Follow us:
  1. Home
  2. News
  3. 2016
  4. March

News in March 2016

Browse by year

2016

Browse by month

Get trending consumer news and recalls

    By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

    MetLife ruling may affect life insurance premiums

    The company says it will be more competitive if it is no longer judged to be "too big to fail"

    MetLife is the largest life insurance company in the United States. About 100 million consumers worldwide rely on it for life insurance, annuities, and other safety net products. But is it too big to fail?

    A federal judge says it isn't and yesterday struck down the U.S. government's determination that MetLife needs to build up its capital reserves and submit to tight regulation to ensure its financial well-being.

    "From the beginning, MetLife has said that its business model does not pose a threat to the financial stability of the United States," the company's chief executive, Steven Kandarian, said in a statement.

    The decision is seen as a victory for big business, and it was quickly followed by a report that General Electric, which owns Genworth, might be next in line to challenge its designation as "systemically important" to the U.S. economy. Wall Street is also pressing AIG and Prudential to respond. 

    Dodd-Frank

    The "too big to fail" test was created by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. Instituted after the financial crisis of 2008, it was initially aimed at banks but was later extended to other major companies who were so important to the economy that their collapse could trigger another crisis.

    MetLife is one of the few financial powerhouses that did not receive any government assistance during the financial crisis. 

    Kandarian has argued that life insurance companies don't carry the same risks as other financial institutions, since in most cases, funds are not subject to immediate withdrawal. Most life insurance policies, for example, pay out only when the policyholder dies.

    Kandarian also contends that insurance companies are adequately supervised at the state level. That argument may not sit well with consumer advocates, who just this week formed organizations in Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. They plan to pressure insurance commissioners, attorneys general, and state lawmakers to hold public hearings on the proposed mergers of health insurers, such as Aetna with Humana and Anthem with Cigna.

    A U.S. Treasury spokesman took issue with the decision by U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer, saying regulators had conducted "a rigorous analysis of MetLife, including extensive engagement with the company, and determined that material financial distress at MetLife could pose ... a threat to the financial system." 

    Effect on consumers

    What does all this mean for the consumers who buy insurance? To hear Wall Street tell it, it means that MetLife will be able to price its products more competitively, since it will not be held to tighter capital rules. It would also be more easily able to return more money to shareholders and sell off parts of the company, according to analysts quoted by Insurance Journal.

    MetLife's Kandarian has indicated a desire to "separate" one or more retail units, most likely the variable annuity product line. Variable annuities are closely tied to stock market fluctuations and are thus more volatile.

    The issue came up at Wednesday's White House briefing, where spokesman Josh Earnest declined to respond to the specific ruling but said that "one core component of Wall Street reform legislation that was passed early in President Obama’s presidency included giving regulators the tools that they need to regulate non-bank financial institutions."

    "This is one of the lessons that we’ve learned from the Great Recession — that it’s not just banks on Wall Street that could potentially shake the foundation of our financial system if they make a bunch of risky bets that go bad without proper oversight.  Worse yet, it could also put taxpayers on the hook for bailing them out," Earnest said.

    MetLife is the largest life insurance company in the United States. About 100 million consumers worldwide rely on it for life insurance, annuities, and oth...
    Read lessRead more

    DraftKings, FanDuel, reportedly ending college games

    Voluntary action follows discussions with NCAA

    Under fire from seemingly all sides, daily fantasy sports (DFS) enterprises DraftKings and FanDuel are reportedly dropping all college games and will go pro.

    Sports network ESPN quotes statements from both companies, saying that extensive discussions with the NCAA led them to take this voluntary action. Statements to ESPN by the two companies say the last college games they will offer will be the men's NCAA Final Four and Championship, played this weekend and Monday.

    ESPN quotes a statement from FanDuel, saying it reached its decision after months of conversations with the NCAA, member schools, and various state legislators.

    "It is clear that this is an issue that matters to a variety of constituencies and we feel that the best path forward is to suspend offering these contests pending resolution on the issue within state legislatures," said FanDuel in a statement to ESPN.

    DraftKings issued a similar statement, agreeing that suspending college games from its lineup is the "best path forward for the industry at this time."

    After both companies' burst of high-profile success in the second half of a large year, a number of states have questioned the legality of the games, which were classified as games of skill under federal gambling statutes.

    But several states, most notably New York, have accused DraftKings and FanDuel of operating games of chance in violation of state laws against gambling. Since then, both companies have stepped up their lobbying efforts, seeking state laws that would make their games an exception.

    Virginia passed such a law earlier this year. Other states are considering similar action.

    Under fire from seemingly all sides, daily fantasy sports (DFS) enterprises DraftKings and FanDuel are reportedly dropping all college games and will go pr...
    Read lessRead more

    First quarter gas prices lowest in 12 years

    But what do the next three months hold?

    When it comes to gasoline prices, consumers generally ask, “what have you done for me lately?” It's fine that fuel prices these last three months have been the lowest in 12 years.

    But what about the next three months?

    According to AAA, consumers have pocketed nearly $10 billion in gasoline savings in the first quarter of 2016, compared to the same period last year. And if you'll recall, gasoline prices were relatively low then.

    The next three months should see a steady rise in prices at the pump, but AAA says it shouldn't be anything that will overly stress motorists. It says prices may go up another 25 cents a gallon by Memorial Day, when traditionally prices start to go down again.

    But the good news for consumers is the huge oil stockpile the U.S. is currently sitting on. The Department of Energy reported this week that U.S. oil supplies are the largest in 80 years. That suggests plenty of gasoline, as long as the nation's refineries work near capacity.

    Refinery runs surging

    Analysis by Platts shows refineries are staying busy, with refinery runs surging above 16 million barrels a day. So the outlook for motorists over the next three months, despite the seasonal rise in fuel prices, is pretty good.

    Oil prices have rallied off their recent lows and hit $40 a barrel. However, there is no shortage of analysts who think prices will have trouble maintaining that level, as long as supply continues to build and the economy grows only modestly, if at all.

    Today, AAA says some 59% of U.S. gas stations are selling gas for less than $2 per gallon. The most common price across the country is $1.999 per gallon. On average, consumers are paying about 36 cents per gallon less than a year ago.

    Gasoline prices began their decline in late 2014, and since then consumers have rediscovered the open road. According to AAA, Americans drove 3.1 trillion miles last year – an all time record. The government estimates gasoline consumption is up 5% over a year ago, with hardly any effect on gasoline prices.

    When it comes to gasoline prices, consumers generally ask, “what have you done for me lately?” It's fine that fuel prices these last three months have been...
    Read lessRead more

    Get trending consumer news and recalls

      By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

      Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

      Citi unveils Costco Go Anywhere credit card

      New card offers more rewards, including 4% cash back on gas

      In early March, Costco announced it had entered into a new credit card agreement with Citi to replace its current co-branded American Express card. Now, Citi has announced that the launch date for its new Costco card will be June 20.

      Once issued, the Citi Visa Costco Go Anywhere credit card will serve as the Costco membership card, while providing rewards to users in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

      Citi says the new Costco Visa cards will be mailed in May. Costco members should follow the directions for activating the card but should keep using their current American Express card until the switch-over on June 20.

      Rewards

      Citi says its new Costco card will allow users to earn 4% cash back on eligible gasoline purchases, including at Costco pumps. The 4% reverts to 1% after $7,000 in gas purchases in a given year.

      The card will pay 3% cash back at restaurants and eligible travel purchases. It pays 2% cash back on Costco purchases and 1% everywhere else.

      Citi says Costco members who currently use the American Express card do not have to apply for the new Visa card. It will automatically be sent to members, who should destroy the Costco American Express card on June 20.

      Current points

      But what about any rewards that members may have piled up from American Express? Citi says customers won't lose them.

      “Rewards that were not previously distributed to you will be transferred automatically to your new card on June 20, 2016, so you won’t lose any of the rewards you’ve already earned,” Citi said on its website. “Your February 2017 cash back rewards coupon from Citi will include cash back rewards earned on your Costco card from American Express during 2016 that were not previously distributed to you by American Express.”

      However, if your Costco card from American Express earned Membership Rewards points, they will not transfer to your new card.  

      In early March, Costco announced it had entered into a new credit card agreement with Citi to replace its current co-branded American Express card. Now, Ci...
      Read lessRead more

      Time running short for many to take required retirement plan distributions

      First-timers must act quickly

      If you turned 70½ during 2015 you'd best get a move on.

      Seniors who have reached that age must -- in most cases -- start receiving required minimum distributions (RMDs) from Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) and workplace retirement plans by tomorrow, Friday, April 1, 2016.

      Under Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations, owners of traditional (including SEP and SIMPLE) IRAs but not Roth IRAs, are affected by the deadline. It normally applies to those with various workplace retirement plans, including 401(k), 403(b) and 457(b) plans.

      What to do

      Keep in mind, the April 1 deadline applies only to the required distribution for the first year. For all subsequent years, the RMD must be made by Dec. 31. So, if you turned 70½ last year (born after June 30, 1944 and before July 1, 1945) and receive the first required distribution (for 2015) on April 1, 2016, for example, you must still receive the second RMD by Dec. 31, 2016.

      Affected taxpayers who turned 70½ during 2015 must figure the RMD for the first year using the life expectancy as of their birthday in 2015 and their account balance on Dec. 31, 2014.

      The trustee reports the year-end account value to the IRA owner on Form 5498 in Box 5. Worksheets and life expectancy tables for making this computation can be found in the appendices to Publication 590-B.

      Though the April 1 deadline is mandatory for all owners of traditional IRAs and most participants in workplace retirement plans, some people with workplace plans can wait longer to receive their RMD. Usually, employees who are still working can, if their plan allows, wait until April 1 of the year after they retire to start receiving these distributions.

      Employees of public schools and certain tax-exempt organizations with 403(b) plan accruals before 1987 should check with their employer, plan administrator or provider to see how to treat these accruals.

      More information on RMDs, including answers to frequently asked questions, can be found on IRS.gov.

      If you turned 70½ during 2015 you'd best get a move on.Seniors who have reached that age must -- in most cases -- start receiving required minimum dist...
      Read lessRead more

      Improvements earn Toyota Prius top safety award

      An improved front crash prevention system made the difference

      Acing the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) small overlap front test has helped the 2016 Toyota Prius earn the organization's TOP SAFETY PICK+ award. Additionally, the small hybrid's optional front crash prevention system has improved to earn a superior rating.

      To qualify for the top IIHS award, vehicles have to get good ratings in the small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests, and must have an available front crash prevention system that earns an advanced or superior rating.

      The previous generation of the Prius had good ratings in four of the five crashworthiness tests, but rated only acceptable for small overlap protection because its structure didn't hold up well in the test.

      Significant improvements

      In contrast, the 2016 Prius had maximum intrusion of just two inches at the upper door-hinge pillar and at the brake and parking brake pedals. The dummy's movement was well-controlled, and measures taken from the dummy showed a low risk of injury in a crash of the same severity.

      The optional front crash prevention system has improved over what was available on the previous model. The new Prius avoided collisions in both the 12 mph and 25 mph IIHS track tests. It also has a forward collision warning component that meets National Highway Traffic Safety Administration criteria.

      Acing the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) small overlap front test has helped the 2016 Toyota Prius earn the organization's TOP SAFETY PICK...
      Read lessRead more

      Pace of job-cutting falls in March

      Much of the increase in cuts was in energy and retail

      The number of people who found they no longer had their jobs fell in March from the mark set the month before.

      Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports that U.S.-based employers announced plans to trim payrolls by 48,207 in March -- the second month in a row that job cuts have declined. The March pace was 21.7% lower than the 61,599 terminations in February and the lowest monthly total since December.

      “Job cuts have slowed since surging in the first two months of the year, but the pace is still well above that of 2015,” said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

      First-quarter surge in cuts

      Even with the decline, the March figure was up 31.7% from the same month a year ago, making it the fourth consecutive year-over-year increase.

      Through the first three months of this year, employers have announced 184,920 job cuts, up 31.8% from the 140,241 cuts tracked the first quarter months of 2015, and 75.9% more than in the final quarter of 2015.

      Twenty-seven percent of the first-quarter job cuts can be directly tied to falling oil prices, slightly higher than a year ago. While there were fewer oil-related job cuts a year ago, they represented a larger portion of total job cuts, accounting for 34% of first-quarter termination announcements.

      It's not just the energy sector that is seeing heavier job cuts, though. The retail sector has also tallied significant gains in job cuts. To date, it has recorded the second highest number of job cuts, with 31,832 -- up 41% from the first three months of 2015.

      Meanwhile, the 17,002 job cuts in the computer sector are 148% higher than a year ago.

      “What these sectors share in common is that they are all going through transformational changes,” said Challenger. “We, as a nation, and really as a global community, are changing the way we produce and consume energy. We are also changing the way we buy goods and services. Technology is in a constant state of change, and, currently, we are shifting away from computing at our desks to computing on our phones and tablets."

      But, while jobs are being lost in some areas, Challenger points out that they are being created in others, including renewable energy, online retailing, and mobile computing.

      Initial jobless claims

      From the Department of Labor (DOL), word that first-time applications for state unemployment benefits rose for a fourth consecutive week.

      On a seasonally adjusted basis, initial claims rose 11,000 in the week ending March 26 to 276,000, but have remained below 300,000 for 56 straight weeks -- the longest streak since 1973.

      The four-week moving average inched up 3,500 to 263,250. Because it lacks the volatility of the weekly headcount, the moving average is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market.

      The complete report is available on the (DOL) website.

      The number of people who found they no longer had their jobs fell in March from the mark set the month before.Outpl...
      Read lessRead more

      Mortgage applications drop led by refinancings

      Contract interest rates were mixed

      Mortgage applications fell last week for the third week running.

      The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports its Market Composite Index -- a measure of mortgage loan application volume -- was down 1.0% on a seasonally adjusted basis in the week ending March 25.

      The Refinance Index was down 3% from the previous week, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity to 52.4% of total applications from 53.9% the previous week.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 4.9% of total applications, the FHA share slipped to 11.5% from 11.8%, the VA share inched up to 12.9% from 12.6%. and the USDA share held steady at 0.9%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) edged up one basis point -- to 3.94% from 3.93%, with points increasing to 0.36 from 0.35 (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) dropped from 3.85% to 3.82%, with points increasing to 0.28 from 0.27 (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 rose two basis points to 3.76%, with points decreasing to 0.30 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs went to 3.19% from 3.18%, with points decreasing to 0.30 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate remained unchanged from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs fell six basis points to 3.07%, with points increasing to 0.38 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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

      Mortgage applications fell last week for the third week running. The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports its Market Composite Index -- a measure ...
      Read lessRead more

      Toshiba recalls laptop computer battery packs

      The lithium-ion battery packs can overheat

      Toshiba America Information Systems of Irvine, Calif., is recalling about 101,000 Panasonic battery packs used in Toshiba laptop computers in the U.S. and Canada.

      The lithium-ion battery packs can overheat, posing burn and fire hazards to consumers.

      The firm has received four reports of the battery packs overheating and melting. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves Panasonic lithium-ion battery packs installed in 39 models of Toshiba Portege, Satellite, and Tecra laptops. The battery packs were also sold separately and also installed by Toshiba as part of a repair.

      Battery packs included in this recall have part numbers that begin with G71C (G71C*******). Part numbers are printed on the battery pack. A complete list of battery pack part numbers included in this recall can be found on the firm’s website at http://go.toshiba.com/battery.

      The battery packs, manufactured in China and Japan, were sold at Office Depot, Staples and other electronics stores nationwide, and online at Toshibadirect.com and other websites from June 2011, through January 2016, for between $500 and $1,000 for the laptop and between $70 and $130 for the battery pack.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately go to the firm’s website and click on the battery pack utility link in the first shadowed box on the page. Consumers can also perform a manual check using the laptop and battery pack’s model, part and serial numbers. If it is part of the recall, consumers should power off the laptop, remove the battery and follow the instructions to obtain a free replacement battery pack. Until a replacement battery pack is received, consumers should use the laptop by plugging into AC power only.

      Consumers may contact Toshiba toll-free at 866-224-1346 any day between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. (PT), or online at http://go.toshiba.com/battery or at www.us.toshiba.com and click on “Consumer Notices” under the Support heading at the bottom of the page.

      Toshiba America Information Systems of Irvine, Calif., is recalling about 101,000 Panasonic battery packs used in Toshiba laptop computers in the U.S. and...
      Read lessRead more

      Cancer fundraising sham derailed; bilked donors out of $187 million

      The charities are being dissolved and their founder is banned from working for non-profits

      Two nationwide sham cancer charities are being closed and their leader is banned from working for non-profits under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and 49 states.

      Cancer Fund of America Inc. (CFA) and Cancer Support Services Inc. (CSS) and their leader, James Reynolds, Sr., claimed to help cancer patients, but, instead, the overwhelming majority of $187 million in donations benefitted the sham charity operators, their families and friends, and fundraisers, prosecutors said.

      “The FTC and our state enforcement partners have ended a pernicious charity fraud that syphoned hundreds of millions of dollars away from well-meaning consumers, legitimate charities, and people with cancer who needed the services the defendants falsely promised,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Today’s settlement, along with those announced earlier, shut down the sham charities once and for all and banned the individual perpetrators for life.”

      News reports

      The Cancer Fund's irregularities were highlighted in 2013, when it came in at No. 2 on the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times list of America's Worst Charities, following a joint investigation with The Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN to find the most wasteful charities in the country.

      Here's what the newspaper said about it back in 2013: 

      "While Cancer Fund provides care packages that contain shampoo and toothbrushes, the people in charge have personally made millions of dollars and used donations as venture capital to build a charity empire. Less than 2 cents of every dollar raised has gone to direct cash aid for patients or families, records show."

      Under the settlement order announced today, CFA and CSS will be permanently closed and their assets liquidated.  Reynolds is banned from profiting from charity fundraising and nonprofit work, and from serving as a charity’s director or trustee.

      The order imposes a judgment of $75 million, which will be suspended after Reynolds surrenders personal property including artworks, a pontoon boat and two pistols. 

      A CFA officeTwo nationwide sham cancer charities are being closed and their leader is banned from working for non-profits under a settlement with the...
      Read lessRead more

      Wells Fargo to pay $8.5 million for not disclosing that consumer calls were recorded

      The state considers the suit a victory for consumer privacy

      If you’ve ever called a customer service line, then you may be all too familiar with the initial spiel or automated message that you hear before talking to a human: “This call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes.”

      While companies certainly do use these recordings for training purposes, the statement is also important because it provides a warning for consumers. Wells Fargo may be learning that lesson the hard way. The company has been fined $8.5 million for violating California’s state law which requires that all companies disclose that a call is being recorded.

      The suit was filed back in February when the state accused Wells Fargo of violating sections 632 and 632.7 of its penal code. The lion’s share of the $8.5 million will be split up amongst five California counties, with $7.6 million going to Los Angeles, Riverside, Venture, Alameda, and San Diego. Wells Fargo will also pay $250,000 to two organizations – the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the Consumer Protection Prosecution Trust Fund.

      Victory for consumer privacy

      The state considers the suit a victory for consumer privacy, saying that it is more important than ever that consumers feel safe in an increasingly technological world.

      “This settlement holds Wells Fargo accountable for violating the privacy of its customers by recording calls without providing adequate notification, and ensures that the bank makes the changes necessary to protect the privacy of its customers,” said California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

      In addition to the payment, Wells Fargo has stated that it will create an internal compliance program so that calls are no longer recorded without consent. 

      If you’ve ever called a customer service line, then you may be all too familiar with the initial spiel or automated message that you hear before talking to...
      Read lessRead more

      Credit cards can help insure your rental car

      We highlight three that provide primary coverage at no extra charge

      When you travel, your credit card may offer a number of rewards, ranging from miles to cash back. A very useful reward is insurance coverage at the car rental counter.

      Most consumers have been confronted with the question – do you want the rental car company's coverage? It's pricey, often costing $25 or more a day.

      Actually, it isn't even insurance. It's technically a “collision damage waiver (CDW),” meaning the rental car company will assume liability, up to a certain amount of money. Usually it's enough money to cover most accidents.

      Credit card protection

      Most credit cards will offer some level of protection, usually secondary protection – meaning it would pay if the costs exceed the primary coverage – either the CDW or the consumer's personal auto insurance.

      If you want primary insurance coverage at no extra charge, then it may be to your advantage to pay for the car rental with a card that provides it, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

      “Decline the rental company's collision insurance and charge the entire rental cost to your card,” Chase says on its website. “Coverage is primary and provides reimbursement up to the actual cash value of the vehicle for theft and collision damage for most rental cars in the U.S. and abroad.”

      As a bonus, you can earn two Ultimate Rewards points for every dollar spent on travel.

      Two other options

      The Discover Escape Card also provides primary rental car coverage. Discover says all you have to do is use the card to pay for the rental car and you're covered for damage to the car.

      A third option is the Fairmont Visa Signature Card. It provides an Auto Rental CDW benefit that will reimburse for damage due to collision or theft up to the actual cash value of most rental vehicles.

      It is also primary coverage, which means you do not have to file a claim with your personal insurance carrier.

      There is one big caveat, however, to all of these options. As you may have noticed, they all address damage, not personal injuries. Should you be in a rental car accident resulting in injuries, you will need to rely on your personal auto insurance policy.

      Before renting a car, it's a good idea to review your policy to see if there are any exclusions that apply to rental cars.

      When you travel, your credit card may offer a number of rewards, ranging from miles to cash back. A very useful reward is insurance coverage at the car ren...
      Read lessRead more

      Economy adds another 200k private sector jobs in March

      As usual, it was smaller companies that contributed the most

      March was another good month for job creation, according to the ADP National Employment Report.

      Produced by ADP in collaboration with Moody's Analytics, the report says private sector employment increased by 200,000 jobs from February to March, with small to medium-sized companies carrying most of the weight.

      "The job market continues on its amazing streak,” said Moody's Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi. “The March job gain of 200,000 is consistent with average monthly job growth of the past more than four years. The only industry reducing payrolls is energy as has been the case for over a year. All indications are that the job machine will remain in high gear."

      Job creators

      Businesses with 49 or fewer employees saw their payrolls increase by 86,000 in last month, while employment at companies with 50-499 employees increased by 75,000 jobs.

      Large companies -- those with 500 or more employees -- created just 39,000 jobs, about half the number they cranked out in February which is about half of February's 77,000. Companies with 500-999 employees added 20,000 jobs, and firms with over 1,000 employees fell from 63,000 jobs added in February to 18,000 this month.

      Nearly all the new jobs -- 191,000 -- were in the service-providing sector. Professional/business services contributed 28,000, trade/transportation/utilities grew by 42,000, and financial activities added 14,000 jobs.

      Employment in goods-producing industries rose by just 9,000 jobs in March, with the construction industry adding 17,000 jobs and manufacturing hiring 3,000 new workers.

      March was another good month for job creation, according to the ADP National Employment Report.Produced by ADP in collaboration with Moody's Analytics,...
      Read lessRead more

      IIHS: Time to turn on the headlights

      New ratings show most need improvement

      The headlights are probably the last thing you think about when deciding which new car to buy.

      However, a new report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) suggests you may want to move that up on your list of priorities

      According to the first-ever headlight ratings conducted by the IIHS, the Toyota Prius v is the only midsize car out of 31 evaluated to earn a good rating. The best available headlights on 11 cars earn an acceptable rating, while nine only reach a marginal rating. Ten of the vehicles can't be purchased with anything other than poor-rated headlights.

      "If you're having trouble seeing behind the wheel at night, it could very well be your headlights and not your eyes that are to blame," said David Zuby, IIHS executive vice president and chief research officer.

      More doesn't always mean better

      The car's price tag is no guarantee of decent headlights. Many of the poor-rated headlights belong to luxury vehicles.

      Among the 44 headlight systems earning a poor rating, the halogen lights on the BMW 3 series are the worst. A driver with those headlights would have to be going 35 mph or slower to stop in time for an obstacle in the travel lane. A better choice for the same car is an LED curve-adaptive system with high-beam assist, a combination that rates marginal.

      Curve-adaptive systems don't always lead to better ratings. The Cadillac ATS, Kia Optima, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class all earn poor ratings even when equipped with adaptive low and high beams.

      In the case of the Optima, a big problem is glare. Its curve-adaptive system provides better visibility than its non-adaptive lights, but produces excessive glare for oncoming vehicles on all five low beam approaches.

      How headlights are evaluated

      Headlights are evaluated on the track after dark at the IIHS Vehicle Research Center. A special device measures the light from both low beams and high beams as the vehicle is driven on five different approaches: traveling straight, a sharp left curve, a sharp right curve, a gradual left curve, and a gradual right curve.

      Glare for oncoming vehicles is also measured from low beams in each scenario to make sure it isn't excessive.

      How they did

      2016 midsize cars 
      Best available headlight system for each model

      (Graph via IIHS)

      The headlights are probably the last thing you think about when deciding which new car to buy.However, a new report from the Insurance Institute for Hi...
      Read lessRead more

      2016 -- a banner year for teen summer employment?

      Teen employment is at an all-time high

      If you're a teen who wants a job this summer, 2016 may be your year.

      According to the Challenger, Gray & Christmas (CG&E) annual teen summer job outlook, teenagers seeking summer employment should continue to have more and more opportunities.

      “The economy is the strongest it’s been since the recovery began in 2010,” said CG&E chief executive officer John A. Challenger. “The only area that is suffering right now is the energy sector, which was not a fertile sector for teen job seekers, to begin with.”

      While the job market may be more welcoming to teenagers, recent trends suggest that may not necessarily translate into increased summer job gains. Last year, 1,160,000 16- to-19-year-olds found employment from May through July, down 11% from the 1,297,000 finding summer jobs in 2014.

      That was the third consecutive year in which teen summer job gains declined from the previous year. However, even as summer job gains decline, overall teen employment is still on the rise. And, despite the decline in summer job gains last year, teen employment reached a July peak of 5,696,000, the highest total since 2008.

      Teen job-seekers

      The numbers suggest that more teenagers are finding employment at other times of the year. “After all, we are approaching full employment,” said Challenger. “Many metropolitan areas are already struggling with labor shortages. This environment opens doors for teen job seekers, as those who may have relegated to retail and restaurant jobs are moving up, which leaves a void that can be filled by teens.”

      The percentage of teenagers participating in the labor force has been declining since the 1970s. Currently, only about one-third of teens participate in the labor force (meaning they are working or actively seeking employment).

      However, Challenger says this does not mean that teenagers have gotten lazier over the last two decades. “They are simply engaged in more activities that fall under the radar of standard employment measures,” he said. “Many are volunteering. More are participating in summer education programs or in summer sports leagues. Others are in unpaid internships. Many simply may be doing odd jobs, such as baby sitting or lawn mowing.”

      Much of this, he believes, is in pursuit of college admissions goals and broader career goals beyond college. “As colleges become more competitive, teens are trying to find activities that stand out on applications,” Challenger concluded, adding, “In this environment, typical summer jobs have fallen out of favor,” he added.

      If you're a teen who wants a job this summer, 2016 may be your year.According to the Challenger, Gray & Christmas (CG&E) annual teen summer job outlook...
      Read lessRead more

      Cooper recalls Roadmaster RM234 tires

      The tires may have a pin-sized hole in the sidewall

      Cooper Tire & Rubber is recalling 577 Roadmaster RM234 tires, size 295/75R22.5, manufactured August 6, 2015, to September 5, 2015 (weeks 3115-3515).

      The recalled tires may have a pin-sized hole in the sidewall that can result in a loss of air which can cause sudden tire failure, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Cooper will notify owners, and dealers will replace the tires including the mounting and balancing, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Cooper customer service at 1-800-854-6288. Cooper's number for this recall is 4Y.

      Cooper Tire & Rubber is recalling 577 Roadmaster RM234 tires, size 295/75R22.5, manufactured August 6, 2015, to September 5, 2015 (weeks 3115-3515). ...
      Read lessRead more

      Justice Department withdraws court order that would force Apple to bypass its own security

      The action comes after a successful attempt to access information on the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters

      After an extended period of protest from privacy advocates and Apple, it looks like the FBI won’t be needing the tech company’s assistance in unlocking the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. According to a Reuters report, the agency reported on Monday that it had successfully gained access to the phone.

      The successful hacking attempt brings to an end a legal battle that had been escalating in the privacy community. Until Monday, Apple had strongly denounced a court order that would have forced engineers to create a backdoor so that the feds could access the phone.

      “From the beginning, we objected to the FBI’s demand that Apple build a back door into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent. . . As a result of the government’s dismissal, neither of these occurred. This case should never have been brought,” said Apple in a statement.

      Privacy concerns

      Unfortunately, the dismissal of this case does not necessarily put consumer fears about privacy to rest. A clear line has been drawn in the sand between law enforcement and tech industry experts; the former believes that not having access to encrypted data will hamper criminal investigations, while the latter believe that undermining security features puts everyone at risk.

      Members of the tech industry also believe that giving in to such demands would give the judicial system too much power. In essence, the courts would be able to turn private companies into their agents in order to obtain information.

      This isn’t to say that tech companies are completely unwilling to help police investigate crimes – they just aren’t comfortable with lowering their own security features in order to give agencies like the FBI the level of access that it wants.

      “We will continue to help law enforcement with their investigations, as we have done all along, and we will continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated,” said Apple.

      After an extended period of protest from privacy advocates and Apple, it looks like the FBI won’t be needing the tech company’s assistance in unlocking the...
      Read lessRead more

      Federal Reserve backing away from interest rate hikes

      Fed Chair Janet Yellen says the economy has softened since December

      What a difference three months makes.

      In December, the Federal Reserve announced a modest quarter-point increase in the Federal Funds interest rate and strongly suggested as many as four additional rate hikes could come in 2016.

      The Fed had held rates at near 0% since late 2008, and with employment rising the Fed policymakers said it was time to get rates back to normal.

      But in a speech Tuesday to the Economic Club of New York, Fed Chair Janet Yellen backed away from that aggressive move, saying the U.S. economy, while resilient, remains weak and there is no immediate threat of inflation.

      Mixed reading on the economy

      “Readings on the U.S. economy since the turn of the year have been somewhat mixed,” Yellen said in her speech. “On the one hand, many indicators have been quite favorable. The labor market has added an average of almost 230,000 jobs a month over the past three months.”

      But on the other hand, she noted, manufacturing and net exports have continued to be hard hit by slow global growth and the significant appreciation of the dollar since 2014. These same global developments have also weighed on business investment by limiting firms' expected sales, she said.

      Translation: the economy is barely growing, and raising interest rates – normally something the Fed does only when inflation begins to emerge as a threat – doesn't make sense. It especially doesn't make sense when the rest of the world is lowering rates.

      The rates that matter

      As several pundits have pointed out in the wake of the speech, the Federal Funds rate is the only interest rate the Fed really controls. The bond market sets the rates that really matter, and since December's Fed hike, bond rates have all been going lower – suggesting the market's belief that the economy is slowing, not heating up.

      Bond rates tend to affect consumers most – from long-term rates on mortgages to shorter term rates on auto loans.

      For investors, the Fed action is much more significant. The stock market loves low interest rates, which make it cheaper for companies to buy back their stock, pushing stock prices higher.

      With rates staying where they are, current stock valuations may hold up a while longer. The Fed not raising rates can also be expected to boost the price of gold, which has rallied off its lows in recent weeks.

      And if the dollar continues to soften because rate hikes have been taken off the table, it will probably lift the price of oil, and in turn make it more expensive for consumers to fill-up at the pump.

      What a difference three months makes.In December, the Federal Reserve announced a modest quarter-point increase in the Federal Funds interest rate and ...
      Read lessRead more

      Car insurance companies worried about self-driving cars

      Fewer accidents could be a threat to the insurance business

      Car insurance companies are worried about self-driving cars -- and it's not because they're afraid the self-drivers will cause more accidents. Quite the opposite. They're worried about the long-term effect on the insurance industry if autonomous cars turn out to be as safe as everyone expects.

      Sure, insurers will be rolling in extra cash for a few years if self-driving cars cause a sharp reduction in accidents. But over the longer term, what would that mean for the insurance industry?

      The answer is pretty obvious: if the accident rate declines and stays low, insurers will be under severe pressure to lower their premiums. 

      Raises questions

      “Widespread adoption of self-driving cars is still decades off, but it raises questions of what an auto insurer’s role will be in a world with far fewer accidents,” Moody's analyst Jasper Cooper said in a statement quoted by Automotive News. “Regulators, lawmakers and courts will have to determine how liabilities are shared among insurers, automobile manufactures and technology companies.”

      Even before the transition to autonomous cars is complete, safety features like automatic braking and lane departure prevention are likely to reduce accidents markedly. Any savings could be counter-balanced, though, by the higher cost of repairing today's more complicated vehicles.

      Cooper doesn't expect auto insurance to go away completely. There will still be accidents caused by mechanical failures, storms, and the occasional driver who insists on using manual controls. 

      Also, if ride-sharing increases as expected, the market for commercial insurance could grow, he said.

      Car insurance companies are worried about self-driving cars -- and it's not because they're afraid the self-drivers will cause more accidents. Quite the op...
      Read lessRead more

      Federal Trade Commission sues VW over its 'clean diesel' claims

      The agency wants the court to order Volkswagen to compensate consumers who bought its cars

      You can add the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to the long list of those suing Volkswagen. The agency wants the automaker to be ordered to compensate the 550,000 consumers who bought or leased a TDI "clean diesel" car from VW.

      “For years Volkswagen’s ads touted the company’s ‘Clean Diesel’ cars even though it now appears Volkswagen rigged the cars with devices designed to defeat emissions tests,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “Our lawsuit seeks compensation for the consumers who bought affected cars based on Volkswagen’s deceptive and unfair practices.”

      U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) had asked the agency in September to investigate VW after news of the defeat devices broke. 

      “This was one of the most egregious examples of a company deceiving the public,” said Nelson in a statement today.  “Hopefully, the court will provide adequate redress to consumers and send a strong message that this type of corporate behavior won’t be tolerated. ”

      VW is struggling to come up with a plan to retrofit the emission control devices on its cars so that they comply with federal and California emission standards. A federal judge in California last week gave VW 30 more days to submit a plan to the court. If it fails to do so, the court could order Volkswagen to buy back the cars or otherwise compensate owners.

      The FTC's suit charges that Volkswagen deliberately deceived consumers from 2008 through 2015 with advertisements and promotional materials targeting environmentally-conscious consumers, promising that its TDI-equipped cars produced lower emissions than other diesels while achieving high gas mileage and spirited performance.

      In fact, the suit says the cars produced up to 4,000 percent more than the legal limit of nitrogen oxides (NOx), a harmful chemical that damages the environment and causes respiratory problems in humans and other animals.

      "Our most important priority is to find a solution to the diesel emissions matter and earn back the trust of our customers and dealers as we build a better company," VW said in a statement.

      You can add the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to the long list of those suing Volkswagen. The agency wants the automaker to be ordered to compensate the 5...
      Read lessRead more

      March looks like another record month for car sales

      Kelley Blue Book reports Fiat Chrysler and Honda set the pace

      The final accounting has yet to be done, but from the figures available now, it appears March will be another record month for new car sales.

      Kelley Blue Book (KBB) reports that preliminary data suggests sales surged 8% this month, at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 17.2 million vehicles. KBB says sales were helped by still-low interest rates and two extra selling days.

      “The industry continues to maintain its momentum in March as we expect the highest volume of any month in more than 10 years,” Tim Fleming, analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said in a statement.

      That said, the multi-month trend of ever-increasing car sales might be running out of steam. Fleming says there are indicators suggesting that demand for new cars is weakening. Carmakers had to offer more incentives, and boost fleet sales, to keep the sales totals moving higher.

      Up 24% from February

      The projected 8% rise over March 2015 might be eclipsed by comparisons to last month. KBB said it projects March new vehicle sales rose 24% from February.

      It could turn out to be the highest March sales total since 2000, and the strongest month since July 2005, when the U.S. was roaring along, propelled by the housing bubble.

      KBB projects Fiat Chrysler will win the month, posting double-digit growth in March. Its biggest improvement likely came on exceptionally strong sales of Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivans. The Jeep brand also provided a boost, posting strong year-over-year strength, thanks in part to the Renegade.

      Honda also had a good March. KBB says strong sales of the new Civic likely will give the carmaker a double-digit growth rate for the month. The Honda Pilot was one of the fastest-selling models in March, averaging just 18 days on dealer lots.

      Losing ground

      KBB projects that three automakers – Volkswagen, General Motors, and Toyota – lost ground in March. Its estimate projects VW sales dipped the most, declining 0.6% as it continues to deal with the fallout from the diesel emissions cheating scandal.

      Low gasoline prices may be driving new car sales. Lower prices at the pump certainly seem to be influencing consumers' purchase decisions, as KBB notes continued strong sales in March for trucks and SUVs.

      The final accounting has yet to be done, but from the figures available now, it appears March will be another record month for new car sales.Kelley Blu...
      Read lessRead more

      Recession fear just won't go away

      But maybe the economy is just changing into something we haven't seen before

      Monday's revised first quarter Gross Domestic Income (GDI) estimate shocked a lot of economists. It probably shouldn't have.

      Wall Street traders have been sharply divided since the start of the year, with some saying the U.S. economy is doing just fine and others warning that the economy is headed for recession – and the market for steep losses.

      The GDI estimate revision, to just 0.9%, promises to escalate the debate in the next couple of weeks. Analysts downgraded expectations in the face of evidence that consumers aren't spending that much.

      The U.S. may be doing better than the rest of the world, but the fact is, economies everywhere appear to be slowing down. That might not seem like a terrible thing – we haven't had a recession since that really bad one, from 2007 to 2009 – except that a lack of growth right now threatens a lot of things.

      Fed policy

      For one thing, the Federal Reserve is trying to pursue a policy of gradually raising interest rates. It hiked rates in December for the first time in six years, telegraphing that more hikes are coming. The last thing it wants to do is raise rates heading into a recession.

      Fed Chair Janet Yellen may provide some clues about the central bank's plans when she speaks to the Economic Club of New York later today.

      The U.S. stock market's valuation is based on growth. People buy stock in companies with the assumption that profits will increase and the value of the company will also go higher. If that assumption is wrong, investors won't continue to buy stocks unless their price goes down.

      This is a problem for millions of Baby Boomers and other retirees who have the bulk of their retirement savings in stocks. If the value of those stocks goes down, these retirees will lose a lot of money – at least on paper.

      It is worth noting that retirees who did not panic and sell when the stock market suffered steep declines in the wake of the financial crisis did just fine. The market quickly regained all the ground it lost.

      But if the economy isn't growing, or threatens to slide into reverse, that threatens to reduce the value of retirees' assets, so they'll spend less. Baby Boomers, who drove the consumer economy for 40 years, are buying fewer “things” anyway, since many are trying to downsize.

      Millennials, who are coming along behind them, have a value system that largely frowns on conspicuous consumption. They're even content to share things, like cars and houses, and save their money. At some point that has to have an effect on the economy.

      Technological changes

      So what may be at work here is a generational and cultural shift that is having profound – but thus far unrecognized – impact on the economy.

      Technology is also having a disruptive effect on the economy. Stores in small towns now have to compete with Amazon.com. Etsy has allowed artisans to market their product to a global audience.

      The technology effect is about to get even more pronounced. Author John Hornick says 3D printers will make a company's former customers their competitors.

      “Presently, the products that can be self-manufactured are limited, but it won't always be that way,” Hornick said in an email to ConsumerAffairs. “Given enough time, anyone will be able to make almost anything, away from control.”

      He says that means retail outlets that once sold mass-produced products will vanish, just like camera stores vanished when photography went digital.

      The disruption to the old economy will increase, as people figure out easier and cheaper ways to do things and companies just won't be able to keep up. In fact, it may just be getting started.

      Monday's revised first quarter Gross Domestic Income (GDI) estimate shocked a lot of economists. It probably shouldn't have.Wall Street traders have be...
      Read lessRead more

      Consumers show a bit more confidence in March

      The short-term outlook has become more favorable

      It appears spring has brought with it a little consumer optimism about the course of the economy.

      The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index has rebounded a bit from its February decline. After slipping to 94.0 last month, the Index now stands at 96.2.

      The Present Situation Index dipped from 115.0 to 113.5, while the Expectations Index rose to 84.7 in March from 79.9.

      “Consumers’ assessment of current conditions posted a moderate decline, while expectations regarding the short-term turned more favorable as last month’s turmoil in the financial markets appears to have abated,” said Conference Board Director of Economic Indicators. “On balance,” she added, “consumers do not foresee the economy gaining any significant momentum in the near-term, nor do they see it worsening.”

      Current conditions

      Consumers’ appraisal of current conditions eased in March, with those saying business conditions were “good” slipped from 26.5% to 24.9%. On the other hand,, those who said conditions are “bad” edged down from 19.0% to 18.8%.

      Consumers’ appraisal of the labor market was mixed. Those who think jobs are “plentiful” rose from 22.8% to 25.4%, while consumers who believe jobs are “hard to get” also rose -- to 26.6% from 23.6%.

      The outlook

      Consumers were more optimistic about the short-term outlook than they were in February. The percentage expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months was up moderately to 15.0% from 14.5%, while those expecting business conditions to worsen was down sharply from 11.6% to 9.2%.

      The outlook for the labor market was more favorable as well. Those who expect to see more jobs in the months ahead increased slightly from 12.2% to 12.9%, while those who think there will be fewer jobs fell from 17.7% to 16.3%.

      The proportion of consumers expecting higher incomes dipped from 17.7% to 17.2%, while the proportion who believe their paychecks will shrink edged up from 11.6% to 11.8%.

      The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was March 17.

      It appears spring has brought with it a little consumer optimism about the course of the economy.The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence I...
      Read lessRead more

      Home prices continue their rise in January

      Low inventories could slow things down

      Home prices across the country rose over the last 12 months.

      On a year-over-year basis, the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index (HPI), covering all nine U.S. census divisions, was up 5.4% in January.

      The 10-City Composite rose 5.1% for the year., while the 20-City Composite’s year-over-year gain was 5.7%. After seasonal adjustment, the National, 10-City Composite, and 20-City Composite rose 0.5%, 0.8%, and 0.7%, respectively, from the prior month.

      West leads the year-over-year advance

      Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities, with another month of double digit annual price increases. Portland was on top with an 11.8% year-over-year price increase, followed by Seattle with 10.7%, and San Francisco with a 10.5% increase.

      Eleven cities enjoyed greater price increases in the year ending January 2016 versus the year ending December 2015. Phoenix posted an annual gain of 6.1% in January 2016 versus 6.3% in December 2015, ending its streak of 12 consecutive months of increasing annual gains. The western part of the country saw the largest price gains in the past year; the northeast is the weakest region.

      Month-over-month

      Before seasonal adjustment, the National Index, the 10-City Composite, and the 20-City Composite all were unchanged in January. After seasonal adjustment, all three composites reported strong advances.

      Eleven of 20 cities reported increases in January before seasonal adjustment; after seasonal adjustment, all 20 cities increased for the month.

      Inventory worries

      “Home prices continue to climb at more than twice the rate of inflation,” said David M. Blitzer, managing director and chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “The low inventory of homes for sale -- currently about a five month supply -- means that would-be sellers seeking to trade-up are having a hard time finding a new, larger home.

      The recovery of the sale and construction of new homes has lagged the gains seen in existing home sales, but this may be starting to change. Starts of single family homes in February were the highest since November 2007, and the single-family-home share of total housing starts was 70% in February, up from a low of 57% in June 2015.

      “While low inventories and short supply are boosting prices,” Blitzer said, “financing continues to be a concern for some potential purchasers, particularly young adults and first time home buyers. The issue is availability of credit for people with substantial student or credit card debt.”

      Blitzer said one hopeful sign is that the home ownership rate -- at 63.7% in the 2015 fourth quarter -- may be turning around. It is up slightly from 63.5% in the 2015 second quarter but far below the 2004 high of 69.1%.”

      Home prices across the country rose over the last 12 months.On a year-over-year basis, the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index (HPI), cover...
      Read lessRead more

      Online fund-raising offers quick response to personal tragedies

      But friends and caregivers shouldn't ignore established charities and public agencies

      Sadly, tragedies happen everyday. When they hit close to home -- to family, friends, or colleagues -- thoughts often turn to fundraising. Not too long ago, such efforts might be limited to a bake sale, spaghetti dinner, or other neighborhood effort.

      Today, technology and social media extend the reach of volunteer fundraising far beyond what was possible just a few years ago. For example, when veteran Associated Press and UPI journalist Sofia Mannos was paralyzed in an accident at her Washington, D.C., home, friends turned to GoFundMe, hoping to raise $35,000 for a motorized wheelchair.

      At last word, 92 donors had kicked in $7,470 in the first month. Contributions have been coming in from journalists and friends around the world who worked with Mannos at one point or another in her extensive career -- a response that would not have been possible without the Internet.

      One potential difficulty in raising money through such means is that contributions are not tax deductible, as they are when giving to an established charity, which might dissuade some donors. Also, while immediate friends and acquaintances may keep track of how the efforts turn out, some potential donors may worry about whether their money will be used well.

      Existing charities

      Experts advise that, besides raising money from friends and family, victims of catastrophic accident or illness should should look to existing charities that offer grants and other types of assistance.

      In Mannos' case, this might include the United Spinal Association, which publishes an extensive directory for those seeking financial assistance but which did not respond to a request for comment on this article.

      The Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation is one of those listed in the spinal group's directory. Besides funding research, It makes charitable grants to paralyzed people and provides scholarships to individuals suffering from paralysis or families with a parent dealing with a neurological disorder. 

      In 2015, it made several grants to help purchase wheelchairs, modify vehicles, install stair lifts, and modify homes. 

      Named for the onetime Superman star, the Christopher Reeve Foundation provides a New Injury Packet to newly-paralyzed consumers and their families. 

      What to do

      Our point is that those looking to help someone in trouble have more resources available than ever. Besides the traditional bake sales, car washes, etc., there are Internet funding sites and, just as important, search engines that can help locate foundations and non-profits organizations like those mentioned above.

      Besides providing direct help, non-profits can also frequently guide consumers to government agencies that offer services, training, and grants. 

      GoFundMe offers tips on how to organize an effective online fund-raising effort.

      Watch for scams

      But while the Internet can be a boon in raising funds and conducting research, it can also be a pathway to scams, phony offers, and well-meaning but misguided do-gooders, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns.

      "These days, charities and fundraisers (groups that solicit funds on behalf of organizations) use the phone, face-to-face contact, email, the internet (including social networking sites), and mobile devices to solicit and obtain donations. Naturally, scammers use these same methods to take advantage of your goodwill," the FTC says in an advisory.

      The FTC warns against fund-raisers who ask for an immediate donation, refuse to provide information about their organization and ask you to wire funds. Additional tips from the FTC are located here.

      Supposed charitable appeals on Facebook should also set off alarm bells, as many, if not most, are scams. 

      Sadly, tragedies happen everyday. When they hit close to home -- to family, friends, or colleagues -- thoughts ofte...
      Read lessRead more

      Survey: 42% of retailers are still swiping credit cards

      More than half of consumers think that's just fine

      It's been six months since the official switch-over from magnetic strip credit cards to ones with embedded computer chips. The new EMV technology, used in many other parts of the world, is more secure.

      While you may have received replacement cards with the embedded chips, you may not be finding many retailers where you can use them. Personal finance website CardHub.com has conducted a study, finding that 42% of retailers have not upgraded terminals in any of their stores.

      The study authors call this “shocking,” since for the last six months, retailers have been liable for any fraudulent purchases made in their stores.

      Waiting for certification

      Retailers, meanwhile, say it isn't their fault. A spokesman for the National Retail Federation (NRF) recently told Yahoo Finance that once chip readers have been installed, the installation must be certified by the credit card industry. That process, he says, is taking longer than anyone expected.

      The CardHub survey suggests consumers are either confused or ambivalent about the whole issue. Among the consumers questioned, 41% don't have an embedded chip credit card. More than half of consumers – 56% – didn't care if a retailer's terminal was EMV compliant.

      Retailers have not been overly enthusiastic about the move to chip readers. For one thing, it means investing in new technology. For another, retailers have not been sold on the system's security.

      Arguing for better security

      As we reported in early October, the NRF urged adoption of an EMV system that requires a PIN, arguing that a simple signature is easily forged, negating the cards' enhanced security features.

      The NRF also warned that if small businesses were forced to adopt EMV technology, alternatives like near-field communication contactless payment, mobile wallets, and other smartphone-based technology “may effectively be locked out of the market.”

      According to the CardHub survey, about one-third of retailers in the survey have upgraded to chip readers at 90% to 100% of their stores. They include some of the nation's major retailers, such as Costco, CVS, and The Home Depot.

      It's been six months since the official switch-over from magnetic strip credit cards to ones with embedded computer chips. The new EMV technology, used in...
      Read lessRead more

      Pending home sales surge to seven-month high

      Industry analysts are encouraged by the February showing

      In what one analyst called “promising strides,” pending home sales rose to their highest level in seven months during February.

      The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) -- a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings -- rose 3.5% to 109.1 last month. The PHSI is now 0.7% above the same month a year ago, and, while it has now increased year-over-year for 18 consecutive months, the annual gain in February was the smallest in that time frame.

      NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun is encouraged by the February performance.

      "After some volatility this winter, the latest data is encouraging in that a decent number of buyers signed contracts last month, lured by mortgage rates dipping to their lowest levels in nearly a year and a modest, seasonal uptick in inventory," he said. "Looking ahead, the key for sustained momentum and more sales than last spring is a continuous stream of new listings quickly replacing what's being scooped up by a growing pool of buyers. Without adequate supply, sales will likely plateau."

      Yun says the one silver lining from last month's noticeable slump in existing-home sales was that prices were up less than 4.4%. While that's still above wage growth, he says its more favorable -- from a buyer's perspective -- than the 8.1% annual increase in January.

      "Any further moderation in prices would be a welcome development this spring," adds Yun. "Particularly in the West, where it appears a segment of would-be buyers are becoming wary of high asking prices and stiff competition."

      Sales by region

      All major regions except for the Northeast saw an increase in contract signings.

      • The PHSI in the Northeast dipped 0.2% to 94.0 but is still 12.6% above a year ago.
      • In the Midwest the index shot up 11.4% to 112.6 and is now 2.5% above the previous February.
      • Contract signings in the South rose 2.1% to a reading of 122.4 but have posted a year-over-year decline of 0.4%.
      • The index in the West climbed 0.7% to 96.4 but is now 6.2% below a year ago.

      Looking ahead

      Existing-homes sales this year are projected to rise 2.4% from 2015 -- to around 5.38 million.

      The national median prices for existing homes is expected to increase between 4% and 5%. Prices jumped 6.8% in 2015.

      In what one analyst called “promising strides,” pending home sales rose to their highest level in seven months during February.The National Association...
      Read lessRead more

      Feds make it easier for some Corinthian College students to get out of loans

      Former students at 91 campuses in 24 states are eligible for the latest debt relief program

      Students at 91 former Corinthian College campuses in 24 states will have an clearer path to loan forgiveness, U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said today.

      The action comes just one day after Corinthian was hit with a $1.1 billion judgment that may help provide additional relief to struggling ex-students.

      The 91 campuses were identified as having the largest groups of borrowers eligible for loan relief by investigators from the Department of Education and state attorneys general.

      The program is available to students who attended Everest and WyoTech colleges in these states: 

      • California,
      • Colorado,
      • Florida,  
      • Georgia, 
      • Illinois,
      • Indiana, 
      • Maryland, 
      • Michigan,
      • Minnesota,
      • Missouri, 
      • Nevada,
      • Ohio, 
      • Oregon, 
      • Pennsylvania, 
      • Massachusetts,  
      • New Jersey, 
      • New York, 
      • Texas,
      • Utah, 
      • Virginia, 
      • Washington,
      • West Virginia,  
      • Wisconsin, and
      • Wyoming.

      If that includes you, you can apply for debt relief through a form posted here. The Department is reaching out to those students through postal mail, email, partner organizations and other means.

      The DOE has approved loan discharges for more than 8,800 former Corinthian students nationwide, totaling more than $130 million.

      "With a straw ..."

      The DOE's efforts are not a raging success in the eyes of critics, however. One non-profit group, The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) said the debt relief program so far has been "like draining a swimming pool with a straw."

      "Despite the Department’s outreach to date, few students are aware that debt relief is available.  Only a fraction of eligible Corinthian students have applied and less than three percent have been approved (with most approved because their school closed, not based on fraud), TICAS vice president Pauline Abernathy said in a statement.  

      "It’s like draining a swimming pool with a straw -- even a streamlined application is an unnecessary barrier to the relief these students deserve because the Department has already determined that their school committed fraud," Abernathy said. "We urge the Department to provide automatic discharges to all groups of students covered by findings of fraud, rather than requiring them to submit individual applications."  

      Placement rates

      King made the announcement in Boston with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who said her investigation found that Corinthian's two Everest Institute campuses in Massachusetts misrepresented their job placement rates.

      "When Americans invest their time, money and effort to gain new skills, they have a right to expect they'll get an education that leads to a better life for them and their families. Corinthian was more worried about profits than about students' lives," King said.

      Last summer, the DOE created a similar form for students at 12 Heald College campuses after fining the institution $30 million for misrepresenting job placement rates to current and prospective students. In November 2015, the department published additional findings of misrepresentation at 20 Everest and WyoTech campuses in California and Florida.

      Students in other states may be eligible for debt relief as the investigations continue.

      Students at 91 former Corinthian College campuses in 24 states will have an clearer path to loan forgiveness, U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. sai...
      Read lessRead more

      Cost of living up? Don't blame food prices

      Weather, disease and demand all play a big part in food prices increases and decreases

      Food prices are often blamed for increases in the cost of living but grocers will tell you consumers need a better understanding of why food prices fluctuate.

      Industry analyst Phil Lempert, who writes the Supermarket Guru blog, says that while it's true food prices are up significantly from ten years ago, the Consumer Price Index for food has declined each month since November 2015.

      "For many shoppers, there still is sticker shock at each checkout experience, and frankly I think the industry needs to do a better job communicating why prices did go up so much and why they are falling now," Lempert writes. "Most shoppers still do not have a clue where their food comes from and how weather conditions around the planet has affected supplies and costs."

      The highest increases over that ten-year period were for ground beef -- more than 65% -- and eggs, which went up 110% because of the Bird Flu epidemic, Lempert notes. But such spikes aren't permanent and Lempert says the price of beef is expected to drop as much as 17% this year, thanks to heavier cattle and an increase in production.

      Lempert also predicts falling prices for boneless chicken breast meat and pork, both expected to fall by as much as four percent this year despite the drive for better living conditions at chicken farms.

      Consumers tend to forget that rising restaurant prices reflect a lot more than the cost of food. In recent years, higher minimum wages and healthcare costs have played a much larger factor, he says.

      Food and energy 

      Food and energy are, of course, the most volatile factors in the Consumer Price Index and the decline in energy prices in recent months has helped keep overall living costs in check despite increases in housing costs.

      The Department of Labor's (DOL) Consumer Price Index (CPI) dipped a seasonally adjusted 0.2% in February, thanks in large part to falling energy costs. During the last 12 months, prices have risen just 1%.

      The drop in energy costs more than offset the rise in the price of food in February. 

      Food prices are often blamed for increases in the cost of living but grocers will tell you consumers need a better understanding of why food prices fluctua...
      Read lessRead more

      GE's advertising campaign isn't selling appliances

      It could be the most expensive series of help wanted ads in history

      General Electric (GE) launched a creative and amusing television advertising campaign last fall, built around a recent college grad named Owen.

      Owen proudly tells his parents and friends that he is going to work for GE as a programmer, but no one gets it. They can't understand why a smart and gifted computer programmer would want to work for an industrial company.

      The campaign earned a thumbs up from AdWeek, after it debuted in September on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

      What is GE selling?

      The spots are so engaging and entertaining that the viewer has to watch a lot of them before asking the question, “Hey, what exactly is GE selling?”

      The company makes every type of appliance you can think of and a host of household goods – but none of the commercials show a single product.

      After GE recently began airing the second phase of the campaign, such as the spot below, that the real purpose was very clear to see. These commercials are actually recruiting ads, aimed at smart, bright Millennials coming out of college.

      Phase two

      The second phase of the campaign features other young people who now want to work for GE too. It might seem a bit extreme to spend millions of dollars on a network television ad campaign to recruit employees. But high-tech corporations have complained in recent years that it is hard to attract the people with the skills they need.

      And apparently it's working. Tony Denhart, University Relations Leader at GE Corporate, tells Business Insider GE is seeing an increase in applications from major colleges. He also says the company is fielding more queries from students and faculty, who want to know more about GE technologies.

      Will we see other technology companies develop mass market advertising campaigns that are really stealth help wanted ads? Maybe. And if it recruits the employee who develops the next killer app, it might be worth it.

      General Electric (GE) launched a creative and amusing television advertising campaign last fall, built around a recent college grad named Owen.Owen pro...
      Read lessRead more

      GM recalls model year 2016 Malibus

      The side air bag may move out of position during deployment

      General Motors is recalling 3,137 model year 2016 Malibus manufactured February 16, 2016, to March 5, 2016.

      The two weld studs that mount the front and rear side impact air bags may fracture and separate from the air bag during deployment. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 214, "Side Impact Protection."

      Fractured weld studs may allow the side air bag to move out of position during deployment, increasing the risk of injury.

      What to do

      GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the side air bag modules, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020. GM's number for this recall is 31820.

      General Motors is recalling 3,137 model year 2016 Malibus manufactured February 16, 2016, to March 5, 2016. The two weld studs that mount the front...
      Read lessRead more

      VW fails to submit plan to get its rigged diesels off the road

      California VW diesel owners are finding they can't renew their registration while VW dawdles

      A U.S. District Court judge has given Volkswagen one more month to come up with an acceptable plan to get its rigged diesel engines off the road, after the automaker failed to meet today's deadline. 

      A VW attorney said the company's engineers are "working around the clock" to find a fix for a software device that gives deceptively low emission readings when a TDI "clean diesel" car is being tested, but then pollutes at as much as 40 times the legal limit when the test is over.

      But while Volkswagen engineers may or may not be working around the clock, some consumers are wondering how they are supposed to get around now that their VW diesels have been outed as anything but clean.

      That's the fix California motorist Christianne finds herself in. She bought a diesel-powered Volkswagen in 2012, thinking she was doing something good for the environment. But now she's unable to renew her registration because the car can't pass California's tough smog test, she told ConsumerAffairs. 

      "The DMV states I need a smog check and a certificate from VW dealership for a proof of correction certificate," Christianne said. That, of course, is something she won't be able to get for as long as Volkswagen fails to get approval from state and federal agencies for its plan to make the cars meet the specifications it originally promised.

      "I am stuck in a bind, it seems," Christianne said, reflecting the position a growing number of consumers are likely to face as their registrations come up for renewal, a procedure that in most states requires a smog test.

      Fixed or scrapped

      The delays are causing environmental damage as well as hurting individual consumers, according to Sierra Club California Chapter Director Kathryn Phillips who said the polluting vehicles "need to be fixed or taken off the road, and the consumers who trusted they were buying less-polluting cars need to be compensated. Period."

      "Otherwise the legacy of Volkswagen’s deceitful actions will be as dirty and dangerous as the smog left behind by their vehicles -- people will continue to breathe dirtier air, consumers will lose faith in watchdog agencies, and manufacturers will believe they can cheat and get away without feeling the full consequence," Phillips said.

      Concrete proposal

      In court today, judge Charles Breyer said he wants a "concrete proposal" by April 21. Options include a technical fix approved by federal and state environmental agencies and a buyback plan or other remedies no one has yet thought of. At a hearing in February, Breyer had given VW one month to come up with a plan that could be executed within six months. 

      Breyer said today that if the latest deadline isn't met, he will consider setting a trial date for this summer to hear more than 500 consumer lawsuits that are being consolidated into a single trial through a process called multidistrict litigation.

      That could potentially allow the court to impose a settlement on VW, which initially denied it had phonied up the emission controls, then admitted it had but claimed only a handful of engineers know about it. Now the company says it needs more time to organize a defense. 

      A U.S. District Court judge has given Volkswagen one more month to come up with an acceptable plan to get its rigged diesel engines off the road, after the...
      Read lessRead more

      Corinthian Colleges ordered to pay $1.1 billion in California settlement

      Court finds the chain of for-profit schools deceived students and used unlawful debt collection practices

      Corinthian Colleges, Inc., the defunct chain of for-profit schools that filed for bankruptcy in 2015, faces a $1.1 billion court judgment that may help provide additional relief to struggling ex-students.

      California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed suit against Corinthian in October 2013, alleging that Corinthian subsidiaries Everest, Heald, and Wyotech colleges victimized students through predatory lending and unlawful marketing practices.

      The schools collapsed under the weight of multiple investigations and lawsuits in 2015, leaving thousands of students with large debts and no degrees or certificates. 

      Harris' office has established an online tool to help students find resources that may be able to help them.

      In yesterday's action, California Superior Court Judge Curtis E. A. Karnow granted a default judgment against CCI, ordering $820 million in restitution to students and civil penalties totaling $350 million.

      “For years, Corinthian profited off the backs of poor people – now they have to pay. This judgment sends a clear message: there is a cost to this kind of predatory conduct,” said Harris. “My office will continue to do everything in our power to help these vulnerable students obtain all available relief, as they work to achieve their academic and professional goals.”

      Vulnerable students

      In her complaint, Harris alleged that CCI intentionally targeted low-income, vulnerable Californians through deceptive and false advertisements and aggressive marketing campaigns that misrepresented job placement rates and school programs.

      The complaint also alleged that Corinthian executives knowingly misrepresented job placement rates to investors and accrediting agencies, which harmed students, investors, and taxpayers.

      In its final judgment, the court found that Corinthian made untrue and misleading job placement claims, unlawfully used the official seals of U.S. military forces, engaged in unlawful debt collection practices, misrepresented the transferability of credits, and misrepresented its financial stability.

      Corinthian Colleges, Inc., the defunct chain of for-profit schools that filed for bankruptcy in 2015, faces a $1.1 billion court judgment that may help pro...
      Read lessRead more

      Discovery could lead to improved cognitive function in Alzheimer's patients and the elderly

      Decreasing excess proteins at the cellular level could be the key

      The threat of Alzheimer’s disease continues to weigh heavily on nations across the world. An increasing number of people will soon reach the age where the disease may start to affect them, and experts believe that unless new treatment options are discovered, over 100 million people across the globe will be affected by it by the year 2050.

      With the timeline constantly shrinking, medical experts and scientists are doing their best to find ways to avert the cognitive decline that is the trademark of the disease. One such researcher is Dr. Riqiang Yan, who recently discovered a way to disrupt the formation of dystrophic neurites (DN), constructions that are especially prominent in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

      Improving cognitive function

      DNs are made up of nerve components that have a tendency to cluster together in the brain, especially in people over the age of 65. Dr. Yan and his team were able to trace these formations back to a problem in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), which is a structure found in our cells. When DNs contain too many proteins, they can warp the structure of the ER and impair cellular function.

      The researchers found that this excess of proteins was especially prominent in Alzheimer’s patients. One protein in particular, called RTN3, was not easily found in the brains of patients under the age of 60, but flourished in those over the age of 65.

      When the researchers decreased concentrations of RTN3 in a rodent model, they found that the formation of DNs was also stunted. This could mean that targeting this particular protein could lead to improved cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients and the elderly, although much more testing will need to be conducted before the theory could be tested on humans.

      The full study has been published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry

      The threat of Alzheimer’s disease continues to weigh heavily on nations across the world. An increasing number of people will soon reach the age where the ...
      Read lessRead more

      How do you manage retirement in the freelance economy?

      Policymakers agree fundamental reforms may be needed

      The workplace has changed since the Great Recession. Full-time jobs with generous benefits are still available, but there are far fewer than there was a decade ago.

      Instead, we have begun to move into what some call the on-demand economy and others call the freelance economy. Instead of one job, an individual might have three and get paid as an independent contractor instead of an employee.

      Or they might be a part-time employee for a company and have a freelance job on the side.

      This arrangement can have its advantages. A freelance worker is his or her own boss, choosing when to work and what jobs to take. That's the theory, anyway.

      The downside, of course, is lack of job security and a lot of other unknowns – such as retirement. When you aren't sure how much money is coming in each month, how do you plan for retirement?

      Give employees more control

      The R Street Institute, a Washington think tank, has studied the problem, concluding that reforms are needed to create a retirement system less tied to employers and controlled more by the employee.

      “Under the current system, assets in employees’ 401(k) accounts do not actually belong to the employees,” R Street Associate Fellow Oren Litwin said in a statement emailed to ConsumerAffairs. “Instead they belong to the sponsor company – the employer – and are held in trust for the employees’ eventual benefit.”

      Litwin said reforms that give employees direct control of retirement accounts would be a step in the right direction.

      New social contract

      A gathering of government, academic, and private sector players at MIT earlier this month also tackled issues arising from the on-demand economy, concluding it's time for a new social contract, built on the assumption that Americans will often hold down more than one job.

      “How do we allow the innovation of the on-demand economy, but also recognize that we’ve got to maintain consumer protections and we’ve got to make sure that workers are treated fairly?” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) asked at the event.

      Warner noted that when you get to choose when to work, the whole notion of unemployment insurance and vacation time “is a foreign concept.”

      Jonas Prising, CEO and chairman of staffing firm ManpowerGroup, said he has seen a distinct trend in the last decade. More older people are seeking work, he says, and are having a greater say in when and where they work.

      Going forward, Litwin says a typical worker is likely to have two or three retirement accounts over his or her working life. The downside to that is these accounts may be neglected, or even forgotten.

      Under current law, self-employed workers may set up a simplified employee pension IRA (SEP IRA), with full control of the account. If the employee moves back and forth from employment with benefits and freelancing, his or her 401(k) with the employer may be rolled over into the SEP IRA.

      Learn more about SEP IRAs here.

      The workplace has changed since the Great Recession. Full-time jobs with generous benefits are still available, but there are far fewer than there was a de...
      Read lessRead more

      Feds order defective Volvo tractor-trailer trucks off the road

      The trucks have been recalled but some have not yet been repaired

      That huge Volvo semi-trailer truck bearing down on your rear bumper? It may have a safety defect that could cause the driver to lose control at any moment.

      About 16,000 of the trucks were recalled on March 10 because they may have been manufactured without a roll pin on the steering shaft or with a bolt that was not properly tightened. Either condition could lead to separation of the steering shaft without warning, resulting in a complete loss of control.

      Alarmed at that prospect, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has ordered recalled trucks that have not yet been repaired off the road.

      "Today’s announced declaration is not intended to provide a basis for further enforcement action, but seeks only the immediate cessation of the unrepaired, unsafe trucks," the FMCSA said. "Operators of vehicles declared out-of-service must comply; violating a federal out-of-service order may result in civil penalties as well as criminal prosecution."

      Among other things, the order will alert personnel at truck weigh stations to watch for the trucks and order them sidelined if they have not been repaired. 

      The recall affects certain model year 2016-2017 VNL, VNX, and VNM trucks manufactured from May 11, 2015 through March 8, 2016.

      That huge Volvo semi-trailer truck bearing down on your rear bumper? It may have a safety defect that could cause the driver to lose control at any moment....
      Read lessRead more

      More would-be homeowners may have to keep renting

      Home prices have quickly become less affordable for more consumers

      After the housing market inflated into a huge bubble in the early 2000s, crashing in 2008, policymakers wanted to make sure it didn't happen again.

      They tightened up lending standards. Borrowers had to show they had the income and resources to buy the home. Subprime mortgages, the major cause of the crash, were all but done away with.

      Problem solved, right?

      Maybe not. With an improving economy, there are more borrowers who can meet those tight lending standards. But as we reported earlier this week, there are fewer homes for them to buy. That's a big reason home prices continue to rise. Supply isn't keeping up with demand.

      Online real estate marketplace RealtyTrac now reports its analysis of the first quarter of this year shows 9% of U.S. housing markets are less affordable than their historical norm.

      Home prices vs. wages

      The report looked at the median home prices from actual sales, pairing the data up with average wages. The formula for affordability index is based on the percentage of average wages a homeowner needed to make monthly house payments on a median-priced home with a 30-year fixed rate and a 3% down payment, including property taxes and insurance.

      Out of 456 U.S. counties, 43 – or 9% – recorded an affordability index below 100 in the first quarter of 2016. The 100 level marks the the historically normal level.

      A year ago, only 33 counties were below the 100 mark, suggesting U.S. homes – new and existing – are becoming less affordable.

      “While the vast majority of housing markets are still affordable by their own historic standards, home prices are floating out of reach for average wage earners in a growing number of U.S. housing markets,” Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at RealtyTrac, said in a statement.

      Low rates have helped

      Still-low interest rates have helped somewhat. Even with rising prices, monthly payments on many homes remain affordable because there are plenty of mortgages with interest rates below 4%. At the height of the housing bubble, the prevailing rate was around 6% or more.

      Over the last few years, home prices have risen the most in metro areas where the economy has recovered and there are plenty of good-paying jobs. Even so, the RealtyTrac Index shows some of the markets were good jobs and plentiful – Denver, New York, Dallas, and San Francisco – are where home affordability is slipping away.

      On a national basis, the average worker needed to apply more than 30% of monthly wages to make a mortgage payment on a median priced home in the first quarter of this year. It's a big jump from the same period last year, when it only required 26.4%.

      After the housing market inflated into a huge bubble in the early 2000s, crashing in 2008, policymakers wanted to make sure it didn't happen again.They...
      Read lessRead more

      Despite declining smoking rates, tobacco firms doing just fine

      Tobacco sales overseas are booming

      In that bygone era, when cigarette advertisements were everywhere, Camel had a campaign that asked, “are you smoking more but enjoying it less?”

      As anyone who watched episodes of Mad Men knows, everyone seemed to be smoking a lot during the 1960s. But those days are over.

      Cigarette marketing is tightly limited by a court settlement and, not surprisingly, Americans are smoking less. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which keeps track of cigarette sales in the U.S., reports the number of cigarettes sold by the major tobacco companies to U.S. wholesalers and retailers fell from 267.7 billion in 2012 to 256.7 billion in 2013.

      Advertising less

      Tobacco companies also spent less on advertising and promotion during that time. Marketing dollars dropped from $9.17 billion to $8.95 billion. Much of the decline was linked to a reduction in discounts retailers and wholesalers received in order to reduce the price of cigarettes to consumers.

      The FTC report shows that tobacco companies trimmed their discounts by about $2 million.

      If it looks like tobacco companies are withering away, they aren't. Stock in tobacco companies remains strong on Wall Street. The tobacco companies have simply found ways to diversify and adapt.

      First, American tobacco companies have looked beyond U.S. borders. Smoking is declining in the U.S. but overseas – particularly in the developing world – it's a different story.

      According to The Tobacco Atlas, decades of scientific and medical evidence linking smoking to cancer and other health issues has done nothing to deter about one billion people world-wide from lighting up.

      More international smokers

      “The decline in smoking rates in high-income countries is more than offset by increased tobacco use in middle- and low-income countries,” the Atlas authors write. “Tobacco companies know they must find replacement smokers, and focus much of their effort in these low- and middle-income markets, which have the potential for economic and demographic growth, and thus increased profits.”

      Tobacco companies have also moved more heavily into smokeless tobacco and e-cigarette products. The FTC report advertising spending for smokeless tobacco products bucked the trend, actually increasing from 2012 to 2013.

      At the same time, tobacco companies sold 125.5 million pounds of smokeless tobacco in 2012, then boosted it to 128.0 million pounds in 2013. In all, smokeless tobacco revenue rose by $180 million.

      In that bygone era, when cigarette advertisements were everywhere, Camel had a campaign that asked, “are you smoking more but enjoying it less?”As anyo...
      Read lessRead more

      Initial jobless claims creep higher

      Continued improvement in the labor market is a strong possibility

      Fifty-five in a row.

      That's how many weeks the new jobless claims total has been under the 300,000 mark.

      The Department of Labor (DOL) is reporting first-time applications for state benefits rose by 6,000 in the week ending March 19 to seasonally adjusted 265,000. The previous week's level was revised down by 6,000 from 265,000 to 259,000.

      Even with that slight increase, the string of weeks at the sub-300,000 level is the longest since 1973.

      Bankrate.com Senior Economic Analyst and Washington Bureau Chief Mark Hamrick says that's significant. “This tells us that the job market is continuing to steadily improve,” he told ConsumerAffairs.

      The DOL is scheduled to release it's March employment report in the coming week. “Unless we get a shocker of a report -- which we don’t expect,” Hamrick says, “that should tell us employers are adding sufficient jobs not only to absorb growth in the population, but to also reduce some of the considerable remaining slack in the job market, even with the jobless rate remaining at 4.9%.”

      The four-week moving average, which is not as volatile as the weekly tally and, therefore considered a more accurate picture of the labor market, was 259,750 -- up 250 from the previous week.

      The complete report is available on the DOL website.

      Fifty-five in a row.That's how many weeks the new jobless claims total has been under the 300,000 mark.The Department of Labor (DOL) is reporting f...
      Read lessRead more

      Zoox is the latest entrant in the self-driving-car derby

      The Zoox is "what comes after the car," the company's founder says

      Until now, most of the companies working on self-driving vehicles have been household names -- Google, Ford, Tesla, and so forth. But now along comes Zoox, a stealthy start-up that has just won permission to begin operating on California streets.

      Zoox is a little bit different in a lot of ways. Perhaps the most important is that it is designing its cars from the ground up to be taxis, or at least what we used to call taxis -- you know, cars that come and pick you up one place and drop you at another.

      This has allowed Zoox to do a little creative thinking about what would be ideal in a taxi-type vehicle. First off, it can go in either direction, sort of like a subway car. There's no front or back -- no windshield or rear window. There is seating for four, but it's two seats facing each other rather than the old schoolroom-style seating found in most passenger cars today.

      Zoox applied to the California DMV on March 16 and the permit was issued Tuesday, an agency spokeswoman said. That brings to 12 the number of companies allowed to operate driverless cars on the state's roads.

      Low profile

      Zoox is keeping a low profile and saying very little about itself. But a recent article in the IEEE Spectrum, an engineering journal, lifted the curtain a bit.

      It identified the key players as Tim Kentley-Klay, an Australian designer, and Jesse Levinson, who worked at Stanford University with Sebastian Thrun, co-creator of Google’s driverless car project.

      While Zoox doesn't say much publicly, Kentley-Klay has been quoted as saying that rather than just building a self-driving car, he is trying to rethink the whole idea of mobility.

      “At the moment, mobility is crushing the soul: Don’t speed, don’t drink, don’t text," Kentley-Klay said at a conference in Berlin last year. "What inspires me…is giving back people their lifestyles, so they can do what they want to do: texting, vegging out, drinking.”

      Kentley-Klay's earlier projects have mostly revolved around media. He created an animation company and was working in commercial production when the Zoox concept came to him.

      “Zoox is not an automobile company. This is what comes after the car," he said at one point. 

      The California permit at the moment is for only one car, so it's not likely that there'll be a fleet of Zooxs in your neighborhood quite yet. Zoox is planning to be in production mode by 2020.

      Until now, most of the companies working on self-driving vehicles have been household names -- Google, Ford, Tesla, and so forth. But now along comes Zoox,...
      Read lessRead more

      Banks, credit unions asked to help protect seniors from financial exploitation

      Older consumers are often victimized by family members and others but do not report it

      Financial exploitation costs America's seniors billions of dollars per year, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) wants banks and credit unions to play a bigger role in detecting and responding to it.

      The agency today issued an advisory for financial institutions that is supposed to help them be more proactive in protecting older consumers from the most common form of elder abuse.

      “This action gives financial institutions best practices and tools to protect older consumers from financial abuse,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “When seniors fall prey to a scam by a stranger or to theft by a family member, they may be too embarrassed or too frail to report it. Banks and credit unions are uniquely positioned to look out for older Americans and take action to protect them.”

      Seniors are common targets of financial abuse, often by family members. They tend to have significant assets and often have a regular source of income such as Social Security. They may also be vulnerable becauase of cognitive decline, physical disability, and isolation.

      Often not reported

      In recent studies, about 17 percent of seniors reported that they have been the victim of financial exploitation, but few bother to report it.

      Since banks and credit unions often have face-to-face contact with their older customers, they are in a prime position to detect and report financial abuse, the CFPB said, as it issued a set of voluntary best practices that can help fight the problem.

      The advisory includes information on training tellers and other front-line staff, using fraud detection technology, offering age-friendly services and reporting suspicious activity to authorities.

      Consumers who think that they or a loved one may have been a victim of financial exploitation can visit eldercare.gov to find a local adult protective services agency that can help.

      Financial exploitation costs America's seniors billions of dollars per year, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) wants banks and credit uni...
      Read lessRead more

      New York to require electronic prescriptions, hoping to reduce opioid abuse

      The e-scripts should also reduce errors caused by bad handwriting

      For years, we've heard jokes about doctors' bad handwriting, but communicating prescriptions accurately is no joking matter. That's why New York and Minnesota are requiring that all prescriptions be filed electronically.

      Minnesota has had the requirement for awhile. New York's becomes effective March 27 and provides criminal penalties for those who don't comply. Other states are considering similar measures, according to Rx411.

      While the requirement should help eliminate errors caused by misreading handwritten prescriptions, it's primarily aimed at cutting down on opioid abuse, a growing problem nationwide.

      I-Stop

      New York's program, called I-Stop, first went into effect in 2013 and required doctors to check an online prescription monitoring problem before writing prescriptions for controlled substances. That was supposed to help spot abusive patterns in a patient's history.

      The second phase of I-Stop requires doctors to write all prescriptions electronically and send them to the pharmacy chosen by the patient. Previously, patients could take paper prescriptions and modify or even copy them and fill prescriptions at multiple pharmacies.

      Both healthcare providers and patients should expect problems during the transition period, said Julie Kaplan, a pharmacist and senior medical writer at Rx411.

      Doctors may seek to avoid the hassles associated with the tighter regulations and prescribe more traditional regimens instead while patients will need to know in advance which pharmacy they want to use, she said. It will also be more difficult to take the prescription to another pharmacy if their preferred pharmacy is out of stock.

      For years, we've heard jokes about doctors' bad handwriting, but communicating prescriptions accurately is no joking matter. That's why New York and Minnes...
      Read lessRead more

      Home security market expected to see growth in coming years

      Advancements in technology and connectivity are main contributors

      In an increasingly connected world, new products and services are coming out all the time that can improve the lives of consumers. Solutions to many of life’s problems can be solved with a few taps on a smartphone, and many services are being optimized for mobile and online access.

      One market that is taking full advantage of this increased connectivity is home security, and consumers are responding in a big way. A recent report by Security Sales & Integration (SSI) predicts that the global connected home security market will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 48.06% between now and the year 2020.

      Improving home security

      Many upgrades to home security products are contributing to the growth of the market, and they are making homes safer than ever. Some of these devices include electronic locks, motion sensors, burglar alarms, and home security cameras. Additionally, members of the SSI staff say that improvements in pricing and advancements in technology are leading to growth.

      "Connected home security market innovations such as decreased hardware prices, advances in wireless standards, smartphone penetration, improved bandwidth and well-positioned apps for accessing home systems are fueling growth in the market," they said.

      Being able to access security features when away from the home affords consumers a greater sense of safety. Earlier this month, ABC News released a video where a homeowner was alerted to a break-in at her home via her smartphone. The recording even gave her video footage and audio of the incident and led to the arrest of one of the would-be burglars.

      Investing and advancing

      The report also states that many key vendors, who include companies like ADT, AT&T, Comcast, Honeywell Total Connect, and Verizon, are funneling money into increasing distribution channels and expanding research and development.

      These investments could pay dividends for consumers, who may see even better products and enhanced security features in the future. 

      In an increasingly connected world, new products and services are coming out all the time that can improve the lives of consumers. Solutions to many of lif...
      Read lessRead more

      A February pickup in new home sales

      The median sales price was also on the rise

      New home sales rebounded last month from their January decline.

      In a joint report, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development said new single-family houses sold at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 512,000 in February -- up 2.0% from the month before.

      While that's the fifth advance in six months, the rate is 6.1% below the same month a year ago.

      Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza says the February increase, following the decline last month in sales of existing homes, helps reinstate confidence that the U.S. housing market remains on positive footing -- albeit fragile.

      “With minimal income growth,” she adds, “the threat of rising rates (at least at some point in the future), and declining confidence regarding the sustainability of the U.S. recovery, many potential buyers remain sidelined either from a lack of ability or willingness to make a home purchase."

      Pricing and inventory

      The median sales price of new houses sold in February 2016 was $301,400, a year-over-year gain of $7,500. The median is the point at which half the houses cost more and half less. However, the average sales price was down $7,000 from February 2015 to $348,900.

      The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of February was 240,000, representing a 5.6 months-supply at the current sales rate.

      Regional sales

      The West was the only area in which sales rose, posting a surge of 38.5%. That offset sales declines of 4.1% in the South, 17.9% in the Midwest, and a whopping 24.2% in the Northeast.

      The full report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      New home sales rebounded last month from their January decline.In a joint report, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Develo...
      Read lessRead more

      Another decline in applications for mortgages

      Contract interest rates were lower as well

      Mortgage applications were down for the second week in a row and the fourth time in five weeks.

      The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports applications fell 3.3% during the week ending March 18.

      The Refinance Index took another hit, falling 5%, sending the refinance share of mortgage activity down to 53.9% of total applications from 55.0% the previous week.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 4.9% of total applications, the FHA share inched up to 11.8% from 11.7% the week prior, the VA share rose to 12.6% from 12.3%, and the USDA share of total applications came in at 0.9%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) dipped one basis point from 3.94% to 3.93%, with points decreasing to 0.35 from 0.42 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dropped to 3.85% from 3.86%, with points decreasing to 0.27 from 0.28 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA fell three basis points to 3.74%, with points decreasing to 0.32 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 went down to 3.18% from 3.22%, with points decreasing to 0.34 from 0.39 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs plunged 10 basis points to 3.13%, with points increasing to 0.36 from 0.35 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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

      Mortgage applications were down for the second week in a row and the fourth time in five weeks.The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports applicati...
      Read lessRead more

      GM recalls Chevrolet Colorados, Malibus and GMC Canyons

      The driver-side front air bag may inflate improperly

      General Motors is recalling 1,579 model year 2016 Chevrolet Colorados manufactured January 19, 2016, to February 2, 2016; Chevrolet Malibus manufactured January 9, 2016, to January 26, 2016; and 2016 GMC Canyon vehicles manufactured January 21, 2016, to February 4, 2016.

      The driver-side front air bag may inflate improperly during second-stage deployment in the event of a high speed crash.

      An improperly inflated air bag increases the risk of injury.

      What to do

      GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the driver-side front air bag module, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020, and GMC customer service at 1-800-462-8782. GM's number for this recall is 28030.

      General Motors is recalling 1,579 model year 2016 Chevrolet Colorados manufactured January 19, 2016, to February 2, 2016; Chevrolet Malibus manufactured Ja...
      Read lessRead more

      Purple bread: a new, better-for-you bread invented by a food scientist

      The lavender loaves are full of antioxidants with the same texture as white bread

      You’ve heard of white bread, wheat bread, and maybe even cloud bread -- but what about purple bread? It might sound like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, but purple bread is already being called a superfood for its antioxidant levels and health benefits.

      Purple bread, invented by Professor Zhou Weibiao, a food scientist at the National University of Singapore, is loaded with anthocyanins. You might know anthocyanins for their work in giving eggplants and plums their distinctive hue, or perhaps for their role in helping to slow digestion or reduce blood sugar levels. 

      Now, anthocyanins are being baked into bread to help counteract some of regular bread’s not-so-great qualities.

      Slower digestion

      Zhou found that extracting anthocyanins from black rice and adding them to white bread leaves behind 80 percent of the antioxidants in the crust when baked.

      Furthermore, the anthocyanins’ reaction with the starch enzymes acts to slow the digestion rate by 20% -- a big triumph over regular white bread, which is digested quickly, spiking blood sugar levels in the process.

      "The challenge was to see if we could change the formula of bread, without changing the smooth texture of white bread that people really love," Zhou told CNN.

      As it turns out, it was possible. Purple bread has the texture of white bread but is digested more slowly than white bread -- the "best formula," says Zhou, for those who enjoy bread but not its effects on the body. 

      Not for weight loss

      While the purple loaves may be a bit kinder to the body than regular bread, Zhou says that doesn’t mean it’s a magical tool for weight loss.

      "You are eating the same amount of starch and wheat flour, so the nutritional value is the same," Zhou said. "The key idea here is slowing down the energy release, so you use those calories over a longer period of time."

      Purple bread is not commercially available yet, but it could be soon. Zhou says he’s already been approached by major food manufacturers about bringing it to market.

      You’ve heard of white bread, wheat bread, and maybe even cloud bread -- but what about purple bread? It might sound like something out of a Dr. Seuss book,...
      Read lessRead more

      You can't keep a good crook down

      Tax scammers are finding new ways to take your money

      We've all heard how criminals impersonating IRS agents threaten various actions to relieve you of money you supposedly owe the government.

      Now, however, they have started making phone calls claiming they're trying to verify tax return information. Claiming that they already have your tax return, these crooks say they just need to verify a few details to process your return. In the process, they try to get you to give up personal information such as your Social Security number, bank numbers, or credit cards. Consumers receiving these calls should be on guard.

      “These schemes continue to adapt and evolve in an attempt to catch people off guard just as they are preparing their tax returns,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “Don’t be fooled. The IRS won’t be calling you out of the blue asking you to verify your personal tax information or aggressively threatening you to make an immediate payment.”

      What the IRS will not do

      According to the IRS, many of the claims that scammers make are simply not within the organizations protocol. Here are some things the agency will never do:

      • Call to demand immediate payment over the phone, or call about taxes owed without first having mailed you several bills.
      • Call or email you to verify your identity by asking for personal and financial information.
      • Demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.
      • Require you to use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card.
      • Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone or e-mail.
      • Threaten to immediately bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.

      What to do

      If a consumer receives a phone call from a suspected scammer, the IRS recommends that they:

      • Do not give out any information and hang up immediately.
      • Contact the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration to report the call. Use their “IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting” web page. You can also call 800-366-4484.
      • Report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Use the “FTC Complaint Assistant” on FTC.gov. Add “IRS Telephone Scam” in the notes.

      If you know you owe, or think you may owe, tax money, you can:

      • Call the IRS at 800-829-1040. IRS workers can help you.
      • Stay alert to scams that use the IRS as a lure. Tax scams can happen any time of year, not just at tax time. For more, visit “Tax Scams and Consumer Alerts” on IRS.gov.
      We've all heard how criminals impersonating IRS agents threaten various actions to relieve you of money you supposedly owe the government.Now, however,...
      Read lessRead more

      Two reasons your dream home will be harder to find

      Both are left over from the financial crisis of 2008

      Home sales are suddenly on the decline, but not for the reason you might think. There continues to be plenty of willing buyers, but they just aren't finding that many homes for sale.

      Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors (NAR), admits that affordability is becoming a problem, with many housing markets showing strong year-over-year price increases.

      “The main issue continues to be a supply and affordability problem,” Yun said in a release announcing a drop in February's existing home sales. "Finding the right property at an affordable price is burdening many potential buyers."

      Yun notes that the total housing inventory in February was 1.1% lower than it was in February 2015. There are two main reasons for that.

      Fewer homeowners are putting their existing homes up for sale, and homebuilders are building fewer new homes. With the economy looking up a bit, there is an increase in the number of people who would like to buy a home, but not an increase in the number of homes for sale.

      New home construction

      First, let's look at new home construction – and for data we'll go to the U.S. Census Bureau. It has compiled the numbers on single-family home construction at a seasonally adjusted annual rate from 1968 through this year.

      At the beginning of 2002, as the housing bubble began to inflate, new home construction was occurring at an annual rate of about 1.3 million new homes. By the middle of 2003 it was up to 1.4 million.

      Home construction peaked in mid 2006, occurring at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.7 million homes. Then, the financial crisis of 2008 hit.

      By January 2010, the annual rate of new home construction had plunged to 448,000 – down 75% from the peak. At the beginning of 2016, the rate had only grown to about half of what homebuilders were producing in 2002.

      1982 building rates

      In fact, you have to go back to 1982, when interest rates were 20%, to find a time when homebuilders were putting up as few houses as they are now. Of course, the population of potential homebuyers is much bigger now.

      If there are fewer new homes being built, the problem is compounded by the fact that there are fewer existing homes for sale. It's not clear why current homeowners aren't moving up, but one reason might be the still significant number of people who owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth.

      Earlier this month Zillow reported 13.1% of homeowners with a mortgage had negative equity, blocking them from selling without a loss. More than 820,000 underwater homeowners owed more than twice as much on their mortgages as their homes are worth.

      "Things are moving in the right direction, but some owners are still deeply underwater,” said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Svenja Gudell. “As we move into the home shopping season, inventory is already low, and negative equity is keeping potential additional stock from becoming available.”

      That means consumers looking for their dream home this Spring may be disappointed. Homes will cost more and there will be far fewer to choose from.

      Home sales are suddenly on the decline, but not for the reason you might think. There continues to be plenty of willing buyers, but they just aren't findin...
      Read lessRead more

      House prices inch higher in January

      The gains were scattered across the country

      Prices for homes were on the rise again in January.

      The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) reports its monthly House Price Index (HPI) was up a seasonally adjusted 0.5% from the month before.

      At the same time, the FHFA revised its December figures to show a gain of 0.5% instead of the 0.4% advance it reported initially.

      Earlier this month, CoreLogic reported a month-over-month price gain of 1.3%

      Regional breakdown

      For the nine census divisions, seasonally adjusted monthly price changes from December 2015 to January 2016 ranged from -1.0% in the Middle Atlantic division to +1.7% in the South Atlantic division.

      The 12-month changes were all positive, ranging from +1.7% in the Middle Atlantic division to +8.9% in the South Atlantic division.

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

      The year over year increase in January was 6.0%.

      The full report may be found on the FHFA website.

      Prices for homes were on the rise again in January.The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) reports its monthly House Price Index (HPI) was up a seaso...
      Read lessRead more

      Panasonic recalls lithium-ion laptop battery packs

      Conductive foreign material was mixed into the battery cells during manufacturing

      Panasonic Corporation of North America of Newark, N.J., is recalling about 500 lithium-ion (Li-ion) computer battery packs in the U.S. and Canada.

      Conductive foreign material was mixed into the battery cells during manufacturing, posing a risk of fire.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported

      This recall involves Panasonic six-cell Li-ion battery packs sold in Panasonic CF-S10 Series laptop computers. “Panasonic” and “CF-S10” are on the surface of the laptop on the left side below the keyboard.

      Battery packs with the following model numbers and production lot numbers are being recalled:

      Model Numbers

      Lot Numbers

      CF-VZSU61U

      BAW, BBX, BC, C1, C2

      CF-VZSU61R

      The model number and lot number are located on the battery pack nameplate.

      The battery packs, manufactured in Japan, were sold at Panasonic dealers from December 2011, through August 2013, for about $2,000 for the laptop.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the laptop computer with the recalled battery, power off the device, remove the battery pack and contact Panasonic for a free replacement battery pack.

      Consumers may contact Panasonic toll-free at 855-772-8324 anytime or visit www.panasonic.com for more information.

      Panasonic Corporation of North America of Newark, N.J., is recalling about 500 lithium-ion (Li-ion) computer battery packs in the U.S. and Canada. ...
      Read lessRead more

      FanDuel and DraftKings settle in New York, shutting down games within the state

      Both companies agree not to accept players from the lucrative market, at least for now

      If you had put money on DraftKings and FanDuel, the two daily fantasy sports (DFS) giants, prevailing over New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, you would have lost money.

      Schneiderman issued a statement Monday, saying his office had reached settlements with both DraftKings and FanDuel, which calls for both companies to no longer accept players from New York state.

      “I’m pleased to announce that both FanDuel and DraftKings will stop taking bets in New York State, consistent with New York State law and the cease-and-desist orders my office issued at the outset of this matter,” Schneiderman said in his statement. “As I've said from the start, my job is to enforce the law, and starting today, DraftKings and FanDuel will abide by it.”

      Schneiderman sued both companies in October, claiming their DFS games amounted to illegal gambling. After he issued a cease and desist order, both companies appealed, saying their games require skill and are legal under federal law.

      Raising the ante

      Then Schneiderman raised the ante, amending his complaint to demand civil damages from the two companies and to require them to pay millions in restitution to New York players who had lost money.

      Knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, the two companies agreed to give up the lucrative New York market, at least for now. In its statement, DraftKings suggested the withdrawal from New York might be temporary.

      “We will continue to work with state lawmakers to enact fantasy sports legislation so that New Yorkers can play the fantasy games they love,” the company said.

      Earlier this month, Virginia became the first state to enact legislation that specifically declares DFS games to be legal. Both companies are actively encouraging other states to take similar action.

      Schneiderman, meanwhile, made it clear his case against DraftKings and FanDuel has not been affected by the settlement. He said he will continue to press false advertising and consumer fraud charges in court.

      If you had put money on DraftKings and FanDuel, the two daily fantasy sports (DFS) giants, prevailing over New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, you...
      Read lessRead more

      Traditional or Roth IRA: which is best?

      It largely depends on your income level during retirement

      You probably hear it a lot – Americans aren't saving enough for retirement. So you finally decide to do something about it and open an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).

      Now, you have to make a choice between opening a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. There are important differences.

      A Traditional IRA provides a tax break when you save. Suppose you put away $2000 in a Traditional IRA this year. On your 2016 federal and state tax returns, you get a $2,000 deduction. Better still, you don't pay taxes on capital gains or dividends, as long as the money stays in the account.

      However, when you are 70.5 years old, you must begin making withdrawals from the account and the money you withdraw is taxed as ordinary income. If you make a withdrawal before the age of 59.5, you'll pay a 10% penalty on top of the income tax.

      Roth contributions not deductible

      A Roth IRA's primary difference is the contributions to the account are not tax deductible and the money is not taxed when you pull it out. However, the money the account produces over the years, in the form of capital gains and dividends, is never taxed.

      So which is better? Increasingly, financial advisors favor the Roth, but it's going to depend on your individual circumstances.

      When the Traditional IRA was established, it was generally accepted that most people would retire when they could start receiving social security. If they had high incomes during their working years, they were in higher tax brackets and those deductible contributions saved them money at tax time each year.

      When they started making withdrawals, the reasoning went, they would be in a lower tax bracket and therefore, would pay less tax on their savings.

      But people are working longer, and many continue to earn high incomes in retirement, through part-time work and income from businesses and investments. The tax bite on Traditional IRA distributions may be greater than anticipated.

      Tax-free income

      If you own a Roth IRA, your withdrawals are not taxed. True, you passed up a tax deduction for most of your working life, but if your investment of $50,000 has doubled over the years, you have essentially earned $50,000 in tax-free income.

      There are also fewer distribution restrictions on a Roth IRA. Generally, you can withdraw money without penalty under age 59.5 if you have owned the account for more than five years.

      There are limits to the money you can put into an IRA each year, but the amount is the same for both the Traditional and Roth IRAs. For the 2016 tax year consumers can put in up to $5,500. If you are 50 or older, you can put in $6,500.

      You probably hear it a lot – Americans aren't saving enough for retirement. So you finally decide to do something about it and open an Individual Retiremen...
      Read lessRead more

      Update older Kindles or lose Internet connectivity

      Amazon says critical software update required by March 22

      If you own a kindle purchased before 2013, Amazon says you'll need to install a critical software update before Tuesday, March 22, or lose access to the Internet.

      Without Internet access, of course, you would be limited to reading the books and magazines currently on your e-reader – you would not be able to download more. The update is required on devices sold in 2012 or before.

      Updating before March 22 is fairly simple. If your Kindle e-reader does not have the latest software version, connect your device to Wi-Fi to receive the software update.

      How to update

      Once connected to the  Internet:

      1. From the home screen, select Menu and then choose Sync and Check for Items.
      2. Plug the device in and leave it plugged in, connected to the Internet, overnight.

      Amazon says the new software will download automatically and self-install. The device may restart multiple times during the process.

      If you don't update the software by the deadline, you can still install it – but it will have to be done manually, since you will no longer have Internet access. You will be able to download the software update to a PC, then connect the Kindle via USB port, and transfer it that way.

      Once you have successfully installed the update, you'll receive a message on your screen to that effect.

      Affected devices

      The devices requiring an update are:

      • Kindle 1st Generation (2007)
      • Kindle 2nd Generation (2009)
      • Kindle DX 2nd Generation (2009)
      • Kindle Keyboard 3rd Generation (2010)
      • Kindle 4th Generation (2011)
      • Kindle 5th Generation (2012)
      • Kindle Touch 4th Generation (2011)
      • Kindle Paperwhite 5th Generation (2012)

      Still confused? Amazon has step-by-step directions here.

      If you own a kindle purchased before 2013, Amazon says you'll need to install a critical software update before Tuesday, March 22, or lose access to the In...
      Read lessRead more

      Church's Chicken expands education benefits for employees

      The franchise will pay for employees at company-owned stores to complete high school

      Some companies provide college tuition assistance for their employees, a nice perk when the cost of a college degree keeps rising.

      But many employees – especially in the fast food industry – can't take advantage of that perk because they lack a high school diploma. Church's, the fried chicken franchise, is now addressing that.

      The company has announced it is expanding its Stride for Success program to all company-owned restaurants. Employees can earn a high school diploma while working by participating in a company-funded partnership with Penn Foster, which operates an accredited online high school diploma program.

      According to the ConsumerAffairs Research Team, Penn Foster has been accredited since 1972 and is licensed by the Pennsylvania State Board of Private Licensed Schools. The school has a focus on lifelong learning as well as traditional high school education.

      Chance to advance

      The company says its education program is designed to encourage Church's employees to reach educational milestones and advance within the company. For example, for someone to become a manager of a company-owned Church's store, he or she must be a high school graduate.

      Under this program, Church's covers 100% of the cost associated with the program. Penn Foster designed a curriculum specifically for online study, allowing students to complete their diploma around their work schedules.

      "Our people are and always have been our strongest assets," CEO Jim Hyatt said in a statement. "Laying the foundation for our employees to reach integral milestones and harness their potential will serve to both enrich their lives personally and strengthen our brand as a whole."

      The program can not only help employees move up within the company, a diploma also clears the way for college work as well, perhaps moving on to a job in another industry.

      For years, jobs in fast food were highly transitory, with people moving on after just a few months. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, many employees work at fast food restaurants for years because there are so few other jobs.

      Franchise stores next

      Church's said it hopes to expand the education benefit to franchisees in the future. Church's Chicken has more than 1,600 stores in 30 countries.

      Companies that provide help with a high school diploma are more rare than those helping employees with college tuition. GED Easy reports several large, mostly minimum wage employers, such as KFC and Walmart, provide help to employees preparing to take a GED exam.

      Some companies provide college tuition assistance for their employees, a nice perk when the cost of a college degree keeps rising.But many employees – ...
      Read lessRead more

      February suffers broad-based decline in existing-home sales

      Nasty weather and the slumping stock market are blamed

      The rise in existing-home sales in January to the highest annual rate in six months was undone in February.

      The National Association of Realtors reports total sales of previously-owned homes -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums, and co-ops -- plunged 7.1% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.08 million. Even with that huge decline, sales are up 2.2% from a year earlier.

      "Sales took a considerable step back in most of the country last month, and especially in the Northeast and Midwest," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "The lull in contract signings in January from the large East Coast blizzard, along with the slump in the stock market, may have played a role in February's lack of closings. However, the main issue continues to be a supply and affordability problem. Finding the right property at an affordable price is burdening many potential buyers."

      Prices and inventory

      The median existing-home price for all housing types last month was $210,800, up 4.4% from a year earlier, marking the 48th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

      Total housing inventory at the end of the month was up 3.3% -- to 1.88 million existing homes available for sale. However, that's down 1.1% from a year ago. Unsold inventory is at a 4.4-month supply at the current sales pace, compared with a supply of 4.0 months in January.

      Sales by region

      All four major regions experienced sales declines in February.

      • Home sales plummeted 17.1% in the Northeast to an annual rate of 630,000, but are still 5.0% above a year ago. The median price dipped 0.8% to $239,700.
      • In the Midwest, sales were down 13.8% to an annual rate of 1.12 million -- the same as in February 2015. The median price was $162,700, up 6.3% from a year ago.
      • Homes in the South sold at an annual rate of 2.20 million, down 1.8% in February, but are still 3.3% higher than they were at the same time in 2015. The median price was $186,400, a 5.0% gain from a year ago.
      • Existing-home sales in the West were off 3.4% to an annual rate of 1.13 million, but remain 0.9% higher than a year ago. The median price rose 7.0% from February 2015 -- to $308,800.
      The rise in existing-home sales in January to the highest annual rate in six months was undone in February.The National Association of Realtors reports...
      Read lessRead more

      Model year 2014 Nissan Rogues recalled

      The fuel pump may fail

      Nissan North America is recalling 46,671 model year 2014 Nissan Rogues manufactured July 25, 2013, to December 21, 2013, and February 1, 2014, to June 7, 2014.

      Improper nickel plating of components within the fuel pump may result in the fuel pump failing.

      If the fuel pump fails, the vehicle may stall without warning, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will replace the fuel pump, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Nissan customer service at 1-800-647-7261.

      Nissan North America is recalling 46,671 model year 2014 Nissan Rogues manufactured July 25, 2013, to December 21, 2013, and February 1, 2014, to June 7, 2...
      Read lessRead more

      Tax deadline a month away

      The IRS offers a number of tools that might help last minute filers

      Because the traditional tax deadline of April 15 is a holiday this year, the deadline for filing your 2015 federal income tax return has been extended to April 18.

      That's all well and good to have an extra weekend, but you shouldn't procrastinate any longer. Waiting until the last minute to fill out your return could lead to more mistakes and missed deductions. It also gives scammers more time to steal your identity and your return.

      The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reminds taxpayers that it can help with last minute assistance, even though its budget for customer support has been slashed in recent years. It says there are a number of interactive tools at IRS.gov that can help.

      Interactive Tax Assistant

      Among them is Interactive Tax Assistant, which the IRS says can answer most taxpayer questions and point taxpayers in the right direction for help. Tax preparation software has taken a lot of the guesswork out of filing, as well as reducing the number of errors.

      If you earned $62,000 or less in 2015 you can use the IRS Free File program, choosing from one of the 13 commercial tax-prepartion software packages that participate. You just have to answer a few general questions and the software does the calculations. It's the same software others pay to use.

      Self-employed taxpayers have a bit more at stake, since there are many business deductions available that, if not claimed, can leave money on the table. Dara Luber, Senior Manager of Retirement at TD Ameritrade, emailed us a list of five business deductions she says are often overlooked.

      Overlooked deductions

      • Retirement plan expenses: Individual/Solo 401k, SEP IPA, SIMPLE IRA, and profit-sharing plans may provide tax benefits.
      • Travel expenses: Mileage, hotel, meals, and baggage fees can all be deducted for associated business travel.
      • Medical insurance: A small business owner can write off medical insurance costs.
      • Home office expenses: It must be space solely dedicated to business, but you can deduct a portion of your utilities and mortgage.
      • Subscriptions, supplies, or membership expenses: Expenses associated with a professional organization, a trade publication aimed at helping you grow your business, can be deducted.

      Meanwhile, if you've already filed your return and are wondering when you will get your refund, the IRS has a tool for that. Where's My Refund tracks the progress of your payment, much like you would track the progress of a package you're having shipped.

      Because the traditional tax deadline of April 15 is a holiday this year, the deadline for filing your 2015 federal income tax return has been extended to A...
      Read lessRead more

      Payday loan marketer to pay New York $1 million

      Company websites collected personal information that was not properly protected

      State financial regulators in New York said a company called Blue Global LLC made two big mistakes.

      First, it marketed payday loans to New Yorkers. Payday loans are illegal in the state.

      Second, it failed to adequately protect the personal information it collected on New Yorkers, and some of that information ended up in the hands of scammers.

      As a result, the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS) has entered into a settlement with Blue Global, requiring it to pay a $1 million penalty and stop its payday loan-generation activities in the state of New York.

      The settlement follows a DFS investigation that reportedly found Blue Global had suggested to consumers that any personal information collected through its web sites was perfectly safe. It was also charged with marketing illegal payday loans to New Yorkers.

      “Payday lending is illegal in New York and lead generators such as Blue Global, who acquire and profit from New Yorkers’ personal information and advertise that payday loans are legitimate and lawful, violate New York’s Financial Services Law and will be held accountable,” Acting Department of Financial Services Superintendent Maria T. Vullo said in a statement.

      “Broken promises”

      When a consumer went to a Blue Global website, he or she was promised the personal information submitted was a top priority. In reality, the DFS says its investigation showed Blue Global took no measures to protect the information when it was shared with third parties. As a result, it often ended up in the hands of scammers.

      DFS says these scammers used names, telephone numbers, email addresses, and even bank account numbers to commit fraud and harass consumers. It may have very well been a source, at least partially, for a notorious payday loan scam going back several years.

      Fake payday loan scam

      At the beginning of the decade a widespread scam involved a caller telephoning victims, telling them they had defaulted on a payday loan and they were about to go to jail. They could avoid this embarrassment by making a payment, right now, over the phone.

      The scary thing was the scammer seemed to have a lot of personal information about the victims, most of whom said they never took out a payday loan. However, many reported beginning the application process for one online, at a website.

      The DFS says Blue Global used the information it collected to sell leads to payday loan companies. These leads contained personal data on some 180,000 New Yorkers. In all, the agency says Blue Global collected data on about 350,000 consumers in the state.

      State financial regulators in New York said a company called Blue Global LLC made two big mistakes.First, it marketed payday loans to New Yorkers. Payd...
      Read lessRead more

      Leading indicators suggest continued modest economic growth

      The Leading Economic Index posted its first gain in three months

      Although it's not roaring back, the U.S. economy appears poised to continue expanding in the early part of this year.

      The Conference Board reports its Leading Economic Index (LEI) inched up 0.1% last month following declines of 0.2% and 0.3% in January and December, respectively.

      While there was a slight increase in February, Ataman Ozyildirim, Director of Business Cycles and Growth Research at The Conference Board notes that housing permits, stock prices, consumer expectations, and new orders remain sources of weakness. Still, he adds, “The outlook remains positive with little chance of a downturn in the near-term.”

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

      LEI components

      The ten components of the LEI include:

      • Average weekly hours, manufacturing
      • Average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance
      • Manufacturers’ new orders, consumer goods and materials
      • Institute for Supply Management Index of New Orders
      • Manufacturers' new orders, nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft orders
      • Building permits, new private housing units
      • Stock prices, 500 common stocks
      • Leading Credit Index
      • Interest rate spread, 10-year Treasury bonds less federal funds
      • Average consumer expectations for business conditions
      Although it's not roaring back, the U.S. economy appears poised to continue expanding in the early part of this year.The Conference Board reports its L...
      Read lessRead more

      Decline in auto service customer satisfaction tied to soaring recalls

      Audi and MINI dealers got the highest consumer ratings

      For the first time in six years customer satisfaction with dealer service related to an automotive recall has declined, according to J.D. Power.

      The drop, which came amid a record number of recalls, is the result of customers feeling that dealers don't give the same level of attention to recall work as they do to non-recall maintenance and repairs.

      The firm's U.S. Customer Service Index (CSI) study measures customer satisfaction with service at a franchised dealer facility for maintenance or repair work among owners and lessees of 1- to 5-year-old vehicles.

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that more than 51 million vehicles were recalled last year. And, as recall numbers soared, customer satisfaction with recall service dropped to 781 on a 1,000-point scale in 2016 -- a drop of eight points. Satisfaction among customers with non-recall servicing averages 809.

      Shoddy treatment

      Compared with customers having non-recall work performed, those having recall work done are less likely to have their vehicle returned to them cleaner and with the same settings as when they brought it in, and less likely to be contacted by the dealer after the service is complete.

      "While it may be tempting for dealers to focus more on repair or maintenance work, recall customers represent both an opportunity and a risk to the brand and dealer," said Chris Sutton, vice president, U.S. automotive retail practice at J.D. Power. "There is a need for consistency in the service experience, regardless of the reason for the visit. A lack of consistency, particularly for recall work, can damage customers' perceptions of the brand and negatively impact their likelihood to recommend and repurchase the brand."

      Nameplate rankings

      Audi ranks highest in satisfaction with dealer service among luxury brands, with a score of 874. It's followed by Lexus (869), Cadillac (863), Mercedes-Benz (857), and Jaguar and Lincoln in a tie (856 each).

      MINI ranks highest in satisfaction with dealer service among mass market brands, at 858. Buick (849), GMC (830), Chevrolet (818), and Hyundai (814) round out the top five.

      For the first time in six years customer satisfaction with dealer service related to an automotive recall has declined, according to J.D. Power.The dro...
      Read lessRead more

      Life insurance rates may jump for new moms with postpartum depression

      The simplest precaution is to buy insurance before starting a family

      New moms and pregnant women often suffer from bouts of depression, leading a government panel to recommend recently that all such women be screened for the condition.

      But while such screening may prevent complications from depression, it can also result in hefty increases in life and disability insurance premiums, as insurance companies try to anticipate who is likely to become disabled or commit suicide, a recent New York Times investigation found.

      In some cases, insurers may even decline to write a policy for someone who was diagnosed with depression, however fleeting. In others, they may exclude mental health conditions from coverage.

      The problem is that the actuaries who calculate premiums are using data on depression that includes more general and long-term cases as well as prenatal and postnatal depression, which tend to be short-term if promptly treated.

      Stock up now

      While no one is suggesting new and potential mothers should avoid being screened for depression, there are a few defenses available.

      The simplest is that young women should buy as much life and disability insurance as they can afford before becoming pregnant.  

      The good news on that front is that life insurance rates in general have never been lower, according to a recent survey by Lifequotes.com, an online exchange that provides quotes from up to 50 insurers.

      The survey not only found premiums at an all-time low but also discovered that companies are loosening their underwriting standards somewhat, offering more coverage to consumers with risk factors than before.

      For example, some of the lowest premiums include:

      • A 30 year-old female who stands up to 5'8" in height and weighs as much as 190 lbs. can now buy a $250,000, 10-year term life policy for only $102 per year.
      • A 40 year-old female with a cancer death in her immediate family history can buy $250,000 of 30-year level term insurance for just $299 per year.
      • A 50 year-old male can buy a $500,000, 20-year term life policy for $924 per year, even if he smokes a cigar during his weekly golf outing.
      • A 55 year-old male whose blood pressure is controlled by medication can now buy $1 million of 20-year term life insurance for only$2,743 per year.

      New moms' problems aside, most Americans actually have too little insurance today, at least according to the insurance industry. 

      The Life Insurance Market Research Association (LIMRA) reports that 30% of U.S. households (35 million) do not have any life insurance and only 44% of U.S. households own an individual life insurance policy. 

      For most families, a term life policy provides the most coverage at the lowest cost over the term of the policy.

      New moms and pregnant women often suffer from bouts of depression, leading a government panel to recommend recently that all such women be screened for the...
      Read lessRead more

      Some companies now offer time off for pet bereavement

      Experts say it's critical that pet owners be allowed time off to mourn the loss of a pet

      The bond between humans and their pets is special and often quite strong. Dogs and cats are like members of the family -- which is why losing one can bring such immense grief and stress.

      To honor this difficult time, some companies have begun offering their employees paid time off for pet bereavement.

      It doesn’t fall under the genre of “vacation” or “sick” day, and pet bereavement days aren’t required under any federal or state law. But several companies -- including VM Ware, Maxwell Health, Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, and pet insurance firm Trupanion -- compassionately choose to offer their employees time off to grieve the loss of their pet.

      “We allow people to actually do that grieving process and just be able to heal,” said Dani Kahn, coordinator at Trupanion. “I think you need closure when you lose a pet, and it’s important to have the time to do that.”

      Values the loss

      Studies show that, emotionally, the loss of a pet gets processed the same as the loss of a close friend or family member. After the initial shock, there are four painful stages of grief to wade through before reaching the “acceptance” stage.  

      When a person or employer devalues the loss of a pet (for instance, in saying that it’s, “just a dog” or “just a cat”), experts say it can hinder the grieving process.

      Pet loss counselor Janet Zimmerman believes it’s critical for pet owners to take time off following the loss of a pet.

      "It's really very, very difficult to function, and if you can't function, you certainly can't function at work, and you're really not the person you were before,” Zimmerman told CBS News Miami. “You need the time to get back to some sense of normality.”

      Software companies VM Ware and Maxwell Health offer flexible days off to their employees following the loss of a pet. Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants allow managers to grant their employees up to three days off from work, and Trupanion offers one paid pet bereavement day.

      While some say this should be the norm for businesses, others wonder if pet bereavement days have the potential for misuse. What happens, for instance, if an employee is dealing with the death of a fish?

      The bond between humans and their pets is special and often quite strong. Dogs and cats are like members of the family -- which is why losing one can bring...
      Read lessRead more

      Easter spending expected to be greater than ever in 2016

      An NRF survey calculates that consumers will spend $17.3 billion on the holiday this year

      Easter has long been a favorite holiday for consumers – in many ways, it can be the definitive marker for the arrival of Spring, and children are always excited to see what the Easter bunny has brought them. This year, it seems that our lapine friend will really be loading up his basket.

      The National Retail Federation (NRF) predicts that consumer spending on Easter will be greater than ever this year. According to the group's Easter Spending Survey, it calculates that each person celebrating the holiday will spend an average of $146 dollars, for a grand total of $17.3 billion – the most spent in the 13 years since the annual survey began.

      Shopping for Spring

      This year’s estimate is up dramatically from last year’s numbers, when consumers spent $16.4 billion on the holiday. Part of the reason may be that “Easter shopping” may include more general items that people want for the Spring.

      “Retailers are beginning one of their busiest times of year and are more than ready as consumers shop for spring essentials. . . Shoppers will find promotions on a number of items on their lists, from Easter baskets to sports equipment, home goods, garden tools and more,” said Matthew Shay, President and CEO of the NRF.

      Spending breakdown

      When spending was broken down, the survey predicted that consumers will spend $5.5 billion on food, $3 billion on clothing, $2.7 billion on gifts, $2.4 billion on candy, and $1.2 billion on flowers. As for where shoppers will go to find their products, 58.4% said they would go to a discount store, 41.4% will visit department stores, and 24.7% will head for local, small businesses.

      A good number of shoppers (21.4%) will forego going out to shop altogether and will purchase items online. A slightly higher number of people (22.8%) will use their smartphone to research products, with 14.9% going a step further and completing a purchase on their handheld device.

      Activities for the holiday are varied, but many of the old staples remain popular – 57.8% say they will visit with family and friends, 51.3% will go to church, and 15.6% will go out to a restaurant to eat. Many children will be getting in on the festivities as well, with 31.4% expected to participate in an Easter egg hunt and 13.9% predicted to open gifts. 

      Easter has long been a favorite holiday for consumers – in many ways, it can be the definitive marker for the arrival of Spring, and children are always ex...
      Read lessRead more

      Realtors worry about shortage of new homes

      New single-family homes aren't being built in enough numbers

      Wednesday's release of new home construction data showed a sharp rise in homebuilding activity, but it might not be enough to meet demand.

      A survey by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) shows strong preference among consumers for single-family homes in the suburbs, but those homes are getting hard to find.

      For the last year there has been a decline in inventories of existing homes for sale. For far longer, new homes – especially those with entry level prices – have been even harder to find.

      The NAR survey data reveals that 85% of current homeowners and 75% of renters would prefer to buy a single-family home. And they aren't looking for homes in the city. Only 15% of homeowners and 21% of renters would choose to by a home in an urban area.

      Plenty of demand, but not supply

      The NAR's chief economist, Lawrence Yun, says the current imbalance between supply and demand has caused prices to rapidly escalate in several of the “hot” markets in the U.S. There's plenty of demand, Yun says, but not enough supply. He says homebuilders need to start turning out more single-family homes.

      But another housing economist, Jonathan Smoke, of Realtor.com, sees trouble in this week's report on housing starts.

      “It is somewhat concerning that the pace of starts is now greater than the pace of permits,” Smoke said in an email to ConsumerAffairs. “This could be a one-month anomaly given the tendency of the starts data to be revised, but if the pattern holds, it would signal slower growth ahead in construction activity. That is not what the market needs to address the undersupply of both for sale and for rent units on the market.”

      Post housing bubble slump

      New home construction slowed almost to a standstill in the wake of the financial crisis and the collapse of the housing market. When it resumed, builders tended to concentrate on more expensive homes because entry level houses are less profitable.

      The lack of new homes, coupled with fewer homeowners putting their houses on the market, has created a shortage in some markets, and bidding wars by potential buyers. Yun worries it could eventually hurt the housing market.

      “A high number of homeowners are expressing that it’s a good time to buy and this sentiment is no doubt being fueled by the $4.4 trillion in housing equity accumulation in the past three years,” Yun said in a release. “On the other hand, accelerating home prices and the perceived difficulty in obtaining a mortgage appears to be tugging at the confidence of renters.”

      Wednesday's release of new home construction data showed a sharp rise in homebuilding activity, but it might not be enough to meet demand.A survey by t...
      Read lessRead more

      Job openings on the rise in January

      Initial jobless claims at a milestone

      There were 5.5 million job openings in January, a gain of 260,000 from the month before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

      Hires, on the other hand, fell 5.0 million while separations inched down to 4.9 million. Within separations, the quits rate was 2.0%, and the layoffs and discharges rate was 1.2%.

      For 2015 as a whole, the annual number of hires and quits increased, while the annual number of layoffs and discharges edged up. The annual number of other separations was essentially unchanged.

      Job openings

      The January job openings rate was 3.7%, with openings increasing in wholesale trade and construction, but falling in educational services and state and local government education. Openings increased in the Midwest over the month.

      Hires

      The hires rate was 3.5%, with the number of hires decreased for total private and government. The decline was widespread and included health care and social assistance, educational services, transportation, warehousing, utilities, and state and local government. Hires dipped in professional and business services, accommodation and food services, state and local government, -- excluding education -- and federal government. Hires fell in the South.

      Separations

      Total separations includes quits, layoffs and discharges, and other separations, and is referred to as turnover. The total separations rate in January was 3.4%, falling for total private (-199,000) and government. Separations rose in information but fell in accommodation and food services and in state and local government, excluding education. Regionally, the number of total separations fell in the South.

      Net change in employment

      Over the 12 months ending in January 2016, hires totaled 61.7 million and separations totaled 59.0 million, yielding a net employment gain of 2.7 million. These totals include workers who may have been hired and separated more than once during the year.

      The full report may be found on the BLS website

      Jobless claims

      A milestone for jobless claims was reached in March.

      The Department of Labor (DOL) reports the number of people filing first-time applications for state jobless benefits rose by 7,000 in the week ending March 12 to a seasonally adjusted total of 265,000. The previous week's level was revised down by 1,000.

      The initial claims level has now been below 300,000 for 54 straight weeks -- the longest streak since 1973.

      The four-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly headcount and considered a more accurate barometer of the labor market, was up by 750 to 268,000.

      The complete report is available on the DOL website.

      There were 5.5 million job openings in January, a gain of 260,000 from the month before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).Hires, on th...
      Read lessRead more

      It might get a little easier to obtain a mortgage

      Lenders get a little more leeway under new FHA rules

      Since the financial crisis, brought on by the collapse of the housing market, getting a mortgage has been a frustrating process, even for many creditworthy borrowers.

      Overnight, lenders went from very lax standards to very tight ones. Since then, Realtors have argued that just minor tweaks in underwriting rules could lead to an increase in home sales.

      On Tuesday the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) proposed new certifications that both lenders and consumer advocates suggest might help more people qualify for a mortgage. The rules softened language that the American Bankers Association (ABA) says could have made lenders shy away from participating in the FHA program by punishing lenders for any mistakes made during the mortgage process.

      Protection for lenders

      “In this final loan-level certification, FHA is clearly identifying [that] lenders will be held accountable for only those mistakes that would have altered the decision to approve the loan,” FHA head Ed Golding said in a statement. “This important move makes it very clear that minor mistakes that do not affect the decision to approve a loan are not the focus of our compliance efforts.”

      Under the proposed new certifications, lenders are only required to certify that “to the best of their knowledge” the information is correct.

      Mike Calhoun, President of the Center for Responsible Lending, says the revised certification process still requires lenders to certify that the loan complies with the appropriate rules that protect both consumers and taxpayers.

      Should lenders violate the rules, they could face a number of unpleasant consequences, including having to forfeit FHA insurance and buy back any loans they sold under false representations.

      Common sense rules

      “These common sense rules should be welcomed by prospective homebuyers, lenders and taxpayers,” Calhourn said in a statement emailed to ConsumerAffairs. “The rules provide increased clarity for lenders on the proper standards for making loans to qualified buyers.”

      The rule change addresses one of the conditions that has made banks less willing to make mortgage loans. In the past, Calhoun said they feared they would be penalized for any minor error, even if it had nothing to do with the risk involved in the loan.

      He said FHA will still need to guide and monitor the application of the new rules to ensure they achieve their goals. But in the end, he says they should result in the lending industry making more safe and affordable mortgage loans.

      Since the financial crisis, brought on by the collapse of the housing market, getting a mortgage has been a frustrating process, even for many creditworthy...
      Read lessRead more

      New home construction shows signs of life in February

      The outlook for the next few months isn't so promising

      After tumbling in January, the pace of new home constructions stepped it up last month.

      A joint announcement from the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development shows ground was broken for construction of privately-owned homes at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,178,000. That's a gain of 5.2% from January, and 30.9% above the year-ago rate of 900,000.

      At the same time, the government revised its January figure upward to show an annual construction rate of 1,120,000 instead of the earlier estimate of 1,099,000.

      Starts on single-family homes rose 7.2% from January to a rate of 822,000 -- the highest level since November 2007. The February rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 341,000, up 8,000 from the previous month.

      "February's single-family gains indicate that this sector is strengthening in line with our forecast," said David Crowe chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders. "As the U.S. economy firms, job creation continues and mortgage interest rates remain low, we should see further growth in housing production moving forward."

      Building permits

      Building permits, on the other hand, were on the decline. Authorizations for construction in the months ahead fell 3.1% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,167,000. Still, that's 6.3% above the February 2015.

      Permits for single-family homes were up 4.1%, but multi-unit authorizations were at a rate of 401,000 -- a drop of 41,000.

      The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      After tumbling in January, the pace of new home constructions stepped it up last month.A joint announcement from the Census Bureau and the Department o...
      Read lessRead more

      Mortgage applications slip

      Refinancings were at their lowest level in seven months

      Mortgage applications fell last week for the third time in four weeks, with applications for refinancing continuing their decline.

      The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports applications overall were down 3.3% in the week ending March 11, 2016.

      The Refinance Index plunged 6%, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity down to 55.0% of total applications from 56.7% the previous week -- the lowest level since August 2015. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity dropped to 4.9% of total applications.

      The FHA share of total applications dipped to 11.7% from 12.0% the week before, the VA share was 12.3%, and the USDA share of total applications was unchanged at 0.8 percent%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) was up five basis points -- to 3.94% from 3.89% -- with points increasing to 0.42 from 0.38 (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) went from 3.81% to 3.86%, with points decreasing to 0.28 from 0.31 (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 jumped 6 basis points to 3.77%, with points decreasing to 0.33 from 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs rose to 3.22% from 3.14%, with points decreasing to 0.39 from 0.41 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs inched up three basis points to 3.23%, with points increasing to 0.35 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.

      Mortgage applications fell last week for the third time in four weeks, with applications for refinancing continuing their decline.The Mortgage Bankers ...
      Read lessRead more

      Google wants Congress to put self-driving cars in the fast lane

      The states shouldn't be allowed to stand in the way of progress, Google argues

      Google is determined to get its self-driving cars on the road and doesn't want any roadblocks being erected by the states, so today it will ask Congress to give federal regulators the authority to override state wishes, billing it as a safety measure.

      "We propose that Congress move swiftly to provide the secretary of transportation with new authority to approve lifesaving safety innovations," says Google self-driving czar Chris Urmson in remarks prepared for testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee.

      "This new authority would permit the deployment of innovative safety technologies that meet or exceed the level of safety required by existing federal standards, while ensuring a prompt and transparent process," Urmson argues.

      But not everyone sees it that way. 

      “Rushing new technology to the roads will leave safety by the wayside and put drivers at risk. Federal regulators have a process for writing rules to keep the public safe, and Congress shouldn’t skirt those rules just because tech industry giants like Google ask them to. Speed is not a friend to safety,” said John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit advocacy group based in Santa Monica, Calif.

      California DMV

      In fact, it's California that is currently tying up Google's plans. The state DMV wants a licensed driver at the wheel of every autonomous vehicle, ready and able to take control if there's a misfunction.

      California-based Google and other companies racing to get their autonomous autos on the street say they can't be bothered dealing with individual rules in each state, even though carmakers for decades have installed tougher emissions control equipment in California cars to comply with the state's tougher clean air laws.

      Consumer Watchdog said that Google’s own test results demonstrate the need for a driver who can intervene.  A required report filed with the DMV showed the self-driving robot car technology failed 341 times during the reporting period.  The self-driving technology could not cope and turned over control 272 times, while the test driver felt compelled to intervene 69 times.

      The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said in January that it might be willing to waive some vehicle safety rules to mollify the driverless car lobby but has since conceded that there are serious legal issues in allowing cars without streering wheels or other control devices.

      The NHTSA is in the process of writing rules for driverless cars and has said it will be done in six months. The agency is not exactly famous for meeting deadlines, however, and there is some skepticism that it will accomplish much between now and autumn.

      Bad timing

      It's not helping matters that the latest scrape involving a self-driving car occurred Feb. 14 when a Google car and a bus rubbed shoulders. There were no injuries and only minor damage, but the timing was unfortunate.

      “Given the current state of robot car technology, it’s clear that there should be a driver behind a steering wheel and brake pedal capable of taking control when necessary,” said Consumer Watchdog's Simpson.

      Consumer Watchdog and several other groups are calling on the Department of Transportation to hold public -- not secret, closed-door --  meetings to discuss the NHTSA's forthcoming rules and to take testimony from citizens and organizations.

      The organizations, including Consumers Union, the Center for Auto Safety, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, and former NHTSA Administrator and Public Citizen President Emeritus Joan Claybrook made the request in a recent letter to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.  

      Lawyered up

      The consumer groups are facing a well-funded Google lobbying effort, however. 

      None other than David Strickland has been speaking out lately on Google's behalf. He was the chief NHTSA administrator at the time of the notorious secret O'Hare Airport meeting that resulted in the much-reviled deal involving fire-prone Jeep Cherokees. He and Ray LaHood, former Transportation Secretary, both resigned shortly after the deal and are now laboring in the vineyards of the Washington influence, lobbying, and "public affairs" business.

      Of course, federal officials can't go to work as lobbyists immediately after leaving the public payroll so Strickland's current job description is attorney at the law firm Venable, a venerable player in the D.C. influence field. 

      In recent remarks, Strickland has described the self-driving car debate not as a safety matter but as a "speed issue," eerily echoing Simpson's remarks but inverting their meaning. 

      "Without clarity from Congress, self-driving cars may still find a place on U.S. roads, but "it will just take a really, really long time," Strickland said, Politico reported.

      Google is determined to get its self-driving cars on the road and doesn't want any roadblocks being erected by the states, so today it will ask Congress to...
      Read lessRead more

      Airbnb will let you complain about noisy renters

      It's an effort to silence complaints about loud parties and unruly guests

      Airbnb is popular with renters and property owners but not so popular with neighbors, who say the short-term rentals are turning their apartment and condo buildings into hotels.

      Noisy parties are a particular sore spot. Now Airbnb is trying to address the problem. It's developed a new tool that will let you complain about unruly renters, though it's not clear whether the complaints will be made public and whether they will affect the status of those who are the subject of frequent complaints.

      The feature will be rolled out globally over the next few weeks, Yasuyuki Tanabe, the head of Airbnb in Japan, said at a government panel in Tokyo on Monday, Bloomberg Business reported.

      Neighbors will be able to enter complaints about unruly renters in an online form that will be reviewed by Airbnb's customer-support team, Tanabe said. The team will take "appropriate action," he added, but didn't say what that might include.

      Tanabe was speaking at a public forum to discuss issues with Airbnb, which has exploded in popularity in Japan recently, making it the company's fastest-growing market.

      Not enchanted

      But just as in other cities, local residents aren't as enchanted with Airbnb as its renters and landlords are. Besides noisy parties, neighbors complain that the presence of so many one- and two-night renters is changing the nature of their buildings.

      Running into strangers with suitcases in the hallway is not the same as greeting your neighbors, they say. 

      Critics note that many of the rentals occur in buildings that prohibit short-term stays. A ConsumerAffairs reporter recently spent a few days in a Southwestern city in a loft apartment rented through Airbnb and was cautioned by his host that her neighbors didn't know that she was renting to strangers.

      "If you run into anyone on the stairway, maybe you can say you're my uncle?" she asked. The reporter didn't run into any neighbors but he did encounter a large and rather territorial cat that his host had left behind in the apartment. (She had also forgotten to leave any unoccupied hangers, but that's another story).

      In Palm Springs, Calif., home to many music and art festivals, renters of one Mid-Century Modern home are warned that if they emit even a peep that is audible to neighbors after the sun sinks behind the mountains, they can expect a "very unpleasant" visit from the Palm Springs Police Department.   

      But these ad hoc measures haven't stilled complaints, leading Airbnb to adopt a more formalized method of dealing with noisy renters.

      Not just noise

      It's not just noise that upsets the neighbors, of course. Many Airbnb critics say that renting apartments and homes on a short-term basis is driving up rental prices and forcing out lower-income tenants. 

      Many cities, including New York, have tried to crack down on unauthorized rentals but have found it difficult to weed out who's staying where. It's similar to trying to single out Uber and Lyft drivers, they say. 

      "We are proud to have built a respectful and compassionate community," an Airbnb spokesperson said after Tanabe's remarks were made public. "Most Airbnb hosts are sharing the home they live in and we give them tools they need to only welcome respectful travelers."

      Airbnb is popular with renters and property owners but not so popular with neighbors, who say the short-term rentals are turning their apartment and condo ...
      Read lessRead more

      Lord & Taylor settles with the FTC over deceptive advertising claims

      The company paid sources to endorse their product but did not disclose that to consumers

      Popular, national retailer Lord & Taylor has agreed to settle a complaint made by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that it did not disclose that it paid for endorsements and an online article in Nylon, a pop-culture and fashion magazine. The agency stated that these advertisements, which included 50 Instagram posts from fashion “influencers,” took advantage of consumers for the company's own profit.

      “Lord & Taylor needs to be straight with consumers in its online marketing campaigns. . . Consumers have the right to know when they are looking at paid advertising,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

      In a prepared statement, Lord & Taylor said any deception was unintentional: "Lord & Taylor is deeply committed to our customers and we never sought to deceive them in any way, nor would we ever."

      Deceptive advertising

      Much of the controversy surrounding the paid advertisements centered on a paisley dress (shown to the right). In March of 2015, Lord & Taylor began promoting its Design Lab rollout, which included said dress. After giving the dress to 50 “select fashion influencers,” the company paid them between $1,000 and $4,000 to create posts on Instagram and other social media sites showing it off.

      The influencers could wear the dress according to their own style in their individual picture, but they had to include the “@lordandtaylor” user designation and the hashtag “#DesignLab” in their post.

      The FTC took umbrage with this because the influencers were not required to disclose that they were being paid for their posts. This led many consumers to believe that the dress was a hot commodity. In little more than two days, the posts had reached well over 11 million Instagram users, Lord & Taylor’s Instagram handle was engaged 328,000 times, and the dress was completely sold out.

      The deceptive marketing strategy was used in the company’s editorial piece in Nylon. While many consumers assumed that the article was an objective piece written by the magazine’s staff, it was actually paid for and edited by Lord & Taylor without any kind of disclosure.

      Changed its guidelines

      Lord & Taylor said it took immediate action to resolve the issues and "cooperated fully with the FTC's inquiry into the marketing of this dress and have of course agreed to uphold the current version of the guidelines." 

      "The FTC has changed its guidelines since last year and we applaud the new guidelines that clarify the rules," the company said. "Further, we encourage the FTC to continue to update and communicate their guidelines clearly and swiftly as the digital and social media landscape rapidly evolves. We remain dedicated to our core values of transparency and honesty in everything that we do for our customers."

      Settlement

      The settlement that has been proposed by the FTC stipulates that Lord & Taylor will no longer misrepresent paid advertising that comes from independent or objective sources. Any individual who is paid for endorsing a product must also disclose that information in the future so that they are not billed as an objective source.

      The FTC has also required the company to create a monitoring and review program for its endorsement campaigns. The agency says that this system is responsible for “monitoring and reviewing its endorsers’ print, radio, television, online, or digital advertisements or communications made as part of an Influencer Campaign.”

      Popular, national retailer Lord & Taylor has agreed to settle a complaint made by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that it did not disclose that it paid...
      Read lessRead more

      Honest Dollar provides low-cost retirement plans for small businesses

      Small company is being acquired by Goldman Sachs

      Investment bank Goldman Sachs is purchasingHonest Dollar, which operates retirement plans for employees of small companies that don't have an employer-sponsored retirement savings program.

      The deal sheds some light on a small company that doesn't get much attention, but which may hold the potential to help solve a pressing need – encourage more workers to put money away for retirement. Currently, an estimated 45 million Americans don't have access to a retirement savings plan at work.

      Honest Dollar is a web and mobile platform offering retirement plans for employees who work at small-and medium-sized businesses. There are also plans for people who are self-employed or who work as independent contractors. The system uses currently available individual retirement account (IRA)-based savings programs.

      Simple solution

      In a statement, Timothy J. O’Neill and Eric S. Lane, co-heads of the Investment Management Division at Goldman Sachs, said Honest Dollar has created a simple solution to a complex retirement savings problem.

      “Together, we have the potential to help millions of people achieve their investing goals,” they said.

      Goldman Sachs believes the Honest Dollar approach also has potential to change the retirement investment landscape. Signing up is easy. Both employers and employees can do it online in less than two minutes.

      Two retirement plans

      The company offers two savings plans. The Basic Plan allows employers to provide employees access to individual IRAs. Depending on qualifications, employees will be able to choose from either a traditional or Roth IRA.

      Under The Basic Plan, employees make all the contributions to their own accounts. Employers do not contribute.

      The Flexible Plan contains a few added benefits. It allows employers to define eligible employees for participation in an employer sponsored SEP IRA. Employer contributions are at the discretion of the employer, but all eligible employees must participate.

      Portable

      The accounts are fully portable. If an employee leaves a company, the account goes with him or her.

      Independent contractors and self-employed can also set up retirement accounts using Honest Dollar. Depending on how you qualify, you may be able to use either a Roth IRA or SEP (self-employed pension) IRA. Naturally, you'll be responsible for making all your contributions.

      Employers pay $10 per month per employee to provide access to a retirement account. Employees pay nothing, except when they withdraw funds or close their accounts.

      Investment bank Goldman Sachs is purchasing  Honest Dollar, which operates retirement plans for employees of small companies that don't have an employer-sp...
      Read lessRead more

      Is having a savings account worthwhile?

      It is if it will help you accumulate savings. Just don't expect any interest.

      Years ago most consumers parked spare cash in a passbook savings account at their bank, a place where money could be separated from cash needed for day to day expenses and, where it could earn a little interest as well.

      But in an era of rock bottom interest rates and the addition of numerous bank fees, many have come to question whether it makes sense to have a savings account.

      It may, under the right circumstances. But it will definitely pay to shop around.

      Scaling back options

      Many banks – especially the larger national ones – have scaled back their savings account options and the rates they pay. Bank of America has what it calls its basic savings account, as well as a Rewards Money Market Savings account, with higher rates and added benefits. They are fairly typical of the industry standard these days.

      The basic account currently pays an interest rate of 0.01% APY. If that sounds very low, it is. If you had $1,000 in an account for one year, you'd earn almost nothing in interest.

      While that's definitely on the low end, at least it's something, and safer than sticking your cash in a mattress.

      Walling off money

      These days, few consumers put money in a savings account to earn interest. Rather, it's a way to wall off the money so it doesn't get spent on other things.

      With online banking, it is easy to transfer money from a checking account into savings without having to make a trip to the bank.

      Bank of America, along with many other banks, also offers a “Keep the Change” program. If you opt-in, the bank will round up every debit card purchase to the next dollar, transferring small amounts of change into your savings account. It's a fairly painless way to save.

      You can also use your savings account for overdraft protection. Should you overdraw your checking account, the bank can transfer money from savings to cover it.

      So there are some advantages to having a savings account, even though they don't earn any interest to speak of. And while online banks, like Ally, pay a higher rate on passbook savings, it's still a far cry from the rate paid a couple of decades ago.

      Requirements

      Of course, there are some requirements to maintain a savings account without incurring fees. For the Bank of America basic account, you must maintain a $300 minimum daily balance, or link to your Bank of America Interest Checking Account, or make combined monthly automatic transfers of $25 or more from your checking account during the preceding billing cycle.

      Failure to meet those requirements results in a $5 fee.

      Bank of America's Rewards Money Market Savings account pays a slightly higher interest rate – 0.03% to 0.06% – but has steeper requirements, like maintaining a $2,500 minimum daily balance. Failure to meet all the requirements results in a $12 monthly fee.

      While a savings account is not going to grow your money in any real sense, it might prevent you from spending it. It's a fact that some consumers need a separate account as a way to exercise financial discipline. And if you can meet all the requirements so that monthly fees are not eating into your savings, that's a perfectly legitimate reason.

      Other options

      For those who can carefully track their spending and exercise tight discipline, however, a rewards checking account might be a better solution. Some banks will pay a higher interest rate – in some cases over 2% APY – on balances up to $15,000 or so.

      By meeting all the requirements – usually a certain number of debit purchases each month and at least one direct deposit – consumers can avoid fees, earn interest, and sometimes receive other benefits, such as having all out of network ATM fees refunded.

      No matter what type of account you use, the important thing is to save.

      Years ago most consumers parked spare cash in a passbook savings account at their bank, a place where money could be separated from cash needed for day to ...
      Read lessRead more

      Home builder confidence at a plateau

      Concerns remain about lot and labor shortages

      Builders remained confident in March in the market for newly-built single-family homes.

      The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) held steady at a level of 58. Any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

      “Confidence levels are hovering above the 50-point mid-range, indicating that the single-family market continues to make slow but steady progress,” said NAHB Chairman Ed Brady, a home builder. “However, builders continue to report problems regarding a shortage of lots and labor.”

      The HMI measures builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next six months as "good," "fair" or "poor." The monthly 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.

      The HMI component gauging current sales conditions was steady while the index measuring sales expectations in the next six months fell three points. The component charting buyer traffic was up a touch.

      In the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the Midwest was higher, the South was unchanged, and the West posted declines.

      “While builder sentiment has been relatively flat for the last few months, the March HMI reading correlates with NAHB’s forecast of a steady firming of the single-family sector in 2016,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “Solid job growth, low mortgage rates and improving mortgage availability will help keep the housing market on a gradual upward trajectory in the coming months.”

      Builders remained confident in March in the market for newly-built single-family homes.The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Hou...
      Read lessRead more

      Producer prices drop in February

      Costs have held steady for the past 12 months

      The cost of living on the wholesale level ticked lower last month.

      Figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), show the Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand, which measures the cost of things one step short of the consumer level, fell a seasonally adjusted 0.2% in February.

      The PPI was up 0.1% in January and down 0.2% in December. For the last 12 months, the index is unchanged.

      Goods and services

      The cost of goods dipped 0.6% -- the third decline in a row. Most of that was the sharp 3.4% plunge in the price of energy. Food costs were down 0.3%. Excluding those two volatile categories, goods prices inched ahead 0.1%.

      Services prices were unchanged in February after rising for three consecutive months. A rise of 0.3% for services excluding trade, transportation, and warehousing offset a 0.4% drop for trade services and a 0.7% decline in prices for final demand transportation and warehousing services.

      The government's report on consumer inflation for February is scheduled for release tomorrow.

      The complete report may be found on the BLS website.

      The cost of living on the wholesale level ticked lower last month.Figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), show the Producer Price Ind...
      Read lessRead more

      A good start in 2016 for air travelers

      No domestic fliers were left sitting on the tarmac

      Airline on-time arrival rates showed improvement in January on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis.

      According to the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report, the January on-time arrival rate was 81.3%, an improvement from both the 76.8% rate posted a year earlier and the 77.8% in December.

      In even more good news, there were no tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights. However, there were eight tarmac delays of more than four hours on international flights. All delays are under investigation.

      As far as cancellations go, carriers scratched 2.6% of their scheduled domestic flights. The year before, the rate was 2.5% and in December it was 1.7%.

      The consumer report also includes information on chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays along with such issues as flight problems, baggage, reservation, and ticketing issues.

      What to do

      Consumers may file air travel service complaints on the web at this address

      The full report  is available on the DOT website.

      Airline on-time arrival rates showed improvement in January on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis.According to the Department of Transpor...
      Read lessRead more

      Florida bill requires life insurance companies to pay up when policyholders die

      Companies too often look the other way, lawmakers say

      Consumers often search high and low for the best life insurance rate but then neglect to inform their beneficiaries about the details of their policy. The result is often that when the consumer dies, no one knows about the policy and the money goes unclaimed.

      Many consumers think that life insurance companies will go to the ends of the earth to learn of policyholders' deaths and rush to pay the insured person's heirs.

      But in all too many cases, that doesn't happen. In fact, more than $1 billion in unclaimed benefits are gathering dust and earning interest for insurance carriers today. A bill just passed in Florida seeks to change that, requiring companies to use available technology to scour death records and pay death benefits promptly. The bill has passed both houses of the legislature and now awaits the signature of Gov. Rick Scott.

      Setting records straight

      About $8 billion has already been returned to consumers nationwide after a Florida-led investigation found that many insurers had failed to pay up. Ironically, many of the companies were using death records to stop payments on annuities when the annuity holder died but were failing to use the death records to pay beneficiaries.

      The sponsors of the Florida measure say many companies are still “intentionally shielding themselves” from knowledge about policyholders’ deaths.

      “I am proud to stand on the right side of this consumer-friendly public policy,” said Rep. Bill Hager (R-Delray Beach), who sponsored the bill in the Florida House, according to a Palm Beach Post report.

      Florida Insurance Commission Kevin McCarty said the bill will require all companies to get their records up to date and keep them that way. 

      "By searching all their records, both going forward and then retroactively to 1992 against the United States Social Security Death Master File, life insurance companies would have to make a reasonable effort to investigate a claim when they have actual knowledge of a life insurance policyholders death and either return those monies to the beneficiary or report and remit it to the [state] unclaimed property unit, who will forever have these funds available for the owners to collect," McCarty said in a prepared statement.

      What to do

      On the most basic level, you should be sure to tell your family members where they can find your insurance policy. It should be kept in a safe place but not in a safety deposit box, which may be sealed by the court pending probate.

      If you think you may be due the proceeds of a deceased relative or friend's policy, the first place to check is www.missingmoney.com, a website maintained by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. 

      Besides a searchable database, the site contains a directory of the various state agencies that regulate insurance. 

      Consumers often search high and low for the best life insurance rate but then neglect to inform their beneficiaries about the details of their policy. The...
      Read lessRead more

      Researchers find out why Americans don't buy more annuities

      Simple answer: we don't like to think about death

      The idea behind an annuity is that, in exchange for an upfront investment, it guarantees you an agreed-upon income for the rest of your life. But annuities have never sold as well as most economists think they should and no one seems to know why.

      Two Boston College marketing professors say they think they have found the answer: people don't like to think about dying. 

      This doesn't appear to make sense on the surface. After all, the whole idea of an annuity is that it keeps you from outliving your money -- no small concern in an era when people are routinely living into their 90s. You may be old, tired, sick, or whatever, but at least you have a few bucks coming in each month. But the process of setting up an annuity forces you to think about how long you have left and therein lies the rub, says Gergana Nenkov, Associate Professor of Marketing with the Carroll School of Management at Boston College.

      "When you think about an annuity, you have to think about how long you have left to live, how many years you need to finance," says Nenkov. "You have to think about dying -- that's part of the annuity process, and when people do that, it turns them away."

      Hoping it goes away

      Previous explanations for Americans' poor record of annuity purchases have focused on low retirement savings, unfair pricing, and decreased flexibility in accessing one's money. 

      Nenkov and fellow BC professor Linda Court Salisbury say they applied psychological theory to answer the question that's usually posed in economic terms. 

      "Nobody has ever looked at it from the psychology of making the decision and going through with the decision," says Salisbury. "Our idea was the averseness of thinking about your own death is enough to make you use what we call 'mortality salience defense strategy,' which is to avoid it."

      In other words, by not thinking about death and not planning for it, we're hoping it will go away. The theory was supported in four studies that included 748 adults. 

      One study asked participants whether they would rather roll their retirement savings in an Individual Retirement Account, or purchase an annuity.

      "When people considered an IRA, very few thought about dying or how long they have left to live," says Nenkov. "But when the people considered an annuity, a big proportion of them had those kinds of thoughts related to death."

      Two of the studies presented participants with annuity descriptions that contained subtle differences. One description indicated the annuity "guaranteed payments for as long as you live," while another "guaranteed payments for as long as you live until you die." Whenever an annuity mentioned death, interest plummeted.

      "We showed that even those subtle mentions of death decreased further the rate of choosing an annuity and made people stay away from the product even more than if we just talked about years left to live," says Nenkov.

      It's not just annuities, of course.

      "Wills, life insurance, estate planning -- all of those decisions are sometimes put off, and we think this issue of not wanting to think about death has a role," says Nenkov. "Maybe finding ways to deal with that anxiety could help consumers overcome it and make the important decisions because if they don't, there are devastating consequences later in life."

      The idea behind an annuity is that, in exchange for an upfront investment, it guarantees you an agreed-upon income for the rest of your life. But annuities...
      Read lessRead more

      Poor families pay more for diapers, government data shows

      Low-income families see federal aid for other essentials, but not diapers

      Diapers fall under the “necessary, but expensive” category. They're an ongoing expense that can put a strain on any budget.

      But while middle-class and wealthy parents have seen diapers become a little more budget-friendly thanks to sites like Amazon Prime, parents in the lower-income bracket haven’t been as fortunate.

      Low-income families receive no federal assistance for diapers. Neither medicaid nor food stamps can step in to help with costs, and special nutrition benefits for mothers and infants do not include diapers.

      With no federal aid being granted, what happens to the lives and budgets of those who can’t afford this parenting essential?

      Middle-class pay less

      There’s a “diaper loophole,” said Luke Tate, a special assistant to the president for economic mobility in a statement to the Washington Post.

      Diapers are an essential item -- as vital to the health of a baby as the roof over its head. But while federal aid may help with the roof, it’s not helping with the cost of diapers.

      Tate says a poor family could spend $1,000 per child per year on diapers. He, on the other hand, estimates that he’s paying half that amount as a result of having the money to enjoy the benefits of the digital age.

      “I'm able to order in bulk,” said Tate, “because I have the capital, the Internet, the device, and I’m able to receive packages in the place where I live.”

      Government data from 2014 proved that families of different incomes do, indeed, have very different financial experiences when it comes to buying diapers. The data showed that families in the lowest-income quintile spend nearly 14% of their after-tax income on diapers, while families in the middle quintile spend less than three percent.

      Health consequences

      For baby, a lack of clean diapers could mean diaper rash, urinary tract infection, and even hospital visits, according to Megan Smith, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.

      For mothers, Smith notes there is a psychological component to not having enough diapers. The inability to soothe a crying child, she says, “really decreases your sense of being a good parent.”

      It goes without saying that keeping families stocked with new diapers is essential. But the road to relieving the financial burden of diapers has been slow -- and even laced with ridicule. 

      What's being done

      In 2011, Rep. Rosa DeLauro's (D - Conn.) Diaper Investment and Aid to Promote Economic Recovery (DIAPER) Act sought to provide financial assistance for diapers, as did her more recently introduced Hygiene Assistance for Families of Infants and Toddlers Act.

      Both have yet to gain traction and have been mocked by conservatives who see no merit in giving away diapers. 

      However, a new White House initiative, called the Community Diaper Program, hopes to mitigate the surge pricing that poor families experience when buying diapers.  Jet, an e-commerce company, has offered use of its warehouse to sell diapers in bulk to nonprofit groups. More than 15 million diapers are expected to be bought through the program this year.

      Diapers fall under the “necessary, but expensive” category. They're an ongoing expense that can put a strain on any budget. But while middle-class and ...
      Read lessRead more

      Choosing a home security camera -- local or cloud-based storage?

      Each method has its benefits and drawbacks

      Ensuring that privacy and security can be maintained in their homes is important to many consumers. But no matter where you live, there is always the chance that a break-in or other wrongdoing may occur.

      To combat this problem, many people look to home security solutions like alarms – but perhaps one of the best things that a homeowner can install is a set of security cameras. But if you, like many others, don’t know the first thing about security cameras, then where do you start? To narrow down the choices, you may want to think about how you want your video stored.

      According to a recent CNET article, you have two primary choices when it comes to storing video – either by local storage or cloud storage. While each offers a different set of benefits, choosing which one works best for you will depend on your security priorities.

      Local storage

      Local storage saves your security video clips just like it sounds – locally. Cameras that support local storage usually come with a slot where you can insert a microSD card, usually ranging from 16GB worth of storage to 128GB. Depending on the brand of camera you buy, you may have to go out and pick up a microSD card separately.

      As is the case with many security systems, there are some options you can choose from in terms of what your camera will record. For those who want to make sure every second is recorded, the cameras can be set in continuous recording mode. If you’re less scrupulous, you can also set your camera to event-based recording mode. In this setting, the camera will only record when it detects motion, allowing you to get a little more out of your microSD card before you run out of space.

      No matter what your preference is, when your card is finally full you can elect to overwrite the information and keep recording or take the card out and assess the footage. If you want to save any video that was picked up on the card, but want to continue using it, you can buy a card reader and card adapter to convert the information.

      Cloud storage

      For those who don’t want to buy any extra equipment, like the microSD cards, card reader, or adapter, cloud storage can provide an alternative that is a little more hands-off. Instead of physically having to manage a microSD card, cameras that operate using cloud storage save footage in – you guessed it – the cloud.

      Depending on the service you use, your footage is sent to a remote server that is managed by a company. You will have to pay a fee to use the company’s service, which can vary in price. Currently, cloud-based security storage offered by Alphabet/Google costs $10 per month for 10 hours of continuous recording.

      Which should you choose?

      Local storage and cloud-based storage come with their own set of benefits, but choosing which one really comes down to personal preference. Local storage is preferred by many consumers because it gives you the greatest amount of access to your video, but if you want to save your video then you will have to buy extra equipment to do that. Also, managing the microSD cards manually could become tiresome after a while.

      Cloud-based storage is much more hands-off in this regard, and you don’t have to worry as much about overwriting data. However, you will have to pay a monthly fee to access your video footage and technical problems with the company hosting the servers could lead to you not being able to access it in some cases. Also, since the information is hosted on a server, hackers could potentially get hold of your videos – making privacy a concern.

      Of course, video storage is not the only consideration when it comes to buying security cameras – it’s just a good starting point for narrowing down choices. Be sure to do your research before committing to any one course of action so that you can get the best home security that works for you.

      Ensuring that privacy and security can be maintained in their homes is important to many consumers. But no matter where you live, there is always the chanc...
      Read lessRead more

      Car repair costs vary widely, state-to-state

      Consumers in northern states tend to pay most

      Nothing blows your monthly budget faster than an expensive and unanticipated car repair bill. Sadly, car repairs appear to be a major reason people head for payday loan storefronts, where they begin a cycle of debt.

      The RepairPal Institute, a research affiliate of the auto repair resource RepairPal, has surveyed all 50 states to determine where it costs the most to get your car back on the road. The research looked at the average repair bill for three common repairs – water pump, alternator, and brake pad replacements.

      To further make sure apples were compared to apples, the study looked at repairs on just three widely-owned vehicles – the 2010 Ford F-150, 2010 Honda Accord, and 2010 BMW 328i.

      States in colder climates are at the top of the list, suggesting harsh weather might be a contributing factor requiring more major repairs. Alaska leads the way at $1,374, followed by Michigan at $1,289 and Connecticut at $1,271.

      West Virgina consumers pay the lowest average repair bill, at $1,033; Kentucky is the second most affordable state, at $1,087; Arkansas is a close third at $1,088.

      $1,176 national average

      The study also found the national average for the three repairs was a bill of $1,176. Alaska was 17% above the average while West Virginia was 12% below it.

      The biggest states in terms of population were not the most expensive places to get a car repaired. California was the 11th most expensive state. New York was 23rd.

      In general, the researchers say you'll tend to pay less for a car repair if you live in a southern state.

      Avoiding big repair bills

      Regular maintenance is one way to avoid big car repair bills that often crop up at the absolute worst times. Besides regular oil changes every 3,000 to 5,000 miles, it is a good idea to follow the manufacturers recommended service schedule.

      When a large car repair bill does present itself, how you deal with the repair shop may determine whether you get a fair quote. Bankrate.com recommends asking probing questions before agreeing to the repairs. It's helpful if it appears you are an informed consumer.

      You should also check out the shops qualifications and reputation. The Internet makes that a lot easier to do than in the past.

      Here are 10 ways to avoid costly car repair mistakes.

      Nothing blows your monthly budget faster than an expensive and unanticipated car repair bill. Sadly, car repairs appear to be a major reason people head fo...
      Read lessRead more

      Average gasoline price creeping back toward $2 a gallon

      But prices are still much lower than they were at this time last year

      Motorists nationwide may have noticed gasoline prices are rising faster in some areas than others. Two things are responsible.

      The price of oil has rallied from a low of about $27 a barrel in January to around $37 a barrel this month. Still, a far cry from the time not long ago when oil routinely sold for well over $100 a barrel.

      The second factor is the switch over to summer blend gasoline at the nation's refineries. Summer blends cost more, and since production just began, supplies are limited. Each year, fuel prices begin rising in late winter into early spring, only to begin to fall again around July 4.

      Getting close to $2

      The national average price of gasoline, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey, is $1.93 a gallon. While that's still relatively cheap compared to recent averages of $3 or more, the sudden rise may be taking some consumers by surprise.

      The national average price has jumped 11 cents a gallon in the last seven days. It's up about 22 cents a gallon from a month ago. But to keep things in perspective, it's down about 52 cents a gallon from last March.

      Consumers in some states are feeling more pain than in others. The statewide average price of gasoline is back over $2 a gallon in Alaska, California, Washington, DC, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Oregon, and Washington.

      In California, gasoline prices have jumped 13 cents a gallon in the last seven days. They've risen 17 cents a gallon in the last week in Illinois.

      In a tweet, Gasbuddy senior petroleum analyst Patrick DeHaan notes that 99.4% of the nation's gas stations are selling regular for more than $1.50 a gallon. A month ago, only 68.8% of stations were. Today's most common fuel price, he says, is $1.99 a gallon.

      Biggest price move of the year

      AAA says the recent move in prices at the pump is the largest in any seven day period so far this year. The auto club says this year's seasonal rise in fuel prices, due to refinery issues, started later than usual so the increase – while occurring quickly – hasn't been as high as in the last couple of years.

      Because of that, AAA says some refineries have reduced capacity at a faster clip in order to draw down abundant supplies of fuel.

      AAA says the still-low price of crude oil and generous supplies should keep gas prices from escalating too much as we head into the summer months.

      Motorists nationwide may have noticed gasoline prices are rising faster in some areas than others. Two things are responsible.The price of oil has rall...
      Read lessRead more

      Room & Board recalls Doyle arm chairs and side chairs

      The backrest can break during normal use

      Room & Board of Minneapolis, Minn., is recalling about 1,500 Doyle arm chairs and side chairs.

      The backrest can break during normal use, posing a laceration hazard to the user.

      The firm has received 10 incident reports of the chair backrest breaking, including one report of a scratch.

      This recalls involves Room & Board’s Doyle arm chairs and side chairs. The wood chairs were sold with and without an upholstered seat and in five different finishes: Charcoal, cherry, maple, shell and walnut.

      Each chair has a barcode printed on a label located under the seat on the inside of the seat frame. “Room & Board–Handcrafted in Vermont” is inscribed on the seat frame next to the barcode. A complete list of bar codes included in this recall can be found on the firm's website.

      The chairs, manufactured in the U.S., were exclusively at Room & Board stores nationwide and online at www.roomandboard.com from May 2015, through December 2015, for between $350 and $520 for the arm chairs and between $300 and $400 for the side chairs‎.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and contact Room & Board ‎to receive a free replacement chair or a full refund. Room & Board is contacting consumers directly‎.

      Consumers may contact Room & Board toll-free at 855-246-0974 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday, by email at updates@roomandboard.com or online at www.roomandboard.com and click on the Product Recall link located at the bottom of the page for more information.

      Room & Board of Minneapolis, Minn., is recalling about 1,500 Doyle arm chairs and side chairs. The backrest can break during normal use, posing a l...
      Read lessRead more

      Nissan recalls model year 2013-2015 LEAF vehicles

      The relay inside the electronic brake booster may freeze in very cold temperatures

      Nissan North America is recalling 46,859 model year 2013-2015 LEAF vehicles manufactured November 19, 2012, to July 31, 2015.

      In very cold temperatures, the relay inside the electronic brake booster may freeze, requiring the driver to exert more effort to slow the vehicle down. Longer distances or additional brake effort required to stop the vehicle could increase the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will reprogram the Intelligent Brake Control Unit software, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Nissan customer service at 1-800-647-7261.

      Nissan North America is recalling 46,859 model year 2013-2015 LEAF vehicles manufactured November 19, 2012, to July 31, 2015. In very cold temperat...
      Read lessRead more

      New privacy rules proposed for Internet service providers

      Consumers would get more control over how their data is used

      The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) will consider new rules for Internet service providers (ISP) that would limit their ability to use consumer's browsing habits to narrowly target ads.

      Currently, when consumers browse online, looking at cars, furniture or books, ads for those kinds of products follow them around the Internet, popping up on other websites they visit. That's because consumers' browsing habits are a product, sold to marketers who want to make their ads more effective.

      FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to give consumers tools to determine how that information about them is used and shared by their ISPs.

      New privacy requirement

      Under the proposal, the privacy requirements of the Communications Act would apply to the Internet. The proposal will be voted on by the full Commission at the March 31 Open Meeting. Assuming it is adopted, it will be subject to a comment period.

      The proposed rule would allow ISPs to continue to use customer data for marketing and other communications-related services by their affiliates unless the customer opted out. If the ISP wanted to continue selling customer data to third-party marketers, it would have to get the customer's permission through an opt-in process first.

      Wheeler also says the rule would place stronger security requirements on ISPs, noting that security protections are crucial to protecting consumers’ data from breaches.

      Privacy group input

      A number of privacy advocates have urged the FCC to implement stronger Internet privacy safeguards. In a recent letter to the agency, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) lobbied for opt-in consent for the use of all customer data for marketing purposes. It said an opt-in framework would better protect individuals’ rights, and is consistent with most United States privacy laws.

      The letter noted that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Cable Communications Policy Act, Electronic Communications Privacy Act, Video Privacy Protection Act, Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, and Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act all require individual consent before gathered information can be used for any secondary purpose.

      Verizon Wireless settlement

      Earlier this week the FCC reached a settlement with Verizon Wireless over its use of customer data and so-called “super cookies.” The settlement contained some of the same features contained in the proposed new rule.

      Verizon Wireless agreed to allow customers to opt-out of its internal use of gathered customer data. It also agreed to an opt-in feature, saying it would not sell that information to third parties without a customer's consent.

      The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) will consider new rules for Internet service providers (ISP) that would limit their ability to use consumer's br...
      Read lessRead more

      United Airlines squeezing in a few more seats

      Airline is adding a 10th seat to each row in coach on some Boeing 777s

      Flying coach is about to get a little more uncomfortable. United Airlines has confirmed to USA Today that it is adding a seat to each row on 19 of its 74 Boeing 777 wide-bodied jets.

      Currently, United's 777s have 9 seats per row. Since it is impossible to make the aircraft any wider, adding a seat to each row is going to make all other seats a little more cramped.

      But United isn't setting the pace in making customers more uncomfortable. It's simply catching up with an industry trend. Several other airlines have already moved to the ten abreast seating on the 777 to make each flight a little more profitable.

      And profit is what is driving the effort to move more people with fewer flights. Adding seats raises the profit margin on each flight, making stock in the company more attractive to shareholders.

      According to USA Today, American Airlines, Emirates, All Nippon Airways, Air New Zealand, KLM, and Air France are just some of the carriers that have ordered Boeing 777s with 10 seats per row.

      Flying high

      A few years ago airlines were bouncing in and out of bankruptcy. Now, profits are flying high. CBS News recently reported that U.S. airlines made almost $18 billion in profit in the first three quarters of 2015.

      Lower fuel costs are helping, but it was the addition of fees for things like checked bags, meals, and pillows that have helped carriers move from red ink to black.

      CBS News quotes airline industry spokeswoman Jean Medina as saying consumers benefit when the airlines rack up profits because the airlines are reinvesting those profits back into the business.

      Perhaps. But they're not adding flights. They're apparently adding seats to the existing ones.

      Flying coach is about to get a little more uncomfortable. United Airlines has confirmed to USA Today that it is adding a seat to each row on 19 of its 74 B...
      Read lessRead more

      Anchor Industries recalls safety pool covers

      The hooks used to connect the cover’s cables to the wall can break

      Anchor Industries of Evansville, Ind., is recalling about 350 safety pool covers.

      The brass-plated snap hooks used to connect the cover’s cables to the wall can break, posing a drowning risk.

      The firm has received 20 reports of snap hook failure. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves mesh and solid-material Anchor 5-Star, Anchor Mesh, Classic Solid and Defender Mesh brand custom safety pool covers. The covers’ cables are connected to the pool wall using brass-plated snap hooks with a gold-tone spring tab, a seam and a hook end with a bezel.

      The date of manufacture appears on the warning label on the underside of each pool cover. Manufacture dates of “Sep 14,” “Oct 14” and “Nov 14” are subject to the recall. “Manufactured by Anchor Industries, Inc.” also appears on the label.

      The pool covers, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at independent pool supply stores and dealers nationwide from September 2014, to November 2014, for about $3,000.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately contact their pool cover dealer to schedule an inspection and replacement of the snap hooks.

      Consumers may contact Anchor Industries toll-free at 800-255-5552 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at http://anchorinc.com/products/safety-pool-covers/safety-pool-covers for more information.

      Anchor Industries of Evansville, Ind., is recalling about 350 safety pool covers. The brass-plated snap hooks used to connect the cover’s cables to...
      Read lessRead more

      Refrigerator sales are red hot as utilities try to meet clean air goals

      A new refrigerator can be twice as efficient as an older one

      President Obama has his critics, but the refrigerator industry loves him. That's because his drive to clean up power plant emissions is making refrigerator sales red hot.

      Utilities like Dominion Virginia are offering to give customers a $50 incentive towards a new refrigerator and will also pick up and recycle their old refrigerators and freezers at no charge.

      "This energy conservation program has proven to be popular with our customers, with thousands of them participating since it began last summer," said Brett Crable, director-New Technology and Energy Conservation. "It not only helps save energy costs, but lessens the environmental impact of appliance disposal."

      It also helps Dominion as it tries to meet Obama's goal of cutting power plant emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels. The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers estimates there are 10 million old, inefficient refrigerators still chugging away in consumers' homes, burning excess energy and running up consumers' power bills.

      Replacing those 10 million obsolete refrigerators and 5 million more that will become obsolete over the next few years would save 36 million metric tons of emissions over five years and shave consumers' power bills by $50 to $100 per year, $6.8 billion nationwide.

      Today's refrigerators use half the energy of models offered 20 years ago and are prime targets for carbon-cutting efforts. 

      Obama's Clean Power Plan is currently under review by the Supreme Court, but five states -- California, Colorado, New York, Virginia, and Washington -- are still pursuing its goals, at least for now.

      What to do

      If you live in any of those states, it might pay you to contact your local utility and find out if it is offering a similar refrigerator replacement plan. Here are some programs we found. There may be others, so be sure to check with your local utility or state utilities commission. 

      • In New York, a program called EmPower does Dominion one better, providing free refrigerators, light bulbs, and insulation to qualifying homeowners and renters. 
      • Southern California Edison is offering free refrigerators, insulation, and other energy-saving premiums to qualifying lower-income customers.
      • In Northern California, PG&E is offering a $50 rebate and free pick-up and installation, similar to the Dominion plan. 
      • In Washington State, Puget Sound Energy is also offering the $50 rebate plan. 
      President Obama has his critics, but the refrigerator industry loves him. That's because his drive to clean up power plant emissions is making refrigerator...
      Read lessRead more

      Researchers discover cause of insulin resistance in type 2 diabetes

      The discovery may lead to new treatment options for the disease

      Over 29 million people in the U.S. have diabetes, and over eight million who have it are undiagnosed, according to a 2014 statistical analysis. Although the disease affects so many, it has been hard for scientists and researchers to nail down a cure. This is due, in part, to the fact that the disease can take different forms, and there are still some things that researchers do not know about them.

      However, a recent study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania has shed some light on type 2 diabetes. Researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine believe that they have finally found the cause of insulin resistance, which is characteristic of this particular type of the disease.

      Excess fat

      Many people attribute insulin resistance to fluctuating sugar levels in the body, but researchers say that it also has to do with the amount of fat in the body. In particular, too much fat inside of skeletal muscle is one main cause of insulin resistance.

      With this in mind, scientists went about trying to find out how excess fat could be removed from skeletal muscle. If this fat could be removed, they reasoned, then it would also be possible to prevent insulin resistance from occurring. But in order to do that, there were some questions that had to be answered first.

      “This research sought to answer a few large questions. . . How does fat get into skeletal muscle? And how is the elevation of certain amino acids in people with diabetes related to insulin resistance?” asked Dr. Zoltan Arany, senior author of the study. “We have appreciated for over ten years that diabetes is accompanied by elevations in the blood of branched-chain amino acids, which humans can only obtain in their diet. However, we didn’t understand how this could cause insulin resistance and diabetes. How is elevated blood sugar related to these amino acids?”

      New way to treat diabetes

      In order to answer these questions, Dr. Arany and his team began examining amino acids and what happened when they broke down. They found that when these compounds broke down, a byproduct called 3-HIB was created. After being secreted by muscle cells, 3-HIB activated certain cells which resulted in more fat being stored in skeletal muscle tissue.

      Researchers observed this phenomenon in mice and saw that when it happened it led to insulin resistance. By blocking 3-HIB from synthesizing, researchers were able to keep excess fat from going to the skeletal muscle and insulin resistance was no longer a problem.

      Dr. Arany is quick to note that 3-HIB byproducts are also plentiful in humans who have type-2 diabetes, so although there will need to be more research to prove that there is a link, he is confident that one may be discovered in the future.

      “The discovery of this novel pathway – the way the body breaks down these amino acids that drives more fat into the muscles – opens new avenues for future research on insulin resistance, and introduces a conceptually entirely new way to target treatment for diabetes,” he said.

      The full study has been published in Nature Medicine

      Over 29 million people in the U.S. have diabetes, and over eight million who have it are undiagnosed, according to a 2014 statistical analysis. Although th...
      Read lessRead more

      Plant proteins and an emphasis on avoided ingredients will be big in 2016, experts say

      Asian noodles also make the list of the year's most influential food trends

      As we previously reported, it seems 2016 will be the year of consumers favoring better-for-you snacks that can be consumed on the go.

      In a blog post, MarketResearch.com echoed this finding and noted that 2016 will also see the influence of a few other food trends. Among them: asian noodles, plant proteins, and an emphasis on avoided ingredients.

      Asian noodles

      As consumers begin to walk on the wild side a bit more when it comes to their food choices, they’re finding Asian noodles are the perfect out-of-the-ordinary option. As a result, restaurants are getting creative with how they serve up Asian noodle dishes.

      While some still take an authentic approach to their Asian noodle offerings, many restaurants are coming up with new and innovative ways to feature the dish on their menus.

      Experts say the potential is great for this highly versatile food. The presence of Asian noodles on both mainstream American and non-Asian ethnic menus -- whether in its authentic form or with a new twist -- will help expose the dish to more diners.

      Plant proteins

      The spotlight is on soy this year, as environmentally and economically-conscious Americans turn to vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian lifestyles.

      More than ever, consumers seem to be taking note of the resource-depleting nature of the average meat-based lifestyle. Thirty-seven percent of consumers ages 25 to 39 are likely to seek out proteins, according to a survey by Packaged Facts. The survey also found that half of respondents said they've eaten less meat in the past several years.

      The growing number of plant protein options in stores could also be swaying more Americans to go a little easier on the meat consumption front. In response to consumers' rising interest in plant-based proteins, retailers are taking a new approach towards marketing meat and poultry.

      According to the report, Meat and Poultry: U.S. Retail Market Trends and Opportunities, grocers and restaurants have already begun featuring locally produced meats and “free from” products.

      Avoided ingredients

      Growing numbers of people with gluten intolerance and celiac disease have more Americans focusing on what’s not going into their bodies. Gluten-free foods, non-GMOs, and ancient grains have been big money makers in the food industry recently, and consumers seem happy with the added presence of such foods in restaurants and grocery stores.

      Fifteen percent of consumers said they have chosen a gluten-free product while dining out without three months of buying a gluten-free product at the store, according to the report, Gluten-Free Foods in the U.S., Fifth Edition.

      Non-GMO items are also in high demand. An estimated $200 billion was spent on non-GMO items in 2014, and analysts expect sales to increase by 65% in the next three years.

      Rest assured that the projected growth of the non-GMO industry hasn’t gone unnoticed by marketers. They’re already busy marking items as non-GMO -- including products that have not ever been sold with GMOs.

      As we previously reported, it seems 2016 will be the year of consumers favoring better-for-you snacks that can be consumed on the go. In a blog post, M...
      Read lessRead more

      Autolist: U.S. carmakers benefiting from VW's woes

      VWs taking longer to sell and do so for less

      Volkswagen CEO Michael Horn's sudden resignation this week is the prelude to an even bigger drama coming up at the end of the month. That's when VW lawyers must appear before a federal judge and explain how the carmaker plans to fix nearly 600,000 “clean diesel” cars in the U.S. that cheat on emissions tests.

      Meanwhile, automotive site Autolist has presented more evidence of a damaged VW brand and how U.S. automakers are benefiting.

      Autolist is an online automotive marketplace where cars are listed for sale. Autolist has monitored recent search traffic and concluded that, as the VW emissions cheating scandal has unfolded, Volkswagen has fallen in the eyes of the American consumer while the status of U.S. carmakers has risen.

      VW prices at all-time lows

      The site says its most recent analysis of 42 million bits of data shows that list prices for Volkswagens among the 600,000 models tainted by the scandal have fallen to all-time lows. The price of those cars are 6.4% less than expected while the list price of VW models not involved in the scandal are down 2.4%.

      It's also taking a lot longer to sell a Volkswagen. The Autolist report shows the time spent on the market by scandal-tainted cars is 88% above average, at 178 days. But even the VWs not touched by scandal are taking longer to sell, 13% above average at 106 days.

      Good news for Detroit

      Volkswagen's losses appear to be American carmakers' gains. Chevrolet and Ford are both selling faster since the diesel scandal, with Chevy selling 13.5 days faster and Ford shedding 14.5 days on the market.

      Autolist says that trend might continue for a while, since public opinion about U.S. brands is on the rise. Again, it appears to be Ford and Chevrolet that have benefited most.

      When it comes to searches for specific brands, Autolist says volume for comparable Fords and Chevrolets have increased 14% and 12.3% since the scandal. At the same time, the VW search line is on a downward trend.

      Volkswagen CEO Michael Horn's sudden resignation this week is the prelude to an even bigger drama coming up at the end of the month. That's when VW lawyers...
      Read lessRead more

      How different generations are driving the housing market

      Realtors' report explores some myths about Millennials

      A new report from the real estate industry explores two myths about Millennials – that they aren't buying homes and that they wouldn't be caught dead in the suburbs.

      Reality, it seems, is a bit different.

      The research by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) shows that Millennials have been the largest generational segment of homebuyers for the last three years and increasingly, they're heading for the burbs.

      Those are just some of the findings contained in the annual report, which takes a look back at the major housing trends that shaped the market, and potentially could influence it in the future.

      Not a shock

      The fact that Millennials are buying homes shouldn't have come as a shock. They're getting older and forming households. And it's been seven and a half years since the financial crisis. In short, they're getting on with their lives.

      They are also the next population bulge. The Baby Boomers are heading off into retirement and, because of that, the NAR says it has broken that generation in half – younger and older Boomers.

      Younger Boomers make up 16% of recent homebuyers and older Boomers 15%. However, they're buying different types of homes. Younger Boomers are more likely to buy a larger house as a multi-generational home. Older Boomers tend to be downsizing into smaller single-family homes or condos.

      When it comes to sellers, Gen X makes up the largest segment, at 25%. The report suggests that's because Gen X homeowners are doing better and ready to trade up to more expensive homes. Gen X also makes up the largest segment of underwater homeowners who would like to move but can't, because they owe more than their homes are worth.

      First-time buyers hanging in there

      Rising prices and a lack of inventory have been headwinds for first-time buyers, making it more difficult to become homeowners. Despite that, the NAR reports shows 32% of home sales went to first-time buyers last year, just one point lower than 2014.

      Last year's typical buyer was 44 years old and earned around $86,000 a year.

      The overwhelming majority of homes purchased last year were existing homes. That's not surprising since new home construction has fallen off since the financial crisis. New homes were just 16% of sales last year while existing homes made up the rest.

      The report also underscores the ongoing changes in the way real estate is bought and sold. Nearly all generations' first step in the search for a home was to look online, either through online classifieds or a real estate website. The most likely to search first online were older Boomers, followed by younger Boomers.

      A new report from the real estate industry explores two myths about Millennials – that they aren't buying homes and that they wouldn't be caught dead in th...
      Read lessRead more

      Volkswagen America CEO resigns

      His replacement has days to come up with diesel scandal fix

      Volkswagen still said how it plans to fix all those diesel powered cars with software designed to help them fool U.S. emissions test. And it will be up to a new CEO to figure out how to do it.

      Michael Horn, president and CEO, Volkswagen Group of America, has resigned effective immediately. A statement from the company said the decision was mutual.

      Hinrich Woebcken, another top VW executive, will assume the duties of CEO. He will have a tough task in preparing the automaker to meet a court-imposed deadline to explain by March 24 how it plans to repair nearly 600,000 cars in the U.S. that fail to meet emissions standards.

      Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer gave the German automaker one month to come up with a plan to bring the offending vehicles into compliance. As it stands now, the cars do not meet U.S. clean air standards.

      30 days notice

      At the hearing last month. Breyer reminded VW's lawyers that with each day without a fix, the cars are belching excess pollution into the air. As we reported in late February, MIT researchers conclude that the extra diesel pollution from the non-compliant cars will directly contribute to 60 deaths in the U.S.

      If the offending cars are recalled in the short term, the researchers said another 130 premature deaths could be avoided.

      In September, Volkswagen apologized and stopped the sales of “clean diesel” vehicles in the U.S., after it was shown that the onboard software was programmed to trick emissions testing equipment, to show the cars were in compliance with clean air standards, when in fact they were emitting 40 times the allowed pollution.

      Since then, the Volkswagen brand has taken a hit as the company has struggled to find a way to make the vehicles perform within emissions standards.

      Volkswagen still said how it plans to fix all those diesel powered cars with software designed to help them fool U.S. emissions test. And it will be up to ...
      Read lessRead more

      Wonderful Pistachios recalls pistachios

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Wonderful Pistachios is recalling a limited number of flavors and sizes of in-shell and shelled pistachios.

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      The products, distributed through several retailers across the U.S. and in Canada, can be identified by a 13-digit lot code number that can be found on the lower back or bottom panel of the package.

      The specific products and lot codes are:

      Product Description

      Brand

      UPC

      Unit WT

      Code Date / Lot Number

      Lot Code Location

      Roasted No Salt Inshell Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113910064

      16oz

      2016 OCT 26 – 150912325560115091232557011509123255901
      2016 OCT 27 – 1509123256001

      back of the bag - bottom left

      Roasted No Salt Inshell Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113910187

      8oz

      10/26/2016 - 1509123259601

      Back of the bag - bottom left

      Roasted No Salt Inshell Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113913652

      200g

      2016/10/26 - 1509123260301

      Back of the bag - bottom right

      Roasted No Salt Inshell Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113912532

      225g

      2016/10/26 - 1509123256901

      Back of the bag - bottom left

      Roasted Salt and Pepper Inshell Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113910293

      4.5oz

      2016 NOV 05 - 1510123307001

      Back of the bag - bottom right

      Roasted Salted Inshell Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113911863

      1.5 oz

      10/26/16 – 1509123256701
      10/28/16 - 1509123256801

      Back of the bag - bottom right

      Roasted Salted Inshell Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113911979

      24 oz

      2016 OCT 27 – 1509123260601
      2016 NOV 02 - 1510123304901

      Back of the bag - bottom right

      Roasted Salted Inshell Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113910088

      5 oz

      2016 OCT 30 - 1509123289801

      Back of the bag - bottom right

      Roasted Salted Inshell Pistachios

      Wonderful

      N/A

      13 oz

      2016 NOV 02 - 1510123304801

      On clear bag - bottom that has back seal

      Roasted Salted Inshell Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113913638

      40 oz

      11/05/2016 - 1510123332601

      Back of the bag - bottom right

      Roasted Salted Shelled Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113734066

      6oz

      10/26/2016 - 1509123260401

      Back of the bag - bottom right

      Roasted Salted Shelled Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113913386

      2.5oz

      2016 NOV 02 - 1510123295001

      Back of the bag - bottom left

      Roasted Salted Shelled Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113910125

      24oz

      2016 NOV 04 – 1510123331501
      2016 NOV 05 – 1510123305001

      Bottom of the bag

      Roasted Salted Shelled Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113734066

      6 oz

      11/02/2016 - 1510123295301

      Back of the bag - bottom right

      Roasted Salted Shelled Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113912044

      225g

      2016/10/27 - 1509123259801

      Back of the bag - bottom left

      Roasted Sweet Chili Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113913331

      1.25oz

      2016 NOV 04 - 1510123307901

      back of the bag - bottom left

      Roasted Sweet Chili Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113910309

      4.5oz

      2016 NOV 05 - 1510123308101

      Back of the bag - bottom right

      Roasted Salted Inshell Pistachios

      Wonderful

      014113912839

      1 oz

      2016 OCT 26 – 1509123255401
      2016 OCT 29 – 1509123255501
      2016 NOV 02 - 1510123294801

      Back of the bag - bottom right

      Roasted Salted Inshell Pistachios

      Wonderful

      00014113910255

      25 lbs

      2016/11/02 – 1510123294601
      2016/11/05 – 1510123332501

      side box

      Roasted Salted Inshell Pistachios

      Paramount Farms

      NA

      25 lbs

      2016 OCT 29 – 1509123280901
      2016 NOV 06 - 1510123332401

      side box

      50% Less Salt Dry Roasted & Salted Inshell Pistachios

      Trader Joe's

      00111348

      16 oz

      2016 OCT 28 – 1509123256501
      2016 OCT 29 – 1509123256401
      2016 OCT 30 – 1509123256601
      2016 NOV 03 – 1510123307101
      2016 NOV 04 – 15101233072011510123307301

      Back of the bag - bottom right

      Dry Roasted & Unsalted Inshell Pistachios

      Trader Joe's

      00079990

      16oz

      2016 OCT 27 – 1509123256101
      2016 OCT 28 – 15091232562011509123256301

      Back of the bag - bottom right

      Dry Roasted & Salted Inshell Pistachios  

      Trader Joe's

      00079983

      16 oz

      2016 OCT 28 – 15091232599011509123260001
      2016 OCT 29 – 1509123260101
      2016 NOV 03 - 1510123294901

      Back of the bag - bottom right

      What to do

      Customers may return the recalled for a refund by sending the product back or bottom portion of the package that contains the lot code to Wonderful Pistachios, 13646 Hwy 33, Lost Hills, CA 93249.

      They may also return the product to the store from which it was purchased for a refund. The nuts should be discarded prior to the return of the entire package or lot code panel to the retail store.

      Consumers with questions may call (844) 505-3844, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.

      Wonderful Pistachios is recalling a limited number of flavors and sizes of in-shell and shelled pistachios. The products may be contaminated with S...
      Read lessRead more

      What makes a good leader in the eyes of a Millennial employee?

      An expert offers insight into what employers can expect from 'The Great Generational Shift'

      The post-Baby Boomer shift is currently underway, and it’s bringing with it some interesting changes to workplace environments.

      As the youth bubble continues its rapid expansion, the workplace is set to be comprised of less than 20% boomers and more than 20% second-wave millennials by the year 2020.

      What does this mean for managers and leaders? Bruce Tulgan, founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., says this shift in numbers will cause a change in the very nature of the employee-employer relationship.

      He describes this “Great Generational Shift” as a long-anticipated turning point with a whole new set of challenges for employers.

      Strong leadership

      Tulgan says that along with the influx of young employees comes a new set of behaviors and employee expectations. The generation -- described as having been raised by “helicopter parents on steroids” -- is a notably high-maintenance one, with its own ideas of what makes a good leader.

      “Millennials are the most likely to question or challenge employers’ rules, managers’ instructions, employment conditions, and established rewards structures,” says Tulgan, who says that weak leadership can lead to diminished employee productivity.

      For a manager to be most effective amid the demographic shift, Tulgan says they’ll need to be strong and highly-engaged. This will entail working hard to provide each worker with regular guidance, support, and coaching. The more structure the better.

      “Strong,” he says, “means doing more for some workers and less for others, based on their performance.” Rewarding discretionary effort is especially important in the post-Boomer workforce.

      High-maintenance employees

      In addition to being more likely to question employee policies, Millennials are also more likely than previous generations to make specific requests regarding work conditions, said Tulgan in a white paper. 

      According to Tulgan, managers will need to be ready to field questions and demands pertaining to the assignment of tasks, problem solving, scheduling, work location, dispute resolution, coaching, recognition, and promotions. A leader who is highly-engaged with his or her employees will be able to draw forth a millennial’s best efforts, enabling them to thrive in the workplace.

      For more information on managing millennial employees, check out Tulgan's books on the subject: Bridging the Soft Skills Gap and Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials

      The post-Baby Boomer shift is currently underway, and it’s bringing with it some interesting changes to workplace environments.As the youth bubble cont...
      Read lessRead more

      Consumers ran up big credit card bills last year

      The fourth quarter 2015 increase in debt was larger than for all of 2014

      Economists and stock market prognosticators appear sharply divided. Things are about to get really bad, or maybe not.

      True, the world economy isn't growing much. The U.S. economy, outside of the oil industry, isn't doing too badly. And even oil prices have risen lately, leading some to speculate that the market has bottomed.

      Personal finance website CardHub.com uses consumer's household debt data to chart economic progress. In it's latest study, the site is issuing some warnings.

      Credit card binge

      The study authors say in the second half of 2015, consumers went on the biggest credit card binges in the history of the annual review. Total credit card debt for the year rose by $71 billion.

      One particularly troubling statistic – consumers took on as much new debt in the last three months of last year as they did in all of 2014.

      At the end of the year, CardHub found that the average household had credit card balances of $7,879. The authors say that is “perilously close to a tipping point” that sinks consumers under the increasing weight of debt.

      To CardHub, the fourth quarter of last year was the killer. Consumers added $52.4 billion to their credit card balances, the largest buildup in that quarter since the Great Recession. It was twice the amount consumers put on their plastic in the prior three months.

      Significant surge since 2012

      Credit card balances in the fourth quarter of 2015 were 24% greater than 2014, 77% greater than 2013, and 95% greater than 2012. That suggests one of two things. Consumers are either feeling more confidence in their ability to repay debt, or economic circumstances are prompting them to rely more on credit to maintain their standard of living.

      Other data, showing consumer incomes have remained static for several years, suggests the latter scenario.

      CardHub offers several tips for managing debt that some you may have heard before, like making a budget and sticking to it and building up an emergency fund.

      Others are more novel, such as the “island approach” to credit cards. That's a strategy of using different cards for different purchases.

      If you use a credit card for day to day expenses, make sure that gets paid off at the end of every billing cycle. Transfer balances to a 0% credit card and don't use it until it's paid off.

      Economists and stock market prognosticators appear sharply divided. Things are about to get really bad, or maybe not.True, the world economy isn't grow...
      Read lessRead more

      Amazon inks deal to lease 20 aircraft to deliver packages

      The move will allow the company more control over its operations and provide faster delivery times

      Way back in December of 2013, Amazon unveiled its concept for Amazon Prime Air – a drone delivery service that would be able to deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes or less. While the service has yet to take off, so to say, Amazon is not sitting back and waiting to take to the skies.

      Reuters reports that Amazon has struck a deal to lease 20 Boeing 767 aircraft from Air Transport Services Group Inc (ATSG). With the move, Amazon will be able to take more control over its shipping and business operations while allowing them to deliver packages at an even faster rate. The lease agreement will last anywhere from five to seven years, according to ATSG.

      Included in the deal is an option for Amazon to buy up to 19.9% of ATSG’s stock over five years. Word of the deal has moved quickly and investors have begun to respond. ATSG shares jumped 21% in premarket trading on Wednesday. 

      Way back in December of 2013, Amazon unveiled its concept for Amazon Prime Air – a drone delivery service that would be able to deliver packages to custome...
      Read lessRead more

      Amazon jumps into home shopping TV

      Style Code Live will feature products available through Amazon

      Amazon.com's foray into video streaming will take another turn tonight when the online giant premiers its first live show. The program is not just entertainment, but is designed to sell product.

      Unlike other streaming offerings that are provided on-demand, Style Code Live will stream live weeknights at 9 ET/6PT. It will cover fashion and beauty, featuring interviews with style experts.

      It will also show products that viewers can purchase and make it easy to buy them at Amazon.com. Unlike Amazon's other video offerings, Style Code Live will be free to all viewers. You can access it here.

      Three hosts

      The program will feature three hosts – Lyndsey Rodrigues, Rachel Smith, and Frankie Grande. Rodrigues has hosted shows including MTV’s Total Request Live and has interviewed a range of film and music stars. Smith is a correspondent at ABC News for Good Morning America and Nightline. Grande is a television personality and theatre actor who has appeared on CBS’s Big Brother 16.

      Amazon says the show will have interactive features such as live chat, allowing audience members to join the conversation or pose questions. It will also prominently display products available through Amazon.

      A “Style Carousel” directly under the Style Code Live player constantly updates to highlight products available on Amazon as they are featured in the show.

      Natural evolution

      The program is perhaps the natural evolution for a company that is firmly embedded in both the media and retail worlds.

      “Our customers love fashion, and have wanted a place to keep up with new trends and get expert tips. We created Style Code Live for them, and we are just getting started with this show,” executive producer Munira Rahemtulla, said in a statement. “The team can't wait for tonight’s premiere.”

      Amazon hopes to compete with HSN, QVC, and ShopNBC, three of the major shop at home television networks. According to Racked.com, HSN sold $2.5 billion in merchandise in 2014.

      Amazon.com's foray into video streaming will take another turn tonight when the online giant premiers its first live show. The program is not just entertai...
      Read lessRead more

      Retailers hope for a boost from St. Patrick’s Day

      Spending may be down from last year, but many plan to celebrate the Irish holiday

      The wearin' o' the green may not boost the spendin' o' the green.

      The National Retail Federation's (NRF) annual St. Patrick’s Day Spending Survey conducted by Prosper Insight and Analytics, finds that more than 125 million consumers who plan to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day will spend an average of $35.37 per person – compared with last year’s $36.52.

      Total spending for the Irish holiday is expected to reach $4.4 billion based on the U.S. population of those 18 and older.

      “Retailers expect to see a nice boost in sales as consumers head to stores looking for apparel, decorations, food and beverages to help make their St. Patrick’s Day celebrations special,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. “With the winter holidays behind us and spring flowers starting to bloom, St. Patrick’s Day provides a perfect opportunity for Americans to get together to celebrate with friends and family.”

      Celebration plans

      According to the survey, 82.1% of St. Patrick’s Day revelers will wear green to show their Irish pride, 31.3% plan to make a special dinner, 28.7% will head to a party at a bar or restaurant, and 21.1% will attend a private party. In addition, 22.8 % plan to decorate their homes or offices in an Irish theme.

      According to the survey, 56.5% of those celebrating will purchase food and beverages, 28% will buy apparel or accessories, 23.3% will buy decorations, and 17.2% will buy candy.

      The survey asked for the first time where consumers will make their St. Patrick’s Day purchases. More than a third -- 36.2% -- plan to do so at a grocery store, 30.4% at discount stores, and 20.8% at bars and restaurants.

      “St. Patrick’s Day isn’t a holiday for giving gifts, but it is a time for inexpensive and fun celebrations that make it easy for consumers of any age and on any budget to take part in the festivities,” Prosper’s Pam Goodfellow said. “Whether they’re heading to a parade, cooking an Irish meal or joining friends at a bar or restaurant, consumers will take the opportunity to get festive and celebrate.”

      The holiday is most popular among individuals 18-24 years old with 70.1% celebrating. However, those 25-34 years old will be the biggest spenders at an average $42.58.

      The survey of 7,108 consumers was conducted February 2-9 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.2 percentage points.

      The wearin' o' the green may not boost the spendin' o' the green.The National Retail Federation's (NRF) annual St. Patrick’s Day Spending Survey conduc...
      Read lessRead more

      Mortgage applications inch upward after two straight declines

      Contract interest rates were on the rise as well

      After posting two drops in as many weeks, mortgage applications have turned higher.

      The Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey from the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) shows mortgage applications were up 0.2% in the week ending March 4.

      The Refinance Index, meanwhile, fell 2%, sending the refinance share of mortgage activity down to 56.7% of total applications from 58.6% the week before.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity dipped to 5.2 percent of total applications, the FHA share was unchanged at 12.0%, the VA share rose to 12.6% from 12.1%, and the USDA share increased to 0.8% from 0.7% the week prior.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) was up six basis points -- from 3.83% to 3.89%, with points decreasing to 0.38 from 0.39 (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) rose to 3.81% from 3.75%%, with points remaining unchanged at 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages backed by the FHA jumped six basis points to 3.71%, with points decreasing to 0.37 from 0.40 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages inched up to 3.14% from 3.13%, with points increasing to 0.41 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 soared 18 basis points to 3.20%, with points increasing to 0.32 from 0.31 (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.

      After posting two drops in as many weeks, mortgage applications have turned higher.The Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey from the Mortgage Bankers As...
      Read lessRead more

      Foreclosure inventory down again in January

      The serious mortgage delinquency rate is at an eight-year low

      The inventory of foreclosed houses continued to shrink in January.

      Property information, analytics, and data-enabled services provider CoreLogic reports the number of foreclosed homes was down 21.7% in January, while completed foreclosures declined by 16.2% from the same period a year earlier.

      The number of completed foreclosures in January was down 67.6% from the peak of 117,743 in September 2010.

      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 financial meltdown began in September 2008, there have been approximately 6.1 million completed foreclosures across the country, and since home ownership rates peaked in the second quarter of 2004, there have been approximately 8.2 million homes lost to foreclosure.

      As of this past January, the national foreclosure inventory included approximately 456,000, or 1.2%, of all homes with a mortgage compared with 583,000 homes, or 1.5% a year earlier. The January foreclosure inventory rate has been steady at 1.2% since last October and is the lowest for any month since November 2007.

      CoreLogic also reports that the number of mortgages in serious delinquency (defined as 90 days or more past due, including loans in foreclosure or REO) declined by 22.5% from January 2015 to January 2016, with 1.2 million mortgages, or 3.2%, in this category. The January 2016 serious delinquency rate is the lowest since November 2007.

      "In January, the national foreclosure rate was 1.2%, down to one-third the peak from exactly five years earlier in January 2011, a remarkable improvement," said Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic. "The months' supply of foreclosure fell to 12 months, which is modestly above the nine-month rate seen 10 years earlier and indicates the market's ability to clear the stock of foreclosures is close to normal."

      Report highlights

      • On a month-over-month basis, completed foreclosures increased by 16.4% to 38,000 in January 2016 from the 33,000 reported in December 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.
      • On a month-over-month basis, the foreclosure inventory was down 1.6% in January.
      • The five states with the highest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in January 2016 were Florida (74,000), Michigan (49,000), Texas (29,000), California (25,000), and Ohio (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 January 2016: the District of Columbia (97), North Dakota (298), Wyoming (551), West Virginia (589), and Alaska (707).
      • Four states and the District of Columbia had the highest foreclosure inventory rates in January 2016: New Jersey (4.3%), New York (3.5%), Hawaii (2.4%), Florida (2.3%), and the District of Columbia (2.3%).
      • The five states with the lowest foreclosure inventory rate in January 2016 were Alaska (0.3%), Minnesota (0.4%), Colorado (0.4%), Arizona (0.4%), and Utah (0.4%).
      The inventory of foreclosed houses continued to shrink in January.Property information, analytics, and data-enabled services provider CoreLogic reports...
      Read lessRead more

      Virginia governor signs daily fantasy sports law

      First state to formally declare the games are legal

      Virginia has become the first state to formally establish the legality of daily fantasy sports (DFS), which many other states have declared to be illegal gambling.

      Virginia Governor Terry McAullife signed a measure passed by the Virginia General Assembly in late February.

      For those who watched no television during the late summer and early fall, and thus missed the thousands of TV commercials for DraftKings and FanDuel, DFS is, in fact, a lot like gambling.

      Instead of betting on teams to win or beat the spread, DFS players assemble fantasy teams of actual players who compete in an actual league. They are assigned points for how well each player performs in a given game and the DFS league player with the most points wins money. Those who don't win forfeit the money they paid to play.

      See, a lot like gambling. So much so that a handful of states declared the games illegal from the get-go. Nevada later declared them to be gambling, followed by New York, where Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has gone to court seeking restitution for players and civil penalties.

      The Virginia legislation, in effect, says the games are legal, whether they are gambling or not. DFS enterprises like FanDuel and DraftKings, that allow players from Virginia to participate, must pay a $50,000 fee to the state.

      Provisions

      Other provisions of the new law include:

      • Requiring fantasy sports sites to implement policies intended to verify that all participants are 18 years or older

      • Preventing the sharing of confidential information that could affect fantasy contest play with third parties until the information is made publicly available

      • Requiring player funds to be segregated from a company’s operational funds

      • Banning employees of fantasy sports sites (as well as relatives living in the same household) from competing in public fantasy sports contests for cash prizes on any site, and

      • Requiring fantasy sports companies to undergo two independent yearly audits of their operations to ensure compliance with all regulations.

      A spokesman for FanDuel said the company hopes other states that have questioned DFS' legality will pass similar legislation.  

      Virginia has become the first state to formally establish the legality of daily fantasy sports (DFS), which many other states have declared to be illegal g...
      Read lessRead more

      U.S. Supreme Court denies Apple appeal on price-fixing charges

      The company must pay $400 million to e-book consumers

      After years of appeals and court proceedings, the U.S. Supreme Court has closed the book on a suit against Apple. On Monday, the court ruled that the company will be forced to pay a $450 million settlement for its role in fixing prices on e-books on the Apple iBooks platform. Consumers of those inflated e-books will receive $400 million in the settlement and $50 million will go towards plaintiff lawyer fees.

      “Apple’s liability for knowingly conspiring with book publishers to raise the prices of e-books is settled once and for all,” said Bill Baer, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.

      Fixing prices

      The case goes back to 2012, when Apple and five book publishers – Macmillan, HarperCollins, Penguin, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster – were sued by the Justice Department and the attorney generals of 33 states. The charges were that the companies conspired to raise e-book prices, working together to take undue money from consumers.

      While all of the book publishers eventually settled the case, Apple continued to fight the decision. The company made an appeal to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, saying that it was simply raising prices to encourage competition and that it was not in violation of any antitrust laws.

      With an appeal pending, Apple agreed to pay $450 million if they lost the case in court. However, if it won a retrial, then it would only pay out $70 million. If it won that retrial, then the company would not be on the hook for any payment.

      Plea denied

      Unfortunately for Apple, the court determined that the company had engaged in price-fixing. In one last-ditch effort, Apple tried to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court – but its plea was denied on Monday.

      “The outstanding work of the Department of Justice team – working with our steadfast state attorney general partners – exposed this cynical misconduct by Apple and its book publisher co-conspirators and ensured that justice was done,” said Baer.

      After years of appeals and court proceedings, the U.S. Supreme Court has closed the book on a suit against Apple. On Monday, the court ruled that the compa...
      Read lessRead more

      Senator, trade group challenge airline fuel surcharges

      The surcharges are "unfair and deceptive," Sen. Richard Blumenthal charges

      The price of oil may be down but you'd never know it from looking at airline surcharges. And Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) doesn't think that's right.

      Blumenthal has asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to look into why airlines are continuing to hit travelers with surcharges that can add hundreds of dollars in fees to tickets, especially on international flights.

      “It is an unfair and deceptive practice when airlines convince consumers they are earning thousands of miles to use with award programs only to be surprised by hundreds of dollars in hidden fees at the checkout page,” Blumenthal wrote in a Feb. 22 letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

      The DOT regulations state that airline surcharges must be baed on a "reasonable estimate" of the per-passenger fuel expense above a baseline fuel cost. Blumenthal says carriers are getting around that by using such vague descriptions as "carrier-imposed charges" or "international/domestic surcharges."

      Also calling on the DOT to act is the Business Travel Coalition, which said the "continued, widespread imposition of these substantial, add-on fuel surcharges in the face of plummeting jet fuel prices cannot be justified."

      "Massive overcharges"

      In its letter to Foxx, the coalition -- which represents business travelers -- said the continued imposition of surcharges "constitutes an unfair and deceptive act or practice and an unfair method of competition" which "inflict massive overcharges on consumers.”

      Both Blumenthal and the business travelers group note that the surcharges have continued despite the price of oil plummeting from a high of $147 per barrel in 2008 to approximately $30 per barrel today. 

      Blumenthal said the surcharges have had an especially devastating impact on the value of frequent-flyer programs.

      “That carrier-imposed surcharges sometimes only surface when a consumer attempts to redeem an award ticket through an airline loyalty program seems to further confirm the deceptive nature of these surcharges,” he wrote.

      The price of oil may be down but you'd never know it from looking at airline surcharges. And Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) doesn't think that's right....
      Read lessRead more

      Amazon set to open second bookstore in San Diego

      Plans to open more locations across the nation have been speculated on as well

      After opening its first bookstore in Seattle this past November, Amazon is staging to open another literary location in San Diego this summer. Original rumors of the store opening started circulating in February when job listings for the store were posted, but it was recently confirmed by an Amazon representative in a report by The San Diego Union- Tribune.

      If the Seattle location is any indicator, the new bookstore will be offering an array of best-selling books and electronic equipment; these include Amazon products like Kindles, Fire TVs and tablets, and the Echo. The San Diego Union- Tribune also reports that the new store will have an “upscale” style, one that matches its location at the University Towne Center Mall.

      While the induction of these physical bookstores has been slow to start, there has been some speculation that as many as 400 stores may be planned to open across the nation. The quote was provided by General Growth Properties (GGP) after analyzing an earning’s call.

      "You’ve got Amazon opening brick-and-mortar bookstores and their goal is to open, as I understand, 300 to 400,” said a GGP executive at the time. However, the company quickly stepped back from this statement, saying that its suggestion was “not intended to represent Amazon’s plans.”

      Whatever their eventual plans may be for the chain, Amazon states that it is happy to be moving forward with its second location. “We are excited to be bringing Amazon Books to the University Towne Center Mall in San Diego and we are currently hiring store managers and associates,” said Amazon spokesperson Sarah Gelman. “Stay tuned for additional details down the road.”

      After opening its first bookstore in Seattle this past November, Amazon is staging to open another literary location in San Diego this summer. Original rum...
      Read lessRead more

      Study: diet, inactivity may increase Alzheimer's risk

      Alzheimer's Association has long advocated healthy diet and exercise

      Doctors aren't sure what causes Alzheimer's disease, a cognitive degeneration that is ultimately fatal. There may be a number of contributing factors. That may be why it has been so difficult to find a cure.

      However, intriguing research is exploring the link between a Western diet and sedentary lifestyle and the risk of developing the disease.

      Tufts University researchers experimented with mice and found that prolonged consumption of the Western diet led to a dramatic increase in immune response activity in the brains of all mice, including those that don’t model Alzheimer’s disease.

      The diet greatly increased the activity of microglia, which function as the brain’s immune cells. It also stimulates monocytes, circulating white blood cells that may cross into the brain in response to immune signaling.

      The researchers were following up on previous findings that suggest some elements of the western diet have been associated with the development of peripheral inflammation over time.

      Immune activity link

      The researchers conclude that it is becoming more likely that immune activity in the brain increases Alzheimer’s disease risk.

      The Alzheimer's Association has long stressed diet as one way to help reduce the risk of developing the disease.

      It recommends eating a heart-healthy diet, saying it will benefit not just your body, but your brain.

      “In general, this is a diet that is lower in fat and higher in vegetables and fruit,” the group says on its website. “Research in the area of the relationship between diet and cognitive functioning is somewhat limited, but it does point to the benefits of two diets in particular: the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and the Mediterranean diet. These diets can help reduce heart disease and may also be able to reduce risk of dementia.”

      Physical activity

      The association has also been an advocate for physical activity, calling it a valuable part of any overall body wellness plan that is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline.

      Regular exercise will increase the blood flow to your brain and body, providing additional nourishment while reducing potential dementia risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

      It's also important to start these habits at a young age, but always clear any new exercise program with your doctor.

      Doctors aren't sure what causes Alzheimer's disease, a cognitive degeneration that is ultimately fatal. There may be a number of contributing factors. That...
      Read lessRead more

      Heavy coffee drinkers less likely to get MS

      Six cups a day appears to reduce inflammatory response

      Coffee drinkers, especially those who load up on the beverage each day, may be less likely to develop multiple sclerosis (MS).

      That's the conclusion of research published online in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.

      Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. The researchers say it has neuroprotective properties and can suppress the production of chemicals involved in the inflammatory response, which may explain their findings.

      They say consuming a lot of coffee every day – around six cups--is linked to a reduced risk of MS. An accompanying editorial cautions that the link remains to be conclusively proven. However, the research is just the latest to suggest that coffee has some beneficial health effects.

      Based on two studies

      The research is based on two studies, one in the U.S. and the other in Sweden. The results showed that the risk of MS was consistently higher among people who drank fewer cups of coffee every day, and the results were virtually the same in both studies.

      The more coffee that was consumed, the lower the risk of MS, the results showed.

      It's just the latest study to find health benefits in coffee, which was thought to be a heart risk in 1970s research.

      Coffee's health properties

      Among the more recent research is the suggestion that coffee and cranberries help fight colon cancer; that coffee grounds contain 500 times the antioxidant properties of vitamin C; and that green coffee might even help you lose weight.

      There was even a study released last year that was part of this latest finding.

      Caffeine has only recently come to be viewed as potentially beneficial. In the past health experts were skeptical of the drug because of its tendency to temporarily increase the heart rate and elevate blood pressure.

      Might not be the caffeine

      But coffee's health benefits apparently extend beyond caffeine to the properties in the bean itself. A 2014 study by the National Cancer Institute found that even decaffeinated coffee may be good for the liver.

      That's because coffee's health inducing qualities might not come from caffeine, but from something else. Researchers say some other chemical component of coffee, rather than caffeine, may be responsible for the fact that heavy coffee drinkers are less likely to suffer from MS.

      They say more research will be necessary to answer that question once and for all.

      Coffee drinkers, especially those who load up on the beverage each day, may be less likely to develop multiple sclerosis (MS).That's the conclusion of ...
      Read lessRead more

      Honda recalls NSS300 and NSS300A scooters

      Brake fluid may leak

      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 1,984 model year 2014 NSS300 and NSS300A scooters manufactured June 18, 2013, to September 12, 2013.

      The rear brake line connection on the recalled vehicles may have been improperly tightened, allowing brake fluid to leak.

      If the rear brake line leaks, there would be a reduction in rear brake pressure and therefore rear braking function, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Honda will notify owners, and dealers will tighten the rear brake line connection to specification, and fill the rear brake fluid reservoir, as necessary, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-800-999-1009. Honda's number for this recall is JY3.

      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 1,984 model year 2014 NSS300 and NSS300A scooters manufactured June 18, 2013, to September 12, 2013. The rear...
      Read lessRead more

      Hyundai recalls Genesis and Equus vehicles

      Corrosion can cause intermittent or total loss of windshield wiper function

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 18,700 model year 2012 Genesis vehicles manufactured August 1, 2011, to April 30, 2012, and 2011-2013 Equus vehicles manufactured July 10, 2011, to June 12, 2012.

      The windshield wiper motor cover seal on the recalled vehicles may degrade allowing corrosion on the wiper motor's circuit board. The corrosion can cause intermittent or total loss of wiper function.

      Inoperative wipers during bad weather can decrease driver visibility, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will replace the wiper motor cover and seal, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin April 22, 2016.

      Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-800-633-5151. Hyundai's number for this recall is 140.

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 18,700 model year 2012 Genesis vehicles manufactured August 1, 2011, to April 30, 2012, and 2011-2013 Equus vehicles man...
      Read lessRead more

      Banks tracking customers' cell phone locations to detect fraud

      The opt-in program should also reduce declines when customers are traveling

      As long as your cell phone and your wallet are in the same place, a new security effort by banks should improve your protection against credit card fraud.

      U.S. Bancorp is one of the first banks planning to use a new service that tracks the locations of customers' cell phones to ensure that credit card charges are legit, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The service will be offered on an opt-in basis.

      The tracking will help banks detect when a card is not in the customers' possession, a prime indicator of potential fraud. That saves money for banks, which typically cover the costs of fraudulent transactions, and could also be a big convenience for clients whose charges might be declined when they're away from home.

      Discover and USAA are also planning to adopt the program, according to the Journal, which says Visa has estimated the tracking could reduce unnecessary declines by 30%.

      While the tracking raises privacy concerns, the banks say they will use the location information only for security, not for marketing purposes. Nevertheless, while both Visa and MasterCard are offering the tracking program, most banks are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

      As long as your cell phone and your wallet are in the same place, a new security effort by banks should improve your protection against credit card fraud....
      Read lessRead more

      Alzheimer's disease may be more versatile than previously thought

      Researchers have found that the risk for developing the disease may not just be hereditary

      Researchers from around the world have been working tirelessly towards understanding, and hopefully one day curing, Alzheimer’s disease. While experts still do not understand every facet of the cognitive ailment, a team from Lund University in Sweden may have taken a crucial step towards that goal.

      The researchers have found that amyloid plaque, the build-up of which is a marker for Alzheimer’s, is much more versatile than previously suspected. Before now, many believed that the build-up of amyloid plaque was hereditary; in short, if you possessed the gene that caused your body to overproduce amyloid plaque, then you were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

      However, researchers have found that having this hereditary trait is not necessary for developing the disease. In fact, one does not need any such gene in order to develop Alzheimer’s.

      “In our study, we show that accumulation of amyloid in the brain is associated with high levels of specific amyloid peptides in the cerebrospinal fluid,” said Niklas Mattsson, a researcher at Lund University. “This means that overproduction of amyloid beta may contribute to development of Alzheimer’s disease in some people, even if they do not carry the hereditary risk gene for Alzheimer’s.”

      Increasing understanding

      The researchers made their discovery after examining patients without the hereditary gene for amyloid plaque build-up. Over 330 people participated in the study – they included people with mild cognitive disorders (which can be an indicator for Alzheimer’s) and a control group who had no impairment.

      Cerebrospinal fluid samples were collected from each participant and then examined. Results showed that there were increased levels of amyloid beta in some patients in the experimental group, even though they did not have the hereditary gene.

      “We were surprised by the results. Our study emphasizes that Alzheimer’s is probably a more heterogeneous disease than we previously believed,” said Mattsson. “The results are important because they increase the understanding of how Alzheimer’s disease arises,” added Oskar Hansson, a reader at Lund University and consultant at Skåne University Hospital.

      Possible medical benefits

      While future studies will be necessary in order to verify the results, the researchers are hopeful that their work will help in the development of new medications.

      “Our hope is that this and other similar studies can increase the possibilities of personalizing treatments that slow down the disease in the future,” said Hansson.

      The results of the study have been published in the journal Nature Communications

      Researchers from around the world have been working tirelessly towards understanding, and hopefully one day curing, Alzheimer’s disease. While experts stil...
      Read lessRead more

      Oil prices are rising. Here's what it could mean at the pump

      More analysts think oil prices could hit $50 a barrel by the end of the year

      For weeks now, the chatter in the oil industry has been that OPEC would finally get its act together and agree to limit production. That, the reasoning went, would boost oil prices.

      While the oil glut is still a reality, oil prices have been rising over the last couple of weeks, hitting a three month high in Monday's trading. On the futures market, Brent crude broke $40 for the first time in months. West Texas crude was not far behind.

      There is still a fierce debate over whether oil has bottomed, or if this rally is just a head fake, with lower prices still to come. However, more and more analysts are saying prices could top out at $50 a barrel by the end of the year.

      On one hand, $50 a barrel oil would be helpful to the U.S. economy and very helpful to people who live in Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Those states' economies have been crushed by the collapse in oil prices.

      Boost in gasoline prices

      But what about consumers who have been enjoying cheap gasoline for a year and a half? Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy, tells ConsumerAffairs that consumers would definitely see higher prices at the pump, but nothing like 2010 to 2014.

      “I’d say $50 oil during the summer could potentially equate to a national average gas price of $2.40 a gallon, while during the winter, it’d mean $2.20 to $2.30,” DeHaan said.

      In other words, $50 a barrel for oil might be a sweet spot, allowing the U.S. oil industry to recover but not causing undue pain to consumers.

      Of course, it's still an open question as to whether oil prices can climb back to $50, or how soon that would happen.

      Reuters reports oil stockpiles increased by 670,000 barrels last week at Cushing, Okla., where reserves now total almost 69 million barrels.

      For weeks now, the chatter in the oil industry has been that OPEC would finally get its act together and agree to limit production. That, the reasoning wen...
      Read lessRead more

      Report: income inequality a factor in retirement savings

      Researchers say higher income Americans have saved a lot more

      Once upon a time the average American consumer worked at the same place for 30 or 40 years and retired with a modest pension and Social Security, enough to live out their days in relative comfort.

      That was before escalating medical costs, longer lifespans, and the wholesale replacement of defined pensions with individual retirement savings plans.

      A new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) finds that an increasing number of Americans have saved little or nothing for retirement, and has focused on characteristics of savers.

      The study found that retirement wealth more than kept pace with incomes over the past 25 years. It nearly doubled as a share of personal disposable income between 1989 and 2013, with retirement account savings exceeding pension fund assets after 2012. While that seems to be a positive, the study notes that there is a distinct disparity among those who are saving and those who are not.

      Widening retirement gaps

      It suggests the shift from traditional pensions to individual savings has widened retirement gaps. High-income, white, college-educated, and married workers participate in defined-benefit pensions at a higher rate than other workers, but participation gaps are much larger under defined-contribution plans.

      For many groups—lower-income, black, Hispanic, non-college-educated, and unmarried Americans—the typical working-age family or individual has no savings at all in retirement accounts.

      “And for those who do have savings, the median balances in retirement accounts are very low,” the authors write.

      The report also finds that economic turmoil takes a toll on retirement savings. Much of the 401(k) era coincided with rising stock and housing prices that propped up family wealth measures even as the savings rate declined.

      This house of cards collapsed in 2000–2001 and again in 2007–2009. By 2013 most families were still feeling the impact from the financial crisis and Great Recession, reducing, if not eliminating, their ability to save for retirement.

      Younger consumers not saving

      At this point, the authors believe younger generations should be stepping up their retirement savings in defined-contribution plans. But while the retirement account savings of families approaching retirement grew before the financial crisis and Great Recession, those of younger families stayed flat.

      At this point, the report notes the much discussed income inequality extends to retirement savings. The rich have gotten better prepared while the poor continue to lose ground.

      “Participation in retirement savings plans is highly unequal across income groups,” the authors write. “In 2013, nearly nine in 10 families in the top income fifth had retirement account savings, compared with fewer than one in 10 families in the bottom income fifth.”

      The report says the disparity has grown in the last decade as the share of working-age families with retirement account savings declined for all except the top income group. It concludes that it may be normal for higher-income families to have more savings, but it is not normal for most families in the bottom half of the income distribution to have no retirement account savings at all. That, the authors say, is a serious policy failure.

      Once upon a time the average American consumer worked at the same place for 30 or 40 years and retired with a modest pension and Social Security, enough to...
      Read lessRead more

      Schnucks Markets recalls Maytag Dairy Farms Blue Cheese

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Maytag Blue Cheese has been recalled from 17 Schnucks Markets locations in the Midwest.

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      No illnesses have been reported in connection with this recall to date.

      The following products were purchased between February 4-29, 2016:

      Maytag Blue Cheese, 4 oz. wedges, UPC 0085408900104

      Maytag Blue Cheese, various sizes (approximately 3-4 oz) sold cut and packaged in clear plastic wrap with Maytag Blue Cheese Dairy Farms label and scale label from the cheese department, UPC 0021806200000

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should discard it, and may bring their receipt to the store of purchase for a full refund.

      Customers with questions may contact Maytag Dairy Farms Monday - Friday at 800-247-2458 or 641-791-2010 or the Schnucks consumer affairs department Monday - Friday 8:30 am - 5:00 pm (CST) at 800-264-4400 or 314-994-4400.

      This recall affects the following 17 Schnucks stores:

      Missouri:
      Lindenwood1900 First Capitol DriveSt. Charles, MO 63301
      Kirkwood10233 Manchester RoadKirkwood, MO 63122
      Des Peres12332 Manchester RoadDes Peres, MO 63131
      Clayton & Lindbergh10275 Clayton RoadSt. Louis, MO 63124
      Ladue8867 Ladue RoadLadue, MO 63124
      Kehrs Mill2511 Kehrs Mill RoadBallwin, MO 63017
      Richmond Center6600 Clayton RoadRichmond Heights, MO 63117
      Hampton Village60 Hampton Village PlazaSt. Louis, MO 63109
      Cape Girardeau19 South KingshighwayCape Girardeau, MO 63701
      Illinois:
      Carbondale915 West MainCarbondale, IL 62901
      Bloomington1701 East Empire StreetBloomington, IL 61071
      Montvale2801 Chatham RoadSpringfield, IL 62704
      Peoria4800 UniversityPeoria, IL 61614
      East State6410 East State StreetRockford, IL 61108
      Loves Park1810 Harlem RoadLoves Park, IL 61111
      Roscoe4860 Hononegah RoadRoscoe, IL 61073
      Iowa:
      Bettendorf858 Middle RoadBettendorf, Iowa 52722

      Maytag Blue Cheese has been recalled from 17 Schnucks Markets locations in the Midwest. The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogene...
      Read lessRead more

      AT&T creating a streaming version of DirecTV

      Details are scarce but the service looks to be similar to Dish Network's Sling TV

      When AT&T; bought DirecTV, it was seen as a rather traditional -- even backward -- move. After all, the common wisdom is that satellite TV is old hat, soon to be replaced by streaming TV.

      Could be, but DirecTV has what in the retail world would be called inventory -- it has contracts with top content producers, everyone from ESPN to HBO, and AT&T; is now in the process of making much of that content availble as streaming video.

      It will be making cable TV programming available without the cable or the satellite, much as Dish Network is doing with its Sling TV. It will also have a mobile version and a free, ad-supported version, the company said.

      Few details

      AT&T; announced its plans for the service earlier this week but released few pricing or content details. That's because it is still renegotiating its contracts with the program producers, some of whom may not be too eager to see their shows streaming on the Internet. 

      Cable companies aren't thrilled with the prospect either. As we reported last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is investigating whether cable companies are putting pressure on program producers to keep their shows off the Internet.

      It's not pretty to watch but the cable and TV businesses as we know them are starting to crumble. Consumers are fed up with constantly rising cable rates, ridiculously dated proprietary set-top boxes and other absurdities of the now-fading cable monopoly era. 

      Streaming pioneers like Netflix have a head start, but AT&T; and other big players bring a lot of heft to the game. AT&T; not only owns DirecTV but also has its own cable networks, as do Verizon, Comcast, and other big telecom and cable players. They may not be consumers' favorites, but they wield a lot of negotiating power with program providers.

      Separately, AT&T; has said it is working on a system that will let advertisers buy ads through a digital interface similar to that used by advertisers who buy those ubiquitous Google ads. That system could presumably be used to buy ads on the streaming video channels as well.

      Anyway you look at it, this is an adventure series that will last a lot longer than 13 weeks. Stay tuned.

      When AT&T bought DirecTV, it was seen as a rather traditional -- even backward -- move. After all, the common wisdom is that satellite TV is old hat, soon...
      Read lessRead more

      Aging computer users more likely to stay mentally sharp

      Study finds computer use makes it 42% less likely you'll suffer memory problems

      People are living longer, reaching age 90 and beyond in greater numbers than ever before.

      But as you age, keeping engaged in social activities and using a computer to email friends and stay connected to the world may be key to an improved quality of life.

      A study to be presented at a medical conference next month finds an active brain appears to help older adults reduce their risk of developing memory and thinking problems.

      “The results show the importance of keeping the mind active as we age,” study author Janina Krell-Roesch, with the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., said in a statement. “While this study only shows association, not cause and effect, as people age, they may want to consider participating in activities like these because they may keep a mind healthier, longer.”

      The study followed nearly 2,000 people who were at least 70 years old and had no cognitive impairment. Four years later they were tested again and those who had begun to experience memory decline were identified.

      42% less likely to suffer memory problems

      Each participant's profile went into detail about their mental activities, including their computer use.

      The study found that people who used a computer once per week or more were 42% less likely to develop memory and thinking problems than those who did not.

      Engaging in regular social activity was also helpful, but not quite as effective as regular computer use. Those engaging in social activities were only 23% less likely to develop cognitive issues than people who didn't.

      Other activities that were somewhat effective in keeping aging minds sharp included crafts, such as knitting; reading regularly; and playing games.

      People are living longer, reaching age 90 and beyond in greater numbers than ever before.But as you age, keeping engaged in social activities and using...
      Read lessRead more

      New York settles with opioid drug maker

      Attorney General says drug is highly abused in the state

      New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says he has reached a settlement agreement with Endo Health Solutions and Endo Pharmaceutical, makers and distributors of the opioid drug Opana ER.

      Under the agreement, the companies will not misrepresent the properties of Opana ER, will accurately describe the risk of addiction to Opana ER, and will summarize studies regarding Opana ER on its website.

      Additioinally, Endo will be required to establish a program to prevent its sales staff from promoting the narcotic painkiller to health care providers who may be involved in the abuse and illegal diversion of opioids.

      Drug abuse concerns

      The action comes amid mounting nationwide concern over opioid abuse and deaths and injuries from overdose. These deaths and injuries have been on the rise for years, slowing recently only because of the presence of so much heroin, which is often cheaper and easier to obtain.

      Last month researchers at the University of Michigan studied records from Veterans Administration hospitals and concluded that doctors have been too quick to prescribe high quantities opioid painkillers, linking stronger dosage to overdose death and injuries.

      Under pressure from various state attorneys general who are grappling with the problem at the state level, the Food and Drug Administration recently announced it will begin a review of its opioid drug policy.

      Pervasive and dangerous

      “The public health crisis created by improper opioid prescribing in New York remains pervasive and extremely dangerous,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “My office is committed to ensuring that prescription drugs are marketed and prescribed responsibly – and that consumers get the information they need about the serious risks associated with painkillers, such as addiction.”

      Endo, an Irish company with U.S. headquarters in Pennsylvania, makes a variety of prescription drugs. Schneiderman maintains Endo’s opioid drug Opana ER has been widely abused in New York.

      In May 2011, after a spike in opioid prescribing and abuse, Nassau County issued a Public Health Alert on the increasing abuse of Opana ER, warning the public and law enforcement of the dangers associated with the drug.

      Schneiderman cites a July 2012 report in USA Today that said Opana ER had become the drug of choice for people seeking narcotics, and that hundreds of people in Nassau County, hundreds of people each month were seeking treatment for addiction to Opana ER each month.

      Other opioid painkillers that are often abused include hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin), oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (e.g., Kadian, Avinza), codeine, and related drugs.

      New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says he has reached a settlement agreement with Endo Health Solutions and Endo Pharmaceutical, makers and distr...
      Read lessRead more

      Price of spring break getaways going down

      Travel industry passing on savings in competition for marketshare

      Gas prices are lower than they were last year, but that's not the only reason your spring break getaway will probably be cheaper than it was in 2015.

      Expedia has conducted an analysis of spring break travel trends and found the average airline ticket prices to many popular destinations are down year-over-year.

      The travel site says there are even deals for those who have waited until the last minute to plan a trip.

      "There are any number of factors that impact spring break pricing – the price of oil, demand, weather, you name it," Expedia's Sarah Gavin said in a statement. "The good news is that all of these factors, collectively, seem to be pushing prices down.”

      Gavin says the best deals appear to be in major U.S. cities. With the strong dollar, she says international travel may even be a bargain, providing you book your hotel and air travel at the same time.

      Bundling offers savings

      “Bundling your hotel and flight can yield hundreds in savings that disappear if booked separately," Gavin said.

      Domestic travelers who travel by air, meanwhile, may see some real deals. Expedia says its analysis show flights to both Miami and Orlando are down an average 14% from last year.

      Tickets to Ft. Lauderdale – ground zero for college spring breakers – are 17% cheaper. Travel to Tampa costs 9% less.

      If you plan to vacation outside the continental U.S., Expedia says you'll find airfare to San Juan has fallen 15% from last year while Cancun is down 14%. Airfare to Puerto Vallarta is marked down 10%.

      Cheaper hotel rates

      Lodging will also cost less. Expedia says the average daily rates (ADRs) of Puerto Rico hotels are down more than 5% year over year. It will also be cheaper to stay in New Orleans, Riviera Maya, and Miami.

      If the traditional spring break destinations are cheaper, it stands to reason that some non-traditional vacation spots would be even bigger bargains. Expedia says that is indeed the case, with Lake Tahoe offering the biggest year over year discount on lodging.

      Other hotel bargains can be found in Portland, Ore., down 35%; Seattle, where rates are down 30%; and San Diego, where the cost of a hotel room is down 25%.

      For family spring break, Expedia says big-city options like New York, Chicago, and Washington DC, along with sunny destinations such as Honolulu or Kahului, are expected to offer airfare savings between 8% and 18% from last year.

      Gas prices are lower than they were last year, but that's not the only reason your spring break getaway will probably be cheaper than it was in 2015.Ex...
      Read lessRead more

      Cell phones not linked to any negative mental health issues, study finds

      But what motivates a person to go online can have an influence on anxiety and depression levels

      The effects of excessive smartphone use -- on our brains, specifically -- has come under question in recent years. Many say too much cell phone use can venture into addiction territory, while others say the word addiction is too strong to describe one’s relationship with technology.

      But as it turns out, the reason you go online or pull out your device may play an important role in determining the health of your relationship with technology. A new study from the University of Illinois has found a link between mobile devices, depression, and anxiety in college-aged students -- but not in the way that you might think.

      The study found that cell phones themselves were not the cause of any negative mental health outcomes. Rather, it was the way students treated mobile technology which affected their mental health.

      "People who self-described as having really addictive style behaviors toward the Internet and cellphones scored much higher on depression and anxiety scales," said Alejandro Lleras, U of I psychology professor and the study’s conductor.

      Motivation for use

      Lleras said the goal of the study -- published recently in the journal, Computers in Human Behavior -- was to see if addictive and self-destructive behaviors with phones and the Internet related to mental health.

      But the researchers did not find any evidence that phones and the Internet were related to negative mental health outcomes, at least when it came to their use as boredom busters. In other words, what really matters is the “why” behind a person’s Internet or electronic device use.

      Students who participated in the survey were asked questions such as, “Do you think your academic work performance has been negatively affected by your cell phone use?” and “Do you think life without the internet is boring, empty, and sad?” Presumably, those who answered “yes” to such questions were more at risk of suffering adverse mental health consequences as a result of device use.

      Comfort item

      A follow-up study sought to examine the effects of simply having (but not using) a cell phone during a stressful situation. While in the stressful situation, some of the study’s participants were able to keep their phones and some were not. Those who retained their cell phones were less likely to be negatively affected by stress.

      “Having access to a phone seemed to allow that group to resist or to be less sensitive to the stress manipulation,” said Lleras in a statement.

      The anxiety-tempering effects of having a cell phone seem to suggest that our devices might be something of a modern day security blanket.

      But while Lleras says the role of phones as comfort items is “tenuous,” he says the relationship between mental health and one’s motivation to use their device should be further explored. Breaking addictive technology habits may play a key role in supplementing treatment for mental health issues like general anxiety disorder or depression, he said.

      “We shouldn’t be scared of people connecting online or talking on their phones,” concluded Lleras. “The interaction with the device is not going to make you depressed if you are just using it when you are bored.” He says this knowledge should help ease public anxiety over new technology.

      The effects of excessive smartphone use -- on our brains, specifically -- has come under question in recent years. Many say too much cell phone use can ven...
      Read lessRead more

      The U.S. job machine keeps cranking

      More than 240,000 people found work in February

      Another 242,000 jobs were created in February, led by employment gains in health care and social assistance and retail trade. At the same time, according to the Department of Labor (DOL), the jobless rate held steady at 4.9%.

      Not all the news was good though, as average hourly earnings fell by three cents to $25.35, following an increase of 12 cents in January. Over the last 12 months, hourly earnings have risen by 2.2%.

      The number of long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or more) was essentially unchanged at 2.2 million in February, accounting for 27.7% of the unemployed.

      Where the jobs are

      Health care and social assistance employment increased by 57,000 last month. Also adding jobs were retail trade (+55,000), food services and drinking places (+40,000), private educational services (+28,000), and construction (+19,000). Mining, on the other hand, lost 19,000 jobs.

      Employment in other major industries -- manufacturing, wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing, financial activities, professional and business services, and government -- showed little change.

      Who's working

      Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men (4.5%), adult women (4.5%), teenagers (15.6%), Whites (4.3%), Blacks (8.8%), Asians (3.8%), and Hispanics (5.4%) showed little or no change in February.

      The employment-population ratio edged up to 59.8%, while the labor force participation rate edged up to 62.9 percent. Both measures have increased by 0.5% since September.

      In February, 1.8 million people were marginally attached to the labor force -- down by 356,000 from a year earlier. They were not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the four weeks preceding the survey.

      The complete report is available on the DOL website.

      Another 242,000 jobs were created in February, led by employment gains in health care and social assistance and retail trade. At the same time, according t...
      Read lessRead more

      Hy-Vee recalls Maytag Blue Cheese

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Hy-Vee of West Des Moines, Iowa, is recalling Maytag Raw Milk Blue Cheese across its eight-state region.

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this product.

      The recalled product was sold in whole wheels and cuts, and re-packaged in foil or clear plastic wrap with scale labels in various weights. Blue cheese crumbles were also sold in plastic containers.

      All product was labeled as "Maytag Blue Raw Milk," "Maytag Blue" or "Maytag Iowa Blue Cheese" and with PLU numbers beginning with 854089001 and with "use by" dates between Jan. 20, 2016 and May 3, 2016.

      It was sold from cheese cases in all of Hy-Vee's 240 stores in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin between November 20, 2015 and March 2, 2016.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased this product should discard it or return it to their local Hy-Vee store for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact Hy-Vee customer care representatives 24/7 at 1-800-722-4098.

      Hy-Vee of West Des Moines, Iowa, is recalling Maytag Raw Milk Blue Cheese across its eight-state region. The product may be contaminated with Liste...
      Read lessRead more

      Senator wants ammonium nitrate out of airbags past and future

      But federal safety regulators say that's not the answer

      In an odd way, Takata's explosion-prone airbags may be contributing to highway safety. As the owner of two cars with the recalled devices, I can testify that I am much less likely to mercilessly tailgate slower drivers, knowing that bashing the car in front of me could result in shards of metal penetrating my neck.

      But snarking aside, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) has been putting pressure on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to recall all airbags that use ammonium nitrate to inflate the airbag when a crash occurs. He also wants the NHTSA to require that new airbags use something else.

      "With all that we know about these things, they should not be used. This ammonium nitrate should not be used as replacements for the old Takata inflators, and certainly shouldn't be used in the new cars that are produced and sold to consumers," Nelson said in comments on the Senate floor earlier this week.

      Nelson made the request in a letter to NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, adding that he thinks all Takata airbgs that use ammonium nitrate should be recalled.

      "New hardships"

      But Rosekind says granting Nelson's request would make a bad situation worse. It would "needlessly impose new hardships" on the supply of replacement parts for the 29 million Takata inflators already recalled, he said in a letter to Nelson.

      Nelson said consumers need some reassurance that the NHTSA is on the right track.

      "Will Takata continue to produce millions of these things? We don't know. We don't know the answer. And are consumers today basically getting a newer version of the old version that has been so defective? No answer to that either," he said. "In other words, are we going to replace an old live grenade with a new live grenade?"

      For their part, automakers continue to issue new recalls as they find evidence of potentially defective inflators. Toyota today recalled another 198,000 Toyota and Lexus vehicles.  

      In an odd way, Takata's explosion-prone airbags may be contributing to highway safety. As the owner of two cars with the recalled devices, I can testify th...
      Read lessRead more

      Always' latest #LikeAGirl spot confronts gender sterotypes in emojis

      Emojis may seem harmless, but experts say they're sending subtle messages to young, impressionable girls

      An estimated 6 billion emojis are sent each day, according to Swyft Media, and over a billion are sent by girls. But how many of those girls are represented -- in terms of both appearance and the activities they love -- by the emojis they’re sending?

      Always, the company behind the “Like a Girl” ad campaign, says not enough. Those tiny, text-accompanying digital illustrations may seem inconsequential, but Always says emoji images are important given their frequent use by young, impressionable people.  

      For their newest “Like a Girl” spot, Leo Burnett interviewed girls to ask them how they feel about today’s selection of emojis. In the spot, the girls appear vexed by the bevy of pink-clad ladies whose likes and interests appear to fall exclusively under the hair and makeup category.

      “There’s no girl in the ‘professions’ category, unless you count being a bride a profession,” notes one of the girls. “Girls love emojis, but there aren’t enough emojis to … say what girls do,” concludes another.

      Societal limitations

      Lucy Walker, documentary filmmaker and director of the spot, says society should be aware that they’re sending subtle messages that can limit girls to stereotypes.

      "It was so interesting to hear these girls talk about emojis and realize how the options available to them are subtly reinforcing the societal stereotypes and limitations they face every day,” said Walker, adding that she’s excited to help empower girls and push them to “rally for change in societal limitations.”

      The spot seems to target puberty-aged girls, as its accompanying infographic explains that girls’ confidence plummets during this time. The infographic also explains that during puberty, a whopping 72% of girls feel held back by society.

      Hidden messages

      While societal limitations are obviously much broader than emojis, Associate Brand Director and leader of the #LikeAGirl campaign at Procter & Gamble, Michele Baeten, says emojis are projecting subtle, limiting messages that have important implications.

      "The girls in emojis only wear pink, are princesses or dancing bunnies, do their nails and their hair, and that's about it,” says Baeten. “No other activities, no sports, no jobs ... the realization is shocking.”

      For girls at such a vulnerable age, especially, the selection of emojis currently available reinforces traditional gender stereotypes in a big -- and potentially harmful -- way. Leaders of the #LikeAGirl campaign say hidden messages like these can, in the most subtle of ways, limit the scope of what girls feel they can do.

      At the end of the spot, Always seeks to open the floor for debate by imploring girls to share with the brand what emoji they’d like to see, using the hashtag, “#LikeAGirl.”

      Co-founder and president of the Unicode Consortium, Mark Davis, has said that while emojis were originally designed to be as neutral as possible, efforts have been made to incorporate a full representation of gender in emoji. A draft specification was released on Monday, which would (if approved) allow for gender variation in currently available emojis. 

      An estimated 6 billion emojis are sent each day, according to Swyft Media, and over a billion are sent by girls. But how many of those girls are represente...
      Read lessRead more

      Trump healthcare policy has elements to delight and horrify both parties

      Candidate would allow consumers to deduct healthcare premiums from taxes

      Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has released a seven point health care policy containing items that likely both delight and horrify elements of both the Democrat and Republican bases.

      A few proposals might even make consumers smile.

      Item one is the complete repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have been trying to do it for six years while Democrats furiously defend it as the signature achievement of the Obama Administration. Perhaps no single issue has been so divisive along party lines.

      Trump says he would replace Obamacare with a series of reforms to improve access to care through the free market and enhanced competition. He says he would achieve that, in part, with point two – allowing insurance companies to operate across state lines.

      Tax deductible premiums

      Point three is a tax break for everyone who pays for health insurance. Trump proposes allowing individuals to fully deduct health insurance premiums from their federal tax. Trump said consumers should get the same ability to write off their premiums that businesses currently enjoy.

      Point four would allow consumers to set up Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) to pay for healthcare with tax-free contributions. The money would be allowed to accumulate and become part of an estate, passed on to heirs at death.

      Trump would also change the way Medicaid is administered. His fifth point would convert funding for the federal healthcare program for the poor and turn it over to the states in the form of block grants.

      Import cheaper drugs

      The final point in his policy outline would allow consumers to legally import cheaper prescription drugs from other countries. This would be a tall order since both Republicans and Democrats have consistently joined to block this from happening.

      “Congress will need the courage to step away from the special interests and do what is right for America,” the policy paper states. “Though the pharmaceutical industry is in the private sector, drug companies provide a public service. Allowing consumers access to imported, safe and dependable drugs from overseas will bring more options to consumers.”

      In addition, Trump calls for eliminating healthcare services for people in the country illegally, reforming the mental health system, and growing the economy so that fewer Americans will need assistance to pay for healthcare.

      Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has released a seven point health care policy containing items that likely both delight and horrify elemen...
      Read lessRead more

      Online payment portal Dwolla dinged for its security practices

      Feds say consumers were deceived about the data security risks of using the online system

      Regulators are serving notice a fast-growing online money-transfer business, stating that they must safeguard consumers' private data and live up to the promises they make about their security procedures.

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has ordered Dwolla to pay a $100,000 penalty for misleading consumers about its data security practices and instructed the company to fix its security practices.

      Dwolla, based in Des Moines, Iowa, said the procedures questioned by the CFPB had taken place in earlier years and said it has improved its practices since then.

      Dwolla, like others in the online payments business, takes much of the grunt work out of moving money online by simplifying the automated clearing house (ACH) process.

      "Our ACH transfer platform securely verifies and connects your customers to their bank or credit union accounts for safe and quick transactions," the company says on its website, saying it offers "a fast, lightweight onboarding experience."

      “Consumers entrust digital payment companies with significant amounts of sensitive personal information,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “With data breaches becoming commonplace and more consumers using these online payment systems, the risk to consumers is growing. It is crucial that companies put systems in place to protect this information and accurately inform consumers about their data security practices.”

      Dwolla said it has more than 650,000 users and moves as much as $5 million per day. It noted it has not been hacked or experienced any known loss of consumer data. 

      "Dwolla is glad to have come to a resolution with the CFPB regarding its investigation," Dwolla said in a blog posting. "The investigation covers a snapshot in time that ended almost two years ago, and the claim focuses on practices that trace to 2011 and 2012. Dwolla understands the Bureau’s concerns regarding the protection of consumer data and representations about data security standards, and Dwolla’s current data security practices meet industry standards.
      "The CFPB has not found that Dwolla caused any consumer harm or created the likelihood of any consumer harm through its data security practices."

      Safe and secure?

      From December 2010 until 2014, Dwolla claimed to protect consumer data from unauthorized access with “safe” and “secure” transactions. But the CFPB said that, rather than setting “a new precedent for the payments industry,” Dwolla’s data security practices fell far short of its claims.

      Regulators are serving notice a fast-growing online money-transfer business, stating that they must safeguard consumers' private data and live up to the pr...
      Read lessRead more

      Postal rates poised to go down

      Approval of the last rate hike, it turns out, was only temporary

      The headline probably looks like it's from Bizarro World. Can that be right? The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is going to reduce the cost of mailing a letter?

      Maybe, but if it does it isn't doing so willingly.

      Without Congress or the courts getting involved, the USPS will be forced to reduce certain prices on Sunday, April 10, 2016. That's because the last time it raised rates, it was allowed to do so through a surcharge. Unless renewed, authorization for that surcharge runs out next month.

      The USPS says if it is forced to cut rates, it will worsen its financial condition and increase its net losses by approximately $2 billion per year.

      Fraction of the actual cost

      The USPS was once a government agency, the U.S. Post Office Department. The taxpayers subsidized operation of the mail service so that consumers and businesses paid a tiny fraction of the real cost of delivering mail.

      In the early 1970s, with costs mounting, Congress altered that relationship, creating the USPS as a semi-private corporation that remained under strong Congressional influence. Looking back, most agree it hasn't worked out all that well.

      Multi-year revenue declines

      “The exigent surcharge granted to the Postal Service last year only partially alleviated our extreme multi-year revenue declines resulting from the Great Recession, which exceeded $7 billion in 2009 alone,” Postmaster General and CEO Megan J. Brennan said in a statement. “Removing the surcharge and reducing our prices is an irrational outcome considering the Postal Service’s precarious financial condition.”

      To help the service regain its financial footing, the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) approved a 4.3% exigent surcharge on rates, but said it had to be reversed after the Postal Service has collected surcharges totaling $4.6 billion. That's expected to occur April 10.

      The rates consumers are charged for mail services are capped by law at the rate of inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers (CPI-U). However, the law does allow for exigent pricing due to extraordinary or exceptional circumstances.

      That provision was invoked in the wake of the Great Recession, when mail volume dropped sharply.

      Electronic competition

      But even though the economy has recovered somewhat, first class mail volume continues to decline, largely because of electronic mail. Documents can be digitized and sent via email much faster and cheaper.

      Currently, consumers pay 49 cents to mail a first class letter. The default rate on April 10, absent intervention, will be 47 cents.

      Why can't USPS be profitable at those rates? That might seem like a reasonable question, but consider this: to send a document using one of the private delivery services like Fed Ex or United Parcel Service costs several dollars. That may, in fact, be a more accurate reflection of the cost of sending a letter than 49 cents.

      Meanwhile, the USPS has become less reliant on consumers sending cards and letters to friends and relatives. Rather, in recent years its main customers have been the direct mail businesses sending consumers unwanted catalogs, advertisements, and credit card offers.

      The headline probably looks like it's from Bizarro World. Can that be right? The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is going to reduce the cost of mailing a letter...
      Read lessRead more

      More "flipping" leads to fears of another housing bubble

      RealtyTrac reports house flipping was up in 75% of the nation's housing markets last year

      In the early 2000s, easy money and lax lending standards fueled a housing bubble that crashed with devastating impact in 2008.

      Home prices are rising once again, but this time it's for a different set of reasons. Mortgage money is much harder to come by. Prices have risen in part because of a shortage of new and existing homes for sale.

      And there may be another reason. RealtyTrac, a real estate foreclosure marketplace, tracks the number of house “flips” and reports they made up 5.5% of last year's real estate sales.

      A flip is when an investor purchases a property at a discounted price, makes a few improvements, and sells it within a 12 month period. Hit reality TV shows like “Flip This House” and “Flip or Flop” have served to popularize the practice, even drawing amateurs into the process.

      Investors move to flipping instead of renting

      Since the housing crash, investors have consistently made up a significant portion of home buyers, but they largely purchased homes to convert to rental property. In the last couple of years, RealtyTrac says the trend has been toward flips.

      The share of homes flipped in 2015 increased from the previous year in 83 of 110 U.S. metropolitan statistical areas analyzed for the report.

      “As confidence in the housing recovery spreads, more real estate investors and would-be real estate investors are hopping on the home flipping bandwagon,” Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at RealtyTrac, said in a statement. “Not only is the share of home flips on the rise again, but we also see the flipping trend trickling down to smaller investors who are completing fewer flips per year. The total number of investors who completed at least one flip in 2015 was at the highest level since 2007, and the number of flips per investor was at the lowest level since 2008.”

      Blomquist is concerned that inexperienced home flippers that are not adequately capitalized rushing into the market could be a sign that speculation is getting out of hand. But he admits that, at least until now, people have been making money.

      “Homes flipped in 2015 were on average purchased at a 26% discount below estimated market value and re-sold by the flipper at a 5% premium above estimated market value,” Blomquist said.

      Downside risks

      There are a number of things that can go wrong for an inexperienced home flipper. If the home is a distressed property that has been vacant a while, there may be serious but hidden flaws that will be expensive to correct.

      The house may require more spending than the market can support to make it attractive to a buyer. The house might linger on the market, putting a financial strain on an under capitalized flipper.

      Matthew Gardner, chief economist at Windermere Real Estate in the Seattle market, says when home flipping numbers go up, it is usually an indication that the housing market is in trouble. He says home flipping tends to artificially inflate home prices. That makes houses less affordable and increases the risk of a bubble.

      In the early 2000s, easy money and lax lending standards fueled a housing bubble that crashed with devastating impact in 2008.Home prices are rising on...
      Read lessRead more

      More growth in the services sector

      Only three industries reported contraction in February

      The services, or non-manufacturing, sector of the economy continued to chug along in February.

      In their latest Non-Manufacturing Institute for Supply Management (ISM) report on business, the nation’s purchasing and supply executives say the sector grew for the 73rd consecutive month.

      Specifically, the Non-Manufacturing Index (NMI) registered 53.4% -- down 0.1% from the January reading, representing continued growth, but at a slightly slower rate. A reading above 50 indicates expansion; below 50 means contraction.

      A closer look at the report shows the Business Activity Index jumped 3.9% to 57.8%, reflecting growth at a faster rate for the 79th consecutive month. The New Orders Index dipped 1.0%, while the Employment fell 2.4%, contracting after 23 consecutive months of growth. It's the first time the this index has contracted since February 2014.

      Industry performance

      The 14 non-manufacturing industries reporting growth in February -- listed in order -- were:

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

      The three industries reporting contraction in February were:

      1. Mining;
      2. Arts, Entertainment & Recreation; and
      3. Retail Trade.

      Jobless claims

      The Department of Labor (DOL) reports that first-time applications for state unemployment benefits rose by 6,000 in the week ending February 27 to seasonally adjusted total of 278,000. The government says there were no special factors affecting claims level.

      The four-week moving average, which is less volatile and seen by some economists as a more accurate picture of the labor market, came in at 270,250, a decline of 1,750.

      The complete report is available on the DOL website.

      The services, or non-manufacturing, sector of the economy continued to chug along in February.In their latest Non-Manufacturing...
      Read lessRead more

      Job cuts decline in February

      The energy sector bore the brunt of the terminations

      The pace of job-cutting posted a decline last month after kicking off the new year with a surge to a six-month high.

      Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports US-based employers announced 61,599 terminations in February -- down 18% from the month before but up 22 % from a year earlier.

      And, as was the case in 2015, the energy sector has seen the heaviest job cutting in the opening months of the year. There were another 25,051 job cuts in February, bringing the year-to-date total to 45,154. Most are blamed on low oil prices.

      The year-to-date tally represents a 24% surge from 2015, when employers canned 36,532 workers in the opening two months of the year.

      Low oil prices not good for everyone

      “Low oil prices continue to take a toll on workers in the energy and industrial goods sectors,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Since January of 2015, these two sectors alone have seen workforce reductions in excess of 200,000, the majority of which were attributed to oil prices. The major concern is that the job losses in cities and towns that rely heavily on oil production will begin to drag down other parts of the local economy,” .

      Challenger notes that there has not been a precipitous rise in unemployment in the many cities that were benefiting from the recent oil boom, suggesting that the job losses are contained to the energy sector, for the moment.

      Several energy-centric metropolitan areas have seen unemployment rates increase, but most are still enjoying rates that are below the national average. The latest available data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the unemployment rate in Houston rose from 4.0% in December 2014 to 4.6% in December 2015.

      In Midland, Texas, the unemployment rate increased by more than one percentage point in 2015, but remains at an enviable 3.3%. As of December, Bismarck, North Dakota -- another city that benefited significantly from the oil boom -- still has an unemployment rate of 2.7%, which is actually lower than the rate of 3.1% recorded in December 2014.

      Tech turmoil

      In addition to energy, another area experiencing increased job cuts is the technology sector. Announced firings by computer firms this year total 16,006 -- up a whopping 143% from the 6,582 job cuts recorded in the first two months of last year.

      “There will always be heavy churn in the tech sector,” said Challenger. “It is an area that embodies change, trial and error, and constant reinvention. There is more start-up activity in the sector, but that also means there are more failures. Even among the more established firms in the industry, we see workforce volatility, as they branch into new products or services, some of which may or may not succeed.”   

      The pace of job-cutting posted a decline last month after kicking off the new year with a surge to a six-month high.Outplacement consultancy Challenger...
      Read lessRead more

      Ford recalls F-150 trucks with Multi-Contour Seats

      An adult in the front passenger seat may be misclassified as a child

      Ford Motor Company (Ford) is recalling 2,894 model year 2016 F-150 trucks manufactured April 27, 2015, to November 22, 2015, and equipped with Multi-Contour Seats (MCS).

      The front passenger seat Occupant Classification System (OCS) that calibrates the air bag deployment level may incorrectly classify an adult as a child when the seat massage feature is activated.

      If an adult is incorrectly classified as a child, the passenger front air bag will not deploy during a crash, increasing the risk of injury.

      What to do

      Ford will notify owners, and dealers will update the Occupant Classification System Module (OCSM) with new software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin March 7, 2016.

      Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 16S05.

      Ford Motor Company (Ford) is recalling 2,894 model year 2016 F-150 trucks manufactured April 27, 2015, to November 22, 2015, and equipped with Multi-Contou...
      Read lessRead more

      Toyota expands Takata airbag safety recall

      Another 198,000 vehicles are being added

      Toyota Motor Sales, USA is expanding two of its recalls involving Takata front passenger air bag inflators.

      The recalled vehicles are equipped with a Takata-produced dual-stage front passenger airbag inflator which could potentially be susceptible to rupture when deployed in a crash.

      The expansion will add 198,000 Model Year 2008 Corolla and Corolla Matrix and Model Year 2008-2010 Lexus SC430 vehicles, model years of certain vehicles previously recalled and will cover all remaining dual-stage front passenger inflators of a particular type.

      What to do

      All known owners of the affected Toyota / Lexus vehicles will be notified by first class mail. Dealers will replace the airbag inflator or the airbag assembly with a newly manufactured one at no cost.

      Consumers with questions may call Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331, or Lexus customer service at 1-800-255-3987.  

      Toyota Motor Sales, USA is expanding two of its recalls involving Takata front passenger air bag inflators. The recalled vehicles are equipped with...
      Read lessRead more

      Appellate Court declines to dismiss suit against Trump University

      New York Attorney General will proceed with $40 million lawsuit

      Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump may have won big on Super Tuesday primary night, but earlier in the day he lost in New York's Appellate Court.

      The justices declined Trump's request to dismiss fraud charges brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman against Trump University.

      In his complaint, Scheiderman maintains Trump and business partner Michael Sexton were operating an unlicensed educational institution since 2005.

      “By letter dated May 27, 2005, the New York State Department of Education (SED) notified Donald Trump individually, Sexton, and Trump University that they were violating the New York Education Law by using the word "University" when it was not actually chartered as one,” the justices wrote in their decision. “Likewise, SED notified these respondents that Trump University was also violating the Education law because it lacked a license to offer student instruction or training in New York State. SED stated, however, that Trump University would not be subject to the license requirement if it had no physical presence in New York State, moved the business organization outside of New York, and ceased running live programs in the State. In June 2005, Sexton informed SED that Trump University would merge its operation into a new Delaware LLC, and would indeed cease holding live programming in New York State.”

      Never happened

      But the justices agreed with Schneiderman that never happened. They also dismissed Trump's claim that the statute of limitations had expired.

      “We hold that the Attorney General is, in fact, authorized to bring a cause of action for fraud under Executive Law § 63(12),” the court ruled.

      In a statement, Schneiderman said the court's ruling was a “clear victory” to hold Trump and Trump University accountable for defrauding students.

      “The state Supreme Court had already granted our request for summary judgment determining that Trump and his University are liable for operating illegally in New York as an unlicensed educational institution,” Schneiderman said. “Today’s decision means our entire fraud case can move forward, and confirms that the case is subject to a six year statute of limitations.”

      2013 lawsuit

      Schneiderman sued Trump for $40 million in 2013, claiming Trump University deceived its students and failed to deliver the apprenticeships it promised. In addition to the attorney general's action, several students have also filed a class action suit against Trump University.

      It has even become an issue in the presidential campaign, with Trump rival Sen. Marco Rubio (D-FL) raising it during a recent debate.

      "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," Rubio charged. "And you know what they got? They got to take a picture with a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump."

      Meanwhile, Schneiderman says he's pleased to be moving ahead with the case.

      “We look forward to demonstrating in a court of law that Donald Trump and his sham for-profit college defrauded more than 5,000 consumers out of millions of dollars,” he said.

      Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump may have won big on Super Tuesday primary night, but earlier in the day he lost in New York's Appellate Cour...
      Read lessRead more

      Study: Mortgage originators still racially discriminate

      African-Americans face hurdles at the very beginning of the process

      The Fair Housing Act was part of the landmark civil rights legislation that became law in the 1960s. It didn't eradicate racial discrimination in housing immediately, but it began its slow death.

      But a study by researchers at Marquette, Texas Christian, and Georgia State universities makes the case that housing discrimination against African-Americans is alive and well.

      The problem is not with Realtors and bankers, the researchers say. Rather, the discrimination is found among mortgage loan originators (MLO), the first people a prospective homeowner comes in contact with during the home-buying process.

      Their study suggests that being African-American is virtually the same as knocking 71 points off your credit score when it comes to qualifying for a mortgage.

      Discrimination occurred despite use of email

      The economists conducting the study used a matched-pair email experiment to compare MLO responses to loan inquiries from both white and African American applicants. The experiment generated 10,000 email inquiries, which were then tested for how they were treated by client race and credit score.

      “We examined whether they responded to our inquiries, whether they followed up and the content of their responses to test for differential treatment,” lead author Andrew Hanson of Marquette said in a statement. “Our results show MLOs discriminate based on race and treat clients differently based on their credit score.”

      Not all MLOs discriminated, but the researchers say enough did to cause concern and pose unacceptable difficulties for African-Americans applying for mortgages. The discriminating MLOs tended not to respond to inquiries if the applicant in some way identified themselves as African-American.

      “We found that MLOs were more likely to send whites the information they requested and more likely to give them advice or ‘coaching’ that may help them qualify for a mortgage,” Hanson said.

      Makes mortgage process harder

      The study suggests that discrimination in the information-gathering stage is harmful because it is likely to influence outcomes for minority borrowers throughout the lending and home-buying process.

      “If African American borrowers are less likely to receive communication from a mortgage loan originator, or the MLO treats them differently when communication does occur, it makes submitting the loan application more difficult and the remainder of the home purchase more arduous,” Hanson said.

      It also has the potential to stop the home-buying process in its tracks. Even if it does not, the authors say borrowers who are delayed or pre-approved for a smaller loan may be treated differently by the real estate agent in their choice of neighborhood. They may pay higher interest rates and larger fees.

      The authors say the extensive reliance on email over in-person contact should have ended discrimination, but they say it hasn't.

      “It still exists in the lending industry,” said Hanson. “To uncover the full extent of discrimination in this market and enforce fair lending laws, in-person audits should be expanded to include multiple types of communication.”

      The Fair Housing Act was part of the landmark civil rights legislation that became law in the 1960s. It didn't eradicate racial discrimination in housing i...
      Read lessRead more

      ADP: Additions to February payrolls top 200k

      Large businesses showed “surprisingly strong” job gains

      Another strong month for private sector employment gains.

      The ADP National Employment Report says payrolls rose by 214,000 from January to February with service-providing companies providing most of the strength.

      Employment in that sector rose by 208,000 jobs in February, as professional/business services contributed 59,000 jobs. Trade/transportation/utilities grew by 20,000, and financial activities added just 8,000 new jobs -- the least since last August.

      Goods-producing employment rose by 5,000 jobs in February, just over a quarter of January's upwardly revised 19,000. There were 27,000 new jobs in the construction industry, slightly above January's upwardly revised 26,000, while manufacturing lost 9,000 jobs -- the second largest drop in five years.

      Small business on the move

      Payrolls for businesses with 49 or fewer employees increased by 76,000 jobs last month, while employment among companies with 50-499 employees increased by 62,000 jobs. Employment at large companies -- those with 500 or more employees -- came in at 76,000, a big jump from January's 44,000. Companies with 500-999 employees added 14,000 jobs, while companies with over 1,000 employees gained 62,000 jobs.

      "Large businesses showed surprisingly strong job gains in February, despite the continuation of economic trends that negatively impact big companies like turmoil in international markets and a strengthening dollar," said Ahu Yildirmaz, VP and head of the ADP Research Institute. "The gains were mostly driven by the service sector which accounted for almost all the jobs added by large businesses."

      A trend for higher wages?

      Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza notes the labor market has been rapidly improving towards full-employment with more than 60 consecutive months of positive job creation, but that wage growth has been "stubbornly low."

      She says with back-to-back months of above-trend growth in salaries, the February jobs report from the Labor Department, due out this Friday, "will confirm if the upward momentum in wages is a sustainable trend or simply a temporary phenomenon."

      Another strong month for private sector employment gains.The ADP National Employment Report says payrolls rose by 214,000 from January to February with...
      Read lessRead more

      Gasoline prices on the rise

      A California reader wonders why diesel prices are also going up

      Gasoline prices are rising a bit nationwide, but it has less to do with a stabilizing price of oil than annual refinery maintenance, which reduces output and normally raises prices.

      According to AAA, the national average price of gasoline is $1.75 a gallon, up five cents a gallon from a week ago. The increase is more dramatic in California, where Gasbuddy reports the average price of gasoline has risen 10 cents a gallon in the last week.

      A reader, Robert from Oceanside, Calif., reported that diesel fuel in his area is also going up, and wonders why.

      Why is diesel going up?

      “Why does it seem that diesel prices seem to rise when the California summer blends are mandated and the price of gasoline rises?” he wrote in an email to ConsumerAffairs. “To my knowledge there is no summer blend for diesel. This seems like a rip off to me. Can you explain?”

      Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analysts at Gasbuddy, said his numbers show the statewide price of diesel in California has actually gone down a penny a gallon, but says its possible prices have risen in some areas.

      “Some stations may have raised diesel prices as crude oil prices have risen, prompting not only gasoline to rise, but other refined fuels, such as jet fuel and diesel,” DeHaan told ConsumerAffairs. “Keeping in mind all refined products are impacted when a refinery does maintenance as well – not just gasoline production – so diesel could rise due to refinery maintenance season.”

      Agriculture demand

      California is a big agricultural state and producers use a lot more diesel fuel starting in the spring. DeHaan says as agricultural consumption rises in the spring, demand goes up and so does the price. But there is some good news on the horizon.

      “Usually diesel’s peak price is during winter and is lower during summer,” DeHaan said. “I expect that to be the case this summer as well.”

      After the price of crude oil, refinery operations have the biggest impact on gasoline prices. Last summer, while much of the rest of the nation continued to enjoy falling fuel prices, consumers in the Midwest saw pump prices escalate because of issues at a BP refinery that sharply curtailed the delivery of fuel to several states.

      Gasoline prices are rising a bit nationwide, but it has less to do with a stabilizing price of oil than annual refinery maintenance, which reduces output a...
      Read lessRead more

      The economy's manufacturing sector contracts again

      It's the fifth month in a row for no growth

      More contraction in the manufacturing sector of the economy in February.

      The latest Institute for Supply Management (ISM) manufacturing report on business put the February purchasing managers index (PMI) at 49.5%, an increase of 1.3% from January.

      A reading below 50 means contraction in the sector, making February the fifth consecutive month that manufacturing has failed to expand. The overall economy meanwhile has grown for 81 straight months.

      Inside the number

      The ISM Manufacturing Business Survey Committee also reports the New Orders Index was unchanged last month at 51.5%, the Production Index rose 2.6%, as did the Employment Index.

      Inventories of raw materials posted a gain of 1.5% and the Prices Index registered was up 5%, indicating lower raw materials prices for the 16th consecutive month.

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

      1. Textile Mills;
      2. Wood Products;
      3. Furniture & Related Products;
      4. Miscellaneous Manufacturing;
      5. Electrical Equipment, Appliances & Components;
      6. Food, Beverage & Tobacco Products;
      7. Chemical Products;
      8. Primary Metals; and
      9. Paper Products.

      The seven industries reporting contraction in February -- in order -- are:

      1. Apparel, Leather & Allied Products;
      2. Petroleum & Coal Products;
      3. Computer & Electronic Products;
      4. Printing & Related Support Activities;
      5. Transportation Equipment;
      6. Plastics & Rubber Products; and
      7. Fabricated Metal Products.
      More contraction in the manufacturing sector of the economy in February.The latest Institute for Supply Management (ISM) manufacturing report on busine...
      Read lessRead more

      A year-over-year surge in home prices in January

      The northwest and Rocky Mountain states led the way

      January was a good month for homeowners as prices rose on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis.

      Property information, analytics and data-enabled services provider CoreLogic reports its Home Price Index (HPI) shows home prices nationwide -- including distressed sales -- increased year over year by 6.9% and was up 1.3% from December.

      “While the national market continues to steadily improve, the contours of the home price recovery are shifting,” said Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic. “The northwest and Rocky Mountain states have experienced greater appreciation and account for four of the top five states for home price growth.”

      Looking ahead

      The CoreLogic HPI Forecast indicates home prices will jump 5.5% from January 2016 to January 2017, and 0.5% from January to February.

      “Heading into the spring buying season, home prices continue to rise across much of the country,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “With rates staying low for now and continued solid job and income growth, the spring buying season is shaping up to be a good one.”

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

      January was a good month for homeowners as prices rose on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis.Property information, analytics and data-ena...
      Read lessRead more

      Whole Foods Market recalls Maytag Raw Milk Blue Cheese

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas, has issued a national recall for Maytag Raw Milk Blue Cheese.

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      No illnesses have been reported in connection with this recall to date.

      The recalled cheese was sold cut and packaged in clear plastic wrap with scale labels in various weights reading “Maytag Blue Raw Milk,” “Maytag Blue” or “Maytag Iowa Blue Cheese” and with PLU numbers beginning with 293308 and “sell-by” dates of 1/20/2016 and 3/21/16.

      The product was sold from cheese cases in various Whole Foods Market stores nationwide.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased this product should discard it, and may bring their receipt into the store for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may call 512-477-5566, extension 20060, Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (CDT).

      Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas, has issued a national recall for Maytag Raw Milk Blue Cheese. The product may be contaminated with Listeria mo...
      Read lessRead more

      GM recalls model year 2016 Buick Regals

      The power-steering assist system may fail

      General Motors is recalling 74 model year 2016 Buick Regals manufactured August 30, 2015, to February 12, 2016.

      The realled vehicles have a power-steering assist system that may fail, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the electric belt drive rack and pinion steering gear assembly, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Buick customer service at 1-800-521-7300. GM's number for this recall is 21510.

      General Motors is recalling 74 model year 2016 Buick Regals manufactured August 30, 2015, to February 12, 2016. The realled vehicles have a power-s...
      Read lessRead more