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FCC probes the role cable companies play in keeping TV shows off the Internet

Big cable companies can force program providers to deny real-time Internet access

So why is it that you can't watch Empire, Utopia, or other top-ranked TV or cable...

Photo
Time Warner's "20 Mbps service" on a good day in Southern California

So why is it that you can't watch Empire, Utopia, or other top-ranked TV or cable shows live on the Internet?

Don't blame Netflix, it's more likely that your cable TV or satellite provider has its thumb on the hose.

To put it simply, big cable companies pay program producers a lot of money to redistribute their product. The value of that product is reduced if the producers make it available on the Internet. To prevent that, the cable companies insert clauses into their contracts that either prohibit distribution on the Internet or reduce the price they're willing to pay for content that winds up on the Web. 

The question of how much influence big cable companies have over distribution of shows on the Internet is being studied by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as it considers the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable.

Should be considered

The FCC recently invited several big media firms, including Disney and 21st Century Fox, to discuss the contract clauses that big cable companies use to restrict Internet streaming. No one is saying exactly what was said, but a Disney spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that the "FCC should, of course, consider these issues."

The Charter-Time Warner merger would create a colossus nearly as large as Comcast, so it is seen as a prime target for some kind of FCC action to prevent cable companies from using their might to bottle up prime content and prevent consumers from "cutting the cord," dumping cable and getting all their TV programming from the Web. 

Charter has said that any restrictions should be placed on all cable companies, not just a combined Charter-Time Warner. But critics, including five Democratic U.S. senators, have expressed "significant concern" about the merger, suggesting it would create a "broadband duopoly" that would leave the combined company in control of nearly two thirds of the nation's broadband homes.

In a letter to the FCC and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the senators say that cable companies are "essential gatekeepers to what customers watch and how they watch it." Signing the letter were Sens. Edward Markey (D-MA), Al Franken (D-MN), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

What to do

The FCC commissioners are presidential appointees. If you want more competition in cable and broadband service, let your Congressional representatives know how you feel about it. You can find their addresses at house.gov and senate.gov.

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Volkswagen's dirty diesels will cause at least 60 U.S. deaths, MIT study finds

The number could be more than twice that if a recall is not conducted promptly

Those cute little Volkswagen "clean diesels" -- you know, the ones with the defeat devices that cheat emissions tests -- will directly contribute to at lea...

PhotoThose cute little Volkswagen "clean diesels" -- you know, the ones with the defeat devices that cheat emissions tests -- will directly contribute to at least 60 premature deaths in the United States, more if a recall is not conducted promptly, a new MIT-led study finds.

Researchers took the amount of estimated excess pollution per car -- roughly 40 times the amount permitted by law -- and multiplied that times 482,000, the number of affected cars sold. Then they extrapolated the results to include population distribution and health risk factors and concluded the deceitful diesels will have "significant effects" on public health.

"It seemed to be an important issue in which we could bring to bear impartial information to help quantify the human implications of the Volkswagen emissions issue," said Steven Barrett, lead author of the study and an associate professor of aeronautrics and astronautics at MIT. "The main motivation is to inform the public and inform the developing regulatory situation."

According to the study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, excess emissions from Volkswagen's defeat devices will cause around 60 people in the U.S. to die 10 to 20 years prematurely.

If the automaker recalls every affected vehicle by the end of 2016, more than 130 additional early deaths may be avoided. If, however, Volkswagen does not order a recall in the U.S., the excess emissions, compounding in the future, will cause 140 people to die early.

Chronic cases

Besides the death toll, the researchers estimated that Volkswagen's trickery will contribute directly to 31 cases of chronic bronchitis and 34 hospital admissions involving respiratory and cardiac conditions. They calculate that individuals will experience about 120,000 minor restricted activity days, including work absences, and about 210,000 lower-respiratory symptom days.

"We all have risk factors in our lives, and [excess emissions] is another small risk factor," Barrett explains. "If you take into account the additional risk due to the excess Volkswagen emissions, then roughly 60 people have died or will die early, and on average, a decade or more early."

Barrett says that, per mile driven, this number is about 20 percent of the number of deaths caused by highway accidents.

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Feds pressed to toughen protection for for-profit college students

Issue has even popped up in GOP presidential race

The Republican presidential candidates hammered fellow candidate and front-runner Donald Trump last week over Trump University, a for-profit school he set ...

PhotoThe Republican presidential candidates hammered fellow candidate and front-runner Donald Trump last week over Trump University, a for-profit school he set up to provide real estate training.

"There are people who borrowed $36,000 to go to Trump University, and they're suing now — $36,000 to go to a university that's a fake school," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), during last week's debate. "And you know what they got? They got to take a picture with a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump."

Trump University is the defendant in a class action lawsuit, originally filed in 2010, that claims, among other things, that students were promised a one-year apprenticeship, but it ended after they paid for a three-day seminar. Attendees who were promised a personal photo with Trump received only the chance to take a photo with a cardboard cutout; many of the instructors had little or no academic qualifications.

The Republican presidential campaign has actually focused renewed attention on for-profit universities and their role in mounting student loan debt.

While Trump University was more of an industry-specific training institute rather than university, many students who have enrolled in for-profit colleges have lived to regret it, especially those who borrowed large sums to attend now-defunct Corinthian College.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris is calling on the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to do more to protect students defrauded by Corinthian Colleges and other for-profit schools.

New regulations

The ED recently held the second of three negotiated rulemaking sessions to determine how student borrowers can get relief from federal student loans when these loans were used at a school engaging in decietful and abusive policies. Harris' office was one of two representatives for state attorneys general taking part.

“Too many students defrauded by for-profit colleges remain buried under mountains of student debt,” Harris said in a release. “I call on the Department of Education to revise their proposed regulations to ensure meaningful debt relief is available to any student misled by a predatory college."

Harris's office worked with federal investigators when looking into Corinthian College practices. The investigation found job placement rates were widely misrepresented to enrolled and prospective Corinthian students.

As a result, thousands of students who attended Corinthian have asked the ED to discharge their federal loans because they were deceived by Corinthian’s inflated job placement rates.

Attention on other for-profit schools

Harris maintains that Corinthian was not the only for-profit school engaging in this kind of activity. She says other for-profit institutions have used similar dishonest tactics against their students, and it is expected that many more students will need to utilize this defense.

Harris says another problem lies in vague federal regulations that make it hard to determine exactly who is eligible to have their student loans discharged. She says she would like to see new regulations define the criteria more clearly.

She's calling for a number of changes in the new draft of ED rules, including a broadening of the categories of school misconduct that would give rise to a defense to repayment.

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Amazon now has seven of its own clothing brands

Experts say the affordably priced clothing already seems poised for success

Amazon recently launched seven of its own private label clothing brands: Franklin & Freeman, Franklin Tailored, James & Erin, Lark & Ro, North Eleven, Scou...

PhotoAmazon recently launched seven of its own private label clothing brands: Franklin & Freeman, Franklin Tailored, James & Erin, Lark & Ro, North Eleven, Scout + Ro, and Society New York.

Reports note that while there wasn’t much in the way of launch day fanfare, the stylish and affordably priced brands seem poised for success.

Getting in on the fast fashion game by offering relatively inexpensive basics will allow Amazon to take advantage of gaps in its variety from outside vendors, says fashion site WWD.

Affordably priced

The new lines -- which currently account for 1,800 listings on the site -- are as fashionable as they are budget-friendly. Women’s dresses are priced under $100, while men’s suits are listed for under $300.

James & Erin, North Eleven, Society New York, and Lark & Ro focus on women’s apparel, while Franklin & Freeman and Franklin Tailored offer dress shoes and apparel for men. Scout + Ro has the little ones covered.

Lark & Ro, which sells dresses for $66.50, offers a “practical yet polished look” for women on-the-go. Their collection of smart casual looks has everything from classic staples to fun florals. Lark & Ro also claims to source fabrics that will hold up all day, without creasing or wrinkles.

Franklin & Freeman focuses on men’s dress shoes and loafers, the majority of which will only set you back about $65. To go with your new shoes, head over to Franklin Tailored to take care of your suit and tie needs. Ties are priced at around $25 and suits are generally under $250.

Scout + Ro offers clothing for boys and girls aged 4 to 14. The brand describes its kid-friendly clothing as, “confident, comfortable, and ready-for-anything.” Girls and boys tops are going for around $10 to $15 and pants for around $20.

Next steps

While Amazon has not officially confirmed it, reports speculate that the brand is already working to build its private label team. Job openings for head of marketing, senior brand manager, senior sourcing manager, and senior merchandiser for its private fashion label unit are currently open.

“Apparel is one of Amazon’s fastest-growing categories,” notes Ed Yruma, KeyBlanc Capital analyst, whose team believes the low barriers to entry, size, and significant competitive set "make this an attractive category for Amazon." 

He adds, however, that there is more work to be done to scale the site’s foray into the realm of apparel. Yruma believes greater brand cooperation with third-party seller restrictions and an owned-brand approach will be necessary for future growth and success.

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Minnesota sues “extended warranty” marketer

Attorney General says company deceived consumers into buying costly and unnecessary service contracts

If you own a car that is at least a few years old, you no doubt have received a post card, or official-looking letter, warning you that your vehicle is abo...

PhotoIf you own a car that is at least a few years old, you no doubt have received a post card, or official-looking letter, warning you that your vehicle is about to go out of warranty.

It might even warn you that the communication you are holding in your hand is your “final notice!”

In truth, your car has probably been out of warranty for some time, or it may still be covered by the manufacturer's warranty. The sender of the card or letter is simply hoping you will be panicked into purchasing a service contract for several thousand dollars.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson believes solicitations like that are deceptive and might cause an unsuspecting consumer to purchase a service contract he or she doesn't really want or need.

Costly and unnecessary

Swanson has sued United Auto Defense, LLC, a company based in Missouri, that she says used deceptive business practices to sell costly and unnecessary vehicle service contracts in her state. She also warned consumers to be on guard against companies that pose as vehicle manufacturers to sell warranties.

Swanson said her investigation uncovered the fact that United Auto Defense was sending out postcards that were designed to look like they came from the vehicle manufacturer.

“The company got people to buy warranties whose vehicles were already covered by a warranty,” Swanson said in a release. “People should be on guard against companies posing as manufacturers or dealers to sell expensive warranties that are riddled with loopholes.”

Swanson took strong exception to one of United Auto Defense's mailings that she said was labeled a “Technical Service Bulletin.” The mailing told recipients that “Technical Service Bulletins…are recommended procedures for repairing vehicles. Not to be confused with a recall, a TSB is issued by vehicle manufacturers and authorized repair facilities when there are several occurrences of an unanticipated problem.”

What to consider

There are legitimate companies that sell vehicle service contracts – often mistakenly referred to as extended warranties. The debate is over whether they are worth the money.

When purchasing a used car, having a three-month warranty to cover a major repair might be a wise investment.

If you are considering an extended service contract, however, make sure you understand what it covers and what limitations and deductibles apply.  

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Why weddings cost so much and how you can save

A few clever budget cuts can help you save on the big day

First comes love, then comes marriage -- but building a bridge from one to the other can often come with a high price tag. Society standards dictate that b...

PhotoFirst comes love, then comes marriage -- but building a bridge from one to the other can often come with a high price tag. Society standards dictate that before entering the realm of marriage, you must first cough up the price of admission: a wedding.

It seems Americans have no problem with that, either. Weddings are a $60 billion per year industry here in the U.S. Between the rings, the venue, and other wedding-related activities, couples spent an average of $30,000 to get married last year, according to the Knot.

The biggest wedding expense was the venue, with couples spending an average of $14,006. Engagement rings took second place on the short list of biggest budget-eaters, costing an average of $5,855 (the band, $3,587). Photography and flowers also took a big bite out of wedding budgets, costing couples $2,556 and $2,141, respectively. 

With the average cost of a wedding so high, what can couples do to make it more affordable?

Engagement ring alternatives

That rule of thumb which states that a man must spend two months’ salary on his lady’s engagement ring? That’s actually a product of a clever marketing campaign.

De Beers diamond company not only suggested that “a diamond is forever,” they slapped a price point on it. “Two months salary showed the future Mrs. Smith what the future would be like,” read the 1980s advertisement.

But lucky for modern day grooms-to-be, more brides are looking past traditional norms when it comes to engagement rings. Non-diamond engagement ring alternatives -- such as man-made diamonds and other precious gems -- are becoming coveted, and not just for their lower price tag.

The more unique look of alternative engagement rings has brides-to-be swooning. “Alternative,” “non-traditional,” and even “unconventional” are all popular searches on sites like Pinterest and Etsy.

The "Marriage Markup"

The “W” word can magically raise the cost of a venue. Instead of telling vendors and venue owners that you’re planning a wedding, just say that you’re planning an event.

"If you don't mention the word 'wedding,' the price is often 25 percent to 30 percent cheaper," Alan Fields, co-author of "Bridal Bargains: Secrets to Planning a Fantastic Wedding on a Realistic Budget” told 20/20.

Avoiding the marriage markup in the venue category can be as easy as taking the sentimental route. Choosing a location with meaning -- a park with positive memories attached or the setting of your first date, for example -- can often be a lot more special than a big reception hall.

Do-it-yourself

And of course, it wouldn't be a discussion on saving money without the mention of DIY options.

Consider doing your own flowers. Craft store vases, backyard greenery, and sites like FiftyFlowers.com can all be a big help if you plan to tackle the role of florist on your own. You could even consider having bridesmaids walk down the aisle with flower alternatives, such as lanterns.

Music can also be taken care of without having to hire a professional. All it takes is a laptop to become your own DJ.

“Our venue had a professional sound system built in. We literally plugged in a MacBook Pro, had a friend help us create a playlist that flowed, and danced the night away,” said Emily Erker Szucs via Facebook.

To avoid spending big on wedding photography, keep in mind that it will be much cheaper to hire a photographer during the off-season or any day except Saturday or Sunday.

You could also consider having a friend or family member take the pictures, either as a wedding gift or at a discounted rate. When it comes to saving money on a wedding, it's always a good idea to graciously accept help when it's offered.

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Costco's transition to Citi Visas now set for 'mid-2016'

The switch from American Express had been expected to happen March 31

It was announced with much fanfare last year that the exclusive deal between American Express and Costco would end on March 31, 2016, when the Citi Visa wo...

PhotoIt was announced with much fanfare last year that the exclusive deal between American Express and Costco would end on March 31, 2016, when the Citi Visa would become the only credit card accepted by Costco.

There is, however, the little matter of $1 billion.

That's the estimated size of the portfolio of loans outstanding to 51 million holders of the co-branded Amex/Costco credit card. In a statement today, just 32 days away from the announced transition date, American Express said it has concluded negotiations with Citi, which will acquire the portfolio for about $1 billion.

"The sale is expected to close June 2016, at which time all eligible Costco American Express Card cobranded accounts will be transferred to Citi. Additional details will be provided to Card Members in advance of the partnership end date," American Express said in a statement.

If that sounds to you like the March 31 date has slipped, you're probably right. Here's how Citi put it: "The transaction is expected to close in mid-2016 at which time Citi will begin issuing Costco credit cards."

Costco has not troubled itself to issue any public guidance to its members, but Citi says it will issue new Citi Visas to all eligible holders of Amex Costco cards in "mid-2016."

"We are immensely pleased to have entered into an agreement to acquire the Costco portfolio and look forward to a long-term partnership with Costco and the opportunity to deliver value, convenience and seamless service to their 51 million loyal members across the country," said Jud Linville, Chief Executive Officer, Citi Cards.

Linville said Citi is "working with Costco to provide a new value proposition to its members."

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Disney theme parks move to seasonal ticket pricing

Single day tickets now cost more during most popular visitation times

The Walt Disney Company theme parks are borrowing a page from other travel industries, basing tick...

Photo
Disneyland locomotive at New Orleans Square Station

The Walt Disney Company theme parks are borrowing a page from other travel industries, basing ticket prices on demand.

 

Effective immediately, tickets to Disney parks are being priced according to the season and anticipated demand. Prices will be higher on holidays and during prime visitation season.

 

The policy only affects one-day tickets and not multiple visit passes. Disney said it is adopting seasonal pricing as a way to spread out visitation at its parks.

 

“The demand for Disney parks continues to grow, particularly during peak periods,” the company said in a blog posting over the weekend. “At the same time, we have an unwavering commitment to exceeding the expectations of all our guests.”

 

From now on, Disney will divide each month into “value,” “regular,” and “peak” days with an eight to 11 month calendar available for viewing online. For example, if consumers plan a visit for September, they’ll have a variety of options, including many days in the value period, which will give them the opportunity to pay less for a One-Day ticket.

 

If consumers plan to visit during a peak period, like the winter holidays, they will pay more. Purchasing a One-Day ticket in a non-peak period, or choosing multi-day tickets and annual passes, will provide additional flexibility and value, the company said.

 

We checked the Disneyland Park site to discover the difference between the three price levels. Seven days during the month are identified as “value” and tickets start at $95. There are 10 “regular” days starting at $105. There are 14 “peak” days in March, when tickets start at $119.

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The Goldilocks approach to booking flights will save money

Not booking too soon, or too late, but when it's just right, is the key

Consumers are probably beginning to plan summer vacations. But if those trips involve air travel, when you book and when you fly can affect the total cost ...

PhotoConsumers are probably beginning to plan summer vacations. But if those trips involve air travel, when you book and when you fly can affect the total cost of the vacation.

If you don't plan to travel for a couple of months, you're in luck. CheapAir.com reports the best time to book your flight is 54 days before departure.

This year's study of dates and pricing analyzed 1.3 billion fares and identified five booking “zones” that can save consumers money.

The study included airfares for roughly 3 million different trips across every day of the year. And by “trip,” the company means an itinerary going from Point A to Point B on a specific date with a specific return date.

For each trip, CheapAir identified the lowest fare offered every day from 320 days in advance until 1 day in advance.

Prime booking window

“Fifty-four days is a good number to start with, but it’s important to know that every trip is different,” Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com, said in a release. “That’s why we have what we call the ‘Prime Booking Window’ which is between 21 and 112 days before departure.

Klee says for most trips within the U.S., the best time to buy a ticket will be somewhere in that range.

“But because different markets have different dynamics, we now also provide the Prime Booking Window for the specific city you want to visit,” he said.

Klee says most airfares follow a fairly consistent pattern. Once the fare is posted, the price is pretty high. As the departure date approaches, the fare begins to drop.

When the departure date is just a few weeks away, the fare begins to go up again. To save money, Klee says you have to hit the bottom of that curve, picking the “just right” moment to book your flight. The biggest mistake is waiting too late to purchase.

“People ask all the time if it’s true that at the last minute the airlines have unsold seats that they practically ‘give away’, but that’s rarely the case,” Klee said. “Fares usually go up dramatically within 14 days of the flight.”

Five zones

Generally, fares are posted for 11 months before departure. CheapAir.com has divided that booking window into five “zones.” Here’s what travelers should know about each one:

  • First Dibs (197 - 335 days out): First Dibbers get their pick of flight times, nonstop options, and seats. However, they pay an average of $50 more than they would during the “Prime Booking Window.”
  • Peace of Mind (113 – 196 days out): The Peace of Mind zone offers a balance between flight options and price. Travelers pay an average of $20 more per ticket than they would in the Prime Booking Window but also have more flight options to choose from.
  • Prime Booking Window (21 – 112 days out): This is the zone for bargain hunters. During these 90 days, fares fluctuate a lot, sometimes day to day. By checking frequently during this time, travelers might find real bargains.
  • Push Your Luck (14 – 20 days out): This is when fares can fluctuate dramatically. Depending on how full flights are, travelers may get a fantastic deal, or they may pay significantly more. But remember, popular flights during peak seasons are less likely to have low fares in this zone.
  • Hail Mary(0 – 13 days out): On rare occasions, the Hail Mary zone offers an incredible rate. However, travelers in this zone pay an average of $75 over the Prime Booking Window. In the final week that premium shoots up to $200.

Based on its findings, CheapAir has developed a tool to help consumers find the best time to book. You can check it out here.

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Small companies making big inroads in the food industry

Millennials giving new meaning to "value menu"

Millennials' strongly-held views about food may have its roots in the 2004 documentary “Super-Size Me,” in which independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate ...

PhotoMillennials' strongly-held views about food may have its roots in the 2004 documentary “Super-Size Me,” in which independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days, gaining 24 pounds and damaging his health.

Despite the fact that no one in their right mind would recommend such a diet, suddenly young people, who as children loved to eat at fast food restaurants, wouldn't set foot in one.

The trend has continued, with nutritionist David Despain writing in Food Technology Magazine that the effects have shaken up the food industry. He writes that entrepreneurial companies are disrupting the food chain through product innovation, storytelling, and home delivery services.

These small companies cater to consumers who embrace the “small is beautiful” mantra, and if it's small and local, so much the better.

Distrust

Despain cites a 2015 study by Mintel that found 43% of Millennials do not trust large food manufacturers, compared to only 18% of non-Millennials who have that prejudice.

Because of this distrust, Despain believes Millennials want brands to form a “genuine, authentic connection” with them. They have also mixed their taste in food with morality, seeking out products with local or novel ingredients and brands that are “attached to a greater ethical mission.”

As a result, small food brands are successfully connecting with consumers by offering natural and transparent products and aligning ingredients and marketing with a social cause.

Big companies get the message

But guess what? So are large food companies -- or at least they're trying. Gordon Food Service, a major corporation selling food to restaurants and institutions, has explored Millennial tastes in-depth, noting this generation is seeking “authenticity” in its food choice.

“It’s about authenticity of experience—food with integrity that’s handcrafted in the back of the house,” the company writes on its website.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, one of the food industry's largest trade groups, recently collaborated with Deloitte to study food trends influenced by Millennials. It not only found that values continue to play an oversized role in food decisions, but the trend is no longer confined to one generation.

Everyone's doing it

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s not just the Millennials or most affluent putting these evolving drivers in the mix,” Jack Ringquist, principal, Deloitte Consulting, said in a release. “Our research reveals that the preference for these attributes does not differ by generation, income level or region, but is pervasive across these groups.”

The bottom line, the food industry trade group concluded, is that the U.S. consumer has changed in a fundamental way and large food companies need to adapt to remain competitive.

Many already are. Despain says major retailers are catering to new consumer needs by changing the assortment on their shelves to include more products from smaller brands. Investors, too, see tremendous potential in smaller food companies and have been eager to finance new food ventures.

Meanwhile, as large food companies struggle to stay relevant, small food businesses are quickly becoming competitive and disrupting the traditional food chain, Despain writes.

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Winter chill hits pending home sales in January

The only gain in signed contracts came in the South

As if to prove that what goes up must come down, pending home sales fell in January following their highest average year in nearly a decade.The Nationa...

PhotoAs if to prove that what goes up must come down, pending home sales fell in January following their highest average year in nearly a decade.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, declined 2.5% last month to 106.0. Still, the index is 1.4% above a year ago and, while the PHSI has increased year-over-year for 17 consecutive months, last month’s annual gain was the second smallest during that time frame.

Numerous factors

“While January’s blizzard possibly caused some of the pullback in the Northeast, the recent acceleration in home prices and minimal inventory throughout the country appears to be the primary obstacle holding back would-be buyers,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “Additionally, some buyers could be waiting for a hike in listings come springtime.”

Existing-home sales increased last month and were considerably higher than the start of 2015, but price growth quickened to 8.2% -- the largest annual gain since April 2015 (8.5%).

While the hope is that appreciating home values will start to entice more homeowners to sell, Yun says supply and affordability conditions won’t meaningfully improve until home builders start ramping up production -- especially of homes at lower price points.

Sales by region

  • The PHSI fell 3.2% to 94.5 in the Northeast but is still 10.9% above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index was down 4.9% to 101.1 but is still 1.4% above January 2015.
  • Pending home sales in the South inched up 0.3% to 121.1 but remain 1.3% lower than last January.
  • The index in the West decreased 4.5% in January to 96.5 but is 0.4% above the same month last year.

Realtor.com Chief Economist Jonathan Smoke said he expects to see an increase in new contracts in February "as web activity and stated buyer intentions combine with better weather for most of the country to enable an early start to the spring buying season."

In addition, he said, "The existing home market should see marginal growth in 2016, but tight supply will continue to be the biggest inhibitor of sales."

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GM recalls Chevrolet Camaros, Malibus, Silverados and GMC Sierras

The radio may intermittently fail to provide audio warnings

General Motors is recalling 139 model year 2016 Chevrolet Camaro, Malibu, Silverado and GMC Sierra vehicles. The radio may intermittently fail to p...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 139 model year 2016 Chevrolet Camaro, Malibu, Silverado and GMC Sierra vehicles.

 

The radio may intermittently fail to provide an audio warning when the key has been left in the ignition and the door is opened or when the driver does not fasten their seat belt. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) number 114, "Theft Protection", and/or 208, "Occupant Crash Protection."

 

An unbelted driver is at a greater risk of injury in a crash.

 

What to do

 

GM will notify owners, and dealers will update the radio software, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020, or GMC customer service at 1-800-462-8782. GM's number for this recall is 15808.

 

 

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Maytag Dairy Farms once again expands recall of blue cheese products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Maytag Dairy Farms is again expanding its recall of Maytag Blue blue cheese wedges, wheels and crumbles. The products may be contaminated with List...

PhotoMaytag Dairy Farms is again expanding its recall of Maytag Blue blue cheese wedges, wheels and crumbles.

 

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

No illnesses have been reported in connection with this issue.

 

This expanded recall is of 35 lots of 1-, 4- and 8-oz. Wedges; 2- and 4-lb. wheels; and 43 batches of 8-oz. crumbles and 5-lb. crumbles. This includes the five lots and 15 batches that were recalled earlier this month are noted in the following tables:

ProductsLot #s
Wedges or wheels (all sizes)150479, 150480, 150481, 150482, 150483, 150484, 150485, 150486, 150488, 150489, 150492, 150493, 150495, 150498, 150499, 150500, 150501, 150506, 150508, 150509, 150514, 150515, 150516, 150517, 150518, 150532, 150533, 150534, 150535, 150538, 150539, 150648, 150649, 150650, 150651
ProductBatch #s
Crumbles (both sizes)950804, 960020, 950805, 960037, 950806, 960040, 950807, 960041, 950808, 960049, 950809, 960054, 950813, 960069, 950818, 960070, 950825, 960071, 960072, 950830, 960073, 950848, 950826, 950849, 960053, 950851, 960067, 950853, 960068, 950855, 950856, 950858, 950859, 960001, 960002, 960004, 960025, 960034, 960036, 960051, 960055, 960065, 960066

 

 

The lot number or batch number appears on the side or the bottom of the product.

 

The recalled products were sold through distributors, wholesalers, retail stores, restaurants and direct mail orders nationwide between November 24, 2015, and February 11, 2016.

 

What to do

 

Customers who purchased these products should discard them immediately and not consume them.

 

Consumers may call Maytag Dairy Farms at 800-247-2458 or 641-791-2010 Monday – Friday 9AM-5PM (CST) to arrange for a refund and return of the product.

 

 

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Innovative research reprograms skin cells to fight brain cancer

The new technique has improved survival rates in mice by 160-220 percent

A recent innovation of using skin cells may prove effective in fighting brain cancer, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chape...

PhotoA recent innovation of using skin cells may prove effective in fighting brain cancer, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By utilizing technology that won a Nobel prize in 2007, pharmacy researchers have been able to turn certain types of skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells. When changed, the cells are able to effectively hunt down and destroy brain tumor cells called glioblastoma.

Reprogramming skin cells

The new technique could prove to be groundbreaking for patients suffering from brain cancer. Current treatment methods only give those suffering from glioblastoma a 30% chance of living beyond two years. This is due to the tumors’ complexity; while surgery can be effective in removing as much of the tumor as possible, it is not good at removing the tendrils that sprout from them. These tendrils burrow deeper into the brain and cause remnants of the tumor to grow back. Most patients only survive a year and a half after receiving a diagnosis.

So in order to effectively treat this form of cancer, researchers went to work on finding ways to eliminate these tendrils. Dr. Shawn Hingtgen and his team went to work with this goal in mind. By reprogramming a certain type of skin cell called a fibroblast, he and his team were able to create induced neural stem cells. These stem cells are able to more easily move through the brain and destroy the tendrils that surgery cannot remove.

The results of the research have been promising thus far. Depending on the type of tumor, researchers were able to increase survival rates in mice by 160-220 percent.

More work ahead

The next step for researchers is to start working with human stem cells. Hingtgen and his team hope to be able to load different anti-cancer drugs into them so that their potency will be increased. “We wanted to find out if these induced neural stem cells would home in on cancer cells and whether they could be used to deliver a therapeutic agent. This is the first time this direct reprogramming technology has been used to treat cancer,” he said.

There are still some kinks that need to be worked out before the stem cells can effectively work in a human model. For example, after being inserted into the body, the stem cells have a tendency to become disorganized and not work effectively.

Hingtgen and his team are working on ways of binding them to a physical matrix so that they will have more longevity and work more efficiently. “Without a structure like that, the stem cells wander off too quickly to do any good,” said Hingtgen.

More information on the research can be found here.

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Outlook on the housing market shows strong demand and inventory growth

Spring is indeed slated for early arrival, experts say

Despite the stock market’s turbulent start to 2016, the housing market appears to be fine. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), existin...

PhotoDespite the stock market’s turbulent start to 2016, the housing market appears to be fine. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), existing-home sales rose 0.4% in January, hitting their highest annual rate in six months.

We’re off to a solid start on the existing sales front, notes Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, and strong demand is evident as we head into spring.

"The housing market has shown promising resilience in recent months, but home prices are still rising too fast because of ongoing supply constraints," he said. "Despite the global economic slowdown, the housing sector continues to recover and will likely help the U.S. economy avoid a recession."

Early spring

Experts say inventory in nine local markets is moving three weeks faster than last month, and the spring buying season has already begun. Realtor.com’s preliminary analysis of February data shows strong demand and slight inventory growth.

“It looks like the groundhog was correct -- spring is coming early this year, and not just when it comes to the weather,” said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist of realtor.com. “Early readings on February inventory and activity indicate that the spring home buying season has begun.”

Not only is housing inventory moving faster (six days faster than last year and four days faster than January), Median listing prices have risen to $230,000 -- an 8% increase from last year.

Smoke notes that we don’t normally see this type of acceleration until March or April.

“On a local level,” he says, “The acceleration is really dramatic with nine of the top ten hottest markets shaving three weeks or more from their median age in January.”

California once again dominates the list of Realtor.com’s Hottest Markets, with cities in the Golden State accounting for 11 of the top 20 spots.

Key statistics

Some key takeaways from Realtor.com’s February preview:

  • Median age of inventory: 96 days
  • Median listing price for February: approximately $230,000
  • Listing inventory: down 4 percent year over year but has begun its seasonal increase of one percent month over month.
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Once considered retail roadkill, J.C. Penney rises from the ashes

Latest earnings report suggests "back to the future" strategy has worked

J.C. Penney, a retailer once left for dead, is turning heads on Wall Street, perhaps because it has regained the respect of consumers on Main Street.Th...

PhotoJ.C. Penney, a retailer once left for dead, is turning heads on Wall Street, perhaps because it has regained the respect of consumers on Main Street.

The proof was delivered in the company's fourth quarter and full-year earnings report late Thursday. Comparable store sales grew 4.1 % for the fourth quarter and 4.5 % for the full year.

The company said the combination of strong sales growth, better profit margins, and disciplined expense reduction resulted in full year adjusted earnings of $715 million, a $435 million increase.

"We are very pleased with our performance for the fourth quarter and full year,” J.C. Penney CEO Marvin Ellison said in a press release announcing the earnings. “Our focus on private brands, omnichannel and revenue per customer is clearly resonating as we continue to win market share in a competitive environment.”

Disastrous makeover recovery

Ellison probably has every right to be pleased since the company suffered what can only be described as a disastrous makeover and customer revolt just four years ago. For those who don't recall those events, here's what happened.

At the urging of activist board member Bill Ackman, J.C. Penney at the beginning of 2012 abandoned its long tradition of serving a middle class, middle aged, and middle-of-the-road consumer. The company hoped to replace that J.C. Penney customer with one who was younger and cooler.

It changed its brand to JCP and launched its offensive with the TV commercial below, which few people understood but old J.C. Penney customers universally hated.

Complaints

Complaints from long-time Penneys customers poured in to ConsumerAffairs.

"This is the worst ad of all time, stop it immediately," wrote Kathy, of Hillsboro, Ore. "We will boycott J.C. Penney until it offers an apology to all its customers!"

"I am complaining about the obnoxious television commercial aired announcing your new pricing campaign," wrote Carole, of Lakewood, Calif. "It has to be one of the most irritating, annoying commercials ever created for television. If you think this will make anyone shop at your stores, you are mistaken as far as I'm concerned.”

What Kathy and Carole didn't understand was that the ad was probably designed to evoke that reaction in them. To many industry observers, Penneys appeared to be firing its customers, with plans to replace them.

The old customers left, but the hoped-for new ones didn't arrive, at least not in the necessary numbers. Just over a year later, amid mounting losses, J.C. Penney went back to the future, reinstalling its former CEO and returning to many of its previous pricing and operational policies.

Enough of its customers have returned that the company now appears to be back on its feet. In fact, it's doing better than some of its rivals like Macy's and Sears, that have struggled in the increasingly tough retail environment.

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How fast food chains are using apps to win customers

Rewards, incentives, and the ability to skip the line are driving customers to use apps to place their orders

Looking for a way to make fast food even faster? There’s an app for that. To an increasing extent, restaurants and fast food chains are using apps as a way...

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Southern California drivers to see sharply higher gas prices

In the rest of the country, the gasoline price decline appears to have stalled

It took a long time for California gasoline prices to finally start falling, joining much of the rest of the country. But those prices are headed higher ag...

PhotoIt took a long time for California gasoline prices to finally start falling, joining much of the rest of the country. But those prices are headed higher again, as early as next week.

Refiners have been stuck with excess supplies of the cheaper, winter grade gasoline that cannot be legally sold after next Tuesday. To get rid of it, wholesalers have slashed prices in recent weeks.

That's led to an average statewide price at the pump of $2.34 cents a gallon in California, more expensive than the national average but down nearly 80 cents a gallon from this time last year.

20 to 35 cent rise

“Now that the winter gasoline has been consumed, those big discounts have vaporized, leading it to appear to be a big hike in price,” Gasbuddy senior petroleum analyst Patrick DeHaan said in an email to ConsumerAffairs. “I expect prices there to rise 20 to 35 cents a gallon over the next week as stations resupply with the more expensive, or less discounted, fuel.”

DeHaan says this transition occurs every year around this time and is the reason behind the seasonal lift in prices at the pump.

“As the summer fuel season starts, inventories are generally limited – they build over time – and that means going from a glut of cheap winter gasoline to tight supply of CARB-mandated summer spec fuel,” DeHaan said.

DeHaan predicts Northern California will see a similar rise in three to four weeks. He says the price hike may come in at a lesser or greater degree, depending on refinery maintenance, supply, demand, and other factors that can affect price.

“The rest of the country will also see a lift in gasoline prices over the next two to three months before prices peak in May or June just ahead of the deadline for the transition to be completed,” DeHaan said.

Price decline stalls

The national average price of gasoline, which had been steadily falling for months, appears to have stalled for now. According to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey, the national average price of self-serve regular is $1.728, a fraction of a cent higher than a week ago.

The survey shows consumers in the vast majority of states are still paying average prices below $2 per gallon. Missouri and Oklahoma remain the cheapest in the nation, at $1.46. On the other end of the spectrum, motorists in the West are paying some of the nation’s highest averages led by Hawaii at $2.57 and California.

Prices are also moving in different directions in different parts of the country. Weekly comparisons show prices are down in 30 states and Washington, D.C. on the week with the largest savings west of the Rockies. At the same time, drivers in 20 states have seen prices at the pump go up since last week.

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Mental agility may delay Alzheimer's symptoms, but not the disease

Researchers also worry Alzheimer's is often misdiagnosed

It turns out there is a difference between the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and the disease itself.Good health and physical and mental exercise as y...

PhotoIt turns out there is a difference between the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and the disease itself.

Good health and physical and mental exercise as you age may in fact delay the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms, but researchers writing in a medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology say it won't prevent the disease.

The study centered around people who carry a gene linked to Alzheimer's, the so-called APOE4 gene. An estimated 20% of the U.S. population carries it.

The researchers divided people with the gene into two groups. One group stayed mentally active in middle age and one didn't.

The mentally active group had lower levels of proteins, called amyloid plaques, that can build up in brain tissue and lead to Alzheimer’s disease than those who did not stay mentally active.

The difference was significant. The mentally active group had the same plaque build-up at age 79 that the non-active group had at 74.

“Recent studies have shown conflicting results about the value of physical and mental activity related to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and we noticed that levels of education differed in those studies,” study author Prashanthi Vemuri of the Mayo Clinic, said in a release. “When we looked specifically at the level of lifetime learning, we found that carriers of the APOE4 gene who had higher education and continued to learn through middle age had fewer amyloid deposition on imaging when compared to those who did not continue with intellectual activity in middle age.”

Misdiagnosis

Some patients are diagnosed with Alzheimer's when they are actually suffering from frontotemporal dementia, which delays the correct treatment for them.

“Some people cannot tell frontotemporal dementia from Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Joseph Masdeu, director of the Nantz National Alzheimer Center at Houston Methodist Hospital, said in a release. “However, these diseases have different symptoms and treatments. And with advances in neuroimaging, we can see a clear difference in how frontotemporal dementia manifests in the brain.”

The accumulation of the protein beta amyloid in Alzheimer's can lead to excess production of an abnormal form of the important brain protein, tau.

But beta amyloid is absent in frontotemporal dementia, and a different abnormal form of tau is detected.

“A misdiagnosis of Alzheimer’s can prevent a person with frontotemporal dementia from participating in future trials for this group of disorders” Masdeu said.

Since potential Alzheimer’s treatments would not help a patient with frontotemporal dementia, misdiagnosed patients participating in Alzheimer’s clinical trials can skew that data and prevent the advancement of those treatments, Masdeu said.

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New car sales show surprising rise in February

Despite problems with the Civic, Honda leads the way

The start of 2016 brought talk of “peak auto,” when many industry observers predicted new car sales, which rose at a record pace in 2015, would take a brea...

PhotoThe start of 2016 brought talk of “peak auto,” when many industry observers predicted new car sales, which rose at a record pace in 2015, would take a breather.

After an expected dip in January, robust sales have taken some by surprise this month. With dealers about to close out February, Kelley Blue Book (KBB) expects to see a 9% year-over-year rise, to 1.37 million units.

In fact, Kelley believes this month could end up the highest February for sales since 2000.

“February 2016 numbers should reveal solid growth and continued momentum in the auto industry,” Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst for KBB, said in a release. “Economic indicators remain positive for the industry, with the unemployment rate down below 5%, average home prices on the rise, and gas prices averaging under $2 per gallon.

Generous incentives

It hasn't hurt, Gutierrez says, that manufacturers and dealers have been generous with the incentives this month, with discounts approaching pre-recession levels.

Despite Honda's problems with the Civic, which resulted in a stoppage of sales this month, Honda may well emerge as the winner of February sales. Preliminary figures suggest a 13% sales surge.

Most of Honda's strength is coming from the new Civic, even though recent sales were obviously slowed by the engine problem. That said, the re-designed Civic remains extremely popular with consumers and is averaging 45 days in dealer inventory before selling, much lower than the compact car segment average of 80 days.

Trucks and SUVs

Ford also appears to be having a successful February. KBB says Ford sales may post double-digit growth this month, helped by the popularity of its truck and SUV models. In particular, the F-Series and Explorer are leading the way.

And why not? With gas prices around $2 a gallon most places, consumers are indulging their preferences for bigger vehicles.

“Once again, small utility vehicles remain the most popular segment in February 2016 and are expected to increase 25% in volume,” said Gutierrez. “Consumers continue to be drawn to this segment in favor of traditional sedans, helping brands such as Jeep and Subaru reach new records nearly every month.”

Truck sales continue to look strong. KBB says mid-size models are in high demand as the fastest selling segment in the industry, spending just 40 days in dealer inventory on average.

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January finds increases in personal incomes and spending

However, consumers tucked away a little less in savings accounts

Consumers were doing a little better in January as both personal income and disposable personal income (DPI) went up. For that matter, so did spending....

PhotoConsumers were doing a little better in January as both personal income and disposable personal income (DPI) went up. For that matter, so did spending.

The Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reports incomes rose $79.6 billion, or 0.5%, last month and disposable personal income (DPI) -- personal income less personal current taxes -- increased $63.5 billion, or 0.5%.

Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) increased $63.0 billion, or 0.5%.

Compensation

Wages and salaries rose $48.1 billion in January, following an $18.3 billion gain in December. Private wages and salaries were up $43.7 billion, while government wages and salaries increased $4.4 billion, compared with an increase of $2.4 billion in December.

Supplements to wages and salaries advanced $6.5 billion; they were up $5.0 billion in December.

Personal spending and saving

Personal outlays -- PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments -- jumped $67.5 billion in January, compared with an increase of $14.3 billion in December.

Personal saving, which is DPI less personal outlays, fell from $709.2 billion in December to $705.1 billion last month. Still, the personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 5.2%, the same rate as in December.

The full report is available on the BEA website.

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Some -- but not much -- improvement in 4th quarter economy

The rate of GDP inflation eased a bit

The Commerce Department has taken its second of three looks at how the economy was doing at year's end and found that things were a bit better than origina...

PhotoThe Commerce Department has taken its second of three looks at how the economy was doing at year's end and found that things were a bit better than originally believed.

The government says 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 -- grew at an annual rate of 1.0% in the fourth quarter instead of the 0.7% in the original estimate. The GDP was up 2.0% in the third quarter.

The difference in the first and second estimates is the fact that private inventory investment decreased less than previously reported.

Overall, the increase in real GDP in the fourth quarter reflected contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), residential fixed investment and federal government spending. These were partly offset by declines in exports, nonresidential fixed investment, state and local government spending and private inventory investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of the GDP, decreased.

The slowdown from the third quarter was due largely to a deceleration in PCE and downturns in nonresidential fixed investment, in state and local government spending, and in exports that were partly offset by a smaller decrease in private inventory investment, a downturn in imports, and an acceleration in federal government spending.

The price index for gross domestic purchases -- which measures prices paid by U.S. residents -- increased 0.4% in the fourth quarter, compared with an increase of 1.3% in the third. The “core” rate, which excludes food and energy prices, was up 1.0%, compared with a third quarter advance of 1.3%.

The complete report may be found on the Commerce Department website.

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Redesigned Audi Q7 earns TOP SAFETY PICK+ award

The vehicle's standard front crash prevention system got a superior rating

A superior rating for its standard front crash prevention system has earned the redesigned 2017 Audi Q7 a TOP SAFETY PICK+ award from the Insurance Institu...

PhotoA superior rating for its standard front crash prevention system has earned the redesigned 2017 Audi Q7 a TOP SAFETY PICK+ award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

The large luxury SUV also received good ratings in all five of the IIHS crashworthiness tests.

The IIHS doesn't routinely test large SUVs, and the Q7 is the first to be put through the challenging small overlap front crash test, which was introduced in 2012. The Q7 was tested because Audi nominated it for TOP SAFETY PICK+ and paid for the vehicles used.

In 2016, vehicles qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK or TOP SAFETY PICK+ if they have good ratings in all five crashworthiness evaluations -- small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints, as well as an available front crash prevention system.

If the system earns a basic rating, the vehicle qualifies for TOP SAFETY PICK. The "plus" is awarded to vehicles with an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention.

In the front crash prevention evaluation, the Q7 avoided a collision in the 12 mph track test. In the 25 mph test, the vehicle's speed was cut by an average of 23 mph. The system also includes a forward collision warning component that meets National Highway Traffic Safety Administration criteria.

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Evenflo recalls Transitions 3-in-1 Combination Booster Seats

The child may be able to loosen the internal harness

Evenflo is recalling 56,247 Transitions 3-in-1 Combination Booster Seats, model numbers 34411686, 34411695 and 34411029, produced from December 18, 2014, t...

PhotoEvenflo is recalling 56,247 Transitions 3-in-1 Combination Booster Seats, model numbers 34411686, 34411695 and 34411029, produced from December 18, 2014, through January 29, 2016.

 

The central front adjuster (CFA) button that is used to loosen the seat's internal harness may be within the child's reach, allowing the child to activate the CFA and loosen the internal harness.

 

If the internal harness is not tightened snugly around the child, the child would be at an increased risk of injury in the event of a crash.

 

This safety issue affects only the use of the seat in the forward-facing harnessed booster (22-65 lbs. and 28-50 in.) configuration.

 

What to do

 

Evenflo will notify owners and provide a remedy kit that includes a newly-designed seat pad and CFA assembly, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin during February 2016.

 

Owners may contact Evenflo at www.transitions.evenflo.com or 1-800-233-5921. 

 

 

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Ajinomoto Windsor recalls pork products

The product is labeled as beef, but contains pork

Ajinomoto Windsor of Portland, Ore., is recalling approximately 6,000 pounds of pork products. The product is labeled as beef, but contains pork, w...

PhotoAjinomoto Windsor of Portland, Ore., is recalling approximately 6,000 pounds of pork products.

 

The product is labeled as beef, but contains pork, which is not declared on the product label.

 

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

 

The following pork dumpling item, produced on December 6, 2015, is being recalled:

  • 4-lb. plastic bag packages of “Shirakiku Gyoza Dumplings with Beef” with a best if used by date of June 6, 2017.

The recalled product bears establishment number “Est. 18356” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and was shipped to institutional and retail locations nationwide.

 

What to do

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Andrew Saunders at (503) 734-1526.

 

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Judge puts Volkswagen on short leash to find a fix for its dirty diesels

"Six months is long enough," judge hearing hundreds of VW lawsuits declares

A federal judge today gave Volkswagen one month to come up with a firm plan to bring nearly 600,000 of its "clean diesel" cars into compliance with United ...

PhotoA federal judge today gave Volkswagen one month to come up with a firm plan to bring nearly 600,000 of its "clean diesel" cars into compliance with United States clean air laws.

At a hearing in San Francisco, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer reminded VW that with every passing day, its cars are pumping excess pollution into the air and consumers who were taken in by VW's advertising are stuck with cars they can't sell.

Breyer, who is overseeing hundreds of lawsuits against VW, gave the company until March 24 to say how it will repair or replace the cars and how it will compensate owners -- and said he expects whatever plan VW comes up with to take no longer than six months. 

“It seems to me six months is long enough to determine whether or not there is an engineering process that can be utilized by Volkswagen and will be acceptable to the U.S. government,” Breyer said, Automotive News reported.

Lawyers for VW said they are in negotiations with various federal and state agencies and with armies of lawyers representing various individual and class action plaintiffs, but Breyer said he wanted to introduce a "sense of urgency" into finding and implementing a solution.

Earlier plan rejected

Federal regulators earlier rejected VW's initial plans to retrofit about 500,000 of the affected vehicles with 2.0-liter engines. A plan to repair vehicles with 3.0-liter engines is still pending.

At one point, Judge Breyer spoke harshly about the delays. 

"The story about lawyers is that if you give them a year to do something, it will take them a year to do something. If you give them 30 days to do something, they'll do something in 30 days," he said.

VW has said it is working as fast as it can to reach a solution that is acceptable to U.S. and European regulators.

Breyer earlier appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as a settlement adviser in hopes of keeping the settlement and repair talks on track.

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International researchers report pancreatic cancer breakthrough

Identifying four subtypes of the cancer may lead to more targeted treatments

Pancreatic cancer is often lethal, but a discovery by a team of international researchers may make it less so.The team, which includes researchers from...

PhotoPancreatic cancer is often lethal, but a discovery by a team of international researchers may make it less so.

The team, which includes researchers from The University of Glasgow, found that pancreatic cancer is actually four different types of the disease. The cancers occur when large sections of DNA get misplaced. This action is also damaging to genes.

Sean Grimmond, of the University of Melbourne Cancer Research Center, led the study. He says it demonstrates that pancreatic cancer is actually four diseases, each with treatments and survival rates. 

Grimmond says the discovery may lead to improved treatments for pancreatic cancer.

According to the researchers, the shuffling of chunks of DNA creates genetic chaos. Genes can be eliminated, switched on and off, or entirely new versions might be created. It's believed that some of this damage could potentially be targeted with existing drugs.

“Despite many decades of research into pancreatic cancer we have faced numerous obstacles in finding new and effective treatments," study co-lead Andrew Biankin said in a release. “But our crucial study sheds light on how the chaotic chromosomal rearrangements cause a huge range of genetic faults that are behind the disease and provide opportunities for more personalized pancreatic cancer treatment.”

The four subtypes

The four types of pancreatic cancer identified in the study are

  • Squamous
  • Pancreatic Progenitor
  • Immunogenic
  • Aberrantly Differentiated Endocrine eXocrine, or ADEX.

Instead of treating just one type of pancreatic cancer, physicians may be able to select the treatment that will be most effective for a particular subtype. The researchers think their findings can better predict which pancreatic cancer patients may benefit from platinum-based drugs, that are commonly used in chemotherapy treatments and typically used for testicular or ovarian cancer.

To date, these drugs have not been deployed very much against pancreatic cancer. However, the study found that some patients who had unstable chromosome rearrangements and defects in the DNA repair pathways could potentially benefit, “sometimes showing exceptional improvement.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, a pancreatic cancer diagnosis often has a poor outcome, even when diagnosed early. And because symptoms don't show up in the early stages, it is rarely caught early. The Mayo Clinic says that's the reason it is one of the most deadly forms of cancer.

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Nissan Leaf vulnerable to hackers, researchers warn

Hackers can take over the heating and cooling system through a simple app, report says

Nissan Leaf owners could find themselves on the hot seat, according to a security researcher who says the electric car's heating and cooling system could b...

PhotoNissan Leaf owners could find themselves on the hot seat, according to a security researcher who says the electric car's heating and cooling system could be taken over by hackers using a simple app.

Australian researcher Troy Hunt says that using the NissanConnect app could allow hackers to turn on the air conditioning or heating system on Nissan Leafs, Tom's Hardware reports.

While this isn't exactly life-threatening, it could be used to run down the car's batteries, leaving the driver stranded. It could also be used to track a car's daily movements, information that could be used for all kinds of nefarious purposes.

What's perhaps most distressing about the apparent security flaw is that Hunt contacted Nissan a month ago and alerted the company to the issue but has received no response and sees no sign the company has taken any action.

Security researchers often go public with such findings if companies drag their feet. Their concern is that if they have found a vulnerability, others who aren't so well-intentioned have as well.

With automakers rushing to produce self-driving cars, it's a bit worrisome that they may not feel a sense of urgency about closing software loopholes that could endanger motorists, security researchers say.

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Why it isn't always wise to file a car insurance claim

Study finds one insurance claim will send rates up an average 44%

It's generally assumed that insurance rates will go up after you have an accident and file a claim, but by how much? More than you might think, according t...

PhotoIt's generally assumed that insurance rates will go up after you have an accident and file a claim, but by how much? More than you might think, according to a report by insuranceQuotes.com.

The survey found the average driver will face a 44% rate hike after a single claim of over $2,000.

The biggest increase would come if you happen to live in California. There, a driver making a first claim would face an average increase of 78%. Massachusetts and Wisconsin are nearly as expensive, with average rate hikes of 67% and 54% respectively.

On the other hand, claims are less expensive for drivers in Maryland, Michigan, and Oklahoma, who see their rates rise between 22% and 25%.

Second claim

If you have an accident and make a claim, the only worse thing you can do is have another accident and make a second claim. The study says your insurance rate will be twice as high as a driver without a claim.

“Previous claims are a big factor in car insurance rates and can affect the amount you pay for years,” Laura Adams, senior analyst at InsuranceQuotes, said in a release. “If you get a rate hike for making a small claim, it could end up hurting your finances over the long run. In some cases, not making a claim can be a smarter move.”

That's a hard concept for many consumers to grasp. You pay for insurance every month, so why can't you use it when you need it?

That's certainly a rational argument, but unfortunately that's not how the insurance system works. Insurance is all based on perceived risk – the chances you will file a claim that costs the company money.

Insurance companies believe that once you file a claim, chances are good you will file another at some point. Fair or not, under the concept of shared risk, you'll be penalized.

Judgment call

It becomes a judgment call when it makes economic sense to file an insurance claim and when it pays to pay for damage yourself. InsuranceQuotes.com has this handy calculator to help you figure it out.

Why have insurance at all if you are penalized for using it? Good question. In a majority of cases it would pay to “self-insure,” putting the money you would pay for car insurance each month into a savings account.

Unfortunately, your self-insurance policy would not be able to cover all potential accidents – which could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and liability.

That's why every state requires motorists to carry auto insurance, or pay into a state-maintained “uninsured driver” fund each month.

The best thing a driver can do is put the phone away and drive carefully.

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Google Fiber burrowing into San Francisco

That brings to 10 the number of cities on Google's gigabit path

The race to upgrade broadband delivery is heating up with today's announcement by Google that it is accelerating its move into San Francisco by using exist...

PhotoThe race to upgrade broadband delivery is heating up with today's announcement by Google that it is accelerating its move into San Francisco by using existing fiber to drop service into selected apartment and condo buildings and some public housing complexes in the city.

It announced a similar plan in Huntsville, Alabama, earlier this week, saying it would offer service via a municipal fiber network now being built there.

Google first used the "drop-in" service method in Atlanta, where AT&T has been rolling out its GigaPower service and Comcast is offering its 2-gigabit Gigabit Pro service. 

Google Fiber has set up a website where consumers can check on whether -- and when -- the high-speed service may be available on their block. 

After a decade or so in which telecom and cable companies have pretty much divided the country to suit themselves, Google and other upstarts are bringing competition to the broadband delivery business, coming in on top of existing carriers.

With the addition of San Francisco, Google Fiber says it has now committed to build out its high-speed gigabit services to ten metro areas.  It is also exploring expansions in Chicago; Portland, OR.; Los Angeles, San Jose, Irvine and San Diego, CA.; Phoenix; Oklahoma City; Louisville, KY.; and Jacksonville and Tampa, FL.

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Mail carrier a key player in identity theft ring

Alabama postal worker stole customers' identities for use in phony tax returns

Identity theft seems like a high-tech crime, carried out by hacking into databases, harvesting purloined emails, and using phishing expeditions to trick co...

PhotoIdentity theft seems like a high-tech crime, carried out by hacking into databases, harvesting purloined emails, and using phishing expeditions to trick consumers into revealing their private data.

But sometimes it's as simple as reading the name on your mail. That's what prosecutors say postal carrier Elizabeth Grant did. The Seale, Alabama, woman worked for years delivering mail. On the side, she stole the names and addresses of the people on her mail route and provided them to her co-conspirators.

Her accomplices prepared phony tax returns and when the government mailed out refund checks, Grant stole them and turned the checks over to her partners in crime, trial testimony indicated.

The scheme resulted in more than 700 false returns being filed and more than $1.5 million in tax refunds being stolen.

Grant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to more than five years in prison yesterday by a federal judge in Alabama. Several of her collaborators were sentenced earlier.

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Pet tracker collar allows pets to communicate their needs

The smart collar uses LED lights and sensors to help a pet express how they're feeling and where they are

Wearable tech can help keep you fit and even measure your emotional well-being. Now, wearable tech is donning yet another hat -- it’s stepping into the are...

PhotoWearable tech can help keep you fit and even measure your emotional well-being. Now, wearable tech is donning yet another hat -- it’s stepping into the arena of pet health.

Most pet owners are guilty of talking to their pets, but unfortunately there’s never been a way for them to talk back. With the Kyon Pet Tracker, your dog (or cat) can actually communicate with you.

The Fitbit-esque smart collar boasts an array of features that seek to help keep your dog safe and out of trouble. The embedded GPS tracker will let you know exactly where your dog is -- down to what floor of a building -- at all times. (A far cry from a “Lost Dog” flyer in the event that Fido has wandered off.)

You can also track your pup’s health and safety thanks to the collar’s onboard LED display. “I’m hot” and other messages will appear on the display (as well as your phone) to let you know what kind of attention your pet needs. You’ll also be alerted if your pet has fallen into a pool or is at risk of drowning so you can swoop in and save them.

“The Kyon collar gives pets a voice,” company co-founder Leon Yohai said in a press release. “Our product is unique and ensures beloved pets are healthy and happy, while also preserving owners’ peace of mind.”

Expected to be in wide release this summer, the Pet Tracker will retail for $249.99. A $4.99 monthly fee will also be required to cover cellular network costs. Kyon will launch a Kickstarter campaign soon to raise $70,000 to finish funding the device’s production. A limited number of early backers will be able to purchase the smart collar for as low as $189.

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Taxes an often-overlooked area of retirement planning

For many retirees, taxes will play an important role in their financial life

If you're retiring this year, congratulations. Life will get better if you've planned well, but remember that taxes can play a huge role in your financial ...

PhotoIf you're retiring this year, congratulations. Life will get better if you've planned well, but remember that taxes can play a huge role in your financial future during retirement.

Once you are no longer working full time and depending mostly on Social Security and retirement savings accounts, your tax situation can change. Dara Luber, senior manager of retirement at TD Ameritrade, says retirees – and those soon to be retired – need to pay closer attention to aspects of the tax law that can help or hurt.

“You need to be aware of how Obamacare and tax penalties related to the Affordable Care Act might have tax implications,” Luber told ConsumerAffairs. “You need to know whether tax brackets are changing.”

You also need to be aware of advantages that are available to older consumers, like changes to catch-up contributions. Ignoring legal changes could mean missing out on tax-favorable, last minute catch-ups to a retirement fund.

Changes at 65

When you turn 65, the way you file your taxes may change. You may be eligible for certain credits and deductions, and will be able to take a higher standard deduction, which may be more advantageous than claiming itemized deductions. Tax planning may change, especially if you are withdrawing funds from a tax-deferred retirement account.

“You may want to take into consideration things like your required minimum distribution if you are 70 and a half, you may want to take into consideration some state tax benefits in terms of your Social Security, and how that's taxed,” Luber said.

At the same time, certain credits or deductions you've enjoyed in the past may no longer apply. You may need to consider paying estimated quarterly taxes once you hit retirement.

Luber says there is no cookie cutter retirement plan, but you can take into account some fairly general assumptions by asking yourself some questions.

“Do you think taxes are going up? What do you think will happen with Social Security and Medicare? The answers can affect your tax planning,” she said.

Resources

Fortunately, there are many resources to help retirees deal with tax issues. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) provides an extensive resource for retirement issues. TD Ameritrade also maintains a 2016 Tax Resource Center that may prove helpful.

Finally, Luber says it is important to consult with a tax professional as you transition into retirement. If you have been doing your own taxes each year, it might be wise to obtain the services of an enrolled agent—a tax professional who is licensed by the IRS, at least for the first year.

If your retirement involves a move, you may want to check with your new state's CPA society, the Accreditation Council for Accountancy and Taxation, or the National Association of Enrolled Agents.

The important thing is to make sure you are aware of all the benefits and responsibilities that come to a retired taxpayer. Retirement will likely change many of the ways you live your life, including the way you manage your finances and taxes.

“It's really a balancing act, trying to figure out how you limit your taxes and keep more in savings and still have enough to live on in retirement,” Luber said.

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Virginia eyes legal framework for daily fantasy sports

State legislature approves measure declaring the games to be legal

While DraftKings and FanDuel battle with New York and other states that have accused the daily fantasy sports leaders of running illegal gambling operation...

PhotoWhile DraftKings and FanDuel battle with New York and other states that have accused the daily fantasy sports leaders of running illegal gambling operations, one state has moved in the other direction.

The Virginia General Assembly passed a measure on Wednesday setting up a legal framework for daily fantasy sports games. It was sent to Gov. Terry McAuliffe. who is expected to sign it.

Should he do so, Virginia would become the first state to formally recognize the popular games as legal.

DraftKings responds

"Today the Virginia General Assembly took an important step toward ensuring that fans in Virginia can continue to enjoy fantasy sports contests with thoughtful and appropriate consumer protections in place,” DraftKings' spokesman Grifin Finan said, in a statement emailed to ConsumerAffairs. “We thank Delegates Jackson Miller and Marcus Simon and Senator Ryan McDougle for their leadership in bringing a common sense regulatory framework through the legislature. We are grateful for their support and are actively engaged with dozens of legislatures around the country to replicate this success.”

According to DraftKings, more than 56 million Americans and 1.2 million Virginians play fantasy sports each year in a variety of sports, including football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and golf.

Bipartisan support

The legal framework measure cleared both houses of the Virginia legislature with bipartisan support. The measure would require daily fantasy companies to register with the state and pay a $50,000 application fee.

The Virginia action stands in stark contrast to New York, where Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has sued both DraftKings and FanDuel, charging them with violating New York's gambling laws.

In early January, Schneiderman amended his complaint, asking the court to order the two companies to pay civil damages and make restitution to New York players who lost money. An appeals court is currently considering the case.

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Housing prices rise for an 18th consecutive quarter

Prices were up in all 50 states and DC

© jpldesigns - FotoliaThe prices of houses in the U.S were up in the final three months of last year for the 18th quarter in a row.According to t...

Photo
© jpldesigns - Fotolia

The prices of houses in the U.S were up in the final three months of last year for the 18th quarter in a row.

According to the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI), prices were up 1.4% from the third quarter of last year and 5.8% from the fourth quarter of 2014.

"Instability in financial markets did not seem to put much of a drag on home prices in the fourth quarter," said FHFA Supervisory Economist Andrew Leventis. "The fourth quarter 1.4% increase for the U.S. was in line with the extremely steady -- but historically elevated -- appreciation rates we have been observing for several years now."

The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to, or guaranteed by, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

While the purchase-only HPI posted a year-over-year gain of 5.8%, prices of other goods and services fell 0.8%. The inflation-adjusted price of homes rose approximately 6.7% over the latest year.

Report highlights

  • Home prices rose in every state and in the District of Columbia between the fourth quarter of 2014 and the fourth quarter of 2015. The top five states in annual appreciation were: 1) Nevada 12.7%; 2) Colorado 10.9%; 3) Idaho 10.7%; 4) Washington 10.7%; and 5) Oregon 10.6%.
  • Among the 100 most populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., fourth-quarter price increases were greatest in the San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, Calif., metropolitan statistical areas district, where prices increased by 20.7%. Prices were weakest in New Haven-Milford, Connecticut, where they fell 1.5%.
  • Of the nine census divisions, the Pacific division experienced the strongest increase in the fourth quarter, posting a 2.1% quarterly increase and an 8.0% advance since the fourth quarter of 2014. House price appreciation was weakest in the Middle Atlantic division, where prices rose just 0.6% from the previous quarter.

The full report may be found on the FHFA website.

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Jobless claims

In other economic news, first-time applications for state unemployment benefits moved sharply higher last week.

The Department of Labor (DOL) reports seasonally adjusted initial claims totaled 272,000 in the week ending February 20, -- up 10,000 from the previous week.

Even with that increase, which was not affected by any special factors, the number of claims remains at the lower end of the 250,000-300,000 range that has prevailed since July 2014.

The four-week moving average, which lacks the weekly tally's volatility and is seen by economists as a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was 272,000, down 1,250 from the previous week.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

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Toyota Highlander earns Top IIHS safety award

It's the second year in a row for the vehicle

Toyota's 2016 Highlander has earned a good rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) small overlap front test -- improving from accepta...

PhotoToyota's 2016 Highlander has earned a good rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) small overlap front test -- improving from acceptable -- to clinch a 2016 TOP SAFETY PICK+ award.

Last year's model was also a TOP SAFETY PICK+, but the criteria for the award was tightened for 2016. Previously, an acceptable rating for small overlap protection was enough, but now a good rating is required. Toyota made structural modifications to improve small overlap performance for 2016.

During the test of the 2016 Highlander, the dummy's movement was better controlled than in the test of the earlier model. The head hit the front airbag, which stayed in front of the dummy until rebound. The dummy in the previous test slid off the airbag's left side.

To qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK or TOP SAFETY PICK+, a vehicle must earn good ratings in all five crashworthiness evaluations -- small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraints.

TOP SAFETY PICK winners also have an available front crash prevention system that earns a basic rating; vehicles earning the "plus" have an “advanced” or “superior” rating. The Highlander's optional front crash prevention is rated “advanced.”

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Toyota recalls Scion FR-S vehicles

It may be possible to remove the ignition key without the transmission being in the "Park" position

Toyota Motor Company is recalling 25,706 model year 2013-2016 Toyota Scion FR-S vehicles manufactured March 13, 2012, to January 14, 2016 and equipped an a...

PhotoToyota Motor Company is recalling 25,706 model year 2013-2016 Toyota Scion FR-S vehicles manufactured March 13, 2012, to January 14, 2016 and equipped an automatic transmission and ignition key. Vehicles with a push-to-start button are not affected.

 

In the recalled vehicles, it may be possible to remove the ignition key without the transmission being in the "Park" position. As such, these vehicles fail to conform to the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard number 114, "Theft Protection and Rollaway Prevention."

 

If the key can be removed from the ignition when the transmission is not in the "Park" position, the vehicle could roll away increasing the risk of a crash and occupant or pedestrian injuries.

 

What to do

 

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the ignition key/transmission interlock wiring connections, correcting them as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on March 1, 2016.

 

Owners may contact Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331. Toyota's number for this recall is G0E.

 

 

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Marathon Ventures recalls raw macadamia nuts

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Marathon Ventures is recalling various retail and bulk packages containing raw macadamia nuts. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella ...

PhotoMarathon Ventures is recalling various retail and bulk packages containing raw macadamia nuts.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

 

There have been no illnesses or injuries reported to date affiliated with these products.

 

The following products, sold between July 2, 2015, and February 3, 2016, at grocery, foodservice, other retail outlets and direct mail orders via the company website nationwide, are being recalled:

UPCBRANDPRODUCT DESCRIPTIONUNIT WTCODE DATE / LOT NUMBERLOT CODE LOCATION
0 15400 86635 4ShurfineMacadamia Diced Nuts5oz / 142gBest By:
2 SEP 2016
Front of bag - top right
0 15400 16635 5Western FamilyMacadamia Diced Nuts5oz / 142gBest By:
3 AUG 2016
Front of bag - top right
    Best By:
4 AUG 2016
Front of bag - top right
    Best By:
2 SEP 2016
Front of bag - top right
0 75450 13287 8HyVeeMacadamia Nuts2oz / 57gBest By:
10 JUL 2016
Back of bag - mid right
0 85239 52108 3Market PantryChopped Macadamia Nuts2.25oz / 64gBest By:
13 AUG 2016
Back of bag - right side
    Best By:
11 SEP 2016
Back of bag - right side
0 75049 42186 4Pear's GourmetMacadamia Nuts Raw16oz / 454gBest By:
11 SEP 2016
Front of bag - near top
    Best By:
25 SEP 2016
Front of bag - near top
06509Cash-Wa DistributingMacadamia Nuts Raw5lbs / 2.27kg15204Bot right on case label
    15260Bot right on case label
Bulk CaseNutpro C.C.Macadamia Nuts Style #525lbs79818Case label
 

What to do

 

Customers who purchased the recalled items should not consume them, but return them to the place of purchase for a full refund or replacement.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Marathon Ventures at (402) 934-8223 Monday through Friday from 8:00 AM to 4:30PM (CT) or by e-mail at qa@marathonventuresinc.com.

 

 

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Volkswagen recalls Routans with air bag issue

The air bag control units may corrode and fail

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 1,037 model year 2009 Volkswagen Routans manufactured February 7, 2008, to August 28, 2008. The air bag co...

PhotoVolkswagen Group of America is recalling 1,037 model year 2009 Volkswagen Routans manufactured February 7, 2008, to August 28, 2008.

 

The air bag control units may corrode and fail resulting in failure of the air bags may to deploy in the event of a crash, increasing the risk of occupant injury. Additionally, the air bags may inadvertently deploy, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

What to do

 

VW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the air bag control unit, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298.

 

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Starbucks taking a customized approach to complaints

Customers complaining about changes to rewards program are getting a personal response

When Starbucks announced this week it is changing its rewards program to hand out stars based on spending instead of visits, it set off a firestorm of prot...

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Facebook moves beyond the Like button

After all, not everything we read on the Newsfeed is likeable

Let's face it, Facebook, we humans aren't quite as simple as we look. When informed of an event, circumstance or observation, we have a wide range of poten...

PhotoLet's face it, Facebook, we humans aren't quite as simple as we look. When informed of an event, circumstance or observation, we have a wide range of potential reactions -- amusement, anger, dismay, skepticism, denial and so forth.

That's why we have been annoyed, irate and disappointed that until now, we have been able to display only a single emotion on Facebook -- the dim-witted, happy face "Like."

But now we are happy, amused, relieved and downright jubilant to learn that one of the world's largest and supposedly forward-looking corporations has finally recognized that there is more to life than liking stuff.

Wider range

All of which is by way of saying, in case you haven't already heard, that Facebook is expanding its Like button to display a somewhat wider range of emotions, though the permitted range is still limited to those that might be displayed by one who is heavily medicated.

Facebook calls this new function Reactions, "an extension of the Like button, to give you more ways to share your reaction to a post in a quick and easy way," as product manager Sammi Krug put it in a likeable enough posting.

Why is it called an extension? Because to make it work, you start out with the Like button we've all come to know and like.

"To add a reaction, hold down the Like button on mobile or hover over the Like button on desktop to see the reaction image options, then tap either Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad or Angry," said Krug. 

Much as we like hearing this, it's unlikely anyone would argue that these six emoji-like figures represent the entire range of human emotions. Fortunately, last time we checked, Facebook still accommodates text, meaning we can use the old shopworn but nevertheless likeable collection of alphabet extensions called words to express ourselves. 

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Takata employees fudged airbag inflator test data, Senate investigators say

An auto industry group, meanwhile, identifies key factors making the inflators vulnerable to rupture

A U.S. Senate investigation into defective Takata airbags has found what investigators say was widespread manipulation of airbag inflator test data by Taka...

PhotoA U.S. Senate investigation into defective Takata airbags has found what investigators say was widespread manipulation of airbag inflator test data by Takata employees, with some occurring after the recalls began. 

In another development, an auto industry group reports that the ammonium nitrate propellant was a key factor in the deadly ruptures -- but not the only one.

The Senate findings, by the minority staff of the Commerce Committee, were unveiled on the Senate floor by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the panel's ranking member. Nelson said committee investigators made the findings after reviewing thousands of company documents and emails dating back more than a decade.

“These new documents speak for themselves,” said Nelson. “There is no doubt in my mind that Takata failed to prioritize the safety of its products.” 

Among the documents were:

  • A 2005 memorandum from an airbag production engineer that warned  “the integrity of validation reports … is in serious question.” 
  • A 2006 email from a Takata engineering manager which claimed testing reports were “cherry picked” and a Takata employee was “schmoozed” to accept deviations in the data.
  • A 2010 presentation documenting deficiencies in an experimental inflator that revealed, “TKJ [Takata Japan] was informed of these results, but altered them and reported good results to Honda.”
  • 2013 notes from a company director explaining that he shared his view with Takata’s senior vice president of quality assurance that the range of an airbag recall might be a “violation of our moral obligation to protect the public” because it did not capture the right range of vehicles. 

The findings update a report Nelson released last June showing Takata had known for years that there were serious production and testing issues.

Hot and humid

The auto industry group said the ammonium nitrate propellant used in millions of airbag inflators was contained in assemblies that failed to protect the chemical from moisture in humid claimtes.

Over time, exposure to humidity coupled with temperature swings can cause the ammonium nitrate to combusst violently, rupting the inflator when the airbags deploy in a crash, the Independent Testing Coalition report said, according to a report in Automotive News.

ITC leader David Kelly said it takes three factors to make the inflators vulnerable to rupture:

  • ammonium nitrate;
  • the design of Takata's inflator assembly; and
  • heat and humidity.

“You can’t have the energetic disassembly without all three factors,” Kelly told Automotive News. “You have to have all three.”

Takata and safety regulators have long contended that a hot, muggy climates played a role in the airbag ruptures, but the ITC report is the first time a root cause has been identified.

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Feds hit Citibank for illegal debt sales & collection practices

Penalties and reimbursements to total more than $50 million

Citibank faces a bill of more than $50 million to clean up its illegal debt sales and collection practices, following two separate enforcement actions by t...

PhotoCitibank faces a bill of more than $50 million to clean up its illegal debt sales and collection practices, following two separate enforcement actions by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

In the first action, the CFPB ordered Citibank to provide nearly $5 million in consumer relief and pay a $3 million penalty for selling credit card debt with inflated interest rates and for failing to forward consumer payments promptly to debt buyers.

The second action is against both Citibank and two debt collection law firms it used that falsified court documents filed in debt collection cases in New Jersey state courts. Citibank and the law firms were ordered to refund $11 million to consumers and forgo collecting about $34 million from nearly 7,000 consumers.

“Citibank sent inaccurate information to buyers when it sold off credit card debt and it also used law firms that altered court documents,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Today’s action provides redress to consumers who were victimized by slipshod practices as part of our ongoing work to fight abuses in the debt collection market.”

Consumer advocates praised the CFPB actions.

“We’re encouraged to see the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau take enforcement action to hold Citibank accountable for these illegal activities,” said LeeAnn Hall, Executive director for the Alliance for a Just Society.
 

“The fact that Citibank was involved in these types of activities ... is unfortunately not surprising. In fact, Citibank ranked fourth among all companies for the most debt collection-related complaints in a two-year sample of complaints filed with the CFPB, and received the most complaints of any major bank," Hall said.

Debt sales

The CFPB said that from 2010 to 2013, Citibank sold portfolios of charged-off credit card accounts but in some instances, provided inaccurate and inflated APR information for almost 130,000 credit card accounts it sold to debt buyers. These buyers then used the exaggerated APR in debt collection attempts.

Citibank also failed to promptly forward to debt buyers approximately 14,000 customer payments totaling almost $1 million, the agency said. 

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FTC finds security flaws in ASUS routers

The company has agreed to a 20-year program to audit its security practices

Computer company ASUS has agreed to a 20-year consent order that requires it to upgrade its security programs in response to Federal Trade Commission charg...

PhotoComputer company ASUS has agreed to a 20-year consent order that requires it to upgrade its security programs in response to Federal Trade Commission charges that critical security flaws in its routers put the home networks of hundreds of thousands of consumers at risk.

The FTC's complaint also charges that the routers’ insecure “cloud” services led to the compromise of thousands of consumers’ connected storage devices, exposing their sensitive personal information on the internet.

“The Internet of Things is growing by leaps and bounds, with millions of consumers connecting smart devices to their home networks,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Routers play a key role in securing those home networks, so it’s critical that companies like ASUS put reasonable security in place to protect consumers and their personal information.”

ASUS marketed its routers as including numerous security features that the company claimed could “protect computers from any unauthorized access, hacking, and virus attacks” and “protect [the] local network against attacks from hackers.” Despite these claims, the FTC’s complaint alleges that ASUS didn’t take reasonable steps to secure the software on its routers.

Security bugs

For instance, the FTC said, hackers could exploit pervasive security bugs in the router’s web-based control panel to change any of the router’s security settings without the consumer’s knowledge.  

The complaint specifies a number of other design flaws, including the fact that the company set – and allowed consumers to retain – the same default login credentials on every router: username “admin” and password “admin”.

According to the complaint, ASUS’s routers also featured services called AiCloud and AiDisk that allowed consumers to plug a USB hard drive into the router to create their own “cloud” storage accessible from any of their devices. While ASUS advertised these services as a “private personal cloud for selective file sharing” and a way to “safely secure and access your treasured data through your router,” the FTC’s complaint alleges that the services had serious security flaws.  

The agency said that in many cases, ASUS did not address security flaws in a timely manner and did not notify consumers about the risks posed by the vulnerable routers.  In addition, the complaint alleges that ASUS did not notify consumers about the availability of security updates.

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Wal-Mart sued over "100% Grated Parmesan Cheese" claims

Nearly 10% of Wal-Mart's Great Value brand was allegedly made up of a wood filler

It has been a little less than a week since consumers found out that some Parmesan food products were less than 100% cheese. The Food and Drug Administrati...

PhotoIt has been a little less than a week since consumers found out that some Parmesan food products were less than 100% cheese. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still investigating the issue, but it seems that some consumers took the news worse than others.

Bloomberg reports that Wal-Mart is being sued for selling Parmesan products that contained wood pulp – a complete contradiction of labels that read “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese.” Researchers have found that up to 10% of Wal-Mart’s Great Value brand was made up of a wood-based anti-clumping agent called cellulose.

Some consumers were taken aback by the report and said that they would have reconsidered their purchase if they had known about the cellulose beforehand. “The 100% representation was false and mis-characterized the amount and percentage of Parmesan cheese in the container,” said Marc Moschetta, the suit’s plaintiff.

Moschetta is currently trying to obtain class-action status for his suit, a step that would include other consumers taken in by the allegedly false claims.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has been cautious in its handling of the matter. “We take this matter seriously. . . We will review the allegations once we have received the complaint and will respond appropriately with the court,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Randy Hargrove.

The suit was filed in a Manhattan court on Tuesday under the name “Moschetta v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.”

What to do

Consumers don't have to do anything at this stage of the class action process. If and when the suit attains class action status and the case goes to trial or is settled, affected consumers may be eligible for compensation.

Learn more about class actions 

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Growth is on the horizon for the soy food market, report shows

As more consumers reach for plant-based proteins, the spotlight is on the mighty soybean

As consumers become increasingly interested in vegetarian lifestyles and products with clean labels, animal-based proteins are becoming less of a mealtime ...

PhotoAs consumers become increasingly interested in vegetarian lifestyles and products with clean labels, animal-based proteins are becoming less of a mealtime staple. According to a report, the global soy food market anticipates a CAGR growth of 6.43% during the 2016-2020 period.

A number of considerations, both nutritional and environmental, may be fueling consumers’ desire to swap meat for soy protein.

Label transparency has become a huge selling point (especially to young people) when it comes to food items. Dietary restrictions -- as well as an increase in people adhering to vegetarian, flexitarian, or vegan diets -- have made the concept of knowing exactly what’s in food about to be purchased more important than ever. 

Sustainability concerns may also be contributing to the spotlight on soy. With more consumers taking to heart the needs of the planet, many are veering away from the resource-depleting nature of the average American meat-based diet.

Different plant proteins

But are all plant proteins created equally? Not according to Nancy Chapman MPH, RD, executive director of the Soyfoods Association of North America. Chapman says it’s important for consumers to understand the differences between plant proteins as more products show up on grocery store shelves.

There are a number of plant-based proteins -- beans, lentils, and quinoa, to name a few -- but according to Chapman, soy is the only plant protein that is highly digestible and comparable to beef, milk, fish, and egg protein in terms of protein quality.

“Like animal protein, a complete protein has all nine essential amino acids in the ratios needed for human growth and health,” says Chapman in a statement. Soy-containing foods such as tofu, tempeh, and edamame all offer a complete protein containing all amino acids.

Benefits of soy

Other benefits of the soybean include:

  • Kind to the earth. As previously mentioned, soy uses fewer natural resources (land, water, and energy) than any other protein. Soybeans offer 941 pounds of protein per acre of land. For a meat-protein, the land requirements for production are ten times greater.  

  • Heart healthy. Soy is a lean protein that has no cholesterol and contains less saturated fat than most other protein sources. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recognizes soy for its role in reducing cardiovascular disease.

  • Good for kids: Soymilk is the only dairy alternative that meets U.S. Department of Agriculture child nutrition requirements for protein, calcium, vitamins A and D, and potassium.

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Survey suggests consumers struggle to save

Only 40% rate their savings progress as "good" or "excellent"

An annual survey of consumers has found that 40% of U.S. households report “good” or “excellent” progress in meeting savings goals.The Consumer Federat...

PhotoAn annual survey of consumers has found that 40% of U.S. households report “good” or “excellent” progress in meeting savings goals.

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA), which manages the America Saves program, is disappointed with the result. More distressing, the group says it is consistent with the survey's other responses.

For example, only 49% of consumers said they are able to save at least 5% of their income. Just 52% think they are on track with their retirement savings. Fewer than 43% have an automatic savings plan outside of work and just 38% carry no consumer debt.

But the situation might not be as bleak as it seems. Around 70% of consumers reported at least some progress in meeting savings needs.

Two-thirds are able to save at least some money each month. And 63% reported “sufficient emergency savings to pay for unexpected expenses like car repairs or a doctor visit.”

Gender gap

One thing that stood out in the survey results is men seem to be saving at a higher rate than women.

“The most important reason for the gender gap in savings is differences in income and wealth,” Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the CFA, said in a release. “The fact that men have larger incomes and financial assets than women makes it easier for them to save.”

But Americans, on the whole, save less than their counterparts in some other countries. China and Japan, for example, have much higher consumer savings rates than the U.S.

Last week, NPR's TED Radio House presented the proposition that language might affect a person's tendency to put money away for the future. Keith Chen, an associate professor of economics UCLA, suggests that languages that do not make strong distinctions between the present and future make it easier for those language speakers to stay focused on the future. You can listen to the results of his research here.

Reasons for not saving

When the America Saves researchers asked consumers why they didn't save more, they got a different answer. For those still working who said they were not saving enough for retirement, about one-quarter said all their money went to meet day-to-day expenses. Another quarter said they were paying off debt.

For those under 45, paying off college loans leaves little money to put away. For consumers over 45, mortgage or rent was cited as the reason there is little or no money for savings at the end of the month.

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Scientists point to fatal flaw in Takata airbags

Three elements combined to make the devices dangerously unstable

The Independent Testing Coalition, a group made up of 10 auto manufacturers that used Takata airbags, delivered its findings this week, saying it found out...

PhotoThe Independent Testing Coalition, a group made up of 10 auto manufacturers that used Takata airbags, delivered its findings this week, saying it found out what made the airbags explode, spreading shrapnel through the vehicles.

Coalition chief David Kelly, who is a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), is quoted as saying the use of ammonium nitrate as a propellant was one of three causes for the ruptures and explosions that have killed at least 10 people.

The coalition also found that moisture getting into the inflator assembly was another factor and harsh environmental conditions provided the third element of the perfect storm.

“Finding definitive causes of what went wrong with Takata airbags is a huge step forward in ultimately resolving the problem and providing a pathway for the future in airbag development, Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Autotrader, said in an email to ConsumerAffairs. “Just as important, the process used to investigate flawed Takata airbags, which brought together outside experts as well as engineers from a host of automakers, is a great example of how industry problems can be solved.”

Huge challenge

Now that scientists know why the Takata airbags exploded, sending bits of metal flying through the interior of the cars, work can begin on fixing vehicles that contain the flawed and dangerous airbags. Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, says that's easier said than done.

“The biggest challenge to this recall is getting the repairs done, and even then, those repaired vehicles may have to be reengineered if ammonium nitrate is found to be unsuitable,” she said. This recall is not going away any time soon, and hopefully the death toll won’t rise while the investigation continues.”

Besides the danger to humans, Lindland says the recall will strain the resources of the entire auto industry. She predicts regulators, automakers, Takata itself, and other parties will all be tied up in this for years to come while the expense mounts.

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Consumer satisfaction with retailers is slipping, survey finds

Walmart ranks at the bottom of department store, grocery and pharmacy ratings

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) constantly polls consumers to measure their satisfaction with the products and services they buy.Last y...

PhotoThe American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) constantly polls consumers to measure their satisfaction with the products and services they buy.

Last year, the ACSI showed customer satisfaction with retailers fell for the second straight year. Oddly though, despite the decline, the satisfaction level is back to its long-term average.

That suggests retailers in recent years had been providing better customer service than in the past. Claes Fornell, ACSI founder and Chairman, says that's exactly what happened.

Worked harder for customers

According to Fornell, companies worked harder for customer loyalty in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis. In particular, customer service reps worked harder because of job insecurity and the difficulty in getting a new job.

Now that the economy has improved over the last couple of years, Fornell speculates it's back to business as usual, and the level of customer service seems to have worsened. Or at least, consumers think it has.

Internet retailers lost ground in 2015 but remain ahead of brick and mortar competitors in the customer service rankings. Amazon went down but remains ahead of everyone else.

Big decline for Macy's

Among department stores, Nordstrom holds the top spot. Walmart is at the bottom. Macy's is somewhere near the middle after an eight point drop last year.

"Macy's is in a tough spot as it tries to figure out how to best allocate resources between storefront and online channel," ACSI Managing Director David VanAmburg said in a release. "Closing stores and reducing workforce might help the bottom line in the short term, but only at the expense of customer satisfaction, which could create problems in the long term."

In the dollar store category, Dollar Tree edged out Dollar General but neither are highly rated. For supermarkets, consumers have seen service slip after several years of giving out high scores. But some chains do much better than others.

For example, Wegmans is one of only three retailers in the survey to actually improve performance last year and leads the supermarket category. Other customer-pleasing supermarkets are Trader Joe's, H-E-B, and Publix. Target and Whole Foods lost the most ground in 2015 while Walmart, Giant Eagle, and Albertsons rated lowest for customer service.

Health and personal care stores lost more customer service ground than any other retail category, shedding 5.2% to a record low of 73 on the ACSI scale.

Wal-Mart's drug stores are at the bottom with 68, completing a reverse hat trick. The nation's largest retailer scored last in the three retail ACSI categories in which it competes. Kroger at 81 and Target's in-store pharmacy business at 80 were rated the best customer service among pharmacies.

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Sales of new homes down sharply in January

Home builders say it just part of the cycle

Sales of new single-family houses fell for the first time in four months in January.In a joint release, the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing...

PhotoSales of new single-family houses fell for the first time in four months in January.

In a joint release, the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development report that sales plunged 9.2% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 494,000. That's 5.2% below the January 2015 rate of 521,000.

Prices were mixed last month. The median sales price of new houses sold in January was $278,800 -- down $13,200 on a year-over-year basis. The average sales price was $365,700, a gain of $9,700 from January of last year. The median is the point at which half the houses sold for more and half sold for less.

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of January was 238,000, which translates to a supply of 5.8 months at the current sales rate. That's the highest inventory since last September.

No concerns

The January decline does not present a concern for the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Chief economist David Crowe, in an interview with ConsumerAffairs, characterized the drop as “an adjustment after three very good months. He said the January decline may have come as prospective buyers, fearing that mortgage rates would be on the rise, pushed to complete their purchases in December.

Crowe said he expects the housing market to continue to “move modestly ahead.”

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Mortgage applications post first decline in three weeks

Contract interest rates were on the rise

Mortgage applications fell last week after two weeks of solid gains.The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports applications were down 4.3% in the w...

PhotoMortgage applications fell last week after two weeks of solid gains.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports applications were down 4.3% in the week ending February 19. The results include an adjustment to account for the President’s Day holiday.

The Refinance Index, which had powered the previous weeks' increases, fell 8%, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity down to 61.0% of total applications from 64.3% the previous week.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was 5.8% of total applications, the FHA share was 12.0%, the VA share was 13.0%, and the USDA share of total applications was 0.7%.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose two basis points -- to 3.85% from 3.83%, with points increasing to 0.42 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) increased to 3.80% from 3.74%, with points slipping to 0.25 from 0.26 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA was up five basis points to 3.72%, with points increasing to 0.45 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs inched up to 3.12% from 3.11%, with points increasing to 0.40 from 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs jumped 15 basis points -- to 3.07%, with points dipping to 0.30 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

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Honda recalls 2016 Civics with 2.0L engines

The engine could seize, increasing the risk of a crash

American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 42,129 model year 2016 Civics manufactured September 22, 2015, to February 3, 2016 and equipped with 2.0L engines....

PhotoAmerican Honda Motor Co. is recalling 42,129 model year 2016 Civics manufactured September 22, 2015, to February 3, 2016 and equipped with 2.0L engines.

 

The recalled vehicles have engines with piston assemblies that may have been manufactured without a piston wrist pin circlip or with an incorrectly installed piston wrist pin circlip.

 

If a circlip is missing or incorrectly installed, the piston wrist pin may not be secure and may drift and damage the engine cylinder causing the engine to seize, and increasing the risk of a crash or a fire.

 

What to do

 

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the piston assemblies, as necessary, free of charge. Parts are expected to be available in the Summer of 2016. Owners will be mailed an interim notification beginning March 15, 2016, and will be mailed a second notice when parts are available.

 

Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-800-999-1009. Honda's number for this recall is JX9.

 

 

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Health Matters America recalls Sprouted Flax Seed Powder and Sprouted Chia & Flax Seed Powder

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Health Matters America of Cheektowaga, N.Y., is recalling specific lots of Organic traditions Sprouted Flax Seed Powder and Organic traditions Sprouted Chi...

PhotoHealth Matters America of Cheektowaga, N.Y., is recalling specific lots of Organic traditions Sprouted Flax Seed Powder and Organic traditions Sprouted Chia & Flax Seed Powder.

 

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

The following products, distributed nationwide in flexible plastic bags, are being recalled:

  • Organic traditions Sprouted Flax Seed Powder, NET WT. 8 oz./227g, UPC barcode 854260006261; Lots AHM626151103 Exp. 09/2017, AHM626151229 Exp.10/2017 (lot number located near UPC barcode on back of bag);
  • Organic traditions Sprouted Chia & Flax Seed Powder , NET WT. 8 oz./227g; UPC barcode 854260006216; Lots AHM621151217 Exp. 10/2017; AHM621151229 Exp. 10/2017 (lot number located near UPC barcode on back of bag);
  • Organic traditions Sprouted Chia & Flax Seed Powder, NET WT. 16oz./454g bag, UPC barcode 854260005479; Lot AHM547151217 Exp. 10/2017 (lot number located near UPC barcode on back of bag).

What to do

 

Customers who purchased the recalled products/lots should return them to place of purchase for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1(888) 343-3278, Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm, or by e-mail at orders@healthmattersamerica.com.

 

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Choosing the right over-the-counter pain reliever

Can you tell ibuprofen from acetaminophen?

When pain strikes, what do you reach for? It can be confusing to walk up and down the pain reliever aisle at the drug store.We've all heard of the bran...

PhotoWhen pain strikes, what do you reach for? It can be confusing to walk up and down the pain reliever aisle at the drug store.

We've all heard of the brands through advertising, but what is in them and what do they do? Dr. David Maine, Director of The Center for Interventional Pain Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, gets these questions all the time.

Maine says there are two common types of pain relievers that get the most use today. One is ibuprofen and the other is acetaminophen. The two drugs, he says, are very different.

Of course, you don't go to the drug store to pick up a bottle of acetaminophen. Instead, you reach for the brand name product, Tylenol. Tylenol is what you take when you have a headaches and Maine says it is also used to treat pain in children.

On the other hand, if you have an aching back, you might reach for a drug containing ibuprofen, like Advil. Ibuprofen drugs attack inflamation in the body.

Potential side effects

Both ibuprofen and acetaminophin are effective against pain, but both come with potential side effects.

"I don't think there's a specific medication when you think about Tylenol or non-steroidals such as ibuprofen that one is necessarily safer than the other," Maine said in a release. "I think ibuprofen and non-steroidals in general are more effective for treating pain conditions, but safety lies in how you're taking the medication and dose and they can both cause significant problems if taken excessively in doses that are not recommended."

Common ibuprofen side effects may include upset stomach, mild heartburn, nausea, vomiting, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, dizziness, headache, nervousness, mild itching or rash, or ringing in your ears.

Ibuprofen can also be problematic for people with heart conditions, since it can increase your risk of fatal heart attack or stroke, especially if you use it long term, take high doses, or if you have heart disease.

Easy to overdose

Acetaminophen can be dangerous if you take more than recommended, and that's easy to do because it's in so many other drug products you might be taking at the same time.

In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that acetaminophen could cause serious skin reactions, a danger that was already described in product labeling.

It is a good idea to discuss both drugs with your doctor if you are taking more than just an occasional tablet. Even though they are sold over-the-counter, both are powerful pain relievers and might even be substitutes for more powerful opioid painkillers that have the potential to become addictive and be abused.

What about old fashioned aspirin? It is still used to treat mild pain, as well as reducing inflammation and fever. Some doctors have also recommended a daily low dose of the drug to prevent heart attacks.

Maine stresses that if you are already taking pain medication, be wary of combination drugs, like cold medications, that can may contain painkillers, so you don't take too much.

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CEO Mueller is confident that VW will regain consumer trust

Sales numbers and deliveries to its core autos division grew in January, but it seems certain the company will "be a loser in the U.S."

Volkswagen may have a long way to go until it can fully regain the consumer confidence it lost due to the diesel scandal. But if the company’s January deli...

PhotoVolkswagen may have a long way to go until it can fully regain the consumer confidence it lost due to the diesel scandal. But if the company’s January deliveries and sales are any indication, then perhaps it is on its way.

Reuters reports that deliveries at VW’s core autos division grew in January after posting a decline in 2015. A rebound in sales numbers were also distributed along several different brands, including luxury brand Audi and Czech unit Skoda.

Chief executive officer Matthias Mueller told German news agency DPA on Tuesday that he is confident that VW will win back customers as time goes on.

“We are quite confident by regaining the trust of our customers, of the public and of our remaining shareholders, we will have a good year 2016,” he said.

Despite the positive sales numbers, VW still has a long way to go in the U.S. before its diesel scandal can be put to rest. There is still no technical fix for the 600,000 vehicles in the country, and the legal ramifications still continue to pile up. Mueller admitted that things certainly do look bleak for VW on this front. “We will certainly be a loser in the U.S.,” he said.

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Juicing: a look at the downsides of the popular health fad

Some claim juicing foods instead of eating them whole is as bad for you as it is the environment

Juicing is often done because people think it’s healthy -- a quick and efficient way to stay on top of that whole, “eat your veggies” thing. Many claim jui...

PhotoJuicing is often done because people think it’s healthy -- a quick and efficient way to stay on top of that whole, “eat your veggies” thing. Many claim juicing helps the body absorb all the nutrients from the veggies by process of “pre-digestion,” and of course there’s the belief that juicing can promote weight loss.

But some say the popularity of juicing is an example of marketing having triumphed over science: “a wasteful form of food consumption that’s worse for you than cooking and bad for the environment,” the Daily Beast says of the $2 billion per year industry.

Indeed, drinking veggies instead of eating them has some often overlooked downsides, including loss of important nutrients and damage to the environment.

Loss of nutrients

According to the Mayo Clinic, whole fruits and vegetables have healthy fiber which is lost during juicing. Claims that the body has an easier time digesting fruits and vegetables in the form of juice are not supported by scientific evidence. The loss of this fiber can leave you feeling less full than if you’d eaten the food in its original form.

It can also be detrimental to blood sugar levels, especially if you juice fruits that are high in sugar (such as beets). Because the body needs fiber to control how fast fructose is absorbed, fruit sugars consumed without fiber can send blood sugar levels soaring.

Also lost during juicing? Fat. While this may seem like a “pro,” it’s actually a pretty big knock to the nutritional value of juice. The body needs fat to absorb vitamins (A, D, E, and K, to name a few); without fat, those vitamins don’t stick around very long.

Waste

Juicing also produces a greater amount of waste, which can take a toll on the environment. Because so few cities have a required composting program, the pulp left behind after the juice has been extracted heads straight to the landfill, where it will spend the rest of its days emitting harmful methane.

On the positive side, however, juicing can be a great way to incorporate different types of fruits and vegetables into your diet. Those who aren’t especially fond of fruits and vegetables may discover that certain juice recipes can help make produce a little more palatable.

Ultimately though, there’s a reason we have teeth: more nutrients are absorbed by eating fruits and vegetables in their original form.

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Sticks and stones may break your bones, but Yik Yak?

Researchers say it may be too early to condemn the popular app

If you haven't heard of Yik Yak, it's a "hyperlocal" app that lets users post anonymously to other users in a specific area. It has gotten a bad rap from c...

PhotoIf you haven't heard of Yik Yak, it's a "hyperlocal" app that lets users post anonymously to other users in a specific area. It has gotten a bad rap from college administrators and others because it has been used to post threats and racial slurs.

But a study by University of Florida researchers finds it may not be as bad as all that. Writing in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, the UF researchers say they didn't find much of that kind of activity in their study.

"Our analysis was brief and focused on a specific point in time -- not enough time to make an accurate representation of postings on Yik Yak," said Erik Black, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine's department of pediatrics and lead author of the paper. "But the most intriguing finding with this study is we didn't see what we expected to see."

"There was definitely profanity and some aspects that would make anyone uncomfortable -- but those aspects weren't in any way worrisome since the profanity wasn't directed at anyone," said Lindsay Thompson, M.D., a physician in the department of pediatrics and co-author of the paper. "I think having a healthy skepticism is appropriate. But in this situation, among college students, fears and moves toward censorship would be unfounded."

Worrisome posts

A "worrisome" post would be one that could cause an individual to be singled out for abuse or ridicule, Black and Thompson said. 

The researchers defined "worrisome" postings as any yaks that could cause an individual to be revealed. Otherwise, Black and Thompson felt they could not label any particular posting as worrisome primarily because they lacked the understanding of the yak's context on that campus.

Social media in general offer the opportunity for users to post comments anonymously that they might not make in person. The researchers said that while Yik Yak is no different in that respect from other social media, they found few instances in which yaks included the full name of the person being discussed.

"We're not condoning the type of rhetoric we see on the application. Profane, racist and misogynistic language is not OK," Black said. "Yik Yak may provide the opportunity to pull back the proverbial covers on underlying sentiment on campuses."

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Target pulls hoverboards over safety concerns

Other retailers have done the same following government warnings that the devices may be unsafe

Target is the latest big retailer to remove hoverboards from its website and shelves, joining Amazon and Toys 'R Us in temporarily suspending sales of the ...

PhotoTarget is the latest big retailer to remove hoverboards from its website and shelves, joining Amazon and Toys 'R Us in temporarily suspending sales of the popular but potentially explosive devices. 

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission a few days ago warned retailers that since no hoverboard was approved by UL (formerly Underwriters Laboratory), they were all considered unsafe and should not be sold.

UL initially said it did not have a certification program in place for hoverboards but now says it has developed a program and is ready to begin certifying the popular devices, which were at the top of many Christmas lists during the holiday season.

The problem is that the lithium-ion batteries in the self-balancing boards can catch fire. There have been at least 52 reports of fires blamed on hoverboards, the agency noted.

Some manufacturers have blamed the problem on substandard components used in some cheaper boards, an argument safety advocates consider weak since, at last word, no manufacturer had bothered to win UL certification.

What to do

UL offers these tips for hoverboard users:

  • Keep the hoverboard away from flammable materials while charging.
  • Do not overcharge the board. Follow the manufacturer’s recommended charging times.
  • Do not charge the hoverboard overnight.
  • Use only the charger that is packaged with the hoverboard.
  • If a fire does occur, leave the area and call 9-1-1. UL notes that most fire extinguishers are not suitable for use with battery chemical fires.
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What can a young person do to start saving for retirement?

Author Michelle Perry Higgins offers money-saving tips for young people

AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, and Young Invincibles recently hosted an event called "Cheers to Your Future: A Happy ...

PhotoAARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, and Young Invincibles recently hosted an event called "Cheers to Your Future: A Happy Hour on Millennials’ Economic Outlook" in support of “Secure Choice” -- a legislation that would give working New Yorkers of every age the option to save at work via payroll deduction.

The legislation could be a positive step towards helping Millennials save for retirement. Compared to earlier generations, Millennials haven’t had it so easy when it comes to saving for retirement; a nationwide survey showed that Millennials have less wealth overall than earlier generations, and over half of low-income Millennials lack access to workplace retirement savings programs.

Savings plans like Secure Choice can go a long way towards helping an individual become self-reliant in retirement. But what other steps might a young person take to help them prepare for retirement?

To answer this question, we spoke with Michelle Perry Higgins, Principle and financial planner at California Financial Advisors, San Ramon, Calif. She advises young people to learn to balance the funds coming in so they don’t go out too quickly.

Visualize buckets

“You might be in awe of your paycheck and ecstatic to have money coming in regularly,” says Higgins, “But be smart with your money.”

She recommends visualizing various buckets: one for retirement, one for emergency reserves, one to pay down debt, and one for day-to-day expenses (yes, including some fun!). Keeping these buckets full can help ensure funds stay balanced -- which may also help you resist the urge to splurge while out shopping.

“Remember,” says Higgins, “Budgets are sexy. Budgets are cool. Budgets breed confidence and self-respect.” Buying a new pair of shoes may produce momentary happiness, but your self-respect will be shot if you can’t make rent because you splurged on the shoes.

20% for retirement

Higgins also recommends saving 20% of your income for retirement. Even though retirement may feel like a million years away, it’s a mistake to think, “I just graduated. I’ve got plenty of time,” says Higgins.

“Be savvier than that,” she says. "Once you get in the habit of saving 20% of your income for retirement, you’ll never miss the money."

You can also check and see if your employer offers a retirement plan (some will even match a percentage of your contribution). It’s a painless way to save, says Higgins, because the money is deducted directly from your paycheck.

Once a year, Higgins recommends checking in with a fee-based financial planner. With clear goals in place, you’ll never question your financial position.

More money-saving tips for young people can be found in her book, "College Poor No More! 100 $avings Tips for College Students."

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Feds allege Stratford 'high school diploma' doesn't make the grade

Students pay nearly $1,000 for a certificate that isn't equivalent to a high school diploma, FTC charges

Thousands of students paid as much as $989 for a "high school diploma" from Stratford Career Institute that turned out to be worthless, the Federal Trade C...

PhotoThousands of students paid as much as $989 for a "high school diploma" from Stratford Career Institute that turned out to be worthless, the Federal Trade Commission charges in a federal lawsuit.

“Stratford promised that its high school program could help students get better jobs and access higher education,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “For many students, those promises were false because schools and employers rejected Stratford’s supposed ‘diploma.’”

In its complaint, the FTC alleges that Stratford advertised its "diploma" as the key to higher earnings, promotions and the ability to apply for higher education.

But in reality, the agency charged, the Stratford :diploma" was not accepted by many employers and colleges.

According to the complaint, the school purchased online advertising tied to search terms like “official high school diploma,” “real high school diploma online,” and “legal high school diploma,” among others.

But Stratford’s own records, the complaint alleges, show that consumers who tried to use the Stratford diplomas were often told by prospective employers and college admissions officers that the program was not the same as a traditional high school.

The complaint notes that the Stratford program requires only 18 credits for completion, while many states require substantially more, including credits in courses not offered by Stratford.

The complaint alleges that Stratford violated the FTC Act’s prohibition on deceptive acts by making false and unsubstantiated promises to consumers.

Learn more about online high schools

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Starbucks changes rewards program and irks some customers

Consumers complain they'll have to spend more to earn rewards

Starbucks has announced some changes to its rewards program and is facing some customer backlash.The coffee retailer says that starting in April, the M...

PhotoStarbucks has announced some changes to its rewards program and is facing some customer backlash.

The coffee retailer says that starting in April, the My Starbucks Rewards program will become Starbucks Rewards.

Currently, rewards members earn one gold star on every visit to a starbucks store. Starting in April, they will earn two gold stars for every $1 spent.

To get to the “Gold Levels,” members now need 30 stars. In April, under the new program, it will take 300 stars. The current required 12 stars for a free reward will go to 125 stars.

The company said it was making the change because it was the top suggestion customers submitted on My Starbucks Idea. However, not all customers like the change and many are being very vocal about it.

Celeste, of El Cajon, Calif., says the change may prompt her to give up her daily habit.

“They make the new program out to be better but it is a marketing tactic,” Celeste wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “When the new points system launches, customers will have to earn 300 stars -- or spend close to $150 -- to reach gold status. After that, they will need 125 stars (the equivalent to spending about $63) in exchange for a free item. That is completely ridiculous.”

The issue is lighting up social media as well, with #StarbucksRewards an outlet for negative reaction.

“This is going to be a messy breakup,” one customer tweeted. “Wow, your new rewards program isn't very rewarding,” another wrote.

In announcing the change, Starbucks said it believed a loyalty program based on what they buy, not how many times they visit, is what its customers wanted. Apparently not all do.

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Keeping your senses intact may improve the aging experience

Quality of life worsens when more than one sense declines

Age can take a toll on the senses. Eyesight may worsen. Hearing starts to go. Even the senses of smell and taste may be diminished.Health researchers h...

PhotoAge can take a toll on the senses. Eyesight may worsen. Hearing starts to go. Even the senses of smell and taste may be diminished.

Health researchers have studied the effects when someone loses one of the senses, but there has been little research of what happens when a person loses multiple senses.

For example, existing studies have found that when a person loses the sense of smell, vision, or hearing, he or she is at greater risk of cognitive decline and poor mental health.

Losing the sense of taste can lead to poor nutrition and even death in certain instances.

Rapid decline

Now, a new study has looked at what happens when older adults lose two or more senses. It found that decline is often more rapid.

Writing up their findings in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, University of Chicago researchers studied data collected by the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP), a population-based study of adults aged 57-85.

In particular, the study collected information about the subjects' senses of vision, touch, smell, hearing, and taste. The participants were also asked to rate their physical health.

The researchers found that 94% experienced loss in at least one of their senses; 67% had two or more sensory losses. Nearly 20% of those who suffered correctable deficiencies – such as hearing and vision – rated the corrections as only fair or poor.

Link to quality of life

The researchers concluded that quality of life in old age is, in many ways, contingent upon keeping the five senses functioning satisfactorily. They also said that losing more than one sense might explain why older adults report having a poorer quality of life and face challenges in interacting with other people and the world around them.

But how can we use this data? For one thing, the study authors say there should be additional research into multi-sensory loss because it might help doctors design better programs to prevent or treat loss and to ease the suffering such losses cause.

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Urban activists prod presidential candidates to talk about rent

Group says cost of housing threatens American households

Jimmy McMillan, who founded New York's Rent Is Too Damn High Party, was just a little ahead of his time.Raising the issue of skyrocketing rents, both b...

PhotoJimmy McMillan, who founded New York's Rent Is Too Damn High Party, was just a little ahead of his time.

Raising the issue of skyrocketing rents, both before and after the financial crisis, McMillan has had the issue pretty much to himself. Now, urban activists are wondering why the issue doesn't come up in presidential debates.

The Center of Opportunity Urbanism (COU), a think tank in Houston, says skyrocketing rents, growing much faster than incomes, threaten the economy and American households.

Housing supply crisis

“America faces a growing crisis in housing supply unseen since the aftermath of the Second World War,” COU Executive Director Joel Kotkin, said in a study of the issue.

Kotkin says the cost of housing is driving families out of many regions, particularly along the ocean coasts.

The study finds housing costs – particularly skyrocketing rents – are largely absent from the 2016 presidential campaigns. The campaigns, Kotkin says, call for lower taxes and higher minimum wages, but they fail to recognize how a housing crisis contributes to, and is at the root of, the country's socio-economic problems.

"You would think that housing affordability would be the number one issue in this year's presidential contest, in light of the concern candidates from both parties have shown over the plight of America's middle class," said Kotkin. "But nowhere amongst the campaign rhetoric do we hear anything about this nation's very real housing crisis. If they care about middle-class Americans, they should put solving this growing problem at the top of their agendas."

Financial crisis marked a change

In the wake of the financial crisis, banks made it much harder to qualify for a mortgage. As a result, homes for sale went begging while consumers competed for rental properties. The increased demand sent rents soaring.

The real estate industry has also tried to call attention to the plight of renters. In 2014 Zillow warned that rental affordability was currently much worse than mortgage affordability, largely because rents didn't experience the huge drop seen in home values during the recession. Instead, rents continued to climb. As a result, renters have continued to pay a dangerously high percentage of their income for housing.

Zillow economist Stan Humphries warned that skyrocketing rents would eventually drag down the real estate market.

"As rents keep rising, along with interest rates and home values, saving for a down payment and attaining homeownership becomes that much more difficult for millions of current renters, particularly millennial renters already saddled with uncertain job prospects and enormous student debt,” Humphries said at the time.

The COU study, meanwhile, says the rent crisis is contributing to a number of housing trends, including more diverse suburbs, aging Baby Boomers remaining in their homes, and gentrified – and very expensive – urban neighborhoods.

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Consumer confidence reverses course in February

The view of the current situation grew bleaker

Consumers have turned bearish about the economic situation.The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index, after posting a moderate gain in...

PhotoConsumers have turned bearish about the economic situation.

The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index, after posting a moderate gain in January, turned downward this month, dipping from 97.8 to 92.2.

The decrease was led by the Present Situation Index, which fell from 116.6 to 112.1, and the Expectations Index, which dropped to 78.9 from January's reading of 85.3.

“Consumers’ assessment of current conditions weakened, primarily due to a less favorable assessment of business conditions,” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “Consumers’ short-term outlook grew more pessimistic, with consumers expressing greater apprehension about business conditions, their personal financial situation, and to a lesser degree, labor market prospects.

Franco said continued turmoil in the financial markets may be rattling consumers, but their assessment of current conditions suggests the economy will continue to expand at a moderate pace in the near-term.”

Consumers’ assessments

The percentage of consumers saying business conditions were “good” decreased from 27.7% to 26.0%, while those who think they're “bad” increased from 18.8% to 19.8%.

Consumers’ appraisal of the labor market was also negative, with those who say jobs are “plentiful” falling from 23.0% to 22.1%, while those who think jobs are “hard to get” rose to 24.2% from 23.6%.

Consumers were more pessimistic about the short-term outlook than in January. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months dropped from 15.9% to 14.6%, while those who look for conditions to worsen jumped to 12.0% from 10.7%.

Labor market outlook gloomy

Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead decreased from 13.4% to 12.2%, while those expecting fewer jobs inched up from 17.0% to 17.2%.

The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to increase fell from 18.6% to 17.2%, while the proportion expecting a reduction rose from 10.7% to 12.5%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was February 11.

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Existing-home sales inch higher in January

The increase in prices has picked up steam

Sales of previously-owned homes rose slightly, but hit their highest annual rate in six months during January, with prices increasing at the fastest clip s...

PhotoSales of previously-owned homes rose slightly, but hit their highest annual rate in six months during January, with prices increasing at the fastest clip since last April.

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), total existing-home sales -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums, and co-ops -- crept up 0.4% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.47 million. Sales are now 11.0% higher than a year ago -- the largest year-over-year gain since July 2013.

Existing sales kicked off 2016 on solid footing, rising slightly to the strongest pace since July 2015. "The housing market has shown promising resilience in recent months, but home prices are still rising too fast because of ongoing supply constraints," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "Despite the global economic slowdown, the housing sector continues to recover and will likely help the U.S. economy avoid a recession."

Prices and inventory

The median existing-home price for all housing types in January was $213,800, up 8.2% from January 2015. Last month's increase was the largest since 8.5% in April 2015 and marks the 47th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

Total housing inventory at the end of the month increased 3.4% to 1.82 million existing homes available for sale, but is still 2.2% lower than a year ago. Unsold inventory is at a 4.0-month supply at the current sales pace, compared with 3.9 months in December 2015.

"The spring buying season is right around the corner and current supply levels aren't even close to what's needed to accommodate the subsequent growth in housing demand," said Yun. "Home prices ascending near or above double-digit appreciation aren't healthy -- especially considering the fact that household income and wages are barely rising."

Sales by region

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast increased 2.7% last month to an annual rate of 760,000. They are now 20.6% above a year ago. The median price -- the point at which half the homes sell for more and half for less -- was $247,500, 0.9% above January 2015.
  • In the Midwest, sales rose 4.0% to an annual rate of 1.30 million. They are now 18.2% above January 2015. The median price was $164,300, up 8.7% from a year ago.
  • Sales in the South were at an annual rate of 2.24 million in January, the same as December. They are 5.7% above the same month a year ago. The median price jumped 8.5% from a year earlier to $184,800.
  • The West was the only region to show a decline -- 4.1% -- to an annual rate of 1.17 million, but sales are still 8.3% higher than a year ago. The median price was $309,400 -- up 7.4% from January 2015.
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Home prices head higher in December

Turmoil in the stock market is raising concerns

Home prices continued their rise across the country over the last 12 months, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices. The Index, which cove...

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Toyota recalls vehicles with faulty side curtain-shield-air bags

The side curtain-shield-air bags could deploy inadvertently

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling320,409 model year 2003-2006 Toyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LX470; 2005-2006 Toyota Tundra and Sequoia;...

PhotoToyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling320,409 model year 2003-2006 Toyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LX470; 2005-2006 Toyota Tundra and Sequoia; and 2004-2006 Toyota 4Runner and Lexus GX470 vehicles equipped with side curtain-shield-air bags.

 

The recalled vehicles have an air bag control module that may be improperly programmed, causing the side curtain-shield-air bags to deploy inadvertently and increasing the risk of occupant injury.

What to do

 

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will replace the air bag control module with one that has improved programming, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin April 2, 2016.

 

Owners may contact Toyota customer service at 1-888-271-9371. Toyota's number for this recall is G0C and GLB.

 

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ENVE recalls bicycle forks

The left leg of the bicycle fork can crack

ENVE Composites of Ogden, Utah, is recalling about 600 bicycle forks. The left leg of the bicycle fork can crack above the disc brake mount, posing...

PhotoENVE Composites of Ogden, Utah, is recalling about 600 bicycle forks.

 

The left leg of the bicycle fork can crack above the disc brake mount, posing a fall hazard.

 

The company has received five reports of the left leg of the fork cracking above the disc brake mount. No injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves ENVE Carbon Fiber Road Fork 2.0 Disc 1.25” taper models. The bicycle forks included in this recall have serial numbers beginning with: VCT1406, VCT1410, VCT1411, VCT1501, VCT1502, VCT1503, VCT1505, VCT1506, VCT1507, VCT1508, VCT1509 and VCT1510. The serial number is located on the black steerer tube.

 

The forks, manufactured in Vietnam, were sold at authorized ENVE dealers nationwide and online from June 2014, through December 2015, for about $540 for the fork.

What to do

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled forks and contact ENVE for a full refund or a substitute Road Fork 2.0 Disc 1.5” taper model and appropriate headset replacement. ENVE is contacting consumers who purchased the bicycle forks directly.

 

Consumers may contact ENVE toll-free at 877-358-2869 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (MT) Monday through Friday, by email at fork-recall@enve.com or online at www.enve.com by clicking on the Road Disc Fork Recall link under the Support tab for more information.

 

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Hyundai Tucsons recalled

The transmission leaks fluid

Hyundai Motor America is recalling 11,176 model year 2011 Hyundai Tucsons manufactured July 22, 2010, to October 31, 2010. The recalled vehicles ha...

PhotoHyundai Motor America is recalling 11,176 model year 2011 Hyundai Tucsons manufactured July 22, 2010, to October 31, 2010.

 

The recalled vehicles have a transmission fluid cooler hose that may have been improperly manufactured, resulting in a transmission fluid leak.

 

If enough transmission fluid leaks out, the transmission may not function properly and the vehicle may stop moving, increasing the risk of a crash.

What to do

 

Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will replace the transmission fluid cooler hose, free of charge.

The recall is expected to begin March 25, 2016.

 

Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-800-633-5151. Hyundai's number for this recall is 139.

 

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What are you doing with your tax refund?

Fewer consumers are spending it on things that stimulate the economy

Millions of consumers are eagerly awaiting their income tax refund from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), while millions more have already received their...

PhotoMillions of consumers are eagerly awaiting their income tax refund from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), while millions more have already received their money.

Economists like to track what consumers do with the money, since it can provide clues about what is going on in the consumer economy. This year, Taxsoftware.com's survey shows a stark departure from recent trends.

Only 23% will use the money they get back from the government to pay off debts, while 22% will save or invest it. In 2007, just before the financial crisis, 55% said they were going to pay off debt, and 59% planned to save or invest the money.

"Over the 10 years that we have asked people what they will do with their refunds, we've never seen numbers this low for these two important categories," Taxsoftware.com spokesperson Mickey Macedo said in a release.

Following the money

The survey also found that fewer consumers plan to use their refunds for home improvements, vacations, to pay mortgages or education loans, or to make purchases.

"People obviously think that they have better things to do with their money in 2016," Macedo said.

Or maybe, consumers feel like they must use their refunds to meet day-to-day expenses, which would not be a healthy sign.

GOBankingRate.com has conducted a similar survey. It found that three out of four consumers expecting a refund plan to use it to pay down existing debt. Just 25% said they planned to put the money into savings.

Just 5% said they planned to make a major purchase like a car or home and only 4% said they would splurge on purchases.

Encouraging

"It's really encouraging to see that most people are planning to use a tax refund to better their financial situation by saving or paying off debt," Elyssa Kirkham, the lead GOBankingRates finance reporter on the study, said in a release. "Using a tax refund this way will buy the taxpayer more financial security and peace of mind, instead of a one-off splurge that soon loses its value or is forgotten."

The survey showed 30% of respondents are not receiving a tax refund, which is actually the best usage of the money. While it is fun to get a nice check in February and March, many consumers lose sight of the fact that the government has been holding onto their money all year, interest free.

True, there aren't many places where you could earn much of a return on your cash, but even in a low-interest savings account, the money would be available to you during the year in an emergency, rather than having to wait for a refund from the government.

Forced savings

Though there is little empirical evidence in this area, chances are consumers want to get a refund because it is a forced savings plan. The money is taken from their paychecks and returned to them in one lump sum.

With interest rates almost nil, many financial advisors now say that's not such a bad thing. No-interest saving is better than no saving at all.

Still, consumers should remember that when they overpay their taxes on each paycheck, they're making an interest-free loan to the government. Maybe if they took home a little more money each month, they wouldn't need a big refund to pay down debt once a year.

You can adjust your withholding at work by adjusting the number of dependents you claim. The IRS Withholding Calculator can help you make the adjustment.

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Honda prepares to recall the 2016 Civic

The newly redesigned cars may have missing or mis-set piston rings

Honda has had a string of mishaps and setbacks lately. The redesigned 2016 Civic was supposed to change all that, but instead it's adding to the list of pr...

PhotoHonda has had a string of mishaps and setbacks lately. The redesigned 2016 Civic was supposed to change all that, but instead it's adding to the list of problems.

Bloomberg reports that Honda is preparing to recall the 2016 Civic and has ordered dealers to stop selling some versions of the little car because of piston-ring problems that could cause the engine to fail.

It quoted auto enthusiast blogs that said Honda had issued a dealer service bulletin earlier this month, warning dealers of the problem. About 34,000 Civics could be affected.

The stop-sale order to dealers requires that cars not be sold until they are examined to be sure the piston rings are not missing or mis-set, the reports said. 

Replacement parts are not expected to be available until mid-March, according to a posting on CivicX.com.

The official recall notice will be issued when it has been acknowledged by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). 

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Tax-related phishing incidents up 400%

Attacks have already exceeded 2014 total

It's that time of year. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is busy, tax preparers are busy, and scammers are busy.In fact, the IRS says phishing and ma...

PhotoIt's that time of year. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is busy, tax preparers are busy, and scammers are busy.

In fact, the IRS says phishing and malware incidents so far this tax season are up an incredible 400%.

Most of these schemes are carried out by email, but the IRS says a variation is showing up regularly using text messages. The communications try to appear like they are from the IRS, or from others in the tax industry.

They ask potential victims questions about their refunds, filing status, personal identifying information, and PINs. The IRS says the surge in these attacks is taking place all across the country.

Busiest time

"This dramatic jump in these scams comes at the busiest time of tax season," IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in a statement. "Watch out for fraudsters slipping these official-looking emails into inboxes, trying to confuse people at the very time they work on their taxes. We urge people not to click on these emails."

In particular, fraudsters are looking for information that could help them file a fake tax return before the real taxpayer does. If the scammer has someone's name, for example, he would just need their Social Security number in order to file a phony return, showing a huge tax refund is due.

The money is often sent to the scammer before the real taxpayer gets around to filing. Only then is the fraud discovered.

What is distressing to the tax agency is that this year's 1,389 incidents have already exceeded the 2014 yearly total of 1,361, and they are halfway to matching the 2015 total of 2,748.

Deeply worried

"While more attention has focused on the continuing IRS phone scams, we are deeply worried this increase in email schemes threatens more taxpayers," Koskinen said. "We continue to work cooperatively with our partners on this issue, and we have taken steps to strengthen our processing systems and fraud filters to watch for scam artists trying to use stolen information to file bogus tax returns."

The phishing emails often ask victims to click on a link to provide requested information. If the target does as requested, he or she is taken to sites designed to imitate an official-looking website, such as IRS.gov.

At these sites, victims are asked for Social Security numbers and other personal information. The sites may also carry malware, which can infect computers and allow criminals to access files or track keystrokes to gain information.

What to do

Consumers can easily protect themselves from these phishing attacks by realizing that the IRS generally contacts taxpayers by U.S. mail, not email. It would certainly not request sensitive information, like PINs and Social Security numbers, by unsecured email.

Consumers who receive emails that look like they are from the IRS or tax software company, seeking information, clarification, or confirmation of something, should assume it is a scam and delete it.

The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team advises that the best way to spot an email phishing scam is when the communication is unexpected or unsolicited. The agency has other helpful tips here.

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The tiny house movement may be branching out to micro apartments

But what are the psychological effects of living in less than 400 square feet?

For millennials, it’s the little things in life: same-day delivery, craft brews, the ability to express an entire thought using only emoji. Other groups ma...

PhotoFor millennials, it’s the little things in life: same-day delivery, craft brews, the ability to express an entire thought using only emoji. Other groups may view them as entitled, but ironically, it doesn’t take much -- or much square footage -- to make a millennial happy.

As we reported, the “tiny house” movement jives rather well with the budget constraints and lifestyle of young people -- but they’re not the only ones getting in on the trend. Older people, both single and partnered up, have also enjoyed the budget-friendly nature and practicality of small space living.

Now, it appears small space living is taking on city life, in the form of micro-unit apartments and condominiums. As rents go up in the nation’s most expensive markets, some developers are finding there is a market for apartments smaller than 400 square feet.

The National Association of Realtors (NARS) notes that small space living is not a new concept, of course. New Yorkers are used to coming home to just a few hundred square feet, as are residents of other big cities like Tokyo, Paris, and Singapore to name a few. But as the practicality of small space living begins to outweigh its perceived encumbrances, more consumers all over are happily snapping up teeny tiny spaces in big cities.

Health concerns

There is a health component to small space living, however -- one which has left many wondering how small is too small. Cramped conditions can take a toll on one’s mental and physical well-being, experts say.

“Micro-apartments might be fantastic for young professionals in their 20’s,” says Dak Kopec, director of design for human health at Boston Architectural College and author of Environmental Psychology for Design. “But they definitely can be unhealthy for older people, say in their 30’s and 40’s, who face different stress factors that can make tight living conditions a problem.”

Home is supposed to be the safe space on the other end of a day spent enduring cramped office buildings and crowded streets -- the light at the end of the tunnel. But if that mental reprieve gets taken away, there can be consequences. Too much crowding-related stress has been shown to increase rates of domestic violence and substance abuse, Kopec tells The Atlantic.

While micro-apartments may address the need for affordable housing in cities, the task of imbuing them with some mental breathing room presents a whole new challenge.

Views and amenities

The East 27th Street building in New York City -- winner of a 2012 competition to design and build a residential tower of micro-units -- does a good job rounding out the concept of small space living. What residents lack in physical space, the building makes up for in views and amenities.

Units boast nine-foot high ceilings, while the building itself offers a gym with floor-to-ceiling park views, a lobby with a public garden and a Juliet balcony. Eric Bunge, a principle at nArchitects, says features like these can help reduce the risk of claustrophobia and balance the discrepancy between housing standards and actual housing conditions.

When this balance is achieved, most city officials agree that small space living can play a big role in cities. In declaring affordable living options crucial to the health of the city, former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn shares the sentiment of Mayor Bloomberg in New York.

“It’s not good for the health of the city to create jobs here and not create places to live,” said McGinn.

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Organic milk and meat may be worth shelling out extra for, study suggests

In terms of omega-3 levels, organic milk and meat triumphs over non-organic

Whether due to their perceived health consciousness or the higher total on their receipt, the organic shopper stands out in the crowd. However, as we repor...

PhotoWhether due to their perceived health consciousness or the higher total on their receipt, the organic shopper stands out in the crowd. However, as we reported, there may not be much difference between organic foods and conventional foods in terms of vitamins and bacteria levels.

Previous research concluded that the only thing organic food had going for it was a lower level of pesticides. Stanford University researchers found that 7% of organic fruits and vegetables had small levels of pesticide tracings, compared to 38% of conventional food items.

So go ahead and buy what’s on sale, said Joan Salge Blake, registered dietician and a spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition Dietetics. The section of the store your fruits and veggies are from is not nearly as important as consuming enough of it (a minimum of 4.5 cups per day).

It may not come as a surprise that the 2012 study received a fair amount of backlash from organic food aficionados. But fast forward a few years, and the scales have tipped again -- this time in favor of organic (milk and meat, at least).

Higher Omega-3 levels

A new study has found clear differences between organic and non-organic milk and meat. Organic milk and meat were found to contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced products, according to the study, which was led by Newcastle University and based on data from around the world.

The study, published recently in the British Journal of Nutrition, suggests that a switch to organic meat and milk may be helpful in terms of increasing our intake of fatty acids -- an important nutritional component which diets often lack.

“Omega-3s are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function,” Chris Seal, Professor of Food and Human Nutrition at Newcastle University said in a statement. He explains that getting enough in our diet is difficult -- a task which especially those in Western Europe struggle with.

Organic farming standards

Switching from conventional to organic would raise omega-3 fat intake without increasing calories and undesirable saturated fat, Seal explains. Other positive changes in fat profiles included lower levels of myristic and palmitic acid in organic meat and a lower omega-3/omega-6 ratio in organic milk. These more desirable fat profiles were chalked up to organic farming standards, which calls for outdoor grazing and low concentrate feeding in dairy diets.

Previous studies by the same team of experts showed that organic crops and crop-based foods are up to 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally-grown crops and contained less of the toxic metal cadmium.

"We have shown without doubt there are composition differences between organic and conventional food,” concludes Newcastle University's Professor Carlo Leifert, who led the studies. “Taken together, the three studies on crops, meat and milk suggest that a switch to organic fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products would provide significantly higher amounts of dietary antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.”

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Ohio man gets 9 years in sweepstakes scam

Paul Toth was a "smasher" for a Costa Rica-based scam operation

An Ohio man has been sentenced to nine years in federal prison for his part in a sweepstakes scam that victimized two elderly consumers. Paul R. Toth Jr., ...

PhotoAn Ohio man has been sentenced to nine years in federal prison for his part in a sweepstakes scam that victimized two elderly consumers. Paul R. Toth Jr., 41, of Wintersville, Ohio, was also ordered to pay $307,000 in restitution.

Toth was convicted in a two-day trial last year of money laundering charges in connection with a scheme to defraud the victims out of more than $300,000 in savings.

Prosecutors said that Toth's co-conspirators, operating from a base in Costa Rica, deceived the victims into thinking they had won a large prize in a sweepstakes contest. To collect, they had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to Costa Rica as a "refundable insurance fee," they were told.

Evidence at trial indicated that Toth was a U.S.-based "smasher" for the scam artists. His job was pick up victims' money and deliver it to Costa Rica. Prosecutors said Toth transferred about $200,000 to the scam artists and pocketed the rest.

Toth was sentenced last week by U.S. District Judge Robert J. Conrad Jr. of the Western District of North Carolina.

What to do

The most basic way to avoid being scammed by phony sweepstakes is to remember that you can't win a contest you didn't enter. 

Also, you will never be asked to pay any kind of fee to collect legitimate sweepstakes winnings. And, it goes without saying, you should never give your bank or credit card information to anyone who says they will transfer the winnings to you. 

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Social networks take 'unsubscribe me' honors

Coupon sites Groupon and LivingSocial send the most emails per user

We've all done it -- hit the little button that signs us up for "occasional" email updates, only to discover that we have voluntarily stepped in front of a...

PhotoWe've all done it -- hit the little button that signs us up for "occasional" email updates, only to discover that we have voluntarily stepped in front of a fire hose. 

The deluge begins almost immediately, as we're flooded with emails about what others are saying, what our supposed friends are doing, and what obscure changes have been made to an app or site we've long since forgotten about.

The worst offenders? Social networks, according to Unroll.me, an online service that helps consumers unsubscribe from email lists they regret joining. 

StumbleUpon leads this year's Unroll.me report of the most-unsubscribed, with 43% of consumers opting out of receiving future email updates. Live Nation and Good Reads were close behind with 38% and 35%.

Foursquare, Twitter, and Classmates.com were runners-up.

Big senders

Unroll.me also tabulates the overachievers in the big sender category, with Groupon taking top honors this year, sending an average of 388 emails per person last year. Arch competitor LivingSocial was close behind with 363, followed by Facebook at 310.

Unroll.me claims to have stopped 4.6 billion emails through its service, and unsubscribed people from 423,234,234 email subscriptions over the past three years.

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Will the skies get as congested as the highways?

Flying cars will be here sooner than you think

While traditional automakers are focused on electric vehicles and self-driving cars, a Massachusetts technology firm has set its sights higher. Like, in th...

PhotoWhile traditional automakers are focused on electric vehicles and self-driving cars, a Massachusetts technology firm has set its sights higher. Like, in the sky.

Earlier this month Terrafugia announced that it has completed static load testing of a prototype of the wing for its TF-X -- for all intents and purposes a flying car. The company said the tests showed that the one-tenth scale carbon fiber wing will be able to safely withstand the necessary loads during wind tunnel testing. It's an important step, the company says, that will get the TF-X airborne faster than anyone expected.

The TF-X just may bring the world one step closer to the realty of “The Jetsons.” The vehicle is a plug-in hybrid electric flying car with semi-autonomous flight and vertical takeoff and landing capabilities. That means you could back it out of your garage, lift off from your driveway, fly to the office, and land in the parking lot.

The company says progress so far suggests the TF-X could enter production in eight to 12 years, but could begin flight testing within two years.

Other manufacturers

The TF-X is just one personal flying vehicle that is on its way to becoming a reality. Chinese manufacturer Ehang, a drone manufacturer, was the surprise hit of January's Consumer Electronics Slow when it displayed what it said was the world's first electric, personal Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (AAV).

The aircraft is designed for short-to-medium distances and the company believes it holds huge potential, not only for the transportation industry, but also for many other fields such as shipping, medical care, and retail.

A Dutch company called PAL-V is also making progress on a flying vehicle. It describes its prototype gyrocopter as a lean, agile two-seater that can speed down motorways, launch from airstrips, and allow someone to escape the limitations of traffic.

Earth-bound traffic that is. With the rapid development of personal flying vehicles – some of which may not require a pilot's license – the air may soon be as congested as the ground.

How to regulate?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is likely viewing all these developments with a concerned eye. After all, it is only now coming to grips with the explosive growth in the number of unmanned drones, operated by consumers for entertainment. Millions were sold over the holidays.

It will ultimately be the FAA's job to keep autonomous flying vehicles, operated by consumers, from running into each other in the sky, not to mention separated from the millions of drones zipping around.

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2015 was a tough year for air travelers

Airline consumer complaints were up significantly from the previous year

To hear consumers tell it, last year was a whole lot worse for flying than 2014.The Department of Transportation's (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report sho...

PhotoTo hear consumers tell it, last year was a whole lot worse for flying than 2014.

The Department of Transportation's (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report shows complaints filed during 2015 were up 29.8% from 2014 -- for a total of 20,170 compared with 15,539 the year before.

In December alone, there were 1,565 complaints about airline service from consumers, up 46.9% from the same month a year earlier and 19.6% from November.

The complaints cover a range of aviation service issues such as flight problems, baggage, reservation and ticketing, refunds, consumer service, disability, and discrimination. Consumers can compare the overall complaint records of individual airlines to determine which ones provide the best service so that they can make te best choice. The complaints also serve as a basis for investigations, rulemaking, legislation, and research.

Also included in the report is data on on-time performance, cancellations, tarmac delays, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays. Consumers can also view statistics on mishandled baggage reports, the number of passengers denied confirmed space (oversales/bumping), and  the total number of animals that died, were injured, or were lost during air transport in December, as well as the calendar year.

The complete report may be found on the DOT website.

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Maytag Dairy Farms expands recall of blue cheese

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Maytag Dairy Farms of Newton, Iowa, is expanding its earlier recall Maytag Raw Milk Blue Cheese. The product may be contaminated with Listeria mono...

PhotoMaytag Dairy Farms of Newton, Iowa, is expanding its earlier recall Maytag Raw Milk Blue Cheese.

 

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

The expanded recall adds lot # 150482, which includes roughly 1,100 pounds of cheese, some of which has been distributed to retail locations prior to the initial recall, which was for lot # 150481.

 

There have been no reported illnesses linked to the product to date.

What to do

 

Customers who purchased this product should not consume it.

 

Customers may call Maytag Dairy Farms at 800-247-2458 or 641-791-2010 to arrange for a refund and return of the product.

 

 

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Volkswagen recalls Beetle Convertibles

The tie placard may have incorrect sidewall height ratio information

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 325 model year 2016 Beetle Convertibles manufactured June 18, 2015, to November 9, 2015 and equipped with 18-inch ...

PhotoVolkswagen Group of America is recalling 325 model year 2016 Beetle Convertibles manufactured June 18, 2015, to November 9, 2015 and equipped with 18-inch wheels.

 

The recalled vehicles may have incorrect sidewall height ratio information on the tire placard. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 110, "Tire Selection and Rims."

 

If the tires are replaced using a smaller diameter tire, it can cause incorrect readings of the speedometer, which could increase the risk of a crash.

 

What to do

 

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will install a corrected tire placard, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in February 2016.

 

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 01B3.

 

 

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Country Life Natural Foods recalls raw pistachios

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Country Life Natural Foods of Pullman, Mich., is recalling shelled raw pistachios, sold in 2-lb bags and 30-lb boxes. The product may be contaminat...

PhotoCountry Life Natural Foods of Pullman, Mich., is recalling shelled raw pistachios, sold in 2-lb bags and 30-lb boxes.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

The 2-lb. bags bear the batch number 1357 in the lower left corner of the Country Life Natural Foods Label. The 30-lb boxes bear the name “SAM International” lot number 102914, and best by date of April 29, 2016.

 

The recalled products were distributed in Arkansas, California, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin through retail stores, mail order and direct delivery.

 

What to do

 

Customers who purchased the recalled product should not consume it, but return it to the place of purchase.

 

Consumers with questions may call Country Life Natural Foods at 800-456-7694, 9:00 am – 5:00 pm (EST) Monday through Thursday, and 9:00 am – 1:00 pm (EST) Friday.

 

 

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Raynor recalls office chairs

The chair seat can detach, posing a fall hazard

Raynor Marketing of West Hempstead, N.Y., is recalling about 1,200 Eurotech Lume office chairs. The chair seat can detach, posing a fall hazard to ...

PhotoRaynor Marketing of West Hempstead, N.Y., is recalling about 1,200 Eurotech Lume office chairs.

 

The chair seat can detach, posing a fall hazard to consumers.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves Eurotech Lume office chairs. The black, mesh mid-back, adjustable chairs have a black base with five wheels. Item number MF2500 and the date of manufacture in YY/MM/DD format are printed on a label located on the underside of the seat. Dates of manufacture included in the recall are between 14/10/08 and 15/10/16.

 

The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at Davies Office in New York and Office Furniture Depot stores in New Jersey and by other independent distributors from January 2015, through November 2015, for about $300.

 

What to do

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and contact Raynor to receive a full refund.

 

Consumers may contact Raynor toll-free at 866-800-1377 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday or online at www.eurotechseating.com and click on Warranties at the bottom right hand corner of the page and then on the Lume Chair Recall link for more information.

 

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General Motors recalls Chevrolet Colorados and GMC Canyons

The vehicles could suffer a loss or reduction in power steering assist

General Motors is recalling 2,988 model year 2015 Chevrolet Colorados manufactured January 6, 2015, to March 17, 2015, and 2015 GMC Canyons manufactured Ja...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 2,988 model year 2015 Chevrolet Colorados manufactured January 6, 2015, to March 17, 2015, and 2015 GMC Canyons manufactured January 6, 2015, to March 19, 2015.

A poor electrical connection within the steering gear connector may cause a loss of power steering assist. A loss or reduction in power steering assist may increase the risk of a crash.

 

What to do

 

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the steering gear pinion sensor cover assembly, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020 or GMC customer service at 1-800-462-8782. GM's number for this recall is 15595.

 

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Chappaqua Crunch Granola with Blueberries and Bananas recalled

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

WBY Foods of Marblehead, Mass., is recalling Chappaqua Crunch Simply Granola with Blueberries & Bananas.   The product may be contaminated with Salmo...

PhotoWBY Foods of Marblehead, Mass., is recalling Chappaqua Crunch Simply Granola with Blueberries & Bananas.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

 

The recalled product comes in a 13-oz. clear plastic pouch and marked with best beginning with Feb. 5, 2016 and ending with May 31, 2016, and was distributed in retail stores in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington DC, Virginia, No. Carolina, So. Carolina, Georgia and Florida, and through mail order.

 

The product comes in a 13 ounce clear plastic pouch and marked with best by dates on the back. The recall includes best by dates beginning with Feb. 5, 2016 and ending with May 31, 2016.

 

What to do

 

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

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-800-488-4602, Monday thru Friday, 8:00 AM - 3:30 PM (EST).

 

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Lexus RX350 and RX450h vehicles recalled

The gas needed to inflate the driver's knee air bag may escape from the inflator

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 5,070 model year 2016 Lexus RX350 and RX450h vehicles manufactured November 16, 2015, to December 23,...

PhotoToyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 5,070 model year 2016 Lexus RX350 and RX450h vehicles manufactured November 16, 2015, to December 23, 2015.

 

Due to an improper weld, the gas needed to inflate the driver's knee air bag may escape from the inflator. A defective inflator may increase the risk of injury in the event of a crash.

 

What to do

 

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and, if necessary, replace the knee air bag assembly, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin March 27, 2016.

 

Owners may contact Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331. Toyota's number for this recall is GLA.

 

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How to pack -- make a list and check it twice

Whether it's a cruise or a road trip, bring the essentials but not too much more

When my daughter was a teen she would interview me before vacations: How many days will we be gone? What will we be doing? What kinds of clothes do I need?...

PhotoWhen my daughter was a teen she would interview me before vacations: How many days will we be gone? What will we be doing? What kinds of clothes do I need?

From my responses she would handwrite an elaborate list of exactly what was needed with quantities. Her packing list was the envy of the family; while we all fretted over what to take, she would carefully select and place items in her open suitcase, crossing them off her list, one by one.

Fast forward several years and I am preparing for a trip to Alaska. With no idea what to expect, weather-wise or otherwise, a friend suggested I do an online search with “What to pack for Alaska.” It was a brilliant idea and I found several sites that listed essentials. From their lists I culled a personal “What to Pack for Alaska for 11 Days” document that I saved online.

As I made subsequent trips, I would open up my how to pack list, update the destination and the number of days, and then customize. As I took additional trips and learned more about travel, packing, and how to streamline, I edited and updated my list.

Your customized list

With my trusty packing list, I rarely forget items. Follow these tips to create your very own list and you’ll never forget to pack the essentials:

  • Open a document in your word processing program and title it “What to Pack for (your destination(s) for (however many) Days.

  • List the essentials you will need, one on a line, for example: undergarments, bedtime clothing, tops, bottoms, shoes, socks, belts, sweaters, jackets, swimwear, exercise/casual wear, and on.

  • Be specific in which color and item you will take, for example: pink silk top, khaki and black pants, brown belt, or, three short sleeve knit shirts in navy, yellow, and black.

  • Make each item either a bullet or open box so you can check it off.

  • List your toiletries, including everything you will need. Don’t forget over the counter medications and prescription medications.

  • Add eye glasses, contacts, contact solution, sunglasses, back up eyeglasses, cell phone, iPad, laptop, chargers, books, and ebook reader.

  • Include a packable tote bag and foul weather gear.

  • Add details with quantity/quantities so you are sure to have enough.

  • Include a line item for an emergency kit and follow with a detailed list of what you might need. Do the same for a makeup kit.

  • Add travel guides and documentation such as passports and insurance cards, as well as photocopies of your credit cards, picture ID, insurance cards, and your passport.

  • Do you plan on bringing a carry on, tote, or backpack? If so include as a line item and identify the items to pack. Remember articles that make travel more comfortable, such as a travel packs of tissues, a water bottle, reading material, and chewing gum, hard candies, or snacks.

Afraid you might forget the shoes that go perfectly with your special dress? Or the lucky tie you wear for presentations? You can put your worries to rest now that you have the tools to make a packing list.

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What Bernie Sanders' proposals cost, and how he'd pay for them

Most of the burden falls on Wall Street but Main Street would be affected too

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has laid out a number of expensive, but popular, proposals as his campaign against Hillary Clinton has gaine...

PhotoDemocratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has laid out a number of expensive, but popular, proposals as his campaign against Hillary Clinton has gained momentum.

In recent weeks he has revealed tax proposals that he believes would pay for them, though like any ambitious program, critics have questioned some of his numbers.

While most of the revenue hikes are aimed at Wall Street professionals and the wealthy, some would undoubtedly affect middle class consumers who invest in stocks, or have their retirement assets invested in the market. Also, middle-income taxpayers would probably see their taxes rise.

It is also hard to imagine them being passed by a Republican Congress. Still, he could be the Democratic candidate for President and the proposals reflect the thinking of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Single payer system

Among the most ambitious Sanders proposal is one covering everyone with Medicare, the health insurance now provided to Americans age 65 and older. To pay the cost – which has been hard to pin down – Sanders would raise or initiate a wide range of taxes that would touch just about everyone.

According to the candidate's campaign website, the Medicare for all proposal, which would replace Obamacare with a single-payer system, would be paid for with a 6.2% income-based health care premium paid by employers, and a 2.2% income-based premium paid by households.

In addition, tax rates would be adjusted more progressively so that taxpayers paid a higher rate than they do now. It would also tax capital gains and dividends as ordinary income, instead of the lower rate at which they are now taxed.

Finally, it would reduce tax deductions for upper income Americans and increase the estate tax. Sanders has said the higher taxes Americans would face would be off-set by lower costs for healthcare coverage.

Wall Street tax

Another big ticket proposal would be to pay college tuition for students at state supported institutions, at a projected cost of $75 billion a year. It would be paid for by imposing what Sanders calls a “Wall Street tax.” The government would impose a tax on every stock, bond, and derivative transaction.

The tax would not just be paid by hedge funds and day-traders, but also mutual funds and individual stock purchases. But the pros would undoubtedly pay the most, since the more transactions you make, the more you pay the tax. Sanders says such a transaction tax could raise $300 billion.

Right now federal law provides for unpaid family leave. Sanders proposes to provide paid leave for family and medical emergencies. To pay for it he proposes an additional payroll tax on workers that would average about $1.61 per week.

Social Security

Sanders would address the Social Security shortfall with one measure. He would eliminate the current cap of FICA withholding. In 2015, Social Security and Medicare taxes were levied only on the $118,500 of income. Under Sanders' plan, consumers would pay the tax on their entire income, regardless of how much it is.

Sanders other proposals would be mostly paid for by taxes on corporations or reducing tax advantages for upper income earners.

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Concerns raised over Adderall abuse

College students reportedly using ADHD drug as a study aid

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health worry young adults are increasingly abusing the stimulant prescription medication, Adderall....

PhotoResearchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health worry young adults are increasingly abusing the stimulant prescription medication, Adderall.

They report that doctors are not writing an increasing number of Adderall presciptions. However, they are seeing a dramatic rise in emergency room (ER) visits by young adults who have misused the drug.

Previously, the researchers said, the belief was that Adderall's misuse was most widespread among children and adolescents. Their findings suggest otherwise.

They looked at trends from 2006 through 2011 and found that it is mainly 18-to-25-year-olds who are abusing Adderall, usually getting it from family and friends and without a physician's prescription.

ADHD treatment

Adderall is a common treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“The growing problem is among young adults,” study co-author Ramin Mojtabai said in a release. “In college, especially, these drugs are used as study-aid medication to help students stay up all night and cram.”

Mojtabai and his colleagues think students who are abusing Adderall believe it will make them smarter and more capable of studying.

“We need to educate this group that there could be serious adverse effects from taking these drugs and we don’t know much at all about their long-term health effects,” he said.

Dangerous side effects

Adderall, the brand name for dextroamphetamine-amphetamine, does improve focus, Mojtabai says, but it can also cause sleep disruption and serious cardiovascular side effects, such as high blood pressure and stroke. It has also been linked to depression and mental health issues.

According to DrugAbuse.com, an online addiction treatment resource, people abusing Adderall often experience headaches, dry mouth, nausea, digestive issues, reduced appetite, and anxiety.

It says the drug is often purchased from an illicit source for recreational use and snorted.

Mojtabai says he would like to see drugs like Adderall monitored in the same way that prescription painkillers have started to be monitored in recent years. He says a prescription database would help a physician make sure the patient isn’t receiving multiple medications from multiple physicians, a warning sign of diversion or abuse.

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Mid-winter grooming is important to your dog's health, experts say

Humans aren't the only ones whose skin needs a little extra TLC during the winter months

Protecting our skin becomes a priority during the cold winter months, but it should also be a priority to take care of your dog’s skin. We humans can comba...

PhotoProtecting our skin becomes a priority during the cold winter months, but it should also be a priority to take care of your dog’s skin. We humans can combat the cold by stocking up on thick jackets and extra moisturizer, but dogs look to us for help.

It may be tempting to let Fido skip baths during the winter since he’s inside more often (and theoretically, less dirty), but pet experts say not to skimp on the baths -- mid-winter grooming is important to pets’ health and therefore shouldn’t be avoided by pet owners.

"When heating systems are running day in and day out, a dog's skin becomes dry and itchy, just like ours does," says Traci Simo, of Canine Company. "If you see your pet scratching, licking or biting himself during the winter months, that's a sign that he's uncomfortable. If you don't intervene, that behavior can lead to more severe skin problems."

Keep skin moisturized

To help keep dry, itchy skin at bay, Simo recommends the following:

  • Shampoo. Pets with dry, itchy skin may need a shampoo and moisturizing treatment monthly. Simo recommends a massaging shampoo followed by a deep moisturizing treatment. "Use only products specifically formulated for pets. Dogs' skin has a different pH, so using human products can actually make skin problems worse."

  • Let the coat air-dry. Because dog’s skin burns more easily, it’s best not to use a hair dryer, she says. Towel thoroughly, and comb through the hair to help the process along.

  • Brush often. Simo recommends daily brushing to help stimulate the skin's natural oils. This will help your pup stay comfortable.

It’s important to note that if you’ve got a pooch with sensitive skin, PetMD advises not to overdo it on the winter baths. Bathing with shampoos or soaps should be limited during the winter months, as it can actually make dry skin worse. Simple water baths should do the trick under most circumstances. Should you need to bathe your pet with shampoo, PetMD recommends using a moisturizing shampoo for sensitive skin along with a moisturizing rinse.

Simo also adds that parasite problems are expected to begin early this year due to the unusual winter weather we experienced in the northeast. She recommends not waiting until spring officially arrives to begin applying flea and tick prevention products.

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Used car prices dipped in January

Surge in inventory and bad weather combine to soften prices

For consumers considering the purchase of a used vehicle, now might be a good time to kick some tires.Analysts at NADA Used Car Guide, a division of J....

PhotoFor consumers considering the purchase of a used vehicle, now might be a good time to kick some tires.

Analysts at NADA Used Car Guide, a division of J.D. Power and Associates, report the used vehicle market retreated a bit in January, with lower prices than cars brought in December.

NADA maintains a used car price index to track price movement and found January's used vehicle price index reflected a slightly greater decline of 0.3% compared to December, bringing the index to 122.2.

Jonathan Banks, executive analyst for NADA Used Car Guide says one reason for more consumer-friendly prices is a significant increase in vehicles to choose from. When supply edges out demand, prices tend to go down.

Big increase in cars for sale

At car auctions, where used cars enter the wholesale market, Banks says sales volume of models up to eight years old grew by 38% over the four week period ending January 25, reaching 322,200 units.

Bad weather in the east also slowed used car sales in January, but NADA Used Car Guide predicts that pent-up demand is being played out in the marketplace this month. For that reason, consumers can expect used car prices to move higher in March.

The temporary slowdown might also be explained by the type of vehicles being sold at auction. Older cars with fewer features command a lower price.

In August, we reported a jump in used car prices precisely because the cars being sold tended to be newer, bringing a higher price. Automotive site Edmunds.com reported the average used car transaction price was $18,800 in the second quarter of last year – $1,300 higher than the second quarter of 2014.  

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Cybercrime is big business and getting bigger

Researchers calculate the massive returns hackers get on stolen credit cards

In the last decade, hackers have shifted their primary targets from consumers' PCs to corporations' networks.The payoff from breaking into your compute...

PhotoIn the last decade, hackers have shifted their primary targets from consumers' PCs to corporations' networks.

The payoff from breaking into your computer might not be so much. Getting into Target, on the other hand, could be huge.

Just how huge hasn't been widely appreciated, but researchers at Michigan State University recently calculated that even small-scale hacking operations are making millions of dollars in profits by targeting corporate databases and stealing credit and debit card data.

"In the past two years there have been hundreds of data breaches involving customer information, some very serious like the Target breach in 2013," Thomas J. Holt, Michigan State University criminologist and lead investigator of the study, said in a release. "It's happening so often that average consumers are just getting into this mindset of, 'Well, my bank will just re-issue the card, it's not a problem.' But this is more than a hassle or inconvenience. It's a real economic phenomenon that has real economic impact and consequences."

Black market in plain sight

Holt and his fellow researchers found online forums in English and Russian where criminals who stole personal information auctioned it off in batches of 50 or 100. Someone who buys the data can then try to access the victims' bank accounts or buy goods or services with the stolen cards.

Holt says, on average, a batch of 50 stolen credit or debit cards can bring between $250,000 and $1 million on the black market. Buyers consider it a reasonable price, since they, on average, can use those 50 credit or so debit cards to pull in between $2 million and $8 million.

Coordinated approach

Holt says there needs to be a more intensive, coordinated approach by law enforcement agencies around the world to crack down on cybercrime. He says consumers also need to understand the stakes.

"My goal is make people cognizant of just how much their personal information means, how much value there is," Holt said. "If we don't understand the scope of this problem, if we just treat it as a nuisance, then we're going to enable and embolden this as a form of crime that won't stop."

Consumer Security company Mcafee estimates the annual cost to the economy of cybercrime activity is more than $400 billion.

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Consumer prices hold steady in January

Energy costs were down, while food prices were unchanged

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) was unchanged in January, thanks to a drop in the cost of energy and no change in food prices, according to the Department o...

PhotoThe Consumer Price Index (CPI) was unchanged in January, thanks to a drop in the cost of energy and no change in food prices, according to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

For the last 12 months, the CPI is up just 1.4%.

Energy and food

Energy costs were down 2.8%, with all major components falling for a second straight month. Gasoline prices fell 4.8%, fuel oil plunged 6.5%, electricity was off 0.7%, and natural gas posted a 0.6% decline.

Over the last 12 months, fuel oil prices have plummeted 28.7%, natural gas has decreased 12.7%, gasoline has fallen 7.3%, and the cost of electricity is down 2.4%.

Food prices were unchanged last month after falling in November and December. With the food at home category down 0.2% it's second decline in a row. Five of the six major grocery store food group categories were lower led by for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs (-1.3%). Cereals and bakery products, dairy and related products, nonalcoholic beverages, and other food at home all declined 0.2%. In contrast, fruits and vegetables increased 1.3% the largest increase since March 2011. The food at home index has declined 0.5% over the past 12 months. Food away from home (restaurant meals) rose 0.3% percent in January and is up 2.7% over the last 12 months.

Core inflation

The “core” rate of inflation, excluding the volatile food and energy categories, was up 0.3% for the month, due to increases in the cost of shelter (+0.3%), medical care (+0.5%), alcoholic beverages (+0.5% and motor vehicle (+0.4%). Education and communication prices were both unchanged in January, while household furnishings and operations costs dipped 0.1%.

Over the past, the core rate of inflation is up 2.2%, its highest 12-month change since the period ending June 2012.

The complete report is available on the BLS website.

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Senator presses Google on student data privacy

Meanwhile, Apple refuses a court order to unlock an iPhone for the FBI

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and Google are engaged in conversations about privacy – in particular, the privacy of data Google collects about students.In rec...

PhotoSen. Al Franken (D-MN) and Google are engaged in conversations about privacy – in particular, the privacy of data Google collects about students.

In recent weeks, Franken asked the search giant to explain its student data privacy policies, and now he says Google has responded.

Franken said the company provided thorough answers, but there is room for clarification. For example, he says he would like to know what exactly Google is doing with the data it collects from students.

He would also like to know whether the company plans to give students and parents a choice of “opting-in” to data collection.

Fundamental right to privacy

"I believe Americans have a fundamental right to privacy, and that right includes the ability to control who is getting your personal data and how it's being used," Franken said in a release.

Franken says he thinks Google has done great work in education technology, but wants to make sure the company is doing everything it can to protect the privacy of students.

"Google's response to my questioning was thorough, and I appreciate its engagement on this topic,” Franken said. “But I'm still concerned about what exactly Google does with the information it collects and processes from students who are browsing outside websites—like YouTube—while logged in to Google's education services.”

Franken says he thinks the issue could be resolved by providing parents and students with stronger privacy protections.

Apple standoff with the FBI

Meanwhile, another technology company is invoking the privacy issue in a standoff with the government. Apple CEO Tim Cook has said the company will fight a federal court order to unlock the iPhone of one of the suspects in December's San Bernadino terrorist attack.

The FBI wants to view the contents of the phone, but an Apple security feature will erase the contents after a number of unsuccessful attempts to log in.

“Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation,” Cook wrote in a letter to Apple customers. “In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”

Apple maintains that once created, the software would be quickly stolen by hackers and used against Apple customers.

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FCC votes to open set-top box market to competition

The move could save consumers money and offer less-clunky video switching

Why should you have to rent your cable set-top box from the cable company? Good question and one the Federal Communications Commission has voted to conside...

PhotoWhy should you have to rent your cable set-top box from the cable company? Good question and one the Federal Communications Commission has voted to consider.

As we reported last month, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wants to open the set-top box market to competition, allowing consumers to buy their own boxes, just as they now buy their own telephones, computers and other communications devices.

“The issue is whether you are forced to rent that box every month after month,” Wheeler, a Democrat, said. “The consumers have no choice today."

The commission voted 3-2 today along party lines to go along with Wheeler's plan to draft new rules that would open the market to competition, potentially saving consumers money and helping speed the development of more advanced devices.

Consumers now pay an average of $231 per year to rent their set-top box, amounting to about $20 billion in revenue for cable companies, according to a survey by Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)

Besides the expense, most of today's boxes are clunky and hard to use. The hope is that opening the market to competition will make it possible for devices like the Roku box to service all of a household's video-sorting needs.

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Cornell researchers say counting calories not necessary to lose weight

Instead, they found simple behaviors are key to healthy weight

Federal law now requires most fast food restaurants to post calorie information on menus, but it you're trying to lose weight by cutting calories, Cornell ...

PhotoFederal law now requires most fast food restaurants to post calorie information on menus, but it you're trying to lose weight by cutting calories, Cornell University researchers say you're off base.

Instead, they suggest simple, routine behaviors may be your key to losing or maintaining a healthy weight.

To explain what they mean, Cornell Food and Brand Lab researchers developed an online Global Healthy Weight Registry. People who had already achieved a healthy weight were asked to sign up and then answer questions about their diet, exercise, and daily routines.

That became the focus of scientific analysis, which zeroed in on some common routine behaviors of those who stay healthy and slim.

How they do it

For example, the analysis determined that 96% of the people ate breakfast every day and 42% exercised five or more times a week. At least half said they weighed themselves at least once a week.

What they didn't do, by and large, was go on diets.

Although 74% never or rarely dieted, 92% of the people in the registry said they were generally conscious of what they ate. As part of their healthy habits that lead to weight control, 44% reported at least one non-restrictive strategy, such as listening to inner cues, cooking at home, and eating high-quality, non-processed foods.

"Most slim people don't employ restrictive diets or intense health regimes to stay at a healthy weight,” study co-author Brian Wansink said in a release. “Instead, they practice easy habits like not skipping breakfast, and listening to inner cues. If you struggle with weight, try adding these simple practices to your routine, you may be surprised how easy it is to be healthy!"

What you eat, not necessarily how much

While there have been studies showing calorie restriction provides health benefits in other areas, many nutritionists stress the importance of eating a healthy diet, not necessarily a small one.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends a diet rich in nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. It also says a healthy diet is made up of fruits and vegetables, whole grains -- like oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, and brown rice -- seafood, lean meats, poultry, and eggs.

Last year, the U.S. government updated its Dietary Guidelines For Americans. You'll find them here.

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How to predict if you'll get cancer

Researchers say biological/chronological age comparison is a reliable predictor

Doctors at Northwestern Medicine have completed a study they say could provide a reliable way to predict who will get cancer, and even who will die from th...

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FCC: Long distance carriers slammed, crammed consumers

The agency proposes fining the companies $29 million

The Federal Communications Commission plans to fine four long idstance carriers $29.6 million for a variety of apparent fraudulent, deceptive, and manipula...

PhotoThe Federal Communications Commission plans to fine four long idstance carriers $29.6 million for a variety of apparent fraudulent, deceptive, and manipulative practices targeting consumers with Hispanic surnames. 

The commission charges that OneLink Communications, Inc., TeleDias Communications, Inc., TeleUno, Inc., and Cytel, Inc., “slammed” consumers by switching their long distance carriers without authorization and “crammed” unauthorized charges onto consumers’ bills. 

In addition, it says the companies fabricated audio recordings that they then submitted to the FCC as “proof" that the consumers authorized these changes and charges.  

“Charging consumers for services they did not want or authorize is simply unacceptable,” said Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc. “We are committed to combating slamming and cramming because these unjust and unreasonable practices result in consumers paying for services they never requested or received, and spending their time trying to reverse unauthorized carrier charges.”

Over 140 consumers filed complaints with the FCC after discovering that the companies allegedly switched their long distance carriers and charged them for new services without their authorization.

Besides the fine, the FCC says it may revoke the companies' licenses to operate. 

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Mercedes-Benz BlueTEC diesels pollute at illegal levels, suit charges

Class action says Mercedes deceived consumers about "clean diesel" emission levels

A class action lawsuit charges that Mecedes-Benz BlueTEC diesels have a problem similar to Volkswagen's "clean diesel" engines. It alleges that the Mercede...

PhotoA class action lawsuit charges that Mecedes-Benz BlueTEC diesels have a problem similar to Volkswagen's "clean diesel" engines. It alleges that the Mercedes engines emit 65 time the legal level of nitrogen oxide (NOx) when operated at temperatures below 50 degrees.

“Mercedes labeled its BlueTEC vehicles as ‘earth friendly,’ selling consumers the false notion that these diesel cars were less harmful to the environment, but Mercedes never divulged to consumers that BlueTEC diesels pollute at illegal levels when driven at lower temperatures and that its ‘champion of the environment’ mantra was a sham,” said Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman, the law firm filing the complaint.  

“It appears that Mercedes has been caught in a similar scheme as Volkswagen and programmed these BlueTEC vehicles to pollute, all the while reaping profits from those who have fallen victim to its aggressive and deceptive eco-conscious branding,” Berman said.

"Ultra-low emissions"

The suit filed Feb. 18, 2016 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois accuses Mercedes of deceiving consumers with false representations of its BlueTEC vehicles, which it marketed as “the world’s cleanest and most advanced diesel” with “ultra-low emissions, high fuel economy and responsive performance” that emits “up to 30% lower greenhouse-gas emissions than gasoline.”  

According to the complaint, on-road testing confirmed that Mercedes’ so-called Clean Diesel cars produced average on-road NOx emissions that are 19 times higher than the U.S. standard, with some instantaneous readings as high as 65 times more than the U.S. limit.

The suit asks that Mercedes be ordered to recall or repair the affected vehicles and that consumers receive compensation for the diminished value of their cars. 

Models named in the suit include:

·         ML 320

·         ML 350

·         GL 320

·         E320

·         S350

·         R320

·         E Class

·         GL Class

·         ML Class

·         R Class

·         S Class

·         GLK Class

·         GLE Class

·         Sprinter

"Even higher levels ..."

“When we filed the first lawsuit against Volkswagen regarding their use of emissions-cheating software, we felt they were not the only culprits duping consumers into paying a high price for deceptive diesels,” Berman said.  “Mercedes’ deception involves a cover-up of even higher levels of pollution, and consumers paid high prices for these luxury vehicles they thought were clean, only to be forced to drive diesel cars dirtier than their gasoline counterparts.”

The complaint states that, “Exposure to these pollutants has been linked with serious health dangers, including asthma attacks and other respiratory illness serious enough to send people to the hospital.  Ozone and particulate matter exposure have been associated with premature death due to respiratory-related or cardiovascular-related effects.”

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Little cheese in some Parmesan cheese

The FDA is investigating one company whose "100% Parmesan" allegedly contained wood filler

Appearances can be deceiving, especially when you're talking about Parmesan cheese, according to recent reports which indicate that a lot of what is sold a...

PhotoAppearances can be deceiving, especially when you're talking about Parmesan cheese, according to recent reports which indicate that a lot of what is sold as Parmesan is anything but.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is building a case against one cheese processor, Castle Cheese of Slipper Rock, Pa., alleging that its "100 percent real Parmesan" contains fillers including wood pulp, Bloomberg News reports.

The FDA began investigating Castle back in November 2012 after receiving a tip. In July 2013, it sent the company a warning letter saying it had found "doctored" Parmesan in Castle's products.

In fact, said the FDA, some of what Castle labeled as "100 percent grated Parmesan" contained "no Parmesan cheese" whatsoever.

Bloomberg ran independent lab tests on various brands claiming to be "100 percent" Parmesan and found much the same thing. Walmart's Parmesan tested at 7.8 percent while Whole Foods' 365 brand came out with 0.3 percent cellulose. Kraft had 3.8 percent, Bloomberg found, to cite just a few examples. The companies all said they are investigating. 

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These smart garden gadgets can make determining a plant's needs easier

Four gadgets that have all but given plants a voice box

Sometimes even the greenest thumbs can't keep a plant from dying. Different plants need different soil types, amounts of water, sunlight, and so on -- and ...

PhotoSometimes even the greenest thumbs can't keep a plant from dying. Different plants need different soil types, amounts of water, sunlight, and so on -- and if you're juggling the needs of many houseplants, it can get confusing. 

But what if your plant could actually tell you what it needs? Well be-leaf it or not, technology has come so far as to give plants a voice. That's right, we're living in a time where plants can communicate their needs to those in charge of meeting them. 

Smart gardening

Here are a few garden gadgets that can take the guesswork out of growing: 

Pet Plant by Junyi Heo. With a futuristic looking pot, Pet Plant measures soil conditions, temperature, humidity, and water and helps growers cater to the levels of those variables in each individual plant. The plant can virtually express its condition through a series of pictograms on an LCD display. It also knows if you've overwatered and will drain itself if that happens. The pot charges via USB cord. 

Smartpots. With this NASA-inspired technology, plants are given just the right amount of water, oxygen, and nutrients. Sensors and software do all the work; all you have to do is add batteries and fill the water tank once a month. 

PlantLink. This smart gardening gadget looks like a plug (without the cord). It can be "plugged in" to any plant to check its water needs. Combining water sensors with a PlantLink app, the system calibrates a plants needs using a catalog of 50,000 plants, both indoor and outdoor.

Botanicalls. What if your plant could call you on the phone? With Botanicalls, it's possible. A sensor placed in the dirt can determine when a plant gets too dry. It can then can call up its owner with the plea: "Water me, please," followed by a "Thank you" when you respond. Botanicalls seeks to change the relationship between plants and their owners by increasing garderner confidence.

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One-third of adults are not getting enough sleep

Health officials warn that sleep problems can become health problems

America has a sleep problem. So says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reporting that its research shows more than a third of American ...

PhotoAmerica has a sleep problem. So says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reporting that its research shows more than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend adults between 18 and 60 years old sleep at least seven hours each night to promote optimal health and well-being.

People who can't fall asleep, or have their sleep interrupted by periods of restlessness, are at greater risk of developing chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and even mental distress.

The proliferation of television commercials for special mattresses and pillows suggests there is a significant market for these products among people who find it hard to get enough sleep.

“As a nation we are not getting enough sleep,” Dr. Wayne Giles, director of CDC’s Division of Population Health, said in a release.

Lifestyle changes

He recommends lifestyle changes such as going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time each morning. Turning off or removing televisions, computers, mobile devices from the bedroom, can also help people get the healthy sleep they need, he says.

Some people may find it hard to get the proper amount of sleep because they suffer from one of any number of sleep disorders. The National Sleep Foundation says delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD), officially called circadian rhythm sleep disorder, delayed sleep phase type, is among the more common disorders. It's an inability to fall asleep at a desired, conventional clock time and awaken at a socially acceptable morning time.

Insomnia

Insomnia is perhaps the most common sleep-related disorder. A brief episode of difficulty sleeping is called acute insomnia, and is usually caused by a stressful life event. Chronic insomnia is a long-term pattern of difficulty sleeping. Insomnia is usually considered chronic if a person has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at least three nights per week for three months or longer. It can have many causes.

The CDC is urging healthcare providers to routinely assess patients’ sleep patterns and discuss sleep-related problems such as snoring and excessive daytime sleepiness. It would also like providers to do more to educate patients about the importance of sleep to their health.

To learn more about sleep and its effect on your health, check out this CDC resource.

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Attractive mortgage rates help make homes more affordable at year's end

Analysts look for continuing growth in home sales

Declines in both home prices and interest rates resulted in a slight increase in nationwide housing affordability in the last thr...

Photo
© pogonici - Fotolia

Declines in both home prices and interest rates resulted in a slight increase in nationwide housing affordability in the last three months of 2015.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (HOI) shows 63.3% of new and existing homes sold during the fourth quarter were affordable to families earning the U.S. median income of $65,800. In the previous quarter, 62.2% of homes sold were affordable to median-income earners.

“Affordable home prices, attractive mortgage rates, and pent-up demand are keeping the housing market on a gradual, upward path,” said NAHB Chairman Ed Brady. “While this bodes well for housing in 2016, builders continue to face a number of challenges, including excessive and costly regulations and a lack of available lots and skilled labor.”

The national median home price fell from $231,000 in the third quarter to $226,000 in the fourth, while average mortgage rates dipped from 4.18% to 4.09%.

Most and least affordable

Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, Ohio-Pa., was rated the nation’s most affordable major housing market, with previous leader Syracuse, N.Y., falling to the second slot. In Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, 90.1% of all new and existing homes sold in last year’s fourth quarter were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $53,700.

Rounding out the top five affordable major housing markets in respective order were Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; Toledo, Ohio; and Columbia, S.C.

For the 13th consecutive quarter, San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, Calif. was the nation’s least affordable major housing market. There, just 10.4% of homes sold in the fourth quarter were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $103,400.

Other major metros at the bottom of the affordability chart were located in California. In descending order, they included Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale; Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine; San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara; and Santa Rosa-Petaluma.

“The signs point to continuing growth in home sales,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “We’ve seen an improvement in affordability due to favorable home prices and interest rates. Steady employment and economic growth, along with rising consumer confidence and pent-up demand will also help encourage more buyers to enter the marketplace.”

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Jobless claims

In other economic news, the Department of Labor (DOL) reports first-time applications for state unemployment benefits fell by 7,000 in the week ending February 13 to a seasonally adjusted 262,000 the lowest level in 12 weeks.

Officials say there were no special factors affecting the claims level.

The four-week moving average, which is considered a more accurate gauge because it lacks the weekly tally's volatility, was down 8,000 from the previous week to 273,250.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

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Lipari Foods recalls various raw pistachio products

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Lipari Foods of Warren, Mich., is recalling various raw pistachio products packaged by sister company JLM. The products may be contaminated with Sa...

PhotoLipari Foods of Warren, Mich., is recalling various raw pistachio products packaged by sister company JLM.

 

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

There are no reported illnesses in connection with these products to date.

 

The following products are being recalled:

ProductLipari Product #Lot #WeightBest Buy DateUPC
Fancy Fruit & Nut Mix (Blue Goose Market, Hollywood Market, Market Fresh Fine Foods, Market Square, Roger’s Foodland Trentwood Farms)583524262015089oz (254.7g) Tubs8/25/2016094776144594
Fancy Fruit & Nut Mix (Blue Goose Market, Hollywood Market, Market Fresh Fine Foods, Market Square, Roger’s Foodland Trentwood Farms)583524072015109oz (254.7g) Tubs10/6/2016094776144594
Fancy Fruit & Nut Mix (Blue Goose Market, Hollywood Market, Market Fresh Fine Foods Market Square, Roger’s Foodland Trentwood Farms)583524042015129oz (254.7g) Tubs12/3/2016094776144594
Fancy Fruit & Nut Mix(Blue Goose Market, Hollywood Market, Market Fresh Fine Foods, Market Square, Roger’s Foodland, Trentwood Farms)583524132016019oz (254.7g) Tubs1/12/2017094776144594
Fancy Fruit & Nut Mix (Generic)5821642620150826201508 9oz (254.7g) Tubs8/25/2016094776144594
Fancy Fruit & Nut Mix (Generic)582164072015109oz (254.7g) Tubs10/6/2016094776144594
Fancy Fruit & Nut Mix (Generic)582164042015129oz (254.7g) Tubs12/3/2016094776144594
Fancy Fruit & Nut Mix (Generic)582164132016019oz (254.7g) Tubs1/12/2017094776144594
Fancy Fruit & Nut Mix (Generic)4646771220150825 Pound Bag8/11/2016094776129195
Fancy Fruit & Nut Mix (Generic)4646770120150925 Pound Bag8/31/2016094776129195
Pistachio Raw Whole Shelled (Generic)481966222015085 Pound Bag8/21/2016094776132119
Pistachio Raw Whole Shelled (Generic)481966142015095 Pound Bag9/13/2016094776132119
Pistachio Raw Whole Shelled (Generic)333803252015119oz (254.7g) Tubs11/24/16760208123818
Pistachio Raw Whole Shelled (Generic)333803212015109oz (254.7g) Tubs10/20/16760208123818
Pistachio Raw Whole Shelled (Generic)333803262015089oz (254.7g) Tubs8/25/16760208123818
Pistachio Raw Whole Shelled (Generic)333803292016019oz (254.7g) Tubs1/28/17760208123818
Pistachio Raw Whole Shelled (Generic)333803042016019oz (254.7g) Tubs1/3/17760208123818
Pistachio Meat Raw (Marv & Alison’s Marketplace, Long Lake Market, Martin’s, Holiday Market, The Purple Onion, Trentwood Farms, Angeli Foods, Market Square, Village Food Market, Martha’s Vineyard, Remke Market)206661252015119oz (254.7g) Tubs11/24/16760208123818
Pistachio Meat Raw (Marv & Alison’s Marketplace, Long Lake Market, Martin’s, Holiday Market, The Purple Onion, Trentwood Farms, Angeli Foods, Market Square, Village Food Market, Martha’s Vineyard, Remke Market)206661212015109oz (254.7g) Tubs10/20/16760208123818
Pistachio Meat Raw (Marv & Alison’s Marketplace, Long Lake Market, Martin’s, Holiday Market, The Purple Onion, Trentwood Farms, Angeli Foods, Market Square, Village Food Market, Martha’s Vineyard, Remke Market)206661262015089oz (254.7g) Tubs8/25/16760208123818
Pistachio Meat Raw (Marv & Alison’s Marketplace, Long Lake Market, Martin’s, Holiday Market, The Purple Onion, Trentwood Farms, Angeli Foods, Market Square, Village Food Market, Martha’s Vineyard, Remke Market)206661292016019oz (254.7g) Tubs1/28/17760208123818

 

The recalled products were distributed to food service and retail stores throughout Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

 

What to do

 

Customers who purchased the recalled products should not consume them, but return them to the place of purchase.

 

Consumers with questions may call customer service at 1-800-729-3354, from8:15 am – 4:30 pm (EST) Monday through Friday.

 

 

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VW recalls Touareg Hybrids

The hybrid battery tray may not drain water sufficiently

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 825 model year 2011-2015 Touareg Hybrids manufactured March 20, 2010, to April 11, 2015. The hybrid batter...

PhotoVolkswagen Group of America is recalling 825 model year 2011-2015 Touareg Hybrids manufactured March 20, 2010, to April 11, 2015.

 

The hybrid battery tray may not drain water sufficiently. If water collects in the hybrid battery tray, it may cause an electrical short in the high voltage battery increasing the risk of a fire.

 

What to do

 

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will install a fitted drain valve to allow water to drain properly, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in late February 2016.

 

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen's number for this 53B8.

 

 

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Forever Cheese recalls imported Mitica brand Pecorino Aged Cheese in Walnut Leaves

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Forever Cheese of Long Island City, N.Y., is recalling 40 cases of Mitica brand Pecorino Aged Cheese in Walnut Leaves (Pecorino Foglie di Noci). Th...

PhotoForever Cheese of Long Island City, N.Y., is recalling 40 cases of Mitica brand Pecorino Aged Cheese in Walnut Leaves (Pecorino Foglie di Noci).

 

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

There have been no reported illnesses related to this potential contamination to date.

 

The recalled product is from one production code NOC15313 (found on shipping case only) and invoiced as Lot X2537 which the retailer or distributor would be familiar with. Each shipping case contains two wheels of varying weights; each wheel weighs a minimum of 2 lbs. It has a natural grayish rind, and will be labeled at the point of sale at the retail level or on a restaurant menu.

 

The cheese was shipped to distributors between January 27 and February 3, 2016, and was further sold to retailers and restaurants located in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Colorado, Vermont, Virginia, Florida and Connecticut.

 

What to do

 

Customers should not consume product, but contact the retailer or the company for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Sarah Weisensel at 1-888-930-8693, Monday through Friday, 9 am – 5 pm (EST).

 

 

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Toyota recalls RAV4 and RAV4 EV vehicles

The lap seat belt may not properly restrain the occupant

Toyota Motor Sales, USA is recalling approximately 1.1 million model year 2006-2012 RAV4 and model year 2012-2014 RAV4 EV vehicles. The recalled ve...

PhotoToyota Motor Sales, USA is recalling approximately 1.1 million model year 2006-2012 RAV4 and model year 2012-2014 RAV4 EV vehicles.

 

The recalled vehicles are equipped with lap-shoulder seatbelts in both second-row outboard seats. There is a possibility that, in the event of a very severe front crash, the lap belt webbing could contact a portion of the metal seat cushion frame, become cut and separate.

 

If this occurs, the seat belt may not properly restrain the occupant, which could increase the risk of injury.

 

Toyota dealers will add resin covers to the metal seat cushion frame at no cost.

 

What to do

 

Consumers with questions may call Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331 or Lexus customer service at 1-800-255-3987.

 

 

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Despite having chip-enabled readers, many merchants aren't using the new technology

Experts speculate as to why only one in five U.S. retailers currently use their chip card readers

If you’re the proud owner of a chip-enabled credit card, you’ve probably noticed that not every card reader accepts the new technology. Despite having a sl...

PhotoIf you’re the proud owner of a chip-enabled credit card, you’ve probably noticed that not every card reader accepts the new technology. Despite having a slot for the new chip cards, many terminals still instruct customers to swipe the magnetic strip instead of dipping the chip.

Only about 17% of retail locations are currently equipped to accept chip cards. In other words, just one in five checkout lines are equipped with an activated chip card reader. 

So why is it that so many terminals are EMV compatible but haven’t yet been enabled to accept chip cards?

Wait-and-see approach

According to payments consultant Allen Weinberg, it’s because many retailers (particularly the larger ones) are taking a “wait-and-see” approach on enabling the chip card transactions. It seems they’d rather leave the task of teaching customers how to use the chip cards to other merhants.

“They see [chip cards] as just slowing down lines and chose to wait until consumers learned what to do -- and do it quickly -- at someone else’s store,” Weinberg wrote.

Weinberg notes that small businesses are another factor in the slow incorporation of EMV cards. Many of them aren’t even equipped with a chip-card enabled terminal yet.

Why? Weinberg says that like larger businesses, small business aren’t in a hurry to teach their community how to use the cards. They also either don’t think they’re at significant risk of fraud or simply weren’t aware the shift to chip cards was coming.

Cost might also be a factor for small businesses. Chip card readers and installation can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars per terminal, as we reported. The industry average is around $2,000.

Liability shift

Now that we’re on the other side of the liability shift -- when credit card fraud became the responsibility of retailers instead of banks if they didn’t have their chip card systems running -- Weinberg says it won’t take much for merchants to “get religion,” as he puts it, and upgrade their systems. It’ll only take one instance of fraud or chargeback from people abusing the liability shift to motivate them to upgrade their terminals.

Terry Crowley, CEO of TranSend, a company that makes software to help merchants and their equipment work with the EMV standard, says there’s an invisible hand at work that is about to accelerate the incorporation of EMV cards.

“If you use a chip card at a point of sale that says swipe -- and you later say that wasn’t me -- there’s very little a merchant can do to dispute that charge,” Crowley tells Brian Krebs, adding that the "friendly" fraud is inevitable. “When people are made aware that if I swipe and I have a chip card, that lunch can be free if I’m a bad consumer.”

After this invisible hand takes hold, the U.S. will be able to jump on the chip card bandwagon with the rest of the world.

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Zika virus vaccine shows promising results in early tests

Inovio Pharmaceuticals reports "robust" responses in tests on mice

At the moment there is no approved vaccine to protect against the Zika virus, but a number of pharmaceutical companies have made the fast-spreading disease...

PhotoAt the moment there is no approved vaccine to protect against the Zika virus, but a number of pharmaceutical companies have made the fast-spreading disease a new target of research.

One company, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, says it is pretty far along, reporting pre-clinical testing of its synthetic vaccine for the Zika virus produced what it calls “robust and durable immune responses.” As a result, the company said its SynCon vaccine has demonstrated potential to prevent and treat infections from the virus.

The virus, spread by mosquitoes, is currently sweeping Latin American countries, particularly Brazil. Health officials there have documented neurological and autoimmune complications potentially associated with the virus, including microcephaly in newborns and Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Inovio said it is developing its Zika vaccine with GeneOne Life Sciences and academic collaborators.

Shows promise

"Using our SynCon technology we rapidly generated a synthetic vaccine candidate that shows promise as a preventive and treatment," Dr. J. Joseph Kim, Inovio's president and CEO, said in a release. “With robust antibody and killer T cell responses generated by our vaccine in mice, we will next test the vaccine in non-human primates and initiate clinical product manufacturing.”

He said the company plans to initiate phase I human testing before the end of this year.

In addition to the vaccine it may yield, Inovio says the research itself has added to the body of knowledge about the virus. In the pre-clinical study, researchers created multiple Zika virus antigens. The vaccine resulted in the development of detectable specific antibodies in the blood, in all vaccinated mice.

The company said the discovery is vital given the potential importance of neutralizing antibodies in preventing infection.

NIH priorities

Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) said it is investigating how Zika virus infection affects reproduction, pregnancy, and the developing fetus.

The virus currently has been reported in about 30 countries and territories, notably in Latin America and the Caribbean. Doctors believe it may be responsible for a spike in cases of microcephaly, an abnormally small head resulting from an underdeveloped and/or damaged brain, among newborn babies.

That link, however, has not been confirmed. NIH says one of its highest priorities is to establish conclusively what role, if any, the Zika virus has played in the marked increase in this birth defect.

NIH also cites recent reports that Zika virus may be sexually transmitted, calling for studies to determine if the virus is present in reproductive fluids.

It says evidence from the studies could help health officials develop guidance for preventing the spread of Zika virus through intimate contact, particularly for women who are pregnant or likely to become pregnant.  

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Study finds that food insecurity can lead to mental health disorders in adolescents

Researchers deem the problem a public health issue of the "utmost importance"

A new study conducted by researchers at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore (CHAM) has put the importance of proper nutrition into perspective. They have...

PhotoA new study conducted by researchers at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore (CHAM) has put the importance of proper nutrition into perspective. They have found that food insecurity, defined by limited or uncertain availability of nutritional food, made adolescents twice as likely to have emotional or mental health problems.

The study utilized data from 8,600 students who ranged in age from 12 to 16 years old. Researchers spoke with parents, guardians, and caregivers and asked questions to gauge each household’s food availability. Certain screening questions were also asked about each student in order to determine if any mental health disorders were manifesting.

According to answers given by caregivers, students who did not have concrete availability to nutritional food were twice as likely to have emotional or conduct problems -- a problem affecting one out of every 10 subjects surveyed. Behaviors such as bullying, stealing, destroying property, truancy, and fighting were all more prevalent in these cases. These students also tended to be more hyperactive and struggle with peer relationships, according to the study.

Public health issue of the “utmost importance”

The study is impactful because availability of food is not a typical marker for these kinds of behaviors. “Food insecurity is not a risk factor for mental health that pediatricians typically address, but given our findings it is a topic we should consider discussing during our interactions with families,” said co-author and professor of Pediatrics, Ruth E. K. Stein.

Stein goes on to say that keeping food insecurity in mind when assessing a patient is crucial so that agencies can provide adequate support. The researchers also suggest that government programs that address the problem of food insecurity could be invaluable to the overall health of those affected by this problem.

Dr. Elizabeth Poole-Di Salvo, co-author of the study and assistant professor of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College, agrees and reiterates just how widespread of a problem food insecurity is in the U.S.

“Our study adds to the growing understanding of the adverse health risks experienced by children and adolescents living with food insecurity. . . As more than 15 million children in the U.S. under the age of 18 years-old live in households with food insecurity, this is a public health issue of the utmost importance,” she said.

The full study has been published in Academic Pediatrics.

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Radio Flyer makes a Tesla S for kids

Kids can zip along at up to 6 mph in the miniature Tesla

Safety advocates may not think much of the idea, but Radio Flyer is introducing a miniaturized Tesla Model S for a younger audience, complete with lithium-...

PhotoSafety advocates may not think much of the idea, but Radio Flyer is introducing a miniaturized Tesla Model S for a younger audience, complete with lithium-ion battery technology.

The miniature Model S has working headlights, a trunk suitable for carrying soccer balls and other essentials, and a sound system that works with portable music players.

The toy car has a top speed of 6 miles per hour but parents can limit it to 3 mph if they want. 

Priced at $499, the car is said to be suitable for ages 3-8 and has a weight capacity of 81 pounds. 

Radio Flyer is taking advance orders on its website, with shipments scheduled to begin in May.

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Google renames its Ideas think tank Jigsaw

The new name "acknowledges the world is a complex puzzle"

Google continues to sort out the pieces after reshuffling its corporate structure and naming its parent corporation Alphabet. Among the latest piece of the...

PhotoGoogle continues to sort out the pieces after reshuffling its corporate structure and naming its parent corporation Alphabet. Among the latest piece of the puzzle is a relabeling for Google Ideas, the search giant's think tank. It will henceforth be known as Jigsaw.

Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt says Jigsaw will address some of humanity's most intractable problems, from countering violent extremism to online censorship,  to "expand access to information for the world’s most vulnerable populations and to defend against the world’s most challenging security threats," 

Some of Jigsaw's current initiatives include Project Shield, which harnesses Google’s computing infrastructure to protect independent voices from DDoS attacks; contributions to open-source efforts like uProxy, which lets people share access to the free and open internet; and Password Alert, which helps protect against phishing.
 
Some of the team’s other initiatives aim to counter money laundering, organized crime, police brutality, human trafficking, and terrorism.

But why call it Jigsaw?

"For one thing, the new name acknowledges that the world is a complex puzzle of physical and digital challenges. For another, it reflects our belief that collaborative problem-solving yields the best solutions," Schmidt said.

 “Staying true to its think tank roots," Schmidt wrote, “the team has also explored global challenges using data visualizations, such as the Digital Attack Map, which displays the top digital attacks in the world in real time, and the global arms visualization, which illuminates the global arms trade. Currently some of the team’s research is exploring hate and harassment online with the goal of substantially reducing it.”

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For most, the college application process starts with the FAFSA form

Here are some simple tips for filling out this critical document

If you or someone in your family are headed to college soon, you undoubtedly would like to get the cost down as much as possible.To do that you need to...

PhotoIf you or someone in your family are headed to college soon, you undoubtedly would like to get the cost down as much as possible.

To do that you need to start with the Free Applications for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA form. By filling out the form you complete a financial profile that colleges and other sources of financial aid can consider.

If you hope to obtain federal and state grants, work-study assistance, and loans, you'll need to complete the form. According to the College Board, you can complete and track the application online.

The College Board website has helpful tools you'll find here.

Most colleges also provide aid to students based on the information contained in the FAFSA form. Temple University offers five tips for filling out the FAFSA form with a minimum of hassle.

1. File early

FAFSA applications for the 2016–2017 school year opened Jan. 1, and Temple’s Director of Student Financial Services Craig Fennell says you should file as early as possible.

“Financial aid is a finite resource,” he said in a release. “You want to be first in line.”

It's also a good idea to file your 2015 tax return as soon a possible, since you'll need that to document income.

2. Avoid shortcuts

Remember that the application is free. While it may seem overwhelming, there is plenty of free guidance if you need it, so be wary of paid services that offer to complete the form for you, for a fee.

3. Remember your logins

You're going to need to create unique credentials, known as FSA IDs. Be sure to put your log-in information in a safe place because you'll need it again. You must complete the FAFSA for every academic year, using the same unique FSA ID, to qualify for financial aid.

4. It's a process

After filling out the report, your job isn't over. You'll get a Student Aid Report that is a summary of your form. It gives you a chance to tweak it or correct errors.

“The comments section will tell you what you have not done and what you’ve done well,” said Emilie Van Trieste, Temple’s associate director for Student Financial Services. Temple, for example, can’t process a financial aid request with an incomplete FAFSA.”

5. Read the fine print

Once you are accepted by a college, you have to decide whether to accept your aid package. But make sure you know exactly what you’re signing up for. Read up on all the terms and commitments that come with each form of assistance before accepting.

Those looking to get started can click here.

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Telecom engineer declares war on telemarketers

The Jolly Roger Telephone Co. is out to sink call centers wherever it finds them

Let's face it -- most people hate telemarketers. But few of us really know how to deal effectively with them. Then there's Roger Anderson, the telecommunic...

PhotoLet's face it -- most people hate telemarketers. But few of us really know how to deal effectively with them. Then there's Roger Anderson, the telecommunications engineer behind the Jolly Roger Telephone Co. 

Anderson has devised an answering machine that's intended to waste telemarketers' time, stringing them along with friendly but noncommital answers that he hopes will eventually cause the call center business to collapse.

Sound unlikely? Maybe so, but Anderson's trusty little bot has been doing a pretty good job so far. Listen (warning -- crude language from the telemarketer):

The concept is quite simple, but Anderson says it's devilishly effective. His bot sounds friendly but most telemarketers become so frustrated with it that they end up terminating the call.

Anderson thinks he's onto something that could bring the telemarketing industry to a grinding halt, thereby removing one of the greatest irritations of modern life, and the route by which scam artists and identity thieves penetrate our lives.

Anderson currently has only one personality for his bot -- a friendly but rather odd and vague man who says he was napping when the phone rang. He has launched a fund-raising campaign on Kickstarter in hopes of raising enough money to develop more personalities and make his bot as ubiquitous as, well, the telephone.

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Kids can create their own toys with Mattel's new ThingMaker 3D Printer

Starting this Fall, kids can be part of the toy-making process from start to finish

Imaginative kids with a never ending thirst for new toys may find a new ally in Mattel’s latest creation: the “ThingMaker.” Introduced recently at the New ...

PhotoImaginative kids with a never ending thirst for new toys may find a new ally in Mattel’s latest creation: the “ThingMaker.” Introduced recently at the New York Toy Fair, the $300 ThingMaker 3D Printer and the ThingMaker Design App will allow children to print their own toys at home.

The ThingMaker 3D printing eco-system is designed to virtually hand over the “keys to the toy factory,” says the company. And if the name sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because Mattel first debuted the original at-home device maker in the 1960s. (Remember “Creepy Crawlers”?)

Through a collaboration with Autodesk, Inc, the new version of the ThingMaker has been totally reimagined for the 21st century. "In today's digital age, it's more important than ever for families to transcend the digital world and make their ideas real,” says Aslan Appleman, senior director at Mattel in a statement.

Focus on creation

What better way for children to bring their ideas to life than the ability to create and print their own toys? Encouraging kids to interact with the toy during the process of creating it was a big theme at this year’s Toy Fair, and the ThingMaker is certainly in line with that theme. Kids can create dolls and robots or even wearable items like bracelets and rings; the possibilities are endless. 

Users can either upload design files via Mattel's Design App (which works on Android or iOS devices) or use their own ideas to spawn a creation. When an item is ready for production, designs are sent to the 3D Printer, which prints the parts in batches to be assembled via ball-and-socket joints. All of the toys can be customized with different colors and textures.

The time needed for the 3D Printer to turn out the physical parts can vary. For a smaller item, it can take as little as 30 minutes; for a larger one, it can take between 6-8 hours.

Although the kids can watch the process through the clear window, the ThingMaker’s printing door is locked and its printing head is retracted after a job to keep kids from burning themselves. According to USA Today, Mattel is positioning ThingMaker for kids over 13, and it rates printed objects as safe for children three and over.

The printer won’t become available for purchase until later this fall, but pre-orders are now being taken on Amazon. Because Mattel’s ThingMaker Design App is based on Autodesk’s Spark, an open 3D printing platform, the Design App also works with other 3D printers. It is now available and free to download for iOS and Android devices.

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Wholesale prices post second gain in three months

Advances in the cost of services led the increase

A smidgeon of inflation on the wholesale level -- that's what we got in January.According to the Department of Labor (DOL), the Producer Price Index (P...

PhotoA smidgeon of inflation on the wholesale level -- that's what we got in January.

According to the Department of Labor (DOL), the Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand, which measures prices one step shy of the consumer level, was up a seasonally adjusted 0.1% last month. The PPI was down 0.2% in December after posting a 0.4% advance in November.

For the 12 months ended in January, the index is down 0.2%.

Services prices

A 0.5% increase for services was behind the January advance, with nearly half of that attributable to a 4.0% increase in the cost of machinery and equipment wholesaling. Services related to securities brokerage and dealing; loan services (partial); apparel, footwear, and accessories retailing; fuels and lubricants retailing; and airline passenger services also rose.

Prices for food and alcohol retailing declined 4.1%, with health, beauty, optical goods retailing, and physician care also falling.

The cost of goods

Prices for goods were down 0.7% for the second straight month. Energy costs were down 5.0%, thanks to a drop of 8.8% in gasoline prices. Additionally, the cost of for home heating oil, electric power, jet fuel, and basic organic chemicals fell.

Food prices advanced 1.0%, led by a surge of 17% for fresh and dry vegetables. Prices for pharmaceutical preparations and residential natural gas also increased.

The complete report may be found on the DOL website.

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New-home construction tumbles in January

Still, home builders remain cautiously optimistic

Construction of privately-owned housing fell 3.8% in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,099,000, according to figures released by the Commer...

PhotoConstruction of privately-owned housing fell 3.8% in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,099,000, according to figures released by the Commerce Department. Nevertheless, housing starts were 1.8% above the rate (1,080,000 ) of the same month a year ago.

The decline was broad-based, with single-family starts down 3.9% -- a rate of 731,000. The rate for units in buildings with five units or more came in at 354,000, down 3.7%.

"Despite the modest dip in starts this month, we expect to see ongoing, gradual growth in housing production in 2016," said National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Chief Economist David Crowe. "An improving economy, solid job creation and pent-up demand for housing should keep the market moving forward."

Building permits

Authorizations for future construction were also lower last month.

Building permits were down 0.2% at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,202,000, with single-family authorizations off 1.6% and permits for units in buildings with five units or up 2.1% at a rate of 442,000.

NAHB Chairman Ed Brady notes that builders are "being cautious as they face some market uncertainties and supply side constraints."

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Refinancings help send mortgage applications higher

The refinance share of activity is the highest in a year

Mortgage applications rose last week, thanks in large part to more applications for refinancing.The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports overall ...

PhotoMortgage applications rose last week, thanks in large part to more applications for refinancing.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports overall applications were up 8.2% in the week ending February 12. The Refinance Index jumped 16% from the previous week, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity up 3.1% to 64.3% -- its highest level since February 2015.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity rose to 6.7% of total applications, the FHA share was 11.5%, the VA share of total applications increased to 11.7% from 11.1% the week before and the USDA share was unchanged at 0.6%.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell eight basis points from 3.91% to 3.83% -- its lowest level since last April. Points decreased to 0.36 from 0.41 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans, with the effective rate declining from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) decreased to its lowest level since December 2012, 3.74 percent, from 3.76 percent, with points decreasing to 0.26 from 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA dropped to its lowest level since last April, 3.67%, from 3.72%, with points increasing to 0.34 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs dropped 7 basis points to 3.11% its lowest level since last April, with points decreasing to 0.31 from 0.38 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was down to its lowest level since last May -- 2.92% from 2.96%, with points rising to 0.32 from 0.30 (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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Chrysler recalls Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles

The windshield could become displaced in the event of a crash

FCA US LLC (Chrysler) is recalling 184 model year 2015-2016 Chrysler Town and Country, and 2014-2015 Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles manufactured August 16, 2...

PhotoFCA US LLC (Chrysler) is recalling 184 model year 2015-2016 Chrysler Town and Country, and 2014-2015 Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles manufactured August 16, 2014, to December 5, 2015.

 

The windshield on the recalled vehicles may have been installed using expired urethane primer, allowing the windshield to become displaced in the event of a crash. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 212, "Windshield Mounting."

 

If the windshield dislodges during a crash, there is an increased risk of occupant injury.

 

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the windshield, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on March 4, 2016.

 

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is S02.

 

 

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Whole Foods Market recalls Pecorino Aged Cheese in Walnut Leaves

The product be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Whole Foods Market of Austin, Texas, is recalling Pecorino Aged Cheese in Walnut Leaves sold in a store in Florida and one New York City. The produ...

PhotoWhole Foods Market of Austin, Texas, is recalling Pecorino Aged Cheese in Walnut Leaves sold in a store in Florida and one New York City.

 

The product be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

The recalled cheese was cut and packaged in clear plastic wrap with scale labels beginning with PLU code 294239 and "sell by" dates of 3/3/16 through 3/8/16 in the New York City store.

 

In West Palm Beach, Fla., the recalled cheese was sold with scale labels beginning with PLU code 290107 and "sell by" dates of 2/29/16 through 3/8/16.

 

The recalled cheese was pulled from store shelves and destroyed on Monday, Feb. 8, 2016.

 

What to do

 

Customers who purchased this product should discard it and bring their receipt to the store for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions should contact their local store or call 512-477-5566 ext. 20060 between 9am and 5pm (CST) Monday through Friday.

 

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General Motors recalls Saabs and Saturns

Excessive internal pressure may cause the driver's-side front air bag inflator to rupture

General Motors is recalling 179,861 model year 2003-2011 Saab 9-3 vehicles manufactured May 31, 2002, to February 15, 2011; 2010-2011 Saab 9-5 vehicles man...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 179,861 model year 2003-2011 Saab 9-3 vehicles manufactured May 31, 2002, to February 15, 2011; 2010-2011 Saab 9-5 vehicles manufactured June 23, 2010, to February 21, 2011; and 2008-2009 Saturn Astra vehicles manufactured April 11, 2007, to July 24, 2008.

 

Upon deployment of the driver's-side front air bag, excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture with metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

 

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the inflator on Saab 9-3 and 9-5 vehicles and will replace the airbag module on Saturn Astra vehicles, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Saab customer service at 1-800-955-9007 or Saturn customer service at 1-800-553-6000. GM's number for this recall is 28810.

 

 

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Daily fantasy sports steps up grass-roots lobbying campaign

Industry supporting legislation declaring the games are not gambling

Thanks to intense lobbying, many states that have suggested that daily fantasy sports (DFS) sites like DraftKings and FanDuel engage in illegal gambling ar...

PhotoThanks to intense lobbying, many states that have suggested that daily fantasy sports (DFS) sites like DraftKings and FanDuel engage in illegal gambling are now considering laws to allow exceptions.

DFS leagues have gotten around federal gambling statutes because they have been declared games of skill instead of luck. Players choose “teams,” made up of real players, and get points for how well the players perform during a given game.

In illegal gambling, players choose a team and are rewarded if the team wins a particular game, or performs better than expected – beating the odds.

A number of attorneys general have looked at DFS and decided “if it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it's probably a duck.”

Illinois declares illegal

In Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan is among them. She issued an opinion in December that declared DFS games to be in violation of the state's gambling laws.

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

In Illinois, and a number of states, legislatures are, in fact, considering measures that would declare that, while DFS might in fact look an awful lot like gambling, it really isn't.

Big spenders

The Wall Street Journal reports that the industry's lobbying arm is spending big – as much as $10 million – to support DFS-friendly legislation in all but 16 states – even states that have not yet taken a position on the legality of DFS.

In late January, the Tampa Bay Times reported legislation to establish the legality of DFS is making progress in the Florida legislature. While most states considering legalization would tax DFS revenue, the Florida legislation would require major DFS companies to pay $500,000 to register with the state.

As we reported back in October, the huge popularity of DFS, the involvement of major media companies and sports leagues, and the mountains of cash involved, all suggested that DFS was already “too big to fail.”

With some states already moving aggressively against the established DFS enterprises – most notably New York and Nevada – it might not be surprising that the industry is moving quickly to shore up its legal position in the rest of the states – perhaps before the start of baseball season.

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Congress on its way to amending new menu labeling law

Critics say the action would withhold nutritional information from consumers

The House of Representatives has approved a measure to amend the federal restaurant menu labeling law, changing the formula used to determine calorie conte...

PhotoThe House of Representatives has approved a measure to amend the federal restaurant menu labeling law, changing the formula used to determine calorie content.

The Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2015 passed the house by a 266 to 144 vote. It now goes to the Senate.

The legislation would amend Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules that went into effect last year, requiring restaurants to post calorie information on menus and menu boards.

A significant change to the law would strike “the number of calories contained in the standard menu item, as usually prepared and offered for sale and inserting the number of calories contained in the whole standard menu item, or the number of servings (as reasonably determined by the restaurant or similar retail food establishment) and number of calories per serving, or the number of calories per the common unit division of the standard menu item, such as for a multiserving item that is typically divided before presentation to the consumer.”

Backers cite over-reach

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the legislation reverses what he called a “classic example of administration over-reach.”

“The administration’s own estimates state this regulation could cost American businesses $1 billion to comply and 500,000 hours of paperwork,” Upton said during debate on the bill. “That’s a huge chunk of time and money that could be better spent hiring more folks, or creating an improved experience for customers.”

Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has a different take.

“Despite the clever name, this anti-menu labeling bill is neither common sense nor would it disclose additional nutrition information,” Wootan said in a release. “It would result in consumer confusion and prevent disclosure of straightforward, consistent calorie information at many food service establishments.”

Informed choices

The CSPI says changing the law would end up withholding nutrition information from consumers, limiting their ability to make informed choices. It says more than 100 nutrition and health organizations have opposed the change.

“Menu labeling allows people to make informed food choices for a big and obesity-promoting part of their diets. Dozens of studies link restaurant meals to higher calorie intakes and obesity,” said Wootan.

She points to a recent Harvard study that she said found restaurant menu calorie labeling could prevent up to 41,000 cases of childhood obesity and could save more than $4.6 billion in healthcare costs over ten years.

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One chemical found in green tea shows promise for reducing pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis

The discovery could improve on current treatment options that may not be ideal

Anyone who has it will tell you that arthritic pain can be debilitating. Rheumatoid arthritis, in particular, affects smaller joints, such as those located...

PhotoAnyone who has it will tell you that arthritic pain can be debilitating. Rheumatoid arthritis, in particular, affects smaller joints, such as those located in the hands and feet. It causes swelling, cartilage damage, bone erosion, and joint deformity -- and can put those suffering from it through almost constant pain.

Now, one study says that a common compound found in one favorite hot beverage could go a long way towards reducing that pain. Salah-uddin Ahmed and teams of researchers from Washington State University in Spokane and Hajipur, India have found that a certain molecule found in green tea can effectively counter some of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

The molecule in question is called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG). It possesses many anti-inflammatory properties that make it perfectly suited for fighting the effects of rheumatoid arthritis. The added benefit is that it doesn’t block other kinds of cellular function. This is definitely an improvement over other treatment options that don’t quite do the job.

“Existing drugs for rheumatoid arthritis are expensive, immunosuppressive and sometimes unsuitable for long-term use,” said Ahmed. “This study has opened the field of research into using EGCG for targeting TAK1 – an important signaling protein – through which proinflammatory cytokines transmit their signals to cause inflammation and tissue destruction in rheumatoid arthritis.”

Ahmed and his fellow researchers are continuing to test EGCG in animal models. Results look hopeful thus far; one animal model showed reduced ankle swelling after taking EGCG over a 10-day treatment plan. The full study has been published in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatology.  

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Backpage.com faces contempt vote in U.S. Senate

Senators irate over site's failure to disclose how it screens ads for sex traffickers

Backpage.com faces a contempt vote in the U.S. Senate after failing to adequately answer senators' questions about how it screens its classified ads for se...

PhotoBackpage.com faces a contempt vote in the U.S. Senate after failing to adequately answer senators' questions about how it screens its classified ads for sex traffickers.

The free-classifieds site, once owned by Village Voice, accounts for 71% of all suspected child sex trafficking, representatives of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children told Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who announced the plan for a contempt vote last week.

Portman commented after revealing a 196-page report that includes gruesome details of incidents involving children who were bought and sold for sexual exploitation, allegedly via Backpage ads.  

One minor said she was forced at gunpoint to have sex with 15 different men.

The possible contempt charge stems from Backpage's failure to adequately disclose how it combats and prevents traffickers from advertising on its site, according to a spokesperson for Portman.

Backpage has questioned the government's authority to access its records and says it plans to argue that its activities are protected under the First Amendment.

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Leaving plants in your garden over the winter can improve soil quality

Plant 'residues' offer numerous benefits to your soil and garden

Are there plants in your garden that bit the dust long ago? If so, your soil may actually be thanking you. According to blog writers Kelley House and Kate ...

PhotoAre there plants in your garden that bit the dust long ago? If so, your soil may actually be thanking you. According to blog writers Kelley House and Kate Norvell, both certified professional social scientists, leaving plants in your garden over the winter is a good thing, and it’s something everyone should consider doing on a yearly basis.

The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) February 15 Soils Matter blog post explains that plant “litter” that remains after a harvest is called “residue.” Leaving the residues in place over the winter instead of pulling them up or tilling them into the soil surface offers these benefits to the soil and your garden:

  • Plant residues reduce erosion and the loss of valuable topsoil.
  • Having plant residues on the soil surface prevents soil crusting.
  • Residual plant material reduces weeds by covering and shading the soil.
  • Plant residues provide shade and regulate soil temperature.
  • Cooler soil temperatures also aid in the retention of soil moisture, which in turn is favorable for seed germination in the spring and crop growth.
  • Crop residues provide micro-habitats that protect and benefit the germinating plant seeds and establishing seedlings.
  • Plant residues provide a source of organic matter for the soil.

No-till farming

The concept of leaving plants in your garden over the winter is in line with another growing trend in U.S. agriculture. “No-till farming” — where crops are grown in undisturbed soil, without tillage or plowing — has been on the rise since the 1980s.

While it may seem like a simple concept, it has some important larger-scale connotations. Because plowing and tillage have been major sources of soil erosion around the world (as well as key factors behind the Dust Bowl), leaving soil undisturbed offers numerous environmental benefits. Farmers who began using the no-till approach found that they could conserve water, reduce erosion, and use less fossil fuel and labor to grow crops. Between 1982 and 1997, cropland erosion in the U.S. dropped nearly 40%.

The technique hasn’t caught on in all countries, however. But if it did, the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP) says we could see big climate benefits. It would lock more carbon in the soil and curtail fossil-fuel use in farm operations. The UNEP estimates that no-tillage operations in the United States have helped avoid 241 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide since the 1970s — the equivalent to the annual emissions of about 50 million cars.

In a report, the UNEP argues that governments will have to step in to encourage the practice to get it to spread, either by offering research and training or by providing financial support.

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Potential changes could be looming for Roth IRAs

Administration would like to limit benefits for upper income savers

Consumers with retirement accounts operate under certain assumptions that guide the way they invest and otherwise manage their assets.In his latest bud...

PhotoConsumers with retirement accounts operate under certain assumptions that guide the way they invest and otherwise manage their assets.

In his latest budget proposal, President Obama would make a number of changes that could alter many of those assumptions. While they are unlikely to survive the current budget process, especially in an election year, Morningstar points out that they reflect sentiment in Washington, at least on the Democratic side of the aisle.

These provisions could reappear in other, unrelated legislation down the road, especially when both Democrats and Republicans are looking for ways to add revenue.

In its analysis, Morningstar focuses on proposed changes to the Roth IRA that could result in higher taxes for retirees using that instrument. The Roth IRA is different from the traditional IRA, in that contributions to it are not tax deductible. When you make withdrawals, they aren't taxable income – the way withdrawals from traditional IRAs are.

Grows tax free

The big advantage to a Roth IRA is the money grows tax-free as long as it stays in the account. Morningstar says the Obama administration has two proposals that target wealthy consumers who use Roth IRAs.

The first would curtail the ability to convert traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs, a tool many affluent savers use to get around the Roth's income limits. The second would require funds to be taken out of a Roth at some point. Right now that money can stay in there earning tax free income until it's passed on to an heir.

Does that mean you should shun a Roth IRA? Not necessarily.

Comparison

Fidelity Investments has a chart to help you compare the Roth and Traditional IRAs to determine which is a better fit for you. Just keep in mind that some of the current rules might change in the future if you are an upper income saver.

Bankrate.com reports financial advisors seem to favor the Roth for most people because it potentially has greater tax advantages. If you don't earn a six-figure income, those advantages could very well stay intact for years to come.

Whether it's a Roth or traditional IRA, you should be saving for retirement. If you still aren't sure which way to go, talk to a trusted and objective financial advisor.

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Scholarly app can connect students with nearby tutors

The student-developed app allows students to get the help they need at the touch of a button

Thanks to a new app called Scholarly, college students can order up a tutor faster than they can have a pizza delivered. Created by Sultan Khan and Haa...

PhotoThanks to a new app called Scholarly, college students can order up a tutor faster than they can have a pizza delivered.

Created by Sultan Khan and Haasith Sanka — two computer science students at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) — the app can connect struggling students with knowledgeable tutors in the general vicinity.

The way it works is simple: tutors create profiles, which can be viewed by students looking for help in a certain subject. After setting a meeting location, the two parties can meet to untangle whatever academic knot a student is wrestling with.

In addition to being easy, it’s mutually beneficial. Tutors can earn extra cash, while students can get the academic help they need — all with no middle man other than a smartphone.

"Uber for tutors"

Khan and Sanka describe Scholarly as "The Uber for Tutors," and hope the on-demand tutoring service will help fellow students.

“We both believe that one-on-one tutoring is beneficial, so we are proud to have created something that will contribute to students’ success,” said Sanka of the app, which recently won first place at the world’s largest education Hackathon.

The duo developed the android version of Scholarly at HackingEDU last October. The competition drew more than 1,000 hackers from universities around the world. Within a 36-hour time frame, students were challenged to turn their ideas into functional software that would improve the education system.

After presenting Scholarly to a panel of judges, Khan and Sanka ultimately left with a first place ranking for their app. Since winning, the students have been working to improve the android app and create the iOS version.

“One of the challenges about developing apps is that even when you’ve done a good job there is always room for improvement,” Khan told UCR Today. “That’s one of the things I love about creating apps and the reason I want to work in the field of software development when I graduate.”

While most of the app’s activity is currently generated by UCR students, Khan and Sanka hope to expand the service to K-12 students and their parents in the coming months. It is now available as a free download on Google Play and in the Apple App Store.

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ADT Security to merge with Protection 1

Combined company will retain the ADT brand

ADT Corporation, which provides home security and monitoring services in the U.S., is being acquired by an affiliate of Apollo Global Management, which own...

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Burger King to begin serving hot dogs

Burger chain hopes to tap into popularity of often-overlooked sandwich

Burger King has always marched to the beat of its own drummer. Its marketing has always been a little eccentric.Now, when most fast food restaurants ar...

PhotoBurger King has always marched to the beat of its own drummer. Its marketing has always been a little eccentric.

Now, when most fast food restaurants are catering to health-conscious Millennials and trying to show they have some redeeming nutritional value, Burger King appears to be heading in a different direction.

The burger chain, home of the Whopper, hopes to become famous for its grilled hot dogs as well. The company says the new menu item will be available at participating restaurants nationwide, starting February 23rd.

"The introduction of Grilled Dogs just made sense to our guests and for our brand," Alex Macedo, President, North America, for the Burger King brand, said in a release. "We're applying over 60 years of flame-grilling expertise with the Whopper sandwich to make Grilled Dogs the next great American icon."

Nutritional questions aside – and to be honest, there are probably a lot more calorie laden items on the menu than hot dogs – the move appears aimed at enhancing the bottom line. The profit margin in a hot dog is probably huge. It's also easy to prepare. Better still, Burger King will pretty much have the fast food hot dog market to itself.

20 billion dogs a year

And Americans seem to like hot dogs. They're associated with baseball games and the Fourth of July. Burger King estimates that Americans eat over 20 billion hot dogs a year.

The company believes its introduction of Grilled Dogs positions its restaurants to take a large bite out of that market with one of its' biggest launches in recent history.

Burger King says its Grilled Dogs will be available in both the Classic Grilled Dog and the Chili Cheese Grilled Dog. The Classic Grilled Dog is a flame-grilled hot dog made with 100% beef, topped with ketchup, mustard, chopped onions, relish, and served on a baked bun.

The Chili Cheese Grilled Dog is the same beef hot dog topped with warm chili, shredded cheddar cheese, and served on a baked bun. Both are sold separately or as a combo meal.

Snoop Dogg helps launch

Burger King has some marketing firepower behind the launch, enlisting pop culture personality Snoop Dogg to help promote the rollout.

According to CalorieKing, a plain hot dog on a bun has 240 calories. Keep in mind a lot of the calories are in the chili, cheese, and other condiments you pile on.

And the calories may not be the biggest health issue should one adopt a steady hot dog diet.

According to health site LiveStong.com, a beef hot dog contains 13 grams of fat, with about 60% monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and 40% saturated fat.

“The American Heart Association recommends that Americans consume no more than 7% of their total caloric intake from saturated fats, as this type of unhealthy fat increases your risk of heart disease,” the site advises.  

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GM's attempt to sell used cars online meets dealer resistance

The idea is to sell low-mileage cars direct through a GM website

General Motors' attempt to sell used cars direct to consumers is encountering roadblocks thrown up by dealers, including threats of a lawsuit by California...

PhotoGeneral Motors' attempt to sell used cars direct to consumers is encountering roadblocks thrown up by dealers, including threats of a lawsuit by California dealers.

GM announced the effort a few weeks ago, saying it would be good for GM, for dealers, and for consumers, who would be able to shop for and buy a used Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, or Cadillac online. 

Dubbed the GM Factory Pre-Owned Collection, the program had hoped to sell 30,000 or so vehicles, supplementing its Shop-Click-Drive, a similar program that sells new cars. 

“It creates opportunity for our dealers, it creates opportunity for us,” GM President Dan Ammann said as he unveiled the program last month during the 2016 Deutsche Bank Global Auto Industry Conference in Detroit, the Detroit News reported.

Foot-dragging

But now, dealers are dragging their feet, with only one in four signing up to participate and California dealers threatening legal action.

"We have had our attorneys review the program and they have raised various legal issues that need to be addressed by GM," said a letter to GM, signed by Brian Maas, the association's president, Automotive News reported.

The letter suggests the program puts GM in competition with its dealers and says it may violate state laws that prohibit auto brokering without a license.

The dealers are also distressed at the site's use of a suggested price from Kelley Blue Book, saying the prices are "unrealistic" and "misleading."

Low mileage

The cars GM is trying to sell aren't trade-ins, as is often the case with cars on dealers' lots. They come mostly from rental fleets and lease turn-ins, have less than 37,000 miles, and come with factory-endorsed extended warranties. 

GM executies say dealers just aren't used to the new system and will like it if they give it a chance.

The web portal is "an opportunity to really just connect the customer back to the dealer," Brian Sweeney, Chevrolet U.S. vice president, told Automotive News.

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Trader Joe's jumps on cage-free egg wagon

The decision follows an Adele parody and a Change.org petition

Trader Joe's is the latest to join the cage-free egg movement, saying it will sell only cage-free eggs by 2025, earlier in some states.In a letter to c...

PhotoTrader Joe's is the latest to join the cage-free egg movement, saying it will sell only cage-free eggs by 2025, earlier in some states.

In a letter to customers, Trader Joe's said its store-brand eggs have been cage-free since 2005, amounting to about 62% of all the eggs it sells. It said that by 2020, all of its stores in Western states will sell only cage-free eggs, with the rest of the nation following suit by 2025.

"If market conditions allow us to accomplish these goals earlier, while still providing our customers outstanding value, we will do so," the company said, noting that it already offers a variety of egg choices.

"We have offered a range of choices from 'conventional' and 'cage-free' sources (among them organic, cage-free, free-range, and fertile options; a list of egg-related terms and meanings can be found in our Product Information FAQs)," the letter added.

Hello ...

“We wholeheartedly commend Trader Joe’s for their decision. No supermarket with a future wants to leave cruelty on their shelves – it’s just plain bad for business,” said Leah Garces, U.S. Director Compassion in World Farming, an animal rights group that recently produced a parody of Adele's smash hit "Hello," asking Trader Joe's to make the change.

The Trader's change of heart came just a few weeks after one of the group's supporters, Jessie Duroe Hadley, started a petition on Change.org that quickly gathered more than 100,000 signatures.

Trader Joe's joins BJ's, Target, Costco, Subway, McDonald's, and other major retailers and food producers in promising to switch to cage-free eggs. Animal rights groups argue that caged chickens lead short, miserable lives and many consumer activists say confining chickens in close quarters can lead to health problems, both for the chickens and the humans who devour them.

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A drop in builder confidence for February

Concerns remain about 'negative economic trends'

Taking a cue from consumers, the confidence of builders in the market for newly-built single-family homes took a hit in February.The National Associati...

PhotoTaking a cue from consumers, the confidence of builders in the market for newly-built single-family homes took a hit in February.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) fell three points to 58 from an upwardly revised January reading of 61.

"Builders are reflecting consumers' concerns about recent negative economic trends," said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "However, the fundamentals are in place for continued growth of the housing market. Historically low mortgage rates, steady job gains, improved household formations and significant pent up demand all point to a gradual upward trend for housing in the year ahead."

How they see it

The HMI gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next six months as "good," "fair" or "poor." The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as "high to very high," "average" or "low to very low." Scores for each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

The HMI component measuring sales expectations in the next six months rose one point to 65 in February, while the index measuring current sales condition fell three points to 65 and the component charting buyer traffic dropped five points to 39.

Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, all four regions registered slight declines. The Midwest fell one point to 57, the West registered a three-point drop to 72 and the Northeast and South each posted a two-point decline to 47 and 59, respectively.

"Though builders report the dip in confidence this month is partly attributable to the high cost and lack of availability of lots and labor, they are still positive about the housing market," said NAHB Chairman Ed Brady. "Of note, they expressed optimism that sales will pick up in the coming months."

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International Foodsource recalls various raw pistachio products

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

International Foodsource is recalling various raw pistachio products. The products may be contaminated with Salmonella There are no reporte...

PhotoInternational Foodsource is recalling various raw pistachio products.

 

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

 

There are no reported illnesses in connection with these products.

 

The following product, distributed to food service and retail stores nationally, are being recalled:

ProductIFS Lot NumberWeightBest by DateUPC
Bulk Raw Whole Pistachio 80% VP76114 (Sam International Lot# 102914)30 LBS Boxes4/29/16N/A
Valued Naturals Raw Pistachio Kernels792495 oz Bags08/10/16790429241428
IFS Club Bag Pistachio Raw Shelled 80% Wholes786343 LBS Bags7/16/16790429243026
IFS Web Bulk Pistachio - Shelled 80% Whole7899830 LBS Boxes07/30/16790429239630

 

What to do

Customers who purchased the recalled products should not consume them, but return them to the place of purchase.

 

Consumers with questions may call customer service at 973-361-7044 from 8:15 am – 4:30 pm, (EST), Monday through Friday.

 

 

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BMW recalls vehicles with air bag inflator issue

The driver-side front air bag inflator could rupture

BMW of North America is recalling 840,000 model year 2008-2013 128i and 135i coupes and convertibles and 1 Series M coupes; 2006-2011 325i, 325xi, 328i, 32...

Photo

BMW of North America is recalling 840,000 model year 2008-2013 128i and 135i coupes and convertibles and 1 Series M coupes; 2006-2011 325i, 325xi, 328i, 328xi, 328i xDrive, 330i, 330xi, 335i, 335xi, 335i xDrive Sedans; 2009-2011 335d sedans; 2006-2012 325xiT, 328i and 328xi sports wagons; 2007-2013 328i, 328xi, 328i xDrive, 335i, 335xi, 335i xDrive, 335is and M3 Coupes and Convertibles; 2013-2015 X1 sDrive28i, X1 xDrive28i and X1 xDrive35i SAVs; 2007-2010 X3 xDrive30i SAVs; 2007-2013 X5 xDrive30i, X5 xDrive35i, X5 xDrive48i, X5 xDrive50i and X5 M SAVs; 2009-2013 BMW X5 xDrive35d SAVs; 2008-2014 X6 xDrive35i, X6 xDrive50i, and X6 M SACs; 2010-2011 BMW X6 xDrive50i SACs; and 2008-2011 M3 Sedan vehicles.

 

Upon deployment of the driver-side front air bag, excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture with metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

 

What to do

 

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the driver's front air bag, free of charge. Parts are not currently available. Owners will be mailed an interim notification beginning March 31, 2016. A second notice will be mailed when remedy parts are available.

 

Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417.

 

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Honda recalls 2.23 million vehicles with air bag inflator issue

Moisture intrusion, over time, could cause the inflator to rupture

American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 2.23 million model year 2007-2011 Honda CR-V; 2011-2015 CR-Z; 2010-2014 FCX Clarity, and Insight; 2009-2013 Fit; 2013...

PhotoAmerican Honda Motor Co. is recalling 2.23 million model year 2007-2011 Honda CR-V; 2011-2015 CR-Z; 2010-2014 FCX Clarity, and Insight; 2009-2013 Fit; 2013-2014 Fit EV; 2007-2014 Ridgeline; 2013-2016 Acura ILX; 2013-2014 Acura ILX Hybrid; 2007-2016 RDX; 2005-2012 Acura RL;2009-2014 Acura TL; and 2010-2013 Acura ZDX vehicles.

 

The recalled vehicles are equipped with a dual-stage driver front air bag that may be susceptible to moisture intrusion which, over time, could cause the inflator to rupture with metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

 

What to do

 

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the inflator, free of charge. Remedy parts are expected to be available in Fall 2016. Interim notices will be mailed to owners beginning on March 14, 2016. Owners will receive a second notice when remedy parts become available.

 

Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-888-234-2138. Honda's numbers for this recall are JX2, JX3 and JX4.

 

 

 

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Garden of Life expands recall of Raw Meal products

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Garden of Life is expanding its earlier recall to include additional lots of its Raw Meal Organic Shake & Meal Chocolate, Original, Vanilla and Vanilla Cha...

PhotoGarden of Life is expanding its earlier recall to include additional lots of its Raw Meal Organic Shake & Meal Chocolate, Original, Vanilla and Vanilla Chai products.

 

An ingredient used in certain lots of the product may be contaminated with Salmonella Virchow.

 

The following products have been added to the recall:

PRODUCT NAMELot NumberExp Date
RAW Organic Meal 10 CNT Tray472148009/12017
RAW Organic Meal Chocolate Full Size471988009/1/17
RAW Organic Meal Full Size472146009/1/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Chai Full Size472155009/1/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Chai Full Size472155019/1/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Full Size472161009/1/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Full Size472255009/1/17
RAW Organic Meal Chocolate Full Size472259009/1/17
RAW Organic Meal Chocolate Full Size472492009/1/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Chai 10 CNT Tray471832019/30/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Full Size471986019/30/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Chai Half Size472060009/30/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Full Size472256009/30/17
RAW Organic Meal Half Size472258009/30/17
RAW Organic Meal Chocolate Half Size472262009/30/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Half Size472264009/30/17
RAW Organic Meal Full Size472360009/30/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla 10 CNT Tray472480009/30/17
RAW Organic Meal Full Size472489019/30/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Full Size472539009/30/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Half Size472574019/30/17
RAW Organic Meal Chocolate Full Size4722600010/1/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Full Size4721620010/31/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Full Size4722560110/31/17
RAW Organic Meal Chocolate Full Size4722610010/31/17
RAW Organic Meal Chocolate Half Size4722620110/31/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Chai Full Size4722630010/31/17
RAW Organic Meal Full Size4724650010/31/17
RAW Organic Meal Vanilla Chai Full Size4724760010/31/17
RAW Organic Meal Chocolate Half Size4724780010/31/17

 

Consumers can find the lot codes prominently stamped on the underside of the plastic container.

What to do

 

Customers who have any of the recalled product should return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-866-465-0051, Monday-Friday from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm (EST).

 

 

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Mercedes-Benz recalls vehicles with air bag inflator issue

The driver's front air bag inflator could rupture

Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 711,266 model year 2009-2010 ML320 BlueTec 4Matic, GL320 BlueTec 4Matic and R320 CDI 4Matic; 2011 E350 Cabriolet and...

PhotoMercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 711,266 model year 2009-2010 ML320 BlueTec 4Matic, GL320 BlueTec 4Matic and R320 CDI 4Matic; 2011 E350 Cabriolet and E550 Cabriolet; 2009-2011 ML350, ML350 4Matic, ML550 4Matic, ML63 AMG, and C63 AMG; 2010-2011 ML450 4Matic Hybrid, E350 Coupe, E350 4Matic, E550 Coupe, E550 4Matic, and E63 AMG; 2011-2012 GL350 BlueTec 4Matic and R350 BlueTec 4Matic; 2009-2012 GL450 4Matic, GL550 4Matic and R350 4Matic; 2007-2008 SLK280, SLK350, and SLK55 AMG; 2011-2014 SLS AMG Coupe; 2012 SLS AMG Cabriolet; 2013-2014 SLS AMG GT and SLS AMG GT Cabriolet; 2005 C230 Kompressor and C320; 2006-2007 C230; 2006-2011 C350, 2008-2011 C300 and C300 4Matic; 2010-2012 GLK350 and GLK350 4Matic; and 2006-2007 Chrysler Crossfire vehicles.

 

Upon deployment of the driver's front air bag, excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture, with metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

 

What to do

 

MBUSA will their notify owners, and Fiat Chrysler will notify the affected Chrysler owners. Dealers for the respective brands will replace the driver's front air bag module, free of charge. A notification schedule has not yet been provided.

 

Mercedes-Benz owners may contact MBUSA customer service at 1-800-367-6372 and Chrysler owners may contact Fiat Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403.

 

 

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How to keep from being taken by your tax guy

We have tips from the IRS on how to avoid preparer fraud

One of the top questions on taxpayers' minds this time of year has to be, “Should I do my own taxes, or hire someone to do it?”If you opt for the latte...

PhotoOne of the top questions on taxpayers' minds this time of year has to be, “Should I do my own taxes, or hire someone to do it?”

If you opt for the latter, keep in mind that while the vast majority of tax professionals provide honest, high-quality service, there are scoundrels out there who set up shop each filing season to perpetrate refund fraud, identity theft, and other scams that hurt taxpayers.

"Choose your tax return preparer carefully because you entrust them with your private financial information that needs to be protected," said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. "Most preparers provide high-quality service but we run across cases each year where unscrupulous preparers steal from their clients and misfile their taxes."

Return preparers are a vital part of the U.S. tax system. Some 60% of taxpayers use them to prepare their returns.

It is important to choose carefully when hiring an individual or firm to prepare your return. Well-intentioned taxpayers can be misled by preparers who don’t understand taxes or who mislead people into taking credits or deductions they aren’t entitled to in order to increase their fee. Every year, these types of tax preparers face everything from penalties to even jail time for defrauding their clients.

What to do

Here are a few tips from the IRS on choosing a tax preparer:

  • Ask if the preparer has an IRS Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). Paid tax return preparers are required to register with the IRS, have a PTIN and include it on your filed tax return.
  • Inquire whether the tax return preparer has a professional credential (enrolled agent, certified public accountant, or attorney), belongs to a professional organization or attends continuing education classes. A number of tax law changes, including the Affordable Care Act provisions, can be complex. A competent tax professional needs to be up-to-date in these matters. Tax return preparers aren’t required to have a professional credential, but make sure you understand the qualifications of the preparer you select. IRS.gov has more information regarding the national tax professional organizations.
  • Check the preparer’s qualifications. Use the IRS Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers with Credentials and Select Qualifications. This tool can help you find a tax return preparer with the qualifications that you prefer. The Directory is a searchable and sortable listing of certain preparers registered with the IRS. It includes the name, city, state and zip code of:

        -- Attorneys

        -- CPAs

        -- Enrolled Agents

        -- Enrolled Retirement Plan Agents

        -- Enrolled Actuaries

        -- Annual Filing Season Program participants

  • Check the preparer’s history. Ask the Better Business Bureau about the preparer. Check for disciplinary actions and the license status for credentialed preparers. For CPAs, check with the State Board of Accountancy. For attorneys, check with the State Bar Association. For Enrolled Agents, go to IRS.gov and search for “verify enrolled agent status” or check the Directory.
  • Ask about service fees. Preparers are not allowed to base fees on a percentage of their client’s refund. Also avoid those who boast bigger refunds than their competition. Make sure that your refund goes directly to you -- not into your preparer’s bank account.
  • Ask to e-file your return. Make sure your preparer offers IRS e-file. Paid preparers who do taxes for more than 10 clients generally must offer electronic filing. The IRS has processed more than 1.5 billion e-filed tax returns. It’s the safest and most accurate way to file a return.
  • Provide records and receipts. Good preparers will ask to see your records and receipts. They’ll ask questions to determine your total income, deductions, tax credits and other items. Do not rely on a preparer who is willing to e-file your return using your last pay stub instead of your Form W-2. This is against IRS e-file rules.
  • Make sure the preparer is available. In the event questions come up about your tax return, you may need to contact your preparer after the return is filed. Avoid fly-by-night preparers.
  • Understand who can represent you. Attorneys, CPAs, and enrolled agents can represent any client before the IRS in any situation. Non-credentialed tax return preparers can represent clients before the IRS in only limited situations, depending upon when the tax return was prepared and signed. For all returns prepared and signed after Dec. 31, 2015, a non-credentialed tax return preparer can represent clients before the IRS in limited situations only if the preparer is a participant in the IRS Annual Filing Season Program
  • Never sign a blank return. Don’t use a tax preparer who asks you to sign an incomplete or blank tax form.
  • Review your return before signing. Before you sign your tax return, review it and ask questions if something is not clear. Make sure you’re comfortable with the accuracy of the return before you sign it.
  • Report tax preparer misconduct to the IRS. You can report improper activities by tax return preparers and suspected tax fraud to the IRS. Use Form 14157, Complaint: Tax Return Preparer. If you suspect a return preparer filed or changed the return without your consent, you should also file Form 14157-A, Return Preparer Fraud or Misconduct Affidavit. You can get these forms on IRS.gov.
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Uber pays $28.5 million to settle safety lawsuits

The suits charge that the company misled customers about its safety procedures

In an attempt to settle two lawsuits, ride-sharing company Uber has agreed to pay $28.5 million to approximately 25 million consumers who used the service ...

PhotoIn an attempt to settle two lawsuits, ride-sharing company Uber has agreed to pay $28.5 million to approximately 25 million consumers who used the service in the month of January. The suits allege that Uber misled consumers about its safety procedures and associated fees, according to the Chicago Tribune. The deal still requires a judge’s approval before it can be finalized.

Until recently, Uber had used advertising language that promoted its focus on safety. For example, customers paid a “Safe Ride Fee” of up to $2.30 per trip. It also stated that it used “industry-leading background checks” for their private contract drivers. However, the suits claim that this simply isn’t the case, citing that drivers do not even have their fingerprints checked, a routine requirement for taxi drivers.

Under the settlement, Uber will change its language to better reflect the level of safety the service provides. The “Safe Ride Fee” is also being renamed to a “Booking Fee.”

Moving forward

Despite the grievances that have been filed, Uber is adamant that its service does provide a good level of protection for its customers. For example, riders can still view the photo ID and license number of a driver before taking a trip. Still, the company admits that their service is not perfect.

“However no means of transportation can ever be 100 percent safe. Accidents and incidents do happen. . . That’s why it’s important to ensure that the language we use to describe safety at Uber is clear and precise,” said the company.

The company goes on to comment that it is ready to put these suits to rest so that it can focus on delivering the service that many consumers have come to rely on. “We are glad to put these cases behind us and we will continue to invest in new technology and great customer services so that we can help improve safety in the cities we serve,” it said.

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Florida and feds reach settlements in tech support scam

Boost Software allegedly tricked consumers into buying its security product

Boost Software has agreed to settlements with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi after being charged with deceptivel...

PhotoBoost Software has agreed to settlements with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi after being charged with deceptively marketing computer software and tech support services.

The company and affiliated entities used websites and pop-up ads to market PC HealthBoost, a registry software product. It claimed PC HealthBoost could dramatically increase computer speed and protect the device from errors, crashes, and freezes.

After consumers downloaded a free version of PC HealthBoost, a system scan allegedly misled consumers to believe that their computer had hundreds or thousands of errors in need of repair, regardless of whether the computer had any performance issues.

Doesn't significantly increase computer speed

The federal and state complaints charged Boost Software then urged consumers to pay nearly $30 for the registered version of PC HealthBoost. According to Bondi, PC HealthBoost does not significantly increase computer speed or prevent computer freezes or crashes for the typical computer user.

If consumers purchased the registered version of PC HealthBoost, they were allegedly instructed to call a toll-free number to activate their software. Vast Tech Support, LLC, another of the defendants, owned the number and routed consumers to its call center, OMG Tech Help, LLC.

The complaints allege that during the call, Vast Tech telemarketers gained access to consumers’ computers and ran a scripted diagnostic process that purported to show the computers had performance or security issues. The telemarketers then allegedly scared consumers into spending hundreds of dollars on unnecessary computer repairs.

High-pressure sales tactics

“These defendants deceived consumers and used high-pressure sales tactics to convince them that their computers required tech support products,” Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Proetction, said in a statement. “I’m pleased these settlements will keep the defendants out of the tech support scam business.”

Besides Boost Software, the settlements include Jon Paul Holdings, LLC, managing member of Vast Tech Support, LLC; Jon-Paul Vasta, beneficial owner of Jon Paul Holdings, LLC; Success Capital, LLC, managing member of Vast Tech Support, LLC; and Elliot Loewenstern, managing member of Success Capital, LLC, and CEO of Vast Tech Support, LLC and OMG Tech Help, LLC.

The defendants agreed to stop deceptive marketing and pay judgments totaling more than $200,000. The agreement suspended judgments of more than $37 million.

Tech support scams have become more common in recent years and Microsoft has now joined the nationwide effort to bring them to an end. In the most aggressive of these scams, a caller will pretend to be from Microsoft Tech Support, informing you your computer is dangerously compromised and asking to be allowed to take control of it, or try to sell an expensive product to “fix” it.

Microsoft points out its personnel never initiate such calls and would have no way to know if a consumer's computer was compromised or not.

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One in five car recalls not completed

Minivans and SUVs have the lowest completion rates, study finds

That car hurtling at you on the other side of the thin white line? Chances are one in five that it has an outstanding safety recall, according to a recent ...

PhotoThat car hurtling at you on the other side of the thin white line? Chances are one in five that it has an outstanding safety recall, according to a recent analysis.

Used-car history provider Carfax says there are more than 47 million cars in the U.S. with "open" recalls -- meaning recalls that have not been completed. That's up 27% from a year ago.

Many, of course, are cars equipped with the dread Takata airbags, but others have problems like hoods that may fly open unexpectedly, fuel pipes that can rupture in a collision, and brake lines that may corrode faster than expected.

Serious problems, in other words.

Work to be done

"Our data shows there's still much hard work to be done in addressing recalls," Larry Gamache, communications director at Carfax, said.

Gamache said it is troubling that the type of vehicle with the highest rate of unfixed safety issues is the family-oriented minivan, with one out of every 4.6 having open recalls.

SUVs are second at one in 5.1 vehicles, followed by pickup trucks and cars, each at one in 5.5 vehicles.

For all vehicles, Carfax said one in 5.4 are operating with an open recall.

The highest rates of unfixed vehicles were, in order, Texas, Mississippi, Alaska, Utah, and West Virginia, Carfax said.

Recalls can be fixed at no cost to the consumer at U.S. dealerships.

What to do

If you have received a recall notice in the mail, you should contact your dealer to have the repairs completed as quickly as possible at no charge. Dealers may sometimes not have the necessary parts on hand and there may be a delay.

Dealers are not required to provide you with a loaner while the repairs are made but it never hurts to ask.

To check whether there are outstanding recalls on your car, check SaferCar.gov or the Carfax recall check page.

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Blue Buffalo class action settlement instructions

The company has agreed to pay up to $32 million to settle claims its products made pets sick

As we reported a few weeks ago, Blue Buffalo has agreed to pay $32 million to settle a class action lawsuit that charged its products made pets sick. The s...

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AT&T announces its 5G roll out plans

Will join Verizon in field testing its technology later this year

Get ready for faster Internet speeds. AT&T says its customers can expect speeds 10 to 100 times faster than today’s average 4G LTE connections when it begi...

PhotoGet ready for faster Internet speeds. AT&T says its customers can expect speeds 10 to 100 times faster than today’s average 4G LTE connections when it begins rolling out its 5G service.

The company said it will begin running field trials for the new service in Austin, Tex., later this year.

AT&T said 5G will change the way Internet speed is described. Instead of measuring it in megabytes per second (MPS) it will be measured in gigabytes per second (GPS). For reference, at one gigabit per second, the company says you will be able to download a TV show in less than three seconds.

“New experiences like virtual reality, self-driving cars, robotics, smart cities and more are about to test networks like never before,” John Donovan, Chief Strategy Officer and Group President of AT&T Technology and Operations, said in a release.

Traffic up 150,000%

Already, AT&T says it's existing networks have been put to the test. It says data traffic on its wireless network grew more than 150,000% from 2007 through 2015, driven largely by video.

Last year, it said more than 60% of the data traffic on its total network was video. That traffic is only going to grow.

“4K video, virtual reality, and IoT will drive the next wave of traffic growth,” the company said in a press release. “5G is ideal for those bandwidth-hungry applications because it will support multiple radio interfaces, enable more spectrum efficiency, and take advantage of SDN and network function virtualization (NFV).”

Verizon laid out its 5G plans last September. At the time, it said it's field trials would also begin this year.

At the time, it said it anticipates speeding up the expected 2020 launch date, when most industry sources predict 5G's U.S. launch.  

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Home sales down but prices up in fourth quarter of 2015

Realtors see lack of homes for sale driving up prices

The U.S. housing market appeared to cool off during the last three months of 2015, but that didn't stop home prices from going up. However, the report from...

PhotoThe U.S. housing market appeared to cool off during the last three months of 2015, but that didn't stop home prices from going up. However, the report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) suggests homes in metropolitan areas, rather than rural America, saw the most gains.

The report shows that the median existing single-family home price increased in 81% of NAR's measured markets, down from 87% in the third quarter. Still, that might not be bad considering sales of existing homes fell 5.4% during the period.

The disparity might be explained by a continued decline in the number of homes on the market.

Unshakeable trend

"Even with slightly cooling demand, the unshakeable trend of inadequate supply in relation to the overall pool of prospective buyers inflicted upward pressure on home prices in several metro areas," NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said in a release.

The result, says Yun, is that a number of qualified buyers are being shut out of the housing market if they happen to live in the top job producing, but increasingly expensive, parts of the country – especially on the West Coast and parts of the South.

"Without a significant ramp-up in new home construction and more homeowners listing their homes for sale, buyers are likely to see little relief in the form of slowing price growth in the months ahead," Yun said.

A consumer who wanted to buy a single-family home at the national median price, putting 5% down, would need an income of $49,535. But first he or she would need to find a desirable home for sale. Increasingly, that's getting harder to do.

Decline in number of for sale signs

At the end of the fourth quarter, there were 1.79 million existing homes available for sale, down from 1.86 million homes for sale at the end of the fourth quarter in 2014. The average supply during the fourth quarter was 4.6 months – down from 4.9 months a year ago.

This is creating a strong seller's market, especially in hot metro areas. Great if you're trying to sell your home – not so great if you want to buy.

Nashville, Tennessee is one of the hot housing markets where affordability is slipping away. Christie Wilson, CEO of The Wilson Group Real Estate Services, says parts of the Nashville area have become “micro-markets” and are experiencing what she calls a mini-bubble.

"The lack of inventory continues to drive prices up in certain price ranges and certain neighborhoods that have those price points, such as anything under $350,000," she said in an interview with the Nashville Tennessean. "But there is a lot of inventory in higher price points, and so there very well could be a pricing correction in the future."

Real estate marketplace Zillow recently reported that urban home values have been rising faster than those in suburban areas. It says the shift reflects demographic trends of Millennials delaying family life and choosing condos, and shifting preferences, as people seek walkable neighborhoods with urban amenities.  

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An engagement ring's history can negatively impact its re-sale value, study shows

What this new finding says about consumer expectations

“Forever” is the promise of both the engagement ring and your betrothed. But if “forever” suddenly comes to a halt, what happens to the value of your ring?...

Photo“Forever” is the promise of both the engagement ring and your betrothed. But if “forever” suddenly comes to a halt, what happens to the value of your ring? New research shows that a diamond ring’s history can have a big impact on its re-sale value.

In a study, rings disclosed as products of divorce and other failed relationships were much less likely to sell — and were sold at lower prices — than rings without a negative history. In other words, when the relationship crumbles so does the value of the ring meant to symbolize it.

This finding contradicts previous research claiming that consumer expectations are fully met when an item cleanly fits into a category, says the study’s researcher Anne Bowers, an associate professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “Here’s a product that technically speaking, fits exactly the criteria for an engagement ring, and yet you still have problems,” says Prof. Bowers.

Disclosure of break-up

As it turns out, trains of thought such as, “I’m getting married, I need a ring, here is a nice ring” can easily be derailed by a ring’s history.

Analysis of data from 1.5 million eBay listings of diamond solitaire engagement rings over a 13-month period showed that rings with no disclosed negative history were more likely to sell and at higher prices. On the contrary, in cases where sellers disclosed a failed a relationship behind the ring — marked by comments like “not going to happen,” or “ring ring, wrong guy” — were less successful.

However, a separate survey showed that consumers were more likely to believe that a diamond ring from a divorce was authentic compared to the same one from a happy marriage or a jewelry store, but they weren’t willing to pay as much for it.

Social characteristics

According to Prof. Bowers, these results point to the fact that researchers should "think more carefully about what it is that defines whether or not you fit into a market.” When it comes to defining a market category, there are more than just physical characteristics — there are social characteristics, as well.

If marketers can develop different expectations of engagement rings — such as an interest in the size or cut of the diamond or simply getting a great deal — there is potential to "shift consumers away from the primary market, such as what online used ring marketer, ‘I Do Now I Don't’ has been trying to do,” says Bowers.

And if you’re stuck with a ring of your own to unload, Bowers says your best bet will be to try to sell it back to the jeweler you bought it from — but “be prepared to take a big loss.”

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New York settles “astroturfing” cases with four firms

Companies were accused of paying for fake reviews posted online

Consumer reviews on the Internet can be very helpful tools when you are trying to find a good business and avoid a bad one. But you have to be able to trus...

PhotoConsumer reviews on the Internet can be very helpful tools when you are trying to find a good business and avoid a bad one. But you have to be able to trust the information.

Unfortunately, as consumers have come to rely more on sites like ConsumerAffairs, some companies have tried to game the system, creating their own review sites and passing off the content as objective consumer reviews.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman investigated the practice and brought action against four firms. This week, he announced settlements that require the companies to be honest and transparent in online reviews and endorsements and pay penalties ranging from $20,000 to $50,000.

“Consumers rely on reviews and other endorsements on the Internet to inform themselves in making daily purchasing decisions,” Schneiderman said in a release. “This investigation continues my office’s historical work into ‘astroturfing’ over the Internet and signals to companies that consumers deserve honesty and transparency in their reviews, endorsements and related content.”

The four companies

Included in the settlement is Machinima, a California-based online entertainment network that distributes video content relating to video games and gaming culture via a multi-channel network. Schneiderman says his investigation found that Machinima paid gaming experts known as “influencers” to post YouTube videos endorsing Microsoft’s Xbox One system and several games.

Premier Retail Group, Inc., a chain of cosmetic and beauty supply stores, was found to be paying Yelp reviewers to post positive reviews about the stores and products, whether they had any experience with them or not.

The investigation found Here2Four, Incorporated, a California Internet marketing company, solicited over 50 freelance writers to write over 200 fake reviews of its small-business clients for $10 to $15 per review.

Finally, the investigation found New York-based Rani Spa agreed to pay a writer to post fictitious Yelp reviews.

Violates state law

Schneiderman said the practices engaged in by all four companies violated New York state law, which prohibits misrepresentation and deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any business.

For good measure, he says it also violates the Federal Trade Commission Guide Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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Retail sales tepid in January

Sporting goods, hobby, and book and music stores led the slim advance

Retail sales in January were lukewarm, according to figures released by the Commerce Department.For the month, retail and food services sales -- adjust...

PhotoRetail sales in January were lukewarm, according to figures released by the Commerce Department.

For the month, retail and food services sales -- adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes totaled $449.9 billion -- up 0.2% from December and an advance of 3.4% from the same time a year earlier.

As it released it's January numbers, the government revised its December figures to show a sales gain of 0.2% instead of the 0.1% decline previously reported.

January's sales increase was led by a year-over-year gain of 9.1% in sales of sporting goods, hobby, and book and music stores. Sales by nonstore retailers were up 8.7% from last year.

Despite the lack of "oomph" in the report, Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza says the number suggests a more active consumer.

"A stronger-than-expected improvement in retail spending at the start of the year," she says, "coupled with a sizable upward revision to purchases at the end of last year suggests household spending is on relatively firmer footing than previously thought."

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Retailers see higher than average sales in 2016

Increased income and more job opportunities are credited

The National Retail Federation (NRF) is bullish on 2016.The trade group is projecting retail industry sales -- excluding automobiles, gas stations, and...

PhotoThe National Retail Federation (NRF) is bullish on 2016.

The trade group is projecting retail industry sales -- excluding automobiles, gas stations, and restaurants -- will grow 3.1%, higher than the 10-year average of 2.7%. The NRF also says it expects non-store sales to grow between 6 and 9% this year.

“Wage stagnation is easing, jobs are being created and consumer confidence remains steady, so despite the headwinds our economy faces from international developments -- particularly in China -- we think 2016 will be favorable for growth in the retail industry,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “All of the experts agree that the consumer is in the driver’s seat and steering our economic recovery. The best thing the government can do is stay out of the way, stop proposing rules and regulations that create hurdles toward greater capital investment and focus on policies that help retailers provide increased income and job stability for their employees.”

Report highlights

  • Economic growth should be more of the same and uneven. It is likely to be in the range of 1.9 to 2.4% in 2016.
  • Employment gains of approximately 190,000 on an average monthly basis are expected. While that pace is down from 2015, it is consistent with the labor market growing near its underlying trend. By year end, unemployment should drop to 4.6%.
  • Prospects for consumer spending are straightforward -- more jobs equals more income, which equals more spending. However, spending will come largely from the growth in jobs and not as much from increased wages.

“The economy had a bumpy ride in 2015 with fits and starts along the way,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz. “Despite the volatility, the economy continued to reduce unemployment, raise wages and actually increase real GDP by 2.4 percent.”

Kleinhenz says lower gas prices are creating more discretionary income to save, pay down debt, spend on travel, eat out, and use personal services. “Retailers have benefited as well,” he concluded, “and continue to find ways to compete and succeed in a very cost-conscious environment.”

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Arctic Cat recalls snowmobiles

The brakes can fail, posing a risk of injury or death

Arctic Cat of Thief River Falls, Minn., is recalling about 1,600 turbo 9000 snowmobiles. The brakes can fail, posing a risk of injury or death....

PhotoArctic Cat of Thief River Falls, Minn., is recalling about 1,600 turbo 9000 snowmobiles.

 

The brakes can fail, posing a risk of injury or death.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves all model year 2016 Arctic Cat turbo 9000 snowmobiles. Recalled models include the M 9000, XF 9000, XF9000 Cross Trek and ZR 9000 snowmobiles. The recalled snowmobiles were sold in black, green, orange and white.

 

The model name is on a decal on the top of the chassis between the seat and the rear bumper. The name Arctic Cat is on each side of the snowmobiles. The letter G in the 10th position of the vehicle identification number (VIN) indicates that the unit was made in the 2016 model year. The VIN is stamped into the chassis near the right foot rest.

 

The snowmobiles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold exclusively at Arctic Cat dealers nationwide from June 2015, through January 2016, for between $14,000 and $16,000.

 

What to do

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled snowmobiles and contact an Arctic Cat dealer to schedule a free repair. Arctic Cat is contacting its customers directly.

 

Consumers may contact Arctic Cat at 800-279-6851 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at www.arcticcat.com and click on Customer Care, then Product Recall and then List of Safety Bulletins for more information.

 

 

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Nuna Baby Essentials recalls high chairs

The arm bar can bend or detach during use

Nuna Baby Essentials of Morgantown, Pa., is recalling about 5,700 ZAAZTM high chairs in the U.S. and Canada. The arm bar can bend or detach during ...

PhotoNuna Baby Essentials of Morgantown, Pa., is recalling about 5,700 ZAAZTM high chairs in the U.S. and Canada.

 

The arm bar can bend or detach during use, posing a fall hazard to children.

 

The company has received 50 reports of the arm bar detaching, including six reports of children falling from the high chair. Four incidents resulted in injuries, including bruising and a cut on the forehead.

 

This recall includes ZAAZTM high chairs in eight models:

  • HC-07-004 (pewter),
  • HC-07-005 (carbon),
  • HC-07-006 (plum),
  • HC-07-009 (almond),
  • HC-08-004 (pewter),
  • HC-08-005 (carbon),
  • HC-08-006 (plum) and
  • HC-08-009 (almond).

ZAAZ and the model number are printed under the high chair seat on a white sticker. These high chairs look like a regular kitchen table chair and have removable trays, arm bars footrests, seat pads and harnesses so that they can convert into toddler chairs. “Nuna” is printed above the footrest of the unit.

 

The high chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at Albee Baby, Giggle, Magic Bean, Nordstrom and other specialty stores nationwide and online at www.nuna.eu and www.wayfair.com and other online retailers from February 2013, through November 2015, for about between $250 and $300.

 

What to do

 

Consumers should immediately stop using these recalled high chairs and contact the firm to receive a free new arm bar and instructions on how to replace it.

 

Consumers may contact Nuna Baby Essentials toll-free at 855-686-2872 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday or online at http://www.nuna.eu/usa/recallforthezaaz for more information.

 

 

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Congress permanently bans taxes on Internet access; measure awaits Obama's signature

States that collect these taxes will need to cease doing so by 2020 if Obama signs the bill

A long era of uncertainty over the future of Internet taxes may be coming to a close. With a 75-20 vote in the Senate today, Congress passed the Permanent ...

PhotoA long era of uncertainty over the future of Internet taxes may be coming to a close. With a 75-20 vote in the Senate today, Congress passed the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (PITFA), which bans taxing Internet access.

Summed up by Congress, the act “amends the Internet Tax Freedom Act to make permanent the ban on state and local taxation of Internet access and on multiple or discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce.”

While billed as a pro-consumer measure, the measure was supported most fervently by the cable and telecommunications industries.

"We applaud the Senate on today’s passage of the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA)," said Michael Powell, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the cable industry's trade association. "Internet access is more than a convenience, it’s critical to the daily lives of Americans."

"By keeping Internet access free from state and local taxes, ITFA will permanently keep down the cost of connectivity, enable more American consumers and businesses to get online and allow the Internet to further power economic growth. We urge President Obama to sign this important legislation to make ITFA permanent once and for all,” said Powell. 

Permanent tax ban

PIFTA makes permanent the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA), which was first passed in 1998. It placed a temporary ban, or moratorium, on taxing Internet access. 

The key word here is “temporary.” ITFA was never made permanent, even though it received bipartisan support. Some senators consistently prevented the tax ban from being made permanent. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), for one, wanted to make passage of PITFA contingent on passage of another piece of legislation called the Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA), which stipulates that consumers must pay sales tax on online purchases.

After being promised a vote on a new MFA in 2017, Durbin finally relented and agreed to the bill’s passing, ending 17 years of annual ITFA extensions. 

The bill now awaits the signature of President Barack Obama. Whether he intends to sign it is unknown. If he does, states who have taxes in place for Internet access will need to cease collections by 2020.

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When considering dividend stocks, beware of “accidental” high yields

When a dividend yield rises because the stock price has gone down, look out

Despite the Federal Reserve's insistence that it will continue to raise interest rates, the money you can earn on your money is almost non-existent. The yi...

PhotoDespite the Federal Reserve's insistence that it will continue to raise interest rates, the money you can earn on your money is almost non-existent. The yield on a 10-year Treasury bond is well under 2% and no one expects it to go up anytime soon.

Savers in search of yield – earnings on their money – often look at stock in companies that pay quarterly or monthly dividends. The return is usually a lot more than you can get on a certificate of deposit (CD) and the value of the stock can appreciate. Of course, since it is a stock, its value can also go down.

Still, with Coca-Cola currently paying a yield of 3.11% and AT&T paying over 5%, a lot of investors are willing to take the risk. And with the market's steep sell-off this year, some stocks are recently paying eye-popping, double-digit yields.

But be careful. The dividend yield goes up when the value of the stock goes down – assuming the dividend remains constant.

Example

Here's an example: let's say the stock of XYZ Corp. is trading at about $35 a share and pays a dividend of $1.50 per share. Dividing $1.50 by $35 gives you a nice, solid yield of 4.2%.

But suppose the stock of XYZ Corp. falls, along with the stock market, to $20 a share. Now the yield is 7.5%.

That looks like a great return, but it could be a trap because XYZ Corp. now has what is called an “accidental” high yield. It hasn't increased its dividend -- the yield is high because the price of the stock has fallen, relative to the dividend the company is paying.

That last part is where the trap comes in. If the company's stock has fallen because of declining profits it may not continue to pay a dividend of $1.50 a share. In fact, it can change the amount of its dividend at any time.

Dividend cutting

It might cut the dividend in half, or stop paying it altogether. That has happened in recent weeks in the energy sector, when oil companies decided they had to cut their payout to shareholders in the face of declining oil prices.

In 2010, when the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, spilling millions of barrels of oil and exposing the company to huge liabilities, BP eliminated its 8% dividend overnight.

When a company cuts its dividend, the misery just gets worse, because in almost every case, the price of the stock will go down even more. People who bought the stock for the high dividend don't want it anymore when the payout declines or is eliminated.

If you are still holding the stock you purchased for its “accidental” high dividend, not only will you get a smaller yield in the future, you might not be able to sell the stock for some time without incurring a loss.

When considering a dividend-paying stock, investment experts advise always considering the fundamental strength of the company first, investing in stocks you might buy, whether they paid a dividend or not.

Even then, dividend investing is not a buy-and-hold strategy. Investors must remain vigilant to market fluctuations that could affect company fundamentals and future payouts.

Before embarking on such a strategy, make sure you seek the advice of a trusted and objective financial advisor.  

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States settle with MoneyGram in scam case

Company agrees to beef up measures to prevent MoneyGrams' use in scams

When a scammer hooks a victim, he wants to make sure he gets the money neatly and cleanly, in a way that it can't be traced or recovered.For years, mon...

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Dog sharing app allows owners to loan out their dogs

If you love dogs but can't commit to one, Bark'n'Borrow may be just the solution

Dog lovers without a pooch of their own may be able to get their next dog fix with Bark’n’Borrow — an app through which you can find a dog to borrow.Th...

PhotoDog lovers without a pooch of their own may be able to get their next dog fix with Bark’n’Borrow — an app through which you can find a dog to borrow.

The way the app works is simple. Create a profile, pass the screening to become a verified “dog lover,” and you’ll be able to connect with a community of dog lovers in your local area.

The three-sided marketplace aspect of Bark’n’Borrow allows you to become either a Sitter (someone who gets paid for their time), a Borrower (rewarded simply with canine companionship), or a dog owner looking for some extra love for your dog.

Borrowing a pup

If you’re a borrower looking to spend time with a dog — whether it’s for an afternoon walk, a day of play, or the entire time a pooch’s human is on vacation — just peruse some doggy profiles and you’ll be on your way.

Similar to a dating app for humans, each dog has a profile which includes a photo and some basic info, such as breed, obedience level, and how it well it gets along with other dogs and children. Profiles also include typical dog characteristics, such as “curious,” “affectionate,” and “energetic.”

Once you’ve found a winner, borrowers can reach out to the owner. If everyone gets along after meeting, they can arrange for dog walking or sitting later.

Despite the meet-and-greets, however, there is a definite trust aspect to the service. Handing off your dog to a relative stranger might feel a little strange to a dog owner, but the company assures owners that each potential borrower has undergone a careful vetting process.

Sharing economy

Bark’n’Borrow’s founder Liam Berkeley believes the service might be a natural step in the sharing economy. In the age of AirBnB and Uber, dog sharing doesn’t seem too outlandish a concept.

He says the idea for the app came to him when he was unable to commit to a dog due to work demands.  "I was contemplating rescuing a dog — I grew up with dogs — but I was working 12 or 13 hour days," Liam Berkeley tells Fast Company. "My girlfriend at the time was still in school and had a job on the side. So as much as we were thinking of getting one, we knew it wasn't the best idea."

So Berkeley would occasionally borrow neighbors' dogs and take them for hikes. He soon discovered there was no shortage of people like himself who missed having a dog of their own, so he decided to create the simple dog-matching service.

Dog owners and borrowers currently pay nothing for the service, but eventually Berkeley plans to charge a small fee for borrowers as well. The fee, he tells Fast Company, will help cover insurance and customer support, and a portion of the profits will go to animal rescue.

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Racing driver Scott Tucker indicted in payday loan operation

He allegedly used an Indian tribe as a shield for illegally-priced loans

Race car driver and businessman Scott Tucker has been indicted for allegedly operating a nationwide internet payday lending enterprise that systematically...

PhotoRace car driver and businessman Scott Tucker has been indicted for allegedly operating a nationwide internet payday lending enterprise that systematically evaded state laws in order to charge illegal interest rates as high as 700% on loans to cash-strapped consumers.

Tucker and his attorney, Timothy Muir, are named in criminal indictments unsealed yesterday (Wednesday) in New York. They face charges of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”) and the Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”). Both defendants were arrested in Kansas City, Kansas. 

In Manhattan, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Tucker and Muir "targeted and exploited millions of struggling, everyday people by charging illegally high interest rates – as much as 700 percent."

Bharara said the two claimed their $2 billion business was actually owned and operated by Native American tribes. "But," he said, through the work of the FBI and IRS, "this deceptive and predatory scheme to take advantage of the most financially vulnerable in our communities has been exposed for what it is – a criminal scheme.”  

Miami Tribe

Bharara also announced a non-prosecution agreement with two tribal corporations controlled by the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. The tribes agreed to forfeit $48 million in criminal proceeds from the payday lending operation.

The indictment charges that from at least 1997 until 2013, Tucker made small, short-term, high-interest, unsecured loans, commonly referred to as “payday loans,” through the Internet. He did business under a number of names, inclduing Ameriloan, f/k/a Cash Advance; One Click Cash, f/k/a Preferred Cash Loans; United Cash Loans; US FastCash; 500 FastCash; Advantage Cash Services; and Star Cash Processing (the “Tucker Payday Lenders”). 

The loans were issued to more than 4.5 million working people throughout the United States, including hundreds of thousands of people in New York, many of whom were struggling to pay basic living expenses, Bharara said. Many of these loans were issued in states, including New York, with laws that expressly forbade lending at the exorbitant interest rates TUCKER charged, he added.

The Federal Trade Commission has also been investigating Tucker. In January, the agency asked a federal court to pay $1.3 billion in damages to customers who were allegedly overcharged for their loans. That case is still pending.

What to do

If you believe you were a victim of one of Tucker's operations, and you wish to provide information to law enforcement or receive notice of future developments in the case, please contact the Victim/Witness Unit at the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, at (866) 874-8900. 

More information is available online

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FTC gives online high schools a failing grade

The schools are little more than diploma mills, the feds charge

Just about every high school kid would like to cut class and study at home, which usually translates to sleeping, texting, and gaming. But that doesn't mea...

PhotoJust about every high school kid would like to cut class and study at home, which usually translates to sleeping, texting, and gaming. But that doesn't mean that online "high schools" offer anything of value.

In fact, the Federal Trade Commission says two online high schools are little more than diploma mills that mislead consumers into thinking they can get a legitimate diploma or GED for as little as $135.

“The defendants took advantage of people who wanted a high school diploma,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “If a company says you can get a diploma in no time at all or by simply taking an online test, it's almost certainly a scam.”

In its federal court complaints, the FTC alleges that the "schools" mislead consumers about their legitimacy, using names like West Madison Falls High School, Columbia Northern High School, Stafford High School, and many others.

Documents filed by the FTC in both cases allege that the operations bought a number of website names designed to look like legitimate online high schools and use deceptive metatags with terms like “GED” and “GED online” to bring the bogus sites higher in search rankings. Once consumers arrive at the schools’ sites, they are met with messages that imply that the diplomas offered by the defendants are equivalent to an actual high school diploma.

According to the FTC documents, the “courses” amount to four untimed, unmonitored multiple-choice tests, requiring that students answer 70 percent of each test correctly.

The defendants also mislead consumers with statements about membership in accrediting bodies that do not exist and are creations of the defendants themselves, according to the FTC’s complaints.

The FTC’s filings ask the court to put in place a temporary restraining order halting the operations and freezing the assets of the two separate sets of defendants: Stepping Stonez Development, LLC, also doing business as American Certification Specialists, Intentional Growth, LLC, and Stephen J Remley; and Capitol Network Distance Learning Programs, LLC, Capitol Network Digital Licensing Programs, LLC, Veritas Sales, Inc., Nicholas A. Pollicino, Anthony J. Clavien, and Adam F. Pollicino.

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Morgan Stanley pays $2.6 billion for its role in mortgage meltdowns

Investors lost billions in "securitized" mortgages when the real estate market went south

Morgan Stanley will pay $2.6 billion to settle claims that it misled investors about the value of subprime mortgages, a prime factor in the financial colla...

PhotoMorgan Stanley will pay $2.6 billion to settle claims that it misled investors about the value of subprime mortgages, a prime factor in the financial collapse of the last decade. 

“Today’s settlement holds Morgan Stanley appropriately accountable for misleading investors about the subprime mortgage loans underlying the securities it sold,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart F. Delery in announcing the penalty, the largest in a series that has so far totaled about $5 billion.

As part of the agreement, Morgan Stanley admits in writing that it failed to disclose critical information to prospective investors about the quality of the mortgage loans underlying its residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) and about its due diligence practices. 

Investors suffered billions of dollars in losses from investing in RMBS issued by Morgan Stanley in 2006 and 2007, a process dramatized in the recent film "Short."

Investors misled

In today's settlement, Morgan Stanley acknowledges that it made misleading representations to prospective investors about the characteristics of the subprime mortgage loans underlying its RMBS.

In particular, Morgan Stanley told investors that it did not securitize underwater loans (loans that exceeded the value of the property).  However, Morgan Stanley did not disclose to investors that in April 2006 it had expanded its “risk tolerance” in evaluating loans in order to purchase and securitize “everything possible.” 

As Morgan Stanley’s manager of valuation due diligence told an employee in 2006, “please do not mention the ‘slightly higher risk tolerance’ in these communications.  We are running under the radar and do not want to document these types of things.” 

Through these undisclosed practices, Morgan Stanley increased the percentage of mortgage loans it purchased for its RMBS, notwithstanding its awareness about “deteriorating appraisal quality” and “sloppy underwriting” by the sellers of these loans. 

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Seven heart risk factors you can control

Diet and exercise are key to nearly all of them

In the U.S., about 610,000 people die of heart disease every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That works out to abo...

PhotoIn the U.S., about 610,000 people die of heart disease every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That works out to about one in every four deaths.

Heart disease is one of the few afflictions that hasn't diminished over the years, perhaps because the very modern conveniences that have contributed to longer life spans in other areas have also made heart disease more likely.

Dr. Mauro Moscucci, Chief of the LifeBridge Health Cardiovascular Institute and Chairman of the Department of Medicine at Sinai Hospital, has identified seven major risk factors that could make it more likely you will suffer from heart disease.

The good news? You can do something about it.

Risk factors

The seven risk factors that Dr. Moscucci identied are:

  1. High Blood Pressure – When your heart has to work harder to pump blood through your veins, it becomes enlarged. It can also weaken blood vessels. Losing weight, regular exercise, and good nutrition can bring down blood pressure. Some medication may also be effective.
  2. Abnormal Cholesterol – High cholesterol can build up in blood vessels, leading to atherosclerosis. Diet and exercise are key to regulating cholesterol, but Moscucci says some patients may need medication as well.
  3. Diabetes – There's a type 2 diabetes epidemic in the U.S. caused by obesity, inactivity, and a poor diet. Scientists now believe diabetes can be reversed, but maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the best way to avoid this risk factor in the first place.
  4. Cigarette Smoking – Do we still have to explain this? There is a clear causative relationship between smoking and heart disease, meaning cigarettes cause heart disease and stroke. Those who cease smoking can improve survival rates for heart disease within two-to-three years of quitting.
  5. Obesity – For every two pounds someone is over his or her “ideal” body weight, there is a three percent increase in fatal and non-fatal heart attacks. Obesity is connected to most of these risk factors. Maintaining a healthy weight will take a lot of strain off your heart. It will also help take care of the other six risk factors.
  6. Physical inactivity – In many ways, a sedentary lifestyle can hurt your health. It's connected to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Get active and you improve your heart health; it's that simple.
  7. Unhealthy diet – Take a hard look at what you eat every day. What you eat and how much will make a big difference in heart health. Portion sizes have ballooned over the last several decades. Consider this – restaurant servings in the United States are about 25% larger than in France, and ice cream servings are more than 40% larger.

Moscucci says prevention is the best way to deal with a heart problem. If you have concerns with any of the seven risk factors, it might be a good idea to have a conversation with your healthcare provider.

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Could personalized video messages help save millennials from thoughtless gift-giving?

Vift video gift messages seek to add a personal touch to gifts purchased and sent online

Will you be on the receiving end of a Valentine’s gift from a member of the millennial generation? If so, you might want to keep your expectations in check...

PhotoWill you be on the receiving end of a Valentine’s gift from a member of the millennial generation? If so, you might want to keep your expectations in check, as a new survey has dubbed millennials “the worst” gift-givers.

In a survey of over 5,000 millennials, over 80% said they received unwrapped gifts, and over 90% said they had been given gifts without cards or name tags. Furthermore, 83% of millennials stated that they ultimately would have preferred a gift card. When asked why, 60% of the millennials indicated that it was due to the lack of thought put into the gift.

Their shortcomings in the gift-giving department could easily be written off as the byproduct of a generation often perceived as lazy. But in pulling the thread on the issue, one might find it’s a matter of nurture over nature. The age in which millennials were raised — one in which technology provides an easy answer to almost every question — seems to have shaped the nature of their attitude towards gift-giving.

Convenience factor

Where generations past were forced to go to the store, browse the aisles, and generally put a little more thought into the gift selection process, millennials have had online retail at their disposal. According to Jon Loew, CEO of Vift, an online “video gift message” platform, the convenience of online retail has taken a toll on millennials’ creativity.

Choosing a gift from a site like Amazon is almost too easy, says Loew, as it can lead buyers to default to the first unimaginative gift that comes to their minds. Click “buy,” enter a shipping address, and boom: you’ve checked “Buy birthday gift for Steve” off your to-do list.

Easy? Definitely. Thoughtful? Not very.

Ironically, however, Loew believes the very technology that set into motion this trend of thoughtless gift-giving can actually turn it around. With Vift, consumers can add a personal touch by including a video message that will arrive at the same time as the gift.

Complements online shopping

The same way you purchase products online — from your couch, on your smartphone or laptop — you can send a Vift video gift message. Loew believes these video messages can help online shoppers avoid such faux pas as forgetting to follow up the gift with a call or text to the recipient or forgetting to include a card.

And while the camera shy might be a bit apprehensive to record a video message, Loew believes Millennials as a group are more than comfortable on video. “From the growth of Snapchat, Instagram, and Vine, it is clear that they love to record and share themselves,” says Loew in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. 

Vift messages — either via email or SMS text message — are delivered when a shipment reaches its destination or on a sender-specified date. He also adds that Vift messages won’t take a big bite out of Millennials’ wallets, either; they can be sent for $1.99.

Loew sees Vift messages as the next best thing to actually being present when a recipient opens their gift. “The meaningfulness of a video that you can watch, hear, and keep forever,” says Loew, is something that even surpasses a cute card with a funny message or a few personal words.

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Are allergy shots worth the money?

Study suggests they work and could be effective for older allergy sufferers

Allergy conditions are on the rise, especially among aging Baby Boomers. An alternative to moving to Arizona is to get regular allergy shots. But is it wor...

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Europe provides low-cost alternative to American colleges

New website helps Americans find low cost and free European colleges

Tom and Jennifer Viemont were trying to plan for their teen-age children's college education when they stumbled across a startling fact; there are dozens o...

PhotoTom and Jennifer Viemont were trying to plan for their teen-age children's college education when they stumbled across a startling fact; there are dozens of colleges in Europe that Americans can attend for a fraction of the cost of U.S. schools.

The result is their website, BeyondTheStates.com, where students and their families can find out about these opportunities.

It runs counter to what most Americans think about Europe. It has to be expensive, right? Not necessarily.

“I spent the last nine months talking to administrators, talking to American students already doing this and visiting schools myself,” Jennifer Viemont told ConsumerAffairs. “So in April, we'll have a searchable portal of all these European universities that offer bachelor's degree programs completely in English.”

Allto University

One of the schools Viemont is particularly excited about is Allto University, in Finland.

“It's globally ranked and has business accreditation, and they have an international business program conducted entirely in English,” Viemont said. “The tuition, even to international students, is zero.”

That's not a misprint. Finland already does what Bernie Sanders advocates here – providing free tuition, even to international students. Students aren't required to purchase expensive textbooks, keeping those costs low as well.

And Allto University is not unique. Viamont says her database includes 40 English-language bachelor's degree programs that are free. The average cost of all schools on the list is $7,200 a year – but she says that average is pulled up by the American colleges in Europe that – like their counterparts back home – are expensive.

A semester abroad, which could be back home

Students who attend Allto University are required to study a semester abroad. Viamont says if you do it at one of Allto's partner universities, the tuition for that semester is also free, regardless of what that school normally charges.

“I live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Duke University is sort of in my back yard,” she said. “If you go there you're going to be paying close to 50 grand a year. If you go for your semester abroad at Allto, that's one of the partner universities, so you're going to Duke for free.”

That's right, an American student studying in Finland, for free, could come back to the U.S. for a semester of study at Duke and pay no tuition.

Accreditation

What's a degree from a European University worth? More than you think. School reputations might vary, as they do in the U.S., but Viemont says all programs are accredited and that schools within the European Higher Education Area must meet the same standards.

“A degree from Romania is going to hold the same weight as a degree from France, other than the reputation of the particular school,” she said.

Viemont says there are alternatives to attending U.S. colleges and piling up huge student loan debts. While she says she isn't trying to convince anyone to go abroad for their college degree, she thinks it's a viable option for many American students.

“It's always good to have choices, and I don't think people know about this choice,” Viemont said.

They do now.

Start your search here.

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CDC: Formaldehyde levels in Lumber Liquidator products pose a low risk of cancer

However, there are steps that consumers can take to reduce exposure

Lumber Liquidators came under fire in 2015 after allegations surfaced that hazardous levels of formaldehyde existed in its laminate wood products. As a res...

PhotoLumber Liquidators came under fire in 2015 after allegations surfaced that hazardous levels of formaldehyde existed in its laminate wood products. As a result, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) tested the products to see if existing formaldehyde levels could lead to adverse health effects, like cancer.

Now, the CDC has released a statement saying it found a low risk of cancer in connection to the Lumber Liquidator products. You can read the full technical report on the agency’s website.

“Breathing in very high levels of formaldehyde over many years has been linked to rare nose and throat cancers in workers. Formaldehyde exposure from the tested laminate flooring would be much lower and would last for less time than the exposures linked to cancer. We estimated the risk of cancer from exposure to this flooring and it’s low,” the agency said.

However, breathing in formaldehyde does carry some risk. At lower levels, it can cause irritation to the throat and lungs. Those who are affected by it can develop breathing problems, especially if they have conditions like asthma.

The CDC warns that if you have elevated levels of formaldehyde in your home from this flooring and other products, like certain types of cabinets, furniture, and curtains, then you should take steps to reduce your exposure.

What should I do?

The CDC offers several tips for reducing formaldehyde levels in the home. They suggest that consumers:

  • Open windows for a few minutes every few days to let in fresh air – unless you have asthma triggered by outdoor air pollution or pollen or you’re concerned about safety.
  • Install and use exhaust fans as much as possible.
  • Keep temperature and humidity inside your home at the lowest comfortable setting.
  • Make your home smoke free. Tobacco smoke contains formaldehyde, so don’t allow anyone to smoke in your home.

In order to cut down on formaldehyde in the home, the agency says to be cautious when buying new items or furniture. Consumers should look for products with low or non-existent levels of formaldehyde. These include:

  • Furniture, wood cabinetry, or flooring made without urea-formaldehyde (UF) glues
  • Pressed-wood products that meet ultra-low emitting formaldehyde (ULEF) or no added formaldehyde (NAF) requirements
  • Products labeled “No VOC/Low VOC” (volatile organic compound)
  • Insulation that does not have UF foam

If you already have products that contain formaldehyde, there are certain steps you can take to lessen the risk of exposure:

  • Wash permanent-press clothing and curtains before sing them.
  • Let new products release formaldehyde outside of your living space before you install or use them inside. This can be in an area like a garage or patio, but the products should be kept away from living spaces until the trademark chemical odor is gone.
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Improving local job markets have fewer folks relocating for employment

Challenger, Gray & Christmas says the economy has reached a 'turning point'

The number of job-seekers packing up the truck for greener pastures is on the decline.Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas says the la...

PhotoThe number of job-seekers packing up the truck for greener pastures is on the decline.

Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas says the latest data on relocation rates show that -- on average -- 11% of those finding employment each quarter in 2015 moved for a new position. That's down significantly from a four-quarter average of 13% in 2014 and 2013.

Relocation reached a post-recession high in the second half of 2014, as 15% of job seekers pulled up stakes for new opportunities during the final two quarters of the year.

The new data is based on a quarterly survey of approximately 1,000 people completing the job search.

“It is typical to see these small windows of relocation surges,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “They tend to occur at the beginning of recessions and then again as the economy moves from recovery to expansion.”

A turning point

Challenger said last year definitely marked a turning point in the recovery. “We finally regained all of the jobs lost as a result of the 2008-2009 recession and, by the end of the year, the national unemployment rate fell to 5.0%. Even with the struggles in the oil industry, the number of metropolitan areas throughout the country with unemployment rates below the national average continued to grow."

The relocation rate in the last half of 2014 was the highest since the first half of 2009, when an average of 16.3% of job seekers moved in the immediate wake of the recession.

Relocation activity plunged after the first half of 2009 as home values continued to decline, which made it virtually impossible to sell an existing home without taking a significant loss. But, Challenger noted, “The housing market improved in enough places by the second half of 2014 to, once again, make relocation a job search consideration."

“However,” he continued, “the window in which relocation is the best option typically closes quickly, since moving involves so much cost and risk -- even in the strongest economy.”

What to do

Challenger advises those relocating for a new position to make professional and social networking a top priority.

“Join local professional associations related to your occupation or industry,” he said. “Volunteer for charitable and service organizations. And, do not overlook your new neighbors. Getting to know people in your new area will not only make the transition easier, but these are the people who will help you if your new employment situation does not work out.”

Initial claims

Elsewhere on the jobs front, the Department of Labor (DOL) reports that the number of people lining up to apply for unemployment benefits for the first time fell by 16,000 in the week ending February 6 to a seasonally adjusted total of 269,000.The previous week's claims level was unchanged.

The four-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, came in at 281,250 -- down 3,500 from the previous week.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

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Pier 1 Imports recalls swivel dining chairs

The chairs can break at the base

Pier 1 Imports U.S. of Fort Worth, Texas, is recalling about 804 Capella Island Swivel Dining chairs in the U.S. and Canada. The chairs can break a...

PhotoPier 1 Imports U.S. of Fort Worth, Texas, is recalling about 804 Capella Island Swivel Dining chairs in the U.S. and Canada.

 

The chairs can break at the base, posing fall hazard to the user.

 

The company has received three reports of the chairs breaking, including two reports of customers falling. No injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves Pier 1 Imports Capella Island Swivel Dining chairs. The plastic wicker chairs have a natural wood color. The chair measures about 26 inches wide by 26 inches deep and 39 inches high.

 

The chairs, manufactured in Vietnam, were sold exclusively at Pier 1 Imports stores nationwide and online at Pier1.com from January 2015, through October 2015, for between $240 and $500.

 

What to do

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and return them to any Pier 1 Imports store for a full refund or a merchandise credit.

 

Consumers may contact Pier 1 Imports at 800-245-4595 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday, Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) or Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (CT) or online at www.Pier1.com and click on the “Product Notes & Recalls” at the bottom of the page for more information.

 

 

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General Motors recalls vehicles with braking issue

The brake pedal could loosen or become inoperative

General Motors is recalling 426,593 model year 2015-2016 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 and 3500 heavy duty trucks manufactured October 1, 2013, to February 1, 2...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 426,593 model year 2015-2016 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 and 3500 heavy duty trucks manufactured October 1, 2013, to February 1, 2016; 2015-2016 Chevrolet Tahoe Police Pursuit Vehicles (PPV) manufactured March 1, 2014, to February 1, 2016; and 2015-2016 GMC Sierra 2500 and 3500 heavy duty trucks manufactured October 29, 2013, to February 1, 2016.

 

The brake pedal pivot nut may loosen, causing the brake pedal to be loose or inoperative. If the brake pedal becomes loose or inoperative, the driver may be unable to stop the vehicle by using the brake pedal. Additionally, a loose pedal may also interfere with the accelerator pedal. Either condition may increase the risk of a crash.

 

What to do

 

GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the brake pedal pivot nuts, adding thread adhesive and tightening the nut as necessary, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020 or GMC customer service at 1-800-462-8782. GM's number for this recall is 20760.

 

 

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Hormel Foods recalls beef product

The product may be contaminated with extraneous materials

Hormel Foods Corporation of Tucker, Ga., is recalling approximately 450 pounds of beef product. The product may be contaminated with extraneous mat...

PhotoHormel Foods Corporation of Tucker, Ga., is recalling approximately 450 pounds of beef product.

 

The product may be contaminated with extraneous materials.

 

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

 

The following product, produced on Jan. 26, 2016, is being recalled:

  • 15-oz. cans of “Dinty Moore Hearty Meals No Preservatives Beef Stew” with Best By date Feb. 2019 and production date T01266.

The recalled product bears establishment number “EST. 199G” inside the USDA mark of inspection, was shipped to Kroger locations in Texas and Louisiana, and was available for sale after Feb. 1, 2016.

 

What to do

 

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

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may call (877) 446-7635.

 

 

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Feds decree self-driving cars are, well, driving themselves

But tests in Michigan remind us that not all roads lead to San Jose

So let's say you're tooling down the road in one of Google's self-driving cars. A motorcycle policeman pulls you over and says you blew through a stop sign...

PhotoSo let's say you're tooling down the road in one of Google's self-driving cars. A motorcycle policeman pulls you over and says you blew through a stop sign. Who gets the ticket?

Google thinks it should, since it is Google's software that is in control of the car. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) agrees, in a letter to Google.

But if that makes it sound like self-driving cars are just about ready to come streaming onto the 405, think again. Tests in Northern climes are finding that the autonomous vehicles are not much better than humans when it comes to dealing with snow and ice.

Back to the feds for a minute. NHTSA has, in effect, weighed in on the side of Google and other would-be self-driving manufacturers, opposing the position taken by the California DMV, which has required that there be a licensed driver in every self-driving car, ready to take over if things go south.

"We agree with Google its [self-driving vehicle] will not have a 'driver' in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years," NHTSA said in its letter to Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving unit. "If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the 'driver' as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving." 

It's understandable that this might remind you of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision a few years back that corporations have all the rights of human beings. It seems illogical at first, but perhaps it grows on you over time. 

Not trivial

It's not an idle question though. While some fledgling autonomous-vehicle makers plan to have things like steering wheels and brake pedals in their cars, Google doesn't. It wants its cars to be totally self-directed and, in fact, wants the humans to sit on their hands and stay out of the way.

Many traffic safety experts argue that this will reduce traffic accidents and the deaths and injuries that result from them. Personal injury lawyers, meanwhile, are understandably anticipating the day that they have the chance to slap a great big lawsuit on Google.

Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, says that while legal questions will remain, the NHTSA finding could help get self-driving cars on the road more quickly.

“Questions of fault and liability will remain, but if a computer driver has the same legal rights as a human driver it could allow car companies, and tech companies, to quickly deploy autonomous vehicles on public roads, both for testing purposes and even public use,” Brauer said in an email to ConsumerAffairs.

Frozen stiff

This all sounds good on a balmy day in Mountain View, but a Bloomberg report throws cold water -- or perhaps snowballs -- on the notion that self-driving cars are just about ready to roll from one corner of the earth to another.

It reports on a Volvo test of a self-driving XC90 SUV near the Arctic Circle. Everything was going along just fine until frozen snow flakes caked on the radar sensors that read the road. The car rolled to a halt while researchers went back to the drawing boards.

The solution: they moved the radar sensors inside, just behind the windshield. 

But while that may have solved the specific Volvo problem, there are many other questions that remain to be answered when one considers that roughly 70 percent of the American population lives in the snow belt. For example, lane markers get covered up by snow while radar beams reflect off falling snow flakes and produce false readings.

Ford says in a press release that it has developed a system that basically "memorizes" the road, helping to compensate for poor visiblity.

“It’s one thing for a car to drive itself in perfect weather,” said Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles. “It’s quite another to do so when the car’s sensors can’t see the road because it’s covered in snow. Weather isn’t perfect, and that’s why we’re testing autonomous vehicles in wintry conditions – for the roughly 70 percent of U.S. residents who live in snowy regions.”

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Volkswagen catches Takata flu, will recall 850,000 VWs and Audis

Takata's exploding estimates of volatile airbags ensnare another automaker

As if Takata and Volkswagen don't have enough problems already, VW says it will recall about 850,000 vehicles containing potentially defective Takata airba...

PhotoAs if Takata and Volkswagen don't have enough problems already, VW says it will recall about 850,000 vehicles containing potentially defective Takata airbag inflators, the kind that can blow up and spew lethal shards of shrapnel into drivers and passengers.

VW will recall 680,000 cars in the U.S. and Audi will recall about 170,000, the companies said. 

The VW recall covers the 2009-2014 Volkswagen CC sedan, 2010-2014 Jetta SportWagen and Golf compacts, 2012-2014 VW Eos convertible, as well as 2012-2014 Passat midsize sedans assembled in the United States and 2006-2010 Passat sedans and wagons built in Germany.

Audi’s recall covers the 2005-2013 A3 compact, 2006-2009 A4 Cabrio, 2009-2012 Q5 crossover, and 2010-2011 A5 Cabrio.

What to do

VW has not yet issued an official recall. When it does, dealers will be notified and notices will appear on ConsumerAffairs and elsewhere. Consumers will receive a notice by mail from VW asking them to contact their dealers.

Dealers do not yet have the parts to perform the recall and, until the recalls are issued, no one can tell you whether your vehicle is included. 

You can search the official government recall database using your car's VIN number here. Remember, recently announced recalls may not yet be listed.

5.1 million

The VW/Audi recalls follow last month's declaration by Takata that it had identified an additional 5.1 million U.S. vehicles that contained its defective airbags. All told, 14 automakers have recalled about 24 million cars since the Takata crisis began in 2009.

The Daimler group said earlier that it was recalling about 750,000 Mercedes-Benz cars and about 136,000 vans after being notified that they contained potentially defective airbags.

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States lobby Congress for new privacy legislation

Would undo amendment allowing debt collection robocalls to cellphones

It's an election year. What can members of Congress do to please the voters back home? How about stopping the annoying debt collection calls?Twenty-fiv...

PhotoIt's an election year. What can members of Congress do to please the voters back home? How about stopping the annoying debt collection calls?

Twenty-five state attorneys general have signed a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee, urging it to pass the ‘‘Help Americans Never Get Unwanted Phone calls Act of 2015,’’ also known as the ‘‘HANGUP” Act, and send it to the Senate floor.

The proposed legislation specifically would repeal a recent amendment to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) to allow debt-collection robocalls to consumers’ cell phones. That amendment was slipped into the end-of-the-year budget act.

Before that amendment was passed, the TCPA outlawed all robocalls to cell phones. As amended, the TCPA now permits citizens to receive unwanted and previously illegal robocalls to their cell phones if the calls are made to collect a federally guaranteed debt, like a student loan.

Congress has the power

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said by passing the HANGUP Act, Congress could stop the barrage of debt-collection robocalls that run up the bills of consumers who pay for calls to their cell phones.

“Debt-collection calls and robocalls consistently top the list of complaints our office receives,” Koster said in a release. “Consumers have made it clear that they are fed up with robocalls, and our laws should be moving to restrict unwanted calls, not encourage them.”

Koster said his office received more than 41,000 complaints last year about unwanted calls, a majority of which were robocalls.

Huge annoyance

“My attorney general colleagues and I work aggressively in our states to stop unwanted, harassing calls to peoples’ landlines and cell phones,” Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a release. “This is a huge annoyance to our citizens, and we hear from them every day about it. It’s even more frustrating when the federal government actively works to weaken our efforts aimed at protecting and serving our citizens. I urge Congress to stop allowing loopholes that legitimize robocalls and open citizens up to a barrage of unwanted or misplaced calls.”

On June 18, 2015, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) formally adopted a rule change saying federal law does not prohibit telecommunication service providers from offering, upon a customer’s request, services intended to block unwanted calls. This clarification moved enforcement efforts forward and armed consumers with ways to prevent unwanted calls. The recent amendment, however, is a step back in the fight against robocalls, Koster said.

The attorneys general say consumers who would like to get rid of annoying robocalls can help by calling their Congressional representatives.

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Are you addicted to your smartphone?

How to tell if your device is controlling you, and how to break free of digital dependency

We’ve all been there: that moment when an instant of boredom becomes twenty minutes of mindlessly toggling back and forth between apps. “This is way better...

PhotoWe’ve all been there: that moment when an instant of boredom becomes twenty minutes of mindlessly toggling back and forth between apps. “This is way better than sitting here doing nothing,” your brain tells you, as you take in yet another photo of your high school friend’s dog.

While these phone-staring sessions are usually nothing more than a time waster, they can easily turn into something more harmful if left unchecked. As technology sinks its roots deeper into our daily lives, digital dependency is becoming more common. For many, device use can spiral into compulsion territory.

So how can you tell if you’re in an unhealthy relationship with your smartphone? You can start by turning it off, says Mariya Shiyko, PhD., an Assistant Professor in Northeastern University’s Department of Applied Psychology.

Take a break

According to Shiyko, an expert on digital detoxes, the best way to tell if you could stand to distance yourself from your device is by turning it off for a few hours.

“See if you can continue engaging with life without constantly thinking about the end of this miserable break, compulsively reaching for your phone or checking the time,” says Shiyko in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. During this break, are you able to function well and enjoy life? If not, then you may be too dependent on your device.

“You know it’s not healthy if you NEED your device,” says Shiyko, adding that if your happiness and well-being become tied up in anything else — whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or your phone — it has become an addiction. Digital addiction is no different from any other forms of addiction, she says.

There’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine just as there’s nothing inherently wrong with technology, explains Shiyko — but with each, there is the potential for misuse. 

Detoxing

If you’ve decided to give technology a rest, the next question might be “How?” — especially if you frequently use your device for work purposes. Shiyko says that as with anything else, you can go big or small.

Digital detoxing, she says, is similar to a bodily cleanse in that there are many different routes to take. “A spring cleanse for your body might look like a week on juices and light vegetarian meals or it may be one fasting day per week continuously,” says Shiyko. “Everyone needs to find what works for them.”

She suggests choosing one weekend a month to keep your phone and email locked up. Or you could go smaller by detaching yourself from computers and devices for half a day on a weekend, or simply by turning them off after 8 PM daily.

Instead of being glued to a computer screen or a TV, go outside or make plans to visit your friends or family in person, says Shikyo. In conquering your reliance on technology, you’ll experience benefits similar to those of a person who is mentally healthy — less stress, anxiety, depression, and higher levels of life satisfaction.

“The more mental freedom one has, independently of gadgets or political news,” says Shiyko, "the more one can enjoy meaningful interpersonal interactions, creativity, and multitudes of opportunities that technology enables.”

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Why homeownership is a ‘dream deferred’ for Millennials

There are more hurdles in their quest for homeownership, but there's an upside to the delay, experts say

Coming of age precisely as the housing market collapsed should, by all accounts, have caused millennials to become leery of mortgages — but it hasn’t. Desp...

PhotoComing of age precisely as the housing market collapsed should, by all accounts, have caused millennials to become leery of mortgages — but it hasn’t. Despite the housing crash, research shows that more than 85% of the millennial generation still believe that owning a home makes more financial sense than renting.

It comes as a surprise to many that the generation known for choosing to buy the latest gadget rather than a big-ticket item would be interested in owning property. But the general public has the wrong perception about them, says Yilan Xu, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics at Illinois.

"It doesn't seem like they would want to. But it turns out that millennials still do eventually want to own a home,” says Xu. “They just face significant obstacles in doing so."

According to a new paper co-written by a University of Illinois expert in household and individual financial behaviors, there are several factors that affect the housing demand of the millennial generation, including mortgage accessibility, the burden of student loan debt, and the fact that millennials are taking their time settling down and starting families.

All of these factors indicate that the American dream of homeownership is not dead, says Xu — it’s just deferred.

Upside in delay

According to Xu, there is an upside in millennials delaying homeownership. In considering what happened during the credit expansion, Xu notes that many people who were not really ready for homeownership were lured into it.

“That’s certainly not what we want to see again,” she says. But Xu explains that the more stringent credit conditions will select the more financially prepared millennials for homeownership.

“As a result, millennials' homeownership will be more sustainable, and their financial stability and wealth accumulation may be enhanced,” says Xu. “If that's the case, then maybe a little delay in buying their first home isn't too bad if they're a more responsible homeowner."

Older millennials

Last year, as we reported, the generation once pigeonholed as renters surprised us. Millennials accounted for 68% of first-time home buyer sales in the first half of the year, according to the NAR’s 2015 Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends report.

This is an important piece of data, says Realtor.com’s Chief Economist Jonathan Smoke, because the people who have increased the demand (and price) of rental inventory are increasingly trading rent payments for mortgages.

“People who believe that Millennials are disinterested in home ownership are grossly mistaken,” said Smoke. He adds that they’ve just had to work a little harder to establish credit and save for a down payment.

But now that older millennials are beginning to enjoy the life events that drive homeownership — marriage and children — now is the most appropriate time for them to consider homeownership, says Smoke. We’re beginning to see the impact of that, he says.

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Video ads will now top your Twitter feed

"First View" video ads will be at the top of the queue when users first sign into Twitter each day

Twitter has been pretty much a text-based service since its inception, with the usual ads and photos interspersed here and there.But that's about to ch...

PhotoTwitter has been pretty much a text-based service since its inception, with the usual ads and photos interspersed here and there.

But that's about to change. Twitter is introducing a new ad product that will blast a video ad your way the first time you open Twitter each day.

It's called First View, and it is being promoted as the kind of premium ad Twitter has been lacking until now -- "premium" in this sense meaning expensive. 

"Now, marketers can tell a powerful visual story across the Twitter audience," Twitter tweeted in a prepared statement. "Today we’re introducing First View: an engaging and highly visible way to share your brand story with compelling video creative across Twitter’s massive audience."

Critics have been tweeting dire warnings of Twitter's demise lately and the company is obviously hoping First View helps turn that perception around.

For Twitter fans, it simply means that once each day, the first time you open Twitter, there will be a video ad sitting atop your feed. 

First View will be video-only initially, but Twitter says it may allow other types of ads in the future.

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IRS hacked using stolen Social Security numbers

Thieves were trying to generate E-file PINS, the agency said

Crooks have been using stolen Social Security numbers to try to get information that could be used to steal tax refunds, the Internal Revenue Service said....

PhotoCrooks have been using stolen Social Security numbers to try to get information that could be used to steal tax refunds, the Internal Revenue Service said.

Most of the automated attacks were aimed at generating E-file PINs, the IRS said. The PINs would then be used to generate phony returns or to waylay refunds.

The Social Security numbers were used in abot 464,000 automated attacks, of which about 101,000 successfully generated a PIN, the IRS said.

The agency, which is no stranger to hacking, said that no personal taxpayer information was disclosed in this incident and said that affected taxpayers would be notified by mail.

You may have mail

Consumers should note that the official notification will come via the U.S. Postal Service. Scam artists will soon be out in force, sending emails and calling taxpayers claiming to be the IRS. 

Last May, the IRS admitted that hackers had stolen the personal data of as many as 334,000 taxpayers after initially saying only 100,000 had been affected.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) says he will question IRS Commissioner John Koskinen about the attack at a hearing today, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“While it appears that the IRS was able to successfully block this attempted breach this time around, it’s past time we fundamentally rethink our approach in authenticating taxpayers and processing tax returns,” Mr. Hatch said, according to the Journal.

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Fed Chair Janet Yellen defends decision to hike interest rates

Reaffirms view that the economy is healthy

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen was the subject of close attention Wednesday as she testified before the House Financial Services Committee.After al...

PhotoFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen was the subject of close attention Wednesday as she testified before the House Financial Services Committee.

After all, since the Fed hiked its key interest rate in December, the stock market has been in turmoil, with averages selling off significantly. Some market analysts have suggested the U.S. economy is sliding into a recession and have questioned the Fed's wisdom in hiking rates in the face of a slowing economy.

But if anyone expected Yellen to back away from the Fed's December rate hike, they were disappointed. Yellen told the committee that since her last appearance before it in July, the economy has made further progress toward full employment. In fact, the January unemployment rate fell to 4.9%.

The Fed Chair did, however, concede that there could be some rough spots on the economic horizon.

Less supportive of growth

“Financial conditions in the United States have recently become less supportive of growth, with declines in broad measures of equity prices, higher borrowing rates for riskier borrowers, and a further appreciation of the dollar,” Yellen said in prepared testimony. “These developments, if they prove persistent, could weigh on the outlook for economic activity and the labor market, although declines in longer-term interest rates and oil prices provide some offset.”

"If" may be the key word in that paragraph. Right now there is no strong consensus on the direction of the economy. Yellen said the Fed would be looking to see if there are ongoing employment gains and faster wage growth. If there are, she says that should promote faster economic growth.

With rapid economic growth comes inflation – at least it has in the past. The Fed's policy of gradually raising interest rates is designed to keep inflation under control.

In her appearance before the committee, Yellen made it clear that the Fed began on the path of rising interest rates because it believes the economy is growing, and so far it has seen nothing to suggest it was mistaken.

Trouble outside the U.S.

But she acknowledged that might not be the case in the rest of the world, and global economic trouble can always have a negative impact in the U.S. While the Fed is raising rates as a hedge against possible inflation, Japan has instituted negative interest rates – meaning it costs money to put money into bonds – to head off deflation.

“As is always the case, the economic outlook is uncertain,” Yellen said. “Foreign economic developments, in particular, pose risks to U.S. economic growth.”

She points to economic problems in China as a potential trouble spot that could have ramifications in the U.S. She also conceded that inflation remains below the Fed's target of 2%, which to many suggests the U.S. economy is not growing that fast.

But Yellen attributes the low rate to a steep drop in energy prices. She again defended the Fed's decision in December to hike interest rates, saying it reflected the belief that economic activity would continue to expand at a moderate pace and labor market indicators would continue to strengthen.

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Survey finds consumers still struggling with finances

One third of consumers don't have at least $1,000 in savings

The recession has been over for years and unemployment has fallen below 5%. Consumers should be feeling pretty good, right?A new survey from Prosper Ma...

PhotoThe recession has been over for years and unemployment has fallen below 5%. Consumers should be feeling pretty good, right?

A new survey from Prosper Marketplace paints a different picture.

Prosper Marketplace's latest Financial Wellness Study, which examines personal finance in America, found nearly 60% of Americans lack the financial freedom to enjoy life.

At a time when consumers should be bulking up their savings accounts, adding to their retirement portfolios, and planning a vacation here and there, only 29% said they feel they are in control of their finances.

It gets worse. Nearly 50% said they are living paycheck to paycheck. More than 50% said they could not absorb a financial shock.

Older consumers struggle most

Even more troubling is the fact that Americans over 55, who should be getting ready for their retirement years, are those most likely to say they are financially insecure. Fifty-nine percent of those 55 and older say they are not confident in their ability to handle an unexpected financial setback.

Consumers haven't been able to put much money away in savings. More than half said they have less than $5,000 in either checking or savings accounts. More than one third have been unable to save $1,000.

In addition to lacking a financial cushion, most consumers are running up debt. Sixty percent of consumers say they have credit card debt and two thirds can't pay the balance off each month.

Bright spot

But the survey contains at least one bright spot. Most consumers say getting out of debt is a major goal for 2016.

In fact, debt relief ranked as a top priority, followed closely by making consistent progress toward paying off debt.

When asked what they will do to better manage their finances, 38% said they currently have a financial plan for themselves; another 23% claim to be making financial plans in 2016.

Retirement planning

Only 30% of consumers say they currently contribute to their retirement plans, but an additional 28% said they will be doing so in the near future.

“Our research is consistent with our impression of the financial well-being of the average American: while our national economy may have pulled out of the depths of the recession, the after-effects are still being felt, with many Americans still struggling to get ahead financially,” said Aaron Vermut, CEO of Prosper Marketplace.

Interestingly, the research found that Millennials appear to be in better financial position than older consumers. They are also more likely to use technology tools to help them plan and manage their finances.

Sixty-five percent said they are currently using technology to improve their financial well-being, with 84% of that group saying it makes them feel more in control of their finances.  

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2016 Hyundai, Acura declared cheapest cars to own for five years

Kelley Blue Book rates new cars according to the cost of driving them

Buying a car is one thing. Paying to keep it on the road is another. Each year Kelley Blue Book (KBB) looks at the current models and ranks them according ...

PhotoBuying a car is one thing. Paying to keep it on the road is another. Each year Kelley Blue Book (KBB) looks at the current models and ranks them according to the lowest operating cost over a five year period.

For the 2016 model year, Hyundai emerges as the most cost-efficient brand, while Acura claims the honors for the lowest projected ownership costs among luxury brands.

Repair cost isn't the only consideration that goes into the ranking. In fact, today's new cars tend to need fewer repairs in the first five years than a decade ago. The biggest cost of operating a new car is its depreciation – or it's loss of value.

There's an old saying that a new car loses value when you drive it off the lot. There is some truth to that, but some models lose value faster than others.

Fuel, finance, and insurance

Other factors that go into the rankings include expected fuel costs, finance and insurance fees, maintenance and repair costs, and state fees.

“New-car shoppers usually pay a lot of attention to how much a car will cost upfront; however, sometimes an even more expensive car on the front end can actually save you money during the first five years of ownership by having low total ownership costs,” said Dan Ingle, vice president of vehicle valuations, industry solutions and international for KBB.

The analysts at KBB say Hyundai has a mid-range depreciation and insurance cost, making it the 2016 Five-Year Cost to Own: Best Brand among all automakers. They attribute the strong showing, in large part, to the 2016 Accent, Elantra, Sonata, Tucson, and Veloster.

Acura takes the top spot among luxury brands, as it currently has the lowest average Kelley Blue Book Fair Purchase Price, depreciation, and fuel costs of any luxury brand. It ranks competitively in insurance and maintenance costs. The KBB team in particular cites the 2016 ILX, MDX, RDX, and TLX.

Subcategories

KBB also breaks down ownership costs into subcategories. If you're interested in an alternative energy or hybrid vehicle, the Toyota Prius C is your best bet. Among full-sized SUVs, the Ford Explorer takes the top spot.

The Dodge Caravan wins the honor among minivans while the Ford F-150 comes in first among full-sized pick-ups.

You'll find the full list of subcategory winners here.

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Falling gas prices still putting money in consumers' pockets

U.S. has largest oil supply for this time of year in nearly 80 years

Retail gasoline prices continue to fall across the U.S., hitting levels even the experts believed would never be seen again.The national average price ...

PhotoRetail gasoline prices continue to fall across the U.S., hitting levels even the experts believed would never be seen again.

The national average price of self-serve regular is around $1.72 a gallon, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey. A year ago, the average price was $2.17 a gallon.

Motorists can thank oil prices, which continue to fall in the face of an increasing supply glut. AAA reports the U.S. is swimming in oil, with crude oil inventories at their highest level for this time of year in nearly eight decades.

Barring any major disruptions in supply, AAA predicts gas prices will remain near their lowest price point since the Great Recession, at least for the next couple of weeks. Once refineries begin to curtail operations for seasonal maintenance, oil prices will be less of a factor and gasoline prices should rise a bit.

The end of the decline?

Also, gasoline demand usually starts to increase in February, reaching its peak in August.

The combination of increased demand and reduced supply often leads to upward swings in the price at the pump. Still, with prices so low and oil prices headed down instead of up, increases at the pump should be fairly painless.

For years, the national average gasoline price has disguised the fact that gas was cheap in some parts of the country and really expensive in other parts. AAA says prices are now more even than they've been in years, with the southeast and southwest still enjoying the lowest prices but the Pacific northwest not outrageously expensive.

According to AAA, drivers in 44 states continue to pay gas prices below $2 per gallon. Oklahoma pays the least at $1.42 a gallon. Hawaii pays the most at $2.63 a gallon.

In addition, prices at the pump are moving in the right direction, as far as drivers are concerned. Gasoline prices are down in nearly every state week-over-week and consumers in 20 states are saving a nickel or more per gallon at the pump.

The biggest price drops in the last week came in the Midwest. Drivers in Ohio and Indiana saw their price drop 14 cents a gallon. Michigan motorists are saving 13 cents a gallon.

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Job openings on the rise in December

2015 saw a net employment gain

Job openings rose to 5.6 million in December, according to new figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for an openings rate of 3.8%.The number of ...

PhotoJob openings rose to 5.6 million in December, according to new figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for an openings rate of 3.8%.

The number of openings for private payrolls was up, but was little changed for government. Openings increased in construction (+69,000), nondurable goods manufacturing (+60,000) and durable goods manufacturing (+26,000). In the regions, job openings increased in the West.

The number of job openings (not seasonally adjusted) increased over the 12 months ending in December for total nonfarm and total private, and edged up for government. The largest changes in openings over the year came in health care and social assistance (+172,000) and finance and insurance (+99,000). The number of job openings increased  over the year in the Northeast, Midwest, and West.

Hires

There were 5.4 million hires in December -- little changed from November, but up 5.0 million from December 2007, the first month of the recession. The hires rate for the month was 3.7%. There was little change in the number of hires for total private and government, with what gains there were coming in professional and business services.

Over the 12 months ending in December, the number of hires (not seasonally adjusted) was little changed for total nonfarm and total private and edged up for government. At the industry level, hires increased in accommodation and food services (+93,000); transportation, warehousing, and utilities (+43,000); and federal government (+11,000). Hires edged down in construction. The number of hires was little changed in all four regions over the year.

Separations

Total separations includes quits, layoffs and discharges, and other separations, with total separations referred to as turnover. Quits are generally voluntary separations initiated by the employee, while layoffs and discharges are involuntary separations initiated by the employer. Other separations include separations due to retirement, death, and disability, as well as transfers to other locations of the same firm.

There were 5.1 million total separations in December, roughly the same as November, for a total separations rate of 3.5%. There was little change in the number of total separations for total private and government. In December, total separations edged up in accommodation and food services and in state and local government. The number of total separations was little changed in all four regions.

Quits

There were 3.1 million quits in December for a rate of 2.1%, with the number of quits coming in higher than in December 2007 (2.8 million). The number of quits rose for total private and government over the month. Quits rose in state and local government (+20,000) but fell in nondurable goods manufacturing (-25,000). Quits increased in the South over the month.

The number of quits (not seasonally adjusted) increased over the 12 months ending in December for total nonfarm, total private, and government. Quits increased over the year in several industries with the largest changes occurring in professional and business services (+102,000), accommodation and food services (+68,000), and retail trade (+58,000). In the regions, quits rose in the South and Midwest.

Layoffs and discharges

There were 1.6 million layoffs and discharges -- little changed from November, for a rate of 1.1%. The number of layoffs and discharges was little changed over the month for total private and unchanged for government, and showed little change in all four regions.

The number of layoffs and discharges (not seasonally adjusted) decreased over the 12 months ending in December for total nonfarm and total private and edged up for government. Layoffs and discharges rose in mining and logging (+7,000) and fell in construction (-129,000) and retail trade
(-64,000). The number of layoffs and discharges was little changed in all four regions over the year.

Other

In December, there were 411,000 other separations for total nonfarm, little changed from November. Over the month, the number of other separations was little changed for total private at 343,000 and for government at 68,000.

Over the 12 months ending in December, the number of other separations (not seasonally adjusted) fell for total nonfarm and total private and was little changed for government. Other separations increased over the year in federal government (+7,000). Other separations decreased in the South region over the year.

Net change in employment

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

Conversely, when the number of hires is less than the number of separations, employment declines, even if the hires level is steady or rising. Over the 12 months ending in December 2015, hires totaled 61.4 million and separations totaled 58.8 million, yielding a net employment gain of 2.6 million. These totals include workers who may have been hired and separated more than once during the year.

The complete report is available on the BLS website.

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Mortgage applications surge as interest rates drop

Refinancings were up sharply

Mortgage applications bounced back from their first decline in four weeks.According to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), applications jumped 9.3%...

PhotoMortgage applications bounced back from their first decline in four weeks.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), applications jumped 9.3% during the week ending February 5.

The Refinance Index shot up 16%, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity to 61.2% of total applications from 59.2% the week before.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity rose to 6.4% of total applications, The FHA share dipped to 12.3% from 12.9% the prior week, the VA share was unchanged from 11.1% and the USDA share of total applications slipped to 0.6% from 0.7% a week earlier.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell six basis points -- from 3.97% to 3.91%, its lowest level since April 2015, with points unchanged at 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) dropped to its lowest level since April 2013 -- 3.76%, from 3.84% -- with points increasing to 0.30 from 0.26 (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 eight basis points to 3.72%, its lowest level since May 2015, with points decreasing to 0.33 from 0.35 (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 its lowest level since April 2015, 3.18%, from 3.22%, with points increasing to 0.38 from 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs slipped four basis points to 2.96%, its lowest level since October 2015, with points decreasing to 0.30 from 0.34 (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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Living Tree Community Foods recalls macadamia nuts and macadamia butter

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Living Tree Community Foods of Berkeley, Calif., is recalling Organic Macadamia Nuts and Organic Macadamia Butter. The products may be contaminated...

PhotoLiving Tree Community Foods of Berkeley, Calif., is recalling Organic Macadamia Nuts and Organic Macadamia Butter.

 

The products maybe contaminated with Salmonella.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

 

The recalled products were distributed throughout the U.S. via retail stores (California, Connecticut) and to mail order customers.

 

Living Tree Community Foods Organic Macadamia Nuts come in a 4-oz. clear plastic pouch marked with lot #153442 on the top.

 

Living Tree Community Foods Organic Macadamia Butter comes in an 8-oz. glass jar, with a Living Tree Community label on it.

 

Affected lot numbers are: 134415, 136215, 101716. The UPC Code is: 641432000987. These items were shipped between December 12, 2015, and February 3, 2016.

 

Customers who purchased the recalled products should not consume, but return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-510-526-7106 from 8:30-4:30 (PST) Monday thru Thursday and 8:30-3:00pm (PST) on Friday.

 

 

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Toyota recalls Scion FR-S vehicles

Automatic transmission key interlock connectors may not have been connected on some vehicles

Toyota Motor Sales, USA is recalling approximately 26,000 Model Year 2013-2016 Scion FR-S vehicles. Connectors for the automatic transmission key i...

PhotoToyota Motor Sales, USA is recalling approximately 26,000 Model Year 2013-2016 Scion FR-S vehicles.

 

Connectors for the automatic transmission key interlock on some vehicles may not have been connected during pre-delivery service prior to sale. That would make it possible to remove the key in gear positions other than “Park,” increasing the risk of vehicle rollaway and a crash. Thus, theese vehicles do not comply with a portion of Federal/Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114.

 

All known owners of the subject vehicles will be notified by first class mail and instructed to return the vehicle to a Toyota dealer to have the ignition key interlock function confirmed, and if necessary, delivery mode connectors connected at no charge.

 

Owners may contact customer at 1-800-331-4331 for Toyota or 1-800-255-3987 for Lexus.

 

 

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Feinberg: VW diesel compensation plans will be "generous" for consumers

However, things are moving slowly as the company has yet to determine what kind of compensation consumers can expect

Back in December it was announced that Volkswagen would be turning to Kenneth Feinberg to settle claims related to its diesel scandal. The American attorne...

PhotoBack in December it was announced that Volkswagen would be turning to Kenneth Feinberg to settle claims related to its diesel scandal. The American attorney, who is noted for handling compensation funds for GM’s ignition switch scandal and many others, has told a German newspaper that VW will be offering “generous compensation packages to the roughly 600,000 U.S. owners of diesel vehicles whose emissions are over the legal limit,” according to a Reuters report.

However, in what manner -- and when -- consumers can expect to be compensated is still uncertain. The company has not yet determined whether vehicle owners will be given cash, car buy-back options, repairs to existing cars, or replacement cars, according to Feinberg’s report.

High expectations

The process of determining adequate compensation has been slowed mostly because VW has had trouble putting a price on the scandal. The company has not been able to come to an agreement with federal agencies on how the problem will be fixed – something that Feinberg is quick to note.

“My hands are tied as long as VW and the authorities have not overcome their differences,” he said, stating that it’s unlikely that the fund would be set up within the established 60-90-day period. However, he is confident that once things get rolling he’ll be able to create a plan that will be accepted by the public. He will be looking to duplicate his past successes in creating compensation plans.

“Look at my prior cases: 97 percent of the victims of Sept. 11 accepted my offer. At GM and BP it was more than 90 percent, too. That has to be my target for VW,” he said.

Fair treatment

For many consumers, being compensated for the scandal is simply a matter of fairness. The scandal may not have affected them on a personal level, but the general outcry shows that consumers won’t stand for being misled.

“It is a purely business transaction, less emotional. I see that from emails I get from vehicle owners, who say things like: ‘Mr. Feinberg, I know I haven’t lost a relative, I just want to be treated fairly.’ They are all quite reasonable,” he said.

The attorney shouldn’t have too much resistance when it comes to setting a price that consumers will agree on; VW has given him complete authority over setting compensation prices. 

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Study: renters pay more for car insurance

Consumer group says practice falls most heavily on low income consumers

Since the housing market crash, fewer people have been able to buy homes, meaning more people have to rent.Rents have quickly escalated to the point th...

PhotoSince the housing market crash, fewer people have been able to buy homes, meaning more people have to rent.

Rents have quickly escalated to the point that last summer, Zillow declared a “rent affordability crisis.”

It's bad enough that rent keeps going through the roof, but a new study claims renters face another hit in the pocketbook – they pay more for car insurance than people who own their homes.

An analysis of auto insurance premiums by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) found major insurance companies charge consumers with good driving records as much as 47% more for car insurance if they rent.

30 year-old safe driver

The study is based on a sampling of insurance quotes across the country for a 30-year old safe driver. If that driver happened to be a renter rather than an owner, the CFA found he or she paid about $112 more per year.

The CFA said Liberty Mutual penalized renters the most with premium hikes, averaging 19% more for state mandated auto insurance coverage.

The CFA maintains this practice ends up placing an economic hardship on low-to-moderate income consumers who tend to be renters. In 2013, the median income of renters was $27,800 compared with $63,400 for homeowners.

"To raise people's auto insurance premium because they can't afford to buy their homes unfairly discriminates against lower-income drivers," Robert Hunter, the CFA's Insurance Director and the former Insurance Commissioner of Texas, said in a release. "A good driver is a good driver whether she rents or owns her home. Insurance companies should not be allowed to target people based on homeownership status."

Other rate-setting factors

But homeownership status is far from the only thing that can affect what you pay for car insurance. As we have previously reported, your credit score can also affect your rate. Only three states – California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii – outlaw the practice of using credit scores to set auto insurance rates.

Other external factors that insurance companies use to gauge risk – and thereby set rates – are marital status and the Zip Code in which you live. Again, some states – notably California – don't allow those criteria to be used.

The CFA says the average rate differential for renters is 6%, but when you break it down on a company-by-company level, there are several that charge renters double-digit increases over homeowners.

The consumer groups says Geico was the only company tested that did not consider homeownership status in any of the 10 cities it measured. And in one case – in Chicago – the CFA said it found Allstate actually gave renters a break, lowering their car insurance premiums by 11% compared to homeowners.

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Wired blocks ad-blocking readers

"Pay up or else," the popular techie site tells free-loaders

The ad-blocking epidemic is an annoyance for larger website publishers, like newspapers and TV networks, but it's threatening to choke off smaller and more...

PhotoThe ad-blocking epidemic is an annoyance for larger website publishers, like newspapers and TV networks, but it's threatening to choke off smaller and more specialized websites, even some of the most popular ones. 

Wired is fighting back. After calculating that more than one in five of its readers are using ad-blocking software, Wired is challenging those readers to either pay up or go away.

Wired says it will charge $3.99 for four weeks of ad-free access to its site -- less than $1 a week -- when the change becomes effective sometime in the next few weeks.

In places where ads now appear, those who pay the $3.99 will see more articles and information, said Mark McClusky, the site's head of product and business development. 

The site's editors explain it this way in a note to readers:

"At WIRED, we believe that change is good. Over the past 23 years, we’ve pushed the boundaries of media, from our print magazine to launching the first publishing website. We even invented the banner ad. We’re going to continue to experiment to find new ways to bring you the stories you love and to build a healthy business that supports the storytelling. We hope you’ll join us on this journey. We’d really appreciate it."

Wired executives don't know whether the subscription fee will work -- and even if it does, they're not sure it will replace the advertising revenue that's being lost to ad blockers.

The move is seen as bold but overdue by many in the business. Ad-blocking, after all, is basically the same as stealing a newspaper from the rack or downloading a pirated song or movie. 

More publishers had been expected to block ad-blockers after Apple began allowing blockers in its app store, but one estimate says fewer than four percent of sites have done so.

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Sale Slash to pay $10 million, slash its weight-loss spam

Feds have slimmed down the bank accounts of two weight-loss supplement promoters

Sale Slash LLC will stop flooding consumers' in-boxes with weight loss offers, can its fake news sites and bogus celebrity endorsements, and pay $10 millio...

PhotoSale Slash LLC will stop flooding consumers' in-boxes with weight loss offers, can its fake news sites and bogus celebrity endorsements, and pay $10 million, most of which will be used for consumer reimbursement. 

The Glendale, California, company sold diet pills, including Premium Green Coffee, Pure Garcinia Cambogia, Premium White Kidney Bean Extract, Pure Forskolin Extract, and Pure Caralluma Fimbriata Extract, while using fake endorsements from celebrities ike Oprah Winfrey.

“Sale Slash’s business model was built on lies,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “They used spam email, fake news sites, and phony celebrity endorsements to make their outlandish weight loss claims.”

The court order settling the FTC's charges prohibits Sale Slash and its affiliates from making weight-loss claims unless they are not misleading and are supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence. Such evidence specifically includes a human clinical test or study substantiating the claim.

"Blizzard of lies"

In another case, two Maine-based marketers will surrender "substantial" personal and business assets and will be prohibited from making deceptive claims about health products and engaging in deceptive marketing practices under a settlement reached with the FTC and the State of Maine’s Office of the Attorney General.

The agencies’ joint complaint charges Anthony Dill, his wife Staci Dill, and their two companies, Direct Alternatives and Original Organics LLC, with violating the FTC Act and Maine consumer protection laws in connection with their promotion and sale of weight loss supplements AF Plus and Final Trim.

In total, the defendants sold more than $16 million worth of the two products over the past four years. The companies have since ceased all sales.

“The Dills’ companies told a blizzard of lies,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “They sold worthless weight-loss supplements, lied about their supposed ‘risk-free trial’ offers, took people’s money with unauthorized auto-renewal plans, and made it nearly impossible to return their bogus products.”

“This company preyed on the vulnerability of consumers who seek a legitimate weight loss program,” said Attorney General Janet T. Mills. “The alleged conduct here is not limited to making false claims about their products; it also includes charging consumers hundreds of dollars in automatic monthly orders and making it very difficult for customers to cancel orders or get their money back. The Maine Attorney General’s Office is grateful to the FTC for the resources and assistance it brought to this case.”

The joint complaint alleges that the defendants falsely claimed users would quickly and easily lose significant weight and reduce their waist size by taking AF Plus and Final Trim and that the results were “proven” by scientific studies. The defendants used radio ads – at least one of which claimed to be a public service announcement – to sell their products.

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FTC calls game over on Running Fred

The Chrome extension allegedly Shanghaied consumers' Android phones

Running Fred is pretty scary. It's a game that takes place in an old castle, where devilish fiends chase innocent kids with sharp objects. But that's not t...

PhotoRunning Fred is pretty scary. It's a game that takes place in an old castle, where devilish fiends chase innocent kids with sharp objects. But that's not the worst thing you can say about it.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says Running Fred, which is a Google Chrome browser extension that runs on Android phones, has been running wild, taking over consumers' phones and installing other apps that cause all kinds of problems. The trouble began when a company called Vulcun bought Running Fred.

“After Vulcun acquired the Running Fred game, they used it to install a different app, commandeer people’s computers, and bombard them with ads,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

But it's now "game over." Vulcun has agreed to corral Running Fred and stop installing the rogue apps on users' phones.

"Unbiased recommendations"

In its complaint, the FTC alleges that Vulcun and its founders, Ali Moiz and Murtaza Hussein, purchased Running Fred and replaced it with Vulcun’s own extension, which purported to offer users unbiased recommendations of popular Android applications.

What Vulcun’s extension actually did, the FTC charged, was to install apps directly on the Android devices of consumers while bypassing the permissions process in the Android operating system.

The extension caused a number of consumers to complain to Google, the owner of both Chrome and Android, according to the FTC. Some complained that the browser extension was opening multiple tabs and windows on their browser and advertising various apps. Others complained about the installation of apps on their mobile device without their permission, noting that the apps would reinstall themselves even when deleted.

The FTC’s complaint charges that Vulcun’s actions unfairly put consumers’ privacy at risk. By bypassing the permissions process in the Android operating system, the apps placed on consumers’ mobile devices also could have easily accessed users’ address books, photos, location, and device identifiers.  Indeed, once installed, the apps could have gained further access to even more sensitive data by using their own malicious code, according to the complaint.

In addition, the complaint alleges that Vulcun misled consumers by saying that their extensions, including Weekly Android Apps and another called Apps By Cindy, provided independent and impartial selections of apps, as well as misrepresenting third-party endorsements received by the extensions.

Under the terms of the settlement, the defendants will be required to tell consumers about the types of information a product or service will access and how it will be used, display any built-in permissions notice associated with installing a product or service, and get users express affirmative consent before the installation or material change of a product or service.

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Flint water crisis has other states looking closely at water purity

Former New Jersey water supervisor sentenced for falsifying records

The Flint, Michigan water crisis – in which the city's water supply has been found to contain unsafe amounts of lead – has consumers across the country on ...

PhotoThe Flint, Michigan water crisis – in which the city's water supply has been found to contain unsafe amounts of lead – has consumers across the country on edge.

Now, the water coming out of the tap everywhere is greeted with a more skeptical eye.

The New York Times has a report on other jurisdictions that have experienced water issues that haven't generated the news coverage Flint has. For example, lead levels rose in Sebring, Ohio's water supply last August after the town stopped adding a chemical to keep lead pipes from corroding.

Even the nation's capital experienced a jump in lead levels in 2001 after the city changed some of its water purification procedures.

Water purity falsification

Meanwhile, states and localities are on high alert to find problems before they make headlines. Acting New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman has announced the sentencing of a former licensed operator of the New Brunswick and Milltown public water supplies.

Hoffman said Edward O'Rourke was sentenced to three years in prison after he was convicted of falsifying water purity records.

In pleading guilty to the charges, O’Rourke admitted that he intentionally submitted false water purity testing data between April 2010 and December 2012 to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in order to cover up the fact that he had failed to properly oversee the testing of drinking water samples.

While there were discrepancies that did not meet water purity standards, the investigation did not reveal any evidence that water distributed to the public ever contained coliform bacteria.

“Tens of thousands of residents relied on O’Rourke as the man responsible for ensuring that their drinking water was safe, and he not only failed to properly test the water, he lied again and again to cover up his failures,” Hoffman said in a release. “O’Rourke exhibited a remarkable lack of concern for the health of the people of these two communities.”

Scam alert

In Michigan, meanwhile, state Attorney General Bill Schuette is concerned that Flint residents have something else to worry about – scammers. He says a high profile crisis like this brings con artists out of the woodwork.

Among the scams he's worried about is one in which scammers pretend to be official workers, gain entry to residents' homes, and then steal things of value – including sensitive personal information.

He also warns people in Michigan – and around the country – to be dubious of charity solicitations on behalf of Flint residents. He says it's generally better to contact a charity directly to ensure its true identity.

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Study: when it comes to retail therapy, what you buy matters

Attempting to repair hurt feelings by going shopping might help, but not if you're dwelling on a failure

Has a bad day ever left you crawling towards the welcoming arms of a shopping mall? If so, you’re not alone. Half of all Americans report engaging in compe...

PhotoHas a bad day ever left you crawling towards the welcoming arms of a shopping mall? If so, you’re not alone. Half of all Americans report engaging in compensatory consumption — or “retail therapy” — as a way to feel better.

Whether you botched an interview or tripped over your words during an important presentation, that nagging feeling that you could have done better is powerful and persistent. And for many, it can be alleviated by buying something. New research shows, however, that what you buy matters.

Arizona State University professor Monika Lisjak — who studied several hundred university students — found that buying something that reminds you of your setback can actually make you feel worse, leading you to waste precious mental energy ruminating on the setback.

Wastes energy

Buying something to improve your competence is called “within-domain compensation,” and it can backfire, she says. Attempting to repair hurt feelings by going shopping is one thing, but it’s best to steer clear of products related to improving your situation. A book on improving public speaking skills, for instance, might not be the best purchase after a (self-perceived) poorly delivered speech.

“They end up dwelling on their problems,” Lisjak said in the article, which appeared recently in the Journal of Consumer Research. That rumination can drain energy.

Lisjak also found that people who are in a state of dwelling on a failure were more likely to have low self-control (expressed by eating M&M candies) and were less likely to do well on tasks (solving math problems).

The results of this study, said Lisjak, could have implications for marketing. Companies might consider selling products that are “across domain” in order to take consumers’ minds off their setbacks.

Recovering from failure

While buying the shoes might help you feel better in the short term, there are plenty of other ways to get past a failure. Here are a few tips:

  • Revive your self-worth. Compartmentalize your failure for a moment, and make a list of the qualities you possess that make it possible for you to succeed. If you’re modest, try asking a friend or someone who knows you well to remind you of your strengths. “Read the list and reconnect to your potential,” Guy Winch Ph.D. tells PsychologyToday.com.
  • Remind yourself of what success would mean to you. Recharge your motivation by remembering why you began pursuing your goal in the first place. Reconnecting to these reasons will help you think about how you would feel if you succeeded, especially after having failed at a previous attempt, says Winch.
  • Reframe the failure as a single incident. Winch recommends making a list of the specifics of the situation that might be different when you approach the task next time. Include items such as circumstances, factors related to the other people involved, your mood, your spouse’s mood, the weather, your general frame of mind, how you slept, and as many others as you can. Then check off the many factors that might be different when you try again.
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Marijuana use linked to verbal difficulties in middle age

Researchers worry that past exposure to the drug will show up later

States considering following Colorado and Washington's legalization of marijuana might want to keep an eye on aging Baby Boomers.In the 1960s many Boom...

PhotoStates considering following Colorado and Washington's legalization of marijuana might want to keep an eye on aging Baby Boomers.

In the 1960s many Boomers embraced the recreational use of marijuana and some have maintained lifelong use, regardless of the fact that the plant remains a controlled substance in 49 states.

While its supporters have long maintained marijuana's benign nature, scientists have never been totally convinced. Stefan Kertesz, M.D., an associate professor with the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, has been studying the effects of long-term marijuana use.

Worse verbal memory

Kertesz and other researchers on his team say they found past exposure to marijuana use to be significantly associated with worse verbal memory in middle age.

“For every five years of marijuana exposure, one out of two participants would remember one word less,” Kertesz said.

Kertesz says people today who use marijuana should remember that the potency of today's pot is much higher than in the past. He's concerned that today's users face more significant risks down the road.

“It’s crucial to recognize that young brains are truly different and not fully developed until age 22 and are at more risk from marijuana,” he said. “Parents and teachers need to be vigilant that this poses a larger risk to adolescents.”

Discouraging data

He's somewhat discouraged on that count, since he's seen data from 2012 indicating that 37% of high school seniors between the ages of 17 and 18 had used marijuana – 6.5% admitting to daily use.

But it is the aging population that regularly used marijuana in the past Kertesz is concerned about at the moment. He says the drug acutely impairs cognitive functioning, and increasing evidence suggests it shows up later in life after marijuana use has stopped.

Heavy, long-term use of marijuana has been associated with cognitive impairment, he says, particularly in learning and remembering new information.

Kertesz isn't the first researcher to go down this road. The National Institutes of Health reports many other studies have linked marijuana to cognitive decline, mostly with long-term usage. It points to one study suggesting cannabis use has a detrimental effect on prospective memory ability in young adults, but users may not be aware of these deficits.  

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Feds create unit to police for-profit colleges

Will look for predatory practices before they ensnare students

The problems students have had with some for-profit school are well documented. Remember Corinthian College?You don't have to have a long memory. In Se...

PhotoThe problems students have had with some for-profit school are well documented. Remember Corinthian College?

You don't have to have a long memory. In September 2014 the U.S. government sued the for-profit college for what it called an illegal predatory lending scheme.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) charged that  Corinthian lured tens of thousands of students to take out private loans to cover expensive tuition costs by advertising bogus job prospects and career services. To make matters worse, CFPB said Corinthian then used illegal debt collection tactics to strong-arm students into paying back those loans while still in school.

Before it declared bankruptcy and closed less than a year later, thousands of students had borrowed huge sums to attend, with nothing to show for it.

Proactive move

Now, the Department of Education wants to make sure potential train wrecks like Corinthian cross its radar screen before consumers have been harmed. It has announced creation of a Student Aid Enforcement Unit to respond more quickly and efficiently at the first suggestions of trouble.

"When Americans invest their time, money and effort to gain new skills, they have a right to expect they'll actually get an education that leads to a better life for them and their families," Acting Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said in a release. "When that doesn't happen we all pay the price. So let me be clear: schools looking to cheat students and taxpayers will be held accountable."

To head up the unit, Robert Kaye is coming over from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), where he was a top enforcement attorney.

Four divisions

The new unit will have four divisions that will perform special roles. The Investigations Group will be the early warning system, on the lookout for potential misconduct or high-risk activity among higher education institutions so that it can protect federal funding.

The Borrower Defense Group will provide legal support, It will analyze claims and make injury determinations.

The Administrative Actions And Appeals Service Group will impose administrative actions, such as suspending an institution and levying a fine. It will also try to resolve appeals by program participants.

The Clery Group will make sure for-profit colleges comply with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, requiring colleges and universities participating in federal financial aid programs to disclose campus crime statistics and security information.

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Completed foreclosures down again in December

Foreclosure inventories were lower as well

The latest National Foreclosure Report from CoreLogic shows completed foreclosures posted a year-over-year decline of 22.6% in December -- from 41,000 to 3...

PhotoThe latest National Foreclosure Report from CoreLogic shows completed foreclosures posted a year-over-year decline of 22.6% in December -- from 41,000 to 32,000 -- and are down 72.8% from their September 2010 peak of 117,722.

In addition, the property information, analytics, and data-enabled services provider reports the foreclosure inventory that same month dropped 23.8%. The foreclosure inventory represents the number of homes at some stage of the foreclosure process and completed foreclosures reflect the total number of homes lost to foreclosure.

Since the beginning of the financial meltdown in September 2008, there have been approximately 6.1 million completed foreclosures across the country. And since homeownership rates peaked in the second quarter of 2004, there have been about 8 million homes lost to foreclosure.

As of this past December, the national foreclosure inventory included approximately 433,000, or 1.1%, of all homes with a mortgage, compared with 568,000 homes, or 1.5% the year before. The December 2015 foreclosure inventory rate is the lowest for any month since November 2007.

“Reflecting on the full-year foreclosure results for 2015, we can see that completed foreclosures are down more than 20% for the year, which is the lowest level since 2006, before the crisis,” said Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic. “Maryland, which can be described as a suburb of the solid D.C. market, led the way with a 59% decline in foreclosures in 2015.”

CoreLogic also reports that 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 23.3% from December 2014 to December 2015, with 1.2 million mortgages, or 3.2%, in this category. The December 2015 serious delinquency rate is the lowest in eight years.

“The supply of distressed inventory continues to shrink rapidly. While this is positive for the housing market overall, it also drives a decline in the inventory of affordable for-sale homes,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “The lack of housing stock, particularly affordable inventory, is a growing issue and will limit a full housing recovery in the short to medium term.”

Report highlights:

  • On a month-over-month basis, completed foreclosures declined by 5.6% to 32,000 in December 2015 from the 34,000 reported in November 2015. As a basis of comparison, before the decline in the housing market in 2007, completed foreclosures averaged 21,000 per month nationwide between 2000 and 2006.
  • The five states with the highest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in December 2015 were Florida (79,000), Michigan (50,000), Texas (30,000), Ohio (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 December 2015: the District of Columbia (81), North Dakota (220), Wyoming (541), West Virginia (560), and Alaska (700).
  • Four states and the District of Columbia had the highest foreclosure inventory rate in December 2015: New Jersey (4.2%), New York (3.5%), Hawaii (2.4%), the District of Columbia (2.3%), and Florida (2.3%).
  • The five states with the lowest foreclosure inventory rate in December 2015 were Alaska (0.3%), Minnesota (0.3%), Colorado (0.4%), Arizona (0.4%), and Utah (0.4%).
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Fresh Express recalls chopped romaine salad

The products may contain milk, eggs, wheat and fish, allergens not listed on the label

Fresh Express Incorporated is recalling a limited quantity of 32-oz. Fresh Express Chopped Romaine with a Product Code of G034A06A and Use-By Date of Febru...

PhotoFresh Express Incorporated is recalling a limited quantity of 32-oz. Fresh Express Chopped Romaine with a Product Code of G034A06A and Use-By Date of February 19.

 

The sealed condiment packets containing individual packets of dressing, croutons and Parmesan cheese used in the brand’s Caesar salads were mistakenly placed in a limited quantity of the chopped romaine product. Ingredients in the individual packets include milk, eggs, wheat and fish, allergens not listed on the label.

 

No illnesses have been reported.

 

The following products are being recalled:

Recalled Product Distribution
Fresh Express Precautionary Recall, Chopped Romaine – 2/06/16
(No other Fresh Express Salads are included in this recall)

BRANDPRODUCT NAMESIZEUPCPRODUCTION CODEBEST IF USED BY DATEPOSSIBLE DISTRIBUTION STATES
Fresh ExpressChopped Romaine32 oz.