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    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...

    Large jury settlement fuels concerns about talcum powder and ovarian cancer

    Johnson & Johnson insists its Johnson's Baby Powder is safe

    Talcum powder seems pretty inoffensive. It's been around forever, doesn't cost much, and just about everybody uses it at one time or another. But ever since a St. Louis jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $72 million to the family of a woman who died of ovarian cancer, a cloud of controversy has swirled around the company's popular Johnson's Baby Powder. 

    The jury's award to the family of Jacqueline Fox, of Birmingham, Ala., followed testimony that the company had been aware of concerns in the healthcare community about a possible link between talcum powder and various cancers but had stepped up marketing of the product to Hispanic and black consumers anyway.

    Fox had used Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder for years. She said in a deposition before her death that she had been "raised up on it" and used it to "stay fresh and clean."

    The company says it will appeal the verdict and insists the product is safe.

    In 2014, a class action sought damages from Johnson & Johnson on behalf of women who did not have cancer but said they should have been warned about the alleged risks. 

    Overwhelming body

    "Jury verdicts should not be confused with regulatory rulings or rigorous scientific findings,” Bloomberg quoted Carol Goodrich, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson Consumer, as saying. “The overwhelming body of scientific research and clinical evidence supports the safety of cosmetic talc.”

    Imerys Talc America, which supplies talc to Johnson & Johnson, was named in the suit but was not found liable. It also insists the product is safe. "Our confidence is supported by the consensus view of qualified scientific experts and regulatory agencies,” the company said in a statement.

    More than 1,000 other families are suing Johnson & Johnson over the alleged talcum-cancer link.

    Softest mineral

    Talc is the softest naturally occurring mineral. It is composed of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen and absorbs odors and moisture naturally. It also often contains asbestos, which is linked with lung cancer when inhaled. Talc is commonly used to treat and prevent diaper rash and is used in cosmetics, paint, paper, and rubber products.

    Fox's case is thought to be the first involving a large damage award although there have been other challenges alleging a link between talc and cancer.

    In 2013, a federal jury in South Dakota found that a woman's cancer was at least partly caused by her use of talcum powder. Although it did not award damages, the jury said that Johnson & Johnson should warn consumers of the possible cancer risk. 

    A Harvard University physician who testified in the South Dakota trial, Daniel Cramer, said that talc was probably a contributing factor in 10,000 cases of ovarian cancer each year. Cramer said he has studied the link for 30 years.

    Cramer, a gynecologist and epidemiologist, has authored five studies on the possible link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer and said in a 2014 interview with Lawyers and Settlements that he feels like he's been shouting "Fire!" for years without anyone listening. 

    While conceding that studies of talc and cancer have found only a slight link, he says that the "main problem is that most of the studies don’t show a so-called dose response ... That is, the longer you use it and the more times you apply it, the greater the risk.”

    What to do

    So is talcum powder safe to use or not? The answer, according to the American Cancer Society, is that any risk is likely "very small."

    "Until more information is available, people concerned about using talcum powder may want to avoid or limit their use of consumer products that contain it. For example, they may want to consider using cornstarch-based cosmetic products instead. There is no evidence at this time linking cornstarch powders with any form of cancer," the organization advises.

    The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies the use of talc-based body powder in the genital areas as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

    Talcum powder seems pretty inoffensive. It's been around forever, doesn't cost much, and just about everybody uses it at one time or another. But ever sinc...

    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...

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      How to make the best out of moving to a new place

      Follow these tips to make the moving process easier

      Moving to a new home can be very exciting, but for some it can be a headache. Essentially, you’re packing up your life into a few boxes, so if you’re not organized or dealing with a reputable moving company, things can become complicated pretty fast.

      Fortunately, there are some things that you can do to simplify the process and make a smooth transition to your new living arrangements. The folks over at Rappler.com have created a step-by-step guide that you can follow in order to make your move hassle-free.

      Moving guide

      Prepare for the move: Take an adequate amount of time to prepare for your move. If you have a couple of months to go over the details, then it will make things a lot easier when the big day arrives. Be sure to make a budget that includes any expenses you’ll need to incur, including payment to a moving company if you use one. Also be sure to update your address as soon as you can so that all of your bills and mail go to the right place.

      Survey the space you’ll be living in: Acquiring information about the amount of space you’ll have to work with in your new place is crucial. A floor plan will let you know how much furniture you can bring with you and let you figure out how you’ll be setting up your space when you get there. Be sure to take into account where the outlets are for plugging in your appliances.

      Shop with your new space in mind: Be sure to shop for furniture and appliances that fit into your new space. The last thing you want is to get a new washer and dryer and find out that you have no place to put them. If at all possible, buy appliances that are eco-friendly so you can save money on utilities each month. If all of these considerations seem daunting, you can always contact a professional to help make selections.

      Pack efficiently: When packing, it is important to be as organized as possible. Make a list of all of your essential items so that you know you’ll be ok if you leave something behind by mistake. Splitting up the packing process by room may also be helpful so that you can focus on certain items one-at-a-time. Once things are packed away, make sure everything is labeled so you won’t have to go digging through everything when you get to your new place. If you’re expecting deliveries of furniture or appliances, make sure to mark down when they’ll be arriving as well.

      Making the actual move: Once everything is boxed up and in the moving vehicles, all that’s left to do is to get it to your new place. Make sure everything is secure for the trip and leave any heavy lifting to the professional movers if you’re using them. Now you can start a new chapter of your life in your new home.

      Moving to a new home can be very exciting, but for some it can be a headache. Essentially, you’re packing up your life into a few boxes, so if you’re not o...

      Billionaires fund new cancer research center

      Johns Hopkins center will conduct immunotherapy research

      Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Jones Apparel Group founder Sidney Kimmel both wrote checks for $50 million, while a dozen additional supporters kicked in a total of $25 million.

      The money will fund creation of a new cancer center at Johns Hopkins that has the goal of curing cancer.

      It isn't the long shot it sounds like. The research will center on the continued development of immunotherapy, which holds great promise against the disease. In fact, it has already shown results.

      In one of the highest profile cases, former President Jimmy Carter underwent immunotherapy last August, after being diagnosed with cancer that had spread to his brain. After a brief treatment, the former President was declared cancer-free in December.

      Close to a cure?

      ConsumerAffairs has been following these developments closely, asking in 2013 “Are we close to a cure for cancer?” We noted at the time that the groundbreaking work was done at Cambridge.

      The Obama administration is making immunotherapy a central part of its effort to cure cancer, saying it has potential to cure all forms of the disease. It works by redirecting the body's T-cells to attack cancer cells.

      It marks a departure from current treatment approaches. Instead of introducing outside elements into the body to attack cancer, it uses the body's own defenses.

      The new institute will reinforce work that has already taken place at Johns Hopkins, harnessing the efforts of more than 100 scientists and clinicians.

      “We are at the forefront of an emerging and promising field of cancer research and treatment,” Dr. Paul Rothman, dean and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, said in a statement. “We are grateful for these tremendous gifts which will help us accelerate the already rapid pace of discoveries in immunotherapy.”

      How funds will be used

      The new cancer center will have several functions. First and foremost it will carry on research in the area of immunotherapy. It will develop infrastructure to engineer cellular products, critical to this form of treatment.

      Spending will be aimed at recruiting other top-level scientists, developing critical technology, and forging partnerships with biotech and pharmaceutical companies engaged in similar work.

      “Ending all cancer would rank among humanity’s greatest achievements, and immunotherapy is bringing that dream within reach,” Bloomberg said.

      Bloomberg credited Vice President Joe Biden with leading the government's “moon shot” approach to the venture, focusing attention on the disease and the potential to cure it.

      Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Jones Apparel Group founder Sidney Kimmel both wrote checks for $50 million, while a dozen additional supp...

      Microsoft will build ad blocker into Edge browser

      Consumers' impatience with obtrusive ads gets harder to ignore

      The war against obtrusive Internet advertising is going from a guerrilla conflict to shock and awe, with no less a titan than Microsoft announcing that it will build an ad-blocker into the next edition of its Edge browser, which is included with Windows 10. 

      The change could be effective as early as next month.

      Smaller browsers like Opera and Brave already come with ad-blocking built in and it's easy to add to Mozilla's Firefox and Google's Chrome. Apple allows a third-party ad blocker on its Safari mobile browser.

      But no one of the stature of Microsoft has previously offered ad-blocking as a standard feature. It's not only a sign of the impatience of consumers who are fed up with slow-loading pages and intrusive pop-ups but also of the growing awareness of safety risks.

      Highly respectable sites including The New York Times and AOL have accidentally distributed ads infected with malware, CNET noted in its report of Microsoft's plans, as revealed at a conference in San Francisco Wednesday.

      Many consumers who are sympathetic to publications' need to support themselves through advertising are nevertheless driven to use ad blockers.

      "I'm perfectly willing to look at ads when I'm on FiOS or some other fast connection but when I'm stuck with Time Warner in Southern California, all bets are off," a ConsumerAffairs colleague said. "My very expensive connection is so slow it literally takes me twice as long to get my work done." 

      Message to advertisers: put some pressure on broadband carriers to deliver on their promised speeds.

      The war against obtrusive Internet advertising is going from a guerrilla conflict to shock and awe, with no less a titan than Microsoft announcing that it ...

      Spring clean your home using vinegar

      Vinegar is a natural cleaning solution that can be used to clean countless items

      Whether it’s warmer weather or tradition that inspires us to tackle spring cleaning, there’s no denying that it’s a refreshing way to begin a new season. But while cleaning may typically be synonymous with chemicals, it doesn’t have to be. There are many natural ways to give your house a good scrub down.

      One simple way to get your home sparkling may already be in your pantry. Vinegar is an effective, eco-friendly cleaning agent that can be used in the kitchen, bathroom, and a number of other rooms to eradicate dirt and grime.

      And while its odor may have you cringing at the thought of dousing your home in the stuff, there are dozens of DIY recipes online to help you mask its less-than-pleasant scent. You can also buy cleaning vinegar (such as Four Monks) that offers the same cleaning power without the pungent aroma.

      If you're ready to cut back on the chemicals and go natural, check out these uses for vinegar.

      Bathroom

      Bathrooms can often be laden with unsightly gunk, including lime deposits, drain clogs, and other grime. But consider vinegar to be an eviction notice for these unwanted guests.

      • To use vinegar to clean lime deposits off a faucet: tie a plastic bag containing one-third to one-half cup of vinegar around the faucet and leave it for a few hours. Wipe down with a sponge and scrub any remaining deposits with an old toothbrush. You can also use this technique to clean showerhead buildup.
      • To clean tub drains: pour half a cup of baking soda in the drain and chase it with two cups of hot vinegar. Plug the drain with a rag to keep the fizzing bubbles contained for ten minutes, then rinse by pouring boiling hot water down the drain.
      • To clean shower doors: after squeegeeing the doors, spray with vinegar to help remove hard water deposits. Shower door tracks can also be cleaned with vinegar; just fill the tracks with vinegar, let it sit for a few hours, and rinse with hot water. Remove any remaining film with a toothbrush.

      Kitchen

      The kitchen is a great place to use a natural cleaner such as vinegar as it’s best to avoid using toxic chemicals in places where food is stored.

      • To clean your ice/water dispenser: run vinegar through the system and flush out by running water through system for 30 to 60 seconds.
      • To banish mineral buildup in your dishwasher: pour half a cup of vinegar into the reservoir and run an empty cycle.
      • To deodorize the garbage disposal: pour in half a cup of baking soda and half a cup of vinegar. Let sit for five minutes, then run hot water down the disposal.
      • To clean the oven: Try CrunchyBetty's easy recipe for a homemade oven cleaner. All you'll need is borax, vinegar, dish soap, and water. 

      Laundry room

      From stains to mold, versatile vinegar can tackle laundry room messes the natural way.

      • To get rid of stains: for coffee and tea stains, flush the area with vinegar, then rinse and repeat. For wine stains, saturate the spot with vinegar, let stand for a few minutes, then wash as normal.
      • To restore yellowed clothing: soak garments overnight in a solution of twelve parts warm water and one part vinegar. Wash the next morning.
      • To oust the smell of mold: if you left wet laundry in the washing machine for too long, it might have begun to smell moldy. To address this, pour a few cups of vinegar in the machine and wash the clothes in hot water. Then run a normal cycle with detergent to rinse the clothes.
      Whether it’s warmer weather or tradition that inspires us to tackle spring cleaning, there’s no denying that it’s a refreshing way to begin a new season. B...

      How to prolong the life of freshly cut garden flowers

      Vase solutions and other tips to help your arrangement stay fresh longer

      For many gardeners, one of the joys of growing flowers is having the ability to cut a few blooms to fill a vase. Spring flowers can be an especially welcomed sight after a cold, flowerless winter. And while they’re just as beautiful sitting untouched outside, there’s a certain simple delight in having a vase full of your own colorful blooms to admire in the house.

      Studies show that people are healthier when surrounded by flowers and plants. They’re natural stress-reducers, one study finds. The presence of fresh flowers in the house can cause people’s perceived level of happiness to increase, in addition to making them feel more secure, relaxed, and optimistic.

      If you’re among those who enjoy snipping a few stems to have inside, it’s likely that you’re interested in keeping them fresh for as long as possible. So what can you do to help extend the life of your cut flowers?

      Timing is important

      Choosing the right time of day to break out the floral knife or shears is an important first step in prolonging the life of your arrangement. The early morning is an optimal time to cut flowers, as stems will be well hydrated and full of stored sugar; they’ll also be especially fragrant. If you can’t make it outside in the morning, the second best time the cut them is in the late afternoon or at sunset.

      A flower’s maturity also affects its keeping qualities, says Marion Owen, PlanTea, Inc, and co-author of Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul. Certain types of flowers will thrive best indoors if cut when fully open, and some will adjust better if cut while still closed up.

      Flowers that should be cut in the bud stage (or when just starting to open) include poppies, tulips, roses, daffodils, irises, and gladiolas. Flowers that should be cut when open are those that grow on individual stems: sunflowers, marigolds, chysanthemums, dahlias, dianthus, and delphiniums, etc. 

      As you're cutting, place freshly cut stems in a bucket of water to help them stay fresh. Plastic buckets can often be a better choice as metal buckets can affect the pH balance of water.

      Fresh water

      After cutting flowers from the garden, bring them indoors and use a sharp knife to cut the stems again -- this time at a 45-degree angle. Then, remove lower leaves and put them in tepid, lukewarm water. For bulbs, however, you’ll want to use cold water.

      Some recommend cutting stems under water before putting them in a vase, either under running tap water or in a basin full of warm water. According to the experts at MasterGardeners.org, this will keep air from getting into the stems.

      A lack of proper hydration is one of the main reasons flowers wilt early, so it's important to trim stems and change the water every few days. Most flowers would also appreciate a daily mist.

      Vase solutions

      As plants are living things, they need to eat. Some of the tricks people use to keep flowers fresh include adding crushed aspirin, a penny, clorox, or vodka to the arrangement’s water. But while all of these folk remedies have been tried, none of them have been proven to be 100% true. 

      What has been shown to help cut flower arrangements last longer, however, are vase solutions that involve a mix of acid (to improve water flow in stems) and sugar (to help buds open and last longer).

      Try these recipes to extend the life of your bouquet:

      • One teaspoon sugar, one teaspoon household bleach, two teaspoons lemon or lime juice, and one quart of lukewarm water. 
      • One part (non-diet) lemon-lime soda with three parts water. To keep the solution clear, add ¼ teaspoon of bleach for every quart.
      • Two tablespoons of lemon juice, one tablespoon of sugar, and ¼ teaspoon of bleach in quart of warm water. Add another ¼ teaspoon of bleach every four days.
      For many gardeners, one of the joys of growing flowers is having the ability to cut a few blooms to fill a vase. Spring flowers can be an especially welcom...

      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...

      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...

      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...

      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...

      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...

      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 ...

      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...

      GM wins its first big ignition switch case

      Louisiana crash was caused by slippery roads, New York jury finds

      After deliberating for less than a day, a federal jury in New York City has cleared General Motors of liability in a 2014 accident supposedly caused by the defective ignition switch that led to millions of recalls.

      The jurors found that, although the 2007 Saturn Sky involved in the accident had the faulty ignition switch, the switch wasn't to blame for the car's involvement in a 15-car pile-up on the Crescent City Connection Bridge in Louisiana, Courthouse News Service reported.

      Dionne Spain and Lawrence Barthelemy sued after the accident, saying GM was responsible. But jurors heard testimony that then-Gov. Bobby Jindal had declared a state of emergency because of adverse weather conditions on Jan. 24, 2014, the night Spain and Barthelemy had their accident.

      "The jurors studied the merits of the case and saw the truth: this was a very minor accident that had absolutely nothing to do with the car's ignition switch," GM spokesman Jim Cain said in a statement, Reuters reported.

      An earlier case against GM ended when the plaintiff, a Tulsa mailman, withdrew his lawsuit after the judge took issue with contradictions in his testimony. 

      Thousands of cases

      The Center for Auto Safety has estimated that more than 300 people have died in accidents caused by the ignition switch shutting down the engine without warning, leaving drivers without power steering or power brakes and disabling airbags.

      GM at one time faced hundreds of thousands of cases involving the switch, but a bankruptcy giant ruled last year that only cases that postdate the automaker's 2009 bankruptcy could go forward. GM paid $900 million to settle criminal liabilities growing out of the scandal.

      After deliberating for less than a day, a federal jury in New York City has cleared General Motors of liability in a 2014 accident supposedly caused by the...

      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...

      Ringly launches a fashion-forward smart bracelet

      The sleek-looking gold bracelets can notify users of smartphone messages and even help them stay fit

      Ever wish fitness wearables could be a little less bulky? Or maybe you long to be able to take your eyes off your phone without missing important alerts? If so, Ringly’s new Aries bracelet collection may be for you.

      The smart jewelry company, which previously only offered smartphone-connected rings, has now added bracelets -- and they’re as useful as they are fashionable.

      The new bracelets will allow users to receive notification alerts not only for texts and calls, but also from Slack, Snapchat, Uber, and over one hundred other apps. Ringly has also incorporated a step-tracking functionality in response to customer requests.

      "Effortlessly track your steps and monitor your calorie output without sacrificing your style," says Ringly. "Set targets and receive alerts when you reach your goals." (Users can view information such as distance traveled and calories burned on the Ringly app.)

      Customizable alerts

      The gold-plated bracelets connect to a user’s phone via Bluetooth, just like the company’s rings which were introduced in January 2015. But unlike Ringly’s bulky, large-stoned rings (the size of which drew user complaints), the bracelets are low-profile and elegant in appearance.

      Wearers can customize notification alerts with different lights and various vibrations. A flashing green light, for instance, might let you know you’ve received a message from the nanny or babysitter; a blue light might mean it’s your mother. With these subtle notifications, users can stay up-to-date on potentially important messages even during situations where phone-checking isn’t allowed (or even possible), such as a meeting.

      The company says the bracelet works within thirty feet of a user's phone and that a single charge can last up to 48 hours. The Ringly Aries collection is available for preorder now on the company’s website. The smart bracelets ($195) are expected to ship this summer.

      Up next

      What's next for the company? Payments. A new partnership with MasterCard will allow Ringly's next product to handle NFC payments, according to Christina Mercando d'Avignon, the company's founder and CEO. 

      "Payments is our roadmap for this year, most likely announcing the designs later this year and shipping in early 2017," d'Avignon tells Wareable.com. Anywhere users can pay with Apple Pay or Android Pay, she explains, they'll be able to simply tap and pay with their ring. 

      Ever wish fitness wearables could be a little less bulky? Or maybe you long to be able to take your eyes off your phone without missing important alerts? I...

      FDA approves use of abortion pill later in pregnancy

      Mifeprex can be used as late as 70 days under the new guidelines

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has agreed to expand the use of the abortion pill Mifeprex, also known as RU-486, to 70 days of gestation instead of the previous 49 days. It also approved reducing the recommended dosage.

      The new protocol is intended to make it easier and less expensive for women to terminate an early pregnancy.

      Mifeprex was approved by the FDA 16 years ago to terminate early pregnancy. It is given in combination with misoprostol. It has been used by more than 2.75 million women in the United States, according to Danco Laboratories, its manufacturer. 

      In U.S. clinical studies, Mifeprex has been shown to be 97% effective in terminating early pregnancy; approximately three percent of women will require surgical intervention for ongoing pregnancy, heavy bleeding, incomplete expulsion, or other complications.

      Planned Parenthood said an "overwhelming majority" of women who choose mifepristone for medication abortion are satisfied with the method.

      "One study found that 97 percent of women would recommend the method to a friend. Additionally, 91 percent of the women reported that they would choose the mifepristone regimen again if they had to have another abortion," the family planning organization said in a prepared statement.  

      REMS program

      Because of the risks of serious complications, Mifeprex is available only through a restricted program called Mifeprex REMS. Requirements include: 

      • Prescribers must be certified with the program by completing the Prescriber Agreement Form.
      • Patients must sign a Patient Agreement Form.
      • Mifeprex must be dispensed to patients only in certain healthcare settings, specifically clinics, medical offices and hospitals by or under the supervision of a certified prescriber.
      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has agreed to expand the use of the abortion pill Mifeprex, also known as RU-486, to 70 days of gestation inste...

      Gree to pay record civil penalty

      The company is accused of failing to report defective dehumidifiers

      To settle charges that it failed to report defects in its humidifiers, Gree Electric Appliances and its subsidiaries will pay a record $15.45 million civil penalty to the government.

      According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the firm knowingly failed to report a defect and unreasonable risk of serious injury to the CPSC immediately (within 24 hours) as required by federal law. The dehumidifiers were sold under 13 different brand names, including Frigidaire, GE, Gree, Kenmore, and Soleus Air.

      The company was also accused of making misrepresentations to CPSC staff during its investigation and selling dehumidifiers bearing the UL safety certification mark knowing that the dehumidifiers did not meet UL flammability standards.

      The dehumidifiers were eventually recalled in September 2013, expanded in January 2014, and reannounced later in 2014. Gree manufactured, imported, and sold more than 2.5 million units nationwide.

      The humidifiers were sold by AAFES, HH Gregg, Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s, Menards, Mills Fleet Farm, Sam’s Club, Sears, Walmart, and other stores nationwide and in Canada, as well as online at Amazon.com and Ebay.com, from January 2005 through August 2013 for $110 to $400.

      In addition to paying the civil penalty, Gree will implement a program to ensure compliance with the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA) and a related system of internal controls and procedures.

      To settle charges that it failed to report defects in its humidifiers, Gree Electric Appliances and its subsidiaries will pay a record $15.45 million civil...

      Court stops collection of 'phantom' payday loan debts

      Chicago-area debt collector accused of operating a "brazen scam"

      A federal court has blocked a Chicago-area debt collector from allegedly threatening and intimidating consumers into paying "phantom" payday loan debts.

      “It’s illegal to harass people to pay debts they clearly don’t owe, and to sell phony debts to other debt collectors,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. She said the defendants also provided portfolios of phony debts to other debt collectors.

      In a complaint filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the FTC and Illinois Attorney General said the operation used names such as Stark Law, Stark Recovery and Capital Harris Miller & Associates.

      The complaint charges that the debt collectors got the names of consumers who applied for a payday loan, then went after them to pay "phantom" debts that they did not really owe.  

      The defendants allegedly threatened consumers with lawsuits or arrest, and falsely said they would be charged with “defrauding a financial institution” and “passing a bad check” – even though failing to pay a private debt is not a crime.

      Claimed to be lawyers

      The complaint also says the defendants claimed to be lawyers with the authority to sue and obtain judgments.They also allegedly harassed consumers with improper phone calls, disclosed debts to relatives, friends and co-workers, failed to notify consumers of their right to receive verification of the purported debts, and failed to register as a debt collector in Illinois, as required by state law.

      Many consumers paid the debts simply to be relieved of the threats and harassment, the complaint alleges. 

      The defendants are Stark Law LLC, also doing business as Stark Recovery; Stark Legal LLC; Ashton Asset Management Inc.; CHM Capital Group LLC, also d/b/a Capital Harris Miller & Associates; HKM Funding Ltd.; Pacific Capital Holdings Inc., formerly known as Charles Hunter Miller & Associates Inc. and also d/b/a Pacific Capital; Hirsh Mohindra, also d/b/a Ashton Lending LLC; Gaurav Mohindra; and Preetesh Patel.

      A federal court has blocked a Chicago-area debt collector from allegedly threatening and intimidating consumers into paying "phantom" payday loan debts....

      Study: parents who practice 'sensitive caregiving' may turn out a more successful adult

      The effects of sensitive caregiving during early childhood spanned over three decades

      Raising a child who will become a competent, well-adjusted adult is the goal of most parents, but wading through the ever-deepening sea of child development research can be confusing. It seems as if a new, ‘most effective’ parenting style is introduced every day.

      But one study suggests that parents may want to turn their attention toward sensitive caregiving. The study -- led by researchers at the University of Minnesota, the University of Delaware, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- finds that parents who practice sensitive caregiving during the first three years of their child’s life may see them grow into a more successful adult.

      The researchers define sensitive caregiving as, “the extent to which a parent responds to a child's signals appropriately and promptly, is positively involved during interactions with the child, and provides a secure base for the child's exploration of the environment.” The study, which appears in the journal Child Development, finds an association between this type of parental attentiveness during a child’s early years and their long-term social and academic success.

      Followed over 30 years

      Using information from 243 individuals born into poverty combined with data from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation, the researchers tracked how maternal sensitivity during the first three years of life affected people as adults (until age 32).

      To kick off the study, the researchers evaluated mothers and babies in feeding and play situations during their first years. Later, they looked at their social and academic performance throughout childhood and adolescence. To conclude the study, the researchers had participants discuss their educational accomplishments and romantic relationships when they entered their 20s and 30s.

      Those with mothers who were hostile, disengaged, or intrusive early in their childhood displayed lower test scores and poorer peer relationships (less likely to be marked by such qualities as loyalty, commitment, and intimacy). By contrast, the study found that participants who received sensitive caregiving early on functioned better socially and academically during their first three decades of life. 

      "Altogether, the study suggests that children's experiences with parents during the first few years of life have a unique role in promoting social and academic functioning -- not merely during the first two decades of life, but also during adulthood," said Lee Raby, co-author of the study in a statement.

      More research is needed to determine whether providing mothers with access to programs that support parental care can make a difference in children's long-term social and academic success. But for now, Raby says the study indicates that parents should simply recognize the importance of gentle nurturing and being attentive to their children's needs.

      Raising a child who will become a competent, well-adjusted adult is the goal of most parents, but wading through the ever-deepening sea of child developmen...

      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...

      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...

      Soda consumption lowest since 1985

      Beverage Digest reports that sales dropped another 1.2% last year

      Consumers' tastes continue to evolve when it comes to beverages. They're still thirsty, but not for carbonated sodas.

      In its year-end report for 2015, Beverage Digest reports overall beverage sales rose 2.2% for the year, but carbonated beverage sales continued their decline, falling another 1.2% to their lowest level in 30 years.

      One group cheering that news is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which says consumers are shying away from sugar-sweetened beverages in general because they want to avoid health issues ranging from diabetes to tooth decay.

      Consumption peaked in 1998

      By the CSPI's calculation, consumers have cut their soda consumption by 26% since 1998, when sales of the beverages peaked. Consumption levels have now fallen to what they were in 1985. The group says it would like to see sales fall even further, noting that in the 1960s, soda was considered an occasional treat, not something to be consumed in large quantities on a daily basis.

      “Drinking nine or 10 teaspoons of sugar makes no sense, and most Americans have wised up to what’s really in a single soda,” CSPI president Michael F. Jacobson said in a statement.

      Jacobson says the soft drink industry has spent the last several years lecturing the public about energy balance and moderation, but all the while has been employing a marketing campaign that encourages excessive consumption. He says government policy to discourage soda consumption could improve health and lower healthcare costs.

      Local efforts to limit soda consumption have met with mixed results. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg attempted to ban the sale of jumbo-sized sweetened beverages in the city, but the measure was overturned in the courts.

      Jacobson says taxing sodas might be a more effective way to discourage their consumption, noting Philadelphia is considering such a tax, and that similar legislation has been proposed in Congress.

      Consumers' tastes continue to evolve when it comes to beverages. They're still thirsty, but not for carbonated sodas.In its year-end report for 2015, B...

      Retailers want another reduction in swipe fee

      Bank transaction costs have gone down, industry group claims

      About five years ago, the Federal Reserve stepped in and imposed a cap, significantly lowering the “swipe fee” credit card lenders charged for each debit card transaction.

      Mallory Duncan, a senior executive at the National Retail Federation (NRF), says the nation's retailers have passed along two-thirds of the $8.5 billion in annual savings to consumers. But he says the cap should be even lower.

      “In most cases, 24 cents per transaction represents a significant savings over the prior non-competitive pricing,” Duncan said in a statement. “However, it is still substantially higher than issuers’ incremental costs.”

      Key issue

      The key, Duncan says, is following Congress's stated goal of keeping the transaction fee in line with banks' actual costs of processing the transaction. Looked at that way, he says, 24 cents is still overcharging both retailers and consumers.

      Duncan made his comments to the Federal Reserve, which is required to review the swipe fee cap as a normal part of the regulation process.

      The cap on swipe fees came about in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The sweeping Dodd Frank law required the Fed to monitor transaction fees, to ensure that they were “reasonable and proportional,” and that banks weren't making up for declining profits elsewhere by jacking up the revenue flowing from the retail sector.

      12 cents became 24 cents

      Originally, Federal Reserve staff estimated the average cost of processing a transaction at 4 cents, and recommended limiting the swipe fee to no more than 12 cents.

      So how did it get to be 24 cents? Duncan says intense lobbying by the banking industry resulted in a cap of 21 cents, plus 0.05% of the transaction for fraud recovery, allowing another one cent for fraud prevention in most cases.

      Last October liability for fraudulent debit and credit card purchases switched from lenders to retailers, with the introduction of the chip-and-signature card system. Duncan says the result has meant the banks' fraud recovery costs have gone down, and that credit card companies “may no longer have a legitimate basis” for collecting the fee dealing with fraud.

      About five years ago, the Federal Reserve stepped in and imposed a cap, significantly lowering the “swipe fee” credit card lenders charged for each debit c...

      Medivation under fire over drug price

      Lawmakers hold out threat of revoking patent

      Another drug company has found itself under criticism by some members of Congress over the price of one of its drugs.

      Lawmakers say Xtandi, a drug owned by Medivation Inc., and used to treat prostate cancer, costs $129,000 a year. That's four times the cost in Canada and three times as much as in Japan. The dozen lawmakers joined non-profit groups in signing a letter to the National Institutes of Heath (NIH), asking the health agency to hold public hearings.

      It's not just that the price of the drug is unreasonably high, the lawmakers say. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Xtandi was developed at a U.S. university with U.S. government support. The letter argues that if NIH finds the price to be unreasonable, it can revoke Medivation's patent on the drug.

      Americans paid for it

      “When Americans pay for research that results in a safe and effective drug, an unreasonably high cost should not limit their access to it. New treatments are meaningless if patients cannot afford them,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell and NIH Director Francis Collins.

      The letter was signed by lawmakers from both the House and Senate, including Reps. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX)and Peter Welch (D-VT), co-chairs of the Prescription Drug Taskforce, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

      The letter calls for a public hearing that could lead to overriding the patent on Xtandi to make the drug available as a generic. According to the lawmakers, the law allows NIH to take this step if federal funds were used in a drug’s development and the pharmaceutical company is demanding an unreasonably high price.

      Developed at UCLA

      Researchers at UCLA developed Xtandi, using taxpayer-supported research grants from the U.S. Army and NIH. Despite that, the drug sells in the U.S. for a lot more than in other countries.

      “We do not think that charging U.S. residents more than anyone else in the world meets the obligation to make the invention available to U.S. residents on reasonable terms,” the lawmakers wrote.

      “When Americans pay for research that results in a pharmaceutical, that drug should be available at a reasonable price,” said Doggett, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the House Ways and Means Committee and co-chair of the House Democratic Caucus Prescription Drug Task Force.

      Doggett says the Obama Administration has indicated a willingness to use its existing authority to address unreasonable drug costs on a case-by-case basis. He says it should do so now with Xtandi.

      “An unaffordable drug is 100% ineffective,” he said. “Americans shouldn’t have to choose between their lives and their livelihoods on this and many other outrageously priced medications.”

      In December, the Senate Special Committee on Aging conducted a hearing on drug prices, focusing specifically on four pharmaceutical companies: Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Turing Pharmaceuticals, Retrophin Inc, and Rodelis Therapeutics. All four owned drugs that had significantly spiked in price.  

      Another drug company has found itself under criticism by some members of Congress over the price of one of its drugs.Lawmakers say Xtandi, a drug owned...

      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,...

      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...

      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...

      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). ...

      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...

      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 ...

      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...

      Help make your garage sale a success with these tips

      Expert suggestions that can help ensure your garage sale efforts pay off

      Spring is an ideal time to hold a garage sale. Sellers may have found themselves up to their ears in items accumulated over the winter, and buyers have been itching to get out of the house and snag some deals. It’s a win-win.

      But as anyone who has hosted a yard or garage sale can tell you, they can also be a lot of work. Before you find yourself sitting in the driveway waiting patiently for buyers, you’ll probably have traversed the stairs to the attic many times, lugged heavy furniture, and logged your fair share of hours preparing.

      With all that goes into a yard sale, you’ll want to make sure you’ve done everything you can do make it a success. To help you get rid of as many unwanted items as possible, keep these expert suggestions in mind.

      Advertise online

      Spread the word. The old saying, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” does not hold for garage sales, says Jim Roberts, Ph.D., The Ben H. Williams Professor of Marketing in Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business.

      Let others in your area know where and when your sale will be and what items will be up for grabs. Advertising your sale in newspapers is fine, says Roberts, but online marketing is hard to beat.

      In the weeks before the sale, post pictures, directions, and sale times on such sites as Craigslist, www.gsalr.com, www.yardsales.net, and www.garagesalefinder.com. (A note on posting photos: keep in mind that it’s often better to take individual pictures of your best stuff rather than indiscernible photos of cluttered tables.)

      Price your items

      Use the week leading up to the sale to clean items, check electronics, and make sure all items are priced. Many shoppers will avoid buying an item if it’s not clearly priced.

      “I make my buying decisions based on the price and do not like asking the owner how much things cost,” says Luci of Richmond, VA, who has staged dozens of yard sales over three decades. “If you don't have the time or desire to price your items, don't have a sale.”

      When deciding how much an item should cost, it’s important to remember that items are used -- so price accordingly. Ten cents on the dollar is a good guide, suggests Luci. “Overprice and you will find yourself donating all the unsold items or worse, taking everything back in your house.”

      Day of the sale

      Some other tips to keep in mind on sale day: 

      • Set up early. The “Early Birds” will arrive before the sale’s advertised start time to get the good stuff.
      • Group items by category -- kitchen items, linens, books, toys, etc. A well-organized sale gives the impression that items are a good deal.
      • Be sure to have plenty of dollar bills and quarters to make change.
      • Remove all your signs when the sale is over.
      Spring is an ideal time to hold a garage sale. Sellers may have found themselves up to their ears in items accumulated over the winter, and buyers have bee...

      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...

      Using tax refund to pay off debt usually a good use of money

      The goal should be to prevent future debt

      A recent survey of taxpayers showed just 23% planned to use their income tax refund to pay off debt. Before the financial crisis of 2008, 55% earmarked their refunds for debt reduction.

      "Paying down debt can undoubtedly be one of the best ways to put a tax refund to good use," Nick Bryan, Executive Vice President of OpenSky, a financial division of Capital Bank, N.A., said in a release.

      Paying off, or paying down a large credit card balance not only reduces interest payments, it can raise a credit score, since the ratio of debt-to-credit is a major component of credit scores.

      Bryan says one reason paying off credit card debt might not seem urgent is if you have a no-or-low interest credit card. In that case, it might make more sense to put the refund into savings.

      When saving makes more sense

      “It makes sense to do the numbers,” Bryan said. “You aren't losing money to let zero interest debt stay where it is for a while."

      Putting the refund into savings provides a barrier against future debt. In nearly every month consumers are faced with unexpected expenses, whether it's a trip to the emergency room or an unexpected car repair.

      Bryan suggests having what he calls a "life happens" savings account for emergencies. Otherwise, that unexpected expense will likely end up on a credit card balance, costing double-digit interest each month.

      Homeowners with an adequate “life happens” account might consider making postponed but necessary repairs and upgrades to a home. Timely minor repairs head off major repairs later on, and can preserve and enhance home values.

      Consumers are hardly flush

      Economists, of course, hope taxpayers use their tax refunds to buy things, because that stimulates the economy. In past years, it was reasonable to expect that.

      Things are a little different now. Personal income has barely risen in the years since the last recession. Lower gasoline prices have given consumers a little breathing room, but they are hardly flush.

      A recent survey from GoBankingRates.com also shows a lower rate for using tax refunds to pay down debt, but it also showed little inclination for consumers to go shopping. Only 5% plan to make a major purchase and only 4% planned to splurge on something like shoes or a new TV.

      A recent survey of taxpayers showed just 23% planned to use their income tax refund to pay off debt. Before the financial crisis of 2008, 55% earmarked the...

      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...

      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...

      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...

      Specialized Bicycle Components recalls headlights and taillights

      The lights can overheat, posing fire and burn hazards

      Specialized Bicycle Components of Morgan Hill, Calif., is recalling about 110,000 Specialized bicycle headlights and taillights.

      The headlights and taillights can overheat, posing fire and burn hazards.

      The firm has received four reports of Flux headlights or taillights overheating and two reports of Stix headlights expanding and bursting. No injuries have been reported.

      The recall includes Specialized Flux and Stix Sport and Comp model bicycle headlights and taillights sold separately as aftermarket equipment. They have rechargeable batteries with USB ports.

      • Flux headlights: Flux headlights have a round, metal mounting system that fits both flat and drop handlebars. “Flux” is printed on the side of the black, rectangular-shaped lights and on the bottom of the pewter-colored aluminum casing.
      • Flux taillights: Flux taillights have a pewter-colored base with a 110-lumen light on the top. They mount on 27.2 mm, 30.9 mm and Venge seat posts. The Specialized logo is printed on top of the taillights. They have a sensor to boost output in flash mode during the daytime.
      • Stix headlights: Stix headlights are black with a 70-lumen light (Stix Sport) or a 105-lumen light (Stix Comp). They mount on handlebars between 22.2 mm and 35 mm in diameter. Stix is printed in white letters on the end of the headlight.

      The headlights and taillights, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at authorized Specialized retailers nationwide and online at www.specialized.com from June 2014, through February 2016, for between $100 and $275 for Flux model headlights and taillights, and for between $30 and $50 for Stix model headlights and taillights.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using these recalled headlights and taillights. Return them an authorized Specialized bicycle retailer for a free repair for Flux model headlights, or a free replacement for Flux model taillights, and Stix model headlights and taillights. Consumers who bought the bicycle lights directly from Specialized should contact Specialized for return instructions.

      Consumers may contact Specialized at 800-722-4423 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (PT) Monday through Friday or online at https://sbc-media.s3.amazonaws.com/Lights%20-%20Rider%20Notice.pdf for more information.

      Specialized Bicycle Components of Morgan Hill, Calif., is recalling about 110,000 Specialized bicycle headlights and taillights. The headlights and...

      Smallbatch Pets recalls frozen dog duckbatch sliders

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes

      Smallbatch Pets is recalling one lot of frozen dog duckbatch sliders.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes.

      No pet or consumer illnesses from this product have been reported to date.

      Eighty cases of the recalled product were sold between February 3 and March 10, 2016, in retail pet food stores in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington States CA, CO, OR, WA through pet food retailers/distributors.

      The product, sold frozen in 3-lbs. Bags, is identified with the following manufacturing codes:

      LOT #Best By DateUPC
      CO2701/27/17713757339001

      The "Best By" date is located on the back of the package below the seal.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should to stop using it and return it to the place of purchase for a full refund, or dispose of it immediately.

      Consumers with questions may contact Smallbatch Pets at 888-507-2712 or by email at info@smallbatchpets.com'

      Smallbatch Pets is recalling one lot of frozen dog duckbatch sliders. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes....

      Volkswagen recalls model year 2015-2016 e-Golf vehicles

      The vehicle's electric drive motor may shut down unexpectedly

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 5,561 model year 2015-2016 e-Golf vehicles manufactured May 21, 2014, to March 1, 2016.

      Oversensitive diagnostics for the high-voltage battery management system may falsely detect an electrical surge resulting in the vehicle's electric drive motor shutting down unexpectedly, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Volkswagen has notified owners, and dealers will update the battery management software, free of charge. The recall began March 15, 2016.

      Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 93B4.

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 5,561 model year 2015-2016 e-Golf vehicles manufactured May 21, 2014, to March 1, 2016. Oversensitive diag...

      Tesla 3 debuts this week, with deliveries starting next year

      The Chevy Bolt is available sooner and cars like the Audi A3 are cheaper

      Gas prices are beginning to ever so slightly edge back up, which may bring renewed interest in electric cars, a topic that seems to have lost its charge over the last year or so as the self-driving craze has grabbed the public's eye. The long-awaited introduction of the Tesla Model 3 on Thursday, March 31, may help put a spark back into the e-car market.

      The Model 3, of course, is supposed to be Tesla's answer to the Nissan Leaf, the Chevrolet Volt/Bolt and the other all-electric and electric-hybrid cars that have been humming along for years now.

      The Model 3 will sell for around $35,000, roughly half of what you'd pay for a Model S but not exactly pocket change either. Those interested in something sporty but economical can pick up any number of athletic fuel-sippers like the Audi A3 or BMW 2-series for less. 

      Those determined to go all-electric all-the-time can get into a Chevrolet Bolt for about the same price, with delivery by the end of the year. 

      Perhaps the key selling point for all the alternatives is that while the Model 3 is being introduced this week, it will not go into production until sometime next year. All that happens Thursday is that you get to see what it looks like and, if you like, you can plop down $1,000 to pre-order yours.

      Will the bling last?

      A key question, of course, is whether Tesla can maintain its buzz for another year or so, while self-driving cars and other electrics grab headlines and parking spots around the country.

      Good question. Tesla has always had bling, but that's largely because it has aimed its models S and X at the celebrity and early-adopter market -- people who want to have and can afford to pay for the latest and most expensive gadgets and who most likely have a garage full of cars. 

      Those of more humble status looking for an economical and ecologically sound daily driver have for the last few years turned to the Leaf and Volt and, unfortunately, the Volkswagen TDI "clean diesels," which we now know to have been a cruel hoax. 

      By getting to market first, the Bolt may steal some of Tesla's thunder. It certainly boasts an infinitely larger dealer network and, although the Volt has never won any beauty pageants, neither has it encountered any of the well-publicized fires and other mishaps that affected early Teslas. 

      ConsumerAffairs has been operating a Volt in the heavily congested Washington, D.C., area for the last two years or so. We have changed the oil once, bought fuel for the back-up gas engine every few months, and put air in the tires now and then, but it has otherwise been a completely maintenance-free ride. Maybe a Tesla would have been sportier but, quite honestly, it's hard to get above 30 miles an hour in our neighborhood most days so the advantage would be minimal. 

      Sort of sporty

      Since January, we've been test-driving an Audi A3 in Southern California, a little car that's supposed to snag younger consumers. It's sort of sporty, if you don't mind numb steering, and looks a bit sleeker than the Volt.

      But in a recent six-hour, rainy-day crawl from Los Angeles to Palm Springs one Friday afternoon, we were reminded how much better electric cars are at creeping along in heavy traffic than their gas-powered cousins. The Audi -- and other turbocharged gas-burners -- is jumpy, for lack of a better term, and trying to crawl along the I-10 at 5 miles per hour starts to get annoying after the first few hours.

      Both the Volt and Audi are fast off the line when desired. The Audi has more oomph at highway speeds, on the rare occasions they're attainable, and snappier handling and braking than the Volt. 

      We've averaged 25.9 miles per gallon in the A3, which is not that great considering how cramped it is inside. The Volt is cramped too, of course, but it makes up for it with mileage that is off the charts. 

      Both the Volt and the A3 draw their share of contempt. There is a certain element -- mostly SUV drivers displaying Trump stickers -- that considers electric cars to be fussy or somehow silly and, especially in California, anything that reeks of VW or Audi is now seen as evil personified. Tesla may still have a slightly positive aura.

      Oh so clever

      Which brings us at last to the little matter of the Model 3's name. Why the 3? Well, yes, it is the third Tesla to go into production, but the others are the S and X. Where does the 3 fit in?

      Yep, that's right -- in the middle. S3X. Get it? Teslas have successfully been branded as sexy and the clever naming of the 3 is seen as a little elbow-nudge for those who want to be in the know. 

      Gas prices are beginning to ever so slightly edge back up, which may bring renewed interest in electric cars, a topic that seems to ha...

      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...

      Oombrella: the smart umbrella that knows when it's going to rain

      It can also prevent you from accidentally leaving it behind

      Even if you remember to check the weather forecast before heading out, there’s no guarantee that a surprise rainshower won’t find you anyway. Weather forecasts aren’t always one hundred percent accurate or custom-tailored to your area -- but what if your umbrella could let you know that you’re going to need it?

      With a smart umbrella called the “Oombrella,” it’s possible. The Oombrella, created by Paris-based company Wezzoo, will notify you through an app on your smartphone if rain is expected in your area within the next fifteen minutes.

      And because it’s connected to your smartphone, the Oombrella can also let you know if you’re about to forget it. So how can it do all this?

      How it works

      According to the company’s Kickstarter, Oombrella uses real-time weather data to help users stay as up-to-date as possible.

      A waterproof sensor capsule tucked away in the umbrella's handle collects data on temperature, pressure, humidity, and light in your exact area. Then, via Bluetooth, the smart umbrella transmits this data to the corresponding mobile app. If all signs point to rain, you’ll receive a notification on your phone saying, “Take me with you. It will rain in 15 minutes.”

      If you're prone to leaving your umbrella behind, the Oombrella might be just right for you. Other members of the Wezzoo community can help you track down your missing umbrella by combining your location with last-seen data. 

      Features and functionality

      The creators of Oombrella had a little fun designing the top of the umbrella. A screw thread included on the top of the umbrella allows users to screw in other items -- a camera, a smartphone, or a GoPro, for instance. 

      Oombrella is sturdy, too, with Kevlar ribs designed to withstand high winds and rains. But it’s got more than just brains and brawn. . . it’s got beauty.

      The smart umbrella is beautifully designed, made of a special, iridescent material that according to the company “makes you feel you are holding an aurora borealis in your hands.” 

      The Kickstarter campaign is well on its way towards reaching its $65,500 goal by mid-April. Super early birds can snag the Oombrella on Kickstarter for about $66. If you don’t want to spend that much (or if you’ve grown especially fond of your old umbrella), you can purchase just the capsule for $32. Oombrellas will ship in October 2016 if all goes according to plan.

      Even if you remember to check the weather forecast before heading out, there’s no guarantee that a surprise rainshower won’t find you anyway. Weather forec...

      Study: bisphenol A replacement has its drawbacks

      Bisphenol S linked to excess fat formation

      Manufacturers have been moving away from the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) as a plastic hardener in packaging and bottles, over health concerns.

      Many have embraced bisphenol S (BPS) as a substitute. Now, a study published in the Endocrine Society’s journal Endocrinology suggests BPS might have some problems.

      “Our research indicates BPS and BPA have comparable effects on fat cells and their metabolism,” the study’s senior author, Ella Atlas of Health Canada, said in a statement.

      She says the study is the first to suggest BPS exposure can promote the formation of human fat cells. That could be a problem because the products labeled “BPA Free” often contain BPS.

      In their study, the researchers found that exposure to a little or a lot of BPS had the same result – creating the largest accumulation of lipids. Oddly, exposure to moderate amounts of BPS has less of an effect.

      Small amounts are disruptive

      The scientists say exposure to even very small amounts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals can disrupt hormones. That's because small changes in hormone levels are supposed to make adjustments in metabolism, respiration, heart rate, and other bodily functions.

      The search for a BPA substitute gained traction after some 100 epidemiological studies linked BPA to health problems. Retailers like Walmart dropped plastic bottles and cups for children if they contained the chemical.

      That led to a host of BPA-Free products, many of which contain BPS. From the start, researchers wondered if the similarities between the two chemicals might mean they could share potential health concerns.

      “Since BPS is one of the replacement chemicals used in consumer products that are marketed as BPA-free, it is important to examine whether BPS acts as an endocrine-disrupting chemical,” Atlas said.

      The Canadian study concludes that BPS and BPA have similar effects on fat cell formation, lipid accumulation, and expression of genes important for lipid metabolism. And it isn't the first to suggest the substitute for BPA might have problems.

      Researchers at UCLA recently reported that BPS may be linked to early puberty and a rise in breast and prostate cancers.  

      Manufacturers have been moving away from the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) as a plastic hardener in packaging and bottles, over health concerns.Many have...

      New limits expected for financial advisors

      New rules designed to end conflict of interest in financial advice

      The Department of Labor (DOL) is expected to finalize new rules soon, governing what financial advisors, who often guide consumers' retirement saving efforts, can and can't do.

      The proposed rule changes are designed to prevent conflicts of interest, when a financial advisor that a consumer assumes is offering impartial advice recommends an investment that will benefit the advisor in the form of commissions.

      After the new rules are in place, brokers will be expected to act in the client's best interest. That means not steering the client into a fund that will benefit the advisor more than the client.

      A year in the making

      A year ago, President Obama directed the DOL to begin the rule making process, requiring financial professionals advising consumers on retirement investments to abide by a “fiduciary” standard. They would have to put their clients' interests ahead of their own, and more importantly, could be held accountable when they didn't.

      When the DOL published the proposed rule late last year, it said the regulation reflected years of work and feedback from a broad range of stakeholders—including industry, consumer advocates, Congress, retirement groups, academia, and the public.

      Specifically, the rule bars backdoor payments and hidden fees that sometimes get buried in the fine print. It also seeks to avoid “conflicted advice,” meaning the advisor profits if the client follows it. If an investment advisor wants to recommend a product on which he or she would earn a commission, the advisor would have to apply for, and be granted, an exemption.

      The DOL says the proposed rule would save tens of billions of dollars for middle-class and working families. However, it is not without controversy among retirement planning professionals.

      Controversy

      The American Retirement Association (ARA) says the rule will make it hard for a small business to set up new retirement plans, or maintain one it already has.

      “Not only would this proposal set aside an objective, nondiscrimination testing process that has been in place for more than two decades, it would result in a dramatic increase in costs for many small business retirement plan sponsors — in many cases 75% or more,” the ARA warns.

      The association says the new regulation would impose a new “reasonable classification” requirement on which all plans would be judged. To meet the requirement of “reasonable,” classifications must be based on reasonable business criteria and the judgment would have to be made by more than one person.

      Brian Graff, CEO of the ARA, says many small businesses only have one person who fills a role that would pass for a “reasonable classification” for a large company, but might not be considered “reasonable” for a small company.

      “In other words, this new requirement unreasonably targets small business retirement plans,” he said.

      The Department of Labor (DOL) is expected to finalize new rules soon, governing what financial advisors, who often guide consumers' retirement saving effor...

      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...

      Personal income, outlays edge upward in February

      The personal saving rate rose as well

      Consumers tended to hang on to what little increase in incomes they enjoyed in February.

      The Commerce department reports personal income was up $23.7 billion, or 0.2% last month, with disposable personal income (DPI) -- what's left over after taxes -- up by the same amount and percentage.

      Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) inched ahead $11.0 billion, or 0.1%.

      Wages and salaries

      Wages and salaries decreased by $9.4 billion in February after surging $46.5 billion in January. Private wages and salaries were down $12.9 billion, while government wages and salaries increased $3.5 billion.

      Outlays and saving

      Personal outlays -- PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments -- rose $10.4 billion in February, compared with an increase of $14.7 billion in January.

      Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- rose $13.3 billion from January to $733.6 billion. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 5.4%, up 0.1% from the previous month.

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

      Consumers tended to hang on to what little increase in incomes they enjoyed in February.The Commerce department reports personal income was up $23.7 bi...

      Volkswagen recalls model year 2011-2016 Touaregs

      The brake pedal pivot pin could move, causing the pedal to dislodge

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 46,700 model year 2011-2016 Touaregs.

      The brake pedal pivot pin may be missing a circlip, allowing the pivot pin to move and the brake pedal to dislodge.

      If the brake pedal dislodges, the driver may not be able to apply the brakes, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the brake pedal assembly to verify the presence of the circlip and install any missing circlips, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 46G4.

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 46,700 model year 2011-2016 Touaregs. The brake pedal pivot pin may be missing a circlip, allowing the piv...

      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...

      Travel Spotlight: New York City

      Here are three "insider" spots every visitor should see

      What’s it like to be a New York City insider? Insiders seek unique and authentic experiences that showcase the flavor of a locality. If you enjoy history, art, architecture, and culture, learn to be an insider whenever and wherever your travels take you.   

      Three insider haunts

      Radio City Musical Hall Stage Door Tour

      1260 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY

      Tours daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

      Aptly nicknamed the showplace of the nation, Radio City Musical Hall is the largest indoor theatre in the world with a marquee stretching a full city block. Its art deco interior spaces and décor are stunning and elegant. The Rockettes, a precision dance company renowned for their high kicks, have performed at the theater since 1932.

      Take a 75-minute backstage tour of the theater and see firsthand the art deco masterpieces in the public and private spaces and meet a Rockette. She will be in full costume, answer your questions, and take a photo with you.  

      Adult: $26.95; Children (12 & under): $19.95

      Lincoln Center Tour

      David Rubenstein Atrium, Broadway & 62nd Street, New York, NY

      The majestic Swarovski crystal chandeliers in the Metropolitan Opera House lobby were a gift from the Austrian government to thank the United States for its aid in the years after World War II. This is just one of many facts you’ll learn on a 75-minute tour of the stunning performance venues of Lincoln Center. Each tour is different, based on the performance schedule, but you may be lucky and get to see a working rehearsal. Specialty tours include Art & Architecture and American Sign Language Interpretation.

      Purchase your tour tickets online, by phone (212) 875-5350, or in person at the David Rubenstein Atrium.

      All tickets: $20.00; Student (under age 30, with valid ID): $18

      Purchase both the Radio City Musical Hall and Lincoln Center Tour together and save over 25%. The Combo Tour: $32.50 can be purchased at either theater.

      The Empire State Building at Night

      350 5th Ave, New York, NY

      Where else can you see the city shimmer? The Empire State Building, one of the most iconic tourist attractions in New York City, offers beautiful views of the city’s skyline; visit at night when the city is ablaze in lights and the skyline dazzles. With your first step out to the Observation Deck, you’ll feel as if you are opening a jewel box as buildings and bridges sparkle in an array of colors. An added bonus, the lines in the evening are not as long as daytime hours.

      The Empire State Building is open every day, including all holidays and in all weather, from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. (the last elevator goes up at 1:15 a.m.). For an extra treat visit Thursday through Saturday from 9:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. when a saxophonist performs.

      Main Deck Only (86th Floor)

      Adult: $32; Senior: (ages 62+): $29; Child (ages 6-12): $26

      What’s it like to be a New York City insider? Insiders seek unique and authentic experiences that showcase the flavor of a locality. If you enjoy history, ...

      How to select an auto loan

      Start by not letting the car dealer get it for you

      A critical part of buying a car or truck these days is the financing. Almost no one pays cash for their ride, so finding a loan with the best terms – or at least terms that won't come back to bite you – is pretty important.

      In that light, Nick Clements, a former banker who founded MagnifyMoney, uncovered some discouraging data when he conducted a survey of 673 consumers who recently made an auto purchase.

      The survey found that 64.4% of auto loan borrowers let the dealer find the loan for them, while 52.1% of borrowers said their income was never verified during the process.

      While a four year loan term is ideal for an auto loan, nearly all who took out a loan longer than five years said they did so to lower the monthly payment.

      Only 34.9% of borrowers – just over a third – actually did it the right way, shopping for the best interest rate before arriving at the car dealer.

      Reason for concern

      Clements says he's concerned because he believes many of the things that went wrong in the subprime mortgage market could go wrong in the subprime auto market. Clenents says car dealers are playing the role of mortgage brokers in the previous crisis, making money on the sale of vehicles while pocketing a discount from lenders.

      “Extending the term on an automobile loan, especially for used cars, can be dangerous,” the survey warns. “The car loan will lose value much faster than the loan will be paid off. The concern for subprime borrowers is that the used car will break down and the borrower will be upside down.”

      Clements says that on a seven-year loan, a borrower will have paid only about 25% of the loan balance after two years. If the car's value has declined by 25%, he or she is in a similar situation to the homeowner who bought a house with a subprime loan in 2006.

      What to do

      Once you have decided on the car you would like to buy, figure out how you would finance it before talking to a dealer. A good place to start is with your bank or credit union.

      Talk to a loan officer about the vehicle you intend to buy, the price you expect to pay, and how much of a down payment you can make. The loan officer should then be able to quote you a rate.

      It's also a good idea to compare those terms with another bank or financial institution. The Internet makes that process fairly easy.

      When you go to the dealer, you'll already have an idea what your monthly payments will be. Don't discuss financing with the dealer until you've negotiated the price of the car.

      A critical part of buying a car or truck these days is the financing. Almost no one pays cash for their ride, so finding a loan with the best terms – or at...

      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...

      Fisher Price's vision of the future is full of holograms and amazing technology

      A video illustrates how technology could be seamlessly integrated into the parenting experience

      Families of the future are in for a tech-immersive child-rearing experience if Fisher-Price’s vision of the future is any indication. The toy company recently teamed up with Continuum, a global innovation design consultancy based in Boston, to create a short video called “The Future of Parenting.”

      The video -- which debuted earlier this month at South by Southwest (SXSW) -- sought to imagine all the ways technology will help next generation of families raise and care for children.

      While some of the hologram-filled video is a bit idealistic and “may never happen,” Fisher Price believes many of the possibilities illustrated may not be too far off.

      In the video, a 3D printing device is shown helping a child’s depiction of an owl come to life in the form of a new toy. A digital-age version of Fisher Price’s classic “Rock-a-Stack” rings also makes an appearance in the video, but the new version is smarter.

      Fisher Price, a company that focuses heavily on learning through play, imagines that the stacking rings of the future actually recognize that the child has never stacked the rings in order before and offers up a little victory celebration upon completion.

      Higher-quality items

      The video also focuses on the values of younger Millennials and seeks to imagine what the Fitbit-wearing, smartphone savvy group will covet as parents. High-quality items and the less-is-more approach are both featured concepts.

      "We know the parents, the younger millennial parents, do have that desire [to own less]," Mark Zeller, head of design at Fisher Price, tells FastCompany. "And I think that speaks to us to raise the quality of materials. That way, parents are buying fewer, higher-quality products and toys.”

      Younger Millennials, who seem infatuated by tracking devices, might indeed be intrigued by the smart feeding tray featured in the video. The tray is user-connected, shown helping mom determine how much of certain foods a child should eat based on age and weight.

      But, says Zeller, the difference between the data trackers of now and the data trackers of tomorrow is that they'll be less judgemental -- focused on information rather than assessment. 

      A paper explaining the thinking behind the video can be viewed here.

      Families of the future are in for a tech-immersive child-rearing experience if Fisher-Price’s vision of the future is any indication. The toy company recen...

      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...

      Do your finances need some spring cleaning?

      If so, here's where to start

      As you pick up and put away around the house, and maybe even dust and scrub, don't overlook your checkbook.

      Every once in a while your finances need some attention, and spring is as good a time as any.

      “The arrival of spring motivates people to renew their surroundings, and what better way to focus that momentum than to check off everything on your financial to-do list?” Corey Carlisle, executive director of the American Bankers Association (ABA) Foundation, said in a release.

      So what exactly is on a financial spring cleaning to-do list? Dealing with debt is a good place to start.

      Pay down debt

      It's a fact that most U.S. households carry a balance on their credit cards. Review how much you owe – and how much has been paid down, or added, over the last six months. If the balance is going down, that's good. If it's going up, put a plan in place to start reducing it each month.

      If you have pretty good credit, explore opening a new credit card account with a long introductory 0% rate on balance transfers. The Chase Freedom Card, which has no annual fee, currently offers a 0% rate for 15 months. Eliminating interest charges over that time will help you chip away at the debt balance even faster.

      Another chore is reviewing your budget. Of course, that might be hard if you don't have one. Needless to say, if you've been operating without a budget, sit down and make one.

      This may require reducing some of the money you are now spending, which is never enjoyable. But figure out where it makes the most sense to reduce spending and make cuts you can live with.

      Savings plan

      If you are one of the lucky few whose income has risen lately, it's all the more urgent to have a budget. You may find you are able to start saving more money each month than you thought.

      At least once a year you should take advantage of the law that allows you to review your credit report from all three credit reporting agencies at no charge. If there are mistakes in your report, it can drag down your credit score. You can also make sure no one has compromised your identity and is running up bogus accounts.

      Other tasks include downloading your bank's mobile app and signing up for e-statements, paperless billing, and text alerts. Reducing the amount of paper coming into your home each month not only makes it easier to keep track of your finances, it might reduce the actual spring cleaning you have to do each year.

      As you pick up and put away around the house, and maybe even dust and scrub, don't overlook your checkbook.Every once in a while your finances need som...

      Fourth-quarter economic growth revised upward

      Corporate profits continued to fall

      Final figures for economic performance at the end of last year are out, and the news isn't particularly encouraging.

      According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the value of the goods and services produced by the nation’s economy less the value of the goods and services used up in production, adjusted for price changes -- grew at an annual rate of 1.4% in the fourth quarter.

      While that's a little better that the 1.0% reported a month ago, it's also a little worse than the 2.0% annual rate in the third quarter.

      For all of 2015, GDP expanded at an annual rate of 2.4%, the same as in the previous year.

      The final fourth quarter figures are based on more complete information than was available a month ago. The increase reflected increases in consumer spending, residential fixed investment, and federal government spending. Those were partly offset by declines in nonresidential fixed investment, exports, private inventory investment, and state and local government spending.

      Corporate profits

      While the fourth-quarter GDP growth rate accelerated a a bit, corporate profits took another hit.

      Profits from current production, as it's called, fell by $159.6 billion on top of a drop of $33.0 billion in the third quarter.

      For all of last year, corporate profits were down $64.0 billion, after rising $35.6 billion in 2014.

      GDP inflation

      An inflation measure tied to GDP, was up 0.4%, compared with an increase of 1.3 percent in the third. Excluding food and energy prices, the “core” rate of GDP inflation rose 1.0% after increasing 1.3% in the prior three months.

      GDP inflation for the entire year was up 0.4%; it jumped 1.2% in 2014.

      The complete GDP report is available on the BEA website.

      Final figures for economic performance at the end of last year are out, and the news isn't particularly encouraging.According to the Bureau of Economic...

      American Gourmet Roasted/Salted Pistachios recalled

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      American Gourmet of Vista, Calif., is recalling American Gourmet Roasted/Salted Pistachios.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      The following product, which was sold in retail stores in San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties in California, are being recalled:

      Name:Roasted and Salted PistachiosRoasted and Salted PistachiosRoasted and Salted Pistachios
      Size:2.5 oz4 oz7.5 oz
      Best By:11.5.2016 through 1.13.201711.5.2016 through 1.13.201711.5.2016 through 1.13.2017
      UPC Code:157860010815786001351578600123

      The Best by Dates are on the lower bottom panel of the package.

      What to do

      Consumers should return the recalled product to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers may contact Maurice at (760)599-0480 between 8am-5pm (PST), Monday through Friday.

      American Gourmet of Vista, Calif., is recalling American Gourmet Roasted/Salted Pistachios. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. ...

      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...

      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...

      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...

      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 ...

      Sugary juices marketed to kids contain a full day's worth of sugar, study finds

      Researchers say labels on fruit juices and smoothies may be misleading

      Juices are adored by many children, and often, the colorful concoctions are a regular part of kids' diets. Labels on juices and smoothies seem to assure parents that what they’re giving their children is healthy -- or at least healthier than soda. A new study suggests, however, that parents may have been misled.

      The study -- published recently in the online journal BMJ open -- finds that kids are getting a full day’s amount of sugar from many commercially-sold fruit drinks.

      Researchers from the University of Liverpool examined over two hundred 100% natural juices and smoothies marketed to children in the UK and found sugar content to be “unacceptably high.” Smoothies contained the highest amount of sugar.

      The team -- led by Professor Simon Capewell -- found that almost half of the juices contained a child’s maximum daily sugar intake of 19 grams (five teaspoons). The researchers say that the labels included a reference on intake, but the guidelines were specific to an active, average-sized adult.

      Applicable to U.S.

      Although the study looked at juice marketed to children in the UK, experts in the U.S. say the results would likely be very similar had the study been conducted here.

      Nancy Copperman, a nutritionist and assistant vice president of public health at Northwell Health in Great Neck, N.Y., believes the excessive amount of added sugars in kids’ fruit drinks significantly adds to empty calories. She believes it’s a problem that “crosses continents.”

      "The 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends limiting added sugars to less than 10 percent of children's total calories and promotes eating fruit, rather than drinking 100 percent juice, to meet the suggested daily servings of fruits and vegetables," Copperman tells HealthDay.com.

      Advice on sugary drinks

      Public health officials -- who often call fruit juices “liquid candy” -- say it’s especially important to monitor kids' intake of sugary juices here in the U.S., where one in six children are overweight. 

      The researchers recommend following a few guidelines in order to prevent children from consuming sugar in excess:

      • Fruit should be consumed in its whole form, not as juice.
      • Parents should dilute fruit juice with water and only give them during meals.
      • Portions should be limited to 150 ml a day.

      Full results of the study can be found here.

      Juices are adored by many children, and often, the colorful concoctions are a regular part of kids' diets. Labels on juices and smoothies seem to assure pa...

      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...

      Virgin America seen as a takeover target

      A Chinese conglomerate is rumored to be in hot pursuit, others may join in

      Virgin America may be about to hit puberty. The luxurious little carrier has become a takeover target after announcing that it was being courted by an unnamed suitor, thought in some circles to be a Chinese holding company that has been amassing an airline collection, according to SeekingAlpha, a trade journal.

      Founded in 2004 and nurtured through its infancy by billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin went public in 2014 and has expanded its route structure to accommodate more mid-continent destinations, though it remains primarily an East-West conduit beloved by its loyal bicoastal passengers.

      But love is fickle, and all the customer loyalty on earth won't make up for a huge chunk of cash, which is what Virgin shareholders are dreaming of now that the airline is in play.

      Upscale on a budget

      Virgin has cultivated an image of upscale service (mood lighting, cool snacks) while maintaining fares that are competitive if not rock-bottom. It was able to do so mostly because of its relative youth (translation: no union contracts and new airplanes that don't require as much maintenance). Now that it is entering its teen years, margins are looking thinner.

      There are numerous possible bidders other than the rumored Chinese. Virgin's route structure and aircraft fleet would almost be a perfect fit for JetBlue. Its San Francisco hub would be a boon to Delta and it would jettison Alaska Air onto the East Coast in a big way.

      Or it could just be swallowed up by a private-equity firm. Just sit back, relax, and we'll see where we land.

      Virgin America may be about to hit puberty. The luxurious little carrier has become a takeover target after announcing that it was being courted by an unna...

      Practical backyard upgrades that you can tackle on your own

      Pet-friendly plantings to help ensure your pooch stays safe

      As warmer weather approaches, many homeowners are planning to tackle outdoor renovations. Nine in ten homeowners are planning on sprucing up their yard in some way this year, according to a survey by Houzz.

      What projects will they be taking on? The majority said they’ll be updating outdoor systems (82%), beds and borders (80%), and structural elements (72%). But when it comes to actually executing these projects, it seems homeowners know their limits -- over half (52%) said they'll be enlisting the help of a landscape contractor, architect, or designer for their projects.

      But that still leaves an admirable percentage of folks who plan to take matters into their own hands. So what are some of the more painless outdoor renovations a homeowner can take on?

      Pet-friendly plants

      Outdoor updates for children and pets will both be popular upgrades this year, according to the survey. But interestingly, pet-related upgrades are sought after by a higher percentage of people (42% vs. 33%).

      Those looking to turn their yards into a pet-friendly oasis for their lucky pets may be thinking of planting some toxin-free plants. Indeed, if your furry companions are allowed in the backyard, it’s important to keep them in mind when selecting plants.

      If you’ve got a backyard digger on your hands, steer clear of bulbs (such as Tulips and Daffodils). According to experts, when the plant parts or bulbs are chewed or swallowed, it can lead to tissue irritation in the mouth and esophagus. Resulting symptoms will require immediate attention and include profuse drooling, vomiting, or diarrhea.

      But opting for pet-friendly plants doesn’t have to mean sacrificing the aesthetic appeal of your yard. Many non-toxic plants are as lovely as they are pet-safe. Zinnias, Snapdragons, Celosia Plumosa, China aster, and Petunias are all on this handy list of pet-friendly, non-toxic plants.

      Low-maintenance plantings

      Upgrading the back yard doesn't stop with pet owners, though. Seventy-eight percent of homeowners are planning on adding some low-maintenance plantings to their yard. It’s a project that will pay off in the long-haul, in the form of backyard beauty that’s easily manageable.

      When planning a low-maintenance landscape, be sure to pick plants specific to your USDA Hardiness Zone and plant to your yard’s conditions. A little pre-planning can go a long way towards avoiding the frustration of a plant that doesn't make it.

      Yuccas are low-maintenance favorite of many. Its spiky foliage lasts all season, and it'll even offer up a few white blooms mid-summer. It can grow up to five feet wide, which means you can fill a big space with just a few yuccas. Fewer plants can often make a big impact.

      The Endless Summer Hydrangea is another low-maintenance favorite. Hydrangeas are tolerant of most soil conditions with moderate moisture, but keep in mind that deer love hydrangeas. Be sure to plant them in a deer-free area to avoid having this low-maintenance beauty consumed as a snack. 

      As warmer weather approaches, many homeowners are planning to tackle outdoor renovations. Nine in ten homeowners are planning on sprucing up their yard in ...

      Researchers make progress in fight against Zika virus

      Experts at Southern Research have developed an assay that is an important step towards developing a vaccine

      Researchers are still working hard to understand the Zika virus and stop it from spreading. The illness, which has been connected to cases of microcephaly and rare instances of Guillain-Barré syndrome, has flourished in areas of South and Central America, with many experts believing that it could make its way to the U.S. in the coming months.

      However, earlier this week, there was some progress made in the battle against it. Experts at Southern Research in Birmingham, Alabama have developed an antiviral assay that will allow researchers around the world to detect Zika virus in cell cultures. Having the assay gives researchers access to more information and allows them to test strategies and methods that could eventually halt the spread of the virus.

      Dr. Jonathan Rayner at Southern Research explains that developing an assay is an integral part of the research process. “This assay represents a crucial step in the global search for a vaccine, and we’re proud to be able to contribute to the growing body of science in this impactful way,” he said.

      Zika virus

      For those who don’t know, Zika virus is contracted when a person is bitten by an infected mosquito. Symptoms of the virus are similar to the flu and include fever, rash, joint and muscle pain, and red eyes. It can last anywhere from a few days to a week.

      Although these symptoms are not generally fatal, Zika virus can be very dangerous to certain people. Pregnant women who contract the virus can pass on microcephaly to their unborn child, a condition that causes brain and developmental disorders.  

      If you believe that you have contracted the Zika virus, the CDC says that you should see your healthcare provider immediately. Patients should be sure to drink plenty of fluids and take acetaminophen to assuage any fever-like symptoms. However, anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin should be avoided so that the symptoms do not worsen.

      The CDC has more information on the Zika virus that can be found here

      Researchers are still working hard to understand the Zika virus and stop it from spreading. The illness, which has been connected to cases of microcephaly ...

      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...

      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...

      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...

      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,...

      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...

      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...

      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...

      PawsLikeMe wants to help shelter cats find their perfect human match

      The site uses a scientifically-proven algorithm to match pets with people

      Some dogs are just better suited to certain humans than others. That’s the idea behind PawsLikeMe, a pet adoption website that describes itself as “Eharmony for dogs.” Since 2015, the site has used its pet-matching algorithm to help over two million people find a shelter dog in their area.

      Now, the site -- which boasts an algorithm proven to be 90% accurate in predicting people-to-pet compatibility -- plans to include cats in its matchmaking services.

      "Ever since we started our company, the vision has always been to add cats into our platform," said Elizabeth Holmes, co-founder and CEO of PawsLikeMe, in a statement. She adds, however, that doing so will require special considerations. Cats and dogs are very different, after all.

      Coy cats

      Analyzing cats isn’t as easy, explains Holmes, as they tend to be a little more guarded with their personalities. Where dogs are pack animals with on-the-surface emotions, cats are more reserved she says, adding that a specialized “cat algorithm” had to be created to match cats with people.

      "We ask questions where there is no right or wrong answer,” Holmes says of the site’s algorithm, which matches based on four qualities: energy, confidence, focus, and independence.

      “For cats, we had to give a specific example. So, does the cat run between your legs? That's a cat that's affectionate and demanding attention."

      The new algorithm has already been developed, but to get it to market will require a little financial help. To come up with the $15,000 needed to launch the service, PawsLikeMe has set up an Indiegogo crowd-sourcing effort to raise the money.

      Shelter kiosks

      If the $15,000 goal is exceeded, Holmes and co-founder Marianna Benko plan to use the money to set up pet-matching kiosks (which cost $500 each) in participating shelters.

      Benko explains that she and Holmes hope the matchmaking service helps people look at animal adoption differently. By highlighting a pet’s inner beauty rather than just focusing on the cuteness factor, the team hopes to set the stage for highly compatible pet-human relationships.

      To support the PawsLikeMe campaign, click here.

      Some dogs are just better suited to certain humans than others. That’s the idea behind PawsLikeMe, a pet adoption website that describes itself as “Eharmon...

      Busy mornings call for quick and easy breakfasts for consumers

      Fast-food breakfasts have increased in popularity as a result, reports suggest

      For many consumers, breakfast is a meal that must somehow be incorporated into the workday. No longer do busy Americans have time for sit-down pancake breakfasts or a leisurely cup of coffee in the morning. These days, breakfast is whatever can be consumed quickly and on the run.

      For Millennials, especially, convenience seems to be the name of the game when it comes to the first meal of the day. A recent Mintel report offered up the interesting finding that 40% of Millennials are no longer fond of cereal in the morning as it “takes too long to clean up.” While this finding led many to jump at another opportunity to call the group “lazy,” the actual root of the issue at that consumers of every age are increasingly pressed for time.

      So how has breakfast changed as a result? According to the March issue of Food Technology magazine, published by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), the emphasis is now on portability, high protein, and great taste.

      Busier lifestyles

      Approximately 80% of consumers eat frozen breakfast foods and 25% opt to eat them on the go. A poll by Instantly, an LA-based marketing research firm, revealed that the number of people who eat breakfast on the run has climbed quite a bit over the last decade.

      “One of the things we found is that 28% of consumers usually eat breakfast away from home,” content strategist Jared Smith tells IFT, adding that ten years ago, that figure was only 11%. “We think this is indicative of our busier lifestyle today.”

      Author Carolyn Schierhorn explains that, indeed, convenient breakfast foods have seen a huge surge in interest. Breakfast items that fall under the “shelf-stable and convenient” category have seen gains of over 40%, according to a report.

      What else do consumers consider convenient? Fast-food breakfasts.

      Restaurant breakfasts

      Schierhorn explains that breakfast is the fastest-growing meal purchased at restaurants. And if their recently unveiled all-day breakfast menu is any indication, McDonald’s was informed of this early on. 

      The restaurant chain bearing the golden arches saw a 5.7% spike in U.S. sales in its fourth quarter last year, more than likely due to the launch of their all-day breakfast menu.

      Fast-food breakfasts seemed to scratch an itch for consumers in 2015, as it was also the top food news story of the year, according to a survey by Hunter Public Relations. Industry experts say that breakfast is the fastest-growing foodservice and continues to accelerate.

      However, if time is limited in the morning, 21% of Americans say they’re likely to skip breakfast altogether.

      For many consumers, breakfast is a meal that must somehow be incorporated into the workday. No longer do busy Americans have time for sit-down pancake brea...

      Banks in rural areas freed from some regulation

      Goal is more available credit in under served areas

      The banking landscape today is very different from just a couple of decades ago. Banks get a lot more of their income from fees than from lending money.

      But in rural areas, independent community banks tend to operate a lot like most banks did years ago. They don't give toasters for opening a new account, but they normally have fewer, and lower, fees and make more loans.

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has finalized a new rule that broadens the availablity of certain provisions for small financial institutions that operate in rural and underserved markets.

      CFPB Director Richard Cordray says the rule will allow more rural banks to originate balloon-payment qualified and high-cost mortgages. As a result, he says these banks will be in a better position to provide credit to more borrowers.

      Expanded access to credit

      Camden Fine, CEO of the Independent Community Bankers of America, said the new rule will expand access to credit by easing the regulatory burdens on community banks operating in rural areas – where most such banks are located.

      “Community banks that are small creditors will be able to continue to offer balloon payment mortgages and be exempt from mandatory escrow rules for higher-priced mortgages if they make at least one loan in a rural or underserved area,” Fine said in a statement emailed to ConsumerAffairs. “This will allow many more community banks in rural or underserved areas to meet the needs of their customers and communities.”

      Some unique advantages

      Under recently passed bank regulations, major lenders are precluded from making balloon-payment loans if they later want to sell those loans. The provision gives small banks an advantage that the larger banks don't enjoy.

      CFPB says its monitoring of the mortgage market and solicitation of feedback from the public led it to loosen some of the regulatory requirements and alter its definitions of “small creditor” and “rural area.” Congressional action at the end of last year, the agency said, broadened the categories even more.

      Before the rule, fewer banks were considered “small” and to be operating in “rural or under served areas.” With the rule, more banks – and more of their loans – qualify.

      The banking landscape today is very different from just a couple of decades ago. Banks get a lot more of their income from fees than from lending money....

      Trouble choosing a qualified tax preparer?

      We have some tips to help you through the maze

      Well, here we are less than a month before your 2016 federal tax return is due at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) office, and you still haven't decided who will prepare your taxes for you.

      It doesn't have to be that hard. One way of deciding is to use the www.irs.gov/chooseataxpro website. It contains a list of tips for making that decision. There's even a gateway page with links to national nonprofit tax professional groups, which can help provide additional information for taxpayers seeking the right type of qualified help.

      “The filing of a federal income tax return represents one of the biggest financial transactions of the year for many Americans, whether they are getting a refund or paying tax due,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said. “Choose your tax return preparer carefully because you entrust them with your private financial information that needs to be protected.”

      What to do

      Here are some basic tips taxpayers can keep in mind when selecting a tax professional, courtesy of the IRS:

      • Select an ethical preparer. Taxpayers entrust some of their most vital personal data with the person preparing their tax return, including income, investments, and Social Security numbers.
      • Make sure the preparer signs the return and includes his Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). All paid preparers are required to have a valid PTIN.
      • Review the tax return and ask questions before signing. You're legally responsible for what’s on your tax return, regardless of whether someone else prepared it.
      • Never sign a blank tax return. It’s a clear red flag when a taxpayer is asked to sign a blank tax return. The preparer can put anything she wants on the return -- even her own bank account number for the tax refund.

      The IRS has a Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers with Credentials and Select Qualifications on its website to help you verify credentials and qualifications of tax professionals.

      The Directory is a searchable, sortable database with the name, city, state, and zip code of credentialed return preparers as well as those who have completed the requirements for the IRS Annual Filing Season Program.

      Well, here we are less than a month before your 2016 federal tax return is due at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) office, and you still haven't decided ...

      Five new cars you can probably afford to buy instead of lease

      These cars, priced under $20,000, provide an alternative to leasing

      As new car sales post monthly sales records, so do their prices. The average transaction price on a new car last month was nearly $34,000, according to Kelley Blue Book.

      The high cost of a new car is one reason that leases have become a large part of new vehicle transactions each month. To afford monthly payments, consumers have been turning in greater numbers to leasing. Since you pay only to use the vehicle for two or three years, the monthly payments are lower.

      But instead of obtaining a vehicle you can't really afford, why not purchase one you can afford? The average transaction price of a new car is approaching that of a condo, only because consumers are insisting on buying more expensive cars and trucks, with more expensive options.

      There are cheaper alternatives, you know. So if you would rather purchase a car and drive it until the doors fall off, here are five affordable options. We priced these base model cars using TrueCar's “exceptional buy” rating for Richmond, Va. Your location might be higher or lower.

      Chevy Cruze

      The Chevrolet Cruze is a compact sedan in the same class as the Honda Accord or Toyota Corolla. It has its share of high-tech features and a smooth ride. It can be purchased for $18,687, with a down payment of $1,868 and a monthly payment of $298 a month for five years. If you can afford to put 20% down, the payment would be even lower.

      Ford Focus

      Another compact, the Ford Focus is quiet, attractive, and offers good fuel economy. We found a base model at $14,715. With $1,471 down the payment is just $235 a month for five years.

      Hyundai Elantra

      The Elantra offers a smooth ride, deceptively large trunk, and a nice long warranty. It goes for under $19,000. With a down payment of $1,859, the payment is $297 for five years.

      VW Jetta

      Volkwagen's high-profile emissions cheating scandal has hurt the brand, meaning you can probably drive a pretty hard bargain at your local dealer. You can probably buy a gasoline-powered Jetta – not affected by the scandal – for under $18,000. With $1,741 down, that works out to $278 a month over five years.

      Kia Forte

      The Kia Forte is another compact introduced in 2010, and has benefited from Kia's improved reputation. It's economical to buy yet fun to drive. You can probably find one for just over $15,000. Put down $1,519 and finance it over five years and you're looking at a payment of $243 a month.

      For any of these cars, if you can afford to put 20% down and finance over four years instead of five, so much the better. Still, for those who would rather purchase a car instead of lease it, there are still plenty of affordable options.

      As new car sales post monthly sales records, so do their prices. The average transaction price on a new car last month was nearly $34,000, according to Kel...

      Opioid painkillers to carry new boxed label warning

      It's part of an effort to stem rising deaths from abuse and overdose

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has moved to stem the tide of opioid painkiller misuse, announcing class-wide safety label changes for immediate-release opioid drugs.

      The new regulations call for a boxed warning that outlines the potential dangers – misuse, abuse, addiction, and overdose, which can be fatal.

      The agency said the move is an attempt to thread the needle – dealing with the mounting misuse of these powerful drugs while leaving physicians enough leeway to provide patients with needed relief from pain.

      The action comes on the heels of new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that ask doctors to limit the prescribing of opioid painkillers. Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said it is hoped that the recommendations for doctors will bring about “a culture shift for patients and doctors.”

      The FDA's new plan requires a number of additional safety labeling changes, to include information about the risks the medications pose.

      Epidemic levels

      “Opioid addiction and overdose have reached epidemic levels over the past decade, and the FDA remains steadfast in our commitment to do our part to help reverse the devastating impact of the misuse and abuse of prescription opioids,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said in a statement. “Today’s actions are one of the largest undertakings for informing prescribers of risks across opioid products, and one of many steps the FDA intends to take this year as part of our comprehensive action plan to reverse this epidemic.”

      Opioid drugs include many widely-prescribed painkillers, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine. They are generally divided into two categories – immediate-release products that are effective over a shorter time frame, and extended-release products, intended to be taken once or twice a day.

      Warning for pregnant women

      The new boxed warning on immediate release opioid analgesics will include a precaution that chronic maternal use of opioids during pregnancy can result in neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS), a potentially life-threatening condition in newborns.

      Some illegal drugs, such as heroin and fentanyl, are also classified as opioid drugs. Some rural states, such as Maine and Indiana, where drug abuse has not been a problem in the past, have recently grappled with the misuse of these drugs, both legal and illegal. Overdoes deaths from these drugs spiked 14% in 2014.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has moved to stem the tide of opioid painkiller misuse, announcing class-wide safety label changes for immediate-rel...

      Lumber Liquidators resolves California probe

      The investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of the company

      Lumber Liquidators (an Accredited Partner) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) have resolved the state's inquiry into some of the company's laminate flooring imported from China.

      The company said CARB concluded its review of the products without finding any violation of laws or regulations and the company has admitted no wrongdoing. Lumber Liquidators (an Accredited Partner) said it has not sold the flooring in question since May of 2015.

      That's when a CBS “60 Minutes” broadcast alleged that some of the company's laminate flooring imported from China contained dangerous levels of formaldehyde.

      Formaldehyde, a carcinogen, occurs naturally in many manufactured products, including paneling, cabinetry, and furniture. The company said formaldehyde may be present in some of the glues the company uses, but top executives at the time insisted the company complies with all regulations, including those required by CARB, generally considered the toughest in the nation.

      Nonetheless, Lumber Liquidators (an Accredited Partner) suspended the imports days later.

      Will pay $2.5 million

      Under the agreement with CARB, the company will take a number of voluntary steps to make sure all of its products meet California's formaldehyde standards. It will also pay the state $2.5 million.

      In return, Lumber Liquidators (an Accredited Partner) says it secured from CARB a recognition of the actions it has taken and “the lack of evidence of actual harm to public health, safety and welfare.”

      Company CEO John Presley said Lumber Liquidators (an Accredited Partner) has already implemented a number of initiatives he says will improve customer safety.

      "We strengthened our quality assurance procedures, launched the largest voluntary testing program in our nation's history and, in May 2015, voluntarily suspended the sale of all laminate flooring sourced from China,” he said in a statement.

      Working with the state

      Under the terms of the agreement, Lumber Liquidators (an Accredited Partner) said it will work with CARB to establish new industry standards for flooring product testing.

      Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated last month that laminate flooring sold at Lumber Liquidators (an Accredited Partner) had formaldehyde levels that, on a worst case basis, could cause between six and 30 extra cases of cancer for every 100,000 people breathing in the chemical daily.

      Lumber Liquidators and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) have resolved the state's inquiry into some of the company's laminate flooring imported fr...

      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...

      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...

      Airlines waive rebooking fees for flights through Brussels

      The latest terror attack has disrupted air travel throughout Europe

      Airlines are allowing travelers to rebook flights to, from, and through Brussels in light of today's terror attacks that killed more than 30 people at the Belgian airport and metro subway stations.

      Many flights to Brussels' Zavemtem Airport were canceled or diverted after the attacks. While many carriers have or soon will resume their normal schedules, thousands of travelers have been stranded elsewhere or have decided to abandon their travel plans because of the attacks.

      Those whose flights were canceled will receive a full refund or credit and most U.S. carriers are saying they are waiving fees for passengers who rebook or cancel upcoming flights.

      USA Today reported that Delta, American, and United are waiving fees for those who make a one-time change in flights booked through the end of the month. Most are requiring travelers to do so by Sunday.

      International carriers are expected to follow similar procedures. Some may also allow fee-free rebooking even on flights that do not go through Brussels.

      If you are scheduled to travel to and within Europe in the next few days, you should immediately contact your airline to find out what options are open. Carriers are not obligated to waive fees but most will do so if asked.

      Airlines are allowing travelers to rebook flights to, from, and through Brussels in light of today's terror attacks that killed more than 30 people at the ...

      Drug company getting punished, but not by who you think

      Firm that jacked up drug prices getting bashed by Wall Street

      In the middle of last year, healthcare professionals, policymakers, and lawmakers began raising a stink about skyrocketing drug prices.

      They focused attention on pharmaceutical companies that jacked up the prices of drugs – not new cutting edge medicines that cost millions to develop – but for older prescription drugs that had been around for years.

      Former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli, who founded a drug company called Turing Pharmaceutical, was the target of most of the wrath for his brazen and unapologetic defense of his business model – buying older drugs from competitors and dramatically raising the price – in his case as much as 5000%.

      Valeant Pharmaceuticals

      But Shkreli was hardly alone. Valeant Pharmaceuticals, a larger and more established drug company, also came under scrutiny and criticism. It too had profited by rapidly raising the price of an old drug, in this case the antidepressant Wellbutrin XL.

      As Bloomberg News recently recounted, Valeant raised the price of the 30-year old drug 11 times over a two year period. As it did, it's stock price soared, hitting an intraday high of $263.81 a share on August 6.

      That's when building outrage exploded into the headlines and Congress was compelled to take a look at drug prices. In December, a Senate committee held hearings on the issue of drug costs as lawmakers took turns expressing indignation.

      “My biggest challenge today is to not lose my temper—the facts underlying this hearing are so egregious it’s hard not to get emotional about it,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO). “It’s imperative that we find out if our system is being taken advantage of by companies or individuals that seek deep profits while contributing little or nothing to advances in medical treatment.”

      No action so far

      But so far, Congress has taken no action. However, that doesn't mean punishment hasn't been handed out.

      In the case of Valeant, the company has been rocked by admissions of “wrongdoing” that prompted the board this week to dismiss two top executives. Wall Street has responded by treating Valeant stock like a pinata. From its August high, the value of the stock plunged this week to around $26 a share Monday.

      While many traders expect the company's stock to recover a bit after Valeant announced some reforms, most agree it faces difficult challenges. Ritholtz Wealth Management CEO Josh Brown, appearing on CNBC, expressed strong skepticism that the company can recover its once lofty stock price.

      “The people who are saying things like 'taking steps in the right direction' are people who had buy recommendations on this stock 200 points higher," Brown said. “You're going to see toosh-covering going on over the next three months like you cannot imagine.”

      In the middle of last year, healthcare professionals, policymakers, and lawmakers began raising a stink about skyrocketing drug prices.They focused att...

      Study: too much caregiving can cause grandma to lose her marbles

      Watching the grandkids for a smaller portion of the week, however, has a positive impact on mental health

      Grandmothers often make the best -- and most willing -- babysitters. For many families, grandma even takes the place of day care during the workweek.

      It's a dream scenario (or so it would appear), teeming with intergenerational bonding opportunities and financial perks for mom and dad. Plus, studies show that when a child is under grandma’s care, it reduces their risk of injury by half compared to organized day care.

      But as it turns out, this arrangement might not be quite the win-win it seems. Too much caregiving could have some less-than-desirable effects on grandma’s brain.

      Benefits and risks

      A Women’s Healthy Aging Project study -- published in the online journal Menopause -- finds that grandmothers who care for their grandchildren once a week experience a boost in mental sharpness.

      Some of the brain benefits included lowered risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other cognitive disorders. Researchers say this finding could be tied to a larger body of research that finds regular social interaction can help seniors stay mentally healthy. 

      But grandmothers who dedicate five or more days a week to caregiving may experience the opposite effect: a duller mental state with more memory and cognitive problems.

      The researchers speculate that highly frequent grandparenting may predict lower cognitive performance -- but the effects of excessive caregiving may also have something to do with mood. The more time grandmothers reported spending with their grandkids, the more they felt that the children had been demanding of them. 

      Effects on future health

      The study -- which included 120 grandmothers ages 57 to 68 -- could play an important role in helping researchers determine the psychological impact of playing caregiver among post-menopausal women.

      “Because grandmothering is such an important and common social role for post-menopausal women, we need to know more about its effects on their future health,” said NAMS Executive Director Margery Gass MD. “This study is a good start.”

      The researchers hope to discover the full scope of cognitive effects produced by post-menopausal caregiving through further studies with larger samples of seniors. 

      Grandmothers often make the best -- and most willing -- babysitters. For many families, grandma even takes the place of day care during the workweek. I...

      Your baby still can't read, group urges feds to act

      Infant education program banned in 2014 is back under a new name

      Not to be personal, but your baby couldn't read back in 2014 and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) says that not much has changed in two years. Babies still can't read despite the promises of the Infant Learning Company, the group alleges.

      Back in 2014, the Federal Trade Commission issued a consent order that prohibited the company from making false claims in connection with its "Your Baby Can Read!" DVDs, which sold for $200 and claimed to teach very young infants to read. The consent order also imposed a fine of $186 million, most of which was never paid because Titzer and ILC declared bankruptcy.

      The consent order is still in effect but the CCFC says the company and its owner, Robert Titzer, are back in business promoting a new product, this one called "Your Baby Can Learn!"

      "The Consent Order requires that Robert Titzer and his company have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support claims about the educational benefits of their products,” said Eric Null, Senior Staff Attorney at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation, which represents the CCFC. “Yet, Titzer and ILC are making claims that their videos teach children perfect pitch, logic patterns, and math concepts, without any scientific support for these claims.”

      “Robert Titzer is preying upon parents’ good intentions by peddling digital snake oil,” said CCFC Executive Director Josh Golin. “There is no evidence that videos are an effective method of teaching babies anything, let alone a complex skill like reading. Once again, we need the FTC to take action to protect our youngest and most vulnerable children from being lured to screens under false pretenses.”

      Not to be personal, but your baby couldn't read back in 2014 and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) says that not much has changed in two ...

      Seasonal allergies may come down to when you were born

      Researchers have found certain markers that tie when you were born to allergic symptoms

      Tis the season for sniffling and watery eyes. Although the warmer weather is usually welcome after a cold winter season, there are many people who dread the onset of allergy symptoms. But what separates the red-nosed, sneezing, itchy-eyed person from the one that isn’t affected at all by the change of season?

      Researchers at the University of Southampton think they may have an answer to that question. By examining specific genetic markers, they have found that the season in which a person is born has a large bearing on whether or not they will develop allergies later in life.

      Predicting allergic tendencies

      Scientists have known for some time that the season that a person is born in affects several things about them, including things like height and lifespan. However, linking allergies to season of birth can have additional further-reaching implications.

      “These are interesting results. We know that season of birth has an effect on people throughout their lives. For example, generally, people born in autumn and winter are at increased risk for allergic diseases such as asthma. However, until now, we did not know how the effects can be so long lasting,” said John Holloway, professor of Allergy and Respiratory Genetics at Southampton and one of the study’s authors.

      He explains that the epigenetic marks that the researchers discovered attach to DNA and create a protein that can force genes to express certain behaviors, like allergic tendencies, for years. In some cases, this can even be passed down to future generations. The implications of the discovery could go even further than just understanding allergies, though.

      “It might sound like a horoscope by the seasons, but now we have scientific evidence for how that horoscope could work. Because season of birth influences so many things, the epigenetic marks discovered in this study could also potentially be the mechanism for other seasonally influenced diseases and traits too, not just allergy,” said Dr. Gabrielle Lockett, first author of the study.

      Future research

      Although the study has already been certified through another testing of Dutch children, the researchers admit that there is more work to be done before they completely understand how seasons change the risk of allergies and disease.

      Although the research may lead to greater understanding on how to avoid the risk of allergies, the researchers want to stress that their initial research should not act as a guide for parents-to-be on when they should plan to have children. “While these results have clinical implications in mediating against allergy risk, we are not advising altering pregnancy timing,” said Holloway.

      The full study has been published in the journal Allergy.

      Tis the season for sniffling and watery eyes. Although the warmer weather is usually welcome after a cold winter season, there are many people who dread th...

      Elderly may be taking dangerous drug combinations

      Nearly 36% take five or more drugs regularly

      Health officials have begun to pay more attention to the drugs that doctors are prescribing. In recent weeks, the attention has been on opoid painkillers, which are highly addictive and prone to abuse.

      Now researchers are taking a closer look at drug combinations. Specially, the combination of drugs taken by older consumers.

      Seniors tend to take more prescription medication than anyone else, and very often they are taking several different drugs. Researchers at the University of Chicago now estimate that one in six are regularly swallowing potentially deadly combinations of pills – prescription, non-prescription, and dietary supplements.

      A team led by assistant professor of pharmacy systems Dima Mazen Qato studied a sample of consumers between the ages of 62 and 85. It found that the percentage taking at least five prescription medications rose from 30% in 2005 to nearly 36% in 2011.

      Cheap and plentiful

      Why so many drugs? Perhaps because they are available and often covered by health benefits, meaning the consumer doesn't pay the direct cost.

      Here's an example; the use of simvastatin – whose brand name is Zocor – is the most commonly prescribed medication for older consumers. When it became available as a generic in 2006, its use doubled from 10.3% to 22.5%.

      There has also been a spike in the use of dietary supplements, which Qato says has limited evidence of benefits to support their widespread use. Over the course of the study, it traced an increase in use from 51.8% to 63.7%. The biggest jump was in the use of omega-3 fish oils.

      Life-threatening drug combinations

      The study identified 15 potentially life-threatening drug combinations of the most commonly used prescriptions and supplements. The number of seniors taking this potentially lethal drug combination nearly doubled between 2005 and 2011. Qato says it poses a dangerous irony.

      "Many older patients seeking to improve their cardiovascular health are also regularly using interacting drug combinations that may worsen cardiovascular risk," she said.

      The responsibility falls on health care providers, Qato maintains. She says doctors need to more carefully consider the adverse effects that combinations of drugs and supplements can have, especially on older patients.

      If you or a family member are taking five or more medications, it's a good idea to have a discussion about it with your health care provider. Before the meeting, do an Internet search for each of the medications, looking for warnings of dangerous combinations.

      Health officials have begun to pay more attention to the drugs that doctors are prescribing. In recent weeks, the attention has been on opoid painkillers, ...

      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,...

      Where you drive determines how much your car really costs

      Owning a car in Michigan costs most, New Hampshire the least

      The cost of a car doesn't end when you drive it off the lot. What you pay a dealer just gets it on the road. Keeping it on the road is going to take more money.

      It turns out just how much money it will take to operate your car or truck depends heavily on where you live. In some states the costs will be significantly higher than others.

      The personal finance website GoBankingRates.com did an analysis and concluded that it will cost $7,216 more to own a car in Michigan than it would in New Hampshire – the most and least expensive states in the analysis.

      Simple formula

      The site arrived at its numbers by following a simple formula. It looked at the sales tax consumers are required to pay, title fees, registration fees, average car insurance, gasoline expenses, and average maintenance and repair costs.

      “The common costs of owning a car outside of the car payment quickly add up — our survey found that the average costs of owning a car for three years is $11,227,” said Elyssa Kirkham, lead reporter on the study for GOBankingRates.

      Since car owners are usually advised to keep auto costs low – around 15% of their income – it matters a lot where you live.

      Most and least expensive

      According to the analysis, the five most expensive states for car ownership after three years are:

      1. Michigan -- $15,314
      2. California -- $14,451
      3. District of Columbia -- $13,561
      4. New Jersey -- $13,484
      5. Florida -- $13,210

      The five least expensive states for car ownership after three years are:

      1. New Hampshire -- $8,098
      2. Missouri -- $9,280
      3. North Carolina -- $9,447
      4. Wisconsin -- $9,570
      5. Ohio -- $9,595

      New Hampshire, Alaska, Oregon, and Montana are among the least expensive states for car ownership because they are the only states that don't charge a sales tax on the purchase of a car – removing one of the most significant costs.

      Missouri ranks near the bottom because it almost always has among the cheapest fuel prices in the nation.

      The cost of a car doesn't end when you drive it off the lot. What you pay a dealer just gets it on the road. Keeping it on the road is going to take more m...

      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...

      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...

      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. ...

      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...

      Toyota hopes to lease more used cars and trucks

      It's a way to deal with the flood of off-lease vehicles now hitting dealers' lots

      Leasing has become a popular way for consumers to get their hands on a car that's a bit more expensive than they can afford. It's also a way for dealers to make sales they wouldn't otherwise make. So everybody's happy, right?

      Everyone is presumably happy for the three years or so that most leases last, but, like all things good or bad, the lease eventually comes to an end. The consumer must then buy or lease another car. And the dealer must dispose of the car the consumer has just turned in.

      Leasing's popularity took off a few years back as the new car prices soared into the mid-$30,000 range, and now all those cars are about to come flooding back onto dealers' lots as the leases expire.

      Hoping to avoid drowning in used cars, Toyota is rolling out a program to offer more leases on its "certified" used cars and trucks, Automotive News reports. It's estimated that 275,000 Toyotas will be coming off lease this year, the highest number ever. Other manufacturers are in the same fix.

      Toyota has been leasing used cars for years but only in very small numbers. The company says it is stepping up dealer education this year in hopes of writing more business and moving more cars.

      Most of the used-car leases are for 24 to 36 months and allow 15,000 miles per year.

      Car glut

      Some auto industry insiders have been warning that manufacturers are creating a leasing bubble and Toyota's move could be seen as an attempt to deal with a glut of cars that aren't worth as much as the company had anticipated three years ago. 

      “You don't want to do too much leasing because the cars aren't really sold,” former GM, Ford, and Chrysler exec Bob Lutz warned recently. “Your lease rate is essentially a bet on the residual value of the vehicle after two or three years. If you get that residual guess wrong, you can stand to lose a lot of money.”

      Leasing the returned lease cars is a way for manufacturers to cover their tracks and recover more of the value than they might otherwise do if the cars were sold outright. 

      What to do

      So is leasing a used car a good idea? Maybe, but consumers should keep in mind that manufacturers are eager to lease used cars because in many cases they can get a higher return than if they sold it. 

      Buyers with good credit and some ready cash may be better off doing a purchase rather than a lease. 

      While leases may appear to offer more car for the money, consumers don't have anything to show for their monthly payments at the end of the lease and often find themselves facing lots of unexpected costs, including excess mileage, charges for minor damage, and the ubiquitous "end of lease fee," which is just what it sounds like, a fee for nothing. 

      Leasing has become a popular way for consumers to get their hands on a car that's a bit more expensive than they can afford. It's also a way for dealers to...

      Honest Company may regret its choice of a name

      Reports charge the company's detergent contains a chemical it says it never uses

      Years ago, Google vowed not to be evil, providing a handy hook for anyone wanting to criticize its subsequent actions. The same might be said of the Honest Co., which sells such things as diapers, soap, and lotions, swearing that all of them are free of "harsh chemicals." Honest.

      But the Wall Street Journal says it hired two labs to test Honest's detergent and both found it contained sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), something the company's founder, actress Jessica Alba, has said is a "toxin" that should be avoided by consumers. 

      SLS is listed as "forbidden" in the company’s Honestly Free Guarantee, which is posted on its website. The chemical is widely used in toothpaste, and detergent and is often blamed for causing skin irritation.

      One of the labs used by the Journal, Impact Analytical, said it found "a significant amount" of SLS in Honest's detergent. The other, Chemir, said it found about the same concentration as Tide. 

      "Not a trace amount"

      “It was not a trace amount,” said Matthew Hynes, a chemist at Chemir who conducted the test, according to the Journal's report.

      Honest has hotly denied the Journal's findings, calling them wrong and "reckless" and saying it conducted "rigorous testing" that did not find SLS in its product. However, Honest said that its detergent does contain sodium coco sulfate, which is says is a "gentler alternative" to SLS. 

      Honest said its chemical supplier, Trichromatic, had tested for SLS but found none. But the Journal pointed out that Trichromatic said that statement was based on a "misunderstanding" and that it had not tested for SLS because "none was used in the manufacturing process."

      It's not the first time Honest's representations have been called into question. Critics have said its sunscreen is ineffective and wrongly claims to be made with only "natural" ingredients. At least two class action lawsuits are pending against the company over claims it made for its sunscreen. 

      Years ago, Google vowed not to be evil, providing a handy hook for anyone wanting to criticize its subsequent actions. The same might be said of the Honest...

      Apple rolls out a smaller iPhone and iPad

      The iPhone SE is basically a smaller 6S with more power than previous smaller models

      Ask anyone who has an iPhone 6S Plus how they like it and you'll most likely hear all the usual gushing about the resolution, the apps, the battery life, and so forth. Then you're likely to hear something like, "It is a little bulky though."

      One iPhone 6S Plus owner I see in the mirror each morning carries his 6S in his hip pocket and recently found himself stuck when the tip of the phone got wedged under the front seat of his cramped Audi A3. Escaping without ripping the pocket was a feat worthy of Houdini. 

      Hoping to appeal to those seeking something a bit smaller, Apple today unveiled the iPhone SE. It used its gift for putting the best face on nearly any situation by describing the new gadget as "the most powerful phone with a four-inch display, in a beloved compact aluminum design."

      "Beloved" is usually used in obituaries, but let's not quibble. Apple assures us the SE offers the same "exceptional performance" as the 6S and 6S Plus.

      "Exciting new idea"

      “iPhone SE is an exciting new idea — we started with a beloved, iconic design and reinvented it from the inside out. The result is the most beautiful and powerful phone with a four-inch display in the world,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing. “Everyone who wants a smaller phone is going to love iPhone SE.”

      In other words, the SE is a smaller version of the iPhone 6S series instead of a successor to the older four-inch iPhone, the 5S. It comes with features like Apple Pay and Apple's fastest processor, which have previously been offered only on versions of the iPhone 6.

      The $399 starting price is well below the $649 for the current top iPhone model without a contract. 

      New iPad

      Apple also introduced a smaller iPad today, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

      “iPad Pro is a new generation of iPad that is indispensable and immersive, enabling people to be more productive and more creative. It’s incredibly fast, extremely portable, and completely natural to use with your fingers, Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard. And now it comes in two sizes,” said Schiller. It is the ultimate upgrade for existing iPad users and replacement for PC users.”

      Ask anyone who has an iPhone 6S Plus how they like it and you'll most likely hear all the usual gushing about the resolution, the apps, the battery life, a...

      Growing your own food? Some herbs and veggies offer a better return than others, study finds

      Research shows that certain types of produce cost more to grow than to buy at the store

      Some choose to garden for the experience, but for others, the joy of gardening can be found in the end result. Successfully growing your own herbs and vegetables can provide an undeniable sense of pride and may even help you save a little money at the grocery store.

      Fifty-four percent of gardeners say they grow produce to save on food bills, according to the National Gardening Association. But as it turns out, some veggie varieties will save you more green than others. Mel Bartholomew, founder of Square Foot Gardening, says that, in ranking the 59 most popular vegetables by value, there are definite winners and losers.

      "There are real costs involved in growing," said Bartholomew in a statement. "If you're going to make an investment in edibles, treat your garden the same way you treat your 401K. It all comes down to ROI."

      Cost of gardening

      Indeed, when factoring in the initial cost of setting up a garden, the desired output can become more of a concern.

      According to David Greenberg, executive director of Growing Gardens, a home garden made of two 4x8-foot in-ground beds will cost gardeners about $200, including the cost of soil, lime, compost, and straw. From there, gardeners are looking at an upkeep cost of about $50 per year. 

      To help balance the cost, it's important to choose vegetables and herbs that will work for you in the long run. Doing so will entail steering clear of certain types of produce that ultimately cost more to grow than to buy from the store.

      Valuable veggies

      Bartholomew's study, which used data form the U.S. Department of Agriculture and price surveys of produce costs in U.S. stores, details which vegetables to seek out -- and which to avoid -- if it's value you're after.

      Top five high value:

      • Herbs
      • Parsnip
      • Cherry Tomato
      • Garlic
      • Heirloom Tomato

      In the bottom five for value were potatoes, Brussels Sprouts, Bell Peppers, Swiss Chard, and Asparagus.

      While herbs such as cilantro, oregano, and thyme offered a return of almost $70 worth of produce for every square foot planted, Bartholomew found that gardeners who grow potatoes see a return of negative $6 per square foot compared to buying them.

      Detailed results of the study can be found in his book: Square Foot Gardening High Value Veggies: Homegrown Produce Ranked By Value.

      Some choose to garden for the experience, but for others, the joy of gardening can be found in the end result. Successfully growing your own herbs and vege...

      National poll reveals that parents are skeptical when it comes to online doctor reviews

      Despite misgivings, many still use the sources when it comes to picking a doctor for their child

      With the flourishing of online communities and forums, it’s easier than ever to get an opinion on anything that you can think of. This is especially useful when you want to get a review on a product or service, and consumers have begun placing a large amount of trust in these sources.

      However, there is one type of review that consumers have been slow to embrace. According to a national poll conducted by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, consumers who are looking for a new doctor are skeptical when it comes to online reviews. In particular, parents seem to think online doctor reviews are less trustworthy and hold them to higher scrutiny.

      “Online rating sites are becoming an increasingly common and potentially influential source of information for parents as they choose a doctor. . . Websites reviewing doctors are readily available, but concerns about how trustworthy they are may be preventing parents from using them broadly,” said Dr. David Hanauer, lead author of the study.

      Relying on reviews

      The results of the poll show that over two-thirds of all parents think that online doctor reviews are completely fake, while over half say that the ratings that appear are influenced by the doctor being rated. A smaller number of parents say that there aren’t enough ratings in order to make an informed decision.

      Despite these misgivings, many parents are still looking at online doctor reviews for guidance. One-third of respondents admitted to doing so before selecting a doctor for their child in the past year. Out of those who did factor online ratings into their decision, two-thirds said the online reviews led to them either choosing or avoiding a particular doctor.

      The poll did reveal that there may be a generational gap when it came to trusting online sources as well. Seventy-one percent of parents over the age of 30 said that they were concerned about fake reviews, compared with only 59% of parents under the age of 30.

      Changing perceptions

      Interestingly enough, 87% of parents who selected a doctor based on ratings said that the online reviews reflected their own experiences with the doctor, begging the question of whether this inherent mistrust is justified or not.

      Whatever the case may be, Dr. Hanauer says that changing this negative perception is important to being able to use these online reviews in a positive way. He further states that some of the burden for changing this negative perception rests on the doctors themselves.

      “Doctor rating sites have the potential to help make the patient-physician relationship more service-oriented. In order for online rating sites to become a more accepted and useful tool, doctors will need to be more engaged in the process, in ways that assure that ratings are authentic,” he said. 

      With the flourishing of online communities and forums, it’s easier than ever to get an opinion on anything that you can think of. This is especially useful...

      Planning on flying with a pet? Keep these tips in mind

      What you can do to help ensure your dog stays safe and relaxed while flying

      Spring travel season is upon us, and airlines are predicting record-high numbers of air travelers this March and April. But while a stress-free vacation may be waiting for you on the other side of your flight, it may be a different story while you’re up in the air -- especially if Fido is up the air with you.

      Bringing the family dog on vacation comes with plenty of benefits, from not having to board him to getting to enjoy your pup’s company in a new location. But before it comes time for sandy paws and beach walks, you’ll have to get him from point A to point B.

      Flying with your dog can often come with its share of stresses and hiccups, but a little pre-planning can help the experience go smoothly for everyone.

      Before the flight

      There are a few things you can do before the flight to help ensure your canine companion stays safe and calm en route: 

      • Walk him. About an hour beforehand, take your dog on a walk. Be sure it’s a nice and leisurely walk, so he doesn’t get too amped up.
      • Call ahead. Call the airline ahead of time to register your dog, since many airlines can only take a certain number of pets per flight. It’s also a good idea to ask if your dog’s crate is the right size to bring on the plane.
      • Include identification. ID your dog and his carrier. The ID should include his name, your contact information, and where your pet is traveling to and from.
      • Avoid feeding right before. To avoid an upset tummy, try to avoid feeding your pup too soon before the flight.

      Below the plane 

      If you're sending your dog under the plane, there are a few added precautions to take:

      • Call ahead. Again, it’s important to register your dog and make sure his crate is the right size.
      • Don’t give them medicine. According to the pet experts at DogVacay, giving your pup medicine to calm them pre-flight is a no-no since calming medications can make it difficult for dogs to adjust their body temperature. Because the air temperature can change while flying (especially below the plane), it’s important that your pet be able to regulate his or her body temperature.

      Once the flight is behind you, the fun can begin! Check out DogFriendly.com for a list of dog-friendly attractions in the U.S. and Canada. From beaches where dogs can run off-leash to resort hotels with doggy room service, DogFriendly lists all the places where dogs can have just as much fun as people on vacation. 

      Spring travel season is upon us, and airlines are predicting record-high numbers of air travelers this March and April. But while a stress-free vacation ma...

      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...

      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...

      Picking the best rewards credit card

      First, decide what type of reward is best for you

      Fortunately for consumers, the credit card business is highly competitive. Different issuers compete, not so much on the rates they charge borrowers – almost all are at least in the double digits – but in the rewards they offer for using the cards.

      The problem for consumers is picking which rewards card is best. It isn't easy to do because it is all going to depend on the kinds of rewards that make the most sense for the individual consumer.

      For example, if you are a frequent traveler, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card may be a good choice. New customers who put $4,000 on the card in the first three months get $50,000 in bonus points. That's good for $625 toward airfare and lodging when you redeem them through Chase Ultimate Rewards.

      There is no fee the first year, but cardholders are charged $95 a year after that. If you don't plan to aggressively take advantage of the rewards, this probably isn't the card for you.

      Day-to-day purchases

      Maybe you aren't much of a traveler, but need a card for day-to-day purchases. Then the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express might be your ticket.

      Currently, you can get $150 cash back just by spending $1,000 in the first three months. That will pay the first two years of $75 annual fees.

      The real rewards of the card come in the form of 6% cash back on up to $6,000 dollars per year on groceries – $360 – and 1% cash back on purchases over $6,000. You'll get 3% back at gas stations and department stores. As with most rewards cards, the cash back is applied as statement credits.

      For those who make a lot of purchases from online retailers, the Discover It Card might be an attractive choice. Right off the bat, one of the best features of this rewards card is no annual fee. Saving $75 to $100 a year is a nice reward in and of itself.

      The card pays 5% cash back on some, but not all, online purchases, and on other types of purchases as well. Categories are always changing, so you have to keep up. You can do so here.

      All-purpose card

      Suppose you have enough to do without keeping up with changing categories and just want a simple, all-purpose cash back card. Then you might consider the Citi Double Cash Card.

      It pays 1% cash back on everything you buy, then gives you an additional 1% credit when you pay for it. As an added bonus, there is no annual fee.

      Let's say your credit report has a few dents and scratches. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy some credit card rewards.

      The Discover It Secured Credit Card is designed for consumers who are rebuilding their credit. Your credit limit is determined by the amount of money you deposit to secure your account. Deposit $500, and you can charge up to $500 each billing cycle. Deposit more and you can charge more.

      You earn 1% cash back on every purchase and 2% cash back at restaurants or gas stations on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter. Best of all, there is no annual fee and you get rewarded while rebuilding your credit.

      Fortunately for consumers, the credit card business is highly competitive. Different issuers compete, not so much on the rates they charge borrowers – almo...

      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 – ...

      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...

      RacerMate recalls CompuTrainer blue flywheels

      The blue flywheel can shatter while in use and throw metal pieces into the air

      RacerMate of Seattle, Wash., is recalling about 25,000 CompuTrainer blue flywheels.

      The blue flywheel can shatter while in use and throw metal pieces into the air. This poses a risk of injury from impact to the rider and any bystanders.

      The company has received five reports of flywheels that have shattered, including three reports of injuries, including lacerations and leg bruises.

      This recall involves blue CompuTrainer Flywheels manufactured before 2008. The CompuTrainer Flywheels are used to make bicycles stationary for indoor training.

      The blue flywheel is a die casting made of zinc. It measures 4.75 inches in diameter and weighs 1.1 pounds. Flywheels manufactured after 2008 are not included in this recall.

      The flywheels, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at RacerMate and bicycle stores nationwide from November 1997, through November 2008, for about $1,500.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using and remove the recalled blue flywheels. Consumers can contact RacerMate for instructions on receiving a free, silver replacement flywheel.

      Consumers may contact RacerMate at 800-522-3610 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. (PT) Monday through Friday or online at http://www.racermateinc.com/blue-flywheel-recall/ to access the Blue Flywheel Recall form. Consumers may also email the firm at sales@racermate.inc.

      RacerMate of Seattle, Wash., is recalling about 25,000 CompuTrainer blue flywheels. The blue flywheel can shatter while in use and throw metal piec...

      Hyundai recalls model year 2016-2017 Santa Fe vehicles

      The audible warning when front seat occupants do not fasten their seat belts may fail

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 34,200 model year 2016-2017 Santa Fe vehicles manufactured September 1, 2015 to February 12, 2016.

      The wires in the front seat belt buckle harnesses may be damaged by the seat's height adjuster mechanism, resulting in a failure to provide an audible warning when front seat occupants do not fasten their seat belts. Thus, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 208, "Occupant Crash Protection."

      Without a reminder, the front seat occupants may forget to buckle their seat belt, increasing their risk of injury in the event of a crash.

      What to do

      Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and reroute the wires in the front seat belt buckle harnesses to their proper locations, as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin May 6, 2016.

      Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-800-633-5151. Hyundai's number for this recall is 141.

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 34,200 model year 2016-2017 Santa Fe vehicles manufactured September 1, 2015 to February 12, 2016. The wires in ...

      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...

      What if Apple's engineers refuse to crack open the iPhone?

      Ordering the corporation to do it is one thing; getting its employees to agree is another

      In all the back-and-forth sabre rattling over the FBI's demand that Apple help it break into the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists, there's one element no one has previously discussed -- Apple's engineers.

      If the courts eventually rule that Apple must give the FBI access to the phone's contents, that's a chore that will presumably be handled by Apple's engineers, who may well be the only people on Earth who know how to reliably de-encrypt the iPhone.

      But what if they refuse? What if they simply resign and walk away?

      That's the possibility raised by The New York Times, which reports today that Apple's employees are already discussing what they will do if their employer is ordered to, in effect, become an arm of law enforcement. 

      It wouldn't be the first time individuals have refused to carry out the law because of their personal beliefs. Remember the county clerk who wouldn't issue a marriage license to gay couples, the nurses who won't participate in abortions, and all the other cases that have hit the headlines in recent years?

      Individual rights

      That's basically the argument Apple has made in its court briefs; it has said that forcing Apple employees to do things they find offensive amounts to a violation of their First Amendment rights.

      If Apple is finally ordered to comply with the government's wishes and the engineers then refuse or resign, the government is back where it started. It would have to start over and pursue legal actions against all of the engineers who designed the encryption methods used in the iPhone, assuming it could learn their identities.

      The Times noted that Apple CEO chief executive Tim Cook made that very argument in an email to customers, writing that “The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe.” 

      In that email, Cook noted that Apple has in the past provided information the FBI requested when it actually had the information in its possession.

      "GovtOS"

      But in this case, the information exists only in the shooter's iPhone. Cracking open that iPhone would involve creating a "backdoor" that would provide access to everyone's iPhone, exposing millions of consumers to invasion of privacy, financial skullduggery, and even physical harm, Cook said:

      "Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession."

      Citizens disunited

      Apple said it would take six to ten engineers up to a month to meet the government's request but said it would be difficult to ramp up to build what it is calling "GovtOS" if key employees refused to do the work.

      Meanwhile, another group of engineers would have to build software to be used by the FBI to access the iPhone's back door. Since many of these engineers would likely be the very ones who had worked on the original encryption system, it's not likely they would be very eager to undertake the task, the Times noted.

      Some might recall that it was no lesser power than the Supreme Court that, in the Citizens United decision, held that corporations are essentially people and thus endowed with inalienable rights to give money to super PACs. 

      Could be, but corporations -- virtual people if you will -- can't do much if the real people who make up that corporation refuse.  

      In all the back-and-forth sabre rattling over the FBI's demand that Apple help it break into the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists, there...

      Fast food CEO: get ready for fully automated restaurants

      Says higher minimum wage will cause the restaurant model to change

      Andy Puzder, CEO of the parent company of Carl's Jr. and Hardees, has seen the future of fast food – and there aren't very many people in it. At least on the restaurant's side of the counter.

      In an interview with Business Insider, Puzder says he's intrigued by the concept of a restaurant where patrons enter their orders on kiosks, pay with plastic, and are served by a conveyor belt. Such a restaurant, he maintains, would not just be more efficient, but a lot less expensive to operate.

      "With government driving up the cost of labor, it's driving down the number of jobs," he told the publication. "You're going to see automation not just in airports and grocery stores, but in restaurants."

      Not a new idea

      Puzder has visited this idea before. In 2014, after President Obama called for a large increase in the minimum wage, Puzder penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, warning such a move would speed up the automation process where most minimum wage workers are employed.

      Puzder concedes that it would be very difficult to replace people with machines at Carl's Jr., Hardees, and many other existing franchises. That's because the operations are complex and were designeed around humans.

      Rather, he sees the automated restaurant concept as part of a new restaurant's overall design. In the Business Insider interview, he points to something like Eatsa, and envisions a menu heavy with all-natural products.

      Viral reaction

      Pedictably, Puzder's comments have created something of a storm on social media. On Twitter, one poster named Edward wrote, “Andy, please automatic (sic) YOUR JOB! You make 721 times more than your minimum wage worker. Your FRONT Line employees matter.

      Puzder took to Twitter to answer his critics, telling them to read the article and not just the headline.

      McDonald's has already stuck a toe into the world of automation, installing ordering kiosks at some of its New York City restaurants. This video shows how it works.

      Andy Puzder, CEO of the parent company of Carl's Jr. and Hardees, has seen the future of fast food – and there aren't very many people in it. At least on t...

      Children who can self-soothe at bedtime adjust better to school, study finds

      Experts say it's important for children to learn how to self-regulate their sleep before age five

      Staying by your child's bedside until they fall asleep may take some of the fuss out of bedtime, but new research shows that doing so may have adverse effects on their school behavior.

      A Queensland University of Technology (QUT) study found that children who aren’t able to soothe themselves back to sleep by age five may have trouble self-regulating their behavior and emotions in school.

      The study -- led by Dr. Kate Williams, QUT’s Faculty of Education, School of Early Childhood -- found that, in a sample of 2,880 children, one in three have escalating problems sleeping from birth to age five. Children with problems self-regulating their sleep were found to be at greater risk of developing emotional and behavioral issues at school.

      Teacher-reported behavior revealed to researchers an association between children with sleep problems and higher levels of improper classroom behavior, including hyperactivity, poor classroom self-management, and emotional outbursts.

      Prevention

      "We now know 70 percent of children are regulating their own sleep by five years but for the remaining third it may be detrimental to them developmentally over time," said Dr. Williams, who says that there are steps parents can take to help children become better self-soothers at night.

      Dr. Williams says it’s important to get children’s sleep schedules sorted before age five in order to help them adjust to school more easily.

      It may take a little extra effort, but she says parents can help children develop a “sense of skill” in the area of sleep. This might be done through routine and structure (such as not lying with children or tucking them in multiple times) or with support from child care professionals.

      Consistent sleep habits

      Incorporating routine and structure into a child’s bedtime routine can make life easier on everyone, including your child’s future kindergarten teacher.

      Experts recommend the following tips on helping a child develop good sleep hygiene:

      • Stick to a soothing, predictable routine, such as bath, bedtime story, lights out. Predictable routines hold built-in warnings that bedtime is coming up soon, so kids have a chance to get sleepy on their own instead of being blindsided.
      • Keep bedrooms dark and free of distractions, such as flashing lights, clocks, or toys that are particularly attention-grabbing.
      • Keep kids in their own bed. While late-night visits to your bed might be comforting to your child, experts say it’s important not to allow them to stay. Try to minimize any reward they might get from doing so, such as a long conversation or an extended visit. Walk them back to their bed as soon as possible.
      • If trouble falling asleep persists, consult a pediatrician for interventions that can help children fall asleep, such as relaxation and self-soothing techniques.
      Staying by your child's bedside until they fall asleep may take some of the fuss out of bedtime, but new research shows that doing so may have adverse effe...

      High-flying hoverboards laid low by import ban

      The devices violate patents held by Segway, International Trade Commission rules

      Hoverboards just can't catch a break. First they were taking heat because their batteries had an unfortunate tendency to catch fire. And now they're being banned from these shores because of a patent dispute.

      Segway, the company that makes the computerized scooters that never quite caught on as a consumer gadget, holds more than 400 patents involving balancing technology and claims the hoverboards violate several of them.

      The U.S. International Trade Commission agrees and has banned the import of hoverboards into the United States, at least for now. Manufacturers affected by the ban include UPTECH, FreeGo China, Roboscooters, U.P. Technology, U.P. Robotics, and EcoBoomer.

      EcoBoomer has not only been banned from further imports but has also been ordered not to sell any of the boards it previously imported.

      Companies that want to continue importing hoverboards while the legal battle plays out will have to post a large bond. 

      The boards -- which are sort of like self-balancing skateboards -- have already been banned from airlines and other sasfety-conscious venues. They're also being investigated by federal safety regulators, who recently declared that the devices lack UL safety certification and are subject to seizure or recall. 

      Hoverboards just can't catch a break. First they were taking heat because their batteries had an unfortunate tendency to catch fire. And now they're being ...

      Staples says the FTC is "simply wrong" to oppose its merger with Office Depot

      The companies allege that the agency conducted a flawed analysis and doesn't understand the competitive marketplace

      Back in December, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) put its foot down, saying that a merger between Staples and Office Depot would give the former an unfair advantage in the competitive market. The agency filed a lawsuit that is scheduled to be decided in court soon.

      But Staples is tryiing to head off the court proceedings. It has released a statement reaffirming its position, saying that the FTC was “simply wrong” in opposing the merger.

      The company alleges that the agency conducted a flawed analysis of the office supplies marketplace and does not understand the current competitive marketplace, according to a Reuters report.

      The FTC believes otherwise, though. It even went so far as to reject another Staples proposal that would have had the company divest up to $1.25 billion in commercial contracts in order for a deal to be struck. Staples has also said that the digital economy has disrupted its business and that companies like Amazon.com Inc. increase competition, but the FTC has not acknowledged these claims.

      Despite the opposition, both Staples and Office Depot say they welcome the coming court proceedings and are confident in their legal position. “This has been a long and frustrating road, but we look forward to a fair and impartial hearing,” said the companies in a statement. 

      Back in December, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) put its foot down, saying that a merger between Staples and Office Depot would give the former an unfa...

      Three nutritious plant proteins found under water

      Expand your plant-based protein options with algae, duckweed, and seaweed

      Plant-based proteins are the answer to a variety of consumer concerns, from health or moral to environmental. Whatever the reason you’re looking to cut back on meat, alternative proteins will welcome you with open arms.

      Industry insiders say plant-based proteins are one of the biggest trends of 2016. With popularity only rising, it's estimated that alternative proteins could make up one-third of the market by 2054. But while tofu, tempeh, and seitan might be the first alternative proteins that jump to mind, there are others to be found by diving deeper.

      In the March issue of Food Technology, Toni Tarver describes three lesser known alternative protein sources. They’re as palatable as they are nutrient-dense ... and they were all born under water.

      Seaweeds

      If you're looking for the highest protein content, be sure to look for red seaweed (such as dulse or nori), rather than green or brown seaweeds. Nori is particularly high in protein; 100 grams contains 50 grams of protein. It's also full of amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids and is a good source of vitamin B12. All in all, an overachiever in the nutrient department.

      Nori can be purchased in sheets, which can then be used to wrap rice or fish (or both, in the case of sushi). Many also choose to sprinkle smaller pieces of the red seaweed onto soups and noodle dishes.

      Algae-derived proteins

      Algae, as we've reported, is chock full of nutrients. There are two types of algae: macro and micro. You may have seen macroalgae floating in an ocean, lake, or pond. Microalgae, on the other hand, grows in freshwater and cannot be seen without a microscope. Both varieties of algae contain a great deal of nutrients, including vitamins A, C, E, folate, calcium, iodine, iron, omega-3s, and carbohydrates (to name a few).

      As far as protein content, macroalgae contains between 3 to 50 percent, while its freshwater counterpart, microalgae, can contain up to 70 percent.

      Duckweed

      Duckweed grows in still or slow-moving water. With a protein content of up to 45 percent, this exceptionally tiny flowering plant has among the highest protein levels in the plant kingdom. Birds and fish love to eat duckweed, but it’s also a centuries-old favorite of people in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and parts of Africa.

      Two types of Duckweed are recommended for human consumption: Lentein Plus and Mankai. Available fresh or as a dry food powder, duckweed can be blended into a shake, smoothie, or added to pasta or baked goods. 

      Plant-based proteins are the answer to a variety of consumer concerns, from health or moral to environmental. Whatever the reason you’re looking to cut bac...

      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...

      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...

      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...

      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...

      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...

      Automakers and feds agree to incorporate forward crash-prevention systems in future car models

      The agreement covers that vast majority of passenger vehicles and may help mitigate thousands of accidents

      It looks like U.S. roads may be getting a little safer in the future. According to a report by Consumer Reports, a group of major automakers have come to an agreement with the government to include forward crash-prevention systems as a standard feature in all of their passenger vehicles by 2022.

       Some participants in the deal include Ford, Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, Hyundai, and Toyota, according to The Detroit News. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will announce the news at a press conference later today.

      Preventing accidents

      Forward crash-prevention systems aren’t a completely new concept to the automotive industry. When buying a new car, consumers can elect to have forward collision warning installed, but it is mostly used in luxury vehicles.

      The system works by using information from a combination of cameras, lasers, and radar equipment, depending on the car model. If these instruments detect that a driver is going to hit an obstacle or crash, they can automatically engage the brakes and slow or stop the vehicle. Safety regulators have high hopes that the technology can help prevent many of the 1.7 million rear-end crashes that occur every year.

      “We have been calling on automakers to make automatic emergency braking standard in all new vehicles, and today is an important step toward reaching that goal. . . This proven technology is among the most promising safety advances we’ve seen since electronic stability control almost two decades ago. We look forward to working with NHTSA and IIHS to help put this plan into action and hold automakers accountable for their commitments,” said Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports.

      Making the transition

      While the 2022 deadline may seem far away, many car manufacturers have already stepped up to the plate and stated that they would start adding the feature to redesigned models before that time.

      While the agreement currently covers the vast majority of passenger cars that will go into production, there are still some vehicles that may take longer to implement the new technology. Specifically, high-performance sports cars, other specialty cars, and commercial trucks are not included in the agreement. However, an addendum is expected to be added in the near future so that they are covered.

      It looks like U.S. roads may be getting a little safer in the future. According to a report by Consumer Reports, a group of major automakers have come to a...

      Four productive uses for your tax refund

      Adding to an emergency cash reserve tops the list

      Consumers are usually getting a windfall of cash about this time of year, making them feel a little wealthier.

      It's not from winning the lottery. Actually, it's their own money that the U.S. government has been sitting on for a year without paying any interest.

      Tax refunds are eagerly anticipated, in part, because they are forced savings programs. The employer takes money out of each paycheck so the consumer never really sees it. So while it probably isn't the best way to go about saving, at least it's one way to save.

      The question now, of course, is what do you do with the money you get back from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The tax agency estimates the average taxpayer will get a $3,211 refund, so it's not exactly chump change.

      Start an emergency fund

      One productive use of a tax refund is to start, or add to, an emergency fund. This is money you would tap if you faced an unexpected car repair bill or had to replace a water heater in your home.

      Without an emergency savings account, most consumers would be forced to add to their credit card balances. Worse still, some would seek cash from a payday lender.

      So even though an emergency savings account will earn almost no interest, it could keep you out of debt in the long run – which is a pretty good return.

      Michael Wesley, head of KeyBank's financial wellness initiative, says an initial goal should be an emergency fund equal to three months take-home pay.

      "Build on those savings until your emergency fund is the equivalent of six months of take home pay," Wesley said in a release.

      Health savings account

      If you already have an adequate emergency fund, you could also consider using a tax refund to start a health savings account (HSA). With high-deductible health policies, an accident or illness could present you with high out-of-pocket medical bills.

      There are also some tax benefits to HSA contributions, meaning you might get an even bigger refund check next year.

      Retirement savings

      Studies have shown that Americans are not doing a very good job of saving for retirement. So why not use your tax refund to start, or add to, an individual retirement account (IRA).

      Again, there are tax benefits. Contributions to a traditional IRA are tax deductible but Roth IRA contributions are not. If you go this route make sure you get some qualified financial and tax advice.

      Pay down debt

      Finally, use your tax refund to pay down credit card balances. Credit card debt can often seem overwhelming. Here's the opportunity to pay off a big chunk of it in one payment.

      True, tucking your windfall away or spending it to pay off debt isn't nearly a fun as taking a vacation or buying a new refrigerator, but it can be a solid step toward improving your financial well-being.

      Consumers are usually getting a windfall of cash about this time of year, making them feel a little wealthier.It's not from winning the lottery. Actual...

      Jenn-Air teams up with Nest to create even smarter appliances

      The luxury appliance company's integration with Nest will offer users added peace of mind

      Homes are getting smarter and cars are driving themselves. Up next? App-connected appliances that help users turn out better meals with ease and comfort. 

      Jenn-Air announced at the Architectural Digest Home Design Show that it’s working with Nest on an integration that will allow the Jenn-Air connected wall oven to work with Nest. The two companies -- both known for their sleek-looking, intuitive home technology -- are well-matched, according to Brian Maynard, director of marketing for Jenn-Air.

      “By linking our appliances with Nest, we deliver immediate benefits and pave the way for future enhancements that will appeal to the luxury consumer,” said Maynard of the integration, which is expected to be available this summer.

      Comfort and peace of mind

      More details will be announced in the coming months, but Maynard says the integration will focus on users’ peace of mind and comfort. It will come in the form of an update in the Jenn-Air Wi-Fi app.

      The app currently offers users access to the Jenn-Air Culinary Center, through which they can use an interactive system (complete with algorithms, visuals, and chef-tested cooking programs). The goal of the app is to help home cooks whip up a magazine-worthy meal by helping them achieve optimal results.

      As far as functionality, it remains to be seen what the Nest integration will bring to the app. But it seems likely that it will grant users the ability to stay connected to Jenn-Air appliances, thereby doing away with such pesky thoughts as, "Did I leave the oven on?" Previous Nest collaborations have produced similar results.

      Other Nest integrations

      In 2014, Whirlpool successfully integrated some of their products with Nest in an effort to give users added peace of mind. Whirlpool’s Smart Front Load Washer and Dryer integrated Nest’s home and away modes, which enabled the appliances to keep clothes fresh if a cycle ends while the consumer is away. The dryer can even switch to a slightly longer, more energy-efficient cycle if the user is out.

      Whirlpool’s smart front control range with Nest integration is also slated for 2016 release. Through the Whirlpool app, users of the range will be sent an alert if their oven is on but their Nest thermostat is set to away.

      It stands to reason that Jenn-Air’s integration with Nest will include similar notifications and energy-saving features to help users feel more comfortable and connected to their appliance.

      According to Nest’s website, the Works with Nest program seeks to help users securely interact with the things they use every day to create a connected home experience -- which, indeed, seems like the recipe for added comfort and peace of mind.

      Homes are getting smarter and cars are driving themselves. Up next? App-connected appliances that help users turn out better meals with ease and comfort. ...

      Know your rights when it comes to security deposits

      Navigating the biggest source of conflict between landlord and tenant

      If you rent your home, you almost certainly were required to give the landlord a security deposit before moving in.

      The deposit is to cover damage and back rent but is generally expected to be returned to the tenant at the end of the lease. These deposits are often the most common source of disagreement between tenant and landlord.

      A case in New York highlights this conflict. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman began an investigation when he began to get complaints about a particular landlord in St. Lawrence County who rented apartments to students attending Clarkson University and SUNY Potsdam.

      Not following the rules

      Schneiderman said the investigation revealed a large number of complaints that the deposits were not returned, and that they were often kept in the landlord's personal account, rather than a separate interest-bearing account. In the wake of the probe, the landlord agreed to a settlement with the state that involved changes in the way he handled security deposits.

      “Tenants have a right to their own hard-earned money,” Schneiderman said in a release. “Likewise, landlords have an obligation to follow the law and not treat security deposits like personal funds. Landlords who fail to uphold that obligation will be held accountable.”

      Where you live matters

      Different states have different rules regarding how landlords must treat security deposits. Before signing a release, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with your state's laws in this area.

      While state requirements may vary a bit, FreeAdvice.com, a legal advice website, says in general landlords must return a security deposit within a specific time after the tenant moves out. If the landlord keeps all or a portion of the deposit, the landlord must give the tenant an accounting and list the reason.

      Tenants sometimes confuse the security payment with the last month's rent. That's not what it is. You can't simply skip the last month's rent, assuming the deposit will cover it. It won't.

      Unless the landlord has specifically collected the last month's rent, in addition to the security deposit at the beginning of the lease, you'll have to make the final rent payment and then wait for the return of your deposit.

      What you can do

      The best way to make sure you get your deposit back is to leave the property in as good a condition as you found it. Every state allows landlords to charge for damage that is beyond normal wear and tear.

      It is always a good idea to create a photographic record of the property before you move it. At the very least, you should do so once you have moved out.

      If the landlord refuses to return your deposit for an unfair reason, or does not abide by the time period specified in the law, you have legal recourse.

      Legal website Nolo.com has this resource, including advice on how to take your landlord to small claims court.

      If you rent your home, you almost certainly were required to give the landlord a security deposit before moving in.The deposit is to cover damage and b...

      Robocaller hounded millions with vacation packages, feds charge

      Many of those called were on the Do Not Call list, the FTC alleges

      It may sometimes seem that telemarketers are using the Do Not Call Registry as a phone book. While it may not be quite that bad, the fact is that robocalls are so cheap to make -- less than one cent each -- that telemarketers just can't help themselves.

      Thus it was that an Orlando company, Lilly Management and Marketing, felt compelled to call more than 100,000 consumers for each of the vacation packages it was hawking, even though many of them were on the Do Not Call list, drawing the attention of the Federal Trade Commission.

      “We've halted this intrusive and troubling unlawful robocalling campaign and deprived defendants of the full revenues they obtained,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

      The FTC’s complaint charges Lilly and its owner, Kevin W. Lawrence, with making millions of illegal robocalls to sell deals offered by a number of vacation package companies. Many of those called were not only on the Do Not Call Registry but had specifically asked Lilly not to call them again, the complaint alleges.

      Vacation Station

      Operating under the name “USA Vacation Station,” Lilly allegedly bought lists of consumers’ telephone numbers, then cranked up its autodialers to begin bombarding those consumers with prerecorded pitches.

      If a consumer picked up, listened to the pitch, and pressed “one,” they were transferred to a sales agent who tried to sell them a “magical Walt Disney World area holiday special” for which they “had been selected.”

      Under a proposed civil penalty, the defendants would agree to a $1.2 million penalty but would only have to pay $19,000 because they claim not to be able to pay the full amount.

      It may sometimes seem that telemarketers are using the Do Not Call Registry as a phone book. While it may not be quite that bad, the fact is that robocalls...

      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...

      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...

      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...

      Relationship over? Quick, find your credit card

      Jilted partners on a joint account are known to go on revenge spending sprees

      Nearly everyone pursues love with high hopes and stars in their eyes. But when a relationship ends, there can be a range of negative emotions – anger, sorrow, and regret.

      What happens next can often be unpredictable.

      That's why many personal finance experts advise quickly severing financial ties when emotional ones crash and burn.

      The personal finance site Creditcards.com warns that an angry ex-partner can quickly cause a lot of financial damage if the two of you share a credit card account.

      Financial horror stories

      It interviewed a New York CPA who recounts some financial horror stories in the wake of a bad break-up. There is apparently something called “revenge spending,” where the dumped partner takes the credit card on a shopping spree, with the sole purpose of running up a huge bill.

      If your ex is an authorized user on any of your credit cards, contact the issuer and have him or her removed as quickly as possible. If possible, avoid cancelling the card, since closing a credit account will ding your credit score

      British media reported a few years back on the case of a man who exacted revenge on his estranged wife by running up a huge tab on her credit card. Strangely, he had already established a new relationship with a girlfriend, who apparently became his willing accomplice.

      The man was said to be angry that his wife was vacationing with her boyfriend, and charged several thousand dollars to her card while she was away.

      Minimize emotion

      One way to minimize this threat is to avoid anger and emotion in the split. Also, if the partner who is leaving has been the main financial contributor, making it clear up front that some support will be provided may make it less likely that the other partner will ty to use the joint credit card as a weapon.

      If it is a marriage that is ending, the courts will be involved. Still, it is important to defuse anger and a thirst for vengeance in the time before the case gets to a judge. There's a good chance both spouses will be on the hook for any revenge spending once the lawyers get involved.

      By the way, a divorce is going to adversely affect both parties' credit. That's because joint credit accounts will be closed, resulting in a lowering of both credit scores.

      Nearly everyone pursues love with high hopes and stars in their eyes. But when a relationship ends, there can be a range of negative emotions – anger, sorr...

      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...

      SRAM Recalls Zipp bicycle wheel hubs

      The hub flanges on the front hubs can fail, posing crash and injury hazards

      SRAM LLC of Chicago, Ill., is recalling about 57,000 Zipp 88 aluminum front hubs in the U.S and Canada.

      The hub flanges on the front hubs can fail, posing a crash and injury hazard.

      The company has received one report in the U.S. of hub flange failure that could have led to wheel collapse. No injuries have been reported in the U.S.

      This recall includes SRAM’s Zipp bicycle wheel hubs, models ZIPP 88v6, 88v7 and 88v8. The Z logo is printed on the hub. The wheel hubs come in black, silver and falcon grey. The diameter of the clinch nut is approximately 1.46 inches.

      Some of the hubs were sold as part of wheel sets installed on new bicycles. SRAM will post a list of affected bicycle brands and models on its website at www.sram.com.

      The hubs, manufactured in the U.S. and Spain, were sold at speciality bicycle stores nationwide from May 2010, through January 2015. The front hubs sold for about $215. Complete front wheels with the hubs sold for between $1,035 and $1,325. The front wheel was also sold as a wheel set with a rear wheel for between $2,300 and $2,950.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using bicycles equipped with the recalled front hubs and contact SRAM or local bicycle dealer for a free replacement hub.

      Consumers may contact SRAM at 800-346-2928 between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. (ET) Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (ET) on Friday, or visit www.sram.com or www.zipp.com and click on “Recall Notice” for more information.  

      SRAM LLC of Chicago, Ill., is recalling about 57,000 Zipp 88 aluminum front hubs in the U.S and Canada. The hub flanges on the front hubs can fail,...

      Ashland Food recalls organic raw macadamia nuts

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Ashland Food Co-op (AFC) of Ashland, Ore., is recalling organic raw macadamia nuts that may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with recalled product.

      AFC sold the recalled product in random weight bags between January 5, 2016, and February 4, 2016.

      The nuts have a one month shelf life if refrigerated.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should not consume it but return it to AFC for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 541-482-2237 between 8:30am and 4:30am (PST), Monday thru Friday.

      Ashland Food Co-op (AFC) of Ashland, Ore., is recalling organic raw macadamia nuts that may be contaminated with Salmonella. No illnesses have been...

      Zipp bicycle quick releases recalled

      The quick releases can fail to engage in the closed position

      SRAM LLC, of Chicago, Ill., is recalling about 6,400 Zipp bicycle quick releases.

      The quick releases can fail to engage in the closed position, posing crash and injury hazards to the rider.

      The firm has received three incident reports of the quick release failing. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves SRAM’s Zipp stainless steel or titanium quick releases. They were sold as aftermarket components or as part of the 202 DB V2, 303 DB V2, 404 Firestrike V2, 202 Firecrest V3, 303 Firecrest V3, 404 Firecrest V3, 808 Firecrest V3 or 808 NSW wheel sets.

      The quick release has a curved, black lever. Zipp appears on the lever. Only quick releases without a marking at the center of the underside of the lever, below the Zipp logo are included on this recall.

      The quick releases, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at specialty bicycle stores nationwide from March 2015, through December 2015, for about $47 for the stainless steel quick release and about $84 for the titanium quick release. Wheel sets equipped with the quick releases were sold for between $1,000 and $3,600.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using any bicycles equipped with the recalled quick releases and contact SRAM or their local bicycle dealer for a free replacement quick release.

      Consumers may contact SRAM at 800-346-2928 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (ET) Monday through Thursday and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (ET) on Fridays, or visit www.sram.com or www.zipp.com and click on Recall Notice for more information.

      SRAM LLC, of Chicago, Ill., is recalling about 6,400 Zipp bicycle quick releases. The quick releases can fail to engage in the closed position, pos...

      CDC releases guidelines in hopes of curbing opioid prescriptions

      Several agencies have taken steps towards addressing America's opioid dependence

      Opioid use in the U.S. has ballooned out of control in recent years, leading to increased numbers of overdoses and a general dependence on pain killers that is unhealthy. In order to curb this negative behavior, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has entered a plea aimed at healthcare professionals in the form of new guidelines.

      The guidelines ask doctors to limit prescribing painkillers, which have proven to be very addictive and dangerous to many consumers. They lays out recommendations for doctors that will hopefully bring about “a culture shift for patients and doctors,” according to Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC.

      Steps towards progress

      This action by the CDC comes as a relief to many who believe that the problem has grown out of control in recent years. “For the first time, the federal government is communicating clearly that the widespread practice of prescribing opioids for chronic pain is inappropriate, that the risks outweigh the benefits,” said Andrew Kolodny, executive director of the nonprofit group Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescirbing.

      However, the CDC is not the only agency attempting to change the current culture on opioids. As reported by the Washington Post, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has begun combing over its policies on opioid medication, legislation has been passed by the Senate to expand treatment for drug abuse and encourage prevention programs, and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is cracking down on physicians who aren’t prescribing medications correctly.

      Senatorial support for change has also come to the forefront lately. Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia has come out as a staunch backer for reform and the new CDC guidelines. “I have pushed for the release of these guidelines because I have seen firsthand the devastating effects of prescription drug abuse on individuals, families, and communities,” he said.

      Educating professionals

      In the end, though, the burden of change lays on doctors and healthcare providers. And, as with many things, these changes may take some time for them to get used to. Doctors point out that not too long ago, many healthcare professionals were criticized for undertreating pain. Add in the enormous sums of money paid by drug companies to push their drugs and you may have a recipe for our current state of affairs.

      Other factors play a part too, of course. Many doctors prescribe medication for pain simply because they are trying to avoid low satisfaction scores from patients. Advances in understanding opioids and addiction may have also passed many doctors by.

      “When I went to medical school I had exactly one lecture on pain, and the lecture said if you give an opioid to a patient in pain, they will not get addicted. . . Completely wrong, and yet a generation of doctors grew up being taught that,” said Dr. Frieden.

      Solutions for helping doctors get up to speed may include refresher training on opioid use and the effects it can have. The CDC also recommends that doctors be vigilant in monitoring how effective a drug they prescribe is. They should also check if there is a danger to the patient taking it and determine if the drug is being abused or causing addiction.

      Opioid use in the U.S. has ballooned out of control in recent years, leading to increased numbers of overdoses and a general dependence on pain killers tha...

      Researchers have found a way to improve the stem cell donation process

      It would eliminate many potential side effects and make the process much quicker

      While it has seen its share of controversy in the past, stem cell research has proven to be one of the most promising areas of study in the scientific community. However, up to this point, the process of gathering enough stem cells from donors has been invasive and can lead to some nasty side effects.

      But researchers with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia have found a new way to harvest stem cells that might change that. The premise is that, instead of working with the growth factors that are currently being used, scientists can utilize a molecule that is able to better mobilize stem cells so that they can be extracted safely, quickly, and without side effects.

      Improving the process

      Dr. Susie Nilsson and her team at CSIRO explain how current methods are not optimal and make many potential candidates hesitant to donate stem cells. The process involves injecting a growth factor into a donor for several days, after which the stem cells are able to be harvested. Unfortunately, this process, in addition to being time consuming, can cause side effects that include bone pain and spleen enlargement, according to Nilsson. But even if the side effects don’t proliferate, some donors are never able to produce the amount of stem cells needed, making the whole process pointless.

      The new process would eliminate many of these problems by using a newly discovered molecule known as BOP. Researchers found that when they combined BOP with another molecule, called AMD3100, the stem cells were able to mobilize much more quickly. Nilsson explains that “a procedure that once took days can be reduced to around an hour.”

      Additionally, since the previous injections don’t need to be used, the harmful side effects would no longer be an issue. This could greatly increase the confidence of potential candidates so that more donors are willing to go through the process.

      Next step

      The next step for researchers will be to conduct a phase 1 clinical trial using the BOP molecule. They will first be testing it in tandem with the growth factor that is currently being used before moving on to using it with AMD3100.

      The tests have given researchers and scientists hope that their discovery can be worthwhile and help people. “We’re looking forward to seeing patients benefit from this discovery,” said Professor Peter Currie, director of Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI).

      The full study has been published in the journal Nature Communications

      While it has seen its share of controversy in the past, stem cell research has proven to be one of the most promising areas of study in the scientific comm...

      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...

      Survey: most college students “financially illiterate”

      Group finds widespread cluelessness when it comes to debt and credit

      Colleges are full of smart people. But when it comes to managing debt, there appears to be a huge knowledge gap at our institutions of higher learning.

      A couple of months ago a student loan site, LendEdu.com, visited a few California colleges and asked students a series of general questions about student debt.

      “The results of the survey were equal parts surprising and disturbing,” the group said in an email to ConsumerAffairs.

      So this month the survey team went back to the same campuses and asked a series of questions relating to credit, how to build it, and how it's measured with credit scores. The team talked to a wide range of students, both undergraduates and those pursuing graduate degrees.

      Yikes!

      Here's what the survey revealed:

      • 59.3% couldn't define what a credit score is
      • 19.0% thought it was better to have a low credit score than a high one
      • 95.5% had no idea what the range of possible credit scores is
      • 42.5% don't think student loan debt is a factor in a credit score
      • 65.1% didn't have a credit card in their own name
      • Of those who did have a credit card, 72.1% didn't know their credit score
      • 45.5% couldn't name one factor used to determine a credit score
      • 42.4% couldn't name one way to improve their credit score

      It goes on.

      Ignored subject

      The organization says the results might not be all that surprising, in light of the fact that only 17 states require high school students to take even one course in personal finance. California is not one of those states.

      “Our results are once again startling, disturbing, and showcase the appalling level of financial illiteracy among our country’s brightest minds,” the authors conclude.

      Resources

      Financial literacy isn't hard or complicated, and there are a number of free resources to help you learn the basics.

      The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants offers what it calls 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy. It's designed to help people understand their personal finances through every stage of life.

      The Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards provides a financial planning resource kit to help consumers learn the basics of financial planning.

      PracticalMoneySkills.com offers these free resources, some of which can be downloaded, to help teach financial literacy skills.

      Colleges are full of smart people. But when it comes to managing debt, there appears to be a huge knowledge gap at our institutions of higher learning....

      Consumers appear to be managing their growing debt

      Credit default rates hold steady in February

      One way to gauge consumers' financial health is to look at their credit payments. If they pay on time, they're generally doing well. If they are in default, that's something to worry about.

      The latest S&P/Experian Consumer Credit Default Indices, measuring changes in consumer credit defaults, shows the consumer is relatively stable. The credit card default rate is nearly flat from the previous month. So was the mortgage default rate.

      Another recent consumer concern has been auto loans. New car prices are at record highs, and the average new car loan is for more than $29,000. Even so, the consumer default rate for auto loans held steady in February – both from the month before and from February 2015.

      Three major cities saw significant improvement in creditworthiness. Consumers in Miami had a default rate of 1.07%, down 10 basis points from January. Dallas and New York also reported similar improvements.

      Confirming optimism

      David Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices, says the numbers confirm an increasingly positive view of the consumer economy.

      "Other positive indicators of the consumer economy include continued strong auto sales and rising home prices,” Blitzer said in a statement. “Measures of consumer confidence and sentiment remain at high levels after slipping a bit in January and February.”

      Meanwhile consumers continue to expand their use of credit – which may or may not be a healthy sign. The key is whether they can repay it. The default data suggests that at least so far, they can.

      Blitzer credits low and falling gasoline prices for giving consumers a little breathing room and some extra spending money. Economists had expected the sharp decline in gasoline prices over the last 18 months to ignite the economy, something that did not happen.

      Increasingly though, it's becoming apparent that the role low fuel prices have played is simply to keep things from getting worse. The U.S. is at least recording some modest growth. Much of the rest of the world is sliding into recession.

      Low fuel prices might not be sending consumers on a shopping spree, but they may be helping consumers pay their bills each month.

      One way to gauge consumers' financial health is to look at their credit payments. If they pay on time, they're generally doing well. If they are in default...

      Separating good debt from bad

      Before borrowing money, you should first answer some questions

      Debt can be a sensitive subject. There are those who firmly believe there is no such thing as “good” debt, while others look at it sort of like fire – it can be a useful thing as long as it's properly controlled.

      So the personal finance website Credit.com this week asked the provocative question, “is there such a thing as good debt?” Answering its own question, it lays out five questions that must first be answered in the affirmative before debt can be classified as “good.”

      Questions

      First, a potential borrower should ask if going into debt is the best way to get something. If so, the borrower should determine whether the monthly payments are affordable.

      Next, a borrower should look in the credit mirror to determine what his or her credit picture looks like. If it's bad, it means either being rejected for the loan or being saddled with an expensive subprime loan.

      Now, ask how the payment will fit into a monthly budget. Will it end up taking away from grocery money, or a child's music lessons?

      Finally, ask if you are borrowing money from a reputable lender. That's important for avoiding unfair terms and burdensome fees.

      Spending future money

      Debt, by its very nature, is inflationary. It makes something that is very expensive obtainable now, but does so at a cost.

      Debt allows you to spend money you will earn in the future to purchase something now. Unfortunately, consumers sometimes lose sight of the paying-back part. But debt takes money from the future to pay for something today, meaning you won't have as much money in the future.

      That's why it is never a good idea to go to a payday lender for $200 to meet an immediate need. In the case of a payday loan, the $200 has to be paid back in two weeks.

      Where will that $200 come from? You don't have it now – which is why you are at the payday loan store. What makes you think you'll magically have the money to repay the loan in two weeks?

      Home mortgage

      Nearly everyone borrows money if they buy a home. Here, you could make a strong case for “good” debt, as long as it makes more sense to buy than rent and you get a fixed rate, low interest loan. After all, you will pay something each month for putting a roof over your head, whether its is rent or a mortgage payment. In many instances a monthly mortgage rate is less than rent.

      There is a bit more debate about going into debt to buy a car. After all, a car is a depreciating asset, meaning it is worth less the longer you own it. The danger is not putting enough money down and financing the vehicle over too long a term. At some point, a consumer could owe more than the vehicle is worth.

      Besides the five questions Credit.com asks, here's one more. Does the thing I am financing have lasting value? That question can apply to a college education or remodeling a kitchen.

      It's important because you are paying for something with money you'll earn in the future. Only, you won't be able to spend it on future needs because you'll be spending it to pay down your debt.

      Debt can be a sensitive subject. There are those who firmly believe there is no such thing as “good” debt, while others look at it sort of like fire – it c...

      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...

      Cost of living on the decline in February

      Lower energy prices were a major factor

      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. If those two volatile categories are excluded, the so-called “core” rate of inflation last month was up 0.3%. For the last 12 months, however, it's up 2.3% -- the largest 12-month increase since May 2012.

      Energy and food

      Energy costs were down 6.0% in February -- the third straight decline, thanks to a plunge of 13.0% in the price of gasoline. Declines were also registered in fuel oil (-2.9%) and electricity (-0.2%). Natural gas (+1.0%) rose for the first time in six months.

      The price of food rose 0.2% last month, with the food at home index category up for the first time since September. Major grocery store food group indexes were mixed. Posting gains were prices for fruits and vegetables (+0.8%), nonalcoholic beverages (+0.6%), and cereals and bakery products (+ 0.2%). Declines were registered in the cost of meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and other food at home (-0.1%), while prices for dairy and related products were unchanged.

      Other items

      Outside of energy and food, other increases came in shelter (+0.3), clothing (+1.6%), medical care (+0.5), new vehicles, used cars and trucks, alcoholic beverages, recreation, and tobacco (+0.2%). One of the few areas to post a decline was communications (-0.5%)

      The complete report is available on the DOL website.

      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. Dur...

      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 ...

      Texas Star Nut & Food expands pistachio recall

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Texas Star Nut & Food Company is expanding its previous recall of pistachios.

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      The expanded recall includes the following items:

      BRANDDESCRIPTIONSIZEUPCBEST BY DATES
      Fresh ChoiceSurvivor Mix4.75oz0-39759-17030-69/11/2016 - 1/13/2017
      Southern GroveSurvival Mix10oz0-41498-21118-98/27/2016 - 2/2/2017
      Southern GroveGo Raw8oz0-41498-21123-38/17/2016 - 9/14/2016
      Nature's EatsNatural Pistachios8oz8-32112-00271-58/3/2016 - 1/14/2017
      Nature's EatsSurvivor Mix10oz8-32112-00345-39/3/2016 - 1/18/2017
      Nature's EatsHill Country Ramblin'15oz8-32112-00364-48/14/2016 - 2/1/2017
      Nature's EatsAustin's Nutty All-Terrain12oz8-32112-00371-28/21/2016 - 1/28/2017
      Nature's EatsAlmond & Pistachio Duo6oz8-32112-00380-49/8/2016 - 2/8/2017
      Nature's EatsSimply Go Raw8oz8-32112-00383-58/13/2016 -1/25/2017

      No illnesses have been reported in relation to these products at this time.

      The recalled products were sold through retailers nationwide between August 13, 2015, and February 24, 2016.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased any of the recalled products should discontinue consuming them and return them to the place of purchase for a refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-844-571-5555 from 8:30am to 5:30 pm (CST).

      Texas Star Nut & Food Company is expanding its previous recall of pistachios. The products may be contaminated with Salmonella. The expande...

      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...

      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 ...

      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...

      Children with younger siblings may be healthier, study finds

      Researchers find an association between having a younger sibling and a healthier BMI

      The desire to give your first born a buddy to play with might factor into your decision to have another baby. But research shows there is another benefit to giving your child a younger sibling.

      Children who become a big brother or sister before first grade may see a lower chance of becoming obese, according to a study led by the University of Michigan.

      The study -- set to appear in the April issue of Pediatrics -- discovered a link between the birth of a sibling and a healthier BMI by first grade. This was especially true when the newly crowned big brother or sister was between the ages of two and four at the time of their sibling’s arrival.

      According to senior author Julie Lumeng, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at U-M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, this study is the first to track increases in BMI following the arrival of a baby brother or sister.

      The research, she explains, suggests that younger siblings -- compared with older or no siblings -- play a role in lowering a child's risk of being overweight. As to why this association might be, the authors believe changes in eating habits and activity levels could be to thank.

      Changes habits

      After a new sibling is born, parents might change the way they feed their child. The timing of this change -- around age three, when children are developing long-lasting eating habits -- might alter the way they eat for years to come.

      The presence of a busy little brother or sister might also translate to less screen time for older siblings. (After all, who needs Dora when there’s an exciting new buddy in the house?) The researchers say this increase in “active play” could also help define the association between younger siblings and a healthier BMI.

      While further study is needed to examine the effect of having a sibling on mealtime behaviors and physical activity, Lumeng says studies like these can help increase our understanding of how to fight childhood obesity.

      “If the birth of a sibling changes behaviors within a family in ways that protect against obesity, these may be patterns other families can try to create in their own homes,” said Lumeng, adding that understanding such associations can help families and doctors create new strategies for helping children grow up healthy.

      The desire to give your first born a buddy to play with might factor into your decision to have another baby. But research shows there is another benefit t...

      Why honeybees are disappearing

      Polish researchers may have uncovered an important clue

      For the last decade or so, honeybees have been disappearing at an alarming rate. There's a name for it – colony collapse disorder (CCD).

      There have been a number of theories as to why this is happening, including the proliferation of cellular powers. Increasingly, however, suspicion is focusing on one answer to the mystery – pesticides.

      Researchers in Europe have provided the latest evidence. Their findings, published in the Journal of Chromatography A, found dead honeybees they examined had traces of 57 different pesticides.

      There is a very important reason consumers should be concerned with the bees' disappearance.

      Public concern

      "Bee health is a matter of public concern -- bees are considered critically important for the environment and agriculture by pollinating more than 80% of crops and wild plants in Europe," Tomasz Kiljanek, lead author of the study, said in a release.

      The problem is also of great concern in the U.S. Agriculture officials worry that CCD, should it continue unabated, could put food production at risk.

      While previous research has suggested pesticides might be what is killing off the bee population, the question has been, which pesticide. This latest study, from the National Veterinary Research Institute in Poland, suggests it's not just one pesticide, but a combination of many.

      And with many pesticides now in use, scientists are left with the difficult task of finding which ones are proving lethal to the bees. They also have to take into consideration the possibility that certain combinations of pesticides, or prolonged exposure, could be doing the damage.

      Nothing has been scientifically proven

      The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that to date, there has been no scientific cause of CCD that has been conclusively proven. While pesticides may be a prime suspect, since the 1980s bees have been under attack from new pathogens, from deformed wing virus to nosema fungi.

      “CCD may even be a result of a combination of two or more of these factors and not necessarily the same factors in the same order in every instance,” the USDA concluded.

      The nature of CCD is extremely odd. Not all of the bees die. The majority of the worker bees simply disappear, leaving behind the queen and immature bees. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports observed cases of CCD have actually declined over the last five years.

      If pesticides are indeed behind CCD, it has yet to be explained why it only affects the worker bees and is not continuing to claim increasing numbers of victims.

      For the last decade or so, honeybees have been disappearing at an alarming rate. There's a name for it – colony collapse disorder (CCD).There have been...

      Sweepstakes scam netted millions -- and a prison sentence

      Call center operator sentenced to nine years in prison

      A Virginia man who operated call centers in Costa Rica has been sentenced to nine years in prison for his part in a sweepstakes scam that defrauded elderly Americans of nearly $2 million.

      Geoffrey Ramer, 36, of Falls Church, Va., was ordered to pay $2.8 million in restitution to victims of the scam and to forfeit an additional $1.8 million. He had earlier entered guilty pleas to charges including wire fraud and money laundering.

      Prosecutors said that from 2008 through 2013, Ramer's Costa Rica call centers called U.S. residents and falsely informed them they had won a large cash prize in a sweepstakes.

      "Insurance policy"

      To collect their supposed winnings, the victims were told to send money to Costa Rica for an "insurance policy." Those who fell for the scheme would then get a second call telling them the amount of their prize had been increased and they needed to send more money for a large insurance policy.

      The calls would continue until the victims either went broke or wised up to the scheme, prosecutors said.

      Ramer admitted using an Internet-based phone system that displayed a Washington, D.C. area and said his employees sometimes falsely claimed to be calling on behalf of a federal agency.  

      The victims never received any sweepstakes winnings and were unsuccessful in attempts to get their "insurance" money back.

      Ramer was sentenced today by U.S. District Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. of the Western District of North Carolina.

      A Virginia man who operated call centers in Costa Rica has been sentenced to nine years in prison for his part in a sweepstakes scam that defrauded elderly...

      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...

      Asking for a discount is an effective way to save money

      But a survey finds only about 20% of us bother to ask

      The business environment today is hyper competitive. There are lots of businesses selling things and only so many consumers buying them.

      The fact that those consumers haven't gotten raises in quite a while means the competition to reach them is even greater.

      This is all very good for consumers, who have more leverage in transactions than they might think.

      When CreditCards.com recently surveyed consumers, it found that 89% of them who asked their credit card company to waive a late fee had their request granted. Even more amazing, 78% said they were granted a lower interest rate simply because they asked for one.

      Only 20% of us ask

      You would think with that kind of success, every consumer would be asking for discounts and price breaks, but CreditCards.com says that doesn't appear to be the case. It estimates only about 20% of consumers have ever asked for a break.

      “Consumers just don’t realize how much card companies want to keep them,” Bill McCracken, president of Synergistics Research Corp., said in a statement. “Issuers know ...it’s a lot more expensive to acquire a customer these days than it is to retain one, so they do what they can to keep you.”

      Senior discounts

      Credit cards aren't the only category where you can ask for and get savings; senior citizens can get all sorts of discounts if they ask. Some don't ask because they aren't aware of them. Some don't ask because they don't think of themselves as a senior.

      Writing for AARP's blog last year, journalist Julianne Malveaux admitted to being somewhat reluctant to ask for a senior discount, even when she would be able to save about $5 on her purchase. But she quickly got over it.

      “We can ask retail establishments if they offer a senior discount, and use our AARP membership card to get discounts when we can,” she wrote. “Ten percent here, 15% there add up. Sometimes we have to ask and resist the vanity that tells us that we don’t look 60, and don’t want to act that way either.”

      Auto insurance

      As we reported a couple of years ago, you can often get a much lower rate from your auto insurance company if you ask. Research has shown rates can creep up, even for good drivers, the longer you remain with one company.

      And as McCracken pointed out, companies know it is cheaper to keep a customer than obtain a new one.

      When asking for anything, your chances of success are going to be better if you ask nicely. But if you are pleasant and armed with the facts, you just might get fees dropped, rates lowered, and a discount on the price.

      But first, you have to ask.

      The business environment today is hyper competitive. There are lots of businesses selling things and only so many consumers buying them.The fact that t...

      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 ...

      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...

      Retail sales weakness continues in February

      January's performance was also worse than reported

      Consumers remained sluggish in the early part of 2016.

      The Commerce Department reports retail sales for February were down a seasonally adjusted 0.1% from the previous month at $447.3 billion.

      If that's not enough bad news, the government revised its January report to show that instead of rising 0.2%, sales actually fell 0.4%.

      The February decline was led by a 4,4% plunge in sales at gas stations. Also registering lower sales were miscellaneous stores (-1.1%), furniture & home furnishings stores (-0.5%), department stores (-0.4%), and grocery stores (-0.3%)

      Sales gains were enjoyed by building material, garden equipment, and supplies dealers (+1.6%), porting goods, hobby, book & music stores (+1.2%), and clothing & clothing accessories stores (+0.9%).

      Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza sees cause for concern in the February report.

      "Without a meaningful pickup in spending," she says, "the U.S. economy will be hard pressed to maintain a stagnant 2% pace, let alone gain additional traction from here."

      The full February retail sales report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      Consumers remained sluggish in the early part of 2016.The Commerce Department reports retail sales for February were down a seasonally adjusted 0.1% fr...

      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...

      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...

      Kanan Enterprises recalls natural in-shell pistachios

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Kanan Enterprises is recalling natural in-shell pistachios.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      Favorites Natural Pistachios come in a 4.5-oz. stand-up pouch bag with a UPC 0 38445 12286 5 and a date code of 15 Feb 2017 and 16 Feb 2017.

      The product was distributed nationally through convenience stores.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should not consume it, but destroy it or return the place purchase.

      Consumers with questions may call 1-800-860-5464, 8:15 am – 5:00pm (EST) Monday – Friday.

      Kanan Enterprises is recalling natural in-shell pistachios. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. Favorites Natural Pistachios c...

      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...

      Scientists report breakthrough in Zika virus research

      The discovery explains how the virus poses a threat to pregnant women