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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 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.

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

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

    Amazon recently launched seven of its own private label clothing brands: Franklin & Freeman, Franklin Tailored, James & Erin, Lark & Ro, North Eleven, Scou...
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      Scientific breakthrough could lead to huge advancements in anti-aging

      The discovery could have huge cosmetic and health implications

      It seems that skin cells are becoming a hot topic of discussion in the scientific community lately. After last week’s report on how skin cells are being used to fight brain cancer, researchers are now saying that they have made a breakthrough in understanding how skin cells relate to the aging process.

      A team from Newcastle University in the UK has discovered that a certain metabolic enzyme found in the “batteries” of human skin cells becomes much less active as we age. The researchers are hopeful that the new information will allow for new and improved anti-aging treatments.

      Discovering a target

      Professor Mark Birch-Machin led the study and explains just how our skin is affected by the aging process. “As our bodies age we see that the batteries in our cells run down, known as decreased bio-energy, and harmful free radicals increase. . . This process is easily seen in our skin as increased fine lines, wrinkles and sagging appears,” he said.

      However, up to this point, scientists never had a specific target for treatments that could mitigate this process. It is what makes this study’s findings so important. “Our research means that we now have a specific biomarker, or a target, for developing and screening anti-ageing treatments and cosmetic creams that may counter this decline in bio-energy,” said Birch-Machin.

      The research team found this biomarker by measuring the activity of mitochondrial complex II in 27 donors; they ranged in age from six years old to 72. After taking samples from each donor, the researchers saw that activity in mitochondrial complex II was down in donors that were older.

      Further implications

      The discovery may have implications that go far beyond the cosmetic, though. The research may allow scientists to understand how our organs age as well, which could prove to be crucial in understanding age-related diseases like cancer.

      Going forward, the researchers will continue to try to better understand cells in our skin and tissues. With additional research, they hope that anti-aging strategies can be created. “Our work brings us one step closer to understanding how these vital cell structures may be contributing to human ageing, with the hope of eventually specifically targeting areas of the mitochondria in an attempt to counteract the signs of ageing,” said Dr. Amy Bowman.

      The full study has been published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology

      It seems that skin cells are becoming a hot topic of discussion in the scientific community lately. After last week’s report on how skin cells are being us...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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."

      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...
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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 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.

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

      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.

      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...
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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 to further streamline the fast food experience -- and even help customers save a little money.

      Customers who are interested in ordering ahead, skipping the lines, and getting nutritional data can do just that, straight from their phones. They’ll even be offered somewhat of a more personalized experience in the process.

      Domino’s

      Domino’s offers a prime example of this personalized ordering experience. In 2014, the company sought to take voice controlled technology to the next level by partnering with their agency, CP+B, and Nuance, the creators of Siri for Apple. Together, the team created “Dom” -- the likeable, voice controlled pizza ordering sidekick.

      The move was a seemingly smart one. JP Morgan subsequently called Domino’s, “A technology company disguised as a marketing company disguised as a pizza company.”

      Dom can take your order, offer a 'cheesy' joke, or even (during Dom’s BETA phase) send a talking apology card if you weren’t pleased with your pizza ordering experience. The app now even features the ability to pay for your order via Google Wallet.

      Rewards

      Customer rewards and incentives are a big part of what makes a fast food app successful. White Castle apparently caught on to this, judging from their newly redesigned mobile app which “offers Cravers a way to save money.” To encourage customers to use the app (or order online), the chain is offering those who do so a sack of 10 original sliders for $5.

      Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s also offer users some pretty appetizing rewards. Dunkin Donuts features “DD Perks,” which can be easily tracked by users of their app. Free beverages, member bonuses, and other rewards await those who accrue enough points.

      And while they don’t currently offer the ability to order ahead and skip the lines, McDonald’s hoped to persuade customers to download their app by offering free food. The deals -- which vary week-to-week and based on location -- are accessible by downloading the app and registering a username, according to Business Insider.

      Users of the McDonald’s app can also participate in a coffee loyalty program, where customers can earn a free McCafe beverage for every five they purchase.

      Skip the lines

      While not every fast food app features the ability to skip the lines by ordering ahead, those who do are winning customers.

      Users of the Chick-Fil-A mobile app (which isn’t available for every location just yet) can order and pay online. You can even have the food delivered right to your car at some locations.

      Similarly, Chipotle, Subway, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s all accept mobile payments, and offer customers the ability to place their order through the app and pick it up in-store.

      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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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.

      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.

      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....
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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 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.

      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...
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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, 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. 

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

      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 ...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

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