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Our National Parks turn 100 -- join the celebration

Lakes, mountains, seashores, historic sites, they come in every size and description

What a great time to visit and support our national parks as they celebrate their centennial this year. Majestic, spectacular, and glorious are some of the...

PhotoWhat a great time to visit and support our national parks as they celebrate their centennial this year. Majestic, spectacular, and glorious are some of the adjectives you’ll use to describe the natural splendor of our National Park System; in fact, you will quickly run out of superlatives.  

Visiting a park is easy; you’ll find national park sites in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Whatever outdoor activities you enjoy, whether you like parks that are large or small, nearby or a destination, there is a park for you.

Five interesting national park facts:

While President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the National Park Service in 1916, it was President Ulysses S. Grant who signed the act in 1872 that created our nation's first national park, Yellowstone National Park.

The National Park Service includes more than national parks, though. There are over 400 areas which include: monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and, surprisingly, the White House.

The five most visited national parks are: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park.

The five most visited places in the National Park System are: Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, George Washington Memorial Parkway, and the Lincoln Memorial.

The largest national park site is Wrangell - St. Elias, National Park & Preserve in Alaska with 13.2 million acres while Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania is the smallest with .02 acres.

What to do

PhotoHow can you join the Centennial celebration?

Visit a national park site. Use the National Park Service’s website to find a park.

Purchase a pass. An annual park pass is $80, allowing access to 2,000 federal recreation sites.

Get a free or discounted pass. Free passes are available for current U.S. military and their dependents, U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities, and fourth graders.

Seniors (62 or over and U.S citizens or permanent residents) are eligible for a $10 lifetime pass.

Buy a Passport to your National Parks, 2016 Centennial Edition. The cost is $9.95 for adults (Kid’s Pass is $6.95) at eParks.com, the official online store of America’s National Parks.

Divided into regions, it serves as a guide to the parks and a great souvenir to commemorate your visit. In it you’ll find maps, park information, and space for you to get rubber stamp cancellations and stamps from individual parks. For park locations that participate in the stamp program, go here.

Support the National Park Service. Make a donation to your favorite national park, a park’s friends group, or the National Park Foundation.

Give of yourself and volunteer with the National Park Service.

Shop from over 150 park stores.

Whether you are a first-time or veteran visitor of our national parks, this is a great year to explore our nation’s beauty and support our national heritage.

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Grieving on social media - Staying connected while mourning your loss

Online memorials are becoming more personal than the traditional forms

It was right before Christmas when I saw the first post. My friend Kelley had made a comment on one of her friend’s Facebook posts and it appeared in my ne...

PhotoIt was right before Christmas when I saw the first post. My friend Kelley had made a comment on one of her friend’s Facebook posts and it appeared in my news feed. The friend, someone who I did not know, had shared that her mother was dying. As she sat vigil, she posted on Facebook and her friends wrote loving and encouraging messages.

This reminded me of the journalist who tweeted to his million plus followers as he sat with his mother in the ICU while she lay dying. I’m sure these frequent connections helped both of them feel less isolated during a wrenching time.

Social media has rapidly become the primary channel for connecting with a wide circle of people. Users freely communicate their joys so it’s no surprise that they now share their sorrows. In disclosing news of an illness, impending death, or the death itself, users are finding support as they mourn their losses.

Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, SnapChat, and other social media are new forums for grief and loss. They have driven a social change, opening up conversations on death and dying, cancer and death by suicide, miscarriage and other losses -- topics that were often social taboos and off-limits.

More personal

Unlike obituaries that provide death and funeral specifics, social media postings are more personal narratives comprising text and images. Communications are fueled by emotion and rarely follow a set format. You’ll find death and funeral announcements, links to obituaries, photos with tributes sharing an illness or loss, and eulogies.

As users become more comfortable with sharing, many will post photos and narrative that coincide with death anniversaries and the deceased’s birthday, no matter how many years have passed.

For those that seek support, but are uncomfortable sharing highly personal news, you may see subtler announcements; they may change their profile photo to that of a family member (now deceased) or one of themselves with the deceased family member.

As we rely more and more on social media, grief and mourning will move further away from traditional practices. Obituaries will give way to online death announcements; handwritten condolences will move to an online “I’m sorry for your loss.” Mourning will take place not in funeral homes, houses of worship, or the home of the bereaved but instead on Twitter feeds and memorial pages on Facebook.

While many of us bemoan the loss of personal connections, in an era where so much is impersonal, the ability to find support though social media may be just what is needed during a sorrowful time.

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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 s...

PhotoYou, 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.

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California maid service overcharged customers who posted negative reviews, city charges

The maid service owner faces criminal charges. Yelp says there is a history of similar incidents.

Consumer review sites have been around for nearly 20 years, and most businesses have not only gotten used to them but have stepped up their attempts to pro...

PhotoConsumer review sites have been around for nearly 20 years, and most businesses have not only gotten used to them but have stepped up their attempts to provide the best service and merchandise possible.

But there are always a few who don't get the message. Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer says one of them is Steve Yojin Yun, 42, the owner of West Coast Maids and California Maids.

Feuer has filed multiple criminal counts against Yun, accusing him of over-charging the credit cards of customers who wrote negative online reviews about his businesses. 

“Customers have a right to express honest views about a company,” said Feuer. “Illegally charging customers as retaliation for expressing their views is outrageous.”

If convicted, Yun could face up to seven years in jail and a $7,000 fine. 

"Vulgar, mean ..."

PhotoFeuer said the Los Angeles Department of Consumer Affairs opened an investigation after receiving complaints from victims who had booked maid services through Yun's websites.

One victim who went public with her experience was Christine Medrick, who hired one of Yun's companies to clean her apartment in 2013. She was unhappy with the work and complained. A second maid showed up and, says Medrick, also did a poor job. She then posted a complaint on Yelp and soon heard from Yun.

"He offered to refund my credit card if I took down my Yelp review," Medrick said, according to a report in LA Weekly. "I said I wasn’t going to do that, because his company does not clean. I said I wanted to warn other people.

"That’s when he got really belligerent ... He said a lot of vulgar, mean, offensive things," she alleges. 

Yun also posted a negative Yelp review of his own, against Medrick's company, Pure Brazilian, a cosmetics wholesaler.

Another consumer posted her experience on Facebook, using the name "Bullied by California Maids-Hollywood."

"Someone from California maids is posting on Yelp and saying my review was fake and they are working to get it removed!!!" "Bullied" said. "Now I understand why all their ratings are 5 and some 4 stars -- they basically bribe and then intimidate and threaten all the customers who had a bad experience with them! I don't think this is what Yelp intended."

"Bullied" also said someone placed an ad on Craigslist with her personal phone number, causing her to be harrassed by a constant stream of callers.

"Caught red-handed"

PhotoYelp says it caught the maid services intimidating consumers and issued an alart to its users.

"These are businesses that Yelp caught red-handed involving themselves in shady business tactics back in 2012. Both businesses received a Yelp consumer alert warning anyone that visited their Yelp pages of their deceitful behavior. It's great to see the City Attorney's office continuing to fight for consumer protection in this case," Yelp spokeswoman Kayleigh Winslow told ConsumerAffairs. 

Yelp's Consumer Alert program works to track down people who might be trying to manipulate ratings and reviews. The alerts are posted on affected Yelp listings for 90 days.

"Since the start of the program, our trusty team of investigators have caught hundreds of attempts to artificially inflate ratings through a number of tactics. In 2015 alone, our sleuths have issued 185 consumer alerts. Cheaters beware: our team WILL find you," Yelp said in a recent blog posting.

Los Angeles consumers who believe they are victims of this or similar schemes should can contact Esther Martinez of the Los Angeles Department of Consumer and Business Affairs at (800) 593-8222 or complaints may be filed online. 

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Issue of rising drug prices now includes generics

Researchers outline drug company tricks to keep generics expensive or unavailable

The high price of some prescription drugs made news throughout 2015 and has now become an issue in the Presidential campaign. It's also sparked outrage amo...

PhotoThe high price of some prescription drugs made news throughout 2015 and has now become an issue in the Presidential campaign. It's also sparked outrage among members of Congress.

But it isn't just new drugs that are rapidly rising in price. An article published in the medical journal Blood suggests that major pharmaceutical companies are actively trying to keep cheaper generic drugs out of the marketplace.

This trend, the authors warn, is on its way to causing as much harm to consumers as high-cost name brand drugs.

The authors throw out these numbers:

  • More drug treatments have reached the $100,000 a year level
  • One in five consumers say they don't fill their prescriptions because they can't afford them
  • Per capita, Americans in 2013 spent 40% more on prescription drugs than the second highest spender, Canada

Role of generics

Generic drugs are supposed to be a solution to expensive medication. The law allows for them to enter the marketplace once the patent on a brand name drug expires.

From 2004-2013, the authors say generic drugs saved the U.S. health system nearly $1.5 trillion. Since 2013, they say, the trend is running in the opposite direction.

“The timely availability of affordable generic drugs is the difference between life or death for patients with cancer and other diseases who cannot afford brand-name pharmaceuticals, the majority of which are priced at monopoly levels and protected by 20-year patents,” lead author Dr. Hagop Kantarjian said in a release. “Unfortunately, these sorely needed generics are increasingly out of reach. As we sought to understand what keeps these affordable drugs from the market, we identified several specific strategies that pharmaceutical companies use to extend their patents and eliminate competition.”

Drug company strategies

Among the strategies the authors cite, "pay-for-delay," in which the company that owns the patent pays a generic company to delay entry into the market. When that happens, consumers have to keep paying for the name brand version.

Other strategies the authors allege are heavily spending on name brand drugs to make them top-of mind, and lobbying Congress to keep consumers from legally importing cheaper generics from other countries, at much lower prices.

The article also highlights some drug companies that the authors allege buy out competitors and then increase the price of a newly acquired generic drug by several fold overnight.

A case in point is Turing Pharmaceuticals, a recently formed enterprise that purchased an old drug called Daraprim, used to treat parasitic infections and, in some cases, HIV. The company immediately raised the price of the drug from $13.50 a tablet to $750 a pill.

Turing was founded by young hedge fund mogul Martin Shkreli, who was fired as CEO by his board after his outspoken defense of high drug prices drew outrage.

Product hopping

The authors also say drug companies deploy a strategy they call “product hopping,” which involves switching the market for a drug to a reformulated “new and improved” version with a slightly different tablet or capsule dose that offers no therapeutic advantage over the original but has a later-expiring patent.

The company then launches a massive media campaign for the new brand-name drug, hoping to convince patients and physicians to switch. When the generic version of the original becomes available, pharmacists can't substitute it for the new branded version because state laws allow substitution only if certain characteristics, such as dosing, remain the same.

These tricks, the authors contend, have real life-and-death consequences.

“Each day in my clinic I see leukemia patients who are harmed because they cannot afford their treatment, some risking death because they cannot pay for the medicine keeping them alive,” Kantarjian said.

Kantarjian says drug companies have two missions: to make a reasonable profit for shareholders and help save and improve lives. Those two missions, he contends, have gotten out of balance.

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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 i...

PhotoT-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.

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Zika virus getting foothold in Latin America

U.S. health officials caution travelers to Central and South America

The Zika virus, spread by mosquitoes, has emerged as a health concern in the world's tropical areas. Though its effects are described as mild, it can be se...

PhotoThe Zika virus, spread by mosquitoes, has emerged as a health concern in the world's tropical areas. Though its effects are described as mild, it can be serious for some people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an outbreak in Brazil led to cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome and pregnant women giving birth to babies with birth defects and poor pregnancy outcomes.

Though it is spreading quickly south of the Equator, there have been few reports of the illness in the continental U.S of people who traveled outside the country. For U.S. residents planning trips to Central and South America, the CDC has issued this travel alert.

The CDC says the first local transmission of the Zika virus was reported in November in Central America. Since then, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama have reported cases. Travelers to the area are urged to guard against mosquito bites.

Symptoms

The CDC says the most common symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis, or red eyes. The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting from several days to a week. Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon.

Mosquitoes are also responsible for spreading diseases like malaria and dengue fever. Because of that, expect to see more consumer products that are designed to attack and control the insect.

SpringStar, a Seattle-based biotech company, has gotten the jump on the emerging health concerns, promoting its Mosquiot Trap-N-Kill product, which it says is the only EPA-registered trap of its kind.

The company says it is targeting Hawaii, where the Hawaii Department of Health has reportedly identified 241 new cases of dengue fever since September.

"We just shipped 80,000 Trap-N-Kill traps to Home Depot," company president Michael Banfield said in a release, and the Hawaii stores can't keep them in stock.

With much of the U.S. in a winter deep freeze, mosquitoes are not an issue. At least, not yet. But with some Zika virus cases already reported in Mexico, spring time might be another story.

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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 actual...

PhotoThe 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

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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 spoke...

PhotoSuburban 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.

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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 (I...

PhotoHow 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.

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Former college athlete sues FanDuel and DraftKings

Seeks compensation for himself, other college athletes for use of name and likeness

Daily fantasy sports enterprises FanDuel and DraftKings may start to feel besieged from all sides. Not only are several states questioning the legality of ...

PhotoDaily fantasy sports enterprises FanDuel and DraftKings may start to feel besieged from all sides. Not only are several states questioning the legality of their operations, a former college athlete is attempting to take both companies to court.

Former Northern Illinois University running back Akeem Daniels has filed suit against both FanDuel and DraftKings, claiming the lucrative businesses “knowingly and improperly exploited the accomplishments, and expected future accomplishments” of Daniels and 2,000 college athletes.

The suits claim the companies use the names and likenesses of college athletes to construct fantasy games in which millions of dollars are spent.

“Through a comprehensive advertising campaign and in its daily fantasy college football and basketball contests, Defendant routinely use the names and likenesses of these college players to promote Defendant’s commercial enterprise, amassing millions of dollars in revenues from entry fees, without the athletes’ authorization,” the complaint states.

No consent granted

Akeem's attorney said the athlete, and others in the proposed class, have not given their consent to the use of their names, nor have they given up their rights. The suit seeks unspecified damages.

Neither company has commented on the suit, which is fairly typical in cases of litigation.

The suits may be seen as the latest attempt by college athletes to receive monetary compensation for their service to their colleges. The filing follows on the heels of Northwestern University's football players' unsuccessful attempt to form a labor union.

More importantly, perhaps, it represents just another legal challenge to Daily Fantasy Sports, which is enormously popular with consumers and deeply embedded in sports leagues and media.

The most serious challenge so far is in New York, where Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has charged that the games violate New York's gambling laws. Schneiderman not only seeks to bar players in the state from participating but is seeking the return of the money they have spent, plus civil penalties.

An appeals court will decide the case later this year.

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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 lik...

PhotoIn 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."

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Barbie adds tall, curvy, and petite body types to its doll line

The more realistic body types are being praised by many as a step in the right direction

Barbie’s waistline has long been the topic of controversy. Many claim the doll’s unrealistic proportions set impossible standards for little girls who may ...

PhotoBarbie’s waistline has long been the topic of controversy. Many claim the doll’s unrealistic proportions set impossible standards for little girls who may aspire to look like her. Well, now, Mattel is turning the tables. They’ve attempted to make a Barbie that looks more like the girl holding her.

Mattel recently announced the expansion of its Fashionistas line with three new body shapes — tall, curvy, and petite — and a variety of skin tones, hair styles, and outfits.

Response to the addition of the three new body types has been overwhelmingly positive, but not without criticism. Many believe Barbie’s old body type was innocuous and not something that needed to be changed. There are also those with a more pragmatic complaint: one of wardrobe.

Non-interchangeable clothing

Getting the old Barbie dressed for her next activity was easy, as she wore the same size as all the other Barbies on the bedroom floor. But Barbie is no longer a one-size-fits all gal.

“The feminist in me loves them,” says Facebook user Tara Kellermeyer. “The mom in me is cursing Mattel for the inevitable shrieks from my girls that ‘this outfit doesn't fit’ since the clothes will no longer be interchangeable.”

But while this particular side-effect may not have been premeditated, Mattel did anticipate one important byproduct of Barbie’s newfound diversity: money.

Strategic business move

The implied social connotations of the re-design aren’t because Mattel’s heart has grown three sizes. Rather, the company seeks to make up for lost time, economically.

Sales of Mattel’s Barbie dolls have taken a hit in recent years, dropping 20% between 2012 and 2014, according to TIME. Barbie lost an estimated $500 million in revenue due to Hasbro winning Elsa dolls and other Disney Princesses away from Mattel.

Barbie's new body types will capitalize on America's newly evolved beauty ideals. Waifish figures may still be en vogue on the runway, but many Hollywood icons  from Christina Hendricks to Beyonce  are ignoring size labels while promoting body acceptance.

While the addition of the new body types may simply have been a calculated business move, most agree it’s a step in the right direction — and a long-awaited one at that.

“Average” is in

Marketing companies may have seen the need for more average-looking dolls when the Lammily doll was introduced in 2014 by designer Nikolay Lamm.

Lammily — who boasts typical human body proportions and minimal makeup — received an outpouring of support upon introduction. One video, which quickly went viral, showed children’s reactions to the “average” looking doll.

After being handed the doll, one child after the next smiled while offering up an, “I like her.”

“She looks like my sister,” beamed several girls, petting Lammily’s long brown hair.

In response to what Lammily might do for a job, the children envisioned her as a teacher, a swimmer, or doing “like a computer job.” Among the careers imagined for Barbie were model, makeup artist, and no job at all, proving the influence of a doll's physical appearance.

In addition to more accurately representing the people who play with her, Barbie's new body types hold the possibility of introducing entirely new conversations to the world of play. 

You can pre-order the new dolls online now, before they hit shelves later this spring. 

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End of year economic growth sputters

The rate of increase in consumer spending was slower

The rate of economic growth slowed considerably in the final three months of the year from the pace it recorded in the third quarter.According to the C...

PhotoThe rate of economic growth slowed considerably in the final three months of the year from the pace it recorded in the third quarter.

According to the Commerce Department, real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the value of the goods and services produced by the nation’s economy less the value of the goods and services used up in production, adjusted for price changes -- expanded at an annual rate of 0.7% in the fourth quarter. It increased 2.0% in the previous three months.

It's worth noting that this fourth-quarter advance estimate is based on incomplete source data that are subject to further revision. The "second" estimate for the fourth quarter, based on more complete data, will be released in late February.

Ups and downs

The fourth-quarter increase in real GDP -- what little there was -- primarily reflected growth in personal consumption expenditures (PCE), also known as consumer spending, residential fixed investment, and federal government spending. These were offset in part by declines in private inventory investment, exports, and nonresidential fixed investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.

The deceleration came from a decline in PCE and downturns in nonresidential fixed investment, in exports, and in state and local government spending. Partly offsetting those were a smaller decrease in private inventory investment, a deceleration in imports, and an acceleration in federal government spending.

GDP inflation

Prices for gross domestic purchases, which measure prices paid by U.S. residents, increased 0.2% in the fourth quarter, following an advance of 1.3% in the third. Excluding food and energy prices, the “core rate” of GDP inflation increased 0.9%, compared with an increase of 1.3% in the previous quarter.

Personal saving -- disposable personal income less personal outlays -- was $739.3 billion in the fourth quarter, compared with $700.6 billion in the third. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 5.4% in the fourth quarter, up 0,2% from the third.

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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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 ...

PhotoNissan 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.

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Universal, portable retirement savings plan proposal introduced in Senate

The bill would give all Americans the same kind of plan enjoyed by members of Congress

Why shouldn't everyone have the same kind of retirement program enjoyed by members of Congress and federal workers? Good qu...

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Photo © Atomazul - Fotolia

Why shouldn't everyone have the same kind of retirement program enjoyed by members of Congress and federal workers? Good question. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) thinks everyone should.

Merkley today introduced the American Savings Act, which would give every American not covered by a retirement plan at work the chance to open a "universal, portable, simple" retirement plan similar to that available to federal employees. 

“It shouldn’t matter whether you work part-time or full-time, as an employee or as a contractor, or for a huge corporation or a tiny business: every American worker deserves access to a financially secure retirement,” said Merkley. “With private-sector pensions becoming rarer and rarer, Social Security and retirement savings are more important to retirement security than ever, which is exactly why we must strengthen Social Security and expand high-quality retirement savings options to all workers."

Merkley said his plan would help American workers "save easily and automatically for retirement with tax benefits, rock-bottom fees and the same types of high-quality investment options already enjoyed by federal workers and members of Congress.”

Current system failing

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Sen. Merkley

Merkley's action coincides with the release today by the Center for American Progress Action Fund's release of a new report recommending a program similar to Merkley's.

“When workers do not have access to a retirement plan at their workplace, either because their employer does not offer one or because of the nature of their work, they are unlikely to save for retirement," said David Madland, senior fellow at CAP Action. "Expanding access to a TSP-style plan could help shore up our private retirement system–which is currently failing to meet the needs of a significant part of our workforce–and offer a more secure retirement to millions of Americans.”

Merkley's measure won support from the Main Street Alliance, which represents small businesses.

“The Main Street Alliance member businesses applaud Senator Merkley’s leadership on this important issue,” said Amanda Ballantyne, National Director, The Main Street Alliance. “We look forward to working together to ensure that the American Dream of retiring comfortably after a lifetime of work is within reach for small business owners and their employees.”

The legislation is also supported by AARP and UNITE HERE.

Plan details

The American Savings Act would establish a new universal savings account plan — the American Savings Account.

If your employer doesn’t already offer a retirement plan, you’ll automatically be given your own American Savings Account (ASA). Initially, your employer will put 3% of your earnings into your account with each paycheck, but you can choose to adjust your contribution to as low as 2% of your income, or as high as $18,000 per year, or to opt out entirely. 

ASAs will have the same investment options as federal employees get through the TSP plan, with similar rock-bottom costs.ASAs are simple for employers, who simply need to send employees’ ASA savings to the federal government alongside employee tax withholdings. Workers will control their own accounts directly through a website.

Contributions to an ASA would be tax-deductible, and participants would be able to rollover any previous IRAs into their ASA or roll their ASA funds into an employer-sponsored 401(k) or 403(b) plan. An independent board of directors will manage the investment of the funds.

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FTC challenges dealers' claims for 'certified' used cars

GM and two large dealerships failed to say some cars had unrepaired safety recalls

Car dealers like to brag about their supposedly rigorous inspection of user cars, but the Federal Trade Commission found that in many cases that inspection...

PhotoCar dealers like to brag about their supposedly rigorous inspection of user cars, but the Federal Trade Commission found that in many cases that inspection doesn't include safety recalls.

As a result of the FTC's probe, General Motors Company, Jim Koons Management, and Lithia Motors Inc. have agreed to settle charges that they sold used cars that had outstanding safety recalls despite their claims that the cars had been thoroughly inspected.

Jim Koons Management, with 15 dealerships in the Mid-Atlantic region, and Oregon-based Lithia Motors Inc., with more than 100 stores in the West and Midwest, are two of the nation’s largest used car dealers.

“Safety is one of the biggest considerations for consumers shopping for a car,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “So companies touting the comprehensiveness of their vehicle inspections need to be straight with consumers about safety-related recalls, which can raise major safety concerns.”

"Certified Pre-Owned"

In the case of GM, the FTC took issue with claims such as this one:

Our 172-Point Vehicle Inspection and Reconditioning Process is conducted only by highly trained technicians and adheres to strict, factory-set standards to ensure that every vehicle’s engine, chassis, and body are in excellent condition. The technicians ensure that everything from the drivetrain to the windshield wipers is in good working order, or they recondition it to our exacting standards.”

Despite such claims, the FTC said some GM Certified Pre-Owned vehicles had uncorrected recalls involving such potentially dangerous issues as an ignition switch defect that can affect engine power, power steering, braking, airbag deployment, problems in the body control module connection system that can affect braking, and chassis electronic module defects that can cause engine stalls.

The FTC’s complaint against Koons notes the company’s purported “guarantee” that:

“Every certified Koons Outlet vehicle must pass a rigorous and extensive quality inspection before it can be sold. Our certified mechanics check all major mechanical and electrical systems and every power accessory as part of our rigid quality controls.”

In fact, the complaint alleges, some cars had unrepaired recalls, including those involving the ignition switch, alternator-related defects that could cause unexpected vehicle shutdown or an electrical fire, and a rear suspension defect that could result in a fuel leak or fire.

The FTC’s complaint against Lithia Motors cites claims for its dealer-backed “60- Day/3000 Mile” warranty, including:

“ . . . vehicles are put through an exhaustive 160-checkpoint Quality Assurance Inspection. . . . We inspect everything from the tires and the brakes to suspension, drive train, engine components and even the undercarriage.”

Nonetheless, the complaint alleges, some of the cars Lithia advertised were subject to unrepaired recalls involving defects in the ignition switch and other safety issues.

The proposed consent orders, which would remain in effect for 20 years, would require that the companies not make claims that are not supported by evidence. They would also require the companies to inform recent customers, by mail, that their vehicles may have an open recall. 

For GM, this requirement applies to Certified Pre-Owned used vehicles purchased between July 1, 2013 and the final order date. For Lithia, this requirement applies to Lithia Warranty used vehicles purchased during the same time period.  For Koons, it applies to certified used vehicles purchased between July 1, 2013 and June 15, 2015.

Learn more about car dealers

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Michigan's attorney general launches probe of Flint water crisis

Investigation will determine whether laws were violated

The impact of Flint, Michigan's water crisis is spreading beyond the borders of that state. Consumers in other communities across America are beginning to ...

PhotoThe impact of Flint, Michigan's water crisis is spreading beyond the borders of that state. Consumers in other communities across America are beginning to question the safety of the water that comes from their taps.

Residents of Flint began reporting an odd taste and smell from their water in 2014, when changes were made to the source of the city's water. The water, it turns out, was supplied through lead pipes and, as a result, the water contained elevated levels of the toxic substance.

It's turned into a major scandal in the state and this week Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette launched an investigation, naming former prosecutor Todd Flood as Special Counsel. Schuette said retired Detroit FBI chief Andrew Arena will also determine whether any Michigan laws were violated in the process that created a major public health crisis for Flint residents.

“We will do our job thoroughly and let the chips fall where they may,” Schuette said in a statement. “I have every confidence in Todd Flood, Andrew Arena and our team to work with me on this independent investigation. This investigation is about beginning the road back, to rebuild, regain and restore trust in government.”

Governor faces lawsuit

Meanwhile, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the state government face lawsuits in connection with the crisis. A coalition of local citizens and national groups filed suit seeking federal court intervention to secure access to safe drinking water in Flint. The suit alleges violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Clean water activists worry that the Flint crisis is just the tip of a very dangerous environmental iceberg. They point to a 2015 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report by the agency's Lead and Copper Rule Working Group that warned many communities across the country are served by aging lead water pipes.

The report specifically recommended that the EPA revise the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) to, among other things, “require proactive lead service line (LSL) replacement programs, which set replacement goals, effectively engage customers in implementing those goals, and provide improved access to information about LSLs,” instead of the current practice of responding only after a case where lead levels exceed legal limits.

Major infrastructure commitment

That, of course, would require a major infrastructure commitment, and cost-cutting measures in Flint are blamed for that city's public health crisis.

Writing on the group's website, Clean Water Action Campaigns Director Lynn Thorp says the crisis in Flint appears to be a textbook example of how not to proceed.

“Over 100,000 people are unable to use their tap water,” Thorp writes. “Flint already had high levels of lead-poisoned children. Now those numbers have doubled. A Legionnaire’s disease outbreak may well be related. All because officials put the bottom-line first.”

As we reported in September, there was a bi-partisan bill introduced in Congress to upgrade water system infrastructure, but it never made it into law.

For concerned consumers, a rational approach might be to ask municipal officials about the condition of local water service lines and whether any of them contain lead.

Our story late last year on water filters also has information about places to get your water tested. You'll find it here.

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New York cracks down on ticket scalpers, resellers

Two unlicensed resellers fined, others warned to clean up their acts

A New York investigation has led to charges against two ticket resellers and a warning to other scalpers and resellers that they face prosecution if they b...

PhotoA New York investigation has led to charges against two ticket resellers and a warning to other scalpers and resellers that they face prosecution if they block affordable access to music and sporting events.

"This investigation is just the beginning of our efforts to create a level playing field in the ticket industry,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as he released the results of an investigation that found abuses that prevent New York consumers from accessing tickets at affordable prices – or even accessing them at all.

Schneiderman also announced settlements with two ticket brokers that were illegally operating without a ticket reseller license. MSMSS, LLC and Extra Base Tickets, LLC, have sold thousands of tickets to events in New York even though they were not licensed. The settlements require that the companies and their principals maintain a ticket reseller license and pay penalties for having operated illegally. MSMSS will pay $80,000 in penalties and Extra Base Tickets will pay $65,000.

“Ticketing is a fixed game,” Schneiderman said. “My office will continue to crack down on those who break our laws, prey on ordinary consumers, and deny New Yorkers affordable access to the concerts and sporting events they love."

Never made available

Ticketmaster Jan. 28, 2016, 8:09 p.m.
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For the most popular concerts, the investigation found that many tickets are never made available to the general public in the first place.  Rather, a majority of tickets for major entertainment events are either put on “hold” and reserved for a industry insiders or reserved for “pre-sale” events and made available to non-public groups, such as those who carry particular credit cards.

On average, more than half of all tickets -- 54% – are reserved for insiders, the probe found. Those reserved tickets are split between insider holds (16%) and pre-sales (38%).

In addition, the investigation found that venues and ticket sellers like Ticketmaster regularly tacked on fees that added more than 21% to the face price of tickets, and in some extreme cases, added more than the face-value price of the ticket. 

The investigation further discovered that third-party brokers resell tickets on sites like StubHub and TicketsNow at average margins of 49% above face-value -- sometimes more than 1,000%.

Some of the brokers are using illegal specialty software – called “ticket bots” -- to quickly purchase as many desirable tickets as possible and resell them at a significant markup. The investigation, for instance, found that on December 8, 2014, a single broker used a bot to purchase 1,012 tickets to a June 2015 U2 show at Madison Square Garden within the very first minute of the sale. The investigation confirms that hundreds of thousands of tickets are being acquired using illegal software.

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New York MTA bans hoverboards from public transportation due to fire safety concerns

The agency states that its top concern is protecting the safety of customers and employees

“Hoverboards” have gone through quite the turnaround in popularity since their release last year. While they were the hot gadget to get during the holiday ...

Photo“Hoverboards” have gone through quite the turnaround in popularity since their release last year. While they were the hot gadget to get during the holiday season, reports began trickling in that the devices posed a serious fire hazard due to the ion-lithium batteries getting too hot. This led to a federal probe into the products; meanwhile, Amazon offered refunds for them on its website and they became banned on many leading airlines.

Now it seems that consumers in New York City won’t be taking their hoverboards on any buses, subways, or trains any time soon. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) made an announcement on Wednesday stating that the products will be banned from public transportation due to fire safety concerns.

The ban affects more than just New York City residents, though – travelers who use trains to go to Long Island or upstate will need to heed the new rule too. “[The] possession of hoverboards aboard trains or buses or at stations of the New York City Subway, New York City buses, Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad, Staten Island Railway or Access-A-Ride is prohibited,” the agency said.

Putting safety first

While the NY MTA ban is noteworthy, it may not have been totally unexpected. The state had previously issued a ban on using the products on sidewalks before the MTA decision was made. Cities like Chicago and Los Angeles had even beaten the agency to the punch by issuing similar edicts of their own, according to Consumerist.

Even the reasoning behind the ban seems pretty solid based on the MTA’s long-established safety rules. “The MTA’s safety rules have long prohibited the use of personal wheeled vehicles, such as skateboards, skates or scooters, in train stations. The rules of conduct also prohibit customers from possessing hazardous or flammable materials into the public transportation network, and the lithium-ion batteries used to power hoverboards pose the risk of fire,” said the agency.

MTA Chief Safety Officer David Mayer was adamant that consumer and employee safety was a top priority. “For obvious reasons, it is not safe to use hoverboards, skateboards or other personal wheeled vehicles on station platforms. We’re equally concerned about the safety risk of bringing devices that pose fire hazards into the confined spaces inside trains and buses,” he said. 

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Study: preschoolers with uncorrected farsightedness may experience literary deficits

Farsightedness in children can affect their ability to identify letters and written words

Preschoolers take in many sights and experiences throughout the course of a day, and many of them serve to lay the foundation for reading. But those sights...

PhotoPreschoolers take in many sights and experiences throughout the course of a day, and many of them serve to lay the foundation for reading. But those sights can’t be processed quite as accurately if they’re not seeing them clearly — and according to experts, this happens more often than parents are aware.

An estimated 4-to 14% of preschool-aged children have moderate farsightedness (hyperopia) which often goes undiagnosed and untreated. A study funded by the National Eye Institute (NEI) showed that uncorrected farsightedness is associated with “significantly worse” performance on a test of early literacy.

“This study suggests that an untreated vision problem in preschool, in this case one that makes it harder for children to see things up-close, can create literacy deficits that affect grade school readiness,” said Maryann Redford, D.D.S., M.P.H, and program director in Collaborative Clinical Research at NEI in a statement to Newswise.

Impact of hyperopia

In the study, 492 children aged 4-to 5-years old were divided into two groups: those with moderate hyperopia and those with normal vision. Without being made aware of the child’s visual status, an educational assessor administered the Test of Preschool Early Literacy (TOPEL).

Compared to their normal-vision peers, children with uncorrected moderate hyperopia did worse on the exam. Their performance was most affected in the area of print knowledge, which assesses the ability to identify letters and written words.

These differences are meaningful because formal learning often begins in the preschool years, says Marjean Taylor Kulp, O.D., M.S., distinguished professor in the College of Optometry at Ohio State University and lead author of the study.

“In addition,” says Dr. Kulp, “other research exploring the long-term effect of early deficits in literacy has shown them to be associated with future problems in learning to read and write. This makes early detection of these problems important.”

Early literacy skills

To diagnose and get ahead of the problem, preschool children may benefit from an assessment of early literacy skills, says Elise Ciner, O.D., professor at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University and co-investigator of the study.

While further research is needed to determine whether correction of moderate hyperopia with glasses can prevent the development of deficits in early literacy skills, Ciner believes that educational interventions for children with early deficits can lead to greater educational achievement in later years.

The symptoms of hyperopia may be difficult to recognize in younger children, who may just think the world looks that way normally. But in general, the symptoms of hyperopia include headaches, eyestrain, squinting, and blurry vision (especially for close objects).

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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 indu...

PhotoThe 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.

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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 smo...

PhotoSo 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.

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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 ...

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© karelnoppe - Fotolia

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.

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

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.

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FCC chair wants to open cable to set-top box competition

Currently, 99% of consumers rent their set-top box from the cable company

There was a time when you could only get a telephone from the telephone company. Today, most of us have to get our cable TV set-top box from the cable comp...

PhotoThere was a time when you could only get a telephone from the telephone company. Today, most of us have to get our cable TV set-top box from the cable company. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler thinks it's time to change that.

Wheeler has proposed opening up the market for set-top boxes, paving the way for software, third-party devices, and other solutions to take the place of the set-top boxes that are now used by 99% of American cable subscribers.

The proposal brought a ringing endorsement from the National Hispanic Media Coalition. "This ... would be a tremendous boon for viewers wanting to find the diverse programming that speaks to the needs of their communities and, potentially, allow many content creators a clear path around cable company gatekeepers and into consumers’ homes,” said coalition vice president Michael Scurato.

Consumers spend, on average, $231 in rental fees annually -- totaling about $20 billion a year. Wheeler cites an analysis which found that the cost of cable set-top boxes has risen 185% while the cost of computers, televisions, and mobile phones has dropped by 90%.

An FCC fact sheet says the proposal "is about one thing: consumer choice.  Consumers should have options created by competition. The chairman's proposal will let innovators create and then let consumers choose."

Information streams

Wheeler's proposal identifies three "core information streams" that must be broken loose from the grasp of set-top boxes and made available to the creators of competitive devices or apps:  

  • Service discovery: Information about what programming is available to the consumer, such as the channel listing, video-on-demand lineup, and what is on those channels.  
  • Entitlements: Information about what a device is allowed to do with content, such as recording.   
  • Content delivery: The video programming itself. 

Wheeler's proposal will be voted on by the full FCC on February 18. 

Learn more about cable TV

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Wendy's set to investigate reports of a potential credit card breach

While unconfirmed, the scope of the breach is not yet known

Back in December, we reported that data breaches would become more numerous and dangerous in 2016. While the year is still young, it looks like some compan...

PhotoBack in December, we reported that data breaches would become more numerous and dangerous in 2016. While the year is still young, it looks like some companies are wasting no time when it comes to becoming a part of that statistic. Fast-food giant Wendy’s has reported that it is investigating claims of a credit card breach at some of its locations, according to KrebsOnSecurity.

Wendy’s spokesperson Bob Bertini stated that the company has hired a security firm to investigate claims about the breach. He admitted that Wendy’s had received reports earlier in January from payment contacts about a potential breach.

“We have received this month from payment industry contacts reports of unusual activity involving payment cards at some of our restaurant locations. .  . Reports indicate that fraudulent charges may have occurred elsewhere after the cards were legitimately used at some of our restaurants. We’ve hired a cybersecurity firm and launched a comprehensive and active investigation that’s underway to try to determine the facts,” said Bertini.

Investigation is ongoing

The nature of the breach is still uncertain at this point in time. KrebsOnSecurity reported that it had initially received information linking the breach to areas in the Midwest, but that it has since spread to other financial institutions on the East Coast.

The timeline of when the breach first occurred is also unclear. Bertini indicated that some fraudulent charges may have occurred in the latter part of 2015. “We began investigating immediately, and the period of time we’re looking at the incidents is late last year. . . We know it’s [affecting] some restaurants but it’s not appropriate just yet to speculate on anything in terms of scope,” he said.

Consumers who have been to a Wendy’s in the past few months would do well to check their financial statements for any inconsistencies. Though the breach is not yet confirmed, being proactive in your approach is always wise. 

Learn more about identity theft protection

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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...

PhotoDeVry 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.”

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Two senators blocking nomination of new FDA Commissioner

Drug industry ties, demand for opiod painkiller reforms, drive opposition

President Obama has nominated Dr. Robert Califf to be the next Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner, but two senators in the President's own par...

PhotoPresident Obama has nominated Dr. Robert Califf to be the next Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner, but two senators in the President's own party are teaming up to block the appointment.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), who also happens to be running for President, and Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) have said they are placing a hold on Califf's nomination, but for different reasons.

Sanders doesn't want Califf to take the helm at FDA, citing what he sees as close ties to the pharmaceutical industry and a lack of enthusiasm for lowering drug prices.

“At a time when millions of Americans cannot afford to purchase the prescription drugs they require, we need a leader at the FDA who is prepared to stand up to the drug companies,” Sanders said in a statement. “We need someone who will work to substantially lower drug prices, implement rules to safely import brand-name drugs from Canada and hold companies accountable who defraud our government.”

Costs up 1000%

Sanders said about 35 million Americans could not afford to fill their prescriptions because of rising costs. He said prices for some prescription drugs are up 1,000% or more in recent years. Since 2002, total spending on medicine in the United States went up by more than 90%.

“Dr. Califf’s extensive ties to the pharmaceutical industry give me no reason to believe that he would make the FDA work for ordinary Americans, rather than just the CEOs of pharmaceutical companies,” Sanders said.

Markey, meanwhile, appear to have less of an issue with the nominee and more of an issue with the FDA in general. The Massachusetts lawmaker said he'll place a hold on the nomination for Commissioner until the agency reforms its process for approving opiod painkillers.

Fueling drug abuse

It is these drugs, says Markey, that are fueling a prescription drug and heroin overdose crisis that caused 27,000 deaths, including more than 1,300 in Massachusetts, in 2014. Markey wants the FDA to commit to call advisory committees for any future opioid-approval questions.

“While people in every community across the country are dying every day from opioid overdoses, the FDA continues to operate as if safety just means the right dose, when it should include all the dangers of these painkillers,”Markey said in a release.

Markey said as a first step, the FDA should rescind approval of OnyContin for children. The senator said the U.S. currently consumes 80% of the world's supply of Oxycodone, the active incredient in the painkiller.

States weigh in

On that point, Markey has plenty of support from state officials around the country. Earlier this month, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills urged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to adopt guidelines for physicians who prescribe opioid painkillers.

Mills says many primary care and family doctors lack clear and practical guidance in deciding when and how to prescribe opioids. She sayd Maine experienced a record 208 deaths caused by drug overdose in 2014.

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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 s...

PhotoResearchers 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.

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As consumers begin to favor fresh foods over fad diets, the diet industry suffers

Skepticism about diet products has led consumers to take their health into their own hands

The diet industry would have you believe that “health” requires a book, a meal plan, a membership fee, some protein shakes, and maybe even some pills. But ...

PhotoThe diet industry would have you believe that “health” requires a book, a meal plan, a membership fee, some protein shakes, and maybe even some pills. But these days, consumers aren’t buying it — literally.

According to a Mintel report, 91% of US consumers believe it’s better to eat a well-rounded diet than use diet products. And the weight-loss industry is feeling the burn. Sales of weight-control tablets have dropped nearly 20% over the past year, and low-calorie products have been steadily falling out of favor since 2009.

As the focus shifts from fad diets to fresh foods, experts say consumers have become more wary of what’s actually in those diet products ... and if diets themselves are even effective.

Consumer skepticism

Instead of buying diet-specific products, says Marissa Gilbert, Health and Wellness Analyst at Mintel, people are turning to a well-balanced diet and products that support it.  

“The diet industry faces downward pressure as US adults remain skeptical of ingredients in diet-specific products,” says Gilbert. “The effectiveness in managing weight and the fact that in reality a magic weight loss pill likely doesn’t exist.”

Seventy-seven percent of consumers surveyed in a Mintel report said that diet products are not as healthy as they claim to be, and 61% said most diets are not actually healthy.

In addition to being skeptical of the ingredients in diet products, consumers are being more realistic in terms of their ability to resist temptation.

Anti-deprivation culture

Diets often equal deprivation, which is not exactly enticing to the vast majority of consumers. Eighty percent of consumers say their diets have been thwarted by a tempting indulgence, and 84% believe that it should be okay if that occasionally happens.

"Dieting is not a fashionable word these days," Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University tells NPR. "[Consumers] equate the word diet with deprivation, and they know deprivation doesn't work."

Consumers do, however, acknowledge that dieting can be worth the effort in order to achieve their ideal weight, says Gilbert. It’s just that they’re going about dieting a little differently these days.

Calorie restriction

In the past, if consumers weren’t able to lose weight from a particular diet, they did at least gain something from it  the ability to count calories. And they've learned that they can do so without additional costs, resources, or "miracle" diets.

Currently, the number one form of dieting is calorie counting, according to Mintel. Half (50%) of US consumers say they watch their calorie intake when dieting or managing their weight. 

When it comes to making these calories count, consumers are taking a much simpler route towards weight loss. Instead of shakes and pills, the spotlight has shifted to good nutrition, healthy eating, and pursuing fitness goals.

Which means, concludes NPR, that the diet industry has begun selling "health."

Learn more about weight loss programs.

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How will the 2016 election affect your portfolio?

Investment advisor says it shouldn't be an overriding concern

You may already be sick of presidential politics, but, unfortunately, things are just getting started. The first event of the primary season, the Iowa Cauc...

PhotoYou may already be sick of presidential politics, but, unfortunately, things are just getting started. The first event of the primary season, the Iowa Caucus, is next week.

While the candidates are staking out their relative positions on the issues, one question you might not have considered is what happens to your stock portfolio when someone finally emerges from the long, painful slog as the winner? Does it really matter?

Certified Financial Planner (CFP) Board Consumer Advocate Eleanor Blayney says consumers who properly prepare don't really have to worry about it.

Hard to trade on political patterns

"Theories and opinions about the relationship of presidential elections and investment market performance abound," Blayney said in a release. "The problem with political patterns, of course, is that no sooner are they established then the value of trading on them often disappears."

In other words, it's hard to make investment choices based on who you think will move into the White House a year from now. Even if you knew for sure, there are still too many other things you don't know.

Instead, Blayney suggests staying focused on what's driving the markets and carefully consider how the election may influence things like:

  • Consumer confidence: As a rule, markets dislike uncertainty and in an uncertain year – with other factors besides politics causing nervousness – it might be wise to do some extra portfolio volatility-proofing. Blayney suggests taking a look at dividend-paying stocks rather than aggressive growth, and modest increases to high quality bonds and cash.
  • Business cycle: If you don't know who the new President will be, it's hard to know what his or her agenda will look like. That's why savvy investors should pay attention to the candidates' proposed tax policies and consider possible impacts in their personal wealth and portfolios.
  • Interest rates: Here a President's policies will have much less impact. Better to take your cue from the Federal Reserve.
  • Unforeseen events: You can count on unexpected geopolitical events to catch the world off-guard. When that happens, global funds seek safe havens, which Blayney thinks will serve U.S. markets well. If anything, she says, the regularity and stability of our electoral process testifies to our leadership as a global economic power and bolsters confidence in U.S. financial markets.

Just pay attention

So, while the 2016 presidential campaign is not without economic influence, Blayney says most investors should simply pay attention to it and not let it drive investment decisions.

"Your own agenda – rather than those of political candidates – should be the most important determinant in managing your portfolio," Blayney said.

And it goes without saying, it is always wise to consult a trusted and objective financial advisor when making major changes to your portfolio.

Learn more about investment programs

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Why children need to play with their parents

Research shows children gain important social skills from playing with a parent

We all know children need to play, and we all know children need their parents. But in the Venn Diagram of those two facts, the intersection is important. ...

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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 p...

PhotoThe 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.

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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 st...

PhotoThings 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.
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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...

PhotoSales 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.

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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 ...

PhotoAs 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.

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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 a...

Photo

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.

 

 

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Berks Packing recalls beef products

The products may contain pork and erythorbate, which are not listed on the label

Berks Packing Co., of Reading, Pa., is recalling approximately 1,320 pounds of beef products. The products may contain pork and erythorbate, which...

PhotoBerks Packing Co., of Reading, Pa., is recalling approximately 1,320 pounds of beef products.

 

The products may contain pork and erythorbate, which are not listed on the label.

 

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

 

The following product, produced on Nov. 12, 2015, is being recalled:

  • 1-lb. (plastic shrink wrapped) packages containing links of “BERKS Heat & Serve Knockwurst.”

The packages, which have a sell by date of March 11, 2016, printed on the package, bear establishment number “EST. 8782” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

 

They were shipped to retail locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, Virginia and Delaware.

 

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

 

Consumers with questions may contact Lynn Farrell at (610) 376-7291.

 

 

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For better or worse, oil is running the economy

It's great for consumers but is making markets extremely nervous

Oil is a lubricant that usually keeps machines running smoothly. Lately, however, it has held an oversized influence over all things economic – and the res...

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Uber introduces system that uses cell phone data to track their drivers' performance

The system will provide feedback for drivers, verify the accuracy of reports, and curb bad driving habits

The way in which consumers get around is continuing to shift as ride-sharing services become more and more widespread. While the convenience and ease of us...

PhotoThe way in which consumers get around is continuing to shift as ride-sharing services become more and more widespread. While the convenience and ease of use are big selling points, there is more than one passenger that has exited a car with a horror story to tell; after all, drivers in this new industry are not strictly “professionals” – they can have bad driving habits just like anyone else.

Joe Sullivan, chief security officer for Uber, addressed this issue and his company’s feedback system in a recent blog post. He explains that using smartphone technology is one way in which Uber is trying to provide feedback for drivers, verify the accuracy of submitted reports, and curb bad driving habits.

Feedback accuracy

In his post, Sullivan is quick to point out that Uber’s feedback system is not a one-way street. Passengers and drivers both get the opportunity to provide feedback if they were unhappy with how things went on a recent trip. But regardless of which party was unhappy, having accurate information on what actually happened is essential – and technology, he says, is the best way of getting it.

That’s why Uber has begun using smartphone data to verify the accuracy of reports that are submitted. This information can be especially helpful when it comes to dangerous habits.

“Gyrometers in phones can measure small movements, while GPS and accelerometers show how often a vehicle starts and stops, as well as its overall speed. If a rider complains that a driver accelerated too fast and braked too hard, we can review that trip using data. If the feedback is accurate, then we can get in touch with the driver. And if it’s not, we could use the information to make sure the driver’s rating isn’t affected,” he said.

Road safety

The program that Uber is developing to use this data is still in its pilot stage, but it could be impactful for Uber drivers. It means that they will have to be mindful of their driving when on trips. Although the program can provide protection for drivers who are wrongly accused of reckless driving, it will also be quick to single out drivers who aren’t as careful.

Speeding, in particular, could be under close scrutiny. Sullivan explains that drivers who consistently drive above the speed limit will be receiving feedback to help curb that behavior. “Over time, we hope to use technology to improve safety proactively. . . Road safety is a critically important issue. It’s why Uber is always on the lookout for new ways – from simple to sophisticated – to do better,” he said.

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Boost wants to pay you to watch ads on your smartphone

It's only $5 a month, but if it works, it could upend the current smartphone payment model

Does it really make sense that Google, Twitter, Facebook, and so forth are free to consumers while we're shelling out big bucks every month to wireless com...

PhotoDoes it really make sense that Google, Twitter, Facebook, and so forth are free to consumers while we're shelling out big bucks every month to wireless companies for the time we spend talking, texting, and viewing ad-supported content?

Sprint thinks there might be another way and is taking a stab at finding it with a new program for customers of its Boost prepaid wireless plans -- a $5 discount for subscribers who agree to see an ad when they unlock their phone's screen.

“We are making the choice easy for consumers,” said Angela Rittgers, vice president-Boost Mobile. “Boost Mobile’s affordable price plans exclusively offer growing data coupled with our latest enhancements to provide customers more value than ever before.”

Boost Dealz

A free Android app called Boost Dealz gives consumers a $5 credit each month in exchange for their viewing ads, offers, and special deals. The offer is currently available only for Android phones.

Besides being a sales incentive, it's an opportunity for Sprint to stick its toe into the raging river of advertising revenue, currently off-limits to wireless providers. 

Spending on mobile ads is expected to surpass spending on ads aimed at desktop users any day now, if it hasn't already done so. The cell phone carriers, understandably, eye that revenue covetously -- and consumers are beginning to grumble that if they have to see ads plastered on everything, they should be compensated for their time.

A potential complication is the Federal Communications Commission, which frowns on carriers being anything other than pipes through which others' content flows. Given Sprint's rather worrisome fourth-place spot in the U.S. market, perhaps the FCC will look the other way, at least for awhile.

In addition to Boost Dealz, Sprint has other Boost deals it's promoting today, including a family plan option featuring two lines for $70 a month, a buy one get one free plan, and expanded roaming and international calling for $5 a month.

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Winter bird feeding: what are the best kinds of foods to put out?

Help wild birds thrive in the winter months by putting out these eight types of bird food

For the estimated 52 million Americans who feed wild birds around their homes, there can be a certain therapeutic comfort to it. In a study funded by t...

PhotoFor the estimated 52 million Americans who feed wild birds around their homes, there can be a certain therapeutic comfort to it.

In a study funded by the Wild Bird Feeding Industry (WBFI), researchers David J. Horn and Stacey M. Johansen of Milliken University found that 80% of the survey’s 1,290 respondents feed birds to bring nature and beauty to their area or because they enjoy the sound of birds. Sixty-five percent viewed bird feeding as a form of relaxation or therapy.

Whatever your reason for wanting to attract birds to your yard, the winter months are a good time to do so. With birds’ natural food supply consumed or covered by snow and insects mostly dormant, the life of a bird in winter can be challenging. To keep up their high metabolic rate, they need foods that are high in calories and fat.

Best winter foods for birds

If you want to help birds thrive in winter, but aren’t sure what type of food to bring home from the store, Mother Earth News suggests these eight kinds:

  • Suet. High in fat, suet is an excellent source of energy for birds in the winter. Be sure to hang feeders up high to prevent other creatures from snacking on it.
  • Peanuts. Many varieties of birds will enjoy this high-protein food during wintertime. Place out peanuts that have been shelled and dry-roasted, with no added salt.
  • Seed mix. Some seed mixes have lots of filler that most birds won’t even eat. Finding a mix that is simple and nutritious can take a bit of research, says Mother Earth News. A good seed mix should have a variety of items like sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and white proso millet.  
  • Black oil sunflower seeds. Almost any bird will eat black oil sunflower seeds. The outer shell is thinner and easier for most birds to crack, but the kernel inside is bigger than that of other varieties of sunflowers.
  • Fruit. For humans as well as birds, fruit is an important nutritional element. Set out slices of citrus fruit, pieces of apples and bananas, or grapes. Apricots and mangos also make tasty treats for birds. You can mix in some leafy green veggies like broccoli and kale as well.
  • Mealworms. Mealworms can be found at any bait store or online. Almost any feeder bird except goldfinches will eat mealworms, which makes them a perfect option for winter nutrition. Putting the mealworms in a glass bowl with rolled oats makes a tasty dish for your birds, and the slippery sides ensure the mealworms can’t crawl out before they’re eaten.
  • Safflower seeds. Although some birds find the hard shells of safflower seeds difficult to open, cardinals love this treat. Chickadees, doves, and some sparrows will also enjoy safflower seeds. An added bonus of this bird food: squirrels don’t seem to like it.
  • Homemade foods. Try making snack blocks for the birds by melting suet and adding little treats inside such as pieces of peanut, apple bits, or raisins. You can pour this mixture into ice cube trays, allow them to harden into cube-sized servings, and place them out for the birds in your area.
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Beware of strangers offering to make loans

Those email offers aren't what they appear to be

Maybe you've checked your email lately and found an unsolicited message from someone with great news: you qualify for a loan and they can help you secure i...

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New Yorkers pay the most for health insurance

New Mexico consumers pay the least, in GoBankingRates.com survey

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a national health insurance plan, but costs can vary significantly depending on where you live.Recently, GoBankingRate...

PhotoThe Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a national health insurance plan, but costs can vary significantly depending on where you live.

Recently, GoBankingRates.com set out to determine which states are the costliest when it comes to health insurance premiums. It found that consumers who live in New York pay the highest rates while those in New Mexico pay the least.

The study focused on the cost of Silver Plans, which the Department of Health and Human Services says are the most popular type of coverage offered under ACA. The study looked at the lowest-cost Silver Plans for each state, ranking them on these factors:

  • The plan's monthly premium
  • The deductible
  • The emergency care copay
  • The copay for care from a primary physician

Factors determining cost

A number of factors, it turns out, can affect the cost consumers pay for coverage.

"Higher insurance costs in many states are tied to high costs of living or being in rural areas," said Elyssa Kirkham, the lead GOBankingRates reporter on the study. "Where costs of living are high, like New York or South Carolina, care is also likely to be more expensive, a cost which insurers pass to enrollees through higher premiums."

But competition can enter into the mix, making some low cost of living areas surprisingly expensive when it comes to health insurance.

"In rural states like Wyoming and Oklahoma, fewer residents means a smaller health insurance market with fewer options, where insurers can charge more without losing customers,” Kirkham said. “Of course, subsidies can offset these costs, but this form of assistance also varies widely from state to state.”

Most expensive and cheapest

Here are the top 10 states where consumers pay the most for health insurance:

  1. New York
  2. South Carolina
  3. Alabama
  4. New Jersey
  5. Mississippi
  6. Oklahoma
  7. Indiana
  8. Delaware
  9. Wyoming
  10. Colorado

Here are the states where consumers pay the least:

  1. New Mexico
  2. Utah
  3. California
  4. Texas
  5. Pennsylvania
  6. Michigan
  7. District of Columbia
  8. Hawaii
  9. Oregon
  10. Idaho

Copays

There is also a wide variation among states in primary doctor copays. West Virginia and Indiana don't have any copays. California, on the other hand, has the highest – $250.

Deductibles are what consumers must pay out of pocket before the health benefit kicks in. It can be as low as $1,300 in North Dakota or as much as $6,850 in South Carolina.

Where does your state rank? Check out the full study here.

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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...

PhotoLooking 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.

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ProBowl: the smart food bowl that can help prevent obesity in dogs

The Wi-Fi connected bowl can weigh and measure food, ensuring pet parents dish out just enough

For dogs, getting trim and healthy isn’t accomplished by joining the gym or wearing a FitBit; their health is solely in our hands. And what’s often in our ...

PhotoFor dogs, getting trim and healthy isn’t accomplished by joining the gym or wearing a FitBit; their health is solely in our hands. And what’s often in our hands is too much dog food en route to Fido’s food bowl.

As we reported, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates that 53% of dogs and 58% of cats in the U.S. are overweight. Shockingly, 90% of pet owners don’t even realize their companions are tipping the scales  and consequently, they aren’t doing anything about it.

With doggy diets so important to their overall health, it’s important to make sure they’re not overindulging at meal time. But calculating the correct amount of kibble can be tricky, especially when they’re being looked after by a petsitter or dog boarding facility.

Enter, ProBowl: the first smart food and water bowl for dogs.

Weighs and measures food

ProBowl connects to a home’s Wi-Fi network and provides real-time alerts on a dog’s eating and drinking habits. It weighs and measures the amount of food and water consumed, so users can dish out a meal perfectly tailored to their dog’s caloric needs. When the correct amount is poured, the bowl’s glowing "Say When" light will click on.

During every stage of life  from growing puppy to mellow senior  ProBowl’s feeding algorithm can help ensure pet parents are feeding their pooch just the right amount. According to Dr. Ernie Ward, internationally recognized veterinarian, ProBowl can play a big role in maintaining a dog’s health throughout his life.

"Basing feeding and drinking guidelines on the latest scientific research is critical to providing the best care for our pets," said Dr. Ward. "Feeding your pet the right amount of food as their needs change from puppy to senior can help them live healthier, happier and longer lives."

Companion app

With ProBowl’s companion smart app, even the most overprotective pet parents can rest assured that their pooch is taken care of — even when they're away from home. 

Thanks to the app’s real-time status updates, nagging questions such as, “Did I remember to refill the water bowl before I left for work?” or “Has the petsitter fed the dog yet?” can all be answered. It can also automatically reorder dog food and help monitor activity level.

ProBowl is now available for preorder at $169 per pair. The ObeDog smart app for iOS and Android will be coming soon.

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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 Pre...

PhotoAfter 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.

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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...

PhotoHome 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.

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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 label...

PhotoWhole 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).

 

 

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Privacy groups ask court for more protection for cell phone location data

The tracking info is so detailed and so personal that it needs more protection, the groups argue

You may not remember where you were at 7:34 p.m. on July 23, but your cell phone does. And right now it's pretty easy for the police to take a detailed loo...

PhotoYou may not remember where you were at 7:34 p.m. on July 23, but your cell phone does. And right now it's pretty easy for the police to take a detailed look at your everyday travels too.

In many jurisdictions, police are able to look at private citizens' cell phone records without going before a judge, explaining why they need the information, and getting a warrant.

A Wisconsin case that's now being heard by a federal appeals court in Chicago could change that, and civil rights groups have filed a brief asking the court to crack down on unregulated use of private information.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argue that because the information gathered by cell phone tracking is so detailed -- and often so personal -- it should not be available without more privacy protections.

Felon with a gun

In the case being heard in Chicago, a Wisconsin man was charged with being a felon in possession of a weapon. Police tracked the man down in real time using location information from his cell phone. He was located in a car where a gun was found at his feet and arrested. 

In the brief filed Friday, the EFF and ACLU say that real-time cell phone location tracking violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizures.

“This case comes as we are seeing a groundswell of recognition that this information is private," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch. "Legislatures in the three states covered by the Seventh Circuit have all now prohibited warrantless real-time cell phone [tracking]. California and at least eight other states also require warrants for real-time tracking.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that searching a cell phone found during an arrest and tracking a car using GPS now both require a search warrant, but there have been conflicting rulings at the federal appeals level regarding cell phone location tracking.

“The Seventh Circuit should follow the Supreme Court’s lead and recognize that police shouldn’t have unfettered access to records that can reveal our every move. Law enforcement must be required to get a warrant before accessing the vast amount of private information generated by cell phone location records,’’ said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Adam Schwartz in a news release.

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The best and worst states to live in retirement

Sunshine isn't the only thing attracting seniors to Florida

A lot of factors go into choosing a place to live out your golden years. Climate is a big one but so are amenities; then there's the cost of living -- incl...

PhotoA lot of factors go into choosing a place to live out your golden years. Climate is a big one but so are amenities; then there's the cost of living -- including taxes.

Florida gets a huge share of retirees moving south, but it isn't just for the sunshine and orange juice. It turns out Florida tops the list, compiled by personal finance website WalletHub, of best places in the U.S. to live in retirement.

WalletHub has ranked the 50 states and District of Columbia and given Florida the top honor based on how it placed in three important categories. It ranked second in affordability, third in quality of life, and 15th in quality of healthcare.

Most affordable

Wyoming came in second, largely on the strength of its first place finish in the affordability category. Wyoming ranked 28th in quality of life and 16th in Healthcare.

South Dakota – about as far from Florida's sunny climate as you can get – placed third in the rankings. It, according to WalletHub, is ranked number one in health care, but 14th in affordability and 29th in quality of life.

At the bottom of the list is Rhode Island. The tiny state has the distinction of being the least affordable retirement spot in America, according to WalletHub.

Washington, DC is just above it, coming in dead last in terms of quality of life. It ranks fifth, however, in quality of healthcare.

Oddly, Hawaii – the island paradise – is third from the bottom. It was dragged down by its high cost of living. The authors also didn't care much for Hawaii's quality of life, though surfers might beg to differ, ranking it only 42nd in the nation.

What matters most?

Some criteria are more important to some retirees than others. People in excellent health, for example, might not care that much about health care – at least not yet.

For budget-minded retirees concerned mostly with the cost of living, WalletHub suggests considering Mississippi, Indiana, Alabama, Tennessee, and Idaho. They might want to avoid California, Alaska, New York, Washington, DC, and Hawaii.

Looking for the best tax treatment? Consider Alaska, Delaware, Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada. Avoid Connecticut, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Illinois.

If you plan to keep working after retirement, Alaska is the state with the highest percentage of working people 65 and older. Washington, DC is second – though most are probably in Congress.

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Millennials may benefit from concierge-style services in restaurants and supermarkets, report suggests

Limited cooking experience is fueling the group's desire for one-on-one assistance

When visiting an unfamiliar place, the hotel’s concierge desk is often a welcomed sight. A friendly face to help get you oriented can be the difference bet...

PhotoWhen visiting an unfamiliar place, the hotel’s concierge desk is often a welcomed sight. A friendly face to help get you oriented can be the difference between feeling overwhelmed in a new place and feeling at ease. But for millennials, that unfamiliar place may be as close as their local grocery store.

According to a 2015 report published by the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA), millennials may benefit from concierge-style service in places such as supermarkets and restaurants. The report suggests that the busy group, with its limited cooking experience, often needs a high level of service and instruction in grocery stores.

Offering a higher level of service may just be the key to capturing millennial loyalty, industry observers claim.

Connecting with the cohort

The report claims that transparency and authenticity are paramount when it comes to connecting with the group, whom the report describes as having a “low tolerance for empty claims.” This, the report says, is due to having grown up with social media and “the easy access it allows to anything they want to know.”

The report also lists these factors as important to millennials:

  • Seeing food prepared. In-store experiences give millennials a positive, fresh food experience and allows them to see and interact with deli personnel.

  • Having good food that tastes great, and the ability to access it quickly and at a fair price. This includes trying new foods and global flavors.

  • Providing fresh, local, and inherently healthy products.

In restaurants

Concierge services in restaurants aren’t exactly a trend that’s sweeping the nation yet, but one new Chicago steakhouse is getting in on the ground floor. At Swift & Sons, diners are greeted by a concierge whose job is to meet requests of diners across the restaurant’s multiple rooms.

“People just like having that person who knows them when they walk in the door,” says Lauren Robinson, concierge of Swift & Sons. “It's a huge place and we have a lot of corporate clients that come in and it's great for them to have a point of contact for reservations.”

However, the idea of a restaurant concierge is still new to many, including Darren Tristano, president of Chicago-based restaurant research firm Technomic. But while he says he's never heard of an official restaurant concierge, he adds that more restaurants are hiring people to perform concierge-like roles.

“In the New York market,” says Tristano, “restaurants are not necessarily adding a concierge, but behaving with customers in a concierge-like fashion and profiling leading customers because they want to understand their needs.”

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Rare birth defect is becoming less rare

In gastroschisis, some abdominal organs are outside the body

Health officials are concerned by an unexplained increase in a serious birth defect that leaves the intestines and sometimes other abdominal organs protrud...

PhotoHealth officials are concerned by an unexplained increase in a serious birth defect that leaves the intestines and sometimes other abdominal organs protruding through an opening in the abdominal wall.

It's called gastroschisis. Its cause is unknown and its incidence has more than doubled over the last 18 years in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Gastroschisis is most common among African-American mothers younger than 20, increased 263% among this group from 1995 to 2012.

“It concerns us that we don’t know why more babies are being born with this serious birth defect. Public health research is urgently needed to figure out the cause and why certain women are at higher risk of having a baby born with gastroschisis,” said Coleen Boyle, Ph.D., director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.

It's a serious disorder that requires surgery to return the abdominal organs into the baby's body and repair the abdominal wall. Even after surgery, infants can have digestive problems and the disorder can be life-threatening in some cases.

2,000 per year

The disorder affects about 2,000 babies each year. So far, no one knows what causes the condition or why it occurs more often among African-American and Hispanic children.

“We must continue to monitor changes in this birth defect to identify risk factors contributing to these increases and hopefully start to reverse the trend,” said Peggy Honein, Ph.D., M.P.H., chief, Birth Defects Branch, CDC National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.

More information is available on the CDC website.

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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 o...

PhotoJust 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.

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Car buyers should be as concerned with fees as with price

New York attorney general cracking down on "after sale" add-ons

Remember when undercoating was the only add-on expense you had to watch out for when buying a new car? Now, car dealers have other fees and expenses that c...

PhotoRemember when undercoating was the only add-on expense you had to watch out for when buying a new car? Now, car dealers have other fees and expenses that can push up the final cost of a new car or truck.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneidermann has sued a group of auto dealerships in Queens which he accuses of going too far. Schneiderman says the Koeppel dealerships exceeded the law with “after-sale” products and services, including credit repair and identity theft protection services to 1,426 consumers. He alleges that these add-ons sometimes exceeded a cost of $2,000 per consumer.

Schneiderman also announced settlements with dealerships in Nassau and Suffolk county relating to their sale of credit repair and identity theft protection services to consumers.

“When consumers shop for a car, they should not be misled by deceptive dealerships looking to make a quick buck off New Yorkers,” Schneiderman said in a release. “Unfortunately, some dealers pad their pockets with fees for products and services that unaware consumers don’t need, and don’t want.”

Easy to get confused

It's easy to get confused during the sales transactions because there are numerous forms and disclosures. But automotive site Edmunds.com says this is where a consumer must pay close attention.

Some fees are pretty standard. Some are not. For example, Edmunds advises consumers to look for an “advertising fee.”

“If the car's invoice lists an advertising fee, this is an actual charge made by the manufacturer to the dealer and you should pay it,” Edmunds says on its website. “However, some dealers will add an unofficial advertising fee into the sales contract, perhaps claiming they are offsetting the cost of their own advertising efforts. If you encounter this dealer-added advertising fee, you can challenge it or negotiate a lower purchase price on the car to offset the additional charge.”

Edmunds' fee chart might prove very helpful, especially since it calculates the average DMV fees for each state.

Loose lips

Just as important as looking out for excessive fees and add-ons, Car and Driver advises discretion when talking to a car salesman. For example, it says never talk about the size of the monthly payment you would like. Instead, deflect any questions about payments until you have an agreement on the price of the car.

Another piece of Car and Driver advice? Secure your financing at your local bank or credit union before arriving at the dealer. It says dealers have been known to get financing for customers at one rate, then charge the customer a rate that's one point higher, pocketing the difference.

Schneiderman, meanwhile, is waging a campaign against unfair and deceptive practices at car dealerships in his state. If you suspect you fell victim at a New York car dealer, Schneiderman invites you to call his office at 1-800-771-7755.

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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...

PhotoConsumers 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.  

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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) a...

PhotoIf 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.)

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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 contami...

PhotoCarnivore 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.

 

 

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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 facil...

PhotoDole 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.

 

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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 recal...

PhotoThe 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. 

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Enjoyable travels -- there's an app for that

Apps can save you time, money, and frustration when traveling

Currency exchange was a nightmare on my trip to the Baltics. Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Russia all had their own currency; Germany, Estonia, and Finland ...

PhotoCurrency exchange was a nightmare on my trip to the Baltics. Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Russia all had their own currency; Germany, Estonia, and Finland were on the Euro. My trip began and ended in England, so add the British Pound to the mix.

Under pressure to quickly make conversions, I often spent too much money on food and souvenirs. Currency exchanges got easier when I found the app GlobeConverts. Three different currencies on my trip to Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic were not a problem. I just opened the app, selected the country whose currency I wanted to convert, entered the amount, and accurately knew the cost in U.S. dollars.

There are extensive apps to make your travel easier; so many, in fact, that they can overwhelm. These helpful apps are free and available for iPhone and Android. If searching for other devices, check in your app store.

The Weather Channel

Weeks before I travel, I monitor the weather. This app helps me prepare my sightseeing agenda and packing list based on weather forecasts. Radar maps, storm tracking, and rain alerts are also available.

GlobeConverts

Currency conversion is easy with this app, but it can also be used for length, power, speed, temperature, time, volume, weight, area, pressure, and power conversions.

TripIt

This innovative app coordinates all your travel reservations into one itinerary. Send them your confirmation emails from airline, hotel, rental car company, railways and taxi/airport shuttles, and other booking sites and they will add them to your itinerary.

Trip Advisor

Whether you are at home or on the road, you’ll find this app very useful. I rely on its hotel and restaurant recommendations and reviews as well as its lists of things to do, travel guides, and neighborhoods. It offers a multitude of travel support as well as two other helpful TripAdvisor apps: SeatGuru -- which provides seat maps, flight search, and flight status updates -- and GateGuru, with shows airport maps, stores, weather, and flight statuses.

Google Maps

This app gets you where you want to go by car, foot, or transit. It’s helped me find my way back to my hotel many times. Drop a pin in your favorites whether it’s a hotel, restaurant, or local subway station. It not only identifies nearby food, coffee, shopping, museums, health services, and more, but shows the distance and provides the Yelp reviews.

Google Calendar

The Google Calendar is useful for short or long trips. You can sync your calendar app to your computer and the app will give you alerts for your plans.

Open Table

Looking for a restaurant? Get restaurant reviews and recommendations and book your table in the United States, United Kingdom, Mexico, and Germany. The more you book, the more points and credits you acquire that can be applied to selected restaurants.

Airline Apps

Get the app(s) for the airlines you frequently use. Most have an app that offer a variety of features allowing travelers to book flights, review seat maps, check-in, get mobile boarding passes, scan passports, get flight status and reminders, and much more.

Railway Apps

There are a variety of apps for railway, bus, and subway systems.

Whatever your travel needs, you can find an app. Do an online search or check your app store.  Travel apps take the guesswork out of planning, leaving you more time to enjoy yourself.

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Recession fears may have prompted January stock market carnage

But low gasoline prices might be enough to head off an economic downturn

Back in August I wrote a piece that posed the question, are economic warning signs flashing “recession?”At the time, I was pretty far out on that limb ...

PhotoBack in August I wrote a piece that posed the question, are economic warning signs flashing “recession?”

At the time, I was pretty far out on that limb by myself, even though there were a number of troubling warning signs and the stock market, as it is now, had recently been in sell-off mode.

Now, there are more voices that are posing that question as well, and it just may help explain why the stock market has lost so much value in January – nearly $8 trillion worldwide before markets began to bounce back over the last two days.

The latest voices to utter the R-word belong to Ethan Harris and Emanuella Enenajor, analysts for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. In a note Friday, they cut their projection of the U.S. growth rate and raised their odds of a recession this year to about 20%.

Investors already concerned about a slowdown in the rest of the world, particularly China, may be increasingly skittish about U.S. growth, which has been fueled by an oil industry that is now battered by low oil prices.

Focusing on the headwinds

The Team Alpha Retirement Portfolio blog focused on the headwinds this week: a rising interest rate environment, weakening retail sales, a strong dollar, and still falling oil – even though it's gone up the last two days.

“A cascade effect on the U.S. economy simply by adding up all of the above, which could lead to a recession in 2016,” the author concludes.

Then there is concern about big banks. Nearly all have loans to oil companies in their portfolios. No one knows how many will turn out to be bad loans and what kind of effect that will have on the economy. No one thinks it would be as bad as 2008 but hardly anyone thinks it won't be bad.

Gasoline prices

While all of that may be true, and there seems to be plenty of downside risk everywhere you turn, there may be one thing that is keeping the U.S. economy upright – low gasoline prices.

For months, the question has been, “why haven't low gasoline prices ignited the economy as predicted?” It sounds odd, but maybe low gasoline prices have kept a stressed consumer's head above water. Maybe its the only thing separating the U.S. economy from a recession.

In this environment, it might be too much expect a consumer to go on a shopping spree, just because gasoline is below $2 a gallon.

But if low gas prices keep the economy from sliding into recession, maybe that's enough.

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First GM ignition trial ends without a verdict

Plaintiff withdraws after his testimony is allegedly shown to be false

General Motors didn't exactly win the first trial involving its defective ignition switches, but it may as well have. At the judge's urging, the plaintiff ...

PhotoGeneral Motors didn't exactly win the first trial involving its defective ignition switches, but it may as well have. At the judge's urging, the plaintiff agreed to withdraw his claim and not to refile it again.

The problem was that the story told by Robert Scheuer, 49, a Tulsa mailman, had about as many alleged flaws as the ignition switches that led to a massive recall of GM cars, possibly leaving Scheuer open to perjury charges had the trial continued.

"We said all along that each case would be decided on its own merits, and we had already started to show by strong, clear and convincing evidence to the jury that the ignition switch didn't have anything to do with Mr. Scheuer's accident or injuries," GM said in a statement to Automotive News. "The apparent lies the plaintiff and his wife told the jury ended the trial early, and we are pleased that the case is over without any payment whatsoever to Mr. Scheuer."

Scheuer claimed that he and his family lost their home to foreclosure because of injuries suffered when his 2003 Saturn Ion hit a tree after the ignition shut off unexpectedly, causing the airbags to fail.

But emerging evidence indicated that the family was evicted from their home for reasons unrelated to the accident, The New York Times reported.

Not a bellwether

Upon learning this, U.S. District Court Judge Jesse Furman strongly suggested that the case be withdrawn "with prejudice" -- meaning that it cannot be refiled and that Scheuer not be paid any settlement money.

The case had been intended to be a "bellwether" -- a model that would provide guidance for handling the many other cases still to make their way through the courts.

Frequently, bellwethers are used to enable lawyers to settle cases without going through the time and expense of a trial. If, for example, Scheuer had shown convincing evidence that his accident, his injuries, and his ensuing difficulties had been caused by GM, it would have made it easier for other plaintiffs to settle their claims. 

GM lawyers had noted earlier in the trial that Scheuer had a lengthy history of surgeries and pain medication prescriptions for back pain and claimed that calls from Scheuer's cellphone contradicted his claims that he was unconscious for three hours after the accident.

The next bellwether case involves two plaintiffs who are suing GM for injuries suffered in a 2014 accident in New Orleans.

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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 inve...

PhotoFormer 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.

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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 kin...

PhotoJobs 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.”

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Honda prepares to launch fuel cell sedan for under $500 per month

The Clarity will be available initially in California, boasts a range of 300+ miles

As snow piled up outside the Washington Auto Show, Honda announced plans to launch the five-passenger Clarity Fuel Cell sedan in California before the end ...

PhotoAs snow piled up outside the Washington Auto Show, Honda announced plans to launch the five-passenger Clarity Fuel Cell sedan in California before the end of 2016, with an expected price of about $60,000 and a monthly less of less than $500.

The cars will be available only through leases at first, though if the technology takes off then they may eventually be sold at retail. The first cars will be leased by selected dealers in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento areas.

Honda joins Hyundai and Toyota in trying to develop a market for fuel cell cars. Hyundai introduced hydrogen-powered Tucson crossovers in May 2014 and is leasing them to Southern California motorists for $499 per month.

Zero pollution

Fuel cell technology has a lot going for it -- primarily high efficiency and zero pollution. The only thing that comes out of the tailpipe is water. Working against it, however, is cost and refueling. Hydrogen-powered cars are relatively expensive and there are very few refueling stations.

However, for those who are lucky enough to live near a refueling station, a fuel cell car might be the answer. Range is expected to be slightly more than 300 miles, more than adequate for a week's worth of driving for those who average about 40 miles per day.

"The Clarity Fuel Cell is a potential game changer because it offers an uncompromising, zero emissions customer experience, with performance, utility, range and refueling time on par with today's gasoline-powered cars," said John Mendel, an American Honda executive vice president.

More information on the Clarity is available online.

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Nearly 6,000 flights canceled or delayed for the weekend as Winter Storm Jonas rages on

Residents in affected areas are advised to find shelter until the storm has passed

If you live on the East Coast, then you may already be feeling the effects of Winter Storm Jonas. Over 65 million Americans in 18 states have been issued a...

PhotoIf you live on the East Coast, then you may already be feeling the effects of Winter Storm Jonas. Over 65 million Americans in 18 states have been issued a blizzard warning for their area and can expect several inches of snowfall per hour over the next 24 hours, according to the National Weather Service.

As of Friday morning, many states in the Southeast had already experienced heavy snowfall, including six inches or more in Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina, amongst others.

In such conditions, travelers will have a hard time navigating the roads and should exercise extreme caution. Unfortunately, other avenues of travel are also being shut down. According to ABC News and Consumerist, 5,900 flights have already been canceled or delayed for the weekend, with more being called off as time goes on.

As of 1:30 p.m. (EST) Flight Aware calculates that 3,183 flights have already been canceled today. Total delays number 5,100, with delays within, into, or out of the U.S. coming to 1,370. As the storm continues to spread into more northern states, this number will rise dramatically.

Hunker down

Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington D.C. has asked all inhabitants of the city to “hunker down” and find shelter. Snow will begin to hit the area between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. She admits that this “major storm” has “life and death implications,” according to an ABC News report.

Travelers and residents in affected areas should all heed Mayor Bowser’s advice. Those looking to be out on the roads should strongly reconsider their travel plans. If snow has yet to hit your area, make sure that you have sufficient amounts of clean water in case the storm shuts down power. For more information on how to prepare, visit the American Red Cross’ site here.

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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...

PhotoIt 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.”

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Who needs a Realtor? Data-driven OpenDoor buys your home and resells it

If it works as promised, it's a quicker, easier way to sell a home

A house is generally a great investment but liquid it's not. While most homes appreciate over time and usually offer an income tax break, it can take a lon...

PhotoA house is generally a great investment but liquid it's not. While most homes appreciate over time and usually offer an income tax break, it can take a long time to sell a house in today's real estate market.

That's where a start-up called OpenDoor comes in. The San Francisco company buys homes for cash, then tries to flip them at a profit later.

It's basically a data-driven enterprise that has a very good idea how much a home in a given market is worth. It uses that data to give homeowners a quote the same day they inquire, in most cases. 

While sellers may make a few dollars less than they would if they sold the home themselves or through a real estate firm, they can get the money much faster and with less hassle through OpenDoor. That's important to families that have to move suddenly for job reasons or who simply need the money. OpenDoor charges fees ranging from 7% to 12%.

It's similar to car-buying services like webuyanycar.com, which offers online quotes and nearly instant cash for cars. 

OpenDoor currently operates in the Phoenix area, which has a large inventory of homes and warm weather year-round, providing a robust test of the company's business plan. 

Besides its data-driven valuation and purchase methods, OpenDoor uses a unique 24-hour self-guided open house tour system. Prospective buyers get a password that unlocks homes OpenDoor is trying to sell.

If the company's Phoenix operations are successful, watch for OpenDoor or something similar in your neighborhood over the next few years.

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Report: Lyme disease threat growing in the U.S.

Activists plan Congressional awareness campaign

With last year's Ebola scare, and ongoing concerns about cancer and other deadly diseases, it's easy to overlook Lyme disease, which is spread by a tiny in...

PhotoWith last year's Ebola scare, and ongoing concerns about cancer and other deadly diseases, it's easy to overlook Lyme disease, which is spread by a tiny insect.

But the Lyme disease threat is quietly growing and could pose a threat to more Americans. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 96% of confirmed Lyme disease cases occurred in just 14 states.

But in a new geographical survey, the government health agency says the ticks known to carry Lyme disease has been spotted in nearly half the counties in the U.S., meaning a lot more people could be at risk than previously believed.

A CDC research team logged reports of the blacklegged tick in more than 45% of U.S. counties, compared to 30% of counties in 1998. Even more alarming, the blacklegged tick population in those counties is growing.

"This study shows that the distribution of Lyme disease vectors has changed substantially over the last nearly two decades and highlights areas where risk for human exposure to ticks has changed during that time," Dr. Rebecca Eisen, a CDC research biologist, said in a release. "The observed range expansion of the ticks highlights a need for continuing and enhancing vector surveillance efforts, particularly along the leading edges of range expansion."

Largely overlooked health issue

Debra McGregor, of the Texas Lyme Disease Association, says the Lyme disease health threat has been largely overlooked. Government health agencies, she says, haven't done a good job of dealing with it.

“Unreliable tests, inadequate treatment regimens, insufficient funding for research, ineffective programs for prevention, combined with CDC’s endorsement of outdated treatment guidelines have created a perfect storm of unmet medical need and patient suffering,” McGregor said in a statement.

McGregor says Lyme disease continues to spread with increasing speed, with a 320% increase in the number of high risk counties from 1992 to 2012. She says the number of new cases annually acknowledged by the CDC has increased dramatically from just 10,000 in 1995 to more than 300,000 in 2013—six times more than HIV/AIDS—and likely many more due to underreporting and misdiagnosis

Awareness campaign

McGregor and other activists trying to call attention to Lyme disease have planned a concerted campaign to get Washington's attention. Lyme disease patients and their supporters will make telephone calls next week to members of Congress, urging more focus on what they say is a growing public health crisis.

Lyme disease is caused by tick bites from insects carrying the disease. While it is most often associated with activity in heavily wooded areas, you can get a bite while mowing the lawn. You can even be bitten while indoors by a tick that comes in on your dog or cat.

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms can be similar to those of the flu. The difference is the presence of a rash that may appear three to 30 days after the tick bite. If untreated, Lyme disease can lead to very serious health problems.

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New help for consumers struggling with student loan debt

Non-profit credit counselors launch student loan debt program

In the past, when consumers got into debt trouble it usually involved huge credit card balances. But in recent years, there has been another credit burden ...

PhotoIn the past, when consumers got into debt trouble it usually involved huge credit card balances. But in recent years, there has been another credit burden to deal with.

Millions of students have borrowed money to attend college, graduating with enough debt to finance a condo. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), outstanding student loans total more than $1 trillion.

The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), whose non-profit members provide credit counseling services to consumers, is expanding its scope to offer specialized advice about student loans.

“The NFCC has developed a best-in-class program that helps our members uphold the highest standards when serving the needs of Americans with student loan debt,” said Susan C. Keating, president and CEO of the NFCC, in a release. “Our certified counselors are uniquely qualified to address the full range of financial challenges consumers face every day, now including student loan obligations.”

Growing faster than credit card debt


The NFCC says student loan debt is now greater than total credit card debt and growing at a much faster rate.

When people take out student loans they usually assume that with a college education, they will earn enough to pay back the loan without too much pain. But the fact is, some borrowers never graduate. Others get a degree, but not the good job they anticipated.

Among the 43 million total student borrowers, the NFCC says 7.3 million are at least 90 days delinquent on their loans, 5.0 million are in default, and millions more are in negatively-amortizing income-driven repayment plans.

All of this, the NFCC says, has the potential to be the next major financial crisis affecting millions of Americans. It says participating credit counselors have completed training that covers the full inventory of student loan programs associated with repayment, forbearance, or other loan modification options. You can find out about them here.

Addressing the problem

As student loan debt has mushroomed, consumer advocates and policymakers have tried to help students avoid amassing college loan debt in the first place.

The CFPB has devoted part of its website to helpful advice for paying for college. It advises students who have to borrow to strongly consider federal student loans over private loans, which are offered by banks.

It points out that when you start to pay back your federal loans, the interest rate will be fixed, which will help you predict your payments after graduation. And in some cases, the federal government will pay the interest on your loans while you are in school - these loans are called subsidized loans.

The most common private student loans are offered by banks. Their interest rates are often variable, which means your interest rates and payments could go up over time. Private loans can also be more expensive - rates have been as high as 16% over the past couple of years, according to the CFPB.

Of course, the best option is to not borrow at all. Most colleges offer financial aid packages and grants. We recently reported on a handy tool to find how much you might get.

We've also reported on the companies that pay all, or part of their employees' tuition. Working part-time for one of these firms while attending school could allow you to graduate with little or no debt.

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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 o...

PhotoThe 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
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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 t...

PhotoSales 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.
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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 hav...

PhotoMahina 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).

 

 

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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 child...

PhotoMindware 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.

 

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Survey finds early financial mistakes have lingering effect

Credit Karma says credit fumbles could be reduced with better financial education

For Cleveland Browns fans, the moment is seared into their collective memory: January 17, 1988.It was the AFC Championship game against the Denver Bron...

PhotoFor Cleveland Browns fans, the moment is seared into their collective memory: January 17, 1988.

It was the AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos for the right to go to the Super Bowl. With less than two minutes in the game, Cleveland running Ernest Byner fumbled the ball as he approached the Denver goal line for what would have been a score-tying touchdown.

Denver recovered and ran out the clock. Game over. To this day, the play is known as “The Fumble.” Cleveland has not gotten that close to the Super Bowl since.

In a new report, Credit Karma says a “credit fumble” – a financial mistake – can have far reaching implications as well. After surveying 1,051 U.S. consumers between the ages of 31 and 44, it found that a financial fumble early in their adult lives can haunt their financial futures.

The survey found that about 68% of the consumers in the survey admitted to at least one major credit fumble before they turned 30. They either ran up a huge credit card balance or missed payments, resulting in calls from bill collectors.

Some mistakes you simply shake off, but the survey found 75% of those who experienced a credit fumble early in life felt the ramifications for years afterward.

Lack of education

It's somewhat surprising that there aren't more credit fumbles. Only 28% of the people in the survey said they got any type of personal finance education before they went off to college. Most who got any instruction in finance say they got it from their parents.

“Credit Karma’s Credit Fumble research quantifies a phenomenon that’s played out for too long in America, with young adults making unnecessary mistakes without the right financial education that have a big impact on their lives,” said Credit Karma CEO and Founder Kenneth Lin. “These early mistakes can have a lingering impact on the quality of people’s lives.”

There has been a concerted effort in recent years to improve financial literacy education. Many organizations, from credit card companies to non-profit institutions, are offering financial literacy education, imparting the knowledge and skills consumers will need to make the most of their money.

The task may not be so easy, however.

A survey conducted for Genworth Financial in 2013 found that more than half of Americans questioned think they know a lot about money. More than 50% gave themselves an A or B when it comes to financial literacy.

At the same time, they gave their fellow Americans, on average, a D.

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Uber, Amazon jump into meal delivery

Everybody has to eat. Why leave home to do it?

Not long ago, a pizza was about the best you could hope for if you were home and hungry and didn't feel like cooking or venturing out, unless you lived in ...

PhotoNot long ago, a pizza was about the best you could hope for if you were home and hungry and didn't feel like cooking or venturing out, unless you lived in New York or other cities where bicycle messengers would rush take-out to your door.

But now, meal delivery is becoming the newest niche to be fought over by the likes of Uber and Amazon. Uber is developing a standalone app for its UberEats program, which will soon begin full-scale meal delivery in 10 U.S. cities, the Wall Street Journal reports today.

Uber has been doing a lunch-only test in a limited number of cities. Many others have tried and failed to run a profitable meal delivery service but Uber thinks its sofware prowess and network of 1 million drivers gives it an unbeatable advantage.

And then there's Amazon, which already dominates the market for just about everything you can think of. It announced today that Prime Now customers in Chicago can now order from local restaurants including Balena, Big Bowl, Big StarChicago q, M Burger, RPM Italian, Wildfire, and many more.

Prime Now already provides one- and two-hour delivery from Amazon and grocery delivery from several local markets.

Using the Prime Now mobile app, Chicago customers can view participating restaurants, browse menus, place orders, track the status of their delivery, and watch as the driver travels from the restaurant to the delivery address in real time, the company said, promising delivery in an hour of less.

“Chicago is home to just about every kind of cuisine you could want,” said Gus Lopez, general manager, Amazon Restaurants. “We’re excited to offer Amazon Prime customers a quick and convenient way to enjoy some of the city’s best restaurants without having to fight traffic or brave the cold.”

More than drivers

While both Uber and Amazon have a lot of tires on the street, in one way or another, restaurant delivery is a little different. While Uber mostly drives people around, Amazon mostly drops boxes on doorsteps.

Delivering meals is a little more demanding. The food has to be picked up from the restaurant and the driver must get out and take it to the customer's door. It sounds simple but there could be bumps along the way.

While Amazon's service is initially limited to Chicago, Uber has 10 cities on its rollout list -- New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston, Seattle, Dallas, Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, according to the Journal.

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Study: restaurants, not just fast-food, are driving obesity

Researchers find many meals exceed daily recommended calorie requirement

When it comes to pointing fingers of blame for the obesity epidemic, fast-food restaurants get a lot of attention.Yes, a triple bacon cheeseburger serv...

PhotoWhen it comes to pointing fingers of blame for the obesity epidemic, fast-food restaurants get a lot of attention.

Yes, a triple bacon cheeseburger served with a large order of fries will pack on the pounds if that happens to be a staple of your diet. But researchers say fast-food restaurant meals really aren't any more fattening than those served at casual chain and independent restaurants.

Their study in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found 92% of the 364 measured restaurant meals from both large-chain and independent restaurants had more calories than the recommended number for a single meal.

In 123 restaurants in three cities across America, there was at least one meal on the menu that, without beverages, appetizers, or desserts, exceeded the number of calories a person should consume in a single day.

Clueless about calories

While fast-food restaurants post on menus the number of calories each item has, most other restaurants don't. So consumers often are clueless to the number of calories they're swallowing.

Senior author Susan B. Roberts, of Tufts University, says consumers over-eat at restaurants because it tastes good and the portions are huge. She says it simply overwhelms most people's self-control.

“Although fast-food restaurants are often the easiest targets for criticism because they provide information on their portion sizes and calories, small restaurants typically provide just as many calories, and sometimes more,” Roberts said. “Favorite meals often contain three or even four times the amount of calories a person needs, and although in theory we don’t have to eat the whole lot in practice most of us don’t have enough willpower to stop eating when we have had enough.”

The researchers studied the meals served at restaurants in Boston, San Francisco, and Little Rock, Ark. The data was collected between 2011 and 2014 by comparing the meals against human calorie requirements and USDA food database values.

The study looked at all types of meals, not just burgers and fries. The fare included American, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese.

The highest caloric content was found at American, Chinese, and Italian restaurants, where the mean calorie count per meal tipped the scales at 1,495 calories.

Portion size

Part of the problem is portion size. With so many restaurants competing with one another, it has become an article of faith that serving sizes must be huge in order to fill tables.

“Standard meals are sized for the hungriest customers, so most people need superhuman self-control to avoid overeating,” said co-author William Masters.

Since women generally have a lower daily requirement than men, Masters says restaurant meals post a particular hazard for women trying to watch their weight.

What's the solution? The research team has concluded one answer is empowering customers to order partial portions at partial prices.

That, Masters says, would ultimately lead restaurants to adjust their normal serving size toward what the average customer wants, rather than the hungriest person.  

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More Millennials are skipping getting their driver’s licenses

Is this a fleeting trend or the way of the future? Some experts claim it's the latter

The days of teenagers getting their driver’s licenses the very day it becomes legally possible may soon be in the rearview. According to a report released ...

PhotoThe days of teenagers getting their driver’s licenses the very day it becomes legally possible may soon be in the rearview. According to a report released recently by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, only three in four people ages 20 to 24 held a driver’s license in 2014.

Speculation has been swirling for years as to why fewer young people are getting their driver’s licenses, and there is no shortage of theories.

Some say it’s because the process of getting your driver’s license at 16 has become lengthier. Others say it’s due to an increase in the use of ride-sharing and public transit. There's also the theory that Millennials have less incentive to meet their friends in person because they can communicate constantly through social media and smartphones. 

But the long and short of it seems to be that cars have simply become less necessary and less accessible to Millennials.

Popularity of ride-sharing

One of the most prevalent theories on why young people are going in a different direction when it comes to driving is the option of ride-sharing services.

Uber and Lyft, especially in urban areas, provide a viable alternative to getting places without having to be saddled with a vehicle of your own.

And although automakers claim they haven’t noticed an impact on their sales as a result of ride-sharing services, they’re adapting to the shift just to be safe. General Motors invested $500 million in Lyft earlier this month and plans to deploy a network of self-driving vehicles through the ride-sharing service.

Less affordable

The spike in the popularity of ride-sharing services, coupled with the decrease in driver’s licenses, may also point to the fact that cars have become less affordable for Millennials.

For debt-strapped college students and recent grads, new vehicles may be out of the realm of possibility, financially speaking. The average price of a new vehicle was $33,188 in 2015, up 20% since 2005, according to Edmunds.com analysts.

With numbers like these, it’s not hard to see why ride-sharing has become a more attractive option. But is this the way of the future or just a passing trend? Many analysts claim it’s the former.

Not just a fleeting trend

Some analysts say the dip in driver’s licenses is fleeting  a temporary blip which has come about as the result of more Millennials delaying their decision to start families. But new research shows that the downward trend is evident even into the child-rearing years.

Furthermore, experts say it’s not just Millennials who are skipping the driver’s licenses. Since 2011, more Americans between the ages of 16 to 70 have been deciding they can do without a driver's license, according to data from the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. 

The 70+ age group was the only cohort not affected by this dip. This, experts say, is due to the fact that people are living longer than they were in 1983. Fewer health problems translates to more years active and behind the wheel.

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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 mon...

PhotoStock 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.

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Final figures show more holiday shoppers preferred to buy online

Adobe finds store pick-up option sparked increase in late-season sales

Anecdotal evidence suggests it was definitely an online Christmas season. Now, hard empirical evidence backs it up.Adobe, which tracks sales for retail...

PhotoAnecdotal evidence suggests it was definitely an online Christmas season. Now, hard empirical evidence backs it up.

Adobe, which tracks sales for retail businesses, found consumers spent a record $83 billion online between Nov.1 and Dec. 31 last year. That amounts to a 12.7% increase over 2014's online spending.

Another record fell, as consumers spent over $1 billion on 31 days, up from 25 days in 2014. For the entire year, 28% of all online sales came during the holiday season.

But while consumers ordered more stuff online, they didn't spend more during the crucial Black Friday period. The AOV post-Thanksgiving was flat compared to last year, at $113 per order.

Late surge

“We originally predicted 11% growth year over year. What we found is that, throughout most of the season, growth was actually slightly lower than 11%,” said Tyler White, an analyst at Adobe Digital Index (ADI). “It wasn’t until the very end of the season that we saw a significant surge in sales, which drove the 12.7% year-over-year growth.”

Most consumers who ordered online did so using their smartphones. Smartphones were the preferred tool over tablets, which drove just 11% of all mobile sales, down a point from 2014. The biggest surge in mobile online ordering came on Christmas Day.

White says phone traffic exceeded desktop traffic on some days. In the past, he says, the digital marketing industry has considered mobile traffic to be a combination of phone and tablet traffic. But during the 2015 holiday season, there were days when consumers overwhelmingly preferred their phones.

Where the discounts were

Adobe also reports online shoppers came in for their share of discounts. Discounts of 10% or more came from display ads and promotions on social media.

Shoppers realized the biggest discounts across product categories - especially for electronics - on Thanksgiving Day, when many brick-and-mortal retailers were closed. Highest discounts for toys were available on December 14. Shoppers buying jewelry found the steepest discounts on weekends throughout December.

Another thing that boosted online sales, the report says, is the “buy online, pick up in-store” option offered by an increasing number of retailers. That option apparently triggered more sales in the week before Christmas, alleviating consumer worries of a late delivery. White says that helped overall sales.

“During the last couple of years, there was a lot of talk about retailers trying to spread out the holiday season,” White said. “This year, they really weren’t able to get the buying started that much earlier, but they were able to keep it going longer into the Christmas week.”

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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 whisper...

PhotoConsumers 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.

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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 hu...

PhotoHumans 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. 

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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 B...

PhotoThis 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.

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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 Depar...

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

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.

 

Photo
© tashatuvango - Fotolia

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.”

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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,...

PhotoBritax 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.

 

 

 

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Snapp's Ferry Packing recalls beef product

The product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7

Snapp’s Ferry Packing Company of Afton, Tenn., is recalling approximately 410 pounds of beef product. The product may be contaminated with E. coli...

PhotoSnapp’s Ferry Packing Company of Afton, Tenn., is recalling approximately 410 pounds of beef product.

 

The product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

 

The following item, produced on Nov. 20, 2015, is being recalled:

  • 5-lb. packages of “Ground Beef,” with a packaging date of Nov. 20, 2015.

The recalled product bears establishment number “Est. 9085” inside the USDA mark of inspection and was distributed to restaurants in the Knoxville, Tenn., area. None of the product was sold at retail.

 

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Jeremy Southerland at (423) 638-7001.

 

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Companies can't buy their way out of a class action, Supreme Court holds

An ad agency tried to buy off the plaintiff and thereby "moot" the entire affair

Can a company buy its way out of a class action lawsuit? The U.S. Supreme Court today said it can't. In a 6-3 ruling, the court turned aside an effort by a...

PhotoCan a company buy its way out of a class action lawsuit? The U.S. Supreme Court today said it can't. In a 6-3 ruling, the court turned aside an effort by advertising agency Campbell-Ewald to get out of a suit accusing it of illegally sending marketing text messages -- spam, in other words.

When sued, Campbell-Ewald offered the plaintiff, Jose Gomez, a $1,500 cash settlement and moved for dismissal of the suit, even though Gomez had promptly rejected the offer.

Campbell-Ewald argued that its offer of a settlement made the lawsuit irrelevant -- "moot" in legal terms -- but Gomez said his intent in filing the suit was to represent all of the consumers who had received the illegal spam, not just himself. That, after all, is the purpose of a class action.

A U.S. District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Gomez. And today, so did Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the majority opinion, stating that a rejected settlement offer “creates no lasting right or obligation. With the offer off the table, and the defendant’s continuing denial of liability, adversity between the parties persists.”

Navy contractor

PhotoCampbell-Ewald also argued unsuccessfully that because it was a contractor to the U.S. Navy, it should be immune from civil actions.

What, you ask, does the Navy have to do with this? Well, it turns out that the spam in question consisted of Navy recruiting promotional material. Gomez was irked that he was getting Navy spam and claimed that Campbell-Ewald had violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).

Campbell-Ewald offered him $1,500 to go away -- three times the normal $500 penalty for a single TCPA violation. But in her opinion, Ginsburg pointed out that, while Federal Rule of Civil Procedure #68 obligates parties in a lawsuit to consider a settlement offer, nothing in the rule says that the offer must be accepted or a case is mooted.

In fact, the rule states that an unaccepted offer is “considered withdrawn” and “does not preclude a later offer.”

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said it should be up to the courts to decide whether a settlement offer moots a class action. But Ginsburg said that would “place the defendant in the driver’s seat.”

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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.I...

PhotoA 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."

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Brave new browser blocks ads, inserts others

Stronger privacy protection, faster page loads, less intrusive ads, developer promises

Internet advertising is both a curse and a blessing. It's frequently an annoyance to consumers, who compla...

Photo
Brendan Eich (Photo credit: Brave Software)

Internet advertising is both a curse and a blessing. It's frequently an annoyance to consumers, who complain about ads popping up all over their favorite sites. But it's also a blessing in that it pays the bills to support those sites, which would most likely not exist without the revenue from ads.

One solution a lot of consumers have adopted is ad-blocking. A simple app or browser extension is all that's needed to block most ads from appearing on your smartphone or laptop. But ad-blocking, if it becomes widespread, threatens to kill free content on the web.

Brendan Eich wants to change all that. He sees a brave new world that uses his new browser, called Brave. It blocks "regular" ads and inserts its own ads, funneling revenue from those ads both to the website that's being viewed and to the consumer who's doing the viewing.

It's a guilt-free way to block ads, in other words.

Not born yesterday

Will it work?

Well, it might. Eich was not exactly born yesterday. Though not a household name, he is nevertheless a notable figure in the software biz. He's one of the major backers of Mozilla, which makes a pretty good browser of its own. He also invented the JavaScript programming language that runs pretty much everything on the Web today.

With his tiny, 10-person start-up in San Francisco, Eich is setting off to change the world by improving privacy protection, building a faster browser, and blocking those nasty ads. 

It's not just intrusive ads Eich is out to eliminate but also the tracking that underlies today's advertising infrastructure. When you see an ad for running shoes, chances are it's because you have conducted searches for running shoes, purchased running shoes, or frequented websites that deal with fitness and sports. 

Lots of people hate being stalked by marketers in that way. If Eich has his way, it won't happen anymore. His ads won't be based on personal profiles, he says. 

"We have to disconnect the bad system. I talk about putting chlorine in the pool," he said, according to CNET

Eich also promises his browser will be faster -- up to four times faster than other smartphone browsers and 1.4 times faster than other laptop browsers.

A pre-release version of Brave is making the rounds today. When a public version is ready, Eich promises it will work on all major operating systems.

Whether publishers, advertisers, and consumers will get on board is the big question. The advertising industry is concerned by the growth of ad-blocking and is openly looking for new models. Many publishers, on the other hand, are relatively happy with the current system, having built their sites around catering to behavioral ads. They may be reluctant to change.  

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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 P...

PhotoThere 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.

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Staples and Office Depot waive merger agreement and extend it to May

The extension would allow an FTC lawsuit blocking the deal to run its course

This past December, Staples and Office Depot had their merger proposal rejected by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on anti-trust grounds. The FTC had as...

PhotoThis past December, Staples and Office Depot had their merger proposal rejected by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on anti-trust grounds. The FTC had asserted that the union would reduce competition and force business customers to pay higher prices for goods.

At the time, Staples had said that it was “confident in its legal position” and looked forward to “a full and impartial judicial review of the matter.” Now, in order to ensure that the business deal can go through, Staples and Office Depot have waived their merger agreement termination date and extended it to May 16, according to the Sun Sentinel.

The extension will allow the FTC lawsuit against the merger of the two office supply giants to run its course; that trial is scheduled to begin on May 10. If the two companies win their case, Staples would be able to proceed with its acquisition of Office Depot for an estimated $6.3 billion. However, nearly 2,000 Office Depot workers in Boca Raton would be affected by the decision as well.

Although confidence levels are high amongst executives at both companies, the FTC suit could still very well mean the death of the deal. A similar merger between the two companies was struck down by the agency in 1997 when a federal judge blocked the deal. 

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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...

PhotoEveryone 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.

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Researchers question benefit of increasing amounts of food label information

Health claims on the front of products deemed less helpful

Packaged food products contain an increasing amount of information on the label, but how helpful is it in making a healthy food choice?That's the quest...

PhotoPackaged food products contain an increasing amount of information on the label, but how helpful is it in making a healthy food choice?

That's the question posed by researchers from Ohio State and St. Joseph's University, who divide the information into two types – the information on the front of the package (FOP) and the information on the back.

The information on the front, they say, isn't all that helpful. In an article in the Journal of Food Science, they said they examined and analyzed front of pack nutrition claims on more than 2,200 breakfast cereals and prepared meals released for sale between 2006 and 2010. What they found was that no type or number of front of pack claims could distinguish “healthy” foods.

Four types of claims

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) specifically allows four types of FOP nutrition marketing claims. They include health claims, qualified health claims, structure/function claims, and nutrient claims.

Claims such as “may reduce the risk of heart disease,” “low-fat,” and “cholesterol-free” compete for the consumer's attention, along with the required nutritional content label on the back.

Then there are other descriptive claims like organic, natural, or local. While they may be perceived as indicators of nutrient content, the researchers say they don’t necessarily suggest higher nutritional quality.

The authors conclude that consumers should still closely examine the nutritional content label on the back before deciding whether or not to buy the product. But even that label, they found, had shortcomings.

“Current regulations do not specify levels for all nutrients, making the criteria not necessarily appropriate for all food categories,” they write. “For example, a typical breakfast cereal will not violate the 600 mg of sodium/serving restriction, but it may have relatively high sugar content, which is not factored into the FDA determination of healthy claim.”

Food industry initiative

Last month the food industry announced a new online database of nutritional information about food products that consumers will be able to access electronically. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group, the SmartLabel initiative has been adopted by 30 food and beverage companies and will cover thousands of products.

The information will be accessible by scanning a barcode with a smartphone in the stores and can also be accessed online.

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Feds probe complaints about Ford Focus doors that don't latch tightly

Some owners say they have had to tie the doors shut

Safety regulators are looking into more than 70 consumers' complaints that doors don't latch properly on Ford Focus models. One person reported being injur...

PhotoSafety regulators are looking into more than 70 consumers' complaints that doors don't latch properly on Ford Focus models. One person reported being injured by a door that "rebounded" after an attempt to close it. The probe affects up to 400,000 cars.

"The Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) has received 73 reports concerning the door latches on model year 2012-2013 Ford Focus vehicles," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says on its website. "Complainants alleged that the door(s) failed to latch, with several reports indicating that the 'door ajar' warning light on the dash appeared."

Some drivers said the door opened while the car was in motion and others said they had to physically tie the door shut to keep it from flapping open while driving.

NHTSA said the problem appears similar to one tht caused the recall last year of nearly half a million Lincoln MKZ, Ford Fusion, and Ford Fiesta models.

The Focus complaints are being examined and a recall could be the result. 

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AllerGuarder wristband helps protect kids with food allergies

With corresponding app, the wristband can help prevent accidental exposure by alerting people within a 50-foot radius

Behind every child affected by a severe food allergy, there is a parent dedicated to protecting them from accidental exposure. Often it’s impossible to be ...

PhotoBehind every child affected by a severe food allergy, there is a parent dedicated to protecting them from accidental exposure. Often it’s impossible to be with children every minute of the day  but what if you could warn others of your child's allergy even when you’re not around?

One company, AllerGuarder, has created a product that does just that. Combining the concept of wearable tech with proactive allergy awareness, AllerGuarder has created the first Bluetooth-powered wristband and app defense system.

Anyone who has downloaded the free app and comes near the child will receive an alert reminding them to be aware. The wristband’s Bluetooth transmitter broadcasts the allergy alert to all AllerGuarder app-enabled smartphones and tablets within a 50-foot radius.

Helps avoid accidents

The founders of AllerGuarder know all about the distress that comes with being a parent to the one in 13 children affected by severe food allergies. CEO Avram Weissman has two children with life-threatening peanut and tree nut allergies and feels the wristband can help avoid accidental exposure.

“I know firsthand the fear parents feel every time their child goes to a birthday party, an ice cream shop or on a play date," said Weissman. "Often times, those closest to the child innocently give him or her dangerous foods simply because they forget.

Keeps kids’ identities protected

While the wristband and app system will warn strangers and friends alike of the child’s allergies, the company says the identity of the child will remain protected.

Detailed personal, medical, and emergency contact information will only be released to those who have been given “Trusted Friend” status (relatives, friends, school staff, etc).

A stranger's view, however, can be general and nonspecific. They’ll receive a more basic alert stating that an unidentified allergic person is nearby, the type of allergies, and whether the allergies are triggered by ingestion, touch, or airborne.

The AllerGuarder wristband ($30) comes in five colors and is now available for pre-order on Kickstarter.

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Tax filing season begins with emphasis on security

IRS hopes to get a better handle on tax identity fraud

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is now accepting 2015 tax returns for processing, but it is giving all taxpayers a heads up: security, more than ever, i...

PhotoThe Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is now accepting 2015 tax returns for processing, but it is giving all taxpayers a heads up: security, more than ever, is really important.

The agency said it is working with state tax authorities and the tax industry to address tax-related identity theft and refund fraud, which has been a huge problem in recent years.

Scammers who obtain someone's name and Social Security number can file a bogus tax return, claiming a large but fictitious refund. By the time the real taxpayer gets around the filing, the scammer has received the money and moved on.

This year, the IRS says there are new measures to attack tax-related identity theft from multiple sides.

New security measures

For example, this year there are new password standards for tax software. The IRS has also expanded protocols for sharing information with other agencies.

In recent years, the IRS says its Criminal Investigation division has helped convict nearly 2,000 identity thieves. Currently, it says there are 1,700 open investigations.

The agency says taxpayers can help. It has launched an awareness campaign in an effort to better inform the public about the need to protect personal, tax, and financial data online and at home. When people fall prey to clever cybercriminals who trick them into giving up Social Security numbers, account numbers, or password information, the criminals have the tools they need to keep going.

“Many changes will be invisible to taxpayers but help the IRS, states and the tax industry provide new protections,” the agency said in a release. “There will be new security requirements when you’re preparing your taxes online, especially when you sign in to your tax software account, to better protect your tax software account and personal information.”

Security tips

The IRS advises taxpayers to follow these steps:

  • Always use security software with firewall and anti-virus protections. Make sure the security software is always turned on and can automatically update. Encrypt sensitive files such as tax records you store on your computer. Use strong passwords.
  • Learn to recognize and avoid phishing emails, threatening calls, and texts from thieves posing as legitimate organizations such as your bank, credit card company, and even the IRS. Do not click on links or download attachments from unknown or suspicious emails.
  • Protect your personal data. Don’t routinely carry your Social Security card, and make sure your tax records are secure. Treat your personal information like you do your cash; don’t leave it lying around.

The agency says tax preparers can help by spreading the security awareness message to clients and reviewing their own system security features.

Meanwhile the IRS points out there was an error in the year listed on Identity Protection PIN letters sent to taxpayers. The notice incorrectly indicates the IP PIN issued is to be used for filing the 2014 tax return when the number is actually to be used for the 2015 tax return

The agency says taxpayers and tax professionals should be advised the IP PIN listed on the CP 01A Notice dated Jan. 4, 2016, is valid for use on all individual tax returns filed in 2016.

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Parents, teens not on the same page when it comes to driving

Teens perceive fewer limitations than parents report setting, poll suggests

Before being handed the car keys, grumbling teenagers may have to sign a verbal contract stating that they will not use their cell phones, drive with too m...

PhotoBefore being handed the car keys, grumbling teenagers may have to sign a verbal contract stating that they will not use their cell phones, drive with too many passengers, or drive on the highway. But a new poll suggests that  surprise!  teens may not have been listening.

In families where parents reported placing limitations on their teen drivers, the teens themselves sometimes said they did not have those limitations, according to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. About nine in 10 parents report having placed at least one limit on their teen drivers, but only eight out of 10 teens report having at least one driving limit placed on them.

This discrepancy could put fledgling drivers at risk for consequences far more serious than just getting them grounded. Teen drivers, who are vulnerable to distractions while driving and at the highest risk for crashes, often need those limitations.

So what can be done to instill good driving habits into teens? Modeling good driving behavior yourself is a good start, says lead author Michelle L. Macy M.D., M.S., an emergency medicine physician at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Setting a good example and having clear cut expectations is crucial to turning out a safe driver.

Set a good example

Macy recommends parents model good driving behavior  such as not answering texts while driving  starting when their kids are young.

But as we reported, a 2015 Allstate Foundation study showed that modeling good driving behavior isn’t always a parent’s forte. Eighty-four percent of parents admitted to speeding (slightly more than their teens), and parents were just as guilty as their kids when it came to talking on a cell phone while driving.

“Teens continue to tell us their parents are the number one influence on how they drive, so as parents we have an important responsibility to model good driving behaviors,” said Steve Sorenson, executive vice president of Allstate. “We must find new and compelling ways to motivate teens and parents to engage in safe driving habits.”

Setting expectations

Having conversations about safe driving habits can start early, says Macy. Long before their children get behind the wheel, parents can educate them on rules of the road.

And when Sweet 16 rolls around, Macy says laying out rules and expectations is key to helping teens stay safe on the road. Some limitations parents reported placing on their teens were:

Limits on cell phone use:

  • Requiring teens to park to use their cell phones (86%)
  • Forbidding texting while driving (73%)
  • Having cell phone turned off or put away (62%)

Limits on passengers:

  • Allowing only 1-2 friends in the car (59%)
  • Allowing only certain friends (54%)
  • No teen passengers allowed (40%)

Limits on driving times and locations:

  • No driving after 10 p.m. (61%)
  • Driving only to/from school, work, or activities (57%)
  • No highway driving (36%)

A parent-teen driving agreement, which includes rules and penalties for breaking them, can also be helpful.

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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 o...

PhotoAfter 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.

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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...

PhotoA 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.

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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 Mo...

PhotoContract 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.

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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...

PhotoWest 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.

 

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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 com...

PhotoThe 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.

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British MS treatment yields “remarkable results”

Existing cancer treatment helps patients walk again

Recent years have seen hopeful progress in a search for a cure for multiple sclerosis (MS), a neurological disorder affecting millions of people worldwide....

PhotoRecent years have seen hopeful progress in a search for a cure for multiple sclerosis (MS), a neurological disorder affecting millions of people worldwide.

The latest comes from the UK, where the BBC reports that in a small clinical trial at the Sheffield Royal Hallamshire Hospital, researchers have used an existing cancer treatment to reverse MS symptoms in several patients.

The therapy is called autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT). It uses chemotherapy to break down the weak immune system, then rebuilds it using stem cells that come from the patients blood.

The key, researchers say, is the fact that the cells are so young they have not developed the flaws that appear in MS.

MS damages the insulating layer – called myeline – that surrounds and protects nerves in the brain and spinal cord. When the myeline wears away the nerves are exposed to damage. The damage interrupts the flow of information from the brain to muscles, affecting balance and the ability to walk.

Currently, there are treatments that can keep the damage from getting worse but, as yet, no cure.

Patients interviewed

The BBC's Panorama program was granted exclusive access to the patients who underwent the experimental treatment. Some have made remarkable progress.

Holly Drewry was 21 years old when doctors told her she had MS. The condition got worse after her daughter was born.

Drewry told Panorama that she was confined to a wheel chair when she entered the hospital for the treatment. When it was over, she said she walked out.

Not all the cases are as dramatic as that, but the results are providing encouragement to MS researchers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Anti-LINGO-1

At ConsumerAffairs we have followed the progress of the Biogen drug anti-LINGO-1, which has shown promise in reversing the demyelination of the nerves. It works by blocking LINGO-1, a central nervous system protein that prevents myelination.

Since our first report in 2014, the drug has gone through Phase II clinical trials. In a press release last week, PharmaLive reported that Biogen's chief medical officer told an investor conference that the results of anti-LINGO-1's Phase II trial will be reported “soon.”

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS can cause many symptoms, including blurred vision, loss of balance, poor coordination, slurred speech, tremors, numbness, extreme fatigue, problems with memory and concentration, paralysis, blindness, and more.

These problems may come and go or persist and worsen over time. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, although individuals as young as two and as old as 75 have developed it.  

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New York's public wi-fi network goes live

LinkNYC provides fast, free Internet, supported by advertising

New York City's public Wi-Fi network went live this morning, providing free, advertising-supported Internet access from four hubs on Third Avenue between 1...

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Study confirms it: lenient return policies can boost sales

Customers more likely to buy if they know they can exchange the item

Returns and exchanges can be a headache for both consumers and retailers. But a new study by researchers at the University of Texas in Dallas confirms the ...

PhotoReturns and exchanges can be a headache for both consumers and retailers. But a new study by researchers at the University of Texas in Dallas confirms the commonly held belief that lenient return policies have a positive effect on consumers' purchasing decisions.

"In general, firms use return policies to increase purchases but don't want to increase returns, which are costly. But all return policies are not the same," said doctoral candidate Ryan Freling. 

Overall, lenient return policies led to increased purchases, the study found. The researchers also found a positive effect -- smaller, but still significant -- of leniency on the number of returns.

For example, leniency in scope increased returns.

"In the pre-purchase stage, consumers might think about the costs and benefits of making a purchase," Freling said. "If the return policy is lenient in scope -- if a sale item can be returned -- a consumer might say, 'Oh this is on sale. It seems like a good value. I'll buy it, and if it's not the right color or fit, I'll return it.'"

Depends on objectives

Freling said the study shows that return policy leniency should depend on the retailer's objectives. If a retailer wants to stimulate purchases, offering more lenient monetary policies and low-effort policies may be effective.

If a retailer wishes to curb returns, longer deadlines to make a return would be more effective. The study found that leniency in time reduced return rates. Freling said a possible explanation is the endowment effect, which suggests that the longer consumers possess a product, the more attached to it they become and less likely they are to return it.

"The cost of dealing with returns affects the bottom line," he said. "You want to look at the different dimensions of a return policy, because you may be able to manipulate the policy to achieve your goals."

The results of the study were published online in the Journal of Retailing.

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What you should consider when selecting food for your dog or cat

Avoid feeding your pet chemical-laced "junk food" with these tips

The road to finding the right food for your dog or cat can be paved with many questions. In the wake of so many pet food recalls, it’s become more importan...

PhotoThe road to finding the right food for your dog or cat can be paved with many questions. In the wake of so many pet food recalls, it’s become more important than ever for pet owners to look beyond marketing and deeper into nutrition labels.

Consumers spend $21 billion annually on pet food according to the Pet Food Institute, but many of those dollars are spent without much consideration as to what’s actually in the food. When it comes to choosing pet food, it’s important to arm yourself with the knowledge that the presence of taste chemicals can render some pet foods less healthy than others.

Chemical-laced foods may taste good to a cat or dog, but that’s only because it’s essentially “junk food,” says Will Post, founder and CEO of Hounds & Gatos Pet Foods Corporation. Artificial flavor enhancers can taint pets’ palates, causing them to turn their nose up at healthy food when it’s presented.

To avoid this dilemma, start them out with healthy, high quality meals. Here are a few tips on what to look for and what to avoid when it comes to choosing pet food.

Read labels carefully

A short ingredients panel is a good sign, as it means there is less junk added. If you don’t know what something is, then chances are it’s not good for your dog or cat. Preservatives and flavor enhancers can cause problems in pets such as cancer, tumors, skin problems, allergies, and more, according to Reach Out Rescue.

The first ingredient should be a protein of some type of meat. After that, you’ll see a list of other healthy ingredients such as various vegetables, fruits, vitamins, and supplements that you recognize. Avoid products with corn and wheat, as these are fillers and offer no nutritional value.

Experts say to look for the presence of “human grade” food  not only is it better for pets, it’s better for your wallet. Because more nutrients will be absorbed by your pet, you’ll be feeding them less. One example provided by Reach Out Rescue: a dog that gets two cups a day of the lesser foods might only take one to one and a half cups of the better food.

Avoid rendered meat

With so many pets getting sick because of the food they eat, it’s more important than ever to know where the meat  ideally, the primary ingredient in your pet's food  is coming from.

Beef, chicken and poultry “by-products” are not required to include actual meat. Rendered meat includes dead, diseased, and dying animals (including dogs and cats euthanized at shelters), road kill, and leftover carcasses from processing plants that often have tumors, cancers, drugs, and flea and tick collars.

Feeding a dog or cat rendered meat can have a serious impact on their health and can lead to an early death. Be sure to know where the meat is from in order to avoid meat from an overseas manufacturer with lower standards.

You can find out about the quality of your pet's food with these resources:

Dog food: DogFoodAdvisor.com

Cat food: CatFoodReviews.com

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Disaster shelters turned into a disaster for consumers

New Jersey charges company never built the shelters customers paid for

Back in the 1950s, backyard bomb shelters were all the rage. You don't hear much about them these days, but that didn't stop a New Jersey company from sell...

PhotoBack in the 1950s, backyard bomb shelters were all the rage. You don't hear much about them these days, but that didn't stop a New Jersey company from selling disaster shelters to consumers in New Jersey, Virginia, and elsewhere.

The only trouble with the shelters, according to state officials, is that they were never built.

The New Jersey Attorney General and the state's Consumer Affairs Division filed a seven-count complaint against Titan Shelters LLC and its owner, Alfred Demola, who has agreed to pay restitution to consumers who paid for shelters that were never built.

“Demola was marketing products to people who were anticipating a disaster, and with Demola, they got a disaster, according to the allegations in our complaint,” Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman said in a news release. “With this settlement, we’re securing restitution for consumers who never received the shelters they were promised.” 

Titan and Demola have agreed to pay $177,373, which includes $71,800 in restitution to be paid to three consumers; $83,000 in civil penalties; and $22,573 in attorneys’ fees and investigative costs.

“Titan Shelters and Demola operated as unregistered home improvement contractors in New Jersey and sold merchandise allegedly manufactured at a non-existent location,” said Steve Lee, Acting Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. “Through this settlement, we have achieved our goals of halting Titan Shelters’ business operations and have prohibited Demola from operating as a home improvement contractor in New Jersey.”

Consumers who have entered into contracts with the defendants and experienced problems should file a complaint immediately with the State Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website or calling 973-504-6200.

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What can make an aging brain stay young

Study shows older adults learning new tasks performed better in memory tests

People are living longer thanks to improvements in physical health. But to get the most from those additional years of life, cognitive health needs to keep...

PhotoPeople are living longer thanks to improvements in physical health. But to get the most from those additional years of life, cognitive health needs to keep pace.

Scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas tested a theory recently, and have concluded that just as physical strength is enhanced through vigorous exercise, it also takes challenging mental chores to keep the brain sharp.

While engaging in stimulating exercises like crossword puzzles may help, the researchers speculated that it was the active process of learning tasks that keeps an aging brain from losing ground.

To test the theory, the researchers set up three groups of older subjects.

Learning new tasks

One group was assigned to the high-challenge task of spending at least 15 hours per week for 14 weeks learning progressively more difficult skills in digital photography, quilting, or a combination of both.

Another group was assigned low-challenge tasks. Its members met for 15 hours per week to socialize and engage in activities related to subjects such as travel and cooking, with no active learning taking place.

The control group engaged in low-demand cognitive tasks such as listening to music, playing simple games, or watching classic movies.

All the participants were tested before and after the 14-week period and a subset was retested a year later.

Better memory performance

The researchers say their theory was validated. The high-challenge group demonstrated better memory performance after the experiment, and an increased ability to control brain activity more efficiently. They performed better at word recognition and this increase in efficiency was still present a year later.

Brain scans showed increased neural efficiency in judging words – displaying little activity when words were easy and increasing activity as words got harder. The researchers say that is a pattern of response that is typical of young adults.

Before the experiment, the older adults in the high-challenge group were processing every item, both easy and hard, with maximum brain activity. After going through the exercise, they were able to modulate their brain activity to the demands of the task, meaning they made a more efficient use of brain resources. This change in modulation was not observed in the low-challenge group.

Keep learning

What does it mean? It could mean that people need to keep learning things as they get older. Typically, however, many older adults tend to resist learning new things.

"The present findings provide some of the first experimental evidence that mentally-challenging leisure activities can actually change brain function and that it is possible that such interventions can restore levels of brain activity to a more youth-like state,” senior author Denise C. Park said in a release, explaining the results.

Park said further research is needed to determine if this effect is universal and to understand who would benefit most from challenging learning exercises.

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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....

PhotoYou'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/.

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IRS Free File up and running

More free federal and state tax software options are available

Free File, which this year contains many changes and updates -- including more free state tax return options and easier Form W-2 imports -- is now availabl...

PhotoFree File, which this year contains many changes and updates -- including more free state tax return options and easier Form W-2 imports -- is now available for you to use.

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Free File Alliance, 13 brand-name tax software providers are making their federal tax return products available for free. If your adjusted gross income was $62,000 or less during 2015, you are eligible for at least one, if not more, of these tax software products. The income limitation is $2,000 higher than last year.

For taxpayers who earned more than $62,000, Free File Fillable Forms -- the electronic version of IRS paper forms -- is now available. “You don’t have to be an expert on taxes. Free File software can help walk you through the steps and help you get it right,” said John A. Koskinen, IRS Commissioner. “For 13 years, this partnership between the IRS and the Free File Alliance has helped taxpayers. The real winner in this partnership has been the nation’s taxpayers.”

Free File is available only at IRS.gov/FreeFile. Since 2003, more than 46 million people have used Free File, saving nearly $1.4 billion based on a conservative $30-fee estimate.

Taxpayer protection

The Free File Alliance and its members also are active participants in the Security Summit Initiative to provide additional identity theft safeguards for tax filing and for the Security Awareness campaign -- Taxes. Security. Together. -- that encourages taxpayers to take steps to better protect their data.

For 2016, more Free File software providers are offering both free federal and free state tax return preparation for states with income tax requirements. Some providers also are offering state tax return preparation for a fee. State tax return offers are at the discretion of the providers.

Additionally, new for this year, several software providers also are offering easy importing of Form W-2 information which can help reduce errors.

More than 70% of all taxpayers -- 100 million people -- are eligible for the software products. Each of the 13 companies has its own special offers, generally based on age, income, or state residency. Taxpayers can review each company offer or they can use a “Help Me” tool that will find the software for which they are eligible, including which companies offer a free state return.

Health care requirements

Free File also can help taxpayers with the new health care requirements. Just like last filing season, almost everyone will need to do something when filing a tax return this year. For each month in 2015, taxpayers and everyone on their return must:

  • Report health care coverage, or
  • Claim an exemption from coverage or
  • Make a shared responsibility payment with their tax return.

Most people will simply have to check a box to report health care coverage for the entire year.

A taxpayer or anyone on his/her return who purchased coverage from the Health Insurance Marketplace may be eligible for the premium tax credit. If the purchaser opted for any advance payments of the premium tax credit to help with their monthly insurance premium payments, they must file a tax return, even if they were not required to file. Taxpayers must reconcile their advance payments with the amount that was due. More information is available at IRS.gov/aca.

Taxpayers have the option to prepare their return at any time and schedule a tax payment as late as the tax deadline, which, for 2016, is April 18. Taxpayers who cannot meet the April 18 tax filing deadline can also use Free File to file a six-month extension.

Free File can also help taxpayers with myRA, a new, free, retirement savings account from the Treasury Department. Taxpayers who have a myRA account may use Free File to deposit their tax refund or a portion of their refund into their myRA account. Just use Form 8888 or follow your software product’s instructions.

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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 Buil...

PhotoHome 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.

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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 illnesse...

PhotoHeritage 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.

 

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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, ...

PhotoKayem 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.

 

 

 

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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

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...

Photo
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 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.

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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...

PhotoIn 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. 

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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...

PhotoResidents 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.

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Aesthetic and functional upgrades for the most-used rooms in your home

Five improvements that boost a room's functionality and livability

When it comes to deciding which room should get the makeover, the easy answer is often the room that sees the most use. But overhauling the most-used rooms...

PhotoWhen it comes to deciding which room should get the makeover, the easy answer is often the room that sees the most use. But overhauling the most-used rooms in the house can often come with a set of challenges beyond just making it look pretty. High-traffic spaces, like any good host, need to be accommodating.

Functionality should always be a factor when it comes to updating a frequently used room, such as a kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom, or game room. To help you get the most enjoyable results from your interior overhaul, here are Ranker.com's list of the five smartest home improvements as reported by PR Newswire. 

Utilize natural light

Natural light can transform a space. Not only does a room glow when bathed in natural light, it reduces the need for artificial light, which is both practical and cost-effective. As an added bonus, more daylight will stimulate the body to produce vitamin D, which boosts brain levels of the happy hormone, serotonin.

Skylights are one way to bring in natural light. Remote-controlled, solar-powered fresh-air skylights from Velux America provide not just natural light, but passive ventilation. If you already have glass or plastic bubble skylights, why not upgrade to the latest solar powered models? You’ll receive a 30% federal tax credit on the products as well as installation costs.

Solar powered blinds, which come in a variety of colors and patterns, are another way to increase energy efficiency. When placed over a skylight, you’ll have total control over the amount of sunlight entering a room.

Add storage and stay organized

Rooms don’t function nearly as efficiently when plagued by clutter and chaos. Try adding organization and storage to rooms where clutter typically collects, such as bedrooms, living rooms, and game rooms. This is an easy, cost-effective way to improve the function of the room and how you feel about spending time in it.

In bedrooms, maximize closet space by installing organization units. A variety of manufacturers offer ready-made units you can install yourself. For a bit more of an investment, you can have a professional closet organizer custom-make a unit to fit your space and needs. In living rooms and game rooms, built-in shelving and cabinetry is a functional and beautiful way to improve organization.

Replace fixtures and appliances

Appliances and fixtures are key players in kitchens and bathrooms. Not only do dated ones detract from the overall aesthetic appeal of a room, they can cost you money because they use more electricity and water than newer models.

Replacing old faucets, shower heads, dishwashers, and washing machines with newer models that use less water can reduce your water bill and give kitchens and bathrooms a whole new look. Energy Star-qualified appliances such as stoves, clothes dryers, refrigerators and washers also use less electricity than older appliances, so you can also lower your energy bills.

Improve ventilation 

The health of everyone in your home is affected by air flow. Ventilation is necessary to carry away excess moisture, which can cause mold and mildew. To create a fresher environment, bathrooms and kitchens should be equipped with ventilation whenever possible.

Kitchen hoods should vent to the exterior of your home and bathrooms should get an exhaust fan. Ventilation can be further improved by installing Energy-Star quality, solar-powered, fresh-air skylights, like those made by Velux. Because they open, these skylights provide passive ventilation to allow stale air out and fresh air in. Sensors will allow skylights to close automatically in the event that it rains.

Freshen up room foundations

A good foundation is key, and this doesn’t just mean sturdy flooring. Wall color, flooring materials, and trim are all fundamental elements in any room  repainting walls and woodwork can completely change the way a space looks and feels.

Or, if you like the colors you have, a fresh coat in the same color will make the room look brighter and newer. Replacing worn carpeting or dated tiles, or refinishing a hardwood floor, are also great ways to improve the foundations of any room.

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Report: robots to replace five million workers by 2020

World Economic Forum sees beginning of "Fourth Industrial Revolution"

As you jockey for position at work, your biggest threat may not be Bill at the next desk, or Lorraine in the office down the hall. It's more likely to be a...

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A man controls robotic machinery -- Photo (c) Juice Images - Fotolia

As you jockey for position at work, your biggest threat may not be Bill at the next desk, or Lorraine in the office down the hall.

It's more likely to be a robot.

That's the warning contained in a new report by the World Economic Forum that predicts robots are poised to take as many as five million jobs from humans by 2020 – a scant four years from now.

“Today, we are at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution,” the report begins. “Developments in genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and biotechnology, to name just a few, are all building on and amplifying one another. This will lay the foundation for a revolution more comprehensive and all-encompassing than anything we have ever seen.”

Good with the bad

To be sure, there may be plenty of good things to come out of that. Smart systems may make homes, factories, farms, grids, and cities more efficient. It almost certainly will improve supply chain management for all types of businesses.

The report predicts most of the lost jobs will occur in the 15 most industrialized nations. People who perform administrative functions in offices are most vulnerable to having a robot or some other type of machine replace them.

The most secure careers will be those that build, maintain, and otherwise manage machines -- positions in fields like computer science, math, architecture, and engineering.

Four years will pass quickly, so the report urges business and industry to help their most vulnerable employees prepare.

People will need help

"It is critical that businesses take an active role in supporting their current workforces through re-training, that individuals take a proactive approach to their own lifelong learning and that governments create the enabling environment, rapidly and creatively, to assist these efforts," the authors wrote.

The report suggests the future presents a “glass is half-empty, glass is half-full” choice. It says some see the future for its limitless new opportunities, while others foresee massive dislocation of jobs.

In fact, the report says whether the change is positive or disruptive will be highly specific to the industry, region, and occupation in question, as well as the ability of the affected people to manage change.

If you are feeling vulnerable, you might want to check out this report from not too long ago that suggests the jobs with the brightest futures.

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Florida cracking down on travel club companies

Attorney general secures temporary injunction, shutting down several Florida operators

Summer is normally the season associated with vacation travel, but plenty of snow birds travel in the winter, usually seeking the warmer climate of Florida...

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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 Interna...

PhotoWhen 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.

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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 mor...

PhotoOnce 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.

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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 ...

PhotoThe 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.

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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 Trave...

PhotoWhen 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.

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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 se...

PhotoGeneral 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.

 

 

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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 2...

PhotoSchool 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.

 

 

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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 li...

PhotoIt 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. 

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Cruising for beginners: Learning the lingo

It can be confusing, but the idea is to relax -- so do that and have fun!

Taking your first cruise can be confusing; after all, cruising comes with its own language.Before you even make your booking (reservation) you must cho...

PhotoTaking your first cruise can be confusing; after all, cruising comes with its own language.

Before you even make your booking (reservation) you must choose whether you want an inside cabin (inside room or stateroom with no porthole, window, or balcony, also known as a veranda) or an outside cabin (outside room or stateroom with a porthole, window, or balcony).

You will have a choice of cabin on the portside of the ship (the left of the ship facing forward) or the starboard side (the right of the ship facing forward). And will you prefer an upper deck (higher floor) or lower deck (lower floor)?

New cruisers should opt for cabins midship (center); you’ll pay more, but if you have any seasickness concerns, these cabins will be more stable. Discounts may be available to travelers who are over 55, have military backgrounds, or residents of certain states, so share this information when booking.

What to do

Here are some guidelines to help you feel like a frequent cruiser:

  1. The cruise experience begins at the cruise terminal where you will check your luggage and begin embarkation (the process of boarding or entering the ship).

  2. You will need your cruise booking documents, passport, and a credit card to register. Cruise ships operate on a cashless basis (the casino may be an exception) and all charges will be added to your credit card.

  3. There may be photographers to capture the moment as you embark (board the ship). It’s your choice whether to pose or not and you are under no obligation to purchase the photographs.

  4. Welcome drinks are often offered as you board. These are usually at no charge. Drinks will be offered at the sail away (ship departure from port) and there is usually a charge for these drinks, so don’t be afraid to ask.

  5. Orient yourself with the ship. Forward is the front part of the ship and aft is the back of the ship. The bridge is where the captain and crew control or navigate the ship.

  6. Locate the dining room and check in with the maitre d' to see if they have honored your dining preferences and whether you like your table location. This is the time to make changes.

  7. If you need something to read, check out the library. The best selection of books will be available shortly after embarkation and sailing.

  8. If you have not booked (reserved) excursions, visit the shore excursions desk to get a brochure and book them. If you have pre-booked your excursions, you should find an envelope in your cabin with your tickets.

  9. The ship will conduct a mandatory emergency drill an hour or two before sailing. You will be asked to muster (the process of assembling the passengers and crew) to your muster station (a specific location where you will assemble should there be an emergency and you need to board the lifeboats). The ship’s crew will communicate whether you will need your lifejacket.

  10. When you are in port or at the end of your cruise you will disembark (leave the ship). Disembarkation usually refers to the process the ship goes through at the end of the cruise to ensure a smooth departure of all passengers.

Relax and have fun! That's what cruising is all about. 

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Feds, automakers agree on new plan to catch safety defects early

Automakers will reform the way they track and report accidents and warranty claims

Safety regulators and 17 automakers have agreed to work together to identify safety problems earlier and improve the efficiency of recalls. The agreement c...

PhotoSafety regulators and 17 automakers have agreed to work together to identify safety problems earlier and improve the efficiency of recalls. The agreement came after meetings between federal officials and automakers at the Detroit Auto Show.

"We have finalized a historic agreement on a set of broad-ranging actions to help make our roads safer and help avoid the sort of safety crisis that generates the wrong kind of record-setting and headlines," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. "The commitments we make today will help catch safety defects before they explode into massive recalls. They will help improve the quality of data that automakers and NHTSA analyze to identify defects today, and they will find ways to generate better data in the future."

The agreement includes four principles aimed at creating a “proactive safety” culture, improving Early Warning Reporting data usage, “maximizing” recall completion rates, and tackling cybersecurity concerns.

Signatories to the agreement include the Transportation Department, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, American Honda, BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, GM, Hyundai, Jaguar Land Rover, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Porsche, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo.

“As we sat around the table here today, none of us could recall a moment quite like this, a moment in which the global automotive industry came together to determine how we can make vehicles that are safer than ever become even safer in the future,” Foxx said.

Compared to aviation

Foxx compared today's agreement to the aviation industry's safety practices, which emphasize collaboration, sharing of best practices, and non-judgmental reporting of safety shortcomings.

“Real safety is finding and fixing defects before someone gets hurt rather than punishing them after damage is done,” Foxx said.

Earlier, NHTSA announced that it would allow automakers to apply for exemptions from some rules as part of the development process for self-driving cars. It's billed as an attempt by government to ensure excessive regulation doesn't slow technological progress.

Some critics warned against giving automakers too much latitude. Joan Claybrooke, a former head of NHTSA, said the agreement was "a step in the wrong direction."

“With multiple instances of deadly defective cars, a historic number of recalls, the Volkswagen scandal and the report on Tuesday that Google’s robot cars had hundreds of near misses, now is not the time for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to abdicate its responsibility to enforce auto safety through binding safety rules,” said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of ConsumerWatchdog, a non-profit citizen organization.  

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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 a...

PhotoThe 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.

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How to care for outdoor cats in winter

Ways you can help keep neighborhood stray and feral cats safe and warm

The sight of an outdoor cat wandering around on a cold winter day is enough to tug at anyone’s heartstrings. While these cats might be accustomed to fendin...

PhotoThe sight of an outdoor cat wandering around on a cold winter day is enough to tug at anyone’s heartstrings. While these cats might be accustomed to fending for themselves, the cold weather certainly adds another layer to the challenge.

Short of taking them in (which is often not feasible when dealing with feral or barn cats), there are several ways you help keep outdoor cats in your neighborhood safe, warm, and fed when the temperature drops.

Give them shelter

Thickened winter coats do help feral and stray cats when the winter chill sets in according to the Humane Society, but they still need warm, dry, well-insulated and appropriate-sized shelters. One thing you can do is provide neighborhood cats with a little house.

“The kind of cat house you want in your neighborhood is approximately two feet by three feet and at least 18 inches high,” according to Vetstreet.com. “It’s just the right size for a cat or three (so they can snuggle for warmth) but not so large that heat will disperse quickly.”

A small doorway, no larger than eight inches wide, will help keep larger predators out, and attaching a plastic flap will help keep warmth in. Blueprints for a feral cat house can be found here.

Extra calories

Both cats and dogs need extra calories during winter to help them stay warm, but outdoor cats’ food intake is often random and sparse. The kindness of a stranger can go a long way in keeping outdoor cats fed when the cold weather hits.

Putting out slightly warmed canned food at regular times each day can help keep them healthy. Because canned cat food will freeze if it’s not eaten right away, experts say it’s also a good idea to leave out plenty of dry food.

The Humane Society recommends placing food and water near the shelter, so the cats won’t have to travel far. Protect food and water from freezing by using thick plastic containers or solar-heated pet bowls.

Look under the hood

Outdoor cats often look to car engines for warmth, so it’s important to check for their presence before starting the engine. Unfortunately, car engines are responsible for the deaths of many cats each year.

“I’ve been in the pet industry for thirteen years, and every year there is a story that comes up about a cat that’s gotten trapped in a car [engine],” says Jane Harrell, Editor-in-Chief of the Pet Health Network. “Give a little pound on your hood or slam the car door before you start [your car]. It’s always a good idea to check underneath your car to see if cats are hiding.”

Watch for antifreeze drips as well. Lapping up just a small amount of the sweet liquid  as little as a teaspoon  can kill a cat. Wipe up antifreeze spills right away to protect your own pets and any outdoor cats who may come across them.

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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 day...

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TaxAct notifies customers of possible data breach

An unspecified number of customer records were "compromised," company says

Add TaxAct to the companies notifying customers of a possible data breach. The tax preparation provider says outsiders gained "inappropriate access" to an ...

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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, ho...

PhotoWhen 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.  

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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 ...

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Hyatt releases list of hotels involved in malware incident

Guests at any of the roughly 250 hotels should keep a careful eye on their accounts

If you've stayed at a Hyatt Hotel recently, you may want to keep a careful eye on your credit card account. The hotel chain says it found malicious softwar...

PhotoIf you've stayed at a Hyatt Hotel recently, you may want to keep a careful eye on your credit card account. The hotel chain says it found malicious software in about 250 of its hotels.

The malware could have been used to extract credit- and debit-card numbers, as well as other guest information. Hyatt has published a list of the affected hotels on its website.

The malware was first discovered in December but little information was released at that time. Hyatt says it doesn't yet know how many customers were affected.

The company said the malware was present between July and December within payment-processing systems at its restaurants, spas, front desks, and other areas in its hotels.

"We encourage you to remain vigilant and to review your payment card account statements closely. You should report any unauthorized charges to your card issuer immediately," said Chuck Floyd, global president of operations for Hyatt. "Speak to your card issuer for details because, while card issuers’ policies related to fraud may vary, payment card rules generally provide that cardholders are not responsible for unauthorized charges reported in a timely manner."

Fraud detection

Floyd said Hyatt has arranged for CSID, a fraud detection service, to provide one year of CSID’s Protector services to affected customers at no charge. To activate CSID’s Protector coverage, affected customers in the U.S. may visit www.csid.com/hyatt-us and affected customers outside the U.S. may visit www.csid.com/hyatt-intl to complete a secure sign up and enrollment process.

Customers can contact Hyatt at 1-877-218-3036 (U.S. and Canada) or +1-814-201-3665 (International) from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. EST.

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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 th...

PhotoWalmart 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

Photo
Michelle's dryer sheets

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

Wal-Mart Jan. 15, 2016, 4:27 p.m.
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.”

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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....

PhotoIt'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.  

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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 fou...

PhotoJust 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.

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Legal and illegal drugs take a rising toll

Hospital emergency rooms see dramatic rise in drug-related cases

Drug overdoses are sending more Americans to the emergency room (ER). A new report by Addiction-Treatment.com suggests both legal and illegal drugs are beh...

PhotoDrug overdoses are sending more Americans to the emergency room (ER). A new report by Addiction-Treatment.com suggests both legal and illegal drugs are behind the increase.

Opioids, a highly addictive subset of analgesics, saw significant increases in abuse cases. Oxycodone, for example, increased 240% over the survey period.

Abuse and misuse cases of codeine, methadone, and morphine all grew by large percentages as well. Benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium also fall into the highly-abused category and and are blamed for sending a large number of people to the ER.

Addictive and dangerous

What concerns policymakers is long-term prescriptions for these potentially addictive and dangerous drugs are on the rise as well, especially in the older age groups, suggesting this demographic could benefit particularly well from drug abuse counseling and treatment options.

The researchers say consumers should understand that just because a drug has been prescribed by a doctor, it doesn't mean that it is safe. The longer a drug is used, the easier it is to be abused.

“If you’re having trouble limiting your use of medication to prescribed parameters for painkillers, benzodiazepines or any other medicine, a prescription addiction treatment program might be the answer,” the authors suggest.

For information about these programs, call 1-888-512-4610.

Burden on the states

State officials are also grappling with this issue. On Thursday, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills urged the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to adopt proposed opioid prescribing guidelines for physicians.

Mills wrote to CDC Director Tom Frieden to express concern that the potential harm associated with opioids must be better balanced with any benefits.

“The increase in overdose deaths has made prescribing protocols a law enforcement and public safety issue,” Mills said in a release. “Unfortunately, many prescribers, particularly primary care and family physicians, lack clear and practical guidance in deciding when and how to prescribe opioids.”

Mills said some providers are afraid to prescribe opioids at all for fear that they will jeopardize their patients health – or even their medical licenses. Others provide their patients with opioids when alternative treatments might be a more effective long term method of care.

Maine is just one state struggling with drug issues. In 2014 it experienced a record 208 deaths caused by drug overdose, and through the first nine months of 2015 there were 174 deaths from drug overdose.

“The Department of Justice reports that 80% of people arrested for heroin offenses say they started using prescription painkillers,”Mills said. “We are awash in these substances.”

The Addiction-Treatment.com report says more than 52 million people in the U.S. have abused prescription drugs, and while Americans account for only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes 75% of the global supply of prescription drugs.

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Consumers not happy with gun laws

Gallup finds 62% dissatisfied with laws covering guns

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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File photo

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 $44...

PhotoDecember 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.”

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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) repo...

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© mybaitshop – Fotolia

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.

 

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

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.

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Dodge Durangos and Jeep Grand Cherokees with electrical issues recalled

The wiring for the vanity lamp in the sun visor may short circuit

Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 388,504 model year 2011-2013 Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles manufactured December 3, 2009, to September ...

PhotoChrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 388,504 model year 2011-2013 Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles manufactured December 3, 2009, to September 1, 2012.

 

The wiring for the vanity lamp in the sun visor may short circuit, after having been remedied for a prior recall for a similar issue. This recall is also addressing certain vehicles that have not been remedied under that prior recall.

 

A short in the vanity lamp wiring could increase the risk of a vehicle fire.

 

Chrysler will notify owners. The remedy plan is still being developed, and 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 R71.

 

 

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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 Veh...

PhotoBMW 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.

 

 

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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 o...

PhotoSteelcase 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.

 

 

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Ten Travel Essentials – Don’t Leave Home Without Them

Things happen. A smart traveler is prepared

What happens when you are next in line at passport control and you can’t find your passport? If you are lucky, like me, you’ll have a photocopy. After a fo...

PhotoWhat happens when you are next in line at passport control and you can’t find your passport? If you are lucky, like me, you’ll have a photocopy. After a fourteen-hour flight from Beijing, my tired spouse dropped mine in the airplane. I was detained while they checked the airplane and they did locate my passport. The officer said they would have let me re-enter the country using my photocopy.  

My list of travel essentials is culled from personal experience. You can customize it based on your own mishaps.

1. Identification and Photocopies: You’ll need some form of photo identification, whether it’s your driver’s license or passport. Make a photocopy of your identification and keep the copy for safekeeping in a separate place from the original.

2. Zippered Fleece Jacket: No matter where you go or what time of year, chances are you'll encounter a chilly morning, evening, uncontrolled heating (or lack thereof), or air-conditioning. A fleece is so versatile, you can roll it up and it will substitute for a pillow or open it and use it as a blanket. It makes a great layering piece; add a sweater under it or use it under a jacket for extra warmth.

3. Comfortable Shoes: It’s impossible to have fun when your feet hurt. Choose a pair of comfortable walking shoes and then break them in. NEVER travel with a new pair of shoes.

4. An Emergency Kit: Nothing can ruin a trip quicker than a blister or medical emergency. A myriad of over the counter solutions can quickly get you back on your feet. Stock a medium-sized zippered bag with ibuprofen or acetaminophen, several size band aids, gauze, tape, cleansing wipes, an ace bandage, safety pins, Tide to Go, lint roller, tissues, sewing kit, and cold, allergy, heartburn, or upset stomach medications.

5. Disinfecting Hand Gel and Wipes: Stay safe and healthy by using hand gel regularly. Sanitize surfaces with the wipes and eliminate germs on seat belts in airplanes or buses and in your hotel room.

6. Water: Pack a refillable plastic bottle and fill it regularly.

7. Imodium: Once you’ve gotten sick on the road, you will never leave home without it. You’ll need two to start and maybe another dose on top of that, so pack three in your wallet or backpack. If you use them, make sure to replenish.

8. Plastic Storage Bags: One of the most versatile items for packing and storing everything from dirty laundry, wet bathing suits, and small sundry items to the breakfast muffin you can’t finish. Pack a selection in all sizes from 2 1/2 gallon to sandwich.

9. Folding Tote: You’ll wonder how you ever got along without these versatile, lightweight totes. Use one to carry your groceries, souvenirs, items for the beach, overflow from your luggage, and innumerable other ways.

10. Lightweight Hooded Slicker and Umbrella: Toss them in your backpack in the morning and you’ll be prepared to enjoy your day, no matter what the weather.

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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 Power...

PhotoLike 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.

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Chipotle declaring victory in war against E. coli; feds not so sure

New safety program lowers risk to "near zero," Chipotle claims

Chipotle is declaring victory in its war against E. coli, but federal health officials say it's a little early to break out the balloons.Chipotle execu...

PhotoChipotle is declaring victory in its war against E. coli, but federal health officials say it's a little early to break out the balloons.

Chipotle executives told an investor conference yesterday that they don't know of anyone getting sick from E. coli since November and said they expect the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to soon declare the outbreak ended.

No so fast, said the CDC.

"We're more cautious about closing it," Matthew Wise of the CDC's outbreak response team said, according to the Wall Street Journal. Wise said that, although it appears no one has gotten sick recently, the source of the outbreak that sickened more than 50 people still hasn't been found. 

Wise said that if there are no more illnesses in the next few weeks, the agency would be "in a better situation."

Winning back customers

Chipotle is preparing a new advertising campaign to win back customers and says it is instituting food safety measures that will reduce the risk of more foodborne outbreaks to near zero.

But winning back customers may not be that easy. Lisa of Sebastian, Fla., won't going back anytime soon.

The first few times I went to the Vero Beach, FL store the food was fresh and delicious, although there was not one staff member cleaning; the tables were filthy and the garbage cans were full. Things got increasingly worse on subsequent visits," she said in a ConsumerAffairs review

"Another tip off that basic cleanliness is obviously not a priority to Chipotle is the state of the bathroom," Lisa said. "I went in once: never again! Rule of thumb is that if the bathroom is dirty, you don't want to know what goes on in the kitchen."

"More robust ..."

Bathrooms aside, Chipotle says it is doing everything it can to make its food as safe as possible.

"While Chipotle’s food safety practices were already well within industry norms, I was asked to design a more robust food safety program to ensure the highest level of safety and the best quality of all meals served at Chipotle,” said Mansour Samadpour, Ph.D., CEO of IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group, which has been working with the fast-food chain.

“I am happy to report that our proposed program was adopted in its entirety, without any modification. While it is never possible to completely eliminate all risk, this program eliminates or mitigates risk to a level near zero, and will establish Chipotle as the industry leader in this area," Samadpour said in a prepared statement.

Chipotle says that there has been no evidence of new outbreaks since reports of illness surfaced at the end of October. That outbreak involved 11 Chipotle locations in Washington and Oregon.

But CDC officials caution that additional cases may yet be reported as they make their way through various state health departments to the federal health officials.

Chipotle says its new safety program will tighten practices from the farms that supply its food to the retaurants that prepare and serve it.

“When I opened the first Chipotle 22 years ago, I offered a focused menu of just a few things made with fresh ingredients and prepared using classic cooking techniques,” said  Steve Ells , chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle. “We do the same thing today, even with nearly 2,000 restaurants, and we are working harder than ever to ensure that our food is safe and delicious.”

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Advice for Powerball winners -- be careful with your winnings

Get a good lawyer, a good accountant, and an unlisted phone number

The world breathlessly greeted the news Thursday morning that three winning tickets were sold for the record $1.6 billion Powerball jackpot drawing the nig...

PhotoThe world breathlessly greeted the news Thursday morning that three winning tickets were sold for the record $1.6 billion Powerball jackpot drawing the night before.

That means winners in Florida, Tennessee, and California will split the money, changing their lives overnight. At this point the winners have not gone public, and University of Florida financial expert Michael Gutter says that is a very good move.

“First off, secure yourself, secure your family – don’t broadcast that you’ve won,” Gutter, associate dean for the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension, advised in a release.

In many ways, big lottery winners are like the young athletes selected in the first rounds of the NFL and and NBA drafts. Overnight, they go from college students living on a budget to millionaires.

Destabilizing change

The change is often destabilizing and many a young man has ended his playing career with none of the wealth he earned. The same kinds of things can happen to ordinary people who win big jackpots.

The Washington Post weighed in this week, quoting other academics who said the odds are great that the jackpot winners will end up in bankruptcy. It quotes a 2001 study which found that lottery jackpot winners save, on average, 16 cents of every dollar of winnings.

Gutter has put together some advice for the current jackpot winners, and the advice would likely apply to anyone who suddenly and unexpectedly comes into incredible wealth.

Before the winners claim their prizes, Gutter says they should assemble a team of trusted advisors, including a financial planner, an attorney to set up a living trust and an accountant to help with tax issues. In most cases, people who end up with winning lottery tickets have little or no experience managing wealth.

“Something this complicated is going to have a lot of moving parts,” Gutter said. “Really putting together a cohesive team that understands your family, your family’s values, the things you’re trying to accomplish, could be a critical piece to really making any windfall be of great benefit to your family.”

Lump sum or annuity?

Winners will also have to decide whether to take an annual payment in the form of an annuity, or take a reduced amount of cash in a lump sum payment. Gutter says the decision often comes down to what the winner has in mind to do with the money.

“If it were me, I’d want to give away a substantial portion of that,” he said. “So I’d want to do that all at once where I’d know I could maybe make a big difference.”

Taking the lump sum payout will have major tax implications. The government will take about 40% of a payout this large, he says.

Gutter urges winners to think about their core values – the things that were important in their lives before they changed in an instant. Values, he says, should guide how the money is used.

As for buying things just because you can? Not a good idea, he says.

“That’s a good way to go through a lot of money very quickly – and then you have nothing to show for it,” he said.

Finally, it just might be a good idea to get an unlisted telephone number. Otherwise, you'll discover you have hundreds of new best friends.

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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 conti...

PhotoThe 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). 

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New app “hides” location from third parties

Seeks to grant control over where personal information ends up

Whether you’re searching for directions or a place to eat, your smartphone is sending information to servers—information that could potentially be used by ...

PhotoWhether you’re searching for directions or a place to eat, your smartphone is sending information to serversinformation that could potentially be used by the wrong people. But now, researchers have developed an app that blocks third parties from identifying a person's location based on what they search for online.

A research team led by Linke Guo, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Binghamton University, recently won big at the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) GLOBECOM Conference, Symposium on Communication and Information System Security.

Their papertitled, “Privacy-preserving Verifiable Proximity Test for Location-based Services”won the Best Paper Award and was honored in twelve different categories at the conference.

Secures information

Guo, who presented the paper with graduate students Gaoquiang Zhou and Qi Jia, says their app can protect users from having their information collected by third parties with malicious intent.

“The trend of people using searches and social networks on smartphones which aren’t well-protected is going up,” said Guo in a statement to Newswise. “Sometimes people share too much information. This is a way to help provide some security.”

The app, which grants control over where your information ends up, would benefit oversharers and average sharers alike. Studies show that neither party has a clear picture of how often apps share their personal information

Apps are tracking you

One 2015 study out of Carnegie Mellon gave 23 smartphone users a daily message called a “privacy nudge” telling them how many times their apps shared their location, photo call logs, contact lists, or other information.

Participants were stunned by the sky-high numbers. “Your location has been shared 5,398 times with Facebook, Groupon, GO Launcher EX and seven other apps in the last 14 days,” read one user’s privacy nudge.

The majority of smartphone users have no way of accessing relevant data about their apps’ behaviorbut the study demonstrated that when people do manage to get their hands on this privacy information, they quickly change their privacy settings and act to limit future sharing.

More control

During a time when it’s often not feasible to limit sharing, the app would step in to watch your back, granting a level of control not currently available.

“When we release personal information to the Internet, it is out of our control, and can be easily searched and used for malicious purposes,” Guo said. “We are trying to provide a more efficient and feasible solution to make sure that kind of information is secure.”

So instead of relegating yourself to an Amish way of life after learning that your location has been shared 5,398 times over the course of 14 days, you could simply download the app. It is not currently available to the public, but it may be in the future.

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Can your dog catch your cold or flu?

Luckily it can't, but it is important for owners and pets to stay up-to-date on immunizations

One of a dog’s best qualities is their ability to know just when to snuggle up next to you on the couch. Whether you’ve had a rough day or you’re down with...

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St. Louis Rams fans feeling jilted ... and gypped

Team execs promised to stay loyal, then skipped town

St. Louis is an old river town. The weather isn't great, entire parts of the city look bombed out, and it is weathering a crisis in racial relations ignite...

PhotoSt. Louis is an old river town. The weather isn't great, entire parts of the city look bombed out, and it is weathering a crisis in racial relations ignited by last year's police shooting of a young African-American man in nearby Ferguson.

But one thing you can say about St. Louis -- it is a rabid sports town, full of fans who attend their teams' games when they can, watch them on TV when they can't, and talk about them the rest of the time.

That's why the loss of the Rams to Los Angeles feels so wrong. Los Angeles has glitz, glamor, nice weather, and millions of people who could care less about football. But LA is where team owner Stan Kroenke and other NFL owners have decided the Rams are going, and St. Louis is left to pick up the pieces.

This doesn't sit well with some fans who think Rams executives misled them about the team's intention in order to continue selling tickets and merchandise. Four of them have filed a class action lawsuit, Courthouse News Service reported.  

"Build a winner"

The fans say that despite articles in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and elsewhere about Kroenke buying a large parcel of land in Inglewood, Calif., they trusted statements he and other Rams execs made about staying in St. Louis.

The four point to a statement Rams COO Kevin Demoff made on the team's website back in 2012: "Our goal is to build a winner in St. Louis not only in 2012, but in 2022, 2032 and beyond."

Based on that and similar statements, the fans say they continued buying tickets and Rams gear and otherwise supporting the team.

The suit seeks damages for all fans who have bought Rams tickets, merchandise, or concessions between April 10, 2010 and Jan. 4, 2015.

Besides the lawsuit, Rams owner Kroenke is being raked over the coals by civic leaders and the St. Louis press. 

"This city really will miss its mediocre Rams. Stan Kroenke, not so much," wrote Post-Dispatch columnist Ben Frederickson

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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.Set...

PhotoThe 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.

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Would warning labels reduce consumption of added sugars?

Researchers say they would, and a couple of states may be ready to try it

Food nutrition labels contain a lot of useful information, but not everyone pays attention. What if there were a warning label alerting consumers that the ...

PhotoFood nutrition labels contain a lot of useful information, but not everyone pays attention. What if there were a warning label alerting consumers that the food contained ingredients deemed to be unhealthy? Would that make a difference?

Researchers supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Healthy Eating Research Program conducted a study to find out. In particular, they tested warning labels about added sugars, since some states and municipalities are considering laws requiring warning labels on sugar-sweetened abstract beverages (SSB).

The study tested whether parents would change their purchase habits if the product contained a warning label. It also tested the wording of potential labels to determine which was most effective.

Warning labels

The four labels, which are similar, contained the following wording:

  • Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar[s] contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay
  • Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar[s] contributes to weight gain, diabetes, and tooth decay
  • Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar[s] contributes to preventable diseases like obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay
  • Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar[s] contributes to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay

To test the labels, hundreds of parents were asked to shop for beverages. Some beverages had no warning label, some only listed the calories, and the rest contained one of the four warning labels.

The researchers say the warning labels proved effective.

“Significantly fewer parents chose an SSB for their child in the warning label condition (40%) versus the no label (60%) and calorie label conditions (53%),” the authors write. “Parents in the warning label condition also chose significantly fewer SSB coupons, believed that SSBs were less healthy for their child, and were less likely to intend to purchase SSBs.”

Daily diet of SSBs

The study is part of a campaign to reduce children's consumption of SSBs. The authors cite surveys showing 66% of children two to 11 years old drink SSBs daily. One study estimated that these beverages contribute 69 calories daily to the diets of two to five year-olds and 118 calories daily to the diets of children six to 11 years old.

They also cite research they say has linked children’s consumption of SSBs with weight gain and risk of obesity in adulthood, as well as dental cavities.

Added sugars appear to be the next battleground between the food industry and health activists, who most recently targeted sodium content. The American Heart Association says many people consume more sugar than they realize. It says sugar is tempting to the taste buds, but the human body doesn't need it.

“Added sugars contribute zero nutrients but many added calories that can lead to extra pounds or even obesity, thereby reducing heart health,” the group warns.

Will you start seeing warning labels about added sugar? You might. Legislative bills have been introduced in California and New York State which would require SSBs to display health warning labels on product containers, much like tobacco warning labels.

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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 ...

PhotoQuality 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.

 

 

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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 haz...

PhotoCost 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.

 

 

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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 Dy...

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Powerball jackpot: a few winners, millions of losers

Before you buy a ticket, do the math

In case you've been on Mars for the last week, the Powerball Jackpot has reached the dizzying height of $1.5 billion – enough money, CNBC pointed out Tuesd...

PhotoIn case you've been on Mars for the last week, the Powerball Jackpot has reached the dizzying height of $1.5 billion – enough money, CNBC pointed out Tuesday, to buy Etsy. Not something on Etsy – the entire company.

The jackpot has been steadily growing since early November, when drawing after drawing failed to produce a winner. It burst into the headlines last week when the total surged past previous records.

"We encourage players to please play responsibly and remember that you only need one ticket in order to win," said Pennsylvania Lottery Executive Director Drew Svitko, in a release.

Svitko goes on to stress the proceeds from the Powerball tickets sold in Pennsylvania will fund critical programs for older people in the state -- a good cause.

Indeed, 44 states and the District of Columbia run lotteries as a means to raise revenue. According to Reuters columnist David Cay Johnston, the states raised nearly $18 billion from lotteries in 2010, and a year earlier 11 states collected more from their lottery than they did in state income taxes.

Moral cost

As states debated the establishment of lotteries in the 1970s and 1980s, there were plenty of arguments about the moral cost of raising money with what many consider a vice that falls disproportionately on the poor. One by one, those arguments fell by the wayside as state after state set up lotteries.

But as Powerball hysteria built this week, you still heard them. Chuck Bentley is a financial advisor and CEO of Crown Financial Ministries, which is both a financial and religious organization. In his weekly column, Bentley counseled a reader not to divert his “coffee money” to buy lottery tickets, pointing out if he buys coffee, at least he gets something for his money.

“You are more likely to be hit by a falling star you are wishing on than you are to win the lottery,” he writes. “The odds of being killed by a falling star are one in 250,000, while your odds of winning the Powerball is one in 292.2 million. The big jackpot tends to cause people to forget to do the math.”

Gambling addiction

While low income consumers who have little money but big dreams make up a sizable portion of lottery ticket buyers, people with gambling addictions are also lining up to buy tickets -- often lots of them.

Keith Whyte, Executive Director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, issued a statement this week, asking consumers not to go overboard with Powerball.

His advice? Set and stick to a limit of time and money. Consider it entertainment, not an investment. Don’t gamble to escape feelings of anxiety, stress or depression. And if you think you have a problem, don't buy a lottery ticket and get help.

And as Bentley suggests, treat yourself to a cup of coffee instead.

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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 tod...

PhotoEvery 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.

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Handling a dispute when the seller has your credit card

Getting a new credit card doesn't always help

Just about all transactions are done with plastic these days, so when a consumer decides to part ways with a company, he or she has to make sure the compan...

PhotoJust about all transactions are done with plastic these days, so when a consumer decides to part ways with a company, he or she has to make sure the company stops entering charges on the account.

In most cases, this isn't an issue. But when a consumer wants to cancel a recurring charge and the company makes it difficult, the consumer may feel there are few options. This seems to happen a lot in the case of anti-virus software subscriptions or online dating sites that auto renew.

When you purchase anti-virus software, for example, you should assume that the account will auto renew when the subscription ends. The company will tell you it does that to make sure your protection is not interrupted because you forget to renew.

There might be some truth to that, but it is also a fact that many consumers decide after a year they don't need the product any longer, or are dissatisfied and want to try something else.

So pay attention if the company sends you an email – as it should – telling you the account is about to auto renew. If you don't find a way to turn off the auto renew, the charge will show up on your credit or debit card.

Free trials

People who sign up for free trials also find it sometimes hard to stop recurring charges. Usually, you have a set period – anywhere from seven to 30 days – for the trial. If you do not cancel before the period is up, the company will begin charging your credit or debit card on a monthly basis.

If you are lucky you will find a human being on the company's customer service line and work out an acceptable solution. But many companies have automated systems and consumers hang up in frustration.

When that happens, what do you do? What you don't do is cancel your card and replace it with a new one, with a different number. If you do, you might be surprised to learn that the company with your old credit card can keep charging your new one.

Account updater

That's because credit card companies offer a service to merchants, supplying them with updated account information about consumers with whom they do business. Sometimes that works to the consumer's benefit – they don't have to contact all the companies that have their credit card information.

But when the consumer changes cards to escape unauthorized charges, it definitely is not an advantage.

Visa offers a service called Visa Account Updater (VAU), and promotes it to merchants as a way to reduce authorization declines. An authorization decline, of course, is exactly what a consumer locked in a dispute with a merchant wants and expects.

“Merchants enrolled in VAU receive updates to cardholder account information, including new account numbers, new expiration dates, and/or contact cardholder notifications from participating Visa issuers,” Visa explains on its website.

ConsumerAffairs reached out to Visa's media relations department two days ago to ask if there is a means for consumers to exempt their accounts from VAU, but as yet we have received no reply.

What to do

If you believe the charge on your account is unauthorized, the first step is to contact your bank or credit card company and tell them you want to dispute a charge.

In most cases these institutions will be helpful, and when they get involved a merchant will pay attention. You may not be able to recover all the money taken from your account in the past, but you should be able to stop the recurring charges.

If you live in a state with a consumer-friendly attorney general, calling the AG's consumer hotline may help.

Finally, if other options continue to fail, filing a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau may help. Here's the link.

And don't forget to post a review of your experience at ConsumerAffairs so that you can help other consumers handle similar problems.

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Twitter unveils new feature to turn consumer tweets into advertisements

Advertisers will be able to look through a gallery of brand-related tweets, but can only use them at the author's discretion

Consumers are becoming increasingly more reliant on social media when it comes to their shopping habits. If a friend writes a negative review of a product ...

PhotoConsumers are becoming increasingly more reliant on social media when it comes to their shopping habits. If a friend writes a negative review of a product or service, many people would be more likely to avoid taking advantage of it. Conversely, if someone you know writes something very positive about a product or service (and you can reasonably trust their reliability), then you might be more likely to give it a try for yourself.

It is this latter case that Twitter will undoubtedly be looking to take advantage of. According to a Digiday report, the social media giant will soon be collecting user tweets about products and using them in their advertising campaigns. Companies who will be looking to take advantage of the feature were reportedly able to check it out at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this past week.

Twitter is building the feature around its “brand enthusiast gallery”, a source of brand-related tweets from users that advertisers can search through and use. Privacy hounds take ease, though – Twitter promises to directly message the author of a post for permission before allowing it to be used in an advertisement.

When applied, this feature will be able to change the old paradigm that has been used for product advertising. For a long time, commercials and other ads used popular figures like celebrities to endorse their products and gain consumer trust. Switching the onus to be on the consumer will allow shoppers to see what people in their area think of a product, which could be potentially more valuable, according to the Digiday report.

The release date for the product is not yet known, but Twitter fanatics should be on the lookout. Those direct messages from pleading companies and advertisers could come at any time. 

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Safety tips to keep in mind on AMBER Alert Awareness Day

Filling out a safety profile could save your child's life

AMBER Alert Awareness Day (January 13th) commemorates the tragic day twenty years ago in which nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted from the front yar...

PhotoAMBER Alert Awareness Day (January 13th) commemorates the tragic day twenty years ago in which nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted from the front yard of her family’s own home. She was found murdered days later.

On this day, parents and guardians are encouraged to take note of ways to prevent a tragedy like this from happening in their lives.

Unfortunately, 800,000 children are reported missing each year in the U.S, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. AMBER (America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alerts have been responsible for 758 successful recoveries to date, but officials say filling out a safety profile for children could also save their lives.

Lifesaving details

In a time of stress, it may be difficult for a parent to stay calm and provide details about their child to a 9-1-1 dispatcher. Having a profile already filled out could be instrumental in helping officials locate the child.

"Every parent or child care taker has the same fears about the horrific scenario of a child going missing,” said Tom Axbey, CEO of Rave Mobile Safety in a statement, according to PR Newswire. “If it actually occurs, it is likely a parent won't be able to recall crucial details that can enable safety officials to locate a child as quickly as possible.”

Filling out a Smart911 profile takes just 20 minutes, says Axbey. If a child is reported missing, his or her profile will immediately be displayed to a 9-1-1 dispatcher, allowing them to share the child's photo and description with responders in the field immediately. Important details that would normally take hours to collect from a frantic parent are instantly available with the help of a safety profile.

Keeping children safe

In addition to filling out a safety profile, Smart911 encourages parents and caregivers to keep in mind the following tips to better protect their children:

  • Teach your children to be assertive. Make sure they know that it's okay to say no to an adult and to run away from adults in dangerous situations.

  • Determine a "safe" password with your children. If you ever need to send someone with whom they are unfamiliar to pick them up or when an emergency occurs, they can ask that person for the password to ensure it is safe to go with them.

  • Be aware of how much information about your child is publicly available. Any details about them, including name, address, or school, should never be shared on social media.

  • Do not visibly write your children's names on their clothing, backpacks, or toys.

  • If your child should go missing, it is crucial to call 9-1-1 immediately; the first hour is the most critical when trying to locate a missing child.

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Vital safety technologies should be standard on all cars, advocates argue

Is technology to prevent rear-end collisions too important to be an option?

Rear-end collisions are the curse of the motoring classes. They become more common as traffic congestion increases and as electronic gadgets distract drive...

PhotoRear-end collisions are the curse of the motoring classes. They become more common as traffic congestion increases and as electronic gadgets distract drivers from the task at hand.

But just as technology contributes to the problem, it can also help solve it. Through advanced collision avoidance technology, that's increasingly available as an option on lower-priced cars and as standard equipment on luxury models, consumers may be able to avoid extra trips to the auto shop.

Now three of the nation's top consumer advocates say the technologies should be standard on all cars and have petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to require them as standard equipment, saying the move would prevent thousands of deaths and injuries, and billions in property damage, from rear-end crashes.

The formal petition by Consumer Watchdog, the Center for Auto Safety, and Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA Administrator and now President Emeritus of Public Citizen, asks the agency to support Automatic Emergency Braking, a set of three technologies that use combinations of radar, lidar (reflected laser light) and cameras to prevent collisions.

Collision avoiders

The technologies are:

Forward Collision Warning, which alerts a motorist (via audio or visual signals) that a collision with a car in front is imminent;

Crash Imminent Braking, which intervenes when the driver does not respond to the Forward Collision Warning. It automatically applies the brakes to prevent a collision or reduce the vehicle’s speed at impact; and

Dynamic Brake Support, which applies supplemental braking when the braking applied by the driver is insufficient to avoid a collision.

The petition argues that the technologies are proven and already preventing accidents in higher-end vehicles. It also notes that in October, NHTSA agreed to consider whether to order manufacturers to install the equipment in heavy vehicles like trucks.

NHTSA has also incorporated the collision-avoidance systems into its car rating system, the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), the petition notes.

“There is no reason to distinguish between the dangers posed by heavy vehicles, such as trucks, and those posed by light vehicles, such as cars,” says the petition, authored by Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog and now counsel to the organization.

“As helpful as the rating system is when it comes to comparison shopping, a binding regulation is the only way to ensure the minimum safety of every motorist on the road, not just those who can afford the most expensive luxury vehicles,” the petition argues.

The safety advocates urged NHTSA not to allow carmakers to establish the collision avoidance systems through voluntary self-regulation, saying the "promotion of motor vehicle safety through voluntary standards has largely failed."

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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 suffe...

PhotoSmartphones 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.

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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 over...

PhotoThis 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.

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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 Co...

PhotoThe 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%).
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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...

PhotoMortgage 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.

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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 Ventu...

PhotoHyundai 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.

 

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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 ma...

PhotoFord 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.

 

 

 

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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 c...

PhotoPier 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.

 

 

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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 requiremen...

PhotoVolkswagen'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."

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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 wil...

PhotoIt 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.  

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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 usef...

PhotoWhen 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.

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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....

PhotoElectronic 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.

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Uber wants to keep you entertained during your ride

It is allowing third parties to serve up ads, information, and more through its app

Uber knows where you're going, and it's about to let advertisers keep you company on the way. The ride-hailing company bills it as a service to its riders ...

PhotoUber knows where you're going, and it's about to let advertisers keep you company on the way. The ride-hailing company bills it as a service to its riders and says it will be strictly voluntary -- something you can watch or not watch.

The idea is rather simple. If Uber is taking you to the movies, content providers might offer up reviews or trailers of films playing at the theater you're headed to. If you're going out to eat, it might have recent reviews by others who've recently eaten at the hash house of your choice.

Uber is calling it "Trip Experiences" and says it's determined not to irritate its riders.

"They will need to give permission before their favorite apps can connect to Uber and access their trip details," the company says. "And users will be able to turn off the feature app by app at any point if it's not useful."

Uber further pledges that all apps accessing its system will need to be whitelisted with us so it can "ensure the user experience is a positive one."

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Chicago courts can't account for millions of dollars

Fees paid by consumers are missing, lawsuit charges

Given recent reports of chicanery involving red-light cameras, it may not be surprising that some money -- quite a bit of money, actually -- appears to be ...

PhotoGiven recent reports of chicanery involving red-light cameras, it may not be surprising that some money -- quite a bit of money, actually -- appears to be missing from the court system in Chicago.

The Cook County courts can't seem to figure out what happened to a sum variously estimated between $380 million and $638 million, according to a lawsuit filed by an aggrieved taxpayer, Courthouse News Service reports.

Harlan J. Berk, who buys and sells ancient coins, says the missing money was colleced as court costs from litigants in the Cook County courts but has never shown up in reports issued by the clerk of the court.

The fees are the usual mundane court costs levied in cases including simple criminal and traffic cases, as well as filing fees and the like.

Berk's suit says another $55 million to $90 million is missing from receipts involving drug court, mental health court, electronic citations, and children's cases.

It's hardly news that money has a way of disappearing in Chicago. The state of Illinois ranks dead last in most measures of financial health and is on target to run up a deficit of at least $5 billion this year. Legislative incompetence and corruption are usually identified as the villains. What's a little bit surprising is that someone is actually trying to do something about it.

Whistle-blowing

Berk is not the first person to blow the whistle on the purloined fees. An Evanston doctor filed a class action in 2014, but it was thrown out for lack of standing when a state court ruled the doctor had not been harmed by the apparent negligence or theft.

Berk has filed his suit in federal court and alleges that he and other Cook County taxpayers have been denied due process -- to wit, their money was taken improperly.

"Plaintiffs, as taxpayers, have suffered a deprivation of their property without due process of law because the only remedy available under state law to redress the loss of funds while under the dominion of the Clerk of the Court is being denied arbitrarily, at best, by the sitting State's Attorney, who, in obeisance to her client, will not take action to prevent or recover money that the State's Attorney knows was paid into the Clerk's office but was never reported in the financial reports that the Clerk is required by state law to provide and will not take action to require the County to conduct the audits also required by state law to protect the public fisc," the complaint states.

Berk wants the court to order a complete audit by the state's attorney.

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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...

PhotoIf 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.