home, or restaurants, rose 0.1% in December and was up 2.6% over the last 12 months.

      Core inflation

      The so-called “core” rate of inflation, which excludes the volatile food and energy categories, was up just 0.1% in December, its smallest increase since August.

      Gainers included shelter, medical care, household furnishings and operations, motor vehicle insurance, education, used cars and trucks, and tobacco. Among the decliners were apparel, airline fares, personal care, new vehicles, and communication. For the last 12 months, the core rate of inflation rose 2.1%.

      The complete December CPI report is available on the DOL website.

      A drop in food and energy costs in December sent the Consumer Price Index (CPI) down a seasonally adjusted 0.1% in December, putting the increase in prices...
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      Falling interest rates send mortgage applications rising

      Refinance applications were sharply high

      Contract interest that in some cases fell to their lowest levels since last October helped push mortgage applications upward last week.

      Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications were up 9.0% in the week ending January 15.

      The Refinance Index increased 19%, raising the refinance share of mortgage activity to 59.1% of total applications from 55.8% the previous week.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity rose to 6.0% of total applications, the FHA share dipped to 13.7% from 14.4%, the VA share of total applications was 10.8%, and the USDA share of total applications slipped to 0.7% from 0.8% the week before.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell six basis points -- from 4.12% to 4.06% -- the lowest level since October 2015, with points increasing to 0.41 from 0.38 (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) dropped to its lowest level since October 2015 -- 3.93% from 4.02%, with points increasing to 0.31 from 0.30 (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 four basis points to 3.86%, the lowest level since October 2015, with points increasing to 0.36 from 0.34 (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 from 3.42% to 3.29%, the lowest level since October 2015 with points unchanged at 0.39 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose six basis points to 3.20%, with points decreasing to 0.18 from 0.42 (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.

      Contract interest that in some cases fell to their lowest levels since last October helped push mortgage applications upward last week.Data from the Mo...
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      West Elm recalls bar stools

      The legs on the stools can break

      West Elm, a division of Williams-Sonoma, of San Francisco is recalling about 6,100 saddle bar and counter stools in the U.S and Canada.

      The legs on the stools can break, posing a fall hazard.

      The firm has received six reports of the stools breaking, including one injury.

      The Saddle bar and counter stools have solid wood legs with a pecan-stained finish and were sold in four upholstery options: elephant leather, crosshatch steel/ivory, slate chevron and iron basketweave.

      The seat height for the bar stools is 30.5 inches with overall dimensions of 20.5 inches wide by 20 inches deep by 41 inches tall. The seat height for the counter stools is 26 inches with overall dimensions of 20.5 inches wide by 20 inches deep by 37.5 inches high.

      SKU numbers are located on the box of the product, the customer receipt and on a sticker on the bottom of the seat. Recalled SKU numbers are:

      SKU

      Type

      Color

      652164

      Counter Stool

      Elephant Leather

      655472

      Bar Stool

      Elephant Leather

      1220763

      Bar Stool

      Iron Basketweave

      1235506

      Bar Stool

      Iron Basketweave

      1425487

      Counter Stool

      Iron Basketweave

      1591601

      Counter Stool

      Iron Basketweave

      1699289

      Counter Stool

      Slate Chevron

      1700749

      Bar Stool

      Slate Chevron

      1795665

      Bar Stool

      Slate Chevron

      1795566

      Counter Stool

      Slate Chevron

      4737185

      Bar Stool

      Elephant Leather

      4737318

      Counter Stool

      Elephant Leather

      8447229

      Counter Stool

      Crosshatch Steel/Ivory

      8447476

      Bar Stool

      Crosshatch Steel/Ivory

      9082843

      Bar Stool

      Crosshatch Steel/Ivory

      9087271

      Counter Stool

      Crosshatch Steel/Ivory

      The stools, manufactured in China, were sold at West Elm stores, online at www.westelm.com and the West Elm catalogue nationwide from July 2013, through November 2015, for between $370 and $500 for single stools and between $740 and $1,000 for a set of two.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled stools and contact West Elm for information on returning the stools for a full refund. West Elm is contacting known customers directly.

      Consumers may contact West Elm toll-free at 844-824-8911 from 7 a.m. to midnight (ET) daily or online at www.westelm.com and click on “Safety Recalls” under the “About Us” at the bottom of the page.

      West Elm, a division of Williams-Sonoma, of San Francisco is recalling about 6,100 saddle bar and counter stools in the U.S and Canada. The legs on...
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      Report says there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050

      World business leaders urged to attack plastic pollution

      The World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting is underway this week in Davos, Switzerland, a meeting best known for bringing together global leaders of commerce to talk business.

      But it's not all about commerce this week.

      A WEF report seeks to focus attention on the plight of the world's oceans – in particular, the amount of plastic that is being dumped into them. In terms of dollars and cents, the report laments the waste of up to $120 billion a year in recyclable material.

      But beyond the the financial cost, by 2050, on the current track, the report says oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish, by weight.

      Single-use plastic

      The problem stems largely from what is known as single-use plastic. Plastic water bottles, the packaging electronics devices come in, the plastic forks and spoons used at fast food restaurants. Increasingly, it all ends up in the ocean.

      Small pits of plastic can end up in fish, and thus become part of the human food chain.

      Since this, after all, is an economic conference, the report's authors see a potential business solution. They call for a “New Plastics Economy,” a fundamental rethink for plastic packaging and plastics in general.

      The report says this new model would be based on creating effective after-use pathways for plastics, keeping it out of the ocean and other natural environments.

      Plastic revolution

      “This report demonstrates the importance of triggering a revolution in the plastics industrial ecosystem and is a first step to showing how to transform the way plastics move through our economy,” said Dominic Waughray, Head of Public-Private Partnership, World Economic Forum. “The public, private sector and civil society all need to mobilize to capture the opportunity of the new circular plastics economy.”

      The report says the use of plastics has increased by twenty times in the past half-century and is expected to double again in the next 20 years.

      “In the ocean, sunlight and waves cause floating plastics to break into increasingly smaller particles, but they never completely disappear or biodegrade,” 5 Gyres, a non-profit combating plastic pollution, says on its website. “Plastic particles act as sponges for waterborne contaminants such as pesticides.”

      The group warns that fish, turtles, and even whales eat plastic objects that can make them sick or kill them. It says ocean animals are also killed by dangerous plastic waste that entangles or traps them, often suffocating them underwater.

      The WEF report says the New Plastics Economy would not only help solve an urgent environmental problem, but create strong economic benefits by repurposing discarded plastic material.

      The World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting is underway this week in Davos, Switzerland, a meeting best known for bringing together global leaders of com...
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      Consumers have more choices when getting “free” credit scores

      But don't mistake free credit scores for the FICO score used by most lenders

      Among the most powerful personal finance tools at a consumer's disposal is the credit score. That number reveals the consumer's standing among lenders.

      A high score means the consumer qualifies for loans at the best rates. A score that is too low may mean a consumer qualifies only for a subprime loan, at a higher rate and with less generous terms. There are credit repair companies that offer consumers tools to improve their credit score - to learn more visit our credit repair guide.

      When we speak of a consumer's credit score, normally we mean the FICO score, a proprietary formula developed by Fair, Isaac and Company. Most banks and lenders use it but, because it's proprietary, there is a fee to access it.

      But other financial organizations and websites have developed their own credit scores, some of which are offered at no charge. Credit Karma is perhaps the best known. It uses much of the same data as FICO and can give a consumer a good idea of his or her credit standing.

      WalletHub makes offer permanent

      Another personal finance website, WalletHub, has introduced what it said is the first free credit score that is updated on a daily basis. After offering the service on a trial basis last month, WalletHub CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou has announced the free credit score will be a permanent feature.

      “We believe that consumers should not have to make important financial decisions based on outdated information or wonder whether they are being pushed toward a particular financial product because it will really save them the most money or because it’s economically expeditious for the company making the recommendation,” Papadimitriou said in an email to ConsumerAffairs. “That’s why we put the consumer first when designing our Financial Fitness Tool. We want to level the playing field.”

      In the website's blog, senior editor John Kiernan says there is no “official” credit score.

      1,000 different types

      “To the contrary, there are more than 1,000 different types of credit scores in use today, meaning your score will inevitably vary from model to model, and the score that’s most accurate ultimately depends on a given situation,” he writes.

      For example, American Express and some other credit card companies sometimes provide a free credit score to cardholders as a premium. In most cases, Kiernan says it's going to be slightly different from your FICO score, or your credit score offered by another free provider.

      “Most lenders use publicly available scoring models as the basis for in-house rating systems but apply proprietary modifications that can lead to drastically different final results,” he writes. “In other words, they take the scores that you and I can get and add a little of their own special sauce to make custom scores.”

      Importance of credit reports

      The fact is, any company formulating a credit score for you gets its data from one place – your credit reports from the three credit reporting agencies, TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax.

      That's why it is important to take advantage of the federal law that gives every consumer the right to inspect his or her credit reports once a year. You don't get to see a credit score, just the raw material that goes into it.

      To set access to your free credit report, go to www.annualcreditreport.com.”

      Among the most powerful personal finance tools at a consumer's disposal is the credit score. That number reveals the consumer's standing among lenders....
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      Feds offer help through the pension payouts maze

      Should you take a lump-sum or lifetime monthly payout?

      You've finally made the decision to call it a career. But what will you do about that pension that's been building for the last umpteen years?

      Fear not. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has put out a guide to help you decide which pension payout option is best for you and make the right decision about retirement income.

      The guide gives folks on the cusp of retiring the information they need to understand the trade-offs of taking their pension in a monthly payment or in a lump sum. There are also tips and warnings about how to protect and best manage that money.

      “Retirees are increasingly being faced with the difficult one-time choice to either take their pension payments in a lump sum or as a lifetime income stream,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Clear information about the trade-offs they face can help consumers make the right financial decision for their retirement security.”

      Your pension plan

      Many employees in the private sector are covered by defined benefit pension plans in which retirement benefits are typically based on years of service and earnings, and paid out in the form of lifetime monthly payments.

      Increasingly, employers are giving consumers eligible for retirement benefits the option of a one-time payment for all or a portion of their pension, commonly known as a lump-sum payout. In a given year, thousands of retiring consumers face this decision.

      According to a government report, many people considering retirement don't get enough information from their employers about the long-term financial impact of choosing between a lump sum or an annuity pension payout or where to find help.

      Making the decision

      The consumer guide highlights factors that would-be retirees should consider:

      • Length of time income is needed: The monthly payment option offers steady lifetime income, which substantially reduces a consumer’s risk of running out of money later in life. A lump-sum payout, however, might make sense if the consumer is terminally ill or in critically poor health, or the consumer already has sufficient income to cover basic living expenses.
      • Money management skills: When a consumer chooses a lump-sum pension payout instead of monthly payments, the responsibility for managing the money shifts from the employer to the employee. For a monthly payment option, consumers don’t need to worry about their investment skills or how their financial management skills may change as they age. In contrast, a lump-sum payout can give a consumer the flexibility of choosing to pay off large debts, where to invest or save the money, and when and how much to withdraw.
      • Another factor to consider is that a consumer’s pension is typically insured by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). In the event the retiree’s company declares bankruptcy or cannot make its pension payments, the PBGC guarantees those payments up to a certain amount. Pension payments are also protected against certain creditor claims or debt collectors. With a lump-sum payout, you lose these protections.

      Pension payout tips

      To assist retirees who plan to make the one-time choice for a lump-sum pension payout, here are some key tips to consider:

      • Check for lump-sum calculation errors: Many factors determine a lump-sum payment amount, including age, years of work, earnings history, taxes withheld, and the terms of the plan. Consumers can detect errors by taking a look at their most recent pension statement or a consumer can contact a pension counselor for assistance or to resolve errors.
      • Plan for tax consequences: Consumers will pay taxes on a lump-sum payout. This money is generally treated as ordinary income for that year. For this reason, an employer is required to withhold 20% on the amount. In addition, a consumer could pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty tax if he/she has not reached age 59½. Consumers can defer income taxes on their lump sum by rolling over the funds into a qualified retirement account.
      • Consider future needs of surviving spouse: If married, consumers should consider the long-term financial well-being of their spouse. A family history of longevity and good health may mean the possibility of spending 20 or more years in retirement. Most pension plans provide monthly benefits to a surviving spouse or another beneficiary after the pension holder’s death through a joint and survivor payout option.
      • Protect the lump sum from fraudsters: Older people are often targets of scammers and fraudsters. Consumers should verify information, ask questions, and seek advice from trusted professionals if they are offered high returns and low risk to invest their lump sum.

      More information for older Americans about making financial decisions, protecting assets, preventing financial exploitation, and planning for long-term financial security can be found at consumerfinance.gov/older-americans/.

      You've finally made the decision to call it a career. But what will you do about that pension that's been building for the last umpteen years?Fear not....
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      Builder confidence holds steady in January

      Modest growth in the housing market is expected

      Home builders expect to see the market for newly-built single-family homes grow modestly over the next few months.

      The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) held steady at 60 following a downwardly revised reading in December.

      “January’s HMI reading is right in line with our forecast of modest growth for housing,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “The economic outlook remains promising, as consumers regain confidence and home values increase, which will help the housing market move forward.”

      Gauging the market

      The HMI, which is derived from a monthly survey that NAHB has been conducting for 30 years, gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next six months as "good," "fair," or "poor."

      The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as "high to very high," "average," or "low to very low." Scores for each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

      The HMI component gauging current sales condition rose two points in January, for a total of 67. The index measuring sales expectations in the next six months fell three points to 63, and the component charting buyer traffic dropped two points to 44.

      “After eight months hovering in the low 60s, builder sentiment is reflecting that many markets continue to show a gradual improvement, which should bode well for future home sales in the year ahead,” said NAHB Chairman Tom Woods, a home builder from Blue Springs, Mo.

      Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, all four regions registered slight declines. The Northeast, Midwest, and West each posted a one-point decline to 49, 57, and 75, respectively, while the South fell two points to 61.

      Home builders expect to see the market for newly-built single-family homes grow modestly over the next few months.The National Association of Home Buil...
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      Heritage International (USA) recalls raw cashew pieces

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Heritage International (USA) Inc. of Compton, Calif., is recalling one lot of .

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      The recall only affects one specific lot, which comes in a 16-oz., clear, non-resealable plastic package (with a barcode number of 00505154) and with the lot code, "BEST BEFORE 07.17.2016TF4." The "BEST BEFORE" information can be found on the backside of the package above the barcode.

      The product was distributed only to Trader Joe's stores in Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Washington D.C. and Wisconsin.

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should not eat the product, but dispose of it or return it to any Trader Joe's for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may call Trader Joe's customer relations at (626) 599-3817 6:00AM-6:00PM (PST) Monday - Friday.

      Heritage International (USA) Inc. of Compton, Calif., is recalling one lot of . The product may be contaminated with Salmonella No illnesse...
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      Kayem Foods recalls chicken sausage products

      The products are are encased in pork casings, which are not declared on the label

      Kayem Foods of Chelsea, Mass., is recalling approximately 22,182 pounds of chicken sausage products.

      The products are are encased in pork casings, which are not declared on the label and may elicit allergic reactions and may cause allergic reactions in those allergic to pork proteins.

      There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of this product.

      The following chicken sausage items, produced on Nov. 4, 2015, are being recalled:

      • 12-oz. vacuum-packed packages containing “al fresco SWEET APPLE CHICKEN SAUSAGE” bearing identification code “308 BW12 USE/FRZ BY FEB 7, 2016.”

      The recalled products bear establishment number “EST. P-7839” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to retail locations nationwide.

      Consumers with questions about the recall can contact Brenda Navaroli at 1-(800) 426-6100.

      Kayem Foods of Chelsea, Mass., is recalling approximately 22,182 pounds of chicken sausage products. The products are are encased in pork casings, ...
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      Latest Jeep fire lawsuit accuses Chrysler of foot-dragging in recall

      The company's delaying tactics continued as the death toll mounted, suit argues

      Older Jeep Cherokees have been implicated in at least 270 deaths and now two of those deaths have led to a Pennsylvania lawsuit that names 17 defendants, beginning with FCA, the current name of what used to be Chrysler.

      The accident is similar to the hundreds of others that led to a long-delayed and controversial recall of more than 1.6 million Jeeps. Simply put, the lawsuit claims that Edward and Theresa Dearden died because the fuel tank in their 1995 Jeep Cherokee was placed behind the axle, making it prone to burst into flames in a rear-end collision.

      Read a partial timeline of the Jeep fire-death scandal

      That's what allegedly happened on May 12, 2014 when the Deardens were involved in a multiple-vehicle pile-up on Interstate 78 in Berks County, Pa.

      The Deardens died when a tractor-trailer truck slammed into a line of stopped cars in a construction zone, first striking a Chevrolet Malibu and killing its driver, Robert Rosner. 

      Rosner's car then struck a Dodge Caravan occupied by six people which, in turn, rear-ended the Dearden's Jeep, causing it to immediately burst into flames, according to the lawsuit. 

      "Not crashworthy"

      FCA had issued a recall for a component of the Dearden vehicle prior to the crash but the couple was unaware of the recall, the lawsuit states. "The Dearden vehicle was not crashworthy due to its propensity to burst into flames after rear impacts," the complaint alleges.

      The lawsuit argues that Chrysler/FCA knew of the hazard the rear-mounted tanks presented but worked to delay the safety recall even as the death toll from fatal fires continued to climb. 

      To this day, FCA argues that the recalled vehicles are safe and claims they have a lower per-mile fatality rate than similar models.

      A collage of Jeep fire victims (Photo: dangerousjeeps.com)Older Jeep Cherokees have been implicated in at least 270 deaths and now two of those death...
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      Shareholders to file claim against VW over diesel emissions scandal

      The suit will seek hundreds of millions of euros for 66 institutional investors and thousands of private investors

      In the past couple of months, consumers who have been affected by the VW diesel scandal have expressed their outrage. In the U.S., numerous consumer groups have filed class action lawsuits, and both the feds and the state of California have rejected company proposals pertaining to the necessary recall. In all, the company stands to lose billions of dollars to U.S. consumers, as well as another $46 billion for violating the Clean Air Act.

      Now, Reuters reports that a large number of shareholders are suing the company over the scandal in Germany as well. The suit has been filed by a German firm called Nieding + Barth and seeks to claim hundreds of millions of euros in damages for 66 U.S. and British institutional investors, as well as thousands of private investors.

      The action represents what might be the “biggest platform for suits against Volkswagen in Germany,” according to Klaus Nieding.

      No end in sight

      Nieding + Barth will be using capital market model claims when they make their case in German court – a legal precedent that uses previous court rulings as templates for similar, future rulings. The firm also plans to assert that VW was aware of its emissions violations before the news was first announced in September and that the public should have been told earlier.

      Since the scandal broke in September, VW stocks have depreciated by about a third of their original value, a figure representing around $24 billion dollars. Even after the dust settles on the lawsuits we know about, investors from around the world with stakes in the company will be seeking compensation for the money they’ve lost.

      Finance groups Bentham Europe and IMF Bentham stated back in November that it would be contacting VW’s top 200 investors for a future damages claim that could break in February. 

      In the past couple of months, consumers who have been affected by the VW diesel scandal have expressed their outrage. In the U.S., numerous consumer groups...
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      Gas war in Michigan drops price to 47 cents a gallon

      Motorists in small resort town reliving the good old days

      Residents of Houghton Lake, Mich., no doubt rubbed their eyes when they passed the B&B; gas station on their way to work. The posted price was lower than it was in 1973.

      Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst at Gas Buddy, reports an old-fashioned price was has broken out in the northern Michigan resort town. DeHaan Tweeted a picture showing the posted price at 47 cents a gallon.

      Earlier, it had been at 78 cents a gallon, making national news in the process. Apparently, however, that wasn't low enough.

      Stations losing money

      Wholesale gasoline prices are cheap, but not that cheap. The warring stations are obviously losing money, just like Saudi Arabia, which launched an oil price war more than a year ago in order to damage U.S. shale producers and gain market share.

      According to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey, the national average price of gasoline is $1.89 a gallon. In Michigan, the statewide average is $1.72 gallon.

      Cheap gasoline is relatively new to Michigan. While most of the country was enjoying low fuel prices back in August, motorists in Michigan were paying $3 a gallon and more because of problems at a BP refinery that supplies much of the Midwest with gasoline.

      Gas wars were once fairly common, but that was in the long ago era of cheap gasoline. They were usually short-lived affairs, designed to get attention -- as this one appears to have done.

      Residents of Houghton Lake, Mich., no doubt rubbed their eyes when they passed the B&B gas station on their way to work. The posted price was lower than it...
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      Free and paid help to file your tax return

      IRS offers the most help if you file electronically

      When you're ready to fill your federal income tax return for 2015, you have plenty of options – some of them you pay for, but some are free.

      The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) encourages electronic filing and offers several resources to help.

      You may be eligible for free help preparing your tax return from Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs listed here.

      Volunteer assistance available

      The VITA program offers free tax help to people who meet income requirements – generally $54,000 or less, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and limited English speaking taxpayers who need assistance in preparing their own tax returns. The volunteers are certified by the IRS and provide free basic income tax return preparation with electronic filing.

      The TCE program provides free tax help for all taxpayers, focusing on those who are 60 years of age and older. It specializes in dealing with questions about pensions and retirement-related issues unique to seniors. The volunteers are IRS-certified and are often retired people associated with non-profit organizations that receive grants from the IRS.

      The IRS also provides help for low-income taxpayers who have tax issues with the agency and can't afford representation. This program is called the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) and you can find details about it here.

      Hiring a tax professional

      If you are hiring a tax professional to help you with your return, the IRS reminds you that people offering these services have different levels of skills, education, and expertise. Something else to remember – not all tax professionals have the standing to represent taxpayers before the IRS, like in the event of an audit. Check out credentials, qualifications, and services before selecting someone to do your taxes.

      The IRS provides a searchable feature on its website to help you find a tax professional in your area.

      If you are preparing your own return and earned less than $62,000, the IRS offers Free File software. If you make above $62,000, you can use Free File fillable forms. The forms will do the math for you, but the IRS says you need to pretty much know how to fill out a tax form, since the program provides only basic assistance.

      However you plan to do your taxes, the IRS says filing electronically and having your refund direct-deposited will make the process go much faster than filing a paper form and requesting a check.

      When you're ready to fill your federal income tax return for 2015, you have plenty of options – some of them you pay for, but some are free.The Interna...
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      2017 Hyundai Elantra debuts later this month

      Car features sophisticated smartphone integration

      Once upon a time, when a carmaker introduced a new model, it bragged about its fuel economy, quiet ride, and rack-and-pinion steering. These days, it's more apt to lead with the entertainment system.

      Technology plays a much bigger role in the automotive world, so Hyundai introduced its 2017 Elantra by singing the praises of its smartphone interface. The new Hyundai, which launches later this month, will feature Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capabilities.

      Both smartphone integrations will be featured on the 2017 Elantra's seven-inch Display Audio touchscreen system with rearview camera and Hyundai's eight-inch touchscreen navigation system with voice texting, access to music stored on the phone and third-party audio apps.

      "By launching our best-selling model, Elantra, with CarPlay and Android Auto support, we are building on our promise to offer more convenience features for today's modern driver at an affordable price point," Mike O'Brien, vice president of product and corporate planning, Hyundai Motor America, said in a release announcing the new model. "Also, the new smartphone integrations will help to keep drivers' eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, helping to reduce driver distraction."

      Mimics the iPhone

      Because CarPlay mimics the iPhone experience, Hyandai is betting that drivers will be less distracted because they will be familiar with the interface before they even slide behind the wheel.

      The driver can make a call, get directions for the best route through traffic, listen to music, and access messages. Hyundai says Siri will provide an eyes-free experience by responding to requests through voice commands, set up through the steering wheel's voice button.

      While it is no doubt safer than trying to send or receive a text while speeding down the highway, there have been studies that call into question the total safety of hands-free communications system in cars.

      In October, we reported on a AAA study that said many voice-activated vehicle systems are more dangerous than previously thought.

      Takes mind-share

      It's true that these systems don't occupy your hands, but they do take mind-share, and researchers say that's where the problem lies. Potentially unsafe mental distractions can go on for as long as 27 seconds after dialing, changing music, or sending a text using voice commands, according to the research by conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

      The eight-inch navigation system will have a home screen that displays map and music information, no matter where the music is coming from. The Blue Link Guidance package comes with a three-month trial.

      Other aspects of the car – fuel economy, safety features, and trim take a backseat to the technology, at least when it comes to marketing. At last check, auto sites like Edmunds.com had yet to review the vehicle. There are pictures, however.

      Once upon a time, when a carmaker introduced a new model, it bragged about its fuel economy, quiet ride, and rack-and-pinion steering. These days, it's mor...
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      Helping others can lower your stress level, study finds

      "Prosocial" behavior promotes positivity, which can be a defense against stress

      The body means well by flipping the “stress switch" on. Feeling stressed amid a life-threatening situation is good, of course, as it raises the chance for survival. But when the body deems a traffic jam “life-threatening,” the stress response is not quite as useful.

      When that stress switch gets flipped, experts say the antidote may be right in front of you: just do a good deed. An act of kindness as small as holding an elevator, returning a stray wallet, or helping pick up a stack of papers can actually help you feel less stressed throughout your day, research shows.

      “Prosocial” behavior yields positivity

      In a study published recently in Clinical Psychology Science, Emily Ansell and two of her Yale School of Medicine colleagues monitored 77 adults over a two-week period. Using a smartphone app, participants recorded stressful experiences and small acts of kindness when prompted.

      Results showed that “prosocial” (or helping) behavior led to increased positivity and a decreased negative reaction to stress. "It pretty much kept people feeling similar to days where they were not stressed at all," Ansell tells NPR.

      Where stress is the rain, it seems kindness is the umbrella. Positive moods set in motion by small acts of kindness appeared to shelter participants from the negative effects of stress. By contrast, when participants reported fewer instances of helping others than what was average for them, they had a more negative emotional reaction to stress.

      Doing more than average

      Researchers already knew that people with altruistic tendencies tend to be happier and live longer than non-altruistic types. But Ansell and her colleagues discovered that you don’t have to be Mother Teresa or even be more helpful than the next guy — you just have to be a little nicer than usual.

      “It’s all about doing more than your average,” Ansell said. “Being more altruistic than usual can change your experience from day to day.”

      This positive reaction to even the slightest amount of extra caring is hardwired in us, according to neuroscientist James Doty, founder of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “That is the reward for caring," he says. “Evolutionarily speaking, humans need this reward for survival because our big-brained babies require so many years of selfless care.”

      Authenticity is key

      The study stipulates, however, that you can’t just go through the motions of doing a good deed; it must come from a real place of caring.

      "You have to come from a place of authenticity," says Emma Seppala, who directs the Stanford program with Doty. "If you're doing it for explicitly selfish reasons, it's unclear whether you'll get benefits."

      The next step for the study’s authors is to figure out how to harness the power of prosocial behavior. A smartphone app that could deliver suggestions about how to alter behavior could help those who struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders, Ansell surmises.

      The body means well by flipping the “stress switch" on. Feeling stressed amid a life-threatening situation is good, of course, as it raises the chance for ...
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      Airline on-time performance slips in November

      More tarmac delays were reported as well

      When compared with how things went in October, the airlines didn't have a particularly good November.

      The Department of Transportation's (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report shows that the reporting carriers posted an on-time arrival rate of 83.7% for the month. While that's more than 3% above the year-ago rate, it's down more than 3% from the month before.

      In addition, following a month in which there were just two tarmac delays, the airlines reported five delays of more than three hours on domestic flights and one delay of more than four hours on an international flight. Three of the domestic delays were related to an equipment failure at New York City area airports on November 14. All are being investigated.

      The report also includes data on cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays along with flight problems, baggage, reservation and ticketing, refunds, consumer service, disability, and discrimination.

      Also included are statistics on mishandled baggage reports and reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of animals.

      The complete report may be found on the DOT website.

      When compared with how things went in October, the airlines didn't have a particularly good November.The Department of Transportation's (DOT) Air Trave...
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      GM recalls Chevy Cruze vehicles

      One of the driver-side seat belt assembly bolts may not be tightened properly

      General Motors is recalling 15 model year 2015 Chevrolet Cruze vehicles manufactured September 24, 2014, to May 29, 2015.

      One of the driver-side seat belt assembly bolts may not be tightened properly. An insufficiently torqued bolt may prevent the seat belt from holding the required load in a crash, increasing the risk of injury.

      GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and tighten the bolts, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020. GM's number for this recall is 15777.

      General Motors is recalling 15 model year 2015 Chevrolet Cruze vehicles manufactured September 24, 2014, to May 29, 2015. One of the driver-side se...
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      School Specialty expands NeoRok stools recall

      The stool can break during use

      School Specialty Inc., of Greenville, Wis., is expanding its earlier recall of Classroom Select NeoRok stools to 6,000. About 1,350 were recalled in June 2015. In addition, about 800 were sold in Canada.

      The stool can break during use, posing a fall hazard.

      The company has received a total of nine reports of stools breaking during use, including one report involving a concussion.

      This recall involves new and previously recalled 18-inch tall and 20-inch tall Classroom Select NeoRok Stools with a tilting and rocking feature, for use by children in the classroom. The stools have a round black rubber seat insert with a solid color plastic seat and black rimmed base. The Classroom Select logo is printed on one side of the base and the NeoRok name is printed on the other side of the base.

      The stools were sold in 12 colors: Cardinal (red), Claret (maroon), Ebony (black), Imperial (blue), Lilac (purple), Marine (navy blue), Nickel (silver), Paprika (orange), Periwinkle (light blue), Pistachio (green), Saffron (yellow) and Slate (gray). Recalled 18-inch stools are item number 1496340 and recalled 20-inch stools are item number 1496342.

      The stools, manufactured in the U.S., were sold via Classroom Direct catalogs, School Specialty Furniture and Equipment catalogs, School Specialty Education Essentials catalogs, School Specialty Early Childhood catalogs, and on www.schoolspecialty.com from May 2015, through November 2015, for between $105 and $115.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled stools and contact School Specialty for a full refund or merchandise credit. Consumers who received replacement stools in the previous recall should also contact the School Specialty for a full refund or merchandise credit. School Specialty is contacting consumers directly.

      Consumers may contact School Specialty toll-free at 877-204-3948 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at www.schoolspecialty.com and click on Product Recall on the bottom right.

      School Specialty Inc., of Greenville, Wis., is expanding its earlier recall of Classroom Select NeoRok stools to 6,000. About 1,350 were recalled in June 2...
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      David Bowie's legacy lives on in the world of finance

      Although fans mourn his passing, the groundwork he laid in creating "Bowie bonds" will be remembered

      It has been nearly a week since the world lost famous singer, songwriter, and producer David Bowie. The music icon, perhaps best known for popular songs like “Changes,” “Space Oddity,” and “Ziggy Stardust,” passed away from cancer on January 10, only two days after his 69th birthday.

      While his loss is sincerely felt in the entertainment industry, Bowie was also something of an icon in the finance industry. In the late 90s, he sold off the royalty rights to his first 25 albums by turning them into asset-backed securities. This created what is referred to today as a “Bowie bond.”

      Intellectual property as collateral

      The use of Bowie bonds was unique at the time because it proposed using intellectual property as a source of collateral; in the original case, it used the current and future revenues of Bowie’s first 25 albums. In 1997, Bowie bonds had an interest rate of 7.9% and a life of 10 years, according to Investopedia.

      “Bowie’s bonds were as groundbreaking as his music,” said Rob Ford, money manager at TwentyFour Asset Management, in a report by Bloomberg. “Not only were they followed by a number of other artists, but they set the template for deals backed by a whole range of assets.”

      Bowie ended up selling the rights to his albums for $55 million to Fahnestock & Co. and Prudential Insurance, who estimated returns of 7.9% over the life of the bond. It may have been taking a chance, but Bowie’s popularity seemed to be a sure thing.

      “He has some songs going back twenty-five years that are still selling today, and they will be selling [in the future],” said managing director of Fahnestock David Pullman to the UPenn Gazette. The bonds originally received an A3 rating from Moody’s Investors Service, marking them as a success at the time.

      Leaving a legacy

      Unfortunately, things would not continue well for Bowie bonds in the coming years – but not because of Bowie’s popularity. With the advent of the Internet, music piracy became a big problem for music sales. By 2004, Moody’s had revised their original rating of Bowie bonds to be near junk bond status.

      But, after 10 years, all Bowie bonds related to the song writer were paid off, and what remained was a legacy that many would follow. Securitizing intellectual property is now done in several industries, including films, music, pharmaceutical patents, food franchises, and many more. According to Bloomberg, sales of such securitizations made up 21% of all asset-backed issuance this past year, with it growing by 16% from a year earlier.

      Looking ahead, analysts from Barclays predict that $45 billion will be made in such sales in 2016. Over the past couple of years, the volume of esoteric securitizations has continued to increase, so although he may be gone, artists, content creators, and businesses of all kinds may benefit from Bowie’s innovation for quite some time. 

      For more information on finances and financial services, including information on structured settlements, visit the ConsumerAffairs website. 

      It has been nearly a week since the world lost famous singer, songwriter, and producer David Bowie. The music icon, perhaps best known for popular songs li...
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      Oil prices drop below $30 a barrel

      But the bonanza for consumers may only last a few more weeks

      The world price of oil broke below a critical price barrier Friday, selling for the lowest price since before the financial crisis of 2008.

      Both Brent and WTI crude sold for $29 and change on London's ICE Futures exchange, according to The Wall Street Journal.

      Oil sold off ahead of the lifting of sanctions on Iran. That move is expected to send millions of barrels of new supply into an already glutted world oil market.

      Uncertainty over the reasons for the glut has rattled Wall Street, where stocks have plunged along with the price of oil. Traders are trying to determine whether the build up in oil is because of supply or demand issues.

      Supply or demand is critical

      If it's supply – the world is simply pumping more oil than anyone needs – that's one thing. And it would actually be fairly good news, since industries outside of the oil sector are benefiting from lower energy prices.

      However, if it's a demand issue – that the world simply doesn't need as much oil as before – that would be taken as a bad sign. It would suggest an economic slowdown and possible global recession. That's what has the market spooked.

      There's no doubt, however, that low oil prices are good for consumers, especially motorists. The national average price of gasoline has been below $2 a gallon since before the end of last year, and oil prices have been a major contributor.

      How long will it last?

      But Patrick DeHaan, senior analyst at GasBuddy, says there's a limit to how much oil's decline will help. DeHaan says there is about a four to six week window in which consumers can generally expect gas prices to continue declining, along with oil.

      “But towards the end of that window, refinery maintenance season begins and the phase in of seasonal blends of gasoline start,” DeHaan told ConsumerAffairs. “That will bring with it higher gasoline prices.”

      How much higher? DeHaan says the average run-up in gas prices during the spring the last five years is 35 to 75 cents per gallon. Motorists on the West Coast could get it much worse, he says, unless ExxonMobil’s Torrance refinery is fully repaired soon.

      “Some hot spots could be seen in the Midwest briefly, but overall this summer should feature lower prices than last summer,” he said.

      DeHaan also points out that the price of a barrel of oil is now three times cheaper than the steel barrel used to contain it.

      The world price of oil broke below a critical price barrier Friday, selling for the lowest price since before the financial crisis of 2008.Both Brent a...
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      How well do you think on your feet?

      New research says working standing up could make you smarter

      In the last couple of years studies have suggested Americans spend too much time sitting, and it's taking a toll on health.

      But many of us spend our days in front on computers, doing one task or another. True, but it doesn't necessarily mean we have to sit. As we have previously reported, having employees work at desks where they stand up are being considered for their health benefits. 

      Now, researchers at the Texas A&M; Health Science Center School of Public Health suggest working while standing may help us do better work.

      They tested their theory on a group of students, who were given the choice of standing or sitting while working. Ranjana Mehta, Ph.D., assistant professor at Texas A&M;, used four computerized tests to assess executive functions, the cognitive skills we all use to analyze tasks, break them into steps and keep them in mind until we get them done.

      Good executive functions usually translate into better academic performance, since students manage their time effectively, memorize facts, understand what they read, solve multi-step problems, and organize their thoughts in writing.

      Significant improvement in executive function

      “Test results indicated that continued use of standing desks was associated with significant improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities,” Mehta said in a release. “Changes in corresponding brain activation patterns were also observed.”

      In 2014, health care provider Kaiser Permanente released a study showing that prolonged sedentary behavior in men significantly increases the risk of heart attack. The study followed more than 82,000 men aged 45 years and older who were part of the California Men's Health Study and who were enrolled in Kaiser Permanente health plans in the state.

      The researcher found a link between spending several hours a day in sedentary inactivity and the increased risk of developing heart failure as compared with men who reported high physical activity and low sedentary time.

      Health benefit

      Some companies have offered employees the option of a stand-up desk as a health benefit. The new Texas A&M; study may provide further incentive if companies think they'll get more productive employees.

      Meanwhile, check out our previous report on the different types of stand-up desks, some even equipped with treadmills.

      In the last couple of years studies have suggested Americans spend too much time sitting, and it's taking a toll on health.But many of us spend our day...
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      Report: using e-cigarettes could make you less likely to stop smoking

      California study questions effectiveness as smoking cessation tool

      When electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, first arrived on the scene, they were touted as a way to help smokers kick the habit. A new study suggests, however, that's not how they're being used.

      Researchers at the University of California (UC) San Francisco say they discovered that adult smokers who use e-cigarettes are actually 28% less likely to give up cigarettes.

      The study appears in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, a journal detailing information about respiratory medicine and critical care.

      “As currently being used, e-cigarettes are associated with significantly less quitting among smokers,” concluded first author Sara Kalkhoran, MD, in the article.

      Kalkhoran was a clinical fellow at the UCSF School of Medicine when the research was conducted but is now at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She believes the jury is still out on the effectiveness of e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool.

      Shouldn't be recommended

      “E-cigarettes should not be recommended as effective smoking cessation aids until there is evidence that, as promoted and used, they assist smoking cessation,” she writes.

      E-cigarettes are long and thin like a tobacco cigarette but are reusable devices that use an electric charge to create water vapor filled with nicotine. The user gets the nicotine rush without the tobacco smoke.

      Health officials are still studying the safety of this inhaled vapor but have expressed strong reservations so far.

      While it is true that many smokers have tried them, health officials worry that young adults – many of whom have never smoked – are trying them as well. Aside from the unknown health effects, they worry their use can create a nicotine dependency where none existed before.

      The California researchers say they reviewed 38 studies that traced the association between e-cigarette use and kicking the cigarette habit among adult smokers. After combining the results of 20 studies they concluded that the odds of quitting smoking were 28 percent lower in smokers who used e-cigarettes compared to those who did not.

      In other words, using e-cigarettes made it less likely to stop smoking.

      Not marketed in the U.S. as anti-smoking tool

      It should be pointed out that e-cigarettes are not specifically marketed as a way to stop smoking. It would require Food and Drug Administration approval to do so, since it would then be considered a medical device.

      In the UK, they take a different view. The British National Health Service lists e-cigarettes as an accepted form of nicotine replacement therapy.

      In August, a British report suggested e-cigarettes were about 95% less harmful than smoking.

      "My reading of the evidence is that smokers who switch to vaping remove almost all the risks smoking poses to their health," Professor Peter Hajek of Queen Mary University wrote in the report.  

      When electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, first arrived on the scene, they were touted as a way to help smokers kick the habit. A new study suggests, ho...
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      Could algae be the new superfood?

      High in protein and amino acids, experts say algae is even more nutrient-dense than kale

      The word “algae” may conjure up images of pond scum -- which is not exactly appetizing unless you're a fish. But many health gurus are heralding it as the next big superfood. Time to share the spotlight, kale: experts say algae packs an even bigger nutritional punch.  

      Ingesting algae may seem like a strange concept, but it’s actually been done for hundreds of years. The Aztecs were known to utilize the power of algae during a time when most other food sources were poor in nutritional value. (Proof that it’s not just a fad cooked up by health food stores.)

      These days, however, algae is a harder sell. With a grocery store full of other options, the idea of welcoming the slimy sea greenery into your diet may be tough to swallow. But once you’ve heard its health benefits, it may become a little easier to fathom.

      70% complete protein

      Organic blue-green algae grows in the still, alkaline waters of lakes and ponds. The most consumed forms of blue green algae are Spirulina and Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA), which both earn superfood status thanks to high concentrations of proteins, vitamins, and nutrients.

      Spirulina is one of the highest known protein sources on the planet, containing 70% complete protein (for perspective, a cooked steak contains only 25%). Also on its laundry list of health benefits: increased energy and ability to combat illness, improved respiratory function, and reduced inflammation. It also harnesses the complete spectrum of amino acids -- eight essential and 10 non-essential.

      In addition to being good for your insides, it's kind to the earth. One acre of algae can replace 1,000 acres of soy protein, so vegans and vegetarians who rely heavily on soy as a source of protein source can shrink their carbon footprint with algae.

      How to eat it

      If you’re considering giving algae a shot, the next question might be one of ‘How’how do I even eat algae, and furthermore, how will my taste buds feel about it? Rest assured that algae can be as delicious as it is nutritious.

      Experts say algae can be eaten in the form of a powder or tablet. If it’s in a powder form, adding it to your morning smoothie is an easy way to incorporate it into your day. If you’re craving something sweet, Spirulina can be added to baked goods, such as these Spirulina Power Bites. There's also a relatively new strain of red marine algae called "Dulse," which researchers claim tastes just like bacon.

      As with most other supplements, it’s important to talk to your doctor before adding algae to your diet. Due to its ability to increase the immune system, blue-green algae might decrease the effectiveness of medications that decrease the immune system.

      The word “algae” may conjure up images of pond scum -- which is not exactly appetizing unless you're a fish. But many health gurus are heralding it as the ...
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      Walmart closing 269 stores as part of 'sharpened focus'

      The closures include all Walmart Express stores

      Walmart is closing 269 stores globally, 154 of them in the U.S. That sounds like a lot, but the retail giant has nearly 11,600 stores worldwide and says the closings are part of a "sharpened focus" drive.

      They also spell the end of a pilot program called Walmart Express, the company's experimental smaller stores. Besides 102 Walmart Express, the closings include 23 Neighborhood Markets, 12 Supercenters, six discount centers and four Sam's Clubs. 

      “Actively managing our portfolio of assets is essential to maintaining a healthy business,” said Doug McMillon, president and CEO, in a news release. “Closing stores is never an easy decision, but it is necessary to keep the company strong and positioned for the future. It’s important to remember that we’ll open well more than 300 stores around the world next year. So we are committed to growing, but we are being disciplined about it.”

      Walmart said it will focus on strengthening its Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets, expandings its e-commerce busiiness and growing its Pickup service that lets customers order online and pick up at nearby stores.

      Online issues

      Paying attention to e-commerce sounds like a good idea, judging from recent ConsumerAffairs reviews. Take Michelle of Mckinney, Texas. She's trying to figure out how tea and dryer sheets are related.

      "I ordered tea from Walmart online as they are the only ones who seem to have it now. Did not get the tea. What I got was Bounce Dryer Sheets so to say the order was screwed up is understatement, right? And in the shipping package no invoice so that's another screw-up too."

      Gail of Yakima, Wash., didn't get any dryer sheets, but she didn't get anything else either, and that's the problem.

      "I like to do a lot of shopping online. Trying to navigate Wal-Mart's website is the most frustrating, nerve-wracking experience ever. Constantly having to reload the page. Takes forever to navigate page to page," she said.

      "Numerous times I try to access items in my cart to buy and it won't let me. Says it can't retrieve the items in my cart and to try again later. THEN I'll get emails from Wal-Mart saying I have items in my cart. 'You forgot something in your cart'. Really? I can't access it!!! So many times I just flat out gave up and bought what I needed on other websites and have been better off for it."

      More Supercenters

      Consumers rate Wal-Mart

      Walmart said it intends to open 50 to 60 Supercenters and 85 to 95 Neighborhood Markets in fiscal 2017, which begins Feb. 1. In the same period, Sam’s Club plans to open in seven to 10 new locations. Internationally, Walmart intends to open between 200 and 240 stores during the coming year.

      About 16,000 workers will be hit by the closings, about 10,000 of them in the U.S. More than 95 percent of the closed stores in the U.S. are within 10 miles on average of another Walmart, and the hope is that these associates will be placed in nearby locations, the company said.

      Where that isn’t possible, the company will provide 60 days of pay and, if eligible, severance, as well as resume and interview skills training. Whether with Walmart or elsewhere, the company’s objective is to help all associates find their next job opportunity.

      “The decision to close stores is difficult and we care about the associates who will be impacted,” McMillon said. “We invested considerable time assessing our stores and clubs and don’t take this lightly. We are supporting those impacted with extra pay and support, and we will take all appropriate steps to ensure they are treated well.”

      Walmart is closing 269 stores globally, 154 of them in the U.S. That sounds like a lot, but the retail giant has nearly 11,600 stores worldwide and says th...
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      Orkin updates its list of cities with the worst bedbug problem

      Chicago claims 2015's dubious honor

      It's that time of year again. Pest control company Orkin has released it annual list that no city wants to be on: locations with the worst bedbug problems.

      This year, Chicago claims first place, based on Orkin service calls at both residential and commercial property. Besides Chicago, the Midwest is heavily represented on the 2015 list.

      Fourteen cities in the Midwest – more than any other region – are in the top 50, including multiple cities in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky. Also of note, six cities rose by double-digits on the annual list compared to 2014, including Washington, D.C., which moved to third.

      On the positive side, a number of cities improved their bedbug situation from 2014, including Dayton, Ohio, Louisville, Kentucky., and Sacramento, California.

      The top 10 for 2015 are:

      1. Chicago
      2. Los Angeles
      3. Washington, D.C.
      4. New York
      5. Columbus, Ohio
      6. Philadelphia
      7. Detroit
      8. Cincinnati
      9. Richmond-Petersburg, Va.
      10. Baltimore

      Easy to pick up

      “Bed bugs can travel in luggage and other personal belongings to enter your home,” Orkin Entomologist and Technical Services Director Ron Harrison said in the release. “They don’t just hide in beds – they can be found in furniture, bed posts, rugs, and even electrical outlets.”

      Orkin says bed bugs are not necessarily a sign of uncleanliness. They can show up anywhere, even upscale hotels. However, they can be a health issue.

      As we reported in 2013, a California woman sued the Renaissance Marriott Hotel in Palm Springs, claiming she was bitten by bed bugs more than 400 times while sleeping at the hotel. The woman said she faced permanent scarring to her face, body, and hands.

      However, the Mayo Clinic says bedbug bites are normally a mild irritation. It says they are often difficult to distinguish from other insect bites, “however, they are typically itchy, and they may appear clustered or lined up in rough rows.  

      It's that time of year again. Pest control company Orkin has released it annual list that no city wants to be on: locations with the worst bedbug problems....
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      Four vehicles added to IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK+ honor roll

      Honda, Hyundai, Lexus, and Nissan are the big winners

      Just one month after the initial crop of 48 TOP SAFETY PICK+ winners was announced, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has added another four vehicles to the winner's circle.

      The latest to earn the designation are the Honda Civic 4-door, Hyundai Sonata, Lexus RX, and Nissan Altima.

      The requirements for TOP SAFETY PICK+ were tightened for 2016. Now, winners must earn good ratings in each of the Institute's five crashworthiness tests and have an available front crash prevention system earning an advanced or superior rating.

      Those that meet the crashworthiness criteria but have only a basic-rated front crash prevention system qualify for the second-tier award -- TOP SAFETY PICK.

      How they performed

      The Civic, Sonata, RX, and Altima all come with superior-rated optional front crash prevention systems. In IIHS track tests, the first three vehicles avoided collisions at 12 mph and 25 mph. The Altima avoided a collision at 12 mph, while in the 25 mph test its impact speed was cut by 10 mph. All four systems include a warning function that meets National Highway Traffic Safety Administration criteria.

      The Civic 4-door, a small car, and the RX, a midsize luxury SUV, were both redesigned for 2016. The 2015 Civic had qualified for TOP SAFETY PICK under the old criteria, while the previous generation of the RX had never been tested in the small overlap front crash.

      The Sonata and the Altima, both midsize cars, were 2015 award winners. Both had their structure improved to raise their small overlap front ratings from acceptable to good. Previously, vehicles could qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK or TOP SAFETY PICK+ with an acceptable rating in the small overlap front test.

      In the case of the Sonata, the improvements were made after production for the 2016 model year had already begun. The award applies only to Sonatas built after October.

      Consumers can find a vehicle's manufacture date on the certification label typically located on or near the driver door.

      Just one month after the initial crop of 48 TOP SAFETY PICK+ winners was announced, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has added another fou...
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      Consumers not happy with gun laws

      Gallup finds 62% dissatisfied with laws covering guns

      Whether you're a consumer of guns and ammo or think that all weaponry should be melted down and sold as scrap, chances are you're dissatisfied with the nation's laws and policies on guns.

      Gallup finds 62% of Americans are dissatisfied with the nation's gun laws, the highest percentage dissatisfied since Gallup's first Mood of the Nation poll in 2001. Dissatisfaction jumped 11 percentage points in one year.

      At the close of the Clinton administration, dissatisfaction with gun laws was also high, at 57%. It dipped into the 40s during the Bush presidency and the first term of Obama's presidency. After the Sandy Hook massacre in late 2012, a majority of Americans again became dissatisfied with gun policies, and that has remained the case in the years since.

      Should be stricter

      Those who are dissatisfied with gun laws are much more likely to say they want these laws to be stricter. Overall, 38% of Americans are dissatisfied with the nation's gun laws and want them made stricter, 15% are dissatisfied and want the laws made less strict, and 9% are dissatisfied but say laws should remain as they are.

      Overall, more than twice as many Americans are dissatisfied with current guns laws because they want them stricter than are dissatisfied because they want those laws loosened, 38% vs. 15%, respectively. However, as a sign of increasing polarization on that issue, both of those figures are at or near their 16-year highs.

      Republicans are the least dissatisfied with gun laws across political party groups, with 54% saying they are not happy with the nation's gun laws. Independents' dissatisfaction is slightly higher, at 59%. Democrats are the most dissatisfied, at 75%.

      In the follow-up question exploring the source of dissatisfaction, 68% of Democrats are dissatisfied and want gun laws to be stricter, much higher than the 12% of Republicans who say the same. Twenty-four percent of Republicans are dissatisfied and say policies should be less strict, with 4% of Democrats saying the same.

      File photoWhether you're a consumer of guns and ammo or think that all weaponry should be melted down and sold as scrap, chances are you're dissatisf...
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      Retail sales dip in December

      Lack of strong earnings growth is blamed

      December was something of a disappointment for the retail sector of the economy.

      Figures released by the Commerce Department show sales totaled just $448.1 billion last month, down 0.1% from November but up 2.2% from the same month a year earlier.

      For all of 2015, sales rose just 2.1%

      Stifel Financial Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza notes that consumer spending momentum has clearly slowed even though we're paying less for gasoline at the pump.

      "While low gasoline prices have helped provide a floor to spending, it is clearly not enough to markedly improve retail consumption," she pointed out. "The missing component remains heightened growth in earnings and confidence that today's spending will be easily financed by tomorrow's rise in pay. Modest employment opportunities and minimal income gains will continue to restrict spending in the new year."

      The complete December retail sales report is avail;able on the commerce Department website.

      Retail holiday sales

      In a related development, the National Retail Federation (NRF) says holiday sales last year were up 3% to $626.1 billion. NRF had been expecting total growth -- including online sales -- of 3.7%.

      “Make no mistake about it, this was a tough holiday season for the industry,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. He noted that weather, inventory challenges, advances in consumer technology, and the deep discounts that started earlier in the season and carried into January presented stiff headwinds. However, he added that, “despite these factors, the industry rallied, consumers responded and sales still grew at a healthy rate, which is a huge testament to the resilience, knowledge and expertise of our retail leadership.”

      December was something of a disappointment for the retail sector of the economy.Figures released by the Commerce Department show sales totaled just $44...
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      Wholesale prices move lower in December

      Jobless claims were on the rise

      Once again, there was no evidence of inflation on the wholesale level in December.

      The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand dipped 0.2% on a seasonally adjusted basis last month, continuing the zig-zag pattern that saw them rise 0.3% in November and fall 0.4% in October.

      The December decrease was led by prices for goods, which were down 0.7% the sixth consecutive decline. Most of the drop last month was in the energy sector, where prices plunged 3.4%. Food costs were down 1.3%.

      Prices for final demand services edged 0.1% higher following an advance of 0.5% in November. The increase was led by services related to securities brokerage and dealing, which shot up 30.3%. Costs for for machinery, equipment, parts, and supplies wholesaling -- including physician care, food retailing, and hospital inpatient care also moved higher.

      For all of 2015, the final demand PPI was down 1.0%, after rising 0.9% in 2014.

      The complete PPI report is available on the BLS website.

      Jobless claims

      In a separate report, the Department of Labor (DOL) says first-time applications for state unemployment benefits rose by 7,000 in the week ending January 9 to a seasonally adjusted 284,000. The previous week's level of initial jobless claims was unrevised. The DOL says no special factors affected this week's headount.

      The four-week moving average, which is seen as a better gauge of the labor market because it lacks the volatility of the weekly tally, totaled 278,750 -- an increase of 3,000 from the previous week's unrevised average.

      The full report may be found on the DOL website.

      Once again, there was no evidence of inflation on the wholesale level in December.The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) repo...
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      BMW recalls MINI Cooper Hardtop 2 Door, BMW X1 SAV

      The steering gearbox may have been manufactured with incorrect parts

      BMW of North America is recalling one model year 2016 MINI Cooper Hardtop 2 Door vehicle manufactured November 24, 2015, and one BMW X1 Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV) manufactured October, 19 2015.

      The steering gearbox may have been manufactured with incorrect parts. A malfunction may cause a loss of vehicle control and increase the risk of a crash.

      BMW will replace the steering gearbox, free of charge. Affected vehicles are located in dealer inventory and will be remedied before customer retail.

      The recall began on December 28, 2015. Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417.

      BMW of North America is recalling one model year 2016 MINI Cooper Hardtop 2 Door vehicle manufactured November 24, 2015, and one BMW X1 Sports Activity Veh...
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      Steelcase recalls “Rocky” model swivel chairs

      The screws connecting the seat and back to the base of the chair can detach

      Steelcase Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich., is recalling about 17,000 “Rocky” model swivel chairs.

      The screws connecting the seat and back to the base of the chair can detach, posing a fall hazard to the user.

      The firm has received 311 reports of incidents, including one report of an injury.

      This recall involves 12 models of Steelcase “Rocky” style swivel chairs manufactured between 2005 and 2015. The molded polypropylene chairs were sold in black and white with the option of an upholstered seat and back, seat only or no upholstery.

      The chairs have a foldable seat, molded-in arms and either a four-star wheel base or a five-star wheel base.

      The following model numbers can be found on the underside of the seat:

      Model Number

      Style

      112101

      Four-star Nesting Upholstered Seat

      112201S

      Four-star Nesting Upholstered Seat

      112201

      Four-star Nesting Upholstered Seat and Back

      112301

      Five-star Non-Upholstered

      112401S

      Five-star Upholstered Back

      112401

      Five-star Upholstered Seat and Back

      112301ST

      Five-star Stool Non-Upholstered

      112401SST

      Five-star Stool Upholstered Seat

      112401ST

      Five-star Stool Upholstered Seat and Back

      112301J

      Jury Base Non-Upholstered

      112401SJ

      Jury Base Upholstered Seat

      112401J

      Jury Base Upholstered Seat and Back

      The chairs, manufactured in the U.S United States from 2005-2011, and Mexico from 2011-2015, were sold at Steelcase independently owned dealers nationwide from August 2005, to June 2015, for between $500 and $1,550.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and contact Steelcase to arrange for a free repair.

      Consumers may contact Steelcase at 800-210-5109 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday, online at www.steelcase.com and click on “Rocky Chair Recall” for more information or by email at retrofits@steelcase.com.

      Steelcase Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich., is recalling about 17,000 “Rocky” model swivel chairs. The screws connecting the seat and back to the base o...
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      Watch out for Powerball Jackpot scams

      Where there is big money and publicity, scammers are sure to follow

      Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, it was easy to predict that scammers would try to cash in on the awareness and hype surrounding the record Powerball jackpot. Officials confirmed Thursday that three winning tickets had been sold.

      Cue the scammers. It wasn't long before this message was making the rounds on Facebook:

      “I WASNT GOING TO PUT THIS ON FB BUT I COULDNT HOLD IT AND I STILL CANT BELIEVE THIS!!! I WON $1.5 BILLION. MY FAMILY HAS BEEN CRYING FOR HOURS.”

      First of all, there were three winning tickets for a $1.6 billion jackpot, so no one individual won $1.5 billion. Any crying was purely crocodile tears.

      The post continues:

      “I am picking 10 random people who share this photo and giving them $10,000 each. CALL ME CRAZY BUT GOD is GOOD! FOLLOW ME ON INSTRAGRAM.”

      We've seen this one before

      Okay, it's “instagram,” not “instragram.” But the bigger point is this is exactly the same scam that was hot a couple of weeks ago, when a similar poster claimed that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who made news when he said he and his wife were donating 99% of their stock to charity, was picking 10 Facebook users at random to share in the riches. To qualify, one supposedly had to “Like” or “Share” something.

      While this might qualify more as a hoax than a scam, the potential for dangerous fraud exists if you get sucked into claims of free Powerball money. Ahead of the drawing, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine issued this warning to be on guard against creative schemers.

      “If you receive a call saying you’ve won the lottery, it’s almost always a scam,” Attorney General DeWine said in the alert. “Con artists play on what’s in the news, so we’re warning people to be wary of scams as the Powerball jackpot grows.”

      Average loss of $5,000

      Over the last four weeks as the jackpot grew, DeWine said his office's Consumer Protection Section had received more than two dozen complaints involving sweepstakes or prize scams. The average reported loss, he said, was about $5,000.

      DeWine says consumers should hang up on any callers who say they have won lottery money. That's not how it works.

      In most cases, the scammers who say their victim has won the lottery require them to send several thousand dollars – always in a non-traceable manner – in order to receive their millions. Again, that's not how any lottery works.

      If you happen to get one of these calls, hang up and report it to your local police department and state attorney general.

      Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, it was easy to predict that scammers would try to cash in on the awareness and hype surrounding the record Power...
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      Amazon offers discount on Prime memberships in honor of Golden Globes award

      Consumers need to move fast though -- the deal only lasts through this weekend

      The time for holiday shopping is now firmly behind us as we move into the new year, but did you end up getting everything you wanted? Online shopping continued to grow this past year, and online memberships provided huge benefits to consumers who shelled out the money and took advantage of them.

      Luckily, Amazon, one of the more popular online retailers, has decided to make signing up for a membership a little more affordable for a short time. For this coming weekend only, the company is discounting the price of its annual membership, Amazon Prime, by roughly 26%.

      The discount honors Amazon’s recent Golden Globe award for its original series “Mozart in the Jungle”, according to Business Insider. Consumers looking to take advantage of it will only have to pay $73 for the membership, a nod towards this year’s 73rd annual Golden Globes.

      Amazon Prime comes with a number of benefits for the consumer, including free two-day shipping, free same-day delivery on select items, and access to several different features, like Prime Instant Video, Prime Music, and Prime Photos.  

      The sale will begin officially on Friday at 9:00 p.m. (PST) and will end on Sunday at 11:59 p.m. (PST). 

      The time for holiday shopping is now firmly behind us as we move into the new year, but did you end up getting everything you wanted? Online shopping conti...
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      Honda and Volvo drive off with car of the year honors

      Awards kick off Detroit's annual car show

      The North American International Auto Show is underway in Detroit this week, with carmakers from around the world showing off their upcoming models.

      Setting the stage, 53 U.S. and Canadian auto journalists named the Honda Civic as the 2016 North American Car of the Year, and the Volvo XC90 as the 2016 North American Truck/Utility of the Year.

      It's not a new experience for either model. The Civic won in 2006 and the XC90 took top honors in 2003.

      In the industry, the awards carry a lot of weight, precisely because there is so much independent input. Instead of one entity picking the winners, the best cars emerge as a consensus choice.

      Judges consider things like innovation, comfort, design, safety, handling, driver satisfaction, and value for the money.

      The finalists

      In the final balloting, the Civic came out ahead of the Chevrolet Malibu and Mazda MX-5 Miata.

      The Volvo XC90 edged out the Honda Pilot and Nissan Titan XD.

      The industry has been impressed by both vehicles. Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor of Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com, 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.

      “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 in comments emailed to ConsumerAffairs last month.

      Product reveals

      The winners were announced at the start of the auto show. The show's chairman, Paul Sabatini, says show participants plan even more product reveals this year.

      "Of the 57 introductions at NAIAS, nearly 90% were worldwide debuts, which is an incredible testament to the global position of importance that NAIAS plays in automakers' new vehicle and technology launch strategies," Sabatini said in a statement.

      Technology remains an emerging trend at the auto show, as carmakers display autonomous and driver-assist features. Even with rock bottom gasoline prices, plug-in hybrids are playing a prominent role as well.

      The North American International Auto Show is underway in Detroit this week, with carmakers from around the world showing off their upcoming models.Set...
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      Stolen series BMX bicycles recalled

      The bicycle’s front wheel can detach due to improperly fitting retention washers

      Quality Bicycle Products Inc. (QBP) of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling 1,000 Stolen series BMX bicycles.

      The bicycle’s front wheel can detach due to improperly fitting retention washers, posing a fall hazard to the rider, thus failing to meet the federal bicycle standard.

      The firm has received one report of an incident. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves Stolen series BMX bicycles, including Stolen Agent 16CB and 16FW, Stolen Compact, Stolen Casino and Stolen Stereo models. “Stolen” and the model name are printed on the frame of the bicycles.

      The Agent 16-inch bikes were sold in dark blue, the Compact 20-inch bikes were sold in neon orange and satin white, the Casino 20-inch bikes were sold in phosphate raw (gray), highlight yellow and electric red, and the Stereo 20-inch bikes were sold in satin black and electric green.

      The bicycles, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at BMX bicycle/product dealers, Stolen series BMX distributors and specialty bicycle retailers nationwide and online at www.QBP.com and other BMX bicycle/product websites from September 2015, through October, 2015 for between $230 and $350.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled BMX bicycles and return them to the store where purchased for a free inspection and free replacement wheel retention washers.

      Consumers may contact QBP toll-free at 844-610-7484 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at www.qbpbmx.com and click on the Recall Information tab for more information.

      Quality Bicycle Products Inc. (QBP) of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling 1,000 Stolen series BMX bicycles. The bicycle’s front wheel can detach due ...
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      Cost Plus recalls Tovin chairs

      The legs on the chair can bend or break

      Cost Plus Management Services of Oakland, Calif., is recalling about 1,180 Tovin chairs.

      The legs on the chair can bend or break, posing a fall hazard to the user.

      The company has received five reports of the chair legs bending or breaking. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves upholstered Tovin chairs sold in a black and white print. The chairs are 32 inches tall by 23 inches wide, and have a wooden frame with clear floor glides. SKU number 507667 is printed on a UPC sticker affixed to the underside of the chair.

      The chairs, manufactured in Vietnam, were sold exclusively at Cost Plus World Market and World Market stores nationwide and online at www.worldmarket.com from July 2015, through October 2015, for about $240.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chair and return it to any Cost Plus World Market or World Market store for a full refund.

      Consumers may contact Cost Plus World Market toll-free at 877-967-5362 from 7 a.m. to midnight ET daily or online at www.worldmarket.com and click on “Product Recalls” for more information.

      Cost Plus Management Services of Oakland, Calif., is recalling about 1,180 Tovin chairs. The legs on the chair can bend or break, posing a fall haz...
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      BMW recalls i8 vehicles

      Dynamic Stability Control functions may be impaired

      BMW of North America is recalling 16 model year 2015 i8 vehicles manufactured May 29, 2015, to June 5, 2015.

      Improperly drilled holes within the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) hydraulic unit may restrict one or more pistons impairing the DSC functions, including braking.

      Impaired DSC functionality may affect vehicle handling and braking and increase the risk of a crash.

      BMW will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the DSC hydraulic unit, and replace if necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 10, 2016.

      Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417.

      BMW of North America is recalling 16 model year 2015 i8 vehicles manufactured May 29, 2015, to June 5, 2015. Improperly drilled holes within the Dy...
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      VW's diesel recall plan doesn't fly with the feds

      EPA says lots of work remains to be done

      Every day gets a little worse for Volkswagen. Yesterday, California nixed the carmakers' plan to recall and retrofit 2.0-liter diesel-equipped cars and today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the VW plan faces some tough testing before it has a chance of winning approval.

      "We're not there yet," said Chris Grundler, director of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, saying the agency wants a plan that brings the VWs into compliance with clear air regulations without creating adverse impacts for owners, Automotive News reported

      It's not only VW owners who are on hold while the plans are reviewed. Dealers are also facing a slowdown in business since no new Volkswagen diesels can be sold until the situation is resolved. Used diesels are also sitting idle on dealer lots.

      Top VW officials met today with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. While the meeting wasn't public, both sides emerged saying that the conversation had been worthwhile and the work was continuing.

      "We appreciate the time that Administrator McCarthy took to meet with us," the company said in a statement. "Volkswagen will continue to fully cooperate."

      No quick fix

      VW had hoped for a quick fix when it was revealed last September that the company had installed deceptive software on its TDI Clean Diesel cars. The software kicked in and reduced emissions to legal levels only when the cars were undergoing an emissions test. The rest of the time, the cars were emitting up to 40 times the legal limit of pollutants.

      VW has put its foot in its mouth several times, most recently earlier this week when VW of America CEO Michael Horn labeled the EPA and California talks "political."

      Grundler today took issue with that, saying the negotiations were "not a political matter ... it's a serious matter." 

      Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, one of several state AGs also investigating VW, lambasted the carmaker yesterday for taking the matter lightly. 

      "Volkswagen has failed consumers on multiple levels and should be taking steps – as it initially promised to do – to correct a culture that allowed such wide-scale deception to occur. In an apparent moment of candor in Detroit, we now learn that the company's newly appointed and most senior leader doesn't believe Volkswagen lied, which is undisputable, and cannot say when it plans to deliver its solution to a problem that is affecting millions of Americans, which is unacceptable," Jepsen said.

      Every day gets a little worse for Volkswagen. Yesterday, California nixed the carmakers' plan to recall and retrofit 2.0-liter diesel-equipped cars and tod...
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      Smartphones evolving to help manage blood sugar levels for Type 1 diabetes sufferers

      The InControl app aims to make managing the disease automatic and effortless

      Smartphones may soon be able to add one more entry to their rolodex of skills: the ability to act as a tool to measure blood glucose levels for those suffering from Type 1 diabetes.

      After 20 years of research, University of Virginia School of Medicine researchers are in the final testing phases of a system that can automatically measure and monitor blood sugar levels. Early testing produced promising results. Now, researchers say actual patient testing is going well, and the system is circling the landing towards completion.

      The appcalled “InControl”can control everything people with diabetes need, eliminating the need for finger pricks and manual insulin injections. This ease of the system could prove to be a game-changer in the lives of 1.25 million people who suffer from the disease.

      Effortlessly manages levels

      The so-called “artificial pancreas” has been in the works since 2006, says lead researcher Boris Kovatchev, director of the Centre for Diabetes Technology in the US. 

      Kovatchev’s own father suffered from diabetes, so he saw firsthand the need for an easier way to live with the disease. “We show that it is not only possible, but it can run on a smartphone,” says Kovatchev.

      Every five minutes, the system will report blood glucose level results to the app on a nearby android smartphone. It will analyze the data, and if necessary, adjust insulin levels on a small, wearable insulin pump.

      Wirelessly controls pump

      The app works by controlling an insulin pump: a device which is already used by approximately 350,000 diabetes sufferers in the US. The pump works by delivering user-adjusted doses of insulin to the bloodstream through a very fine needle; it can be worn discreetly under an article of clothing or hooked to a belt.

      The wireless monitor, which talks to the pump, is as tiny as a flash drive and can be worn anywhere on the body. Together, the two devices create a digital treatment ecosystem of sorts that can handle the burden of the disease.

      "It runs on a five-minute cycle and takes information from these devices and calculates the next best option for the patient pretty much any point in time,” said Chad Rogers, the CEO of TypeZero Technologies, which has licensed and refined the technology.

      Final phases of testing 

      The ultimate goal is to make managing Type 1 diabetes automatic and effortless.

      “If it is working, you do not know that it is there,” says Francis Doyle III, dean of Harvard’s Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who is collaborating with Kovatchev on the system

      UVA researchers have brought the system to nine locations across the U.S. and Europe to try it on 240 patients. Researchers hope to have the trials complete and the system perfected in four years.

      Smartphones may soon be able to add one more entry to their rolodex of skills: the ability to act as a tool to measure blood glucose levels for those suffe...
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      January is a good month to review your retirement plan

      Financial fitness is just as important as physical fitness in the new year

      This is the time of year for New Years resolutions, which typically have to do with health and fitness. But financial advisors say consumers shouldn't overlook their financial fitness, especially when it comes to retirement planning.

      Experts at Foresters Financialsay a recent survey shows 70% of American workers believe financial stress is the most common cause of stress and are interested in ways to avoid it. Forester says there are many simple things consumers can do to improve fiscal fitness, such as saving more and spending less.

      Easier said than done, right. After all, the bills keep coming and pay raises haven't been all that plentiful.

      Pay yourself first

      But one strategy to get ahead is setting aside a specific amount of money each month to pay yourself first, before you start paying your bills.

      "There are many excellent strategies to improve your overall financial wellness," said Paul Prete, Vice President, for Retirement Programs at Foresters Financial. "To ensure thoroughness, one of the best strategies is to work with a financial representative who can help you achieve your financial goals based on your specific situation, risk tolerance and time frame—whether it be for making investments, retirement planning, funding a college education or providing life insurance protection for you and your family."

      Prete says the key is to get empowered. You do that by taking an involved approach. Don't just leave it up to your advisor. Read the research and learn about investments. The important thing, he says, is to get active – just like you would do if you were trying to improve your physical health.

      This advice may be especially timely for older Americans. Last year the General Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report showing a disturbing number of Americans are approaching their retirement years with no savings and few, if any, assets.

      Their future may then depend on whatever income they can derive from continued employment and the increasingly fragile lifeline provided by Social Security.

      52% have no savings

      In a report produced as the request of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), now a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, the GAO found that 52% of U.S. households age 55 and older have no retirement savings, such as in a 401(k) plan or an IRA.

      Worse still, the agency found many older households without retirement savings have few other resources, such as a defined benefit pension, non-retirement savings, or other assets.

      In November, the U.S. Treasury Department introduced a simple savings vehicle called myRA, after testing it with a small group of people.

      The idea is indeed simple. Consumers can put a small amount of money away on a regular basis – whether it's taken from their paycheck or it comes directly out of a bank account.

      It was designed for the millions of people who don't have access to employer–sponsored retirement accounts and those who have found it difficult to save anything.

      For more information about MyRA, click here.

      This is the time of year for New Years resolutions, which typically have to do with health and fitness. But financial advisors say consumers shouldn't over...
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      Foreclosure completions and inventory on the decline in November

      The serious mortgage delinquency rate fell to an eight-year low

      The number of homes in foreclosure, as well as completed foreclosures, fell again in November.

      Property information, analytics, and services provider CoreLogic reports the foreclosure inventory dropped by 21.8%, while completed foreclosures were down by 18.8% compared with November 2014.

      In terms of numbers of homes, completed foreclosures nationwide decreased year-over-year from 41,000 in November 2014 to 33,000 in November 2015. The number of completed foreclosures in November 2015 was down 71.6% from the peak of 117,657 in September 2010.

      The foreclosure inventory represents the number of homes at some stage of the foreclosure process; completed foreclosures reflect the total number of homes lost to foreclosure.

      "Remarkable improvement"

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

      As of this past November, the national foreclosure inventory included approximately 448,000, or 1.2%, of all homes with a mortgage compared with 573,000 homes, or 1.5%, a year earlier. The November 2015 foreclosure inventory rate is the lowest for any month since November 2007.

      “After peaking at 3.6% in January 2011, the foreclosure rate currently stands at 1.2% -- a remarkable improvement,” said Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic. “While there are still pockets of areas with high foreclosure activity, 30 states have foreclosure rates below the national average which is evidence of the solid improvement.”

      The number of mortgages in serious delinquency (defined as 90 days or more past due, including loans in foreclosure or Real Estate Owned) declined by 21.7% from November 2014 to November 2015, with 1.3 million mortgages, or 3.3%, in this category. That's the lowest rate since December 2007.

      Report highlights

      • On a month-over-month basis, completed foreclosures decreased by 10.9% to 33,000 in November from the 38,000 reported in October. 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 November were Florida (83,000), Michigan (51,000), Texas (29,000), California (24,000), and Georgia (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 November 2015: the District of Columbia (78), North Dakota (225), Wyoming (543), West Virginia (565), and Hawaii (686).
      • Four states and the District of Columbia had the highest foreclosure inventory rate in November 2015: New Jersey (4.4%), New York (3.5%), Hawaii (2.5%), Florida (2.4%), and the District of Columbia (2.4%).
      • The five states with the lowest foreclosure inventory rate in November 2015 were Alaska (0.3%), Minnesota (0.3%), Arizona (0.4%), Colorado (0.4%), and Utah (0.4%).
      The number of homes in foreclosure, as well as completed foreclosures, fell again in November. Property information, analytics, and services provider Co...
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      Lower interest rates help push mortgage applications higher

      Refinancings were also on the rise

      Mortgage applications shot up 21.3% in the week ending January 8, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, the second highest level since May 2010.

      The Refinance Index jumped 24%, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity to 55.8% of total applications from 55.4% the previous week.

      “Bolstered by strong fourth quarter growth in jobs and continuing low rates, the results are similar to levels we saw in early December, suggesting that the purchase market’s strong finish to 2015 may be continuing,” said MBA Vice President of Research and Economics Lynn Fisher. “While refinances also increased on a holiday-adjusted basis, refinance activity was down 38 percent relative to a year ago when rates dove below 4%.”

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 5.1% of total applications, the FHA share of total applications was 14.4%, the VA share came in at 12.2%, and the USDA share of total applications was 0.8%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) was down eight basis points -- to 4.12% from 4.20% -- with points decreasing to 0.38 from 0.42 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dipped from 4.09% to 4.02%, with points decreasing to 0.30 from 0.35 (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 fell five basis points to 3.90%, with points down to 0.34 from 0.41 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs decreased to 3.42% from 3.47%, with points increasing to 0.39 from 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs dipped five basis points to 3.14%, with points increasing to 0.42 from 0.32 (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 shot up 21.3% in the week ending January 8, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) weekly Mortgage Applications Survey...
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      Hyundai recalls model year 2015 Genesis vehicles with tire issue

      The tires may develop cracks in the sidewall

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 11,142 model year 2015 Genesis vehicles manufactured March 3, 2014, to February 9, 2015, and equipped with Hankook Ventus S1 noble2 tires installed as original equipment.

      The tires may develop cracks in the sidewall, resulting in a loss of air, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will replace the factory tires with tires of another brand, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on February 19, 2016.

      Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-855-671-3059. Hyundai's number for this recall is 138.

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 11,142 model year 2015 Genesis vehicles manufactured March 3, 2014, to February 9, 2015, and equipped with Hankook Ventu...
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      Ford recalls F-150 SuperCrew trucks

      The seat belts may not properly restrain the seat occupant in the event of a crash

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 2,590 model year 2015 Ford F-150 SuperCrew trucks manufactured January 22, 2015, to March 17, 2015.

      The vehicles may be equipped with driver or front passenger seat belt anchorage assemblies whose pretensioner cable was not properly crimped. As a result, the seat belts may not properly restrain the seat occupant in the event of a crash. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 209, "Seat Belt Assemblies" and 210, " Seat Belt Assembly Anchorages."

      An occupant not properly restrained is at an increased risk of injury in the event of a crash.

      Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the driver and/or front passenger side seat belt retractor(s) and pretensioner(s), free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 8, 2016.

      Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 15C17.

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 2,590 model year 2015 Ford F-150 SuperCrew trucks manufactured January 22, 2015, to March 17, 2015. The vehicles ma...
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      Pier 1 Imports recalls Swingasan chairs and stands

      The suspension hardware on the chair and stand can break

      Pier 1 Imports of Fort Worth, Texas, is recalling about 276,000 Swingasan chairs and stands in the U.S. and Canada

      The suspension hardware on the chair and stand can break, or the stand can become unstable during use, posing a fall hazard.

      The company has received 101 reports of incidents with the chairs and stands. This includes 93 reports of the chair with stand becoming unstable during use and tipping over, resulting in 23 injuries. There have been eight reports of the suspension hardware failing, including four reports of injuries.

      This recall involves the Pier 1 Imports Swingasan chairs and stands. The chairs and stands were sold separately. The chair hangs from a steel stand and is made of a wrought iron frame covered with woven plastic wicker. It was sold in various colors and designs. The stands are made of steel and were sold in four colors.

      The product description and dimensions in inches included in this recall are:

      Description

      Height

      Depth

      Width

      Swingasan Hanging Chair – Mocha

      42”

      22.50

      33.50

      Swingasan Hanging Chair – Daisy

      42”

      22.50

      33.50

      Swingasan Hanging Chair – Light Brown

      42”

      22.5”

      33.5”

      Swingasan Hanging Chair – White

      42”

      22.5”

      33.5”

      Swingasan Hanging Chair – Circles

      42”

      22.5”

      33.5”

      Swingasan Hanging Chair – Peacock

      42”

      22.5”

      33.5”

      Swingasan Hanging Chair – Dream Catcher

      42”

      22.5”

      33.5”

      Swingasan Hanging Chair – Gray

      42”

      22.5”

      33.5”

      Willow Swingasan Hanging Chair – Rainbow

      47”

      27”

      30”

      Willow Swingasan Hanging Chair – Cinnamon

      47”

      27”

      30”

      Willow Swingasan Hanging Chair – White

      47”

      27”

      30”

      Willow Swingasan Hanging Chair – Light Brown

      47”

      27”

      30”

      Willow Swingasan Hanging Chair – Latte

      47”

      27”

      30”

      Willow Swingasan Hanging Chair – Mocha

      47”

      27”

      30”

      Swingasan Podasan Hanging Chair – Orange

      46.25”

      25”

      31”

      Swingasan Podasan Hanging Chair – Mocha

      47.25”

      25”

      31”

      Swingasan Stand – Mocha

      82.5”

      34.5”

      41.5”

      Swingasan Stand – White

      82.5”

      34.5”

      41.5”

      Swingasan Stand – Light Brown

      82.5”

      34.5”

      41.5”

      Swingasan Stand – Gray

      82.5”

      34.5”

      41.5”

      The chairs and stands, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Pier 1 Imports stores nationwide and online at www.Pier1.com from January 2010, through August 2015, for between $200 and $400 for the hanging chair and stand.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the chairs and stands and contact Pier 1 Imports for a free repair kit, or return the chair and stand to a Pier 1 Imports store for a full refund. There is no repair kit for the Podasan Mocha and Orange Swingasan chairs. Consumers should stop using these chairs immediately and contact Pier 1 Imports for a full refund.

      Consumers may contact Pier 1 Imports toll-free at 855-513-5140 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Saturday or 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (CT) Sunday, or online at http://www.pier1.com/ and click on “Product Notes & Recalls” at the bottom of the page for more information.

      Pier 1 Imports of Fort Worth, Texas, is recalling about 276,000 Swingasan chairs and stands in the U.S. and Canada The suspension hardware on the c...
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      California rejects VW's dirty diesel clean-up plan

      The state calls the plan "incomplete, substantially deficient" and too slow

      Volkswagen's plan to clean up its 2.0-liter diesel-powered cars is "incomplete, substantially deficient and falls far short of meeting the legal requirements," the California Air Resources Board said today. CARB also said the plan would take too long to complete.

      It's a serious setback for Volkswagen, which had admitted using stealth softare to fool emissions testing equipment, enabling its cars to emit 40 times the legal limit of pollutants. 

      VW, trying to put the best face on the rejection, said it is still in talks with California. CARB put it another way -- saying it is continuing its investigation into Volkswagen's actions.

      The rejection of VW's plan did not result in any immediate penalties.

      More scrutiny

      VW CEO Matthias Mueller meets tomorrow (Wednesday) with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy.

      In advance of that meeting, EPA issued a statement saying it agrees with California "that Volkswagen has not submitted an approvable recall plan to bring the vehicles into compliance and reduce pollution."

      Separately, VW is working on a plan to fix larger 3.0-liter diesel engines used in some VW, Audi, and Porsche vehicles.

      Besides California and the feds, VW is facing scrutiny by state attorneys general. One of those AGs, Connecticut's George Jepsen, said he is disturbed by Mueller's comments to reporters at the Detroit Auto Show that seemed to downplay the seriousness of the matter.

      "Volkswagen has failed consumers on multiple levels and should be taking steps – as it initially promised to do – to correct a culture that allowed such wide-scale deception to occur. In an apparent moment of candor in Detroit, we now learn that the company's newly appointed and most senior leader doesn't believe Volkswagen lied, which is undisputable, and cannot say when it plans to deliver its solution to a problem that is affecting millions of Americans, which is unacceptable," Jepsen said.

      "The time for empty apologies and hollow pledges of cooperation is over. It's up to Volkswagen to live up to its promises and obligations to consumers – and that starts by being honest with the American public, providing regulators with requested documents and coming clean on how they intend to address the very real problems with their vehicles."

      Volkswagen's plan to clean up its 2.0-liter diesel-powered cars is "incomplete, substantially deficient and falls far short of meeting the legal requiremen...
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      Microsoft ends support for Windows 8 and older versions of Internet Explorer

      Users are strongly urged to upgrade in order to avoid security risks

      It is a good thing that technology continues to improve, but it also means that older programs and systems often need to be left behind. Many consumers will be reminded of that today when they go to update their web browser. Older versions of Internet Explorer (IE), the long-lived web browser used by millions, are finally being left behind by Microsoft.

      The company is officially ending support for IE versions 8, 9, and 10 after its most recent update, though support for Internet Explorer 11 will continue. Additionally, Microsoft will be ending support for Windows 8, with users being asked to upgrade to a newer operating system.

      Security risks

      The web browser change will not affect everyone; for consumers who use alternative web browsers, like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and others, this change may not mean a whole lot. However, if you have not made the switch to another browser yet, you are strongly urged to do so. Users will be prompted to upgrade to IE 11 or Microsoft Edge, IE’s successor, in the latest update.

      There are undoubtedly many consumers out there who will resist this change. Just because there’s no more support for the program, that doesn’t mean you have to stop using it, right? Technically, yes – but you may be putting yourself at risk by doing so.

      The latest update comes with the very last security updates for the aforementioned IE versions and Windows 8, so after this point your software will become increasingly more vulnerable to hacking attempts if you continue to use them. So, as Tom Petty said, it’s time to move on.  

      It is a good thing that technology continues to improve, but it also means that older programs and systems often need to be left behind. Many consumers wil...
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      Digital detox tips to help you regain perspective

      If checking your phone has become a compulsion, it may be time to step away from the glowing screen

      When you’re immersed in a virtual world behind a glowing screen, it becomes nearly impossible to connect to the real world around you. Smartphones are useful tools, but more people are absentmindedly scrolling through feeds and emails out of habit rather than necessity these days.

      If taking stock of 2015 included the realization that you might’ve spent too much time staring at your smartphone, a digital detox may be in order.

      As with most other problems, understanding the root of the behavior is key to correcting it. So why exactly have smartphones become the drug of choice for so many?

      Primitive instinct?

      According to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, instinct may be driving the compulsion to constantly check smartphones.

      "One thing my research made clear is that human beings have a deep, primitive desire to know everything that's going on around them," said Carr. This instinct, he adds, was probably a useful survival tool for cavemen and cavewomenbut in this digital age, we’re faced with an endless stream of information. For many, that’s where the obsession begins.

      “I'm sure one of the main reasons people tend to be so compulsive in their use of smartphones is that they can't stand the idea that there may be a new bit of information out there that they haven't seen,” says Carr.

      To prevent smartphones from stealing your ability to engage in contemplation, reflection or even just be alone with our thoughts, experts suggest ocassionally taking some time off from them.

      Disconnecting

      The most important aspect of detoxing, according to Holland Haiis, author of Consciously Connecting, is to stop putting it off.

      “Leave your phone at home so you can connect to the activity you’re doing, even if it’s errands,” said Haiis. When it’s time for bed, Haiis suggests removing your phone from your bedside table. Checking it immediately in the morning, “catapults you onto the merry-go-round.”

      The allure of a vacation, Haiis reminds readers, is that it's a time to truly disconnect and start doing instead of being. "After all," she says, “the world looks completely different when you’re not looking down all the time.”

      Managing smartphone use

      If you’re looking to cut back on your smartphone time but not willing to go as far as a digital detox retreat, experts suggest these steps to control usage:

      • Be conscious of the situations and emotions that make you want to check your phone. Is it boredom? Loneliness? Anxiety? Maybe something else would soothe you.

      • Be strong when your phone beeps or rings. You don't always have to answer it. In fact, you can avoid temptation by turning off the alert signals.

      • Be disciplined about not using your device in certain situations (such as when you're with children, driving, or in a meeting) or at certain hours (for instance, between 9 PM and 7 AM). "You'll be surprised and pleased to rediscover the pleasures of being in control of your attention," Carr says.

      When you’re immersed in a virtual world behind a glowing screen, it becomes nearly impossible to connect to the real world around you. Smartphones are usef...
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      Why college students try e-cigarettes

      Largely, for the same reason young people smoke cigarettes

      Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are an object of intense focus by health researchers who worry that not enough is known about their health effects.

      But what is known is worrisome enough. They might – might, because the research isn't there yet – be less harmful than cigarettes, and help heavy smokers ween themselves off tobacco.

      On the other hand, they are nicotine delivery systems. If you aren't already hooked on nicotine through cigarettes, why in the world would you start using e-cigarettes and develop a dependence or addiction?

      Researchers at the University at Buffalo asked that very question to a group of college-aged young adults, one of the product's biggest markets.

      30% have tried it

      More than 1,400 college students from four upstate New York universities were in the study group. Of that sample, 429 students -- about 30% – had tried e-cigarettes at least once.

      Of those young adults, about 79% said they used e-cigarettes to “try something new,” and nearly 58% reported using them for enjoyment.

      “Our findings suggest that college students and young adults may be more interested in using e-cigarettes for affective reasons, such as enjoyment or the pleasure they get from using these products, compared with use for cognitive reasons such as quitting smoking or because they perceive e-cigarettes to be a safer alternative to cigarette smoking,” said Megan Saddleson, PhD, who led the study.

      Vaping for enjoyment

      A small number of people – 15 students – reported “vaping,” the practice of inhaling nicotine vapor from an e-cigarette, daily. All daily vapers said they use e-cigarettes because they enjoy the product.

      “The availability of flavors could be related to the enjoyment factor of e-cigarettes, especially among young people,” Saddleson said.

      But 77% of the participants said they used e-cigarettes as a substitute for cigarettes, believing the vapor is less harmful than tobacco.

      “Using e-cigs because they are less toxic could appeal to users and make the product more enjoyable for the user,” Saddleson said.

      At the moment, e-cigarettes are not regulated at the federal level, though that is likely to change later this year. The Food and Drug Administration is in the final phase of readying regulations.

      Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are an object of intense focus by health researchers who worry that not enough is known about their health effects....
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      The canine flu: tips for protecting your dog

      A new type of canine influenza virus has spread to more than 25 states

      If you’re a dog parent, you want the best of everything for your pooch  especially their health. With flu season in full swing, it’s important to remember that humans aren’t the only ones at risk for the virus. Dogs can come down with the flu, too.

      One type of canine influenza virus – CIV H3N8 – has been around for years. But a new, harder to diagnose type (CIV H3N2) was identified in Chicago in March 2015. Since then, the virus has spread to more than 25 states, according to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Animal Health Diagnostic Center.

      Knowing how it’s spread and what can be done to prevent the virus are crucial to keeping your pup healthy. 

      How it spreads

      CIV H3N2 is spread through direct contact with respiratory secretions from infected dogs and from contact with contaminated objects, such as toys, clothing, and water bowls.

      According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, dogs frequently in contact with other dogs are at high risk of infection. This includes dogs that are boarded or enrolled in daycare, as well as those who visit groomers or dog parks.

      Since dogs can't tell you what's ailing them, be sure to take stock of your dog's behavior. Recognizing the symptoms is the first step towards diagnosing and treating the canine flu.  

      Symptoms

      In the initial phase of infection, the dog appears healthy but can spread the virus to other dogs. Symptoms include: coughing, sneezing, loss of appetite, lethargy, fever, and discharge from the eyes and nose.

      Most dogs recover in two to three weeks. However, because CIV H3N2 can be difficult to diagnose and in severe instances may be fatal, effective prevention is critical.

      If you take your dog to dog parks or other areas where he is in contact with other potentially infected dogs, it’s important to take precautions in order to prevent the virus.

      Preventive measures

      Vaccinations are one way to get ahead of the virus. In November 2015, Zoetis, the world's largest animal health company, was the first to be granted a conditional license for a vaccine for CIV H3N2.

      "I'll be telling clients I recommend the vaccination," said Dr. Scott Rovner, a Chicago veterinarian. "I'll be vaccinating my own two dogs who go to daycare. I think it's going to be a great product to help slow down and lessen the clinical signs that we see with our patients."

      Other preventive measures to help protect your dog include:

      • Washing toys, bowls, and bedding regularly.

      • Washing your hands thoroughly before handling your own pet if it has had contact with other dogs.

      • Consulting with your veterinarian regarding the appropriate vaccination protocol for your dog.

      If you’re a dog parent, you want the best of everything for your pooch – especially their health. With flu season in full swing, it’s important to remember...
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      Three companies remain in Extreme Tech Challenge

      Winner to be selected next month at Richard Branson's Necker Island

      Some of the tech companies attending last week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas competed for honors in the Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC), an innovation and entrepreneurial competition sponsored by businessman and entrepreneur Richard Branson.

      In fact, 10 finalists were on hand to present their ideas to a panel of judges at CES.

      “In the beginning, about 3,000 start-up companies applied and we selected the semi-finalists at CES. The finals will be next month, at Richard Branson's private island,” competition partner Karl Mehta, founder and CEO of EdCast, told ConsumerAffairs.

      The final three in the competition were elected by a panel of judges that included Gary Shapiro, founding partner of Pacific Investments, and venture capitalist Tim Draper.

      Impressive innovators

      Mehta says all of the finalists are impressive innovators. One of the 10 companies named as semi-finalists is Kick Farther, which Mehta describes as a fundraising platform.

      “It is not like Kickstarter, where you give money but you get nothing,” Mehta said. “Here, you actually get shares.”

      The three that emerged from the pack – winning a February 11 date at Necker Island, are Bloom Technologies, GIROPTIC, and Sphero.

      Bloom Technologies has designed wearable powered analytics to better predict and manage pre-term birth. Its technology combines physiological monitoring with data analytics to reassure expecting moms and provide doctors with better information to improve clinical decision making and birth outcomes.

      GIROPTIC is in the virtual reality (VR) market, offering a native hardware technology to instantly produce fully immersive photos and videos. After six years of research and development and four generations of products, GIROPTIC says it has developed and patented a unique real-time image fusion process from multiple sensors: the 360 Virtual Sensor Technology.

      Sphero makes connected entertainment robots. The company says it takes the best of what kids and adults love about their smart devices and and fuse it with its robots that exist in the real world.

      Chance to raise their profiles

      These are companies most consumers have never heard of. The point of the competition, Mehta says, is to change that.

      “For a semi-finalists, it's huge visibility,” Mehta said. “It brings you to the attention of some of today's most active venture capitalists.”

      And if you're lucky, it just might make you a household name.

      Some of the tech companies attending last week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas competed for honors in the Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC), an i...
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      Neto's Sausage recalls meat and poultry products

      The products were not inspected by the Food Safety and Inspection Service

      Neto’s Sausage Co., of Santa Clara, Calif. is recalling approximately 7,687 pounds of beef, pork, and chicken products.

      Although the products were produced and labeled with the federal mark of inspection, they were not inspected by the Food Safety and Inspection Service

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

      The following sausage items, produced from December 28, 2014, to December 28, 2015, are being recalled:

      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Hot Italian Sausage”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Herb-N-Cheese Coil”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Linguiça Coil”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Smoked Bratwurst”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Bratwurst with Cheddar and Jalapeno”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Holiday Sausage Coil”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Pork Links”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Pork Links with Apples and Cinnamon”
      • Approximately 10 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Brazilian Smoked Calabreza”
      • Approximately 10 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Italian Sausage with Herbs”
      • Approximately 10 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Italian Linguiça”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Linguiça Hot”
      • Approximately 10 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Polish Kielbasa”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Italian Sausage with Herbs”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Calabrese Brand Italian Sausage”
      • Approximately 10 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Andouille Sausage ”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Spanish Chorizo Sausage”
      • Approximately 10 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Calabrese Italian Sausage ”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Linguiça Sausage”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Garlic & Basil Chicken Sausage”
      • Approximately 10 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Jalapeño-Cilantro Chicken Sausage ”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Spanish Chorzo Sausage”
      • Approximately 12 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Morcella”

      The recalled products bear establishment number “EST. 9027” and “EST 6086” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were distributed in house, to a local distributor and online nationwide.

      The problem was discovered during routine FSIS in-commerce surveillance activities.

      Customers who have 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 Neto’s Sausage at (408) 296-0818.

      Neto’s Sausage Co., of Santa Clara, Calif. is recalling approximately 7,687 pounds of beef, pork, and chicken products. Although the products were ...
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      Good Earth Egg Company recalls shell eggs

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Good Earth Egg Company of Bonne Terre, Mo., is recalling its shell eggs.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      The recall includes various sizes of shell eggs packaged in 6-count cartons, 10-count cartons, 12-count cartons, 18-count cartons, 15-dozen cases and 30-dozen cases.

      The dates and codes on the cartons and cases will include everything prior to and including date code 006 - Sell By 02/05/2016, under the brand name Good Earth Egg Company, license number D-01124.

      The recalled products were distributed throughout the Midwest, including Missouri and Illinois, at the retail and wholesale level, institutions, and to walk-in customers.

      Good Earth eggs are sold at Dierbergs, Shop n' Save, Straubs, Midtowne Market and Price Chopper in the metropolitan St. Louis area.

      Customers do not need to return the product to the store where it was purchased. Instead, they should discard any product and its container. Good Earth Egg Company will work directly with each customer to manage replacement of the product.

      Consumers with questions may contact Good Earth Egg Company at goodeartheggco@hotmail.com.

      Good Earth Egg Company of Bonne Terre, Mo., is recalling its shell eggs. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella The recall include...
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      Gas prices: how low can they go?

      In some states, prices are below $2 and headed for $1

      Gas prices are plummeting around the country, falling below $2 in many areas. Expert observers say the price could sink to $1 a gallon in some areas for the first time since 1999.

      AAA and GasBuddy follow gas prices on a daily basis and both say they see no reason to think that prices below $2 won't soon be common in many states. Prices could even hit $1 in states like Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, where prices already average around $1.75.

      The collapse in pump prices is driven largely by Saudi Arabia's decision to keep its oil exports high, effectively destroying OPEC, which has for decades kept a tight lid on exports to keep prices sky-high. 

      Refineries and taxes

      Another major factor is that refineries have been running well in most of the country. Refinery problems can cause major spikes in gas prices, as California drivers know only too well. Refinery problems are being blamed for keeping prices high in California, where AAA reports the average price of $2.87 is the highest in the nation -- 19 cents higher than second-place Hawaii, which is usually the market leader. 

      Gas taxes also play into the price at the pump. The national average state gas tax is about 49 cents per gallon, according to the American Petroleum Institute, but many states are well below that, including those that currently are enjoying the lowest gas prices. South Carolina, Missouri, and Oklahoma all charge around 35 cents per gallon, a 15-cent discount that can mean savings of $3 or more on a typical fill-up.

      Of course, it's always necessary to remember that averages are just that and prices can vary widely in either direction based on a number of factors including how much consumers are willing to pay.

      Highway robbery?

      This irks many consumers, like Winslow of Smyrna, Ga., who thinks a local Chevron station must be a front for the Mob.

      "Their gas station has always had much higher gas prices then any of the stations within 5 to 10 miles. What's going on? How can they survive charging so much more than any other gas station? Does anyone know? Are they just upfront for the Mafia?" Winslow asked in a review recently submitted to ConsumerAffairs.

      Sorry, Winslow. It's more likely the station is in a convenient location, perhaps one where drivers value their time more than their money and are willing to pay more for the convenience of buying gas at that particular station.

      The first rule of consumerism, after all, is that it pays to shop around. Retailers can charge whatever they please, and if consumers don't like it, they can go somewhere else. Drivers looking for the best price can find it at sites like AAA's Fuel Gauge and GasBuddy.

      Gas prices are plummeting around the country, falling below $2 in many areas. Expert observers say the pri...
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      Fantasy sports sites win reprieve in New York

      Court rules New Yorkers may play, pending the court's final ruling

      Daily fantasy sports (DFS) enterprises DraftKings and FanDuel are celebrating a New York appellate court ruling, granting them a stay and allowing them to accept players from New York.

      New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had secured a court order, requiring both companies to stop accepting players from New York, claiming the games constitute illegal gambling. The companies won a stay Monday, allowing them to continue operating in the state until the court can make a final ruling.

      “We are pleased with the Court’s ruling today,” said David Boies, counsel to DraftKings, in a statement emailed to ConsumerAffairs. “Daily fantasy sports contests are as legal now as they have been for the past seven years that New Yorkers have been playing them. As our litigation continues, we expect an appellate court to see what we have known since the outset: DFS is a game of knowledge and skill, one that builds community and whose competitive spirit has become important to the lives of millions of people.”

      Upping the ante

      Schneiderman strongly disagrees. In his most recent action in the case, he amended his complaint to require both DraftKings and FanDuel to repay all money spent by New Yorkers to play the games. He also asked the court for a $5,000 fine per case – a fine that would run into the billions of dollars.

      In his complaint to the court, Schneiderman said the games are not games of skill, as the companies claim, but simply games of chance. Boies says he's confident the court will see it differently.

      “Our ongoing appeal will make clear that daily fantasy contests require just as much skill as season-long contests, which the attorney general recognizes as perfectly legal under state law,” Boies said.

      Daily fantasy sports (DFS) enterprises DraftKings and FanDuel are celebrating a New York appellate court ruling, granting them a stay and allowing them to ...
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      Backyard chickens not as clean-living as you'd like to think

      Researchers find cage-free living is not all it's cracked up to be

      The life of the chicken is not too swell, no matter how you look at it. And researchers at the University of California, Riverside, say the current fervor for backyard chickens may be misplaced.

      The researchers found that backyard chickens are more likely than chickens on commercial chicken farms to be infested by ectoparasites, which are parasites such as fleas, lice, and mites that live on the exterior of an organism. Their work was published online today in the Journal of Medical Entomology.

      The research comes at a time when several states, including California, have banned or limited the use of isolated "battery cages" in favor of "enriched cages" or cage-free operations. The European Union has also banned battery cages. And a bill that would have banned those cages in the United States was introduced in Congress but failed to pass.

      In fact, the researchers -- Amy C. Murillo, a graduate student and Bradley A. Mullens, a professor of entomology -- believe that these more open, cage-free, or free-range type habitats increase the risk of acquisition and transmission of ectoparasites.

      80% infestation rate

      Such infestations make life more stressful for the chickens and may affect egg production, but researchers say there is no risk to humans who eat the eggs or meat of infested chickens.

      The researchers surveyed 100 adult hens in 20 different backyards in southern California and searched the birds and their coops for ectoparasites. They found a much greater diversity of ectoparasites on the backyard chickens than has been found in commercial flocks.

      Ectoparasites were found on 80 percent of the flocks surveyed, and lice were the most common and abundant.  Commercial poultry flocks suffer from few of the same ectoparasites, partly because their cages keep them off the ground and offer fewer crevices where ticks and bed bugs can lurk.

      The study suggests that the perks of being a backyard chicken may be outweighed by the increased likelihood of ectoparasites. Murillo said many of the chicken owners that participated in this study were surprised to learn that their chickens had ectoparasites, and almost none were practicing parasite prevention.

      With that in mind, she recommends backyard chicken owners focus on preventing ectoparasite infestations because control products are limited. Chicken owners should practice biosecurity, which includes excluding wild birds and other animals from coming into contact with the flock, limiting the addition of new birds to the flock, temporarily quarantining birds that are brought into the flock and limiting outsider visitation (many of these parasites can hitchhike on people or equipment).

      If a chicken owner decides to use insecticides, she said to make sure to read and follow the label. The label is the law, and helps prevent unsafe insecticide exposure. If products not meant for use on laying hens are used, chicken owners risk exposure to insecticides when consuming the eggs or meat from the birds.

      The life of the chicken is not too swell, no matter how you look at it. And researchers at the University of California, Riverside, say the current fervor ...
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      VW extends compensation program to owners of larger diesels

      Diesel Toureg owners can get $500 in cash, $500 in credit

      Volkswagen is extending its emissions compensation program to owners of 3.0-liter diesels, offering $500 in cash and $500 credit to owners of 2009-16 diesel-powered Touaregs. Audi says a similar program is in the works for its larger diesels.

      It's a goodwill gesture intended to mollify consumers who thought their "clean diesel" VWs met or exceed emission standards, only to find out they were equipped with deceptive software that reduced emissions only when the cars were being tested. The rest of the time they emitted as much as 40 times the legal limit of pollutants.

      VW had earlier extended a similar "goodwill" offer to hundreds of thousands of owners of smaller 2.0-liter diesels. The compensation extended to 482,000 owners of 2009-15 2.0-liter diesel cars. 

      Speaking at the Detroit auto show today, VW of America CEO Michael Horn said 265,000 owners of cars equipped with the 2.0-liter diesels have signed up for the $1,000 credits and 135,000 have received them.

      Volkswagen is extending its emissions compensation program to owners of 3.0-liter diesels, offering $500 in cash and $500 credit to owners of 2009-16 diese...
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      2016 housing forecast sees seller's market

      There are still fewer homes to choose from and prices are rising

      The housing market this year could be a lot like it was last year. More expensive homes, fewer homes to choose from, and continued low mortgage rates.

      Jonathan Smoke, Chief Economist at realtor.com says the market will punish indecision.

      “Buyers looking to close this year need to keep an open mind and be prepared to move quickly when they find a home that meets their needs,” he said. “For sellers, it’s about understanding the ins and outs of their local market so they can optimize the price of their home and close quickly.”

      Despite the Federal Reserve's move in December to raise a key interest rate for the first time in nine years, mortgage rates have actually gone down in recent days, to near historic lows. However, qualifying for a mortgage might be a little harder.

      Decline in credit availability

      The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports that credit availability decreased last month, falling 2.4%.

      "Credit availability declined in December 2015. A decline to the index is generally indicative of tightening lending standards,” said Lynn Fisher, MBA's Vice President of Research and Economics.

      “However, this month, a large part of the decline was driven by a technical issue related to implementation of affordable, low down payment, loan programs. Many investors discontinued existing low down payment loan programs only to replace them with new iterations of similar programs that were discontinued."

      Tips

      That may create challenges for both buyers and sellers this year. Smoke offers these tips for buyers:

      • Jump early: over 85% of buyers who plan to purchase in the next year intend to buy in the spring or summer of 2016. Instead of competing for those listings, Smoke suggests exploring the possibilities early in the year, when there are more listing and fewer buyers.

      • Shop around for mortgages: rates are low now, but Smoke says they could go up 3% per year over the next couple of years. A lower interest rate can make the difference in qualifying for a home and save thousands over the life of the loan.

      • Consider a new home: home builders will be busier in 2016, adding to  what is now a tight inventory of homes. Smoke says buyers should consider the new home options in their market; they are likely to have less competition and to enjoy a broad selection of homes.

      While sellers face less competition to move their homes, they need to do all they can to ensure the deal will close. Smoke offers these tips for sellers:

      • List during peak season: unlike buyers, demand benefits sellers. The more people who are looking for homes, the better. Prime home buying season begins in April and reaches its peak in June.
      • Be realistic in your pricing: regardless of what you think your home is worth, other people have to agree. Not only does the buyer have to agree, so does the appraiser. Even if someone agrees to pay what you want, and it doesn't appraise for that amount, you could lose the sale. Also, overpricing your home by just a few thousand dollars can drastically reduce traffic.
      • Offer incentives: in 2015, Smoke says 37% of all sellers offered incentives to attract buyers. Sellers who are open to negotiating beyond price are more likely to find scenarios that result in wins for both sides, resulting in a potentially faster sale and more seller profit.
      The housing market this year could be a lot like it was last year. More expensive homes, fewer homes to choose from, and continued low mortgage rates.J...
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      Tech gadgets that are making life easier for moms of babies

      Winners of The Bump Best of Baby Tech Awards at CES 2016

      When it comes to raising babies, sometimes handing the baton over to technology can do wonders for exhaustion levels. Books and instinct can go a long way, but tech gadgets can certainly help eliminate unnecessary fuss. So what new products are making life easier for moms this year? 

      Pregnancy and parenting resource The Bump, together with Living in Digital Times, producers of the new Baby Tech Summit at CES 2016, announced the winners of The Bump Best of Baby Tech Awards at CES.

      Results were based on a compilation of online votes, in-person votes at CES, and a panel of expert judges. "The winners underscore that technology is redefining everything from conception to how we care for and raise babies,” said Jill Gilbert, producer of the Baby Tech Summit.

      By category, the Bump Best of Baby Tech Award Winners are:

      • Baby eatsFreemie Freedom Pump and Collection Cups allows moms to pump hands-free.
      • Baby learn & playThe Starling by Versa Me word-tracking system nourishes a child's brain during the most rapid stage of development through activities that encourage talk and feedback between parent and child.
      • Baby on the go: Evenflo Advanced Evenflo SensorSafe™ Embrace DLX Infant Car Seat reminds the driver that there is a baby in the car upon arrival of their destination.
      • Baby safetyOwlet Baby Monitor is a smart sock monitor that uses hospital technology—pulse oximeter—to alert parents if baby stops breathing or heart rate fluctuates.
      • Fertility & pregnancyUnivfy IVF Prediction Tests are online tests that provide fertility patients with personalized probabilities of their likely success with in vitro fertilization (IVF).
      • Healthy babyKinsa Smart Ear Thermometer uses the latest technology to take a one-second, one-button temperature reading that syncs wirelessly to a smartphone to keep a record of your child for yourself, a caregiver or doctor.

      A complete list of the winners can be viewed here.  

      When it comes to raising babies, sometimes handing the baton over to technology can do wonders for exhaustion levels. Books and instinct can go a long way,...
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      Report: at least 504 off-highway vehicle deaths in 2015

      Consumer group says that number may be a low estimate

      Off-highway vehicle (OHV) accidents claimed at least 504 lives in the U.S. in 2015, according to data collected by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA).

      CFA and affiliate organizations maintain a database of fatalities to raise awareness of how dangerous these vehicles can be if not operated properly.

      The information comes from from news reports and other sources collected by CFA’s Off-Highway Vehicle Safety Coalition which is composed of ATV safety advocates, academics, and medical professionals. The group says 504 fatalities may be an underestimate.

      While most people are familiar with all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), the category of OHV also includes recreational off-highway vehicles (ROVs) and utility task vehicles (UTVs).

      Other types of off-road vehicles

      ROVs are off road vehicles that have four or more low pressure tires, bench or bucket seating, automotive type controls, rollover bars, occupant restraints, and a maximum speed over 30 mph.

      UTVs have the same design elements as ROVs, but UTVs have maximum speeds of 30 mph or less.

      The CFA says most of the OHV deaths occurred on roads in 2015. Despite the fact that these vehicles are specifically designed to be used off-road, 58% of the fatalities last year occurred as the result of highway accidents. That's about the same percentage as in 2014.

      The percentage of victims under 16 increased from 18% in 2014 to 21% last year. Eleven percent of the fatalities were under age 12, up from 9% in 2014.

      Not for children

      “This new data once again reinforces CFA’s key safety messages for OHVs: do not operate OHVs on roads; and these vehicles are not toys; do not let children operate vehicles that are too large and powerful for them to control,” said Rachel Weintraub Legislative Director and General Counsel for Consumer Federation of America.

      In 2013, CFA raised an alarm, saying more states have modified traffic laws to allow ATVs on public roads. In a report, the organization evaluated laws from all 50 states and the District of Columbia and found that despite warnings from manufacturers, federal agencies, and consumer and safety advocates that ATVs are unsafe on roadways, for several years an increasing number of states have passed laws allowing ATVs on public roads.

      Information from ATV manufacturer manuals, required warning labels, and consistent messages from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) unambiguously warn against the operation of ATVs on public roads.

      Not designed for highways

      The design of ATVs makes them incompatible with operation on roads. ATVs have high centers of gravity, and narrow wheel bases, which increase the likelihood of tipping when negotiating turns. The low pressure knobby tires on ATVs are explicitly designed for off-road use and may not interact properly with road surfaces.

      CFA's Michael Best says the new data underscores the need to keep OHVs off the highways, as their name implies.

      Off-highway vehicle (OHV) accidents claimed at least 504 lives in the U.S. in 2015, according to data collected by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA)...
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      Study: tarmac stranding rule creating more delays

      Researchers say it's another example of unintended consequences

      The federal government enacted a new rule in 2010, penalizing airlines if they keep planes full of passengers stranded on the airport tarmac for extended periods of time.

      The rule followed several highly publicized incidents in which passengers complained of being stranded for hours, with no food or water and with highly unsanitary conditions.

      Government data shows that tarmac strandings are now fairly rare, but like many rules, this one may have had unintended consequences. A study by Dartmouth College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) finds more passengers now encounter other types of delays.

      The study, supported by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) National Center of Excellence for Aviation Operations Research (NEXTOR II), concluded that it now takes most passengers far more time to arrive at their destinations.

      Significantly increased delays

      "Overall, the rule is estimated to have significantly increased passenger delays, especially for passengers scheduled to travel on the flights that are at risk of long tarmac delays," said Vikrant Vaze, an assistant professor at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering.

      The rule requires commercial aircraft to take off or allow passengers to leave the plane no later than three hours after the cabin door closes at the departure airport. At the other end, passengers must be allowed to depart the aircraft no later than three hours after touchdown at the arrival airport. Airlines that fail to meet that requirement face hefty fines.

      The researchers say the consequences of the tarmac rule could have been predicted. Now, when it is evident that a flight will not be able to take off on time, the airline is likely to cancel it before passengers can board, heading off potential fines.

      When the flight is cancelled, the passengers must then scramble to make alternate travel plans, often delaying their arrival at their destinations.

      Recent data contradiction

      It should be pointed out that recent government transportation data shows just the opposite. As we recently reported, the FAA shows no three-hour tarmac delays occurred in July, while the month also experienced very low percentages for delays and cancellations.

      The Dartmouth-MIT researchers say they studied actual flight schedule and delay data from 2007 before the rule was enacted, then compared these delays to those estimated for hypothetical scenarios with the rule in effect for that same year.

      While the rule has been highly effective in decreasing tarmac delays, especially long delays, their research shows each passenger-minute of tarmac time saving is achieved at the cost of an increase of approximately three passenger-minutes in total passenger delays.

      The researchers attribute these delays primarily to the increase in flight cancellations, resulting in passengers requiring rebooking and often leading to extensive delays in reaching their final destinations. The researchers say the tarmac rule should be tweaked.

      "We concluded that a better balance between the conflicting objectives of reducing the frequency of long tarmac times and reducing total passenger delays can be achieved through a modified version of the existing rule," Vaze said. "This modified version involves increasing the tarmac time limit to 3.5 hours and only applying the rule to flights with planned departure times before 5 p.m.”

      To cut the airlines a little more slack, the researchers say the penalty clock should stop when a stranded aircraft begins returning to the gate instead of when passengers are allowed to get off.

      The federal government enacted a new rule in 2010, penalizing airlines if they keep planes full of passengers stranded on the airport tarmac for extended p...
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      Hankook recalls Ventus S1 Noble 2 tires

      Cracks may develop in the tire sidewall

      Hankook Tire America Corp. is recalling 46,968 Ventus S1 Noble 2 tires, size 245/45R18 96W, manufactured May 20, 2013, to February 14, 2015, and size 245/40R19 94W and 275/35R19 96W tires manufactured May 22, 2013, to February 14, 2015 supplied for 2015 Hyundai Genesis vehicles as well as being sold as replacement tires.

      The recalled tires may develop cracks in the tire sidewall, resulting in a loss of air, which may cause tire failure and a loss of vehicle control, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Hankook will notify the purchasers of the replacement tires and Hankook dealers will replace the tires, free of charge. Owners of affected Hyundai vehicles will be notified by Hyundai and Hyundai dealers will replace the tires, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in January 2016.

      Owners may contact Hankook customer service at 1-800-426-5665.

      Hankook Tire America Corp. is recalling 46,968 Ventus S1 Noble 2 tires, size 245/45R18 96W, manufactured May 20, 2013, to February 14, 2015, and size 245/4...
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      Jeep Compass and Patriot vehicles recalled

      The power steering hose retention clamp may have been installed incorrectly

      Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 60,107 model year 2015 Jeep Compass and Patriot vehicles manufactured January 1, 2015, to May 11, 2015.

      During assembly, the power steering hose retention clamp may have been installed at an incorrect location, resulting in the detachment of the low pressure return hose.

      If the power steering fluid return hose detaches, it would leak fluid and increase the risk of a fire.

      Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the return power steering hose clamp, repositioning the clamp as necessary, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is R68.

      Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 60,107 model year 2015 Jeep Compass and Patriot vehicles manufactured January 1, 2015, to May 11, 2015. During a...
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      New York Style Sausage recalls pork products

      The products are encased in sheep casings, which may produce allergic reactions

      New York Style Sausage Co., of Sunnyvale, Calif., is recalling approximately 4,040 pounds of pork sausage products.

      The products are encased in sheep casings, which are not listed on the product label and may result in allergic reactions in those allergic to sheep proteins.

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

      The following pork sausage item, produced between July 1, 2015, and Jan.7, 2016, is being recalled:

      • 5-lb. bulk boxes containing packages of “Golden Gate Meat Company Ernesto’s Pork Sausage.”

      The recalled product, which bears establishment number “EST. 9027” inside the USDA mark of inspection, was produced for a single distributor in California for institutional use.

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

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact the company at (408) 745-7675.

      New York Style Sausage Co., of Sunnyvale, Calif., is recalling approximately 4,040 pounds of pork sausage products. The products are encased in she...
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      Shakti Group USA recalls L.G Compounded Asafoetida Powder

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Shakti Group USA of New Brunswick, N.J., is recalling 50-gm and 100-gm sizes of L.G Compounded Asafoetida Powder, both coded with Lot Number 2323.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      The recalled product, packaged in a white screw cap plastic bottle with UPC 840222000149, Lot Number 2323, was sold in retail stores in Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

      Customers who purchased this product should return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-609-357-9181 between 8am - 5pm (EST), from Monday - Saturday.

      Shakti Group USA of New Brunswick, N.J., is recalling 50-gm and 100-gm sizes of L.G Compounded Asafoetida Powder, both coded with Lot Number 2323. ...
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      Hyundai recalls model year 2011-2012 Elantras

      The brakes for one or more wheels may be applied unexpectedly

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 155,000 model year 2011-2012 Elantras manufactured October 29, 2010, to October 25, 2011.

      Due to an electronic stability control (ESC) sensor malfunction, the brakes for one or more wheels may be applied unexpectedly and the engine power may be reduced. These symptoms will be accompanied by illumination of the ESC indicator lamp in the instrument cluster.

      If the one or more of the brakes are inappropriately applied, control of the vehicle may be lost, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will verify the proper operation of the ESC sensors, and update the ESC system's calibration, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 19, 2016.

      Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-800-633-5151. Hyundai's number for this recall is 137.

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 155,000 model year 2011-2012 Elantras manufactured October 29, 2010, to October 25, 2011. Due to an electronic s...
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      United fined $2.75 million for violating disability, delay rules

      The carrier is developing an app for use by disabled passengers

      United Airlines has been fined $2.75 million for its treatment of disabled passengers and for lengthy tarmac delays. 

      “It is our duty to ensure that travelers with disabilities have access to the services they need, and that when significant tarmac delays happen, travelers are not left on the plane,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.  “We will make sure that airlines comply with our rules and treat their passengers fairly.”

      The Department of Transportation (DOT) began investigating United after noting a "significant increase" in the number of disability-related complaints it was receiving. 

      Consumers rate United Airlines

      In one of the most dramatic incidents, a passenger with cerebral palsy had to crawl off a United flight when the airline failed to provide a wheelchair.

      The complaints from disabled passengers involved incidents at Houston International Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Denver International Airport, Newark International Airport, and Dulles International Airport; they mostly concerned boarding and disembarking from airplanes and moving through the terminal.

      The investgation found that in numerous instances United "failed to return passengers’ wheelchairs, other mobility aids, or other assistive devices in a timely manner or in the condition in which the airline received them," the DOT said.

      Besides a $2 million fine, United has agreed to spend $650,000 to train personnel and develop a pilot program to help disabled passengers order wheelchairs and other assistance. United said it is already testing a smartphone app that would do just that.

      Tarmac violations

      United is also being fined $750,000 for five lengthy tarmac delays that took place at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on December 8, 2013 and one lengthy tarmac delay of a flight that was diverted to Houston Hobby Airport on May 20, 2015.

      Investigators said United's gate mismanagement caused five flights to sit on the tarmac for longer than three hours without passengers being given an opportunity to deplane.

      Under DOT rules, U.S. airlines operating aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats are prohibited from allowing their domestic flights to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours and their international flights to remain on the tarmac for more than four hours at U.S. airports without giving passengers an opportunity to leave the plane. Exceptions to the time limits are allowed only for safety, security, or air traffic control-related reasons.  

      The rules also require airlines to provide adequate food and water, ensure that lavatories are working, and, if necessary, provide medical attention to passengers during long tarmac delays. 

      United Airlines has been fined $2.75 million for its treatment of disabled passengers and for lengthy tarmac delays. “It is our duty to ensure that tra...
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      VW may buy back 115,000 cars in U.S.

      Retrofitting the rest will be a long and expensive process

      A German newspaper report says Volkswagen may buy back about 115,000 cars in the United States as a result of the "dirty diesel" scandal. Another 450,000 will need extensive retrofitting to meet U.S. emission standards, the report said.

      The Sueddeutsche Zeitung said that VW expects it will have to either refund the purchase price or offer owners a new car at a significant discount. It's thought that would apply to older cars that would be too expensive to retrofit.

      Even newer cars will require extensive -- and expensive -- work, as parts of the exhaust system will have to be rebuilt, the report said. 

      Although Volkswagen says it will continue producing diesels for the U.S. market, it is also talking up plans to build more electric cars. At the Consumer Electronics Show, it displayed mock-ups of an electric model that's a modernized remake of the VW minibus. 

      Reports earlier this week said VW was apparently doing some behind-the-scenes maneuvering to reduce its liability to class-action lawsuits. A bill in Congress, dubbed the "VW bail-out bill" by critics, would make it harder to assemble large groups of consumers to pursue class-action cases.

      The measure is sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican. Volkswagen's U.S. headquarters is in Virginia, near Dulles Airport.

      A German newspaper report says Volkswagen may buy back about 115,000 cars in the United States as a result of the "dirty diesel" scandal. Another 450,000 w...
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      Technology provides drug alternative in promoting sleep

      New gadgets not only promise better sleep, but will tell you how you slept

      We have become a data-driven culture. We desire information about all aspects of life, including the eight hour or so a day when we're not awake. Some of the new wearable health monitors provide sleep data.

      Here's a non-wearable monitor that does the same thing – the REM-Fit, from Protect-A-Bed, introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. It even comes with a pillow.

      The company says the device uses sensors to monitor heart rate, breathing, and motion. The next morning you can open an accompanying mobile app and take a look at your sleep analysis. It will show, among other things, how often and when you tossed and turned during the night, along with a SleepScore based on how efficiently you slept.

      Fits under the sheet

      To use the device, you place it under the fitted sheet directly on the mattress. Featuring a thin design, the tracker is designed to go undetected while a user sleeps. The REM-Fit is the result of collaboration between Protect-A-Bed and Sleepace, which produces products to help people sleep.

      "When we first entered the sleep technology industry last year with our REM-Fit Active sleep and activity tracker, we couldn't anticipate the level of enthusiasm we would receive," said Warrick Bell, director of product development for REM-Fit and Protect-A-Bed. "The Sleepace partnership allows us to utilize their technology to provide insights for users to get a better night's sleep."

      REM-Fit is just the latest product designed for consumers to help them sleep. Cable TV viewers know there is no shortage of commercials promoting beds, pillows, and other items to promote a more restful sleep.

      Smart Hat

      Other somewhat unusual sleep aids include the Smart Hat Sleep System, available through Sharper Image. It's billed as a natural, drug-free sleeping device that monitors your brainwaves, and then plays specially engineered biofeedback tones to help you relax and fall asleep.

      This product consists of a stretchable nylon hat that includes a pair of high-fidelity speakers. The tones reportedly fade away once you have reached a sleep state, but come back on again should you awake during the night.

      With all these products designed to promote and analyze sleep – and we haven't even touched on sleeping pills – it would be easy to conclude that Americans have a sleep problem. And apparently we do.

      A 2015 poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that people who suffer chronic or acute pain have the most trouble with sleep. But 35% of those without pain reported at least some sleep problems.

      “Sleep quality and duration should be considered a vital sign, as they are strong indicators of overall health and quality of life,” said the foundation's Kristen Knutson. “Extremely long or short sleep durations are associated with more specific conditions, but for many people who are close to getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, getting just 15 to 30 minutes more sleep a night could make difference in how they feel.” 

      We have become a data-driven culture. We desire information about all aspects of life, including the eight hour or so a day when we're not awake. Some of t...
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      Employment surges in December

      Professional and business services, construction, and health care led the charge

      The nation's job creation machinery was running in high gear last month.

      The Department of Labor (DOL) reports total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 292,000 in December, with the gains coming in several industries, including professional and business services, construction, health care, and food services and drinking places.

      At the same time, though, the unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.0%.

      As it released its December report, the DOL revised its payroll employment figures for October to show a gain of 307,000 jobs from 298,000 to 307,000. The change for November was revised from +211,000 to +252,000.

      With these revisions, employment gains in October and November combined were 50,000 higher than previously reported. Over the past three months, job gains have averaged 284,000 per month.

      Who was hiring and who was not

      The professional and business services category was December's big winner with the addition of 73,000 jobs. Also adding to payroll positions were construction (+45,000), health care (+39,000), food services and drinking places (+37,000), and transportation and warehousing (+23,000).

      Payroll employment growth totaled 2.7 million last year, compared to 3.1 million in 2014.

      Employment in mining continued to decline last month (-8,000). Manufacturing employment was little-changed, as were wholesale trade, retail trade, financial activities, and government.

      Total employment

      Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rate for blacks dipped to 8.3%, while the rates for adult men (4.7%), adult women (4.4%), teenagers (16.1%), whites (4.5%), Asians (4.0%), and Hispanics (6.3%) showed little or no change. 

      The number of people out of work in December was 7.9 million, essentially the same as the month before, with the jobless rate at 5.0% for the third month in a row. Over the past 12 months, the unemployment rate and the number of unemployed persons were down by 0.6% and 800,000, respectively.

      The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was essentially unchanged at 2.1 million in December and accounted for 26.3% of the unemployed. The number of long-term unemployed has shown little movement since June, but was down by 687,000 over the year.

      The civilian labor force participation rate, at 62.6%, has shown little movement in recent months. In December, the employment-population ratio, at 59.5%, changed little.

      The average work week for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls was unchanged at 34.5 hours in December, and average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls was down a penny to $25.24, following an increase of 5 cents in November.

      Over the year, average hourly earnings have risen by 2.5% percent.

      The complete December employment report is on the DOL website.

      The nation's job creation machinery was running in high gear last month.The Department of Labor (DOL) reports total nonfarm payroll employment rose by ...
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      Mazda6, Mazdaspeed6 and RX-8 vehicles recalled

      Inflators in the front passenger air bags are susceptible to rupture in the event of a crash

      Mazda North American Operations is recalling 374,519 model year 2003-2008 Mazda6 vehicles manufactured May 29, 2002, to May 5, 2008, 2006-2007 Mazdaspeed6 vehicles manufactured July 1, 2005, to June 29, 2007, and a limited production of model year 2004 RX-8 vehicles manufactured June 25, 2003, to June 30, 2003.

      The inflators in the front passenger air bags are susceptible to rupture in the event of a crash necessitating the deployment of the front passenger air bag.

      A rupture could result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants, potentially resulting in serious injury or death.

      Mazda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the passenger's frontal air bag with a new one, free of charge.

      Owners may contact Mazda customer service at 1-800-222-5500. Mazda's number for this recall is 9015L.

      Mazda North American Operations is recalling 374,519 model year 2003-2008 Mazda6 vehicles manufactured May 29, 2002, to May 5, 2008, 2006-2007 Mazdaspeed6 ...
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      Office Depot recalls executive chairs

      The seat plate weld can break, posing a fall hazard

      Office Depot of Boca Raton, Fla., is recalling about 300,000 Crawley II executive chairs.

      The seat plate weld can break, posing a fall hazard.

      The company has received eight reports of the seat plate weld cracking or breaking. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves Crawley II executive chairs. The black, high-back, adjustable chairs have a black base with five wheels.

      The affected chairs have Office Depot SKU number 493822 or OfficeMax item number 23324118 and “US REG. No. PA 25917(CN)” printed on a label located on the underside of the seat cushion.

      The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at Office Depot and OfficeMax retail stores nationwide and online from October 2012, through September 2015, for about $140.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chair and contact Office Depot to receive a free replacement seat plate that can be installed at home.

      Consumers may contact Office Depot toll-free at 855-743-7701 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's website at www.officedepot.com then click on “Customer Service” for more information.

      Office Depot of Boca Raton, Fla., is recalling about 300,000 Crawley II executive chairs. The seat plate weld can break, posing a fall hazard. ...
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      Doctors seek ways to reduce the physician burnout rate

      One answer may lie in improved bedside manner

      The problem has been well-documented. Too many doctors and other healthcare providers are suffering from “burnout” due to long hours and the stressful demands of the job.

      When that happens, everyone suffers – including patients.

      Dr. Sandra Argenio, faculty member at the Institute for Healthcare Excellence, is working on a solution. She says there are two systemic changes that have significant potential to prevent burnout, which can sometimes lead to depression. Both revolve around improving communications.

      On the surface, they are deceptively simple. One is “being present and mindful” when with the patient. The other is active listening.

      If that sounds a lot like old fashioned “bedside manner,” Argenio says that's exactly what it is.

      Bedside manner can be learned

      “In the past, the feeling was, either you had it or you didn't,” Argenio told ConsumerAffairs. “But it isn't one of those things that either you have it or you don't. It's almost like any other talent. Some people have a lot of it, and other people can learn.”

      Argenio believes learning the time-honored bedside manner is a key to preventing burnout, which she also calls “compassion fatigue.”

      “People need to be able to keep their compassion, but its hard to do if you're overworked and tired, not eating and missing your family,” she said. “So, to turn around and say, what are we doing, we need to be doing this in a safer manner, not just for us but especially for our patients, that's one of the positive things I've seen in the last 10 or 20 years.”

      Argenio says doctors, especially newly minted physicians just entering the practice of medicine, are receiving training in communication skills. They are learning how to listen to patients and shut out other pressures and concerns, at least for that patient visit.

      In search of resiliency

      “When we started to do our communication training, we realized that if people treated each other a little differently, interacting and communicating a little better, it produced a safety net that allowed better interaction, allowed people to feel more connected and produced a sort of resiliency,” Argenio said.

      She says that providers who are resilient are better able to carry compassion into their daily work. They are also better able to leave their practice at the office or hospital at the end of the day, allowing them to have more rewarding lives with family and friends.

      The Institute for Healthcare Excellence operates a program to teach physician and allied health leaders how to train their own teams. These teams then bring their knowledge and skills to their institutional colleagues, and by doing so, lessen the burnout of compassion fatigue.

      Argenio says it really is that simple.

      “The whole idea is of being present in the task you are in, the relationship you are in, being mindful of what's going on right then instead of feeling the pressure of yesterday or the uncertainty of tomorrow,” she said.

      The problem has been well-documented. Too many doctors and other healthcare providers are suffering from “burnout” due to long hours and the stressful dema...
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      Study: Drug companies that advertise most innovate least

      Researchers suggest policy changes to discourage direct to consumer advertising

      The debate is likely to continue in 2016 over direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs.

      Critics have long pointed out that, since it requires a doctor to write a prescription, there is no reason that the TV airwaves should be filled with prescription drug ads. Any ads should be directed at doctors.

      But pharmaceutical companies spend billions to advertise to consumers because they expect them to ask their doctor to prescribe the drug on their next visit. True, doctors don't always agree to do so, but enough obviously do to make the advertising campaigns cost-effective for drug makers.

      Interesting correlation

      Now, researchers at University of North Carolina (UNC) Charlotte suggest the drug companies that spend the most on advertising tend to spend the least on producing new drugs.

      At the same time, they say their research shows the more pharmaceutical companies spend on research and development, the more success they have in producing innovative new treatments that improve public health.

      “This article is the first using empirical data to demonstrate that aggressive marketing of pharmaceutical drugs and truly innovative new drug development are at odds,” said Arnold Surtman, Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at UNC Charlotte. “The current patent regime can be manipulated by firms to increase sales and drive up costs for society without improving public health.”

      Rising drug costs

      Rising drug costs have alarmed healthcare providers and politicians. Instances where drug makers have sharply raised the prices of existing drugs have shocked patients and triggered Congressional hearings. Surtman says it all comes down to a shift in the way drug companies do business.

      “The pharmaceutical industry benefits from equal patent protection for drugs regardless of their innovativeness,” he said. “Rather than researching and developing the novel, pioneering drugs needed by society, many firms employ an alternative business strategy in which revenues are generated by aggressively marketing weakly innovative drugs that do not significantly enhance public health.”

      While the researchers were conducting their study, Surtman says drug companies have paid billions of dollars in penalties for illegal marketing. He cites a story showing overall pharmaceutical promotional, or marketing, expenditures increased from $11.4 billion in 1995 to $28.9 billion in 2005.

      Innovative drug companies

      But not all drug companies are buying up airtime and ad space. Jennifer Troyer, associate dean for research and a professor of economics at UNC Charlotte, said data shows that the companies that market the least have the best track record in producing pioneering drugs.

      “For firms producing at least one pioneering drug over the (study) period, increasing permanent R&D; spending by 1% results in an almost one pioneering drug approval per firm,” she said.

      The research team offers a number of proposals to encourage drug companies to spend more on research and less on advertising. Among them is proposal to eliminate the tax deduction on all drug marketing expenditures.

      The debate is likely to continue in 2016 over direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs.Critics have long pointed out that, since it require...
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      Are you ready for self-flying aircraft?

      Chinese firm introduces a fully autonomous copter

      Some people think autonomous, or self-driving cars are a little too out there. Well, fasten your seatbelt because here comes an autonomous, or self-flying aircraft.

      Chinese manufacturer Ehang, which produces unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), otherwise known as drones, has rolled out what it says is the world's first electric, personal Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (AAV).

      To put it another way, it's an aircraft that flies itself. The Jetsons is about to become a reality.

      The company introduced the fully ready-to-fly AAV at the Consumer Electronics show, upping the ante over carmakers at the show displaying their earth-bound autonomous vehicles.

      No pilot's license

      According to Ehang, passengers have no need for a pilot's license – they simply sit back and let the drone take over. They get where they are going by entering a destination into the accompanying smartphone app.

      Yes, you fly the thing with a smartphone app.

      The aircraft is designed for short-to-medium distances and the company believes it holds huge potential, not only for the transportation industry, but also for many other fields such as shipping, medical care, and retail.

      "It's been a lifetime goal of mine to make flight faster, easier and more convenient than ever. The 184 provides a viable solution to the many challenges the transportation industry faces in a safe and energy efficient way," said Ehang CEO Huazhi Hu.

      The Ehang 184 derives its name from one passenger, eight propellers, and four arms. The company demonstrates the concept in the video below.

      Safety

      But how safe will it be to strap yourself into a small cabin and go hurtling through the air, trusting a computer to get you back on the ground safely? Some might answer that commercial aviation has now become highly computerized.

      The company isn't making that comparison but does stress safety and points out that automated flight eliminates the most dangerous part of standard modes of transportation: human error.

      It says the Ehang 184 has built in redundancy for all flight systems. In the unlikely event that a component does fail, it says multiple backups are already in place to seamlessly take over.

      Let's say a wayward goose runs into your aircraft, what happens then? Ehang says its independently developed Fail-Safe System ensures that if any components malfunction or are damaged, the aircraft automatically evaluates the damage and determines whether the AAV will need to land to ensure safety.

      Flight command center

      Ehang is also building a 24-hour flight command center that will be in constant contact with all of its flying vehicles. While the 184 is able to fly during thunderstorms and other extreme weather conditions, the command center can stop the vehicle from taking off as a precaution.

      Ehang did not disclose pricing information for when the Ehang 184 will be taking someone to the sky. But someone might want to let the Federal Aviation Adminisration (FAA) know.

      It will have the job of regulating these new aircraft and keeping them from running into the one million unmanned drones that were sold in the U.S. over the holidays.

      Some people think autonomous, or self-driving cars are a little too out there. Well, fasten your seatbelt because here comes an autonomous, or self-flying ...
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      Another decline in services sector growth

      Despite the December slowdown, expansion is continuing

      Growth in the non-manufacturing, or services, sector of the economy continued in December for the 71st month in a row, just not at the pace we saw a month earlier.

      In the latest Institute for Supply Management (ISM) report on business, the nation’s purchasing and supply executives say the Non-manufacturing Index (NMI) registered 55.3% last month, down 0.6% from November.

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

      The Non-Manufacturing Business Activity Index was up 0.5% to 58.7%, reflecting growth for the 77th consecutive month at a slightly faster rate.

      The New Orders Index rose 0.7% from November, to 58.2%, the Employment Index came in at 55.7%, up 0.7%, and indicates growth for the 22nd consecutive month.

      The Prices Index, on the other hand, fell 0.6% to 49.7%, the third decline in the last four months.

      Even with the NMI posting the weakest reading since April 2014, Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza points out that service activity, "remains the silver lining" in the U.S. economy.

      She adds that with back to back months of depleted momentum from a recent peak of 60.3 in July, "any further decline in activity could undermine the notion of sustained growth in the service sector."

      Expansion and contraction

      The 11 non-manufacturing industries reporting growth in December -- listed in order -- were:

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

      The five industries reporting contraction in December were:

      1. Other Services;
      2. Educational Services;
      3. Wholesale Trade;
      4. Public Administration; and
      5. Transportation & Warehousing.

      Jobless claims

      The number of people applying for state unemployment benefits fell last week, according to the Department of Labor (DOL).

      Officials say there 277,000 initial filings in the week ending January 2, , down 10,000 from the previous week's total, when 20,000 applications were filed.

      The DOL says there were no special factors affecting the total.

      The four-week moving average, which is seen as a better gauge of the labor market because it lacks the volatility found in the weekly tally, dipped by 1,250 to 275,750.

      The complete report is available on the DOL website

      Growth in the non-manufacturing, or services, sector of the economy continued in December for the 71st month in a row, just not at ...
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      Home prices up again in November

      High demand and low supply are factors

      Once again, home prices rose on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis during November.

      CoreLogic reports its Home Price Index (HPI) shows prices nationwide -- including distressed sales -- jumped 6.3% in November 2015 from the same month a year earlier. There was also a month-over-month gain of 0.5% from October.

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

      “Many factors, including strong demand and tight supply in many markets, are contributing to the long-sustained boom in prices and home equity which is a very good thing for those owning homes,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “On the flip side, prices have outstripped incomes for several years in a number of regions so, as we enter 2016, affordability is becoming more of a constraint on sales in some markets.”

      Looking ahead

      The CoreLogic HPI Forecast indicates home prices will increase by 5.4% from November 2015 to November 2016, and remain flat from November 2015 to December 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.

      “Heading into 2016, home price growth remains in its sweet spot as prices have increased between 5 and 6% on a year-over-year basis for 16 consecutive months,” said Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic. “Regionally we are beginning to see fissures, with slowdowns in some Texas and California markets, but the northwest and southeast remain on solid footing.”

      Once again, home prices rose on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis during November.CoreLogic reports its Home Price Index (HPI) shows pri...
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      Neto’s Sausage recalls meat and poultry products

      The products did not undergo federal inspection

      Neto’s Sausage Co., of Santa Clara, Calif., is recalling approximately 7,687 pounds of beef, pork, and chicken products.

      The products did not undergo federal inspection.

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

      The following sausage items, produced from December 28, 2014, to December 28, 2015, are being recalled:

      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Hot Italian Sausage”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Herb-N-Cheese Coil”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Linguiça Coil”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Smoked Bratwurst”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Bratwurst with Cheddar and Jalapeno”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Holiday Sausage Coil”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Pork Links”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Pork Links with Apples and Cinnamon”
      • Approximately 10 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Brazilian Smoked Calabreza”
      • Approximately 10 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Italian Sausage with Herbs”
      • Approximately 10 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Italian Linguiça”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Linguiça Hot”
      • Approximately 10 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Polish Kielbasa”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Italian Sausage with Herbs”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of “Neto’s Sausage Calabrese Brand Italian Sausage”
      • Approximately 10 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Andouille Sausage ”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Spanish Chorizo Sausage”
      • Approximately 10 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Calabrese Italian Sausage ”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Linguiça Sausage”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Garlic & Basil Chicken Sausage”
      • Approximately 10 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Jalapeño-Cilantro Chicken Sausage ”
      • Approximately 1-lb. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Spanish Chorzo Sausage”
      • Approximately 12 oz. packages containing pieces of vacuumed packed “Neto’s Sausage Morcella”

      The recalled products, bearing establishment number “EST. 9027” and “EST 6086” inside the USDA mark of inspection, were distributed in house, to a local distributor and online nationwide.

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

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Neto’s Sausage at (408) 296-0818.

      Neto’s Sausage Co., of Santa Clara, Calif., is recalling approximately 7,687 pounds of beef, pork, and chicken products. The products did not under...
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      Comeaux's recalls pork products

      The products may be adulterated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Comeaux’s Inc., of Breaux Bridge, La., is recalling approximately 14 pounds of pork product.

      The product may be adulterated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of this product.

      The following smoked pork tasso product, packaged on Dec. 22, 2015, is being recalled:

      • 1-lb. vacuum-sealed packages containing diced “CAJUN HICKORY SMOKED PORK TASSO.”

      The recalled product bears establishment number “EST. 20513” inside the USDA mark of inspection and package code number “42358,” and was shipped to retail locations in Louisiana.

      Customers who purchased this product should not consume it, but throw it away or returned it to the place of purchase.

      Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Stacey Thibodeaux at (337) 332-0720.

      Comeaux’s Inc., of Breaux Bridge, La., is recalling approximately 14 pounds of pork product. The product may be adulterated with Listeria monocytog...
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      Cooper Zeon LTZ tires recalled

      The tires may experience tread cracking or tread lug chunking

      Cooper Tire & Rubber is recalling 153 Cooper Zeon LTZ tires size 275/55R20 XL Extra Load tubeless tires manufactured September 1, 2015, to September 14, 2015.

      The tires may experience tread cracking or tread lug chunking. As such, they fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 139, "New Pneumatic Radial Tires for Light Vehicles."

      Tread cracking or tread lug chunking may cause a loss of tire pressure, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Cooper will notify owners, and dealers will replace the tires, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in January 2016.

      Owners may contact Cooper customer service at 1-800-854-6288. Cooper's number for this recall is 161.

      Cooper Tire & Rubber is recalling 153 Cooper Zeon LTZ tires size 275/55R20 XL Extra Load tubeless tires manufactured September 1, 2015, to September 14, 20...
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      Fisher-Price wants to teach preschoolers how to code

      The coders of 2035 can learn the basics of coding with the Code-a-Pillar

      Though they may not yet be potty-trained, you can now teach preschoolers how to code. Fisher-Price’s new caterpillar bot — the “Code-a-Pillar”  teaches kids the basics of coding, such as sequencing and programming.

      Part of the company’s Think & Learn series, which seeks to inspire critical thinking and problem solving skills in three to eight-year-olds, the Code-a-Pillar is branded as a toy for the 2035 coders.

      If the idea behind connected pieces which form instructions proves thrilling to your child, then who knows: you could have a potential future coder under your roof.

      How it works

      The concept is simple enough. The caterpillar’s body features eight segments that snap together linearly, all labeled with different colors and symbols. Each segment has a different function: turn left, turn right, make a funny noise.

      Once the segments are connected and the start button is pressed, the smiling caterpillar will take the route that it was programmed to by the child. The caterpillar “code” can be as long as you want, too, thanks to the availability of add-on segments.

      Fisher-Price claims the toy builds the basic skills needed to understand more complex programming languages later in life. The Code-a-Pillar also connects to a free companion app, which proposes additional programming challenges for kids to solve as they get older.

      Part of a larger movement

      The Code-a-Pillar is part of a larger trend to get kids introduced to computer skills from a very young age. Even though this demographic will grow up surrounded by screens and apps, toys like the Code-a-Pillar are taking digital principles and applying them in a more hands-on, creative way.

      "As children spend more and more time interacting with digital devices, they don't have very many opportunities to create and experiment," MIT Media Lab's Mitchel Resnick recently told NPR, adding that parents should take care not to let devices control kids.

      "Oftentimes it's playing, clicking, consuming, as opposed to designing and expressing. I would tell parents to look for either the apps or the toys where the child is in control,” said Resnick. “If it feels that the toy or tablet is in control, then I'd be much more cautious about it."

      The Code-a-Pillar, which works in tandem with companion iOS and Android apps, will retail for $50, with various expansion packs priced at $15 each. Fisher-Price says it will appear on store shelves next June. The company will release additional details about the product at the Toy Fair in New York City in February.

      Though they may not yet be potty-trained, you can now teach preschoolers how to code. Fisher-Price’s new caterpillar bot — the “Code-a-Pillar” — teaches ki...
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      Breast cancer researchers raise warning about too much sugar

      Sugar industry responds that results are being "sensationalized"

      Cancer researchers in Texas have a word of advice for women at risk of breast cancer – go easy on the sugar.

      In a report, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center said high amounts of sugar, prevalent in the typical Western diet, may increase the risk of breast cancer and metastasis to the lungs.

      The findings zeroed in on dietary sugar's effect on an enzymatic signaling pathway known as 12-LOX.

      "We found that sucrose intake in mice comparable to levels of Western diets led to increased tumor growth and metastasis, when compared to a non-sugar starch diet," said Peiying Yang, assistant professor of Palliative, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Medicine. "This was due, in part, to increased expression of 12-LOX and a related fatty acid called 12-HETE."

      There have been a few previous studies that looked for links between sugar and breast cancer. Some of these studies have suggested high levels of sugar can affect inflammation, which can be associated with cancer development.

      "The current study investigated the impact of dietary sugar on mammary gland tumor development in multiple mouse models, along with mechanisms that may be involved," said co-author Lorenzo Cohen, professor of Palliative, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Medicine. "We determined that it was specifically fructose, in table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, ubiquitous within our food system, which was responsible for facilitating lung metastasis and 12-HETE production in breast tumors."

      Industry response

      The sugar industry was quick to respond to the study. The Sugar Association, a trade group, points out the results were based only on animal studies and charged the results are being sensationalized.

      “As with other studies on this subject, this study has serious limitations that should be disclosed, particularly when the headlines are as serious as these have been,” the group said in a statement. “Not only do the authors misstate and exaggerate current U.S. sugar consumption and trends in consumption, they also claim the mice in the study were fed sugar levels comparable to levels in a Western diet. Yet, the data provided shows the mice were fed massive amounts of fructose (as part of sucrose) with the lowest level of fructose fed more than double U.S. consumption.”

      But the authors say identifying risk factors for breast cancer is a public health priority. They say moderate sugar consumption is critical, and disagree with the Sugar Association about the current level of per capita consumption, claiming it is over 100 pounds per year.

      The industry, however, may be correct in its contention that it is an over-estimate. As the New York Times reported in 2012, the Department of Agriculture lowered its estimate of per capita sugar consumption to 76.7 pounds annually.

      Cancer researchers in Texas have a word of advice for women at risk of breast cancer – go easy on the sugar.In a report, the University of Texas MD And...
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      Dogs can get the winter blues just like humans: how to fight canine cabin fever

      Indoor activities to keep your pup mentally and physically active when the temperature drops

      With the festivities behind us and temperatures only getting colder, the winter blues can sneak up on even the happiest people. But did you know humans aren’t the only ones in the house to experience the post-holiday slump? About 40% of dog owners also notice a considerable downturn in their pet’s mood.

      Experts say the key to all these changes appears to be the effect that light has on two different hormones: Melatonin and Seratonin. When Melatonin levels are high, feelings of depression and a reduced motivation to play can surface. Sunlight is also needed for Seratonin production; when levels are low, moods can dip  both in humans and canines.

      But with temperatures too cold for extended outdoor playtime, what can pet owners do to keep canine cabin fever at bay? The pet experts at DogVacay have rounded up some simple tips.

      Boost your pet's mood by keeping them mentally and physically active with these fun indoor games:

      • Stage an indoor winter olympics. What better way to work off that excess energy than by staging your own indoor winter games? Have your pup stay put while you hide treats around your house. Then have your pup “go for gold” as he finds each and every yummy morsel.

      • Build a blanket fort. Bring the outdoors in, make a fort out of some blankets and the back of your couch. Gather some of your pup’s favorite toys and toss them around your indoor fortress. Grab a cup of tea and a good book for yourself while you spend the afternoon in this new haven with your canine best friend.

      • Play hide and seek. To play hide and seek, your dog will need to know the “Stay” command. Ask your dog to stay, then very quietly hide yourself away somewhere in the house. Once you’re out of sight, release your dog from his “Stay” with an “OK!” or other verbal command. Try not to blow your cover by bursting out laughing as you hear him sniffing and padding around the house, and wait patiently for that delightful moment when he finds you.

      With the festivities behind us and temperatures only getting colder, the winter blues can sneak up on even the happiest people. But did you know humans are...
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      Job creation explodes in December

      It was the best month for private sector payroll expansion in a year

      If December is any indication of what is to come, 2016 should be a good year for new jobs.

      According to the ADP National Employment Report, the U.S. economy cranked out 257,000 private sector jobs from November to December -- the best monthly showing since December 2014.

      The report, produced by ADP in collaboration with Moody's Analytics, is derived from ADP's actual payroll data, and measures the change in total nonfarm private employment each month on a seasonally-adjusted basis.

      "2015 had a strong close with December showing the largest job gains of the year," said Ahu Yildirmaz, vice president and head of the ADP Research Institute. "Overall, the average monthly employment growth was just under 200,000 for the year in contrast to almost 240,000 jobs per month in 2014. Weakness in the energy and manufacturing sectors was mostly responsible for the drop off."

      The producers

      Payrolls for businesses with 49 or fewer employees increased by 95,000 jobs in December, up 23,000 from November's 72,000. Employment among companies with 50-499 employees increased by about 10% from the previous month to 65,000 jobs.

      Large companies -- those with 500 or more employees -- came in at 97,000, 17,000 more than in November. Those firms with 500-999 added 39,000 jobs, and the biggies -- companies with over 1,000 employees -- added another 58,000 jobs.

      Employment in the goods-producing sector rose by 23,000 jobs in December, after losing 2,000 positions the previous month. The construction industry added 24,000 jobs, up a touch from the previous month, while manufacturing stayed in positive territory for the second straight month -- adding 2,000 jobs.

      Service-providing employment shot up by 234,000 jobs in December, up 21,000 jobs from November. Professional/business services contributed 66,000 jobs, the largest increase of the year in the sector. Trade/transportation/utilities grew by 38,000, off a bit from the previous month, and there were 13,000 new jobs in financial activities.

      "Strong job growth shows no signs of abating,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics. “The only industry shedding jobs is energy. If this pace of job growth is sustained -- which seems likely -- the economy will be back to full employment by mid-year. This is a significant achievement, given that the last time the economy was at full employment was nearly a decade ago."

      The government's employment tally for the final month of 2015 is scheduled for release on Friday.

      If December is any indication of what is to come, 2016 should be a good year for new jobs.According to the ADP National Employment Report, the U.S. eco...
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      Mortgage applications plunge

      Contract interest rates were mostly on the rise

      There was a big drop in mortgage applications during the Christmas and New Year's holiday weeks.

      The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports applications were down 27% for the week ending January 1 from two weeks earlier. The most recent week’s results include an adjustment to account for the New Year’s Day holiday, while the previous week’s results were adjusted for the Christmas holiday.

      The Refinance Index decreased 37% from two weeks ago, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity down to 55.4% of total applications from 56.1% the previous week.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity decreased to 4.7% of total applications, the FHA share rose to 14.6% from 13.8% the week prior, the VA share was up 1.3% -- to 12.9%, and the USDA share of total applications was unchanged from 0.6% the previous week prior.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose one basis point -- from 4.19% to 4.20%, its highest level since July, with points decreasing to 0.42 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) jumped to 4.09% from 4.07%, with points increasing to 0.35 from 0.34 (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 dipped two basis points to 3.95%, with points increasing to 0.41 from 0.34 (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 increased to 3.47% from 3.42%, with points increasing to 0.31 from 0.29 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was up six basis points to 3.19%, with points falling to 0.32 from 0.52 (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.

      There was a big drop in mortgage applications during the Christmas and New Year's holiday weeks.The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports applicat...
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      Wegmans recalls chicken products

      The products were produced without the benefit of federal inspection

      Wegmans Food Markets of Rochester, N.Y., is recalling approximately 1,125 pounds of chicken products.

      The products were produced without the benefit of federal inspection.

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

      The the following items, produced on Jan. 3, 2016, are being recalled:

      • Approximately 1-lb. vacuum-sealed packages containing “Wegmans Italian Flavored Chicken Breast Cutlet” with a use-by date of 1/24/2016.
      • Approximately 1-lb. vacuum-sealed packages containing “Wegmans Brown Sugar Barbecue Seasoned Chicken Breast Cutlet” with a use-by date of 1/15/2016.
      • 3-lb. vacuum-sealed packages containing “Wegmans Garlic & Fennel Whole Chicken Roaster” with a use-by date of 1/13/2016.
      • 1-lb. vacuum-sealed packages containing “Wokery Sherry Chicken 27482” with use-by date of 1/13/2016.

      The recalled products, which bear establishment number “EST. or P-7567” inside the USDA mark of inspection, were shipped to distribution and retail locations in Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

      Customers who purchased these products should not consume them, but return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions about the recall may call the Wegmans consumer affairs department at 1-(800)-934-6267, ext. 4760.

      Wegmans Food Markets of Rochester, N.Y., is recalling approximately 1,125 pounds of chicken products. The products were produced without the benefi...
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      FTC files claim against Lumosity for false and deceptive advertising

      Many user testimonials were written for contests with "significant prizes"

      The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has set its sights on Lumosity, a company famous for its brain games website that was launched back in 2007. In a claim filed in court on Monday, the agency claims that the company used false and deceptive advertising in its nationwide campaigns. The FTC is seeking restitution, refunds, rescission of contracts, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, and an injunction, according to a report by Courthouse News Service.

      Since its creation, Lumosity seemed to capture the public’s attention with its beneficial claims and simplistic approach. In 2013, it was listed as one of the United States’ most promising companies by Forbes Magazine. According to its website, the company currently has over 70 million users in 182 countries.

      Advertisements for the company boasted that the games hosted on its site could lead to “improved athletic performance, delay in age-related decline in memory or other cognitive function, including protection against mild cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease,” amongst other numerous benefits -- neurological and otherwise. Many of these claims are strongly supported by testimonials of users who reinforce that the games can “change lives.”

      However, the FTC has stated that many of these testimonials were made as a result of contests that the company held. The agency found that out of 160 user testimonials that the company uses in ads, 46 of them came from contests that held “significant prizes.” For example, in 2012, Lumosity held a promotional contest that asked users to write a testimonial on how the company’s games helped improve their athletic performance. “Show us how Lumosity has helped take your athletic abilities to the next level for a chance to win a lifetime subscription, the new iPad, and more,” stated the promotion.

      As a result, the FTC has charged that Lumosity top officers violated the FTC Act through deceptive use of testimonials, false proof claims, and by making false, unsubstantiated claims on performance, age-related conditions, and health conditions. Lumosity has declined to comment on the lawsuit at this time. 

      The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has set its sights on Lumosity, a company famous for its brain games website that was launched back in 2007. In a claim...
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      CDC worries e-cigarette ads influencing middle schoolers

      More young people now use e-cigarettes than smoke

      Companies that make and sell e-cigarettes are quick to point out how they are different from tobacco cigarettes.

      For starters, they contain no tobacco. They deliver flavored nicotine in vapor form.

      But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says these nicotine delivery devices have one big thing in common with cigarettes – the way in which they are marketed.

      In its most recent Vital Signs report, the CDC notes e-cigarette ads use many of the same themes – independence, rebellion, and sex – used to sell cigarettes and other conventional tobacco products.

      That's of concern, the CDC says, because it has found that about seven out of 10 middle and high school students – more than 18 million young people – see e-cigarette advertising in stores, online, in newspapers and magazines, or on television and in movies.

      No marketing restrictions

      Currently e-cigarette marketing faces none of the restrictions imposed on tobacco. Health officials are worried that will translate into a surge of young people being hooked on nicotine.

      “The same advertising tactics the tobacco industry used years ago to get kids addicted to nicotine are now being used to entice a new generation of young people to use e-cigarettes,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden. “I hope all can agree that kids should not use e-cigarettes.”

      The CDC is concerned about the health effects of nicotine on young, developing bodies. In 2014, e-cigarettes became the most commonly used tobacco product among youths, surpassing conventional cigarettes.

      From 2011 to 2014, the CDC said e-cigarette use among high school students soared from 1.5% to 13.4%, and among middle school students from 0.6% to 3.9%.

      Spending on e-cigarette advertising rose from $6.4 million in 2011 to an estimated $115 million in 2014, the CDC said.

      Regulations still in the works

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the authority to regulate e-cigarettes, but is still in the final stages of that process. The FDA's official position is that many of the potential risks are unknown. It also says it is unknown whether the products have any potential benefit.

      However, the BBC reported Monday that health authorities in the UK have approved a brand of e-cigarette as an aid to help people stop smoking. That means Britons could get a prescription for e-cigarettes through the government-run National Health Service.

      Public Health England says e-cigarettes are far less harmful than tobacco and help smokers quit.

      Companies that make and sell e-cigarettes are quick to point out how they are different from tobacco cigarettes.For starters, they contain no tobacco. ...
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      GM recalls Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave vehicles

      The third row left lower seat frame may have welds that are not in the correction location

      General Motors is recalling certain 2,633 year 2016 Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, and Buick Enclave vehicles manufactured November 6, 2015, to November 12, 2015.

      The recalled vehicles have a third row left lower seat frame that may have welds that are not in the correction location.

      If the seat frame is not welded in the correct places, the seat may not perform as intended, and in the event of a crash, the seat occupant could be at an increased risk of injury.

      GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the third row left side lower seat frame, replacing it as necessary, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020, GMC customer service at 1-800-462-8782 or Buick customer service at 1-800-521-7300. GM's number for this recall is 21930.

      General Motors is recalling certain 2,633 year 2016 Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, and Buick Enclave vehicles manufactured November 6, 2015, to November 1...
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      Big Dog Natural recalls chicken and fish supreme dog food

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes

      Big Dog Natural of Brick, N.J., is recalling a select production lot of Big Dog Natural raw dehydrated dog food Chicken Supreme potentially contaminated with Salmonella and Fish Supreme potentially contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      The products were shipped from October 31, 2015 to November 13,2015, to online customers and in the U.S.

      Customers who purchased the product may obtain a full refund or exchange by returning the product in its original packaging.

      Consumers with questions may contact Big Dog Natural at https://www.bigdognatural.com or by calling 1-732-785-2600 from 9am till 4pm (EST).

      Big Dog Natural of Brick, N.J., is recalling a select production lot of Big Dog Natural raw dehydrated dog food Chicken Supreme potentially contaminated wi...
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      Thomas Produce recalls cucumbers

      The cucumbers may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Thomas Produce Company of Boca Raton, Fla., is recalling 174 bulk-packed containers of cucumbers.

      The cucumbers may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this recall.

      This product was sold to distributors in Florida and Georgia between 12/15/2015 and 12/16/2015. All distributors that received this product have been notified as of the time of this press release.

      The fresh, whole, green cucumbers were sold in 166 cardboard bushel boxes (1 1/9 bushel size) to distributors in Florida and Georgia from December 15 -16,2015 with one of the following lot numbers ink-jet printed on the side: 1554311JDNK, 1554311HDNK, and 15143115DNK.

      The product also was distributed in 8 bulk cardboard bins(4'x4' size) tagged with codes 15NKJD-1554311-D, 15NKHD-1554311-D, and 15NK5D-1514311-D.

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

      Consumers with questions may contact Richard Wilson at 1-561-482-1111 Monday through Friday between 9:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. (EST).

      Thomas Produce Company of Boca Raton, Fla., is recalling 174 bulk-packed containers of cucumbers. The cucumbers may be contaminated with Salmonella...
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      Feds sue Volkswagen for dirty diesel violations

      Fines could cost VW billions; criminal charges also possible

      The Justice Department today hit Volkswagen with a lawsuit charging that the automaker violated the Clean Air Act by installing defeat devices on some VW, Audi, and Porsche diesel vehicles that would not otherwise have met federal emission standards.

      Possible penalties could reach into the billions of dollars and criminal charges against VW are still possible, Justice Department officials said. The automaker also faces numerous class action lawsuits filed on behalf of consumers, as well as actions by regulators around the globe. 

      “Car manufacturers that fail to properly certify their cars and that defeat emission control systems breach the public trust, endanger public health and disadvantage competitors,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden.

      Noting that it has been several months since the defeat devices were discovered, the government made clear its patience with VW is wearing thin.

      “So far, recall discussions with the company have not produced an acceptable way forward. These discussions will continue in parallel with the federal court action,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

      “With today’s filing, we take an important step to protect public health by seeking to hold Volkswagen accountable for any unlawful air pollution, setting us on a path to resolution,” Giles said.

      600,000 sold

      Consumers rate Volkswagen

      The complaint formally lists the allegations that have dribbled out over the last several months, charging that nearly 600,000 diesel engine vehicles had illegal defeat devices installed and that Volkswagen violated the Clean Air Act by selling cars that are designed differently from what Volkswagen had stated in applications for certification to EPA and the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

      "The alleged misrepresentations allowed almost 600,000 diesel engines to emit excessive air pollution across the country, harming our health and cheating consumers,” said U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade for the Eastern District of Michigan.

      In particular, the complaint alleges that the deceptive software allowed the nearly 600,000 vehicles to emit up to 40 times the allowable level of nitrogen oxide (NOx), which the complaint said contributes to harmful ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter.  

      Health effects

      "These pollutants are linked with asthma and other serious respiratory illnesses. Exposure to ozone and particulate matter is also associated with premature death due to respiratory-related or cardiovascular-related effects. Children, the elderly and people with pre-existing respiratory disease are particularly at risk of health effects from exposure to these pollutants," the Justice Department said in a prepared statement.

      "Recent studies indicate that the direct health effects of NOx are worse than previously understood, including respiratory problems, damage to lung tissue and premature death."

      Models named

      Affected 2.0 liter diesel models and model years include:

      Jetta (2009-2015)
      Jetta Sportwagen (2009-2014)
      Beetle (2013-2015)
      Beetle Convertible (2013-2015)
      Audi A3 (2010-2015)
      Golf (2010-2015)
      Golf Sportwagen (2015)
      Passat (2012-2015)

      Affected 3.0 liter diesel models and model years include:

      Volkswagen Touareg (2009-2016)
      Porsche Cayenne (2013-2016)
      Audi A6 Quattro (2014-2016)
      Audi A7 Quattro (2014-2016)
      Audi A8 (2014 – 2016)
      Audi A8L (2014-2016)
      Audi Q5 (2014-2016)
      Audi Q7 (2009-2015)

      The Justice Department today hit Volkswagen with a lawsuit charging that the automaker violated the Clean Air Act by installing defeat devices on some VW, ...
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      New York seeks refunds from DraftKings, FanDuel

      If the attorney general gets his way, New York players might get their money back

      Usually, when you play a daily fantasy sports (DFS) through DraftKings and FanDuel, you either win or you don't.

      But players from New York stand to recover the money they paid to play -- if New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman gets his way, anyway.

      Schneiderman has amended his lawsuits against the two enterprises, which he has accused of violating New York state gambling laws, to include a demand for restitution. The suit now asks that FanDuel and DraftKings be required to produce an accounting of monies collected from consumers in New York playing any of its games in violation of the law.

      Not only is Schneiderman asking the court to order the two companies to repay all entry fees to New York players, his suit seeks a civil penalty of up to $5,000 for each violation.

      The Wall Street Journal reports the sites took in a combined $200 million from 600,000 New York players last year. A judgment could potentially be staggering.

      Investigation began in October

      Schneiderman opened an investigation into DFS in October following reports of an employee at one of the companies profiting through the use of insider information. Not long afterward, Scheiderman issued a cease and desist order before going to court to have the two companies declared illegal gambling operations.

      “DFS is a new business model for online gambling,” the suits allege. “The DFS sites themselves collect wagers (styled as 'fees'), set jackpot amounts, and directly profit from the betting on their platforms. DFS’ rules enable near-instant gratification to players, require no time commitment, and simplify game play, including by eliminating all long-term strategy."

      Schneiderman's suit claims New Yorkers have been harmed by the games, especially those who have a gambling addiction.

      Usually, when you play a daily fantasy sports (DFS) through DraftKings and FanDuel, you either win or you ...
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      Target is now buying unwanted gift cards, albeit at a reduced price

      Now you can instantly turn an unwanted holiday gift card into Target bucks

      Gift cards are a safe bet, but they’re not always surefire. Got a Sephora gift card when you’re really more of an REI type? Rather than letting it sit idly in your wallet, consider trading it in.

      As we reported in November, there are several ways to trade in your unwanted gift cards. Coinstar, as well as gift card trade-in websites such as GiftCards.com and CardCash.com, accept gift cards and offer a payout. While you may not get 100% of the gift card’s original value, it’s certainly better than leaving the card to spend the rest of its life as a dust-collecting plastic rectangle that never got to buy anything.

      But now, Target is getting in on the gift card trade-in game. The company is partnering with BlackHawk Network’s Cardpool unit and electronic trade-in company Nextworth for the program, which will allow shoppers to walk into Target with an unwanted gift card and instantly turn it into a Target gift card.

      Exchange rates vary

      Target will accept the unwanted gift cards at a discount so that Cardpool can later resell them online for less than face value. Consequently, there are fees taken out during the exchange and trade-in values will vary. One example provided by Target: A $100 Walmart gift card would exchange for an $85 Target gift card.

      The purchase price also depends largely on the merchant’s popularity. Cards from big-box stores are likely to have a higher exchange rate than a more regional establishment, but rates vary with demand, according to Patrick Ramsey, general manager of Cardpool.

      "You often find that grocery stores, gas stations and the mass merchandisers will often have some of the higher prices closer to the face value," says Ramsey.

      Convenience among benefits

      Despite the fact that shoppers could probably get a better deal by exchanging their gift cards directly via Cardpool online, the instantaneous redemption and convenience offered by the Target exchange program is appealing to many.

      Even though customers might get a Target card in return with a slightly lower face value, for many, the ability to use the card immediately trumps waiting for a check to be mailed.

      Target will exchange gift cards from more than 600 brands, including Old Navy, Cheesecake Factory, Tiffany & Co., Staples, and Pottery Barn. The gift card program, which is slated to run year round, is available in about 1,500 of Target’s 1,800 stores.

      Gift cards are a safe bet, but they’re not always surefire. Got a Sephora gift card when you’re really more of an REI type? Rather than letting it sit idly...
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      Fighting vitamin D deficiencies in kids during the sun-scarce winter months

      Drinking milk and playing outside isn’t enough, research shows

      Vitamin D is important to bodies of all ages, but especially to growing ones. Also known as the “sunshine" vitamin, it helps control the amount of calcium we absorb and is therefore important for developing and maintaining healthy bones. But recent studies show that children may not be getting enough of the bone-building vitamin.

      Getting enough vitamin D is extremely important to children, who must build up their bone reserves for later in life when bone mass and density begins to fall. Deficiencies of the vitamin early in life could lead to problems down the line, including rickets and other diseases.

      "There is epidemiologic evidence that vitamin D not only makes for strong bones, but may play a role in preventing some chronic diseases later in life, including those involving the immune and cardiovascular systems,” explains Frank R. Greer, M.D., FAAP, professor of pediatrics at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

      How much is needed?

      The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) responded to recent findings by doubling the amount of vitamin D it recommends for babies and children to 400 International Units (IU) per day, beginning in the first days of life.

      “We are doubling the recommended amount of vitamin D children need each day because evidence has shown this could have lifelong health benefits,” says Dr. Greer.

      And the need for adequate amounts of vitamin D starts right out of the gate for children. 

      Nursing mothers

      Infants who are exclusively breastfed should receive supplements of vitamin D to prevent rickets, a bone-softening disease that continues to be reported in the U.S., mostly in children aged two and under.

      “Until it is determined how much vitamin D a nursing mother should take, we must ensure that the breastfeeding infant receives an adequate supply of vitamin D through a supplement of 400 IU per day,” said Dr. Carol Wagner, a member of the AAP Section on Breastfeeding Executive Committee and co-author of the AAP clinical report on vitamin D.

      Once the child is weaned, she adds, a vitamin D supplement is needed throughout childhood and adolescence as well. 

      Ensuring they get enough

      Common wisdom says that if your child drinks milk and plays outside, he’s getting what he needs  but research shows this isn’t always the case. Here are some tips on making sure your child is getting enough of the essential vitamin.

      • Breastfed and partially breastfed infants should be supplemented with 400 IU a day of vitamin D in the first few days of life.

      • Non-breastfed infants, as well as older children, who consume less than 32 ounces per day of vitamin D-fortified formula or milk should receive a vitamin D supplement of 400 IU per day.

      • Adolescents who do not get 400 IU of vitamin D per day though foods should receive a supplement containing that amount.

      • Children with increased risk of vitamin D deficiency, such as those taking certain medications and with chronic diseases such as cystic fibrosis, may need higher doses of vitamin D. Consult your pediatrician.

      Vitamin D is important to bodies of all ages, but especially to growing ones. Also known as the “sunshine" vitamin, it helps control the amount of calcium ...
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      Manufacturing economy contracts -- again

      The overall economy, however, continued to expand

      December was a down month for the manufacturing sector of the economy -- the second in a row, even as the overall economy grew for the 79th consecutive month.

      The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) reports that the December purchasing manager's index (PMI) registered 48.2%, down 0.4% from November, while the New Orders Index rose 0.3% to 49.2% and the Production Index registered 49.8% -- a gain of 0.6% from the previous month.

      The Employment Index, meanwhile, fell 3.2% and the Prices Index dipped 2.0%, indicating lower raw materials prices for the 14th consecutive month. The New Export Orders Index jumped 3.5% and the Imports Index dropped 3.5%.

      As was the case in November, 10 out of 18 manufacturing industries reported contraction in December, with declines in employment and raw materials inventories accounting for the overall softness in December.

      Ups and downs

      Of the 18 manufacturing industries, six are reporting growth in December in the following order:

      1. Printing & Related Support Activities;
      2. Textile Mills;
      3. Paper Products;
      4. Miscellaneous Manufacturing;
      5. Chemical Products; and
      6. Food, Beverage & Tobacco Products.

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

      1. Apparel, Leather & Allied Products;
      2. Plastics & Rubber Products;
      3. Machinery;
      4. Primary Metals;
      5. Fabricated Metal Products;
      6. Transportation Equipment;
      7. Electrical Equipment, Appliances & Components;
      8. Computer & Electronic Products;
      9. Wood Products; and
      10. Nonmetallic Mineral Products.
      December was a down month for the manufacturing sector of the economy -- the second in a row, even as the overall economy grew for the 79th consecutive mon...
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      Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pick up trucks recalled

      The air bags may not deploy properly

      General Motors is recalling 60 model year 2016 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pick up trucks manufactured October 13, 2015, to October 14, 2015.

      The mounting stud used to secure the air bag sensing and diagnostic module (SDM) may be incorrectly positioned, and as a result, the SDM housing could fracture.

      If the SDM housing fractures, water may get into SDM causing it to malfunction and hinder the proper deployment of the air bags in the event of a crash, increasing the risk of occupant injury.

      GM will notify owners, and dealers will have the mounting stud repositioned and the SDM replaced, 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 15794.

      General Motors is recalling 60 model year 2016 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pick up trucks manufactured October 13, 2015, to October 14, 2015. ...
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      Uoriki Fresh recalls Octopus Salad

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Uoriki Fresh of Secaucus, N.J., is recalling its Octopus Salad.

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      The recalled product was distributed to one Wegmans Food Market store in Manalapan, N.J., in an 8-oz. plastic tray or sold by the pound in the seafood department with the label Wegmans Fresh Octopus Salad.

      It was sold from December 18 - 24, 2015, and labeled with best before dates ranging from December 21 - 24.

      Consumers who purchased this product should return it to the store or discard it.

      Consumers with questions may call Wegmans consumer affairs at 1-855-934-3663, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m (EST).

      Uoriki Fresh of Secaucus, N.J., is recalling its Octopus Salad. The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes No illnesses ha...
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      Audi A6, A7 vehicles recalled

      The front passenger air bags may malfunction not deploy in a crash

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 21,074 model year 2012-2013 Audi A6 vehicles manufactured March 28, 2011, to March 25, 2013, and 2012-2013 Audi A7 vehicles manufactured January 25, 2011, to March 19, 2013.

      In vehicles with heated and cooled seats, the Passenger Occupant Detection System (PODS), used to enable the front passenger air bags, may malfunction and prevent the passenger-side air bags from deploying in a crash.

      An air bag that does not deploy as intended increases the risk of occupant injury in a crash.

      Volkswagen will notify owners, and Audi dealers will install a PODS system repair kit, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in February 2016.

      Owners may contact Audi customer service at 1-800-253-2834. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 74D1.

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 21,074 model year 2012-2013 Audi A6 vehicles manufactured March 28, 2011, to March 25, 2013, and 2012-2013 Audi A7...
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      Health concerns about cellphone radiation won't go away

      Centers for Disease Control reportedly debated the issue in 2014

      As long as there have been cellphones, it seems there have been concerns that radiation from the devices might cause cancer or other health problems.

      The prevailing position in the U.S. is that there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other. But the New York Times began 2016 with a report showing officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged “caution” when using mobile phones, only to back away from that advice.

      The Times interviewed a number of present and former CDC officials about the agency's guidelines issued in June 2014 that concluded “we recommend caution in cellphone use.” The report said that within weeks the CDC reversed course and deleted that recommendation from its website.

      A step they were not prepared for

      “Although the initial CDC changes, which were released in June 2014, had been three years in the making, officials quickly realized they had taken a step they were not prepared for,” The Times reported. “Health officials and advocates began asking if the new language represented a policy change. One state official raised the question of potential liabilities for allowing cellphones in schools.”

      The Mayo Clinic notes that any purported link between cellphones and cancer is controversial. It says years of studies on cellphones and cancer have yielded conflicting results.

      “Currently, there's no consensus about the degree of cancer risk — if any — posed by cellphone use,” the clinic says.

      Specifically, concern about cellphones and cancer hinges on the development of brain tumors, and whether they might be associated with cellphone use. Some research suggests a slight increase in the rate of brain tumors since the 1970s, when cellphones were not in use. On the other hand, better access to medical care and improvements in diagnostic imaging have have led to the increased diagnosis.

      What the American Cancer Society says

      The American Cancer Society (ACS) has also weighed-in on the subject. It notes that radiation from a device's radiofrequency (RF) waves can be harmful, depending on their strength and time of exposure. It says other things that can affect RF exposure include include whether or not someone is using hands-free mode, the distance at path to the nearest cell tower, and the amount of cell traffic in the area.

      But the ACS agrees that evidence of a cellphone-cancer link falls short. It says lab tests suggest the RF waves given off by cell phones don’t have enough energy to damage DNA directly or to heat body tissues.

      “Because of this, many scientists believe that cell phones aren’t able to cause cancer,” ACS said. “Most studies done in the lab have supported this theory, finding that RF waves do not cause DNA damage.”

      But outside the United States, scientists are not quite so equivocal. As we reported in 2011, international researchers, meeting in Turkey, released what they called “stunning proof” of a cellphone health risk.

      The researchers said the findings confirmed that pulsed digital signals from cell phones disrupt DNA, impair brain function and lower sperm count.

      As long as there have been cellphones, it seems there have been concerns that radiation from the devices might cause cancer or other health problems.Th...
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      Will 2015's bargain at the gas pump continue?

      It all depends on whether the world oil glut continues, and AAA predicts it will

      Motorists should continue to enjoy low gasoline prices in 2016, but it remains to be seem if prices will come close to 2015's bargain levels.

      According to AAA, 2015's average price at the pump was the second lowest in a decade. Only 2009 was lower.

      The price for the year averaged out to $2.40 a gallon. It ended the year much cheaper, right at $2 a gallon.

      Fuel facts

      AAA has singled out some fuel facts that should bring a smile to consumers' faces:

      • The national average price of gas for December was $2.01 per gallon, which was the lowest monthly average since March 2009.
      • About 71% of U.S. stations are selling gas for less than $2 per gallon, and drivers can find at least one station selling gas for less than $2 in 47 states.
      • More than 16,000 stations across the country are selling gas for less than $1.75 per gallon.
      • Gas prices in 2015 averaged about 94 cents per gallon less than 2014.
      • Americans saved more than $115 billion on gasoline this year compared to 2014, which was an average of more than $550 per licensed driver.

      Can the good times continue?

      The real question, of course, is what will prices do in 2016? It depends a lot on where the price of oil goes. Some analysts think the price could fall below $30 a barrel. Others think it could rebound in the second half of the year.

      AAA thinks the price is going lower, with the annual average price of gas in 2016 between $2.25 and $2.45 per gallon.

      Consumers should be prepared for a slow rise in prices at the pump, regardless of the price of oil. In late winter and early spring, refineries traditionally reduce operations for maintenance and switch over to summer blends of gasoline. Summer blends cost more and the decrease in production will tighten supplies, sending the wholesale price higher.

      Highs and lows

      Consumers in the southeast are paying the least for gasoline. Motorists in the west are paying the most.

      The five states with the lowest average prices include: Missouri ($1.72), Oklahoma ($1.75), South Carolina ($1.75), Arkansas ($1.75), and Tennessee ($1.76).

      The five states with the highest prices include: California ($2.85), Hawaii ($2.69), Nevada ($2.51), Washington ($2.47), and Alaska ($2.47).

      For the year, South Carolina’s annual average price of gas was the cheapest in the country for the fourth year in a row, at $2.10 per gallon. It was also was the lowest annual average for the state since 2004. Drivers in South Carolina paid about $1 less during the year than in 2014.

      Motorists should continue to enjoy low gasoline prices in 2016, but it remains to be seem if prices will come close to 2015's bargain levels.According ...
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