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    Car insurance shoppers increasingly look online

    J.D. Power study finds many complete the purchase offline, however

    Shopping for car insurance, like many other types of shopping, has largely moved online, a new J.D. Power study finds, but it adds that while consumers shop for insurance online, many still make the actual purchase through an agent.

    The study found that 74% of shoppers use insurer websites or aggregators for obtaining quotes and researching information. While nearly half of customers obtain a quote via insurer websites, only 25% actually purchase their policy online; 50% close through an agent and 22% phone a call center.

    “While many customers want to shop online, they often still want to talk to someone when they buy their insurance to make sure they are getting the right coverage or have questions about their policy answered,” said Hoeg. “Insurers need to focus on the delicate balance of providing an easy shopping experience while providing product differentiation and professional service.”

    Rankings

    Erie Insurance and Liberty Mutual tied for first place in providing a satisfying purchase experience, each with a score of 853. This marks the fourth consecutive year Erie Insurance has ranked highest in the study.

    The Hartford ranks third (850); American Family fourth (845); and Automobile Club Group fifth (840).

    Now in its 10th year, the J.D. Power U.S. Insurance Shopping Study measures auto insurance shopping, purchase behavior, and purchase experience satisfaction among customers who recently purchased insurance. 

    The study found that direct premiums written increased by approximately 4.7% to $199 billion in 2015, with much of that growth coming from new business generated by direct writers.

    “Direct writers have invested heavily in digital channels to increase the functionality and ease of using their websites, which has clearly created an advantage for direct distribution relative to traditional agency distribution in some respects and has supported agency distribution in others,” said Greg Hoeg, vice president of U.S. insurance operations at J.D. Power.

    Fewer shoppers

    Hoeg said the challenge for insurance companies is that there are fewer consumers shopping around for insurance at the moment. Many companies have kept premiums flat or even lowered them, giving consumers fewer reasons to look for cheaper policies.

    In addition, customers who do switch are saving an average of $356 on their annual premiums, less than the $388 in savings for those who switched in 2015.

    “With more price competition and smaller savings, there simply is not as much motivation for most customers to switch,” said Hoeg. “Many policyholders see insurance as a price-differentiated commodity, and shoppers are opting to remain with their incumbent insurer as they find the savings offered by competitors is not as great as they had expected, or as much as they saved the last time they switched.”

    The 2016 U.S. Insurance Shopping Study is based on responses from more than 17,000 shoppers who requested an auto insurance price quote from at least one competitive insurer in the past 9 months and includes more than 50,000 unique customer evaluations of insurers.

    Shopping for car insurance, like many other types of shopping, has largely moved online, a new J.D. Power study finds, but it...
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      UCLA researchers claim sweeteners can cause brain damage

      But they say an omega-3 fatty acid can reverse it

      Another academic study is blaming high-fructose corn syrup for some of Americans' health issues. The latest comes from UCLA, where researchers contend that fructose, which occurs both naturally in fruits and vegetables but is also an additive, damages brain cells.

      Their research also links the sweetener to diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's, and ADH. The scientists reached their conclusions after conducting a series of experiments involving laboratory animals. They published their results in The Lancet, a medical journal.

      In recent months attention has focused on Americans' consumption of sweetened foods and beverages as a contributor to rising obesity rates. In 2013, California considered mandating warning labels on products with high added sugar content.

      A way to reverse the damage

      This latest research came up with an antidote, of sorts. It found that when people consumed an omega-3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, it seemed to reverse the damage triggered by fructose.

      “DHA changes not just one or two genes; it seems to push the entire gene pattern back to normal, which is remarkable,” said Xia Yang, a senior author of the study and a UCLA assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology.

      Brain cells produce some DHA on their own, but the amount is not large enough to help fight disease. Reinforcing natural DHA with foods high in the omega-3 provides adequate reinforcement.

      Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and of integrative biology and physiology, says the finding simply reinforces the reason people need to eat the right food. Your body, he says, can't produce all the nutrients it needs – the rest has to come through diet.

      Where to get DHA

      Sources of DHA include walnuts, fruits, vegetables, wild salmon, and other fish.

      High-fructose corn syrup is made from corn starch and is used in a wide variety of processed foods and beverages. The UCLA researchers cite a U.S. Department of Agriculture study which estimates that Americans consumed about 27 pounds of the sweetener in 2014.

      While fruit also contains fructose, the researchers say it is less harmful, with the fiber in the fruit slowing the body's absorption of the sweetener. Fruit also contains nutrients that are beneficial to the brain.

      “Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain,” said Gomez-Pinilla.

      To ensure those effects are positive, he suggests avoiding sugary soft drinks, saving desserts for special occasions, and trying to reduce the overall amount of sugar and saturated fate in your diet.

      Another academic study is blaming high-fructose corn syrup for some of Americans' health issues. The latest comes from UCLA, where researchers contend that...
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      How to choose the right interior paint color

      Get the best results by considering lighting, color flow, and the importance of primer

      As prime painting season (Memorial Day to Labor Day) draws near, many homeowners may be thinking of changing up the color of their walls.

      Indeed, tackling those indoor painting projects during the spring and summer months can be a smart move. Homeowners can open the windows to let in the fresh air, which allows for better circulation, better air quality, and faster drying times.

      But while the timing may be right, other aspects of painting may not make it as easy to determine what is “right.” For many homeowners, choosing the right paint color can be one of the hardest parts of painting.

      So what should you consider before lugging home several gallons worth of a new wall color?

      Lighting

      Lighting interacts with color in ways that can lead to a surprising end result. To help ensure the color of your walls matches that of the paint swatch you first swooned over, consider what type of lighting is present in the room.

      Is there an abundance of natural light? Or will it be primarily lit by incandescent or florescent bulbs?

      The first step toward answering these questions might be to paint squares of primed drywall with the color you’re considering. Periodically moving these squares around the room can help you see what the color will look like under different lighting conditions.

      It can also be beneficial to consider how light exposure affects the color in a room. If your room is north-facing, you may see a touch of blue added to your color. Eastern exposure adds a hint of green, southern exposure adds yellow-white, and western exposure will add a bit of warm orange.

      Consider color flow

      The paint colors in your home should work together to create a symphony. Avoid clashes in your color composition by taking into account the paint colors used in other rooms.

      Using lighter or darker shades of the same color throughout your home is one simple way to create color flow, according to the experts at Benjamin Moore.

      If you’d prefer to mix it up with different colors, try choosing between three and five favorite colors. Have the colors play different roles -- primary, secondary, or accent -- in different rooms. For example, you might use the wall color in the living room as an accent color in an adjacent room.

      Pick a primer 

      After you’ve selected a paint color that fits nicely into your home’s color palette, you’ll want to make sure the paint goes on smoothly and evenly. 

      Primers help create an even base for your topcoat of paint. The kind of primer you’ll need will depend on what surface you will be painting. A quick guide to choosing an interior primer can be found here.

      As prime painting season (Memorial Day to Labor Day) draws near, many homeowners may be thinking of changing up the color of their walls. Indeed, tackl...
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      The rush is on to shower mom with gifts

      Billions are expected to be spent on a variety of gifts

      Jewelry, electronics, and special outings are high on the list of ways celebrate Mother’s Day this year.

      The National Retail Federation’s (NRF) annual survey conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics projects U.S. consumers will spend an average of $172.22 on mom -- almost the same as last year when they shelled out a record $172.63.

      That would bring total spending to $21.4 billion, with 84.4% of consumers surveyed paying tribute to their special lady.

      “It’s clear that Americans want to honor their mothers this Mother’s Day,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. “Whether it’s a special meal at her favorite restaurant, jewelry or a new smartphone, families are planning to indulge mom again this year.”

      How and where they'll spend

      According to the survey, consumers plan to spend $4.2 billion on jewelry (given by 35.3% of shoppers), $4.1 billion on special outings like dinner or brunch (55.2%), $2.4 billion on flowers (66.5%), $2.2 billion on gift cards (43.2%), $1.9 billion each on clothing (35.4%) and consumer electronics (13.8%), and $1.6 billion on personal services, like a day at the spa (22.5%). Greeting cards are projected to be the most-purchased gift (78.4%) but account for only $792 million of the projected spending.

      Consumers were asked for the first time about “gifts of experience," like tickets to a sporting event or concert. According to the survey, 24.2% of consumers would like gifts of this nature and 22.3% plan on giving such a gift.

      A plurality (33%) of shoppers will head to department stores and 28.7% to specialty stores and another 23.1% will patronize a local small business.

      But not everyone will make it to a store: 27.3 % will shop online and 29.6% will research gift ideas on their phones. Of those who use their phone to research gifts, 15.5% will use them to make a purchase.

      “Mother’s Day is the time when millions of Americans find special ways to express their love and gratitude for mom,” Prosper Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow said. “While many will spend a little more than usual to pamper her, some consumers will provide unique experience gifts for the entire family to enjoy together.”

      The survey of 7,000 consumers was conducted April 5-13 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.2 percentage points.  

      The complete survey is available here.

      Jewelry, electronics, and special outings are high on the list of ways celebrate Mother’s Day this year.The National Retail Federation’s (NRF) annual s...
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      Dick's Sporting Goods relaunches rewards credit card

      Store-issued cards can be rewarding but usually carry higher interest rates

      Sporting goods retailer Dick's Sporting Goods is relaunching its Rewards of Sport Credit Cards, issued by Synchrony Bank.

      The company said it would continue to offer two different cards under the program. One – the Rewards of Sport Credit Card – remains a private label card for use at all Dick's Sporting Goods, Field & Stream, and Golf Galaxy locations.

      The Rewards of Sport MasterCard is a more general purpose card. It can be used at all the same locations, in addition to any other retail location that accepts Mastercard.

      Dick's says its cardholders will get some new benefits under the relaunch, including 10% back in rewards on in-store purchases the first day the account is active.

      Periodically, consumers using the card may have the option of financing in-store purchases.

      Cardholders will also still get upgraded ScoreCard Rewards benefits on purchases. They include 6% back in rewards on routine in-store purchases and 1% back in rewards on purchases in other stores where MasterCard is accepted. That benefit will apply only to Rewards of Sport MasterCard holders.

      Other store-issued cards

      Store-issued credit cards have become more common in recent years, with retailers using them as a means to build brand loyalty. Some are more rewarding than others, but consumers who choose a store-issued card should make sure the store is a place they shop frequently.

      In its analysis of store-issued credit cards, Consumer Reports says most store-issued credit cards carry interest rates much higher than you would pay on other cards. If you are in the habit of paying the balance in full, each month, it's not really an issue.

      Often retailers will offer an attractive discount of 15% or so on whatever you happen to be buying if you apply for their card on the spot. While that might be tempting if you are making a very large purchase, consumers should guard against opening too many credit card accounts because of the potential negative impact it can have on credit scores.

      Sporting goods retailer Dick's Sporting Goods is relaunching its Rewards of Sport Credit Cards, issued by Synchrony Bank.The company said it would cont...
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      Sorting out options for repaying your student loans

      CFPB publishes Payback Playbook to guide borrowers

      At last estimate, about 43 million Americans – mostly young – owed student loans totaling more than $1.3 trillion.

      Paying back that money has strapped many consumers, just at the time they are forming households and should be making key purchases, such as homes and cars.

      What is important for these borrowers to understand is that they have options when it comes to paying back the money. There is no one-size-fits-all payment plan.

      Payback Playbook

      To help student loan borrowers understand their range of options, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has assembled a Student Loan Payback Playbook, a set of disclosures that can guide borrowers to finding a payment plan that minimizes financial stress.

      CFPB Director Richard Cordray says millions of borrowers are falling behind on their student loan debts, probably unaware that federal law gives them the right to an affordable payment. Working with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and others, Cordray says the CFPB developed a way to make sure student loan servicers provide personalized information to each borrower.

      “This will help these borrowers take action, stay on track, and steer clear of financial distress,” Cordray said.

      The Department of Education has several repayment plans that afford student loan borrowers with tailor payments that work within their monthly budgets. For example, one plan lets borrowers specify their own payments, based on income.

      High default rates

      Despite the availability of these repayment options, many borrowers continue to struggle. The CFPB says 25% of student loan borrowers are either behind on their payments or are in default.

      The agency believes that part of the problem is a lack of awareness among borrowers that they have options. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that 70% of direct federal loan borrowers in default had incomes low enough to qualify for reduced monthly payments.

      The Playbook evolved from work begun last year to reform student loan servicing practices. In particular, the CFPB would like to enlist servicers in the effort to help borrowers understand their options, since there is already an established relationship.

      The CFPB has taken regulatory action against some companies for alleged illegal student loan servicing practices.

      This isn't the CFPB's first effort to inform borrowers of their rights. Last year the agency announced its Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) plan to allow five million more direct loan borrowers to cap their monthly student loan payment amount at 10% of monthly discretionary income.

      The REPAYE Plan was an upgrade of the original Pay As You Earn Plan, while extending its protections to all student borrowers with direct loans.

      At last estimate, about 43 million Americans – mostly young – owed student loans totaling more than $1.3 trillion.Paying back that money has strapped m...
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      Why San Francisco real estate is so expensive

      Sky high prices have displaced even fairly high income residents

      San Francisco has always been an expensive real estate market. Lots of people want to live there.

      But in the last five years, San Francisco has gotten to be unaffordable for most people. The Home Value Forecast, produced by Pro Teck Valuation Services, explored some of the reasons.

      It found that, as the economy recovered from the Great Recession, San Francisco created 500,000 new jobs. These were the kinds of jobs politicians like to call “good jobs.” Mostly involving technology, they command big salaries.

      At the same time, the Great Recession and resulting housing crash resulted in a plunge in home building activity in the region, where land is at a premium. So a half-million new jobs and almost no expansion in housing inventory when supply and demand is way out of balance.

      That's resulted in a housing market where the average home lists for $1.2 million, and there is no shortage of buyers.

      Long commute

      The Forecast recounts the tale of one San Francisco worker who could barely afford a one-bedroom apartment in the metro area. Instead, he rented a two-bedroom apartment in Las Vegas, Nev., commuting to San Francisco four days a week. He estimates his savings at $1,124 per month.

      Urban planners are concerned about what this is doing to the character of the city, not to mention the practical question of where the city's vital workers, who don't command high six-figure salaries, are going to live.

      “Gentrification, or the influx of capital and higher-income, higher-educated residents into working-class neighborhoods, has already transformed about 10% of Bay Area neighborhoods,” writes the Urban Displacement Project, at the University of California Berkley.

      Widespread displacement

      Its authors found displacement was forcing residents to move out of 48% of Bay Area neighborhoods because prices had gotten too high. It said these neighborhoods were about evenly divided between low income enclaves and those populated by moderate to high-income residents.

      The Home Value Forecast reports many of these displaced residents, who work in San Francisco, are moving to Antioch, Calif. For most, it means a daily one-way commute of more than one hour, landing it on the list of the 50 worst commutes in America.

      Real estate marketplace Zillow recently reported that housing markets that provide the best opportunities for advancement – places like San Francisco and Seattle – are now unaffordable for low income consumers who could benefit most.

      In two thirds of the metros that Zillow measured, renters had to spend more of their income on rent than the historical average. In major job markets like the Bay Area, New York, and Los Angeles, it takes 40% of the median income to pay the median rent.

      It's worse in Los Angeles, where he median worker has to spend nearly half of their income on rent.

      San Francisco has always been an expensive real estate market. Lots of people want to live there.But in the last five years, San Francisco has gotten t...
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      Economy creeps along in early 2016

      Growth has slowed considerably

      The economy was sputtering in the first three months of the year, slowing even further from the anemic performance in the final quarter of 2015.

      The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reports real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the value of the goods and services produced by the nation’s economy -- increased at an annual rate of 0.5% in the first quarter of 2016. GDP grew at an annual rate of 1.4% the previous three months.

      This first-quarter “advance estimate” is based on sources that are incomplete or subject to further revision.

      The first quarter growth rate was the result of contributions from consumer spending, residential fixed investment, and state and local government spending. Those were partly offset by declines in nonresidential fixed investment, private inventory investment, exports, and federal government spending. Imports -- a subtraction in the calculation of GDP -- increased.

      The slowdown in the rate of GDP growth came from a larger decrease in nonresidential fixed investment, a deceleration in consumer spending, a downturn in federal government spending, a rise in imports, and larger decreases in private inventory investment and in exports. Those declines were partly offset by an rise in state and local government spending and an acceleration in residential fixed investment.

      GDP inflation and savings

      The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, rose 0.3% in the January-March period, down 0.1% from the fourth quarter. Excluding food and energy prices, the “core” measure of GDP inflation was up 1.4%, versus a 1.0% advance in the prior three months.

      Personal saving, which is disposable personal income less personal spending -- was $712.3 billion in the first quarter, compared with $678.3 billion in the fourth. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 5.2%, a gain of 0.2% from the final three months of last year.

      The full report is available on the BEA website.

      Jobless claims

      First-time applications for state unemployment benefits were on the rise last week.

      The Department of Labor (DOL) reports initial jobless claims were up by 9,000 in the week ending April 23 to a seasonally adjusted 257,000. The previous week's level was revised up by 1,000 -- from 247,000 to 248,000.

      This marks 60 consecutive weeks of initial claims below 300,000, the longest streak since 1973.

      The four-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, fell 4,750 to 256,000 -- the lowest level since December 8, 1973.

      The complete jobless claims report is found on the DOL website.

      The economy was sputtering in the first three months of the year, slowing even further from the anemic performance in th...
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      Stile Products expands recall of Tern folding bicycles

      The bike’s frame can crack at the hinge on the top tube

      Stile Products of Lakewood, Calif., is expanding its earlier recall of Tern folding bicycles to 220. About 175 were recalled in June 2013.

      The bike’s frame can crack at the hinge on the top tube, posing a fall hazard.

      The company has received four reports of incidents of the frame hinge cracking, resulting in minor scrapes, bruises and one sprained shoulder.

      This recall involves Eclipse S11i and Verge S11i, X10, X20 and X30h models of Tern brand folding bikes. The 24-inch wheel Eclipse model was sold in a silver/black color combination. The 20-inch wheel Verge models were sold in silver/black, orange/white, red/black and yellow/grey color combinations.

      “Tern” is printed on the front end of the top tube and on portion of the frame. The model name is printed on the middle of the top tube. The frame has a 10-character alphanumeric serial number that begins with AM1A or from AM1102 through AM1208. The serial number is stamped on the bottom bracket shell of the bike.

      The bicycles, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold authorized Stile/Tern dealers nationwide from January 2012, to April 2016, for between $1,800 and $3,000.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop riding the bicycle and contact Stile Products or take the bike to an authorized dealer. Consumers will receive a free frame and have it installed at no cost.

      Consumers may contact Stile Products toll-free at (888) 570-8376 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (PT) Monday through Friday or online at www.ternbicycles.com and click on Product Alerts at the bottom of the page for more information.

      Stile Products of Lakewood, Calif., is expanding its earlier recall of Tern folding bicycles to 220. About 175 were recalled in June 2013. The bike...
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      IKEA, safety regulators blasted over third death of a child killed by a falling dresser

      After two previous deaths, IKEA and the feds declined to issue a recall

      IKEA and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) should immediately recall IKEA MALM dressers that have been involved in the deaths of three children, consumer groups said today. In a letter to CPSC Chairman Elliot Kaye, the groups urged the safety agency to take strong, immediate action to better protect children from the tip-over hazard.

      The Philadelphia Inquirer last week reported the February death of Theodore "Ted" McGee, 22 months. He died in his Apple Valley, Minnesota, home when the MALM dresser in his room tipped over on him -- the third confirmed tip-over death from MALM dressers. His parents thought he was napping.

      "They didn't hear the dresser fall," attorney Alan Feldman said, the Inquirer reported. "They didn't hear Ted scream."

      In July 2015, the CPSC and IKEA launched a repair and education campaign for the dressers that included a wall-anchoring kit for the dressers, but they did not recall them. 

      The repair program affected 27 million dressers, including seven million MALM models. It's not known how many consumers actually obtained the anchoring kits. 

      CPSC Chairman Elliott Kaye said he agrees that more needs to be done.

      "Without commenting on any specific case, companies are on notice that even if there has been a public announcement about a remedy to address a dangerous product, the company must take every possible step to prevent further harm. This is especially the case when a child dies," Kaye said in a statement. "Companies need to move fast and work with us on a comprehensive plan that offers their customers every necessary measure required for the sake of safety. I expect companies to truly put safety first, period.”

      Dangers well known

      It's not as though the dangers of the dresser are unknown.

      In February 2014, a two-year-old boy from West Chester, Pa., died after a MALM 6-drawer chest tipped over and fatally pinned him against his bed. Then, in June 2014, a 23-month old child from Snohomish, Wash., died after he became trapped beneath a three-drawer MALM chest that tipped over. Neither chest had been secured to the wall.

      At the time of the 2015 recall, IKEA and the CPSC said they had also received 14 reports of tip-over incidents involving MALM chests, resulting in four injuries. Since 1989, IKEA said it was aware of three additional reports of deaths from tip-overs involving other models of IKEA chests and dressers.

      An attorney for one of the victim's families has started a website highlighting the dangers of unanchored furniture. 

      Every 24 minutes

      A child dies every two weeks and a child is injured every 24 minutes in the U.S. from furniture or TVs tipping over, according to CPSC data. The danger was highlighted in a recent ABC News report.

      “To learn that a tipping IKEA Malm dresser killed yet another child, when the company and the CPSC chose not to do a recall after the first two deaths, is beyond heartbreaking – it is unacceptable,” the groups wrote.

      Besides failing to recall the dressers, the CPSC and IKEA failed to inform consumers that the MALM dressers do not meet a voluntary safety standard agreed to by the furniture industry.

      The standard -- ASTM F2057-14 -- requires that each open dresser drawer be able to withstand a 50-pound weight without the dresser tipping over.

      Might have survived

      "At less than 2 years old, it is unlikely the child in the most recent death weighed more than 50 pounds. Had the dresser complied with industry standards, he may have survived," the groups said.

      “We urge the CPSC to take further action and deem this compliance action a recall,” the groups added. “We recommend a stop sale of the type of furniture that was involved in deaths and that does not meet the ASTM standard, as well as refunds for consumers who want them. For those who want to anchor the furniture, IKEA should develop a program to provide an incentive for consumers to anchor their furniture.”

      The groups signing the letter are Kids In Danger (KID), Consumer Federation of America (CFA), Consumers Union, and the National Center for Health Research.

      IKEA and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) should immediately recall IKEA MALM dressers that have been involved in the deaths of three chi...
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      Apple earnings raise questions about smartphone future

      Will consumers keep upgrading now that they have to pay the full cost?

      Apple shocked Wall Street this week by reporting its first quarterly earnings drop in 13 years. Sales and revenue were down, along with profits.

      Of course, when you are talking about Apple these days, you are mostly talking about the iPhone, which has become the iconic company's principal product. In the U.S., the iPhone makes up about half the smartphone market.

      But in what some see as a troubling sign, iPhone sales in the latest quarter were down 16%; the cause is mostly blamed on slowing sales in China. However, Apple's troubles may have less to do with its global marketing efforts than how U.S. consumers are reacting to changes in the smartphone market.

      When smartphone makers, like Apple, were posting solid quarterly sales increases year after year, the system was a little different. If you were a customer of one of the major cellphone carriers, you didn't directly pay the full cost when you purchased a new device.

      Smartphone subsidies

      It was standard in the industry for the carrier to “subsidize” the cost, by selling the newest iPhone or Android device for $199 or less. They were willing to do that because it locked customers into a two-year contract. To repay the company for picking up part of the cost of the phone, consumers had to pay for cell service for two years.

      After two years, consumers were on a month-to-month basis with the cellphone company, free to cancel at any time with no early termination fee. However, they were encouraged to upgrade to the very latest smartphone for a subsidized price, triggering the start of another two year contract.

      In 2014 major carriers began moving to a different business model. The big profit was in selling data. They revised monthly plans and began phasing out the phone subsidies.

      Paying the full price

      Now, consumers pay the full price of a phone – either in a lump sum up front or on a payment plan over 18 months to two years. They can cancel their contracts at any time but would have to pay the balance owed on the phones, so the system has the same effect as the old two-year contract.

      Carriers are doing quite well with this arrangement, but it remains to be seen what impact it will have on smartphone manufacturers. When consumers have to pay the full price for a new iPhone, will they be as willing to upgrade every two years? The Apple earnings report could be seen as evidence that they are not.

      Smartphone developers like Apple may also be victims of their own success. Both iPhone and Android devices are highly sophisticated, with high-quality cameras and lightning-fast processors.

      How much better can they get? And if they don't significantly raise the technology bar, will consumers be motivated to spend $600 to buy one, when their current phone seems to be just fine?

      Apple shocked Wall Street this week by reporting its first quarterly earnings drop in 13 years. Sales and revenue were down, along with profits.Of cour...
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      Court finds Amazon liable for unauthorized in-app charges

      It's a case that's very similar to the FTC's action against Apple

      When a child uses an app to charge things to Amazon without permission, the liability is Amazon's, not the parents'.

      That's the conclusion of a U.S. District Court judge who sided with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in its complaint against the online retail giant.

      Amazon operates an Appstore in which customers can view and download apps to use on Android mobile devices or Kindle Fire tablets. These apps can take many forms. Some include functions that allow users to play games, watch movies, or read books. Some are free while some charge per download.

      Source of confusion

      The FTC got involved because it said the evidence showed consumers had difficulty understanding which apps involved charges and which were completely free. Confusion arose in particular, the FTC claimed, when consumers downloaded free apps and then made purchases while using them – charges known as “in-app purchases.”

      For example, the court found a child using a “free” app might be prompted to use money – which might appear imaginary and part of the game – to buy things. In reality, the court found, they were spending real money.

      The judge in the case also found that Amazon received complaints from parents about these in-app purchases, claiming they were unauthorized. The court ultimately found Amazon' disclosures about free apps potentially carrying charges were not sufficient.

      Full refunds?

      “We are pleased the federal judge found Amazon liable for unfairly billing consumers for unauthorized in-app purchases by children,” FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, said in a statement. “We look forward to making a case for full refunds to consumers as a result of Amazon’s actions.”

      What remains to be determined is exactly how much in the way of refunds Amazon will be required to provide.

      Several years ago, Apple found itself in a similar situation over precisely the same practice. In 2013 it agreed to settle a class action lawsuit over unauthorized in-app purchases, paying out a total of $100 million.

      The settlement required Amazon to compensate parents whose children charged $30 or less, but all the parents didn't actually receive cash. Instead of getting their money back, parents with an iTunes account received $5 in iTunes store credit. Parents who did not have an iTunes account got $5.

      Provisions were made to parents whose children ran up more than $30 in charges, but the parents were required to produce documentation of the charges.

      When a child uses an app to charge things to Amazon without permission, the liability is Amazon's, not the parents'.That's the conclusion of a U.S. Dis...
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      Wells Fargo agrees to pay $8 million in 11-year-old West Virginia lawsuit

      The suit accused insurance broker Acordia of improper marketing practices

      Wells Fargo has agreed to settle a West Virginia lawsuit that dates all the way back to 2005. The company will pay $8 million to settle allegations made against Acordia, an insurance broker that was acquired by Wells Fargo in 2001.

      The suit was originally filed by then-West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw; it charged Acordia with favoring certain insurance carriers over others to the detriment of consumers. The lawsuit stated consumers were directed towards choosing these carriers “regardless of whether the insurers provided the best cost, coverage and financial security for the client,” according to Business Insurance report.

      Before the lawsuit was filed in 2005, the Attorney General’s office launched a probe to gather information and evidence of any wrong-doing.

      According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, investigators found that brokers and insurance companies had made arrangements for secret “contingent commissions,” wherein the insurance carriers would pay extra money to brokers in order to have clients directed towards their companies; these secret commissions allegedly earned brokers millions in extra fees.

      $8 million settlement

      Wells Fargo denies any wrong-doing in connection to this case, but has agreed to pay $8 million to the Office of the Attorney General on the state’s behalf.

      Current West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced the settlement on Monday, citing it has a victory for citizens of West Virginia.

      “I take very seriously my office’s obligation to protect citizens from questionable marketing practices,” he said. “This settlement is yet another example demonstrating that commitment.”

      A copy of the settlement can be viewed here.

      Wells Fargo has agreed to settle a West Virginia lawsuit that dates all the way back to 2005. The company will pay $8 million to settle allegations made ag...
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      Survey finds college students credit card knowledge lacking

      Two-thirds who have credit cards carry a balance each month

      In many cases, young people have their first experience with credit cards when they go off to college. Some handle the experience better than others.

      Lendedu, a student loan marketplace, recently quizzed college students at three different four-year institutions about their credit card knowledge. The results suggest that colleges would do well to add a few personal finance courses to the curriculum.

      Off the bat, the survey found that only 38.46% of the students it polled have a credit card in their own name. That means the rest either do not have a credit card or, more likely, use a card that is in their parents' name. As a result, these students never see a credit card bill and have less accountability.

      The survey found only 9.44% of students knew the interest rate on their credit card. If you paid off your account in full each month, you would have no real need to know the rate. But the survey shows that, unfortunately, this is not the case.

      Two-thirds carry a balance

      A full two-third of students – 67.78% – carry a balance on their credit card, exposing them to mounting debt, in addition to any student loans they might have. Perhaps because so many students carry a balance, a fairly large percentage – 58.89% – knew precisely the credit limit on their card.

      Not all students have credit cards, and the survey takers wondered why not. Forty-three percent said they had considered applying for a credit card, but had not done so.

      Almost the same number admitted the reason they had not applied was the fear they would run up too much debt.

      CARD Act

      In years past, college freshmen were bombarded with credit card offers as soon as they moved into their dorms. In 2009, Congress passed the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act.

      The Card Act enacted a number of reforms, including curbs on credit card marketing efforts targeting college students. Students still get credit cards but are under much less pressure to do so.

      A credit card can be a useful financial tool if used properly. A rule of thumb is to never charge anything you can't pay for at the end of the month. If you pay the bill in full, you start each billing cycle with a clean slate and won't accumulate debt.

      Several credit cards are specifically designed for people who are new to credit, with forgiving features to keep consumers out of trouble. We recently profiled three cards that could be good choices for students who are considering a credit card.

      In many cases, young people have their first experience with credit cards when they go off to college. Some handle the experience better than others.Le...
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      Two gains in a row for pending home sales

      Only the West region saw a decline

      Pending home sales maintained their upward momentum in March, posting their second consecutive monthly advance.

      The National Association of Realtors (NRA) reports its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), which is based on contract signings, climbed 1.4% to 110.5 -- its highest level in almost a year and 1.4% above its March 2015 level. The PHSI has now increased year-over-year for 19 straight months and is at its highest reading since May 2015.

      “Despite supply deficiencies in plenty of areas, contract activity was fairly strong in a majority of markets in March,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “This spring’s surprisingly low mortgage rates are easing some of the affordability pressures potential buyers are experiencing and are taking away some of the sting from home prices that are still rising too fast and above wage growth.”

      Regional performance

      • In the Northeast the PHSI rose 3.2% in March to 97.0 and is now 18.4% above a year ago.
      • In the Midwest the index inched 0.2% higher to 112.8 in March and is 4.0% above March 2015.
      • Pending home sales in the South rose 3.0% for an index reading of 125.4. However, it remains 0.6% lower than last March.
      • The index in the West dipped 1.8% in March to 95.3, and is now 7.9% lower than a year ago.
      Pending home sales maintained their upward momentum in March, posting their second consecutive monthly advance.The National Association of Realtors (NR...
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      Mortgage applications post first decline in four weeks

      Contract interest rates were up slightly

      After rising for three consecutive weeks, applications for mortgages have taken a turn downward.

      The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports a 4.1% decline in applications for the week ending April 22.

      The Refinance Index fell 5% from the previous week, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity down 1.0% to 54.4% of total applications.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity rose to 5.2% of total applications, The FHA share surged to 12.3% from 10.6%, the VA share of total applications dipped from 12.6% to 12.2%, and the USDA share of total applications was unchanged at 0.8%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) inched up two basis points -- from 3.83% to 3.85%, with points increasing to 0.35 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) rose to 3.78% from 3.77%, with points increasing to 0.30 from 0.25 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA was up two basis points to 3.66%, with points decreasing to 0.26 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 from 3.06% to 3.09%, with points increasing to 0.37 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs jumped nine basis points to 3.02%, with points decreasing to 0.14 from 0.26 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

      After rising for three consecutive weeks, applications for mortgages have taken a turn downward. The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports a 4...
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      New special interest group aims to steer self-driving regulations towards complete autonomy

      A human at the wheel -- who needs it? Industry group wants autonomous cars to be driver-free

      The standing joke in Washington is that if there's something called, say, Americans for Clean Water, it's probably a front group for industries that pollute the water.

      So it's not too surprising that a new group called the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets is made up of Ford, Volvo, Google, Uber, and Lyft, all eager to get driverless cars rolling down the nation's highways and byways.

      The companies say they want "to work with lawmakers, regulators, and the public to realize the safety and societal benefits of self-driving vehicles."

      Heading this supposed safety-first group is none other than David Strickland, former head of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). He is perhaps best known for helping cut the secret deal between the NHTSA and Chrysler that recalled millions of fire-prone Jeep Cherokees blamed for nearly 300 deaths, a recall derided by critics as one of the most ineffective ever.

      "This is the recall that Chrysler never wanted to do and will never do right. As far as Fiat-Chrysler is concerned Jeeps can continue to crash and burn until they are all off the road," Center for Auto Safety director Clarence Ditlow said recently in a letter to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and current NHTSA head Mark Rosekind.

      Strickland, you may recall, "retired" from the NHTSA a short time after the deal was worked out in a meeting room at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in 2014, following Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood out of "public service" and into the lucrative world of log-rolling and public affairs.  

      Cut off California 

      The goal of the coalition, it says, is to have a single set of federal rules covering self-driving cars. In other words, it wants to short-circuit a California rule that would require driverless cars to, at the very least, have a brake pedal and steering wheel so that a human being could take over in the event the self-driving system goes whacko. 

      California also requires that a licensed driver be in the car while it is rolling down the road, a provision tat Uber and Lyft are thought to despise. 

      "The best path for this innovation is to have one clear set of federal standards and the coalition will work with policymakers to find the right solutions that will facilitate the deployment of self-driving vehicles," said Strickland.

      Strickland joined the D.C. legal powerhouse Venable, which public records indicate had billed Chrysler $1.1 million for lobbying services in recent years. Federal law requires most top executive branch officials to wait two years before they can lobby their old agency, a measure that then-Sen. Barack Obama called "the most sweeping ethics reform since Watergate" when it was enacted during the Bush Administration.

      The NHTSA, meanwhile, is expected to release its self-driving recommendations to states, policymakers, and companies in July, presumably with prodding from Strickland's group. 

      The standing joke in Washington is that if there's something called, say, Americans for Clean Water, it's probably a front gr...
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      Concerns over the connection between concussions and long-term health problems continue to grow

      Studies continue to show the link between concussions, brain injury and disease, and high impact sports

      The link between concussions and high-impact sports like football is becoming, leading to growing concerns at the professional level, not only over the health of players currently in the game but also for those who have already retired.

      In a recent study from Boston University (BU), researchers examined the brains of deceased NFL players and found that 90 out of 94 (95.7%) of them showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a progressive degenerative brain disease that is most commonly found in individuals who have sustained multiple concussions and other types of brain trauma.

      According to the CTE Center at BU, these repetitive trauma incidents can wear away brain tissue and cause a protein called tau to build up in the brain, a substance that has been linked to dementia symptoms in Alzheimer’s patients. These changes may take effect months, or even years, after injuries have been sustained, but they have been associated with issues such as memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and progressive dementia.

      Serious issue at all levels

      Detractors may point out that these trauma incidents are bound to happen at the professional level since these athletes compete and practice on a consistent basis over the course of many years. However, studies show that changes in the brain can happen over much shorter periods of time and at much lower levels of competition.

      A study published in 2014, which was presented at the 82nd Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, found that it took as little as one year of playing high school football for brain changes to be observable.

      For the study, 45 high school football players were given an MRI before the start of their season and after it was over. During the season, researchers utilized the Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS) to record the total number of impacts and the risk weighted cumulative exposure (RWE) for each player.

      After examining all of the data, researchers noted that there were measurable brain changes that indicated signs of mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI). Perhaps the most prominent finding of the study was that these brain changes were evident despite other clinical findings or reported concussions.

      Repeated findings

      While one study does not prove a causal link, this research added to the growing amount of literature that seeks to connect brain injury and illness with high contact sports. A more recent study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma attempts to do the same thing.

      Using a similar methodology to the previous study, researchers from the UT Southwestern Medical Center collected data from high school football players who wore specially designed helmets that recorded impacts from practice and games. Players were also given multiple MRIs and took additional cognitive tests to measure changes before and after the football season.

      While members of the research team admit that their results would need to be validated by further study, their conclusions are strikingly similar to the previously mentioned study.

      “Our findings add to a growing body of literature demonstrating that a single season of contact sports can result in brain changes regardless of clinical findings or concussion diagnosis,” said Dr. Joseph Maldjian, senior author of the study.

      Taking crucial steps

      While the results may seem repetitive or contrived to some, the researchers recognize that these tests and studies may be a crucial step towards fixing a major problem.

      “Studies like this are important to understand how and where long-term damage might be occurring, so that we can then take the necessary steps to prevent it,” said Dr. Elizabeth Davenport, first author of the study.

      The link between concussions and high-impact sports like football is becoming, leading to growing concerns at the professional level, not only over the hea...
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      Childhood obesity rates continue to climb, study finds

      Researchers say that severe obesity, in particular, is on the rise

      Despite signs that healthier eating habits have been emerging amongst millennials in recent years, it seems that obesity rates are still very high. That’s the takeaway from a new study conducted by researchers at the Duke Clinical Research Institute.

      Most alarmingly, the researchers have found that childhood obesity rates are increasing, a conclusion that contrasts with other reports that state the opposite.

      “Despite some other recent reports, we found no indication of a decline in obesity prevalence in the United States in any group of children aged 2 through 19. . . This is particularly true with severe obesity, which remains high, especially among adolescents,” said Dr. Asheley Skinner, associate professor at Duke and lead author of the study.

      Severe obesity on the rise

      Dr. Skinner and her colleagues came to their conclusions after analyzing data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES), a compilation of U.S. statistical data that covers decades of information. The researchers found that roughly a third (33.4%) of children between the ages of two and 19 were classified as “overweight” for the 2013-2014 reporting period. From that number, 17.4% were classified as obese.

      These numbers closely mirror findings from the last reporting period between 2011 and 2012, but Skinner notes that one disheartening increase was in the number of children classified as being “severely obese.”

      Someone with severe obesity is classified as having a body mass index (BMI) number of 35 or higher. For the 2012-2014 reporting period, 6.3% of overweight children fell into this category – which is also designated as class II obesity. Another 2.4% of children fell under class III obesity, which is a designation for those who have a BMI of 40 or higher.

      “An estimated 4.5 million children and adolescents have severe obesity and they will require new and intensive efforts to steer them toward a healthier course. . . Studies have repeatedly shown that obesity in childhood is associated with worse health and shortened lifespans as adults,” said Skinner.

      Time for improvement

      Skinner and her team admit that there are limitations to their study, but assert that using data from the NHANES is a more accurate gauge of obesity rates than the metrics that other studies have used to show that obesity rates have declined.

      The researchers want to make it clear that their work is not meant to put people into despair about the state of childhood obesity. Instead, it should serve as a jumping-off point for future improvement.

      “We don’t want the findings to cause people to become frustrated and disheartened. . . This is really a health problem that will require changes across the board – food policy, access to health care, school curriculums that include physical education, community and local resources in parks and sidewalks. A lot of things put together can work,” said Skinner.

      The full study will be published in the journal Obesityon April 26. 

      Despite signs that healthier eating habits have been emerging amongst millennials in recent years, it seems that obesity rates are still very high. That’s ...
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      Two infant formula makers accused of falsely labeling products 'organic'

      Formulas by the Honest Co. and Earth's Best contain violations of USDA organic standards

      New mothers are often highly concerned with what goes into their child's body, and buying organic products can be one way to help assuage that concern. But some companies’ baby and toddler-focused products may not be as organic as their labels claim.

      Two infant formula makers are being accused of falsely labeling products as “organic.” The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) has filed suit against the Hain Celestial Group (owner of the Earth’s Best formula brand) and The Honest Co.

      The companies are accused of labeling certain “organic” products that contain ingredients prohibited under the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OPPA).

      Violates USDA standards

      Eleven substances not deemed organic by federal law were found in The Honest Co.’s Premium Infant Formula. Over half of the 48 ingredients in Hain Celestial’s Earth’s Best Organic Infant Formula violate USDA Organic Standards. Non-organic ingredients were also found in other Earth’s Best products (including Organic Infant Formula, Organic Soy Infant Formula, Organic Sensitivity Infant Formula, and Organic Toddler Formula).

      The OCA’s international director, Ronnie Cummins, says it’s an especially fitting time to call out the violation of USDA organic standards, as leaders of the organic industry are meeting this week at the Spring National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to discuss organic standards.

      “No one is more concerned about food labels and ingredients than new mothers responsible for feeding infants whose immune systems and brain development are so underdeveloped and vulnerable,” Cummins said in a statement, adding that mothers rely on truthful labeling.

      The consumer advocacy group says the goal of the lawsuit is to force the two companies to either comply with USDA organic standards or stop calling their products “organic.”

      Approved methods

      What is and isn’t “organic” has been a contentious issue lately. According to the USDA, the labeling term should indicate that the food has been produced through approved methods.

      The agency states that cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that “promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity” should apply to a product before it’s labeled organic.

      New mothers are often highly concerned with what goes into their child's body, and buying organic products can be one way to help assuage that concern. But...
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      Why it's really hard to gauge where oil prices are going

      It's not just supply and demand -- financial markets are also playing a big role

      Motorists have been enjoying reasonably-priced gasoline for over a year now and probably don't care about, or pay much attention to, the daily fluctuations in the price of oil.

      But that price, and whether its long-term trend is up or down, will have a lot to do with whether a fill-up becomes a painful experience once again.

      Lately, oil prices have been moving higher, well off their recent lows but a far cry from the $100 a barrel producers routinely got just a couple of years ago. After bottoming at around $27 per barrel, oil is now back above $40, even though there is plenty of oil to turn into motor fuel.

      But why would the price of oil go up when, from all indications, there is more supply than refiners know what to do with? Because the oil futures market is setting the price, and investors have been betting lately that two things will happen in the future – demand will increase and producers will pump less oil.

      Betting on oil

      If that happens, the supply and demand ratio will be more in balance and oil will sell for a higher price. Since markets are future oriented, big money is pouring into oil-related investments ahead of time, betting those assets will quickly rise in price.

      But the movement of that money, and the momentum it carries, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. More traders buying oil futures will bid up the price. As the price rises, more investors become convinced that the price will rise even more, so more money chases oil, resulting in still higher prices.

      In 2008 oil traders bid the price of oil to over $120 a barrel, only to see it crash a few months later during the financial crisis. Unfortunately, consumers who need gasoline are whipsawed by this kind of market price action.

      Reality intrudes

      While the momentum on Wall Street appears to be building – and make no mistake, Wall Street wants higher priced oil – reality seems ready to intrude. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that a proprietary industry report shows oil stockpiles at the main U.S. terminal at Cushing, Okla., is growing, not shrinking as many believed. That caused an immediate drop in oil prices.

      But consumers in many parts of the country are seeing sharp increases at the gas pump, largely because the gasoline market has been following oil prices higher. The AAA Fuel Gauge Survey shows the national average price of self-serve regular is up just three cents a gallon in the last week.

      But the statewide average is up six cents a gallon in Illinois and nine cents a gallon in neighboring Indiana.

      What's clear, however, is that the world has plenty of oil at the moment to meet its needs. How much, exactly, is hard to know because there are so many different sources and not all are transparent.

      Gasoline prices are still low by recent standards but remain hostage to a turbulent oil market. Supply and demand should keep them that way for some time to come, but there are plenty of market forces that will do their best to keep them going higher.

      Motorists have been enjoying reasonably-priced gasoline for over a year now and probably don't care about, or pay much attention to, the daily fluctuations...
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      Goldman Sachs moves into online savings accounts

      Investment maker acquires consumer banking operation from GE Capital

      Goldman Sachs is a banking name closely associated with Wall Street, not Main Street. As an investment banker, its primary business has long been trades, investing, and facilitating deals.

      But the venerable institution is suddenly moving in a new direction, offering a savings account that requires as little as $1 to open.

      Actually, it isn't Golden Sachs, itself, that is going after consumer deposits. It's the online deposit platform of GE Capital Bank (GECB) that it has recently acquired. But the parent company makes clear that it is eager to get into consumer banking.

      “We are committed to providing our new online deposit customers the high level of service they have come to expect,” said Esta Stecher, CEO of GS Bank.

      $16 billion in deposits

      Goldman Sachs closed on the acquisition, including taking over about $16 billion in customer deposits after clearing federal regulatory hurdles, as well as winning approval from the New York State Department of Financial Services and the Utah Department of Financial Institutions.

      “This transaction increases the funding diversification and strengthens the liquidity profile of Goldman Sachs and GS Bank,” Robin Vince, Treasurer of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., said in a release. “We are pleased to add the capability for accepting online deposits, a strategic priority for the firm and for GS Bank.”

      The online savings account currently pays 1.05% APY on deposits. While there is no minimum deposit to open the account, there are limits on how much customers may deposit.

      Interest compounded daily

      Interest on deposits is compounded daily and paid monthly. Depositors may access funds multiple ways but are limited to six withdrawals per statement cycle. Money can be accessed online, by phone or by wire.

      Deposits can be made the same way or with the old school method of mailing a check.

      GS Bank is chartered in New York and is a wholly-owned, direct subsidiary of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. Like a traditional bank, its deposits are FDIC insured up to $250,000.

      Goldman Sachs is a banking name closely associated with Wall Street, not Main Street. As an investment banker, its primary business has long been trades, i...
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      Half of all new car models meet or exceed fuel efficiency targets, analysis finds

      Mazda won fuel-sipping honors with every one of its models meeting or exceeding federal standards

      Automakers are doing their part to meet tougher fuel efficiency standards, with more than half of new vehicles meeting or exceeding federal targets, according to an analysis by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA).

      “Fuel efficiency increasingly comes standard with new cars, trucks, and SUVs” said the CFA's Jack Gillis. “Even if you’re in the market for a large pickup or SUV, you’d have to go out of your way to find a true gas guzzler.”

      Mazda took fuel sipping honors this year, with every Mazda model meeting or beating the fuel efficiency target for its vehicle class, a first-ever achievement for an automaker that relies on internal combustion engines. In previous years, only the electric carmaker Tesla offered a full line-up of models that were all above the standard.

      CFA analyzed 1,094 models of cars, SUVs, and light trucks and found 56 percent meet national mileage standards, making 2016 the third year in a row that more than half of all models meet or beat the national standards.

      Mileage ratings are averaged across all models from a single manufacturer, so while some cars and trucks may exceed the standards, others that achieve better results will help the carmaker meet the standards on an average basis.

      13% get more than 30 mpg

      CFA found that highly efficient models achieving more than 30 mpg in on-road tests continue to proliferate, making up 13.4% of available models this year, up from 11.7% last year. In 2008, only 1% of vehicle models achieved 30 mpg or more.

      The CFA says this is good news for consumers, citing a survey conducted in March that found broad support for greater fuel efficiency. The survey by ORC International found that despite current low gas prices, 81% of consumers said gas mileage will be an important consideration next time they go shopping for a new car. The same percentage said they support federal fuel economy standards.  

      “It’s no surprise that fuel efficiency is still a top priority as consumers have had a long history with volatile gas prices,” said Gillis

      Automakers are doing their part to meet tougher fuel efficiency standards, with more than half of new vehicles meeting or exceeding federal targets, accord...
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      Consumer confidence dips in April

      Expectations for the months ahead have soured

      Expectations for the economy in the months ahead have dimmed, sending The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index lower in April.

      After posting a modest increase in March, the Index dipped 1.9 to 94.2. While the Present Situation Index rose from 114.9 to 116.4, the Expectations Index dropped from 83.6 to 79.3 in April.

      “Consumers’ assessment of current conditions improved, suggesting no slowing in economic growth,” noted Lynn Franco, director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “However, their expectations regarding the short-term have moderated, suggesting they do not foresee any pickup in momentum.”

      The current situation

      Consumers’ appraisal of current conditions improved somewhat, with those who think business conditions are “good” dipping from 24.9% to 23.2%. At the same time, those who see business conditions as “bad” declined as well -- from 19.2% to 18.1%.

      Their appraisal of the labor market was mixed as well. Those who believe jobs are “plentiful” fell from 25.4% to 24.1%, while those saying jobs are “hard to get” also dropped from 25.2% to 22.7%.

      Looking ahead

      Consumers were less optimistic about the short-term outlook in April than they were last month. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months decreased from 14.7% to 13.4%, while those expecting them to worsen rose to 11.0% from 9.5%.

      The outlook for the labor market was also less favorable. Those who anticipate more jobs in the months ahead slipped from 13.0% to 12.2%, while those who think there will be fewer jobs edged up from 16.3% to 17.2%.

      The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to increase dropped 1.0% to 15.9%; those expecting to see their incomes go down also declined -- from 12.3% to 11.2%.

      The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was April 14.

      Expectations for the economy in the months ahead have dimmed, sending The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index lower in April.After posting a m...
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      Home prices rise in February -- but at a slower rate

      Thirteen of 20 cities saw a slower pace of appreciation

      Home values across the U.S. posted year-over-year and month-over-month gains in February.

      However, the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index (HPI) shows the rate of increase was slowing.

      Year-over-Year

      The National HPI, covering all nine U.S. census divisions, recorded a 5.3% annual gain in February, the same as in January. The slowdowns came in the 10-City Composite, which was up 4.6%, compared with January's advance of 5.0% from the same month in 2015.

      Additionally, the 20-City Composite’s year-over-year gain was 5.4%, versus 5.7% the month before. Among those 20 cities, Portland (+11.9%), Seattle (+11.0%), and Denver (+9.7%) posted the biggest year-over-year gains. Seven cities reported greater price increases in the year ending February 2016 than in the year ending January 2016.

      ”Home prices continue to rise twice as fast as inflation, but the pace is easing off in the most recent numbers,” said David M. Blitzer, managing director and chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices.

      “The year-over-year figures for the 10-City and 20-City Composites both slowed and 13 of the 20 cities saw slower year-over-year numbers compared to last month.”

      Month-over-month

      Before seasonal adjustment, the National HPI posted a gain of 0.2% month-over-month in February, with the 10-City up just 0.1% and the 20-City Composite posting a 0.2% increase. After seasonal adjustment, the National HPI recorded a 0.4% month-over-month increase.

      The 10-City Composite was up 0.6% and the 20-City Composite reported a 0.7% month-over-month increase. Fourteen of 20 cities reported increases in February before seasonal adjustment; after seasonal adjustment, only 10 cities increased for the month.

      “The slower growth rate is evident in the monthly seasonally adjusted numbers,” Blitzer noted, pointing out that six cities, "experienced smaller monthly gains in February compared to January, when no city saw growth." Among the six were Seattle, Portland OR, and San Diego, all of which were very strong last time.

      Home values across the U.S. posted year-over-year and month-over-month gains in February. However, the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index (...
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      CRF Frozen Foods recalls frozen vegetables

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      CRF Frozen Foods of Pasco, Wash., is recalling fifteen frozen vegetable items.

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      The following items, sold in plastic bags and marked with Use By Dates located on the back of the package, are being recalled:

      LabelSizeItemUPCUse By Date
      True Goodness By Meijer10 oz.Organic Petite Green Peas71373343099911/26/2017
      True Goodness By Meijer10 oz.Organic White Sweet Corn71373343098211/21/2017
      Wellsley Farms Organic4 lb.Organic Mixed Veg88867001013610/25/2017
      Wellsley Farms Organic4 lb.Organic Green Peas8886700099702/10/2018
      Wellsley Farms Organic4 lb.Organic Green Peas8886700099702/15/2018
      Wellsley Farms Organic4 lb.Organic Green Peas8886700099703/17/2018
      Organic By Nature - Canada2.5 kg.Organic Green Peas84635800061910/22/2017
      Organic By Nature - Canada2.5 kg.Organic Green Peas84635800061912/3/2017
      Organic By Nature - Canada2.5 kg.Organic Green Peas8463580006193/16/2018
      Organic By Nature4 lb.Organic Green Peas84635800069510/25/2017
      Organic By Nature5 lb.Organic Green Peas8463580006332/15/2018
      Organic By Nature5 lb.Organic Veg Medley w/ Shelled Edamame8463580006572/11/2018
      Organic By Nature4 lb.Organic White Supersweet Corn84635800070111/19/2017
      Organic By Nature5 lb.Organic White Supersweet Corn8463580006409/13/2017
      Schwan's16 oz.Organic SS Yellow & White Cut Corn0072180604332B5320

      The recalled products were distributed to retailers and distribution centers between September 13, 2015, and March 16, 2016, in the following states:  

      • Alabama
      • Arizona
      • California
      • Colorado
      • Connecticut
      • Delaware
      • Florida
      • Georgia
      • Idaho,
      • Illinois
      • Indiana
      • Louisiana,
      • Maryland
      • Massachusetts
      • Michigan
      • Minnesota
      • Missouri
      • Montana
      • Nevada
      • New Hampshire
      • New Jersey
      • New York
      • North Carolina
      • Ohio
      • Oregon
      • Pennsylvania
      • Rhode island
      • South Carolina
      • Tennessee
      • Utah
      • Vermont
      • Virginia
      • Washington
      • West Virginia
      • Wisconsin
      • The Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

      They may be redistributed in other states nationwide

      What to do

      Customers who purchased these products should not consume them, but return them to the store where purchased for a refund, or simply discard them.

      Consumers with questions may call 844-551-5595 Monday through Friday, 8:00 am to 5:00 pm (PST).

      CRF Frozen Foods of Pasco, Wash., is recalling fifteen frozen vegetable items. The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes ...
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      Lawsuit challenges Volvo's claim that its T8 SUV will go all day without gas

      In fact, the lead plaintiff says, he could go only 8 to 10 miles on a single charge

      Volvo claims its T8 SUV plug-in hybrid will "enable you to commute daily without using any gas" when operated in electric-only mode. "Travel at speeds of up to 75 mph and fully charge in about four hours," the Volvo website promises.

      But a class action suit charges that the claims are false. Volvo owner Xavier Laurens says he "has become a victim of a classic bait and switch."

      Laurens thought he would be able to drive 25 miles before switching over to gas. But after he waited eight months for the Volvo to arrive, he found he could only get 8 to 10 miles on the battery before he had to switch to gas -- a "far cry" from driving all day, according to his lawsuit.

      Laurens says he paid $18,300 more for the T8 than for an otherwise identical all-gas vehicle, thinking he would save money on gas by using the electric motor most of the time. But he claims the only way he could even come close to achieving Volvo's claims was to drive 40 miles per hour on the freeway with all the car's safety systems disabled.

      Reduced capacity

      "As a result of this reduced electric battery capacity, Plaintiff is unable to complete his daily commute or everyday tasks without using the gasoline engine, which prevents plaintiff from obtaining the cost saving effects of foregoing gasoline for local trips and the environmental benefits of operating solely on electricity," the 19-page lawsuit states, according to Courthouse News Service.

      The proposed class includes anyone who bought or leased a 2016 Volvo XC90 TD8. 

      Volvo claims its T8 SUV plug-in hybrid will "enable you to commute daily without using any gas" when operated in electric-only mode. "Travel at speeds of u...
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      There are big differences between rewards credit cards

      Choose the one that best rewards your spending patterns

      There are many rewards credit cards to choose from, and some rewards are better than others. But do you know how much better some are?

      The personal finance website CardHub.com recently calculated what cardholders stand to get over a two year period, then did a side-by-side comparison. Over that two year period, the study found an $800 difference between the best and worst rewards.

      According to the authors, Capital One offers the best credit card rewards program, with a score 49% higher than last place finisher TD Bank. The difference between the two programs is $812 over two years.

      Capital One offers two Quicksilver rewards cards – the Quicksilver Card for excellent credit and the Quicksilver One Card for just average credit.

      The Quicksilver Card for excellent credit provides unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase. In addition, there is a one-time $100 bonus if you spend $500 on purchases within the first three months.

      The Quicksilver One Card is almost as rewarding. It has the same unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase but lacks the $100 bonus. It also charges a $39 annual fee while there is no fee with the Quicksilver Card.

      By way of comparison, the TD Bank Visa Credit Card pays a $100 bonus when you spend $500 in the first 90 days. It also pays 2% on purchases from local delis, fast food restaurants, and coffee shops, as well as casual restaurants and fine dining, plus 1% on all other eligible purchases.

      Most rewarding for travel

      How you use your rewards can also make a difference in the benefits. For example, the study found using Capital One rewards for travel produced 54% more value than using the points for merchandise.

      Ease of use for rewards is sometimes a major factor. The study found Discover has the most consumer-friendly redemption policies; Fifth Third Bank has the most restrictive policies.

      The authors offer some advice for choosing a rewards card. They say to start with identifying where you tend to spend the most money and to find a card that rewards that particular activity. For example, if you rarely eat out, don't choose a card that weights its rewards toward restaurant spending.

      Consider a card's earning potential, but don't overlook the redemption value. Both are important. Look for a nice balance between the two.

      If you are not particularly detailed-oriented, choose a card with the fewest hassles. If you are undecided about which rewards suit you best, go with cash back. It's usually hard to beat cash.

      Finally, don't overlook annual fees. Choosing a card with no annual fee will put you ahead. Paying an annual fee will cut into any rewards you might gain.

      There are many rewards credit cards to choose from, and some rewards are better than others. But do you know how much better some are?The personal fina...
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      Consumers caught between saving and credit card debt

      Survey finds increase in both savings and credit card balances

      The latest financial literacy survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) and BECU credit union has two main take-aways – consumers are trying to save more and are carrying larger credit card balances.

      Those two things are ultimately in conflict, and, sooner or later, one has to give way to the other.

      The online survey of 1,600 adults by the Harris Poll found 26% of consumers say they are trying to save more money this year, a slight improvement over the year before. In all, 69% said they are setting aside money each month in a non-retirement account. That's the same level as in 2013.

      Those savings, however, are at risk from too much credit card debt. A little over 10% of the consumers in the survey said they roll over $2,500 in credit card debt each month. That's up 3% from the year before.

      “Personal savings is the foundation for a stable financial future,” said Susan C. Keating, president and CEO of the NFCC.

      But Keating notes that that foundation gets weaker when debt becomes unmanageable and balances are maintained for months and years on end.

      Benson Porter, President and CEO of BECU, says he's encouraged by the slight uptick in U.S. savings rates but says the persistent credit card debt is troubling and a sign that there is more work to do.

      According to the Federal Reserve's latest G.19 report on consumer credit, revolving debt – which includes credit card debt – rose sharply in the fourth quarter of last year and posted a $3 billion increase in February.

      The latest financial literacy survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) and BECU credit union has two main take-aways – consumers are ...
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      Feds have safety concerns about Boeing 787 GE engines

      New jet recently forced to land with only one working engine

      The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued an airworthiness directive (AD) for the Boeing 787-8 and 787-9 airliners powered by General Electric (GE) GEnx-1B engines.

      The agency said it is taking the step to “reduce the likelihood of engine damage due to fan ice shedding.”

      The AD revealed that a Boeing 787 Dreamliner reported a recent in-flight incident in which an engine fan blade rub event caused an engine to shut down while the plane cruised at 20,000 feet. The nature of the power loss did not allow the flight crew to restart the engine.

      The plane has only two engines, but the flight crew was able to land safely, using the single working engine.

      Urgency of the issue

      “The urgency of this issue stems from the safety concern over continued safe flight and landing for airplanes that are powered by two GEnx-1B PIP2 engines operating in a similar environment to the event airplane,” the FAA said.

      The agency said it is concerned that both GEnx-1B PIP2 engines could suffer damage at the same time, essentially turning the jumbo jet into a glider. The potential for this to happen, the FAA said, classifies the problem as “an urgent safety issue.”

      There are 43 Boeing 787s in service in the U.S. The FAA directive does not cover international airlines, but it is common practice for them to follow directives from the American flight agency.

      Newest jetliner

      The Dreamliner is the latest Boeing jetliner; it is built with lightweight materials to give it greater range and fuel efficiency. The plane received final certification in August 2011 and entered service with its first commercial customer, All Nippon Airways, in October of that year.

      The Boeing 787 launch has not exactly been a smooth one. In January of 2013, the FAA grounded Dreamliners operating in the U.S. while it investigated problems with its lithium-ion batteries.

      Two incidents involving 787s operating in Japan released flammable electrolytes, resulting in heat damage and smoke. The FAA warned that these conditions could result in damage to critical systems, such as fire in the electrical compartment.

      In the case of the latest AD, the FAA has not ruled out that some 787s could be grounded. However, Boeing says it is working with GE to resolve the issue.

      The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued an airworthiness directive (AD) for the Boeing 787-8 and 787-9 airliners powered by General Electric (...
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      New home sales edge lower in March

      The decline was largely the result of a sales plunge in the West

      Sales of new single-family houses fell in March due mainly to a slump in the West, but the news wasn't all bad.

      While sales dipped 1.5% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 511,000, the Commerce Department revised its February figures to show an annual sales rate of 519,000 -- 7.000 more than it initially reported. And, even with the decline, the March sales pace was 5.4% above March 2015.

      Despite the March sales slip, the National Association of Home Builders isn't concerned. According to Chief Economist Robert Diet, "We expect the sales pace to rise through 2016, given ongoing low mortgage interest rates and healthy job creation."

      Price and inventory

      The median sales price -- the point at which half the homes are sold for more and half for less -- was $288,000, a drop of $9,400 from February and a year-over-year decline of $5,400.

      The average sales price was $356,200, up $14,100 from the previous month and a gain of $3,500 from March 2015.

      There were 246,000 new houses for sale at the end of last month, representing a supply of 5.8 months at the current sales rate.

      Regional sales

      • The only sales decline in March came in the West, but it was a big one -- a drop of 23.6% from February and a year-over-year slump of 20.7%.
      • Sales in the Northeast were unchanged from February but up 30.0% from March 2015.
      • In the South, sales posted a 5.0% monthly gain and advanced 15.4% from the same month last year.
      • In the Midwest, sales jumped 18.5% on a month-over-month basis and rose 10.3% from the previous year.

      The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      Sales of new single-family houses fell in March due mainly to a slump in the West, but the news wasn't all bad.While sales dipped 1.5% to a seasonally ...
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      Toyota recalls model year 2016 Siennas

      Incorrect front seat belt height adjusters may have been installed

      Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 234 model year 2016 Toyota Siennas manufactured February 15, 2016, to February 19, 2016.

      Incorrect front seat belt height adjusters may have been installed that may contact the B-pillar and tear or separate during a crash.

      Failure and detachment of seat belt height adjuster would result in the occupant not being properly restrained in a crash, increasing the risk of injury.

      What to do

      Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front seat belt height adjusters, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin April 30, 2016.

      Owners may contact Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331. Toyota's number for this recall is G0H.

      Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 234 model year 2016 Toyota Siennas manufactured February 15, 2016, to February 19, 2016.   Inco...
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      68 Kmart and 10 Sears stores closing -- is yours included?

      The company hopes the latest round of closing will help it return to profitability

      Sears and Kmart stores have been sort of fading into the woodwork for the last few years, but now Sears Holdings is stepping up the pace. The company says it will close 68 Kmart and 10 Sears stores this summer, hoping to return to profitability by eliminating less profitable locations.

      "The decision to close stores is a difficult but necessary step as we take aggressive actions to strengthen our company, fund our transformation and restore Sears Holdings to profitability," said Edward S. Lampert, Chairman and CEO of Sears Holdings. "We're focusing on our best members, our best categories and our best stores as we work to accelerate our transformation."

      Liquidation sales will begin at Kmart stores May 12 and at Sears on April 29 ahead of late July closures.
      The company didn't say how many jobs would be lost but said eligible workers would receive severance and can apply for open positions at area Kmart or Sears stores. "We are committed to treating these associates with respect and compassion during this process," said Lampert.

      The 78 closures will leave about 1,500 Sears and Kmart stores. Here is the complete list of closings, as provided by Sears Holdings. 

      STREET ADDRESS

      CITY

      STATE

      Kmart

      5980 Chalkville Mountain

      Birmingham

      AL

      Kmart

      1101 Beltline Road

      Decatur

      AL

      Kmart

      230 Green Springs Hwy

      Homewood

      AL

      Kmart

      450 Z Schillingers Road

      Mobile

      AL

      Kmart

      300 West Mariposa Road

      Nogales

      AZ

      Kmart

      2270 East El Monte Way

      Dinuba

      CA

      Kmart

      520 S Cherokee Lane

      Lodi

      CA

      Kmart

      1475 Hillman Street

      Tulare

      CA

      Kmart

      2785 Highway 46

      Wasco

      CA

      Kmart

      44 Providence Pike

      Putnam

      CT

      Kmart

      9600 San Jose Blvd

      Jacksonville

      FL

      Kmart

      500 Atlantic Blvd

      Neptune Beach

      FL

      Kmart

      1809 Byron Butler Parkway

      Perry

      FL

      Kmart

      7050 S Pulaski

      Chicago

      IL

      Kmart

      2721 N Vermillion Street

      Danville

      IL

      Kmart

      1150 W Carl Sandburg Dr

      Galesburg

      IL

      Kmart

      17355 Torrence Ave

      Lansing

      IL

      Kmart

      2909 Court St

      Pekin

      IL

      Kmart

      3840 46th Ave

      Rock Island

      IL

      Kmart

      3216 E Third Street

      Bloomington

      IN

      Kmart

      3525 Grantline Rd

      New Albany

      IN

      Kmart

      1320 E 30th Ave

      Hutchinson

      KS

      Kmart

      1809 N Dixie Hwy

      Elizabethtown

      KY

      Kmart

      4025 Poplar Level Rd

      Louisville

      KY

      Kmart

      3911 Taylorsville Rd

      Louisville

      KY

      Kmart

      1581 US 68 South

      Maysville

      KY

      Kmart

      344 North Mayo Trail

      Paintsville

      KY

      Kmart

      2985 Cottingham Expwy

      Pineville

      LA

      Kmart

      10 Main Street

      Tewksbury

      MA

      Kmart

      8171 W Houghton Lake Dr

      Houghton Lake

      MI

      Super K*

      21111 Van Born Rd

      Taylor

      MI

      Kmart

      11978 St Charles Rock Rd

      Bridgeton

      MO

      Kmart

      1930 E Kearney Street

      Springfield

      MO

      Kmart

      118 Highway 72 West

      Corinth

      MS

      Kmart

      2424 Central Ave

      Billings

      MT

      Kmart

      804 N Broad Street

      Brevard

      NC

      Kmart

      3580 East Franklin

      Gastonia

      NC

      Kmart

      2750 Roberts Avenue

      Lumberton

      NC

      Kmart

      10500 Centrum Parkway

      Pineville

      NC

      Kmart

      720 Sutter Creek Blvd

      Rocky Mount

      NC

      Kmart

      3001 West 12th

      Hastings

      NE

      Kmart

      838 South Road

      Poughkeepsie

      NY

      Kmart

      3049 W Ridge Rd

      Rochester

      NY

      Super K

      3315 N Ridge E

      Ashtabula

      OH

      Kmart

      1705 North Barron Street

      Eaton

      OH

      Kmart

      1825 North State Route 19

      Fremont

      OH

      Kmart

      2250 Harding Hwy

      Lima

      OH

      Super K*

      5350 Leavitt Road

      Lorain

      OH

      Kmart

      625 West Central Avenue

      Springboro

      OH

      Kmart

      2660 Constitution Blvd

      Beaver Falls

      PA

      Kmart

      8800 Frankford Ave

      Philadelphia

      PA

      Kmart

      3000 McIntyre Square Dr

      Pittsburgh

      PA

      Kmart

      1775 S Braddock Avenue

      Pittsburgh

      PA

      Kmart

      3045 Fifth Street Hwy

      Reading

      PA

      Kmart

      99 Matthews Drive

      Uniontown

      PA

      Kmart

      2209 West Dekalb

      Camden

      SC

      Kmart

      1000 18th St SW

      Huron

      SD

      Kmart

      2210 Broadway Avenue

      Yankton

      SD

      Kmart

      1802 Decatur Pike

      Athens

      TN

      Kmart

      945 McCammon Ave

      Maryville

      TN

      Kmart

      902 S Main Street

      Sweetwater

      TN

      Kmart

      11330 Montwood Dr

      El Paso

      TX

      Kmart

      1405 East Expressway 83

      Mission

      TX

      Kmart

      210 SE Georgia Ave

      Sweetwater

      TX

      Kmart

      1055 East Draper Pkwy

      Draper

      UT

      Kmart

      610 West Price River Dr

      Price

      UT

      Kmart

      1442 W 90th South

      West Jordan

      UT

      Kmart

      1275 Bell Avenue

      Hartford

      WI

      Sears

      700 Quintard Dr

      Oxford

      AL

      Sears

      600 S University Ave

      Little Rock

      AR

      Sears

      9501 Arlington Expy

      Jacksonville

      FL

      Sears

      5953 W Park Ave

      Houma

      LA

      Sears

      6810 Eastman Ave

      Midland

      MI

      Sears

      200 Medley Centre Parkway

      Irondequoit

      NY

      Sears

      60 Smithfield Blvd

      Plattsburgh

      NY

      Sears

      1377 Marion Waldo Rd

      Marion

      OH

      Sears

      101 Clearview Cir

      Butler

      PA

      Sears

      2500 W State St

      New Castle

      PA
      Sears and Kmart stores have been sort of fading into the woodwork for the last few years, but now Sears Holdings is stepping up the pace. The company says ...
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      Consumers cautioned about 'living trust mills'

      Minnesota AG warns that living trust mills are often used as a pretense to sell insurance

      With so many Baby Boomers reaching retirement age, living trusts have become a hot topic. Do you need one? Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has some advice: be careful.

      “You should steer clear of 'living trust mills,' which hold themselves out as estate planning specialists but churn out boilerplate documents for a high fee, all to get their foot in the door to sell you annuities or insurance products later on that might not be suitable for your needs,” Swanson writes on her web site.

      She says people pushing living trusts are often nothing more than insurance agents, or people working for insurance agents. They may charge you a lot of money for a boilerplate trust, but their real aim, Swanson says, is to make an even bigger sale later on.

      A living trust is a legitimate estate planning tool. Like a will, it is created while you are still alive. It allows you to transfer assets to the trust and, if done properly, may transfer those assets to heirs without going through probate.

      According to the American Bar Association, a living trust is revocable, which makes it very flexible. You, or someone you appoint, manages the assets in the trust. Assets may be bought or sold but always remain in the name of the trust.

      Complex legal document

      The problem, says Swanson, is that a living trust is a complex legal document and a one-size-fits-all approach won't work very well. To set up a living trust, she suggests working with an experienced attorney.

      Unfortunately, that's not how many consumers get drawn into the process. Swanson says living trust mills work by usually making initial contact by phone or by mail.

      The target may be invited to a “free dinner” to hear a presentation. At the event, the “expert” scares his audience with horror stories about what will happen if you die without a living trust.

      Swanson says the expert will next try to book as many in-home appointments with audience members as possible. During those visits he will collect extensive financial information about his potential client, working to earn his or her trust.

      Swanson says he may eventually try to sell an over-priced living trust, but she says that isn't the real objective. Once he has a complete financial picture of his potential client, then and only then does the real pitch emerge – an annuity or insurance policy.

      A lot to consider

      “Annuities are complex products,” Swanson says. “If you move your money from another product, you may have to pay fees or penalties. Some long-term annuities may lock up your money for more than ten years, subjecting you to penalties if you need to access your money for living expenses.”

      She says annuities may also have complicated interest-crediting provisions. That, she says, could lead to confusion about benefits.

      Swanson's advice? Avoid living trust mills and, if you are considering an annuity or insurance policy, take some time to think it over and discuss it with family, friends, or an experienced investment professional you trust.

      With so many Baby Boomers reaching retirement age, living trusts have become a hot topic. Do you need one? Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has some...
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      Ways to be a more eco-friendly pet parent

      Collars made out of bike tires are one way to go greener

      April 22 is Earth Day: a day in which we’re reminded that our fragile planet needs to be treated kindly. Our actions, even the small ones, can go a long way toward preserving our natural resources.

      Following the “reduce, reuse, recycle” rule is one way to help the planet, but pet owners can take their green consciousness a step further by opting for more eco-friendly pet supplies.

      Reducing your pup’s carbon “paw” print can be as simple as choosing pet supplies made by companies with an environmental conscience. You might pay a little more for eco-friendly pet products, but that little extra can go a long way toward helping our planet.

      Here are a few green pet supplies that can help you on your mission to become a greener pet parent.

      Recycled bike tube collars

      Cycle Dog makes pet collars, toys, and other pet supplies out of old bike tubes. Buying a product from this company can help prevent bike tubes from ending up in landfills (millions end up there each year).

      The company was started in 2009 by Lanette Fidrych, who collected tubes from bike shops and started sewing them in her home. In addition to being eco-friendly, Fidrych’s rubber-backed collars don’t get smelly the way some other collars do.

      Bamboo training pads

      The Green Pet Shop focuses on reusing products with the goal of diverting waste from landfills. Larry Wright, president and CEO of the company was first inspired by the idea that “even small acts of environmental kindness can add up.”

      Wright believes that even the most mundane aspects of pet parenting -- like housebreaking -- can be done in an environmentally conscious fashion. Bamboo training pads are one way to go a little greener as bamboo is a highly sustainable source. The Green Pet Shop also offers bamboo bowls made of compressed bamboo and rice husks.

      Sustainable litter

      Cat owners can help the planet by making some changes to their litter routine, both in how they dispose of cat litter and what supplies they choose to purchase.

      It’s important not to flush cat litter; the waste runoff can carry toxoplasma (most often found in outdoor cats), which has been linked to the deaths of sea otters and wildlife. Throwing litter waste into the trash or composting are two of the best way to dispose of it.

      It can also be beneficial to switch from clay-based litter to one that is more sustainable and biodegradable. Biodegradable litter trays, such as the Kat Pak, can also be purchased.

      Finally, you can buy local. A pet food bowl made by a local artist, for example, can be better for the environment as it uses far fewer transportational resources. 

      April 22 is Earth Day: a day in which we’re reminded that our fragile planet needs to be treated kindly. Our actions, even the small ones, can go a long wa...
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      Flying Tiger Copenhagen recalls wooden toys

      Parts of the wooden toys can become detached, posing a choking hazard

      Flying Tiger Copenhagen of New York is recalling about 1,000 wooden toy blocks and giraffes.

      Parts of the wooden toys can become detached, resulting in small pieces that can pose a choking hazard to young children.

      No incidents or injuries are reported

      This recall involves Flying Tiger Copenhagen wooden blocks and wooden giraffe toys. The Twist & Lock blocks were sold in a combination of blue, green and yellow and red, pink and yellow. Item number 1701354 is printed on the packaging for the blocks.

      The Twist & Lock giraffe toys were sold in pink and red combination and a yellow and orange combination. Item number 1701493 is printed on the packaging for the giraffe.

      The toys, manufactured in China, were sold at Flying Tiger Copenhagen in New York from November 2015, through December 2015, for about $3.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately take the recalled toys from young children and return the products to Flying Tiger Copenhagen for a full refund.

      Consumers may contact Flying Tiger Copenhagen toll-free at 844-350-0560 from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday or online at www.flyingtiger.com and click on “Product Recalls” at the bottom of the page.

      Flying Tiger Copenhagen of New York is recalling about 1,000 wooden toy blocks and giraffes. Parts of the wooden toys can become detached, resultin...
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      Toyota recalls RAV4s, Lexus RX350s and Lexus ES350s

      The vehicles' ABS actuator may have a damaged O-ring

      Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 16,656 model year 2016 Toyota RAV4s manufactured October 30, 2015, to February 3, 2016; 2016 Lexus RX350s manufactured October 26, 2015, to February 8, 2016, and 2016 Lexus ES350s manufactured September 1, 2015, to February 29, 2016.

      The vehicles are equipped with an ABS actuator that may have a damaged O-ring which could result in improper brake fluid pressure control during ABS, Traction Control, or Stability Control activation. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 126, "Electronic Stability Control Systems."

      Insufficient brake fluid pressure may cause a loss of vehicle control, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the brake actuator, replacing it as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin June 5, 2016.

      Owners may contact Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331. Toyota's number for this recall is G0I, GLC.

      Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 16,656 model year 2016 Toyota RAV4s manufactured October 30, 2015, to February 3, 2016; 2016 Lexus RX...
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      RZR recreational off-highway vehicles recalled

      The recalled vehicles can catch fire while being driven

      The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Polaris Industries of Medina, Minn., are recalling about 133,000 Polaris Model Year 2013-2016 RZR 900 and RZR 1000 recreational off-highway vehicles (ROVs).

      The recalled ROVs can catch fire while consumers are driving, posing fire and burn hazards to drivers and passengers.

      The company has received more than 160 reports of fires, resulting in the death of a 15 year old passenger from a rollover that resulted in a fire, and 19 reports of injuries, including first, second and third degree burns.

      What to do

      CPSC and Polaris warn consumers to stop using the recalled vehicles immediately and contact their Polaris dealer for a free repair. Polaris has agreed to suspend sale of all recalled vehicles until they are repaired.

      Consumers may contact Polaris at 800-POLARIS or 800-765-2747 from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Saturday and Sunday or online at www.polaris.com and click on “Off-Road Safety Recalls” on the main page of the Polaris website to see if their RZR ROV's VIN number is included in this recall.

      The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Polaris Industries of Medina, Minn., are recalling about 133,000 Polaris Model Year 2013-2016 RZR 90...
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      VW expected to buy back its 500,000 cars to settle dirty diesel scandal

      Owners of the cars might also get a cash payment of $5,000 for their time and trouble

      [UPDATE 4/21]: As expected, Volkswagen will fix or buy back about 500,000 "clean diesel" cars that contain software intended to fool emissions test equipment. 

      U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said VW has agreed to offer affected owners several options, including a buyback, cancellation of their lease or, possibly, modification of their car. Consumers will also receive "substantial compensation."

      The option have the cars repaired relies on federal and state approval of VW's proposal to fix or replace the software that returns deceptively readings when the TDI diesels are undergoing emissions tests. Neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor the California Air Resources Board has yet approved any of VW's proposed fixes. 

      VW has also agreed to establish a fund to help clean up environmental damage caused by the excess nitrogen oxide emitted by the cars. The company will also be required to commit funds to promote green vehicle technologies, the judge said.

      Volkswagen called the agreement an "important step" in regaining public trust.

      ---

      Volkswagen is expected to buy back roughly 500,000 diesel-powered cars from U.S. consumers under the terms of a settlement expected to be announced today, at a cost estimated at $7 billion. The German automaker, which has set aside $10 billion to resolve the issue, also faces federal and state fines that could total billions more.

      “This is VW's first major step toward resolving its diesel issue, though it still needs to be approved and may fall short of regulatory requirements," said Kelley Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer. "It's also a very costly solution, particularly given how much the company has already lost in terms of market value and sales."

      But Brauer, like most industry analysts, said it's a necessary step for the company, which has seen a huge drop in its stock price and a sharp decline in sales. "VW has to address this issue before it can move forward,” Brauer said.

      The buyback plan may mollify environmentalists, who have been calling for just that. Sierra Club California Chapter Director Kathryn Phillips said in March that 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.

      Even though it is the most extreme of several proposed options, the buyback plan isn't likely to please everyone. After all, some consumers might want to keep their cars, flawed though they may be. Others will no doubt quibble with the price and demand payment for their time and trouble.

      On that issue, Germany's Die Welt newspaper reported that the deal would involve VW paying each affected customer $5,000, in addition to buying back the car.

      Can't be modified easily

      The buyback, however, is seen as an admission by VW that the software that deceives emissions testing machines is so integral to the operation of the car that it can't be modified or removed without adversely affecting fuel economy, performance, or both.

      VW hinted at the massive buyback Wednesday when it said that no trial will be needed to hear the claims of consumers who have brought suit against the company.

      VW has a court date today before U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer in San Francisco and Breyer has made it clear he plans to schedule a trial for this summer if VW does not have a proposal that satisfies federal and state agencies as well as the plaintiffs in thousands of lawsuits that have been consolidated in his court.   

      Last month, Breyer told VW he wants a "concrete proposal" by today. He said 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.

      Volkswagen is expected to buy back roughly 500,000 diesel-powered cars from U.S. consumers under the terms of a settlement expected to be announced today, ...
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      Two proteins may be responsible for dementia in Alzheimer's patients

      The study is the first two definitively link both proteins to cognitive decline

      Researchers are still working hard when it comes to understanding how Alzheimer’s disease works, and that commitment may be beginning to pay off. A study conducted at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute may have uncovered the driving force behind the disease’s signature symptom – the development of dementia.

      For a while now, scientists have suspected that dementia developed in Alzheimer’s patients because of the presence of two proteins, called amyloid and tau, respectively. However, they were uncertain about which protein, if either, was the driving force behind the dementia symptom. It turns out that it may be both.

      A study has found that both amyloid and tau work in tandem to create toxic effects that lead to brain damage. It is the first piece of definitive evidence that connects the two proteins to cognitive damage sustained by otherwise cognitively intact individuals.

      Challenging previous theories

      While the build-up of amyloid and tau proteins can be dangerous on their own, the researchers found that their ability to cause harm was increased when they were together.

      “We specifically found that both proteins mutually enhance their individual toxic effects and cause a brain dysfunction considered to be a signature of [Alzheimer’s disease]. This finding challenges previous polarized theories that a single protein abnormality was the major driving force of disease progression,” said Dr. Pedro Rosa-Neto, lead scientist of the study.

      The researchers came to their conclusions after analyzing 120 cognitively intact individuals over a two-year period. Participants had their amyloid and tau levels monitored for the duration of the study. Based on the changing levels that the researchers observed, they were able to see how the proteins reacted with each other and then predicted which participants were the most likely to suffer brain damage as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.

      New therapies

      The researchers believe that their discovery may help in the development of new, more effective therapeutic approaches that target both proteins in the brain.

      “Until now, therapeutic clinical trials have targeted a single pathological process. Our result paves the way for new therapeutic strategies for prevention or stabilization of [Alzheimer’s disease]. For example, combination therapies should be used simultaneously against both amyloid and tau protein accumulation,” said Dr. Tharick A. Pascoal, lead author of the study.

      The full study has been published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

      Researchers are still working hard when it comes to understanding how Alzheimer’s disease works, and that commitment may be beginning to pay off. A study c...
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      Walgreens settles overcharging complaint with New York

      Retailer left expired sale prices on store shelves

      Walgreens is getting a stern reprimand from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who says the drug store giant and its subsidiary, Duane Reade, overcharged New York consumers.

      Schneiderman said he has obtained a settlement with Walgreens, requiring the company to pay $500,000 and reform its advertising practices.

      Schneiderman said there were cases when consumers purchased items at Walgreens, finding one price marked on the store shelf but being changed to another when they got to the register.

      Michael Zucker, Director of Change to Win Research Initiatives, a New York consumer group, said Walgreens failed to provide the staffing and systems needed to accurately price its products.

      “We’ve seen these deceptive practices in a number of other states, costing consumers and violating the public trust,” Zucker said in a release.

      The complaint

      Schneiderman said a statewide investigation found that Walgreens published ads with sale prices and listed the sale prices on store shelves next to the items. However, he said when consumers took the items to the checkout counter, they paid more because the sale price had expired.

      He also said the company listed a product as a “great buy,” when the sale price was the regular price for the item. Other issues in the complaint were suggestions that an item was marked down for clearance for a short time, when in fact it remained on store shelves for eight to 10 months; stores also implied that an item provided an immediate cash discount, when in fact the discount applied only on a future purchase.

      Schneiderman says the investigation also determined that the company failed to tell consumers, in clear and consistent language, how its loyalty incentive program works. He said the company website had two different charts regarding point redemption.

      There are approximately 251 Walgreens and 214 Duane Reade stores in New York State.

      Walgreens is getting a stern reprimand from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who says the drug store giant and its subsidiary, Duane Reade, ove...
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      First-time homebuyers worry about their credit scores

      With tighter mortgage underwriting standards, a good credit score has never been more important

      Shopping for a home is a pretty intimidating process, but a new report from Experian suggests that it is often even more so for today's first-time homebuyer.

      It's hard enough to save for a down payment. Beyond that, however, the survey found that many consumers approaching the buying process for the first time worry about their credit score.

      There may be good reason to worry. In the wake of the collapse of the housing market, mortgage underwriting standards have tightened considerably. Lenders are demanding higher scores from buyers than ever before.

      In the Experian survey, 34% of would-be buyers expressed worry that their credit score might hurt their chances to obtain a loan. Another 45% said they would put off a home purchase to give themselves more time to raise their credit score.

      "Your credit profile is one of the factors that can have a substantial impact on securing a home loan because it is used by lenders as an indicator of your financial health," Rod Griffin, director of Public Education at Experian, said in a release. "Consumers planning to purchase a home should check their credit scores and reports to see where they stand.”

      Once consumers know their score, they pretty much know where they strand. From there, they can develop a financial plan that results in obtaining a mortgage.

      Also determines interest rate

      What many would-be buyers don't realize is that a credit score not only determines whether you will get a loan, it also determines the interest rate you will pay. An excellent credit score will usually qualify a borrower for the best rate.

      According to Bankrate.com, a credit score of 740 or above will qualify you for the best rates. A score below 620 not only makes it less likely that you'll get a loan, but will saddle you with the highest interest rate.

      The difference between the best and worst mortgage rate can be a swing of 1.5%. In terms of dollars and cents, on a $150 mortgage, that can mean a difference of $135 in the monthly payment, adding up to an extra $1,620 per year.

      How to improve your credit score

      If you are trying to improve your credit score so you can go home shopping, Fair Isaac, the company that produces credit scores, says there are three important things you can do:

      Check your credit report: You can get a free copy at www.annualcreditreport.com. Download a copy from all three credit reporting agencies and check it for accuracy. If there are errors – and there can be – you'll need to get the information corrected.

      Pay your bills on time: One of the biggest influences on your credit score is how reliable you are when it comes to paying your debts. Make sure all bills get paid, in full, on time.

      Reduce your debt: If you have a large credit card balance, particularly if you have nearly maxed out your card, work on reducing it. You don't have to pay it down to zero, but the balance should not greatly increase your debt to income ratio. Showing you can manage debt will do wonders for your credit score.

      Shopping for a home is a pretty intimidating process, but a new report from Experian suggests that it is often even more so for today's first-time homebuye...
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      New car buyers shouldn't overlook fuel-efficient vehicles

      Check out these 10 options -- because gasoline prices won't stay low forever

      Gasoline is the cheapest it has been in more than a decade, and sales of SUVs and pick-up trucks are booming because of that.

      Consumers don't seem to mind if a vehicle uses more fuel when the fuel costs less.

      But new car buyers might want to take a contrarian approach here. Because so many consumers are buying less fuel-efficient cars, there is less negotiating room with the dealer.

      On the other hand, sales of high mileage, fuel efficient vehicles have fallen. That suggests that you might get a better price or more incentives when you negotiate.

      And here's something else to consider – gas prices may not stay low forever. You'll probably drive that vehicle five to 10 years; gas prices could be considerably higher for most of that time.

      Top ten fuel efficient cars

      With that in mind, and just in time for Earth Day, the folks at Kelley Blue Book (KBB) have offered up what they consider to be the top 10 fuel efficient cars – vehicles that get at least 40 miles per gallon (MPG).

      1.) 2016 Toyota Prius: The Prius paved the way for hybrids and KBB says it's still the top choice. It says the Prius is fun to drive while delivering amazing fuel efficiency.

      2.) 2016 Chevrolet Volt: While the Prius was a leader in hybrid technology, the Chevy Volt was a pioneer in plug-in technology. KBB says the car is now in its second-generation and is more efficient, more practical, and more appealing than what came before.

      3.) 2016 Tesla Model S AWD - 70D: Tesla has certainly created some buzz among consumers, with a sleek design, a giant touchscreen display, and incredible pickup for an electric. Of all the vehicles on the list, however, it comes with the second highest sticker price.

      4.) 2016 BMW i3: By the EPA's accounting, the BMW i3 is the most fuel efficient car on the road. KBB says it is even built in an earth-friendly way, in a plant powered completely by four wind turbines.

      5.) 2016 Volkswagen e-Golf: While its clean-diesel powered brethren remain in the doghouse, this electric version is winning praise for sharp handling and a European driving feel.

      6.) 2016 Kia Soul Electric: It's the electric version of Kia's popular gas-powered Soul. The electric is more expensive but, in KBB's opinion, even cooler.

      7.) 2016 BMW i8: Rated at 357-horsepower, the i8 might not seem like an economical car, but it is. It's all electric with zero emissions. It also has a lot of zeros in the price – $140,000, making it the most expensive on the list.

      8.) 2016 Toyota Mirai: The Mirai is hydrogen-powered – clean but quickly refillable. At this point, however, it may be hard to find one. KBB says availability is limited.

      9.) 2016 Toyota Camry Hybrid: The Camry Hybrid may be one of the best values on the list. It can be purchased for under $30,000 and it delivers 41 MPG – a nice combination. As a bonus, it comes with Camry's famous reliability.

      10.) 2016 Ford Focus Electric: The gas-powered Focus is one of Ford's best sellers. KBB says the electric version is simply more fun to drive than most of its competitors.

      Plenty of options

      "New-car shoppers may be surprised to learn that there are more than 30 new vehicles that achieve 40+ miles per gallon for 2016, including everything from a six-figure supercar to a sub-$14,000 hatchback,” KBB analyst Jack Nerad said in a release.

      These cars, he says, offer plenty of options for anyone thinking ahead to a time when gasoline prices might not seem like such a bargain.

      Gasoline is the cheapest it has been in more than a decade, and sales of SUVs and pick-up trucks are booming because of that.Consumers don't seem to mi...
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      Nissan recalls Muranos and Maximas

      Insufficient brake fluid pressure may lengthen the distance needed to stop the vehicle

      Nissan North America is recalling 12,616 model year 2016 Muranos manufactured December 17, 2015, to February 11, 2016, and 2016 Maximas manufactured November 25, 2015, to February 12, 2016 and equipped with an antilock braking system (ABS) and Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC).

      The ABS actuator may have a damaged O-ring that may result in a lack of brake fluid pressure, which may lengthen the distance needed to stop the vehicle, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the ABS actuator, as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin by June 4, 2016.

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

      Nissan North America is recalling 12,616 model year 2016 Muranos manufactured December 17, 2015, to February 11, 2016, and 2016 Maximas manufactured Novemb...
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      Brunton Outdoors recalls battery packs

      The power packs’ lithium ion polymer batteries can overheat and catch fire

      Brunton Outdoor Inc., of Louisville, Colo., is recalling about 1,100 rechargeable battery packs in the U.S and Canada.

      The power packs’ lithium ion polymer batteries can overheat and catch fire during charging, posing a fire hazard.

      The firm has received two reports of battery packs overheating and catching fire. One incident resulted in about $25,000 in property damage. In another, a garage burned down with property and smoke damage to the adjacent residence. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves Brunton’s Impel and Impel 2 rechargeable, portable battery packs that are used to charge cell phones, tablets, laptops and other devices. The Impel battery came in a rubberized shell in dark gray with orange or blue and the Impel 2 in light gray with black trim.

      The battery packs can be plugged into an A/C wall outlet, a 12 volt car charger or an attachable solar panel for recharging. They measure about 7.5 inches long by 7 inches wide by 1 inch thick. The lithium ion polymer battery packs have 16, and 19 volt outputs and a USB port.

      The Impel model also has a 12 volt output. Brunton is embossed on the top of the battery pack, along with the power button and five LED lights.

      The battery packs, manufactured in China, were sold at Adorama, Austin Canoe & Kayak, Moontrail, REI, The Clymb and other outdoor equipment retailers nationwide and online at www.amazon.com, www.backcountry.com, www.bhphotovideo.com, www.forestry-suppliers.com, and www.opticsplanet.com from February 2011, through May 2015, for about $300.

      What to do

      Consumers may contact Brunton Outdoor at 800-443-4871 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday or online at http://www.brunton.com/ and click on Impel Charger Product Recall the top or bottom of the page for more information.

      Brunton Outdoor Inc., of Louisville, Colo., is recalling about 1,100 rechargeable battery packs in the U.S and Canada. The power packs’ lithium ion...
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      VW says trial 'won't be necessary' after it reveals its dirty diesel fix

      A German newspaper reports that Audi engineers developed the deceptive emissions software in 1999

      Just over a month ago, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer gave Volkswagen one more month to present a plan to clean up its dirty diesel cars in a way that satisfies federal and state officials and compensates owners for their losses.

      That extra month is almost up, and Volkswagen has responded with an assertion that there will be no need for a trial on the 600 or so lawsuits that have been consolidated under Breyer's supervision, Automotive News reported.

      In the United States, defendants do not normally tell a judge whether or not to go to trial, but VW said it is confident that after it presents its plan to Breyer, there will be no need for the case to move forward. 

      Breyer has indicated in past hearings that he was losing patience with VW and was inclined to hold a trial over the summer in order to get the 600,000 VW diesels either fixed or taken off the roads.

      At an earlier hearing in his San Francisco courtroom, Judge Breyer reminded VW that with every passing day, its cars are pumping excess pollution into the air and consumers who were taken in by VW's advertising are stuck with cars they can't sell. 

      Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board have rejected previous VW plans to modify the Volkswagen diesels so that they return accurate emissions readings.

      Blame it on Audi

      In another development, the German newspaper Handelsblatt reported that engineers at Audi in 1999 developed the "defeat devices" that cut emissions readings when VW and other Volkswagen-made brands are being tested.

      The Audi engineers developed software that would turn off certain engine functions and make the cars run cleaner when they were hooked up to emissions testing machines, then turn those functions back on when the test was over. 

      Audi did not use the software itself, but when, six years later, VW engineers could not bring nitrogen oxide emissions below legal thresholds, they began installing the software developed by Audi, the newspaper said. The company did not immediately comment on the report. 

      Just over a month ago, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer gave Volkswagen one more month to present a plan to clean up its dirty diesel cars in a ...
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      A guide to selecting a checking account

      If you are new to checking, select an account that reduces exposure to overdrafts and fees

      In the past, most consumers used a checking account to manage money and pay bills. In recent years, with electronic options and a levy of bank fees, many consumers have gone without this once-indispensable tool.

      For consumers without checking accounts, but who would like to have one, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently offered some helpful tips.

      First, the CFPB advises that consumers don't just select the checking account offered by the nearest bank. For consumers who have had trouble managing money in the past, it recommends a “low-risk” account, meaning an account with few fees and, most importantly, one that won't let you spend money you don't have.

      These accounts have built-in limits that prevent you from overdrawing your account, even with checks and online bill pay. If you can't overdraw your account, you won't get hit with overdraft fees. These fees, it turns out, resulted in many consumers having their accounts involuntarily closed.

      No-overdraft account

      So the first question you should ask a bank officer when opening an account is if the bank has a no-overdraft account. Not all banks do, so if the answer is no, it is probably wise to look for another bank.

      If your banking history is problematic, you may find that a bank or credit union will deny your application to open a checking account. If that happens, the CFPB suggests that you ask for a copy of your checking account consumer report, which may contain negative information.

      Review the report to make sure the information is accurate. Sometimes there are errors. If you find errors, you can dispute them by using this sample letter.

      If you've had trouble managing a checking account in the past, you may still find services available to you at a bank or credit union. A credit union, in fact, might be a good place to start since these institutions tend to be more consumer-friendly.

      Less-risky products

      Some banks and credit unions offer checking accounts that are designed to reduce risks by reducing the likelihood of an overdraft and an expensive set of fees.

      If you meet resistance in your effort to opening a checking account, don't get discouraged. The CFPB notes that there are a growing number of alternatives that could help you ramp up. It says some banks may be willing to offer a less risky product, such as a “checkless” checking account or a prepaid card.

      The CFPB says these might prove to be good options for consumers who have had trouble in the past managing checking accounts.

      In the past, most consumers used a checking account to manage money and pay bills. In recent years, with electronic options and a levy of bank fees, many c...
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      Another reason to avoid payday loans

      A study shows that these loans usually trigger numerous bank fees

      If you take out a payday loan, you are required to pay it back in two weeks. But if you are in such a financial bind that you have to turn to a payday lender, what makes you think you'll have the money to repay the loan in just two weeks?

      Most don't, and have to take out another payday loan to pay back the first one, possibly repeating the process two weeks later. Critics of the industry call it the “cycle of debt,” and charge that most people who take out payday loans get caught in it.

      Now, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has issued a report detailing another reason to avoid these short-term loans. Not only do they carry high fees, they also tend to produce a lot of overdraft fees at the borrower's bank.

      $185 in bank fees

      When the agency studied 18 months of loans from more than 330 payday lenders, it found half of all the borrowers in the study were charged an average of $185 in bank fees, usually for overdrafts or insufficient funds.

      Here's why: when a consumer takes out a payday loan, the lender collects the borrower's bank account information so that the money can be direct deposited into his or her account. Very convenient.

      But that information also allows the lender to extract its fee from the borrower's account on the date that it is due, whether there is money in the account to cover it or not. When there isn't enough money in the account, that's what triggers the bank fee.

      The report found that repeated attempts to collect the money failed 70% of the time, triggering more fees. In 36% of the cases, the inability to pay the overdraft fees resulted in the bank closing the borrower's account.

      Repeated withdrawal attempts

      Robin Howarth, Senior Researcher at the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL), says the report illustrates how payday lenders use their direct access to borrowers’ accounts to make repeated withdrawal attempts, regardless of account balances.

      “These debits result in numerous, nonsufficient fund fees and other penalties such as bank overdraft charges on top of the already onerous interest rates assessed on the loans,” Howarth said in a statement emailed to ConsumerAffairs. “Further, unlike other consumer loans, these lack standard underwriting practices that determine a borrower’s ability to repay before loans are approved. ”

      In one of its key findings, the CFPB reported that during the 18-month study period, bank accounts with one or more loans from at least one of the 330 payday lenders made average total payments of $2,164.

      The CRL says the report shows the need for tough, loophole-free regulations to prevent abusive payday lending practices. It says federal regulations would support states that are trying to limit lending abuses at the local level.

      If you take out a payday loan, you are required to pay it back in two weeks. But if you are in such a financial bind that you have to turn to a payday lend...
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      Consumers appear to have a handle on debt in 2016

      Report suggests mortgages, car loans, and credit card payments are under control

      Consumers are handling mortgage and car payments a little better in 2016 but are doing a worse job of paying their credit card bills.

      That's a snapshot takeaway from the latest S&P;/Experian Consumer Credit Default Indices, which track monthly changes in consumer default rates. These default rates can tell you something about consumers' financial health.

      For March, the first mortgage default rate was 0.77%, a seven basis point drop from February. That suggests most consumers are able to swing their monthly mortgage payments.

      Car loans have been a concern in recent months, with the sharp rise in subprime car loans. Despite that concern, the auto loan default rate was 1.02%, a three basis point improvement over the month before.

      Growing trouble spot

      Credit cards appear to be a growing trouble spot, however. The bank card default rate jumped 36 basis points to 2.92% last month.

      That might not be all that surprising, as we reported back in December. A personal finance website flashed a warning sign when it reported that consumers ran up huge credit card balances in the third quarter of last year.

      CardHub.com reported that a projected 2015 net increase of $68.5 billion in new credit card debt was putting the country perilously close to a tipping point, predicting balances could become unsustainable and delinquency rates could skyrocket.

      Despite the rise in credit card default rates, the economists who assemble the monthly indices are not expressing alarm. David Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P; Dow Jones Indices, says the default rates in all three categories are still fairly low by historical standards, suggesting a positive outlook for the economy.

      Not even close to 2008

      "Large mortgage debts followed by rapidly rising defaults in all kinds of consumer credit were key causes of the financial crisis,” Blitzer said in a statement. “Conditions today are much improved; not only are defaults down, but outstanding mortgage balances were about 12% below the peak seen in the first quarter of 2008.”

      Even better, debt service ratios are close to the record lows set in the last two years.

      “This all suggests that consumer spending should continue to support modest economic growth," Blitzer said.

      Blitzer notes credit card defaults are both greater and more volatile than those for mortgages. Credit card balances jumped 5.2% in 2015, with much of the increase coming in the second half of the year, as noted earlier by CardHub.

      Despite that, the S&P;/Experian Consumer Credit Default Indices shows credit card balance dipped in the first quarter of this year, suggesting consumers have been able to pay down some of that balance.

      Consumers are handling mortgage and car payments a little better in 2016 but are doing a worse job of paying their credit card bills.That's a snapshot ...
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      Mortgage applications post third consecutive weekly gain

      Contract interest rates were mostly lower

      It's now three increases in a row for mortgage applications.

      Word from the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) is that applications for mortgages were up 1.3% in the week ending April 15 -- the third advance in as many weeks.

      The Refinance Index jumped 3%, increasing the refinance share of mortgage activity to 55.4% of total applications from 54.9% the previous week.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 5.0% of total applications, the FHA share slipped 0.2% to from 10.6%, the VA share rose to 12.6% from 11.9% the prior week, and the USDA share of total applications held steady at 0.8%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) inched up one basis points -- from 3.82% to 3.83% -- with points decreasing to 0.32 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) rose to 3.77% from 3.74%, with points decreasing to 0.25 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 slipped two basis points to 3.64% -- the lowest rate since May 2013 -- with points increasing to 0.32 from 0.29 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs fell to 3.06% from 3.10%, the lowest rate in nearly two years, with points decreasing to 0.32 from 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was down three basis points to 2.91%, with points increasing to 0.26 from 0.20 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was unchanged from last week.

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

      It's now three increases in a row for mortgage applications.Word from the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) is that applications for mortgages were up...
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      Miniland Educational recalls Moogy plush toys

      The red button on the toy’s left pocket can detach

      Miniland Educational Corp., of Miami, Fla., is recalling about 2,100 Moogy plush toys in the U.S. and Canada.

      The red button on the toy’s left pocket can detach, posing a choking hazard to young children.

      This recall involves Moogy plush fastening toys for toddlers between 12 and 36 months of age. The toy has zippers, buttons, buckles and laces. The Moogy toy has a blue and green face, red ears, a blue jacket with a red zipper, pink/red striped pants and pink and orange shoes with polka dots.

      Moogy measures about 18 ½ inches tall. “Miniland,” item number R.96295 and lot number 0115 1402813 085 are printed on a white tag sewn into the toy’s pants.

      The toys, manufactured in India, were sold at specialty toy stores nationwide and online at Amazon.com, Gilt.com, HighlightsforChildren.com, ToysRUs.com and Zulily.com from July 2015, through February 2016, for about $33.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately take the recalled toy away from children and contact Miniland Educational for instructions on cutting off the button to remove the hazard in order to receive a full refund.

      Consumers may contact Miniland Educational toll-free at 866-201-9069 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday, or online at www.minilandeducationalusa.com and click on “Products,” then on “Safety Information” in the dropdown menu for more information.

      Miniland Educational Corp., of Miami, Fla., is recalling about 2,100 Moogy plush toys in the U.S. and Canada. The red button on the toy’s left pock...
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      Staples recalls “Back in Motion” office chairs

      The chair can tip over when the user leans back

      Staples the Office Superstore of Framingham, Mass., is recalling about 2,000 “Back in Motion” office chairs.

      The chair can tip over when the user leans back, posing a fall hazard.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves Staples and Quill brand “Back in Motion” office chairs. The black, bonded leather chair has a tilt function and a base with wheels. The chairs have SKU # 203439 and item number SBG 24422 printed on the white label on the underside of the seat cushion.

      A second label, also located on the underside of the seat cushion, states “Reg. No. CA31704 (CN)” and “Made by LF Products PTE LTD.”

      The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at Staples stores nationwide and online at Staples.com and Quill.com from January 2014, through January 2016, for about $215.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled office chair and contact Staples for a free replacement base.

      Consumers may contact Staples toll-free at 844-442-6980 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (PT) Monday through Friday or online at www.staples.com and click on the Warranty & Recall link under the Customer Service tab at the bottom of the page for more information. Information about the recall repair remedy at may be found at www.officechairrecall.com.

      Staples the Office Superstore of Framingham, Mass., is recalling about 2,000 “Back in Motion” office chairs. The chair can tip over when the user l...
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      Sharing and 'liking' grief on Facebook

      Social media is used for a lot more than sharing cute kitten photos

      Your Facebook feed keeps you informed through the quips, quotes, and photographs that friends post. Most of the news is happy banter, but more and more we learn sad and tragic news from our friends through social media.

      When the news of a young adult who died by suicide was posted on Facebook a few years ago, I was surprised. The funeral arrangements followed along with an outpouring of condolences for the family. People were “liking” posts and condolence messages and yet Facebook felt like an impersonal place for such visible grief.

      Nowadays, the most universal means of sharing news of a death is through social media. It’s become so commonplace that I purposely check my Facebook feed more regularly to ensure that I don’t miss any difficult losses happening to my friends.

      It seems inevitable that our friends, sharing their happy times, would share their sorrows. Last week, another young adult in my community died. The news was shared on Facebook by the bereaved mom. Legions of support quickly surfaced in Facebook feeds. An obituary in the local paper was linked to Facebook and details of the memorial service were disclosed.

      Within hours after the funeral, the obituary and eulogies, along with tributes, were appearing on Facebook. Heartfelt condolence messages were posted and so appreciated that they solicited likes. Tributes on BuzzFeed and YouTube continue to appear with no end in sight.

      Uncomfortable topic

      While death remains an uncomfortable topic, Facebook has come to play an important role in bringing grief into our national conversation. When Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, lost her husband, her candid posts on Facebook elicited a wellspring of condolences and further opened the dialogue on death.

      Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and chief executive at Facebook, wrote on Facebook about his experience with miscarriage, and he too shared his grief openly.   

      Facebook allows us to memorialize our loved ones through tribute pages, giving friends and family a place to remember and reminisce about the deceased. These open communities help us feel less isolated in our grief. They give us a shared space to post our photos and grieve our losses.

      A more current trend is to post photos and memories of our deceased family members and friends on their birthdays and the anniversaries of their deaths. It is a way for our friends to remember their loved ones and elicit support from their social network.  

      So how do you, as a Facebook friend, deal with loss? It is perfectly acceptable to express your condolences on Facebook. Feel free to write a comment of support, like another’s post, or share your own memories or photos of the deceased.

      If you are uncomfortable talking so publicly about the pain of loss, you can ignore it. Just continue to handle condolences in the more traditional ways. Whatever you choose to do, one thing is for sure, social media is going to continue to define and re-define the ways in which we communicate.

      Your Facebook feed keeps you informed through the quips, quotes, and photographs that friends post. Most of the news is happy banter, but more and more we ...
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      Coca-Cola unveils its new 'One-Brand' packaging

      The move is an attempt to unify the brand across all Coke products

      Companies that sell consumer products usually try to shake things up every now and then to keep things interesting for consumers. Sometimes it’s with the introduction of a new product, a change in advertising strategy, or even changing the packaging that the product comes in.

      It seems that Coca-Cola is opting for the last option in a new campaign that it will be launching in May. According to a company press release, the four major Coke products – Coca-Cola original, Coca-Cola Life, Coca-Cola Zero, and Diet Coca-Cola – will soon all have labels that feature a red disc.

      “The Coca-Cola Red Disc has become a signature element of the brand, synonymous with great taste, uplift, and refreshment. By applying it to our packaging in such a bold way, we are taking the next step towards full adoption of the ‘One Brand’ strategy, uniting the Coca-Cola family under one visual identity and making it even easier for consumers to choose their Coca-Cola with or without calories, with or without caffeine,” said Coca-Cola Chief Marketing Officer Marcos de Quinto.

      Unifying the brand

      The disc will be set on a background that corresponds in color to each of the Coke products. Coca-Cola original will have a red background (making the disk undetectable), Coca-Cola Zero will have a black background, Diet Coca-Cola (or Coca-Cola Light) will have a white background, and Coca-Cola Life will have a green background.

      Officials at the company are excited for the change, saying that this marks the first time that Coke products will display this level of continuity. “The unification of the brands through design, marks the first time in our 130-year history that the iconic Coca-Cola visual identity has been shared across products in such a prominent way,” said Vice President of Global Design James Sommerville.

      The visual change will be rolled out to Coke products all over the world throughout 2016 and 2017, but its inauguration will take place in Mexico during the first week of May.

      Companies that sell consumer products usually try to shake things up every now and then to keep things interesting for consumers. Sometimes it’s with the i...
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      Why the Zika virus is turning out to be a big deal

      Mutations have turned the illness into a much more serious threat

      The Zika virus has been around for decades, carried by mosquitoes and infecting humans. Why are we only hearing about it now?

      The simple answer might be that everything tends to get blown out of proportion these days, with the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of social media. But the less simple answer might come from researchers at UCLA.

      These scientists say Zika is a bigger threat than it once was because it is rapidly mutating, and that is aiding in its transmission. In other words, it's not your father's Zika virus.

      “The Zika virus has undergone significant genetic changes in the past 70 years,” senior author Genhong Cheng, said in a release.

      Cheng, a professor of microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics at the UCLA Medical School, says scientists have traced the virus' genetic mutations, and that has helped them understand how the virus is spread and why it can cause different diseases.

      Mild annoyance

      In the past, the Zika virus was mostly a mild annoyance. It was just another minor illness spread by mosquitoes.

      What has been coming out of South America lately is something else entirely. Now, researchers have connected the Zika virus to microcephaly, a fetal brain development disorder, and even Guillain-Barre syndrome.

      It's no longer just spread by mosquitoes either. A fetus is affected by an infected mother. A mother might contract the illness, not from a mosquito bite, but from sexual contact.

      “We don’t know why Zika infection was not associated with serious human disease, especially in newborns, until recently,” said co-author Dr. Stephanie Valderramos, a fellow in obstetrics-gynecology at UCLA. “We hoped that taking a closer look at the virus’ genetic changes over time would reveal clues to this mystery.”

      41 different strains

      Complicating the matter is the fact that there is not just one strain of the Zika virus; researchers have found at least 41 different strains. The UCLA scientists say most strains originated from humans and only 10 came from mosquitoes. One came from monkeys.

      U.S. health officials are concerned about the potential for wider outbreaks with the arrival of prime mosquito season in the spring and summer. So far, the limited cases in the U.S. have been brought back from other countries.

      Cheng says his team's research has raised more questions than answers. He says a lot more research is needed to better understand the link between Zika and other diseases.

      The Zika virus has been around for decades, carried by mosquitoes and infecting humans. Why are we only hearing about it now?The simple answer might be...
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      New home construction tanks in March

      Building permits didn't fare much better

      The construction of privately-owned homes took a hit last month, tumbling 8.8% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,089,000.

      The decline, according to the Commerce Department, was punctuated by a slide of 9.2% in single-family housing starts to a rate of 764,000. The rate in March for units in buildings with five units or more was 312,000, down 8.5% from February.

      Even with the march decline, the rate of housing starts was up 14.2% from the same period a year ago.

      Building permits

      Building permits for privately-owned housing, an indicator of developers' plans in the months ahead, were down 7.7% to a rate of 1,086,000, but still 4.6% above the March 2015 rate.

      Authorizations for single-family homes dipped 1.2%, while permits for construction of units in buildings with five units or more plummeted 20.6%.

      While the housing sector has been one of the silver linings of the U.S. recovery, Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza wonders if this can continue.

      "With a lackluster manufacturing sector, faltering consumer spending and negative business investment,'" she said, "any further weakness in real-estate activity could serve to exacerbate the forecast slowdown at the start of the year, as well as undermine any improved growth profile April-June.

      The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      The construction of privately-owned homes took a hit last month, tumbling 8.8% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,089,000.The decline, according...
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      Stem cells could prove useful in treating spinal cord injuries

      Scientists in Japan were able to use these cells to promote spinal cord regeneration for the first time

      You may never truly appreciate how important a role your spine plays until something happens to it. In addition to holding up our weight and giving our bodies form, the spine plays an integral part in allowing us to move.

      The spinal cord is the major highway that nerves connect to that allow us to move our arms, legs, and pretty much everything else.

      The importance of this role illustrates why any damage to the spinal cord can be so debilitating.

      According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as many as 500,000 people suffer from a spinal cord injury (SCI) every year. As many as 30% of those who suffer such an injury show clinical signs of depression afterwards, and many do not fully recover physically.

      Now it seems that there may be some hope for treating these injuries more successfully. For the first time ever, researchers from Hokkaido University in Japan and around the world have successfully utilized embryonic stem cells to promote spinal cord regeneration.

      Promoting regeneration

      The main area of focus for the researchers was a region of the spinal cord called the corticospinal tract (CST). This area is made up of nerve fibers that travel through the brain and into the spinal cord; it is an essential area for motor function and damage done to it can often result in paralysis.

      Up to this point, scientists have only been able to use stem cells to help treat these areas if there was connecting tissue that remained where the nerves were severed. If there were big gaps between the nerves with no connecting tissue, then these areas often resisted any attempts at regeneration.

      For this study, the scientists used a specific group of stem cells, called neural progenitor cells, in order to try and improve on the shortcomings of past regeneration methods. The cells were taken from rat embryos and then changed to develop into spinal cord tissue. These “grafts” of cells were then inserted into rats who had severed nerve fibers in their spinal cords.

      The grafts were actually shown to promote regeneration of these nerve fibers, so much so that the subjects regained some use of their forelimbs. To go a step further, scientists also used human neural stem cells in some rat subjects and showed that regeneration was still possible, showing that the method could be used across species.

      More work ahead

      Although these trials are seen as a huge success for future treatment of severe spinal cord injuries, the researchers admit that a lot of testing remains before any of the results can be used in a clinical setting. Going forward, the scientists will attempt to figure out what kind of cell type is the best for making grafts so that safe grafting methods can be established.

      The full study has been published in the journal Nature Medicine.

      You may never truly appreciate how important a role your spine plays until something happens to it. In addition to holding up our weight and giving our bod...
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      America's boom towns driven by fast-growing neighborhoods

      Realtor.com identifies the neighborhoods that may provide the most opportunity

      The U.S. housing market has recovered nicely from the 2008-09 collapse, but some markets are doing better than others. For example, some markets like San Jose and San Francisco have seen price appreciation to the point that they may be affordable for many consumers earning good salaries.

      Where are the next hot markets? Realtor.com has analyzed new home construction, job creation, and increasing household formation to pinpoint the newest hot spots. If you happen to be ready for a move, in search of a new career, or whatever life has to offer, these markets might provide some opportunity.

      “The strength of the residential real estate market is closely correlated to growth in jobs and households,” Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com, said in a statement. “The good news for these markets is that these growth factors have already started to translate into new construction.”

      But Smoke notes it could be a while before these markets see a rise in housing inventory. He suggests builders should be targeting these markets now.

      Sunny Arizona

      At the top of the list is Gilbert, Ariz, a Phoenix suburb booming because of its desirability for retirees -- but plenty of young people are also drawn by the corporate headquarters of GoDaddy and PetSmart. The area is expected to grow nearly 16% over the next five years.

      Number two on the list is the 90012 Zip code in Los Angeles. It's home to the Walt Disney Concert Hall and Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It has attracted a number of upper income residents over the years, never a bad thing for property values.

      Downtown Dallas

      The 75201 Zip code in Dallas is the third boom market on the Realtor.com list. Located in downtown Dallas, its revival reflects the desire to be near the center of action. It's home to the Dallas Museum of Art, as well as American Airlines Arena – home to Dallas's NBA and NHL franchises.

      Specific neighborhoods in Miami, Las Vegas, Seattle, Rolesville, N.C., Brooklyn, Chicago, and Atlanta round out the top 10 boom towns.

      Realtor.com says every market on its list has seen between one and five times the national average growth rate of the nation's top 100 counties. The growth in household formation in all the markets outpaces the national average by up to six times.

      The U.S. housing market has recovered nicely from the 2008-09 collapse, but some markets are doing better than others. For example, some markets like San J...
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      Marrying an intelligent woman may keep dementia at bay, study finds

      Smart spouses can help their partners stay mentally sharp

      Eligible bachelors may want to consider adding “highly intelligent” to the list of qualities Mrs. Right should possess. If you’ve already partnered up with one? Good news: she may prevent you from getting dementia later in life.

      Marrying an intelligent woman can act as a “buffer” against the disease, according to Lawrence Whalley, emeritus professor of mental health at the University of Aberdeen. During an Oxford University Literary talk called “Dementia: How Can We Protect Ourselves,” Whalley explained that brainy ladies have an effect on their partner’s brain similar to writing, reading, or visiting a museum.

      Previous research has found a link between these types of intellectual challenges and a lowered risk of Alzheimer’s (the most common form of dementia). But spending your life with an intelligent woman could be like spending your life with a living, breathing crossword puzzle.

      “The thing a boy is never told he needs to do if he wants to live a longer life -- but what he should do -- is marry an intelligent woman,” Whalley told the Daily Mail. “There is no better buffer than intelligence.”

      Slows the aging process

      It's estimated that 47.5 million people worldwide currently live with dementia, and that number is expected to nearly double every 20 years. Certain childhood experiences can put people at risk for dementia, but later experiences can help reduce that risk.

      “Studies have shown that the death of a mother before the age of five is a very important risk factor for dementia in later life,” said Whalley. However, choosing an intelligent partner who provides interesting, mentally stimulating conversations could help prevent Alzheimer's.

      A study revealed to scientists that environmental factors can also have a big impact on a person’s mental health. In a side-by-side comparison of two brain scans, Whalley noted that people who showed physical signs of the illness but had no symptoms were “highly intelligent” and in “high-powered jobs.”

      Eligible bachelors may want to consider adding “highly intelligent” to the list of qualities Mrs. Right should possess. If you’ve already partnered up with...
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      Amazon offering its Prime Video as a standalone service in a challenge to Netflix

      Prime Video will be priced one dollar less than Netflix's new higher rate

      Amazon is rolling out its popular Prime Video as a standalone service, selling it for $8.99 a month. That will soon be one dollar less than Netflix, which is raising its monthly subscription rate to $9.99 next month.

      Prime Video has previously been available for free to the millions of consumers who are members of its $99-per-year Prime shopping service, which includes free shipping on many items, free e-book rentals, and other perks.

      And speaking of Prime, Amazon says it will offer it on a monthly basis as well, for $10.99. The obvious hope is that for a few dollars more, most consumers will choose to buy the whole package rather than just the video.

      Netflix and Amazon have been prime contenders in the video-streaming business for years and lately have been putting their efforts into producing top-flight original dramas, series, and comedies, like Netflix hits "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black" and Amazon's "Transparent" and "Mozart in the Jungle."

      Both Netflix and Amazon's streaming services are distributed by Amazon's cloud data service, Amazon Web Services (AWS).

      None of this is really surprising. As the Wall Street Journal noted in today's editions, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings predicted back in 2012 that Amazon would offer its Prime Video as a standalone service.

      Making the Prime shopping service available on a monthly basis also raises the stakes for all online retailers, since consumers who previously couldn't bring themselves to pay $99 to shop online may find it a bit easier to cough up $10.99 for a month or two around the Christmas shopping season.

      Amazon is rolling out its popular Prime Video as a standalone service, selling it for $8.99 a month. That will soon be one dollar less than Netflix, which ...
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      Weekend meeting stops oil price rise

      Major oil producers can't agree to slow production

      Oil producers meeting over the weekend in Doha failed to reach an agreement to freeze production, in an effort to draw down supplies and raise prices.

      As a result, the price of oil dropped Monday and may begin a long retreat. The net result for consumers is that gasoline prices, which always rise in late winter and early spring, might begin falling sooner than usual.

      The AAA Fuel Gauge Survey shows that the national average price of self-serve regular today is $2.11 a gallon, up seven cents in the last week and up 15 cents from a month ago.

      The average price of diesel fuel is also $2.11 a gallon, its first parity with gasoline in recent memory.

      Fuel prices have risen over the last few weeks because of refinery issues, which normally trump oil prices at this time of year. As refineries return to full capacity, the price of oil generally exerts more influence over the price of gasoline and diesel fuel.

      Oil's recent rise

      Oil prices have been rising in recent weeks as oil producers reportedly plotted ways to reduce the amount of oil on the market. Sunday's meeting in Doha was believed by some insiders to produce an agreement to unify the market in an effort to push the price of oil back over $50 a barrel.

      While consumers generally love low oil prices, the financial world was hoping for an agreement that would raise oil prices. The price of oil is so low that only a few producers – primarily Saudi Arabia – can be marginally profitable at these levels.

      The stock market has recently moved in lockstep with the oil market, mainly because higher oil means more profitable banks, that have lent billions of dollars to oil companies. Lower oil is seen as bad for economic growth, both in the U.S. and around the world.

      No reason to go up

      The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that there is little reason for oil prices to move higher in the short run. It notes that the recently lifted sanctions against Iran allow that country to begin selling oil again, adding to a world-wide glut.

      That glut began to build in mid-2014, when Saudi Arabia stepped up production of oil, in an effort to drop the price and drive out competition, mainly from U.S. shale producers. So far, it appears to be working, as U.S. rig counts have dropped sharply this year.

      Motorists have benefited through lower prices at the pump, but it has come at a steep cost. The economies of U.S. oil producing regions are in a recession, with rising unemployment.

      Oil producers meeting over the weekend in Doha failed to reach an agreement to freeze production, in an effort to draw down supplies and raise prices.A...
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      Where to safely stash cash and get some kind of return

      Some savings and money market accounts pay more interest than others

      The stock market's volatility in 2016 has some investors looking for places to park their money – anything from a nest egg or an emergency fund.

      While stocks have rallied over the last few weeks, they have mostly regained the value they had at the start of the year. Government bonds and certificates of deposit (CD), meanwhile, can tie up money for extended periods of time.

      But savings accounts, and their cousin – the money market account – may provide a safe and flexible place to temporarily park some cash, The FDIC insured up to $250,000. While most of these accounts pay a minuscule amount of interest, a few stand out by paying 1% or more.

      $25,000 or more

      If you have a significant amount of cash to deposit – $25,000 or more – it will be hard to beat the savings account at UFB Direct. It pays 1.2%, comparable to many banks' CD rates.

      You can open an account with as little as $1, but you won't get nearly as high a rate of interest on balances under $25,000 – around 0.20% APY.

      SFGI Direct doesn't pay quite as high of an interest rate on savings, but it's still a fairly impressive 1.06% APY. It doesn't require nearly as much money to earn that rate. It pays on balances of at least $1.

      Money market accounts sometimes pay a higher rate of interest, depending on the amount of money in the account. For example, the Patelco Credit Union currently pays 3% APY on balances between $1 and $2,000. The rate declines as the balance rises above $2,000.

      Advantages

      Checking into a money market account before automatically selecting a bank's savings account is usually a good idea. They sometimes offer advantages.

      "Santander's FDIC-insured money market savings account is a standout because our customers' balances grow faster than in traditional savings accounts while giving them that access through checks, online banking or mobile,” Michael Cleary, Santander's head of consumer and business banking, said in a release. “We design our products so they reflect how people like to bank.”

      One of the chief benefits of these money market accounts is they often have tiered interest rates, meaning they pay higher rates of interest if you deposit more money. At the same time, they usually have higher minimum balance requirements to open a new account, meaning you might have to start with a savings account and convert it to a money market once you hit the minimum threshold.

      Money market accounts may also make it easier to use the money, giving you limited check-writing privileges, something not usually found with savings accounts.

      On a historical basis, the return on keeping your cash in an FDIC-insured bank account is pretty paltry. However, the cash is safe and readily available. By shopping around, you should be able to find the best choice.

      The stock market's volatility in 2016 has some investors looking for places to park their money – anything from a nest egg or an emergency fund.While s...
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      Steady as she goes for builder confidence

      Cautious optimism is the takeaway

      The confidence of builders in the market for newly-built single-family homes was unabated in April, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI).

      Builder confidence has held firm at 58 for three consecutive months, and, according to NAHB Chairman Ed Brady, that shows that, “the single-family housing sector continues to recover at a slow but consistent pace. As we enter the spring home buying season,” he predicted, “we should see the market move forward.”

      Survey results

      The HMI uses a monthly survey to gauge builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next six months as "good," "fair" or "poor." The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as "high to very high," "average," or "low to very low."

      Scores for each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

      The HMI components measuring sales expectations in the next six months rose one point to 62, and the index gauging buyer traffic also was up a single point to 44. However, the component charting current sales conditions fell two points to 63.

      Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, all four regions registered slight declines. The Northeast and West each fell two points to 44 and 67, respectively, while the Midwest and South each posted one-point losses to 57 and 58.

      “Builders remain cautiously optimistic about construction growth in 2016,” said NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz. “Solid job creation and low mortgage interest rates will sustain continued gains in the single-family housing market in the months ahead.

      The confidence of builders in the market for newly-built single-family homes was unabated in April, according to the National Association of Home Builders ...
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      Yamaha recalls recreational off-highway vehicles

      Ice in the throttle cable can prevent the throttle from returning to idle

      Yamaha Motor Corporation USA of Cypress, Calif., is recalling about 7,000 Yamaha recreational off-highway vehicles.

      Water can get into the throttle cable and if it freezes during cold weather, the ice can prevent the throttle from returning to idle, causing the rider to lose control and posing crash and injury hazards.

      No incidents or injuries are reported.

      This recall involves model year 2016 YXZ1000R and YXZ1000R SE side-by-side utility vehicles sold in four colors: orange and black, blue and white, silver and red, and yellow and white. The model name (YXZ…) and “1000” is displayed in a graphic on both the left and right side of the vehicle.

      The vehicle identification number (VIN) is stamped on the frame near the driver’s side rear wheel. The letter G in the 10th position of the VIN number indicates that the unit was made in the 2016 model year.

      The vehicles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Yamaha side-by-side dealers nationwide from September 2015, to February 2016, for between $19,800 and $21,600.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled utility vehicles and contact their local Yamaha dealer to schedule a free repair. Yamaha is contacting all registered owners directly.

      Consumers may contact Yamaha at 800-962-7926 anytime or online at www.yamahamotorsports.com and click on “CPSC Alerts” for more information.

      Yamaha Motor Corporation USA of Cypress, Calif., is recalling about 7,000 Yamaha recreational off-highway vehicles. Water can get into the throttle...
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      Feds address the lingering underwater mortgage issue

      FHFA program will reduce amount owed on nearly 33,000 mortgages

      The housing crisis has been over for years, but millions of homeowners are still underwater on their mortgages and many of them are struggling to make payments.

      The government's previous mortgage modification efforts produced questionable results, but now the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), the main regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, will help some “seriously delinquent” underwater homeowners to avoid foreclosure.

      The FHFA has announced it will allow Fannie and Freddie to reduce the amount owed on some mortgages, a move estimated to provide relief to about 33,000 homeowners.

      The agency says it is a one-time offer for borrowers who have Fannie or Freddie-backed mortgages and who meet specific eligibility criteria. They must be owner-occupants who were at least 90 days delinquent on their mortgages on March 1.

      Additionally, the outstanding balance on the mortgage must be no more than $250,000.

      Could help both families and communities

      Mike Calhoun, President of the Center for Responsible Lending, said the action has the potential to help both struggling families and hard-hit communities.

      “The new program recognizes the value of principal reduction as an important tool that helps to keep families in their homes and reduces the cost of foreclosures,” Calhoun said in a statement emailed to ConsumerAffairs. “Up until now, this effective loan modification tool was not available to homeowners whose mortgages are owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

      Early loan modification efforts often left struggling homeowners frustrated by loan servicers' repeated requests for the same documents. In many cases, by the time homeowners had gathered all the requested material, their homes were in foreclosure. Rarely, if ever, did a modification include a reduction in principal on a loan.

      Still a problem

      FHFA Director Melvin L. Watt expects it to be different this time, noting that while the national housing market appears to have recovered, negative equity remains a real problem.

      "The Principal Reduction Modification program we are announcing today, along with the changes we are making to our NPL sales guidelines, will allow an opportunity for delinquent, underwater borrowers in these areas to avoid foreclosure and save their homes," he said in a release.

      While 33,000 homeowners may get relief under the new modification program, it is the tip of a very large iceberg. A recent report by Zillow found more than more than six million homeowners are still underwater on their mortgages, making up 13.1% of homeowners with a mortgage. More than 820,000 homeowners still owe over twice as much on their mortgages as their homes are worth.

      The housing crisis has been over for years, but millions of homeowners are still underwater on their mortgages and many of them are struggling to make paym...
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      Tips for last minute tax filers

      Do as much as possible electronically

      Got plans for the weekend? You may have to put them on hold if you haven't gotten around to filing your federal income tax return.

      Though April 15 is normally the deadline for getting your return in the mail to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), this year the deadline falls on Monday, April 18, since today is a holiday in the District of Columbia.

      If you'll be spending the weekend shuffling receipts and filling out forms, the IRS has some advice.

      Use the internet

      First, file your return online. It makes the tax agency's job a little easier and it will also get any refund to you a lot quicker. When you file electronically, the IRS says it normally takes about three weeks to process your refund – even faster if you have the money direct deposited into a bank account.

      The IRS offers this handy guide to individuals who are e-filing their own returns. If you file electronically, you won't be able to physically sign the return. The IRS explains here how to do it electronically.

      If you are going old school and filing a paper return, make sure all necessary forms are attached to Form 1040. The IRS would like them placed in order of the sequence number located in the upper right hand corner of the schedule or form.

      Don't forget to attach a copy of your W-2, which is a record of your compensation from your employer. If you received a corrected version of your W-2, form W-2c, make sure you include that.

      Where to send it

      When filing a paper return, it means you have to mail it somewhere. The address will be determined by where you live, and whether you owe additional taxes or are getting a refund. You'll find the the address you need here.

      If you owe additional tax, make the check out to United States Treasury. Make sure the check contains your name, address, taxpayer ID number, daytime phone number, tax year, and the name of the tax form you are submitting – such as Form 1040.

      If you are filing electronically, you can pay online by following the instructions in Form 1040-V.

      Of course, you might want to keep your weekend plans and file for an extension, giving you another six months to complete the process. It just requires filing the proper form by the Monday deadline, found here.

      If you owe additional tax, be sure to include the amount with the extension form, otherwise you'll face a penalty and interest. If you aren't sure how much you owe, it is better to overestimate on the payment. You'll avoid the penalty and get the balance as a refund when you do file.

      Got plans for the weekend? You may have to put them on hold if you haven't gotten around to filing your federal income tax return.Though April 15 is no...
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      February snow storms bring tough times for air travelers

      On-time rates, however, showed improvement

      Airline passengers trying to get to or away from the East Coast had a tough time of it in February.

      The Department of Transportation (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report says the nation's carriers experienced ten tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights at airports on the East Coast during snow storms on February 5 and February 15. On the positive side, there were no tarmac delays of more than four hours on international flights.

      Also during February, airlines posted an on-time arrival rate of 83.6%, considerably better than both the 72.8% reported a year earlier and the 81.3% mark posted in January 2016.

      Another area of improvement was in cancellations. Just 1.6% of scheduled domestic flights were scratched in February compared with 4.8% in February 2015 and 2.6% in January 2016.

      Other areas covered in the consumer report, which is available on the DOT website, include data on chronically delayed flights and their causes, along with complaints about baggage, reservation and ticketing, refunds, customer service, disability, and discrimination.

      Airline passengers trying to get to or away from the East Coast had a tough time of it in February.The Department of Transportation (DOT) Air Travel Co...
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      Helping kids prepare for their first trip to the dentist

      Parents can help kids feel more comfortable in the dentist's chair by preparing them for the experience

      Regular dental check-ups are important, but kids may not see it that way. No matter how many end-of-visit stickers are involved, a trip to the dentist is still no day at the park.

      Children may eventually realize that routine dental exams are generally quick and painless, but they may encounter some doubt on the way to reaching this conclusion.

      The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends children have their first dental visit by age 1 or within six months after their first tooth erupts. A survey finds, however, that parents tend to put off that first trip to the dentist. The average age of a child’s first dental visit is 2.6.

      Babies may be too young to experience dentist-related fear, but toddlers visiting the dentist for the first time may be hit with a tinge of anxiety. So what’s the best way to help your little one shake off those jitters?

      Play pretend

      Enlist the help of your child’s favorite doll or stuffed animal and have a pretend dental exam. Use toothbrushes, floss, mirrors, and flashlights to help simulate the experience of a real check-up.

      Use your fingers to count your child’s teeth starting with the letter A or the number 1. After you’ve played the role of pretend dentist, turn the tables and have your child be the dentist.

      As you play, be sure to use the right tone and vocabulary. Put a positive spin on the experience that lies ahead by using phrases such as, “clean, strong, healthy teeth.” But when the day comes, avoid telling your child that “everything will be fine.”

      “If you child ends up needing a treatment, he might lose trust in both the dentist and you," Joel H. Berg, D.D.S., M.S., Director of the Department of Dentistry at Seattle Children's Hospital tells Parents.com.

      Let the pros help

      It can be beneficial to get kids mentally prepared for their first dental visit, but it can also be important to prepare yourself. It’s quite likely that your child’s first exam won’t be smooth sailing all the way.

      “It’s normal and age-appropriate” for kids to wiggle and fuss when they’re being examined by a stranger, explains Rhea Haugseth, D.M.D., president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

      Staying calm and letting dental care professionals lead the way is important. Dentists are used to tantrums and can use their own special vocabulary to help kids though the experience.

      Regular dental check-ups are important, but kids may not see it that way. No matter how many end-of-visit stickers are involved, a trip to the dentist is s...
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      When marketing your home, words matter

      'Subway tiles' and 'barn doors' are magnets for buyers

      Maybe it's time to update that old real estate truism that the most important influence on a sale is location. Words seem to have a lot of impact too.

      Real estate marketplace site Zillow conducted an analysis of property descriptions, looking for keywords linked to faster sales. It found that when the description included "barn door," "shaker cabinets" or "subway tiles," homes not only spent less time on the market, they sold for up to 13% more than expected.

      The analysis, by Zillow Digs, included more than two million homes that sold between January 2014 and March 2016.

      The words, of course, represent what buyers appear to be looking for in the home they want to purchase. Barn doors refer to a rustic type of sliding door sometimes found on bedroom closets and kitchen pantries.

      Barn doors are in demand

      They are proving to be so popular that some homeowners who don't have them are actually adding them as a retrofit. And it could be a sound investment. Of the 60 keywords in the Zillow Digs analysis, “barn door” produced the best results.

      "When it comes to real estate listing descriptions – words matter," Dr. Svenja Gudell, Zillow chief economist, said in a release. "Your listing description is an opportunity to highlight specific details and finishes that might not be visible in photos.”

      Gudell says the research results suggest that demand is very strong for Craftsman-style homes and amenities. Homeowners who have these features, she says, should make a point of highlighting them when their homes go on the market.

      Subway tiles

      Subway tiles, which refer to the type of white, tightly grouted tile used to line New York subway tunnels at the start of the 20th century, are also a popular feature in kitchen and bathrooms. They are now so trendy that Gudell says if you are able to put “subway tiles” in your home's description, it suggests to the potential buyer that the home probably has other desirable features, like an open floor plan and well-appointed kitchen.

      It all comes down to understanding trends and knowing what's hot. It is especially important for homeowners who are remodeling. Being able to later advertise that the home has a “farmhouse sink” might produce more traffic and a higher price.

      A picture might be worth a thousand words, but when it comes to selling your home, the right word could be worth thousands of dollars.

      Maybe it's time to update that old real estate truism that the most important influence on a sale is location. Words seem to have a lot of impact too.R...
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      Anxiety sufferers see the world differently, study finds

      A key difference in the brain can cause anxious people to perceive "safe" scenarios as threatening

      Are you one of the 40 million adult Americans who suffers from anxiety? If so, you’ve probably been on the receiving end of such comments as, “Just calm down” or “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

      To others, your heightened sense of dread may seem unwarranted. But what well-meaning friends may not know is that your anxiety can’t simply be switched off -- the way you see the world is different.

      According to a study in the journal Current Biology, anxiety is the result of a fundamental difference in a person’s brain. That difference? The brain's plasticity, or its ability to change and reorganize itself by forming new connections.

      Researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that this brain difference dictates how a person responds to stimuli. For the anxiety-prone brain, it may be tricky to tell the difference between neutral or “safe” stimuli and threatening stimuli.

      Overgeneralizing emotional experiences

      The scientists found that those with anxiety experience lasting plasticity even after an emotional experience (or a “stimulus”) ends. In other words, when a person with anxiety comes across a new and completely irrelevant situation, their brains might still be sending “possible threat” alerts; this results in characteristic feelings of anxiety.

      Anxious people tend to overgeneralize emotional experiences, the researchers note. This means that even if a new scenario hasn’t yet proved itself a threat, anxious brains will be primed and ready to dish out anxiety, regardless.

      Perhaps the most important finding in the study is that anxious people can’t control it. This response is due a fundamental difference in their brain. “It’s a perceptual inability to discriminate,” lead researcher Rony Paz said in a statement.

      Destigmatizing anxiety

      People with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses often report feeling somewhat misunderstood. But Paz says these findings might help shed some light on the fact that people with anxiety aren’t responsible for it and that the response in itself isn’t “bad.”

      "Anxiety traits can be completely normal, and even beneficial evolutionarily,” says Paz, "Yet an emotional event, even minor sometimes, can induce brain changes that might lead to full-blown anxiety.”

      What can you do if you suffer from anxiety? The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) recommends the following coping strategies: 

      • Take a time-out. Yoga, music, and meditation are just a few of the relaxation techniques that can help you clear your head.
      • Eat balanced meals. Maintain a healthy diet and don't skip meals. This can help prevent any possible dips in energy.
      • Get enough sleep. The body needs extra rest when stressed.
      • Talk to someone. A problem shared is a problem halved, as the saying goes. Tell family and friends how you're feeling or get professional help by talking to a physician or therapist.
      Are you one of the 40 million adult Americans who suffers from anxiety? If so, you’ve probably been on the receiving end of such comments as, “Just calm do...
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      Research shows that maintaining weight loss gets easier over time

      One study shows that the human body adapts to weight change after a year

      Losing weight can be a difficult enough challenge as it is, but being able to maintain that weight loss over time can be even more daunting. It is often very difficult for the body to adapt to new lifestyle changes like increased exercise and dieting; however, new research shows that there is a measurable timeframe, after which the body will adjust and accept the changes.

      Researchers at the University of Copenhagen conducted a study on obesity and weight loss and found that if a person can lose weight and keep it off for a year, then the body will accept the change.

      “This study shows that if an overweight person is able to maintain an initial weight loss – in this case for a year – the body will eventually ‘accept’ this new weight and thus not fight against it, as is otherwise normally the case when you are in a calorie-deficit state,” said Signe Sorensen Torekov, associate professor with the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research.

      Adapting to change

      But what exactly changes over the course of a year that allows the body to accept its new weight? Researchers concluded that the change is primarily hormonal, specifically with two appetite-inhibiting hormones called GLP-1 and PYY.

      Normally, when someone first begins to lose weight, a hormone called ghrelin spikes up and causes hunger; it’s the body’s way of reacting to the changes. GLP-1 and PYY levels are usually pretty low at this point. However, after a year of maintaining this weight loss, researchers found that GLP-1 and PYY levels actually get higher and ghrelin stays at normal levels; this translates to a person not feeling as hungry anymore, which, in turn, makes it easier to keep weight off.

      Obese people, in particular, have very low GLP-1 levels, but improvements can be made if they try to adhere to a healthier lifestyle.

      “We know that obese people have low levels of the appetite inhibiting hormone GLP-1. The good thing is that now we are able to show you can actually increase the levels of this hormone as well as the appetite inhibiting hormone PYY by weight loss and that the levels are kept high (=increased appetite inhibition) when you maintain your weight loss for a year,” said Eva Winning Iepsen, first author of the study.

      Encouraging news

      This research comes as good news to consumers who may be struggling to maintain their weight loss. Although it may be difficult for some time, the study shows that there will come a point when things get easier.

      “The interesting and uplifting news in this study is that if you are able to maintain your weight loss for a longer period of time, it seems as if you have ‘passed the critical point’, and after this point, it will actually become easier for you to maintain your weight loss than [it] was immediately after the initial weight loss. . . Thus, the body is no longer fighting against you, but actually with you, which is good news for anyone trying to lose weight,” says Torekov.

      The full study has been published in the European Journal of Endocrinology

      Losing weight can be a difficult enough challenge as it is, but being able to maintain that weight loss over time can be even more daunting. It is often ve...
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      McDonald's decides to phase out wraps

      The items were never quite the hit with millennials or healthy eaters

      There are a couple of strategies that most fast food places use in order to stay relevant and in the consumer eye. One, obviously, is to offer rock bottom prices that attract consumers who are looking for a deal. Another is to create a new menu item or offer that appeals to a certain consumer group that the company is looking to tap into.

      Unfortunately, it seems that the second strategy didn’t exactly pay off for McDonald’s. According to a Bloomberg report, the company is choosing to take wraps off its menu, an item that was meant to attract younger, healthier eaters.

      Wraps come up short

      Millennials are becoming a big part of the consumer base, so it only makes sense that companies would want to try and tailor their business models to draw them in. For McDonald’s, this meant the introduction of its Premium McWraps in 2013; the new items had few calories than the franchise’s iconic burgers and were viewed as a healthier alternative.

      Unfortunately, the wraps ended up being something of a flop, according to Jack Russo, an analyst for Edward Jones. Putting them together proved to be time consuming for McDonald’s employees, and consumers never really seemed to latch onto them, perhaps just because the items were just not what they were looking for.

      “A lot of people who eat at restaurants aren’t interested in health and wellness. . . You’ve got to give the people what they want,” said Russo.

      Looking forward

      So, as a result, McDonald’s has begun phasing out wraps from the vast majority of its 14,000 U.S. locations, including both the large and snack-sized options. Some establishments may be holding on to certain varieties of wraps, such as the chicken ranch snack wrap, but consumers will find it increasingly difficult to find.

      Don’t fret too much about McDonald’s well-being, though. The company’s latest promotion of offering all-day breakfast has proven to be a hit with consumers and has been a chief reason for stopping the franchise’s seven-quarter U.S. sales slump. Still, executives at the company may still be looking for a new menu item that will propel them into the future.

      “We need something that’s really got some juice to it – something that really can bring some excitement again,” said Russo.

      There are a couple of strategies that most fast food places use in order to stay relevant and in the consumer eye. One, obviously, is to offer rock bottom ...
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      Online checking and savings accounts usually offer the best deals

      These accounts carry no fees and pay interest each month

      The banking landscape has gotten extremely competitive in recent years, and much of that competition has been coming from online banks, with no brick and mortar locations.

      Without that overhead, and the personnel it takes to staff physical locations, online banks are in a position to offer consumers better deals and still be profitable.

      Personal finance site WalletHub has studied online banks, choosing what it says are the best checking and savings accounts. What they have in common is an absence of fees and higher rates of interest than you'll find at brick and mortar banks.

      Best overall

      Earning best overall honors is the Bank of Internet USA Rewards Checking Account. Right off the bat, it earns big points for not charging fees – no monthly fee, no overdraft fee, no insufficient funds fee. It's even free to use ATMs.

      Customers can earn a higher rate of interest on their checking account balances, but to earn the highest rate – 1.25% – you have to meet monthly goals, such as making direct deposits and engaging in a certain number of debit card transactions.

      WalletHub has identified AmericaNet Rewards Checking as the account with the best interest rate. It pays up to 1.5%, but imposes a number of conditions, such as using your debit card a certain number of times.

      There is no monthly maintenance fee, you can open an account with as little as $1, and the bank will reimburse you up to $25 per month for ATM fees.

      The Bank5 Connect High-Interest Checking Account takes the honors for the best rewards package.

      A rarity

      “It’s pretty rare to find rewards in the checking account space these days, as most programs merely provide discounts on certain types of purchases,” the study authors write.

      The Bank5 program works like this: you get one point for every $2 that you spend. That works out to about 0.5% cash back when used for gift cards, travel, and merchandise.

      Another bonus: the account pays depositors 0.76% APY – admittedly not much, but at least it isn't charging a monthly maintenance fee. There is also a reimbursement of ATM fees up to $15 per month.

      The study found 63% of online-only checking accounts do not charge a monthly maintenance fee, an increase from 56% last year. The authors say that works out to an average monthly savings of $10.75.

      The banking landscape has gotten extremely competitive in recent years, and much of that competition has been coming from online banks, with no brick and m...
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      Walmart expands curbside grocery pickup

      Service now available in 30 U.S. markets

      Consumers seem to want to spend less time in the supermarket and any number of companies are harnessing technology to make that chore easier.

      Walmart has taken a slightly different approach than Amazon and other specialized delivery services. It allows customers in certain markets to send in their grocery orders and then pull up to a nearby Walmart store, where their purchases are waiting at the curb.

      The company says the curbside service has been successful enough that it is being expanded. It is now available in a total of 30 U.S. markets.

      The latest additions are Kansas City, Mo.; Boise, Idaho; Richmond, Va.; Virginia Beach, Va.; Austin, Tex.; Charleston, S.C.; Provo, Utah; and Daphne, Ala.

      Positive feedback

      “Customers tell us they’re excited about online grocery because they’re putting the time they’re saving back into meaningful parts of their lives (like spending time helping their kids with homework or having a date-night with their spouse),” Walmart vice-president Michael Bender writes on the company blog.

      “They have the option of shopping whenever and wherever they want – adding to ongoing lists all week, or placing a quick order through our mobile app – putting them in control of the entire process, all the way down to when they pick up. Even better is that our grocery pickup service is 100% free to use.”

      According to Walmart, 90% of curbside delivery users have used the service in the past, suggesting they find it useful. The orders are filled by store personnel specifically assigned to the task.

      To use the service, consumers fill their basket online, using their computer or mobile app. Orders placed by 10 a.m. are available for pickup the same day.

      Walmart rolled out the curbside pickup service last September.

      Consumers seem to want to spend less time in the supermarket and any number of companies are harnessing technology to make that chore easier.Walmart ha...
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      Toyota recalls Avalons and Camrys

      The front passenger airbag and the front passenger knee airbag may not deploy properly

      Toyota Motor Sales is recalling approximately 16,880 Model Year 2016 Avalon and 41,630 model Year 2016 Camry sedans.

      The front passenger seat is equipped with an Occupant Classification System (OCS) which activates/deactivates the front passenger air bag system, depending on the weight of the occupant.

      There is a possibility that some vehicles may not have received proper OCS calibration during the vehicle manufacturing process. With the improper calibration, under some conditions, the front passenger airbag and the front passenger knee airbag may not deploy as designed in a crash, increasing the risk of an injury to a front seat passenger.

      What to do

      Toyota will notify owners of the recalled vehicles by first class mail and Toyota dealers will re-calibrate the OCS.

      Owners may call Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331.

      Toyota Motor Sales is recalling approximately 16,880 Model Year 2016 Avalon and 41,630 model Year 2016 Camry sedans. The front passenger seat is eq...
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      Amazon introduces eighth-generation Kindle, the Oasis

      Battery life stretches to months thanks to an included charging cover

      Amazon's Kindle is one of those little devices that started a revolution. It made more books accessible to more people than ever but also included quite a bit of collateral damage, to wit, the virtual sacking and burning of the nation's bookstores. 

      The hardest thing about revolutions, of course, isn't starting them, it's keeping them going. Amazon has worked hard to keep the Kindle current, tweaking the display, controls, and battery life with each new edition.

      The latest edition, the Kindle Oasis, made its debut today and features, among other things, a cover that includes a charger-battery combination that helps extend battery life to months instead of weeks -- assuming you don't read much.

      We're told you can also hold the Kindle in one hand. That sounds simple, but those of us who are more or less permanently attached to the previous Kindle, the Voyage, will tell you that it can be hard to hold one-handed without inadvertently hitting page-turn controls located along both sides of the screen.

      The Oasis, by contrast, is thicker on one side than the other, creating a sort of natural handle. It works for both right-handed people and southpaws. Just flip it over and the right side becomes the left, and so on.

      One thing about the Kindles -- they only do one thing: deliver and display books. You can't call a friend, play a game, or pay your bills. But in their defense, each generation of the Kindle has gotten just a bit slicker than its predecessor and thus displays books very well indeed. 

      They've gotten pricier too. The Oasis, when it ships later this month, will set you back $290 while the original Kindle was somewhere around $80. 

      One consolation: the Oasis includes a leather cover, which was an option for earlier editions. 

      A modest suggestion

      For awhile there, it looks like Amazon was more or less giving away the Kindle to help it sell more books, which were once priced beginning at 99 cents. Now the books are more expensive and so are the Kindles, but those who are hopelessly addicted to reading or allergic to streaming videos continue to cling to them.

      Oh, about those leather covers: they all come in dark shades, like brown, black, and merlot. Those of us who carry our Kindles around all day are constantly losing them because the dark-colored covers blend into most backgrounds. 

      Maybe we could get a canary yellow or flaming red next time? Or a "find my Kindle" app?

      --

      Shocking disclosure: We order our Kindles and pay full price for them, just like everyone else. No promotional considerations accepted. 

      Amazon's Kindle is one of those little devices that started a revolution. It made more books accessible to more people than ever but ...
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      A new bill may ensure that parents and children can sit together on flights

      Provisions for security screening, boarding procedures, and pregnant women are also included

      Flying with children can come with a lot of anxiety for parents. In addition to making sure that all the essentials are packed and kept track of, it can be difficult to manage getting through security and boarding the plane, not to mention making sure everything goes smoothly during the actual flight.

      In order to make things easier, an amendment has moved through Congress that would ensure that children can be seated next to parents on flights at no additional cost. According to the Washington Post, the proposal, which was voted to be a part of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill by the Senate, would also create new rules for security screening and boarding procedures.

      "Commonsense protections"

      The amendment could be a potential lifesaver for parents and pregnant women at the airport. It would allow the former to escort their children through security checkpoints and the latter to receive accommodations to pre-board their flights. Additionally, it would make it much easier for parents to secure adjacent seating with their young ones, something that has been harder to accomplish in recent years.

      Many airlines now allow passengers to pay an extra fee for “preferred” coach seats, so unless parents are able to shell out extra money to ensure that they have seats that are together, it often doesn’t happen. Currently, many parents have to rely on altruistic passengers to switch seats with them or for gate agents to persuade those who are less willing.

      “Our amendment puts in place commonsense protections that will reduce the extra and unnecessary stress applied to families and pregnant women traveling by air,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, who introduced the new stipulation.

      Opposition

      The amendment has met some opposition from airlines and trade groups, who say it is unnecessary. One such trade group, Airlines for America, says that passengers already have the ability to secure seats that are together without incurring any additional fees.

      “Airlines have always worked to accommodate customers who are traveling together, including those traveling with children, and will continue to do so – without unnecessary federal mandates. . . We believe that customer service decisions are best left to the dedicated and experienced airline employees who interact with and receive feedback from their customers every day – not the government,” said Airlines for America spokesperson Vaughn Jennings.

      Although the amendment passed unanimously in the Senate, the bill that it is attached to is still being debated – so there is still time for it to be tweaked or taken out. A spokesman for Sen. Bennet said that the real challenge will be trying to keep it attached to the bill through conference negotiations. 

      Flying with children can come with a lot of anxiety for parents. In addition to making sure that all the essentials are packed and kept track of, it can be...
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      Baby Boomers driving demand for second homes

      Sales of both vacation homes and investment property were strong in 2015

      The U.S. real estate market appears strong, with tight inventories driving home prices higher in most markets.

      And it's not just primary residences that are in growing demand. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports sales of vacation homes – while down in 2015 from the year before, are nonetheless on a red hot pace.

      In fact, the Realtors' group says the median sales price of both vacation and investment properties surged last year, though the number of sales declined from the previous year.

      As they have done throughout their adult lives, Baby Boomers are driving this trend.

      Boomers propel demand

      "Baby boomers at or near retirement continue to propel the demand for second homes, although headwinds softened the overall volume of vacation sales last year," NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun said in a release.

      Yun says there are more buyers competing for a dwindling number of bargain-priced properties. This tighter supply in the face of rising demand may have resulted in fewer sales, but the homes that did sell sold at a premium.

      Perhaps because of the popularity of cable TV shows about home “flipping,” sales of investment homes posted a significant increase in 2015, rising from 1.02 million to 1.09 million, a 7% gain. The numbers represent purchases by individual buyers, excluding institutional investors.

      Yun says vacation home sales have helped Florida recover from the housing debacle of the last decade, since the bulk of vacation home sales are occurring in the south.

      The downside, says Yun, is that the significant run up in price has probably squeezed out less affluent buyers looking for a vacation home.

      Seeking rental income

      Meanwhile, the trend in investment property is shifting away from flipping and more toward income.

      "Steadily increasing home prices and strong rental demand appear to be giving more individual investors assurance that purchasing real estate will diversify their portfolios and generate additional income if they decide to rent out the home," Yun said.

      The NAR survey shows the median investment home buyer last year had a household income of $95,800, and most bought a detached single-family home not far from where they lived.

      Forty-two percent of buyers said they made the move to gain rental income. Only 14% cited price appreciation as a main reason for the investment.

      The U.S. real estate market appears strong, with tight inventories driving home prices higher in most markets.And it's not just primary residences that...
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      Do you really have to pay for a checking account?

      Not if you are willing to shop around for a bank

      Years ago consumers opened checking accounts at their local bank and rarely paid a fee, unless they overdrew their account.

      Sometimes, even then there might not be a fee. A consumer might get a polite call from the bank manager asking that he or she put some more money in their account. It's a different story today.

      The Wall Street Journal reports that the move away from free checking began when regulators clamped down on banks, making it harder to collect debit card fees. Banks are making less money by making fewer loans, with near record low interest rates.

      While big banks may offer fee-free checking accounts, they usually have minimum balance requirements that depositors may or may not be able to meet. Fees, in short, make up for a lot of lost bank revenue.

      What became of the unconditional, no-fine-print checking account? Has it followed the dodo bird into extinction? Not at all, you just may have to look a little harder to find it.

      Look for a small bank

      If you live in a small town, it's a pretty easy task since most small, community banks still offer free checking with no or minimal balance requirements. Even some larger regional banks offer the same thing.

      First Citizens Bank, which operates in 200 markets with 571 branches, offers free checking. There's no monthly fee and no minimum balance requirement. It takes just $50 to open an account. If you'll look around your community, you can probably find a bank that offers something similar.

      There are also online options that are available no matter where you happen to live. Here are three worth considering:

      Ally Bank

      Ally Bank's Interest Checking Account not only doesn't charge for checking, it pays you. You earn a small amount of interest on your balance, which admittedly won't make you rich, but at least they're paying you instead of the other way around.

      There is no monthly maintenance fee and customers have free use of Allpoint ATMs. Out of network ATM fees are refunded each statement cycle, up to $10 – another nice feature.

      Capital One 360

      Another online option is Capital One 360. Again, there are no monthly fees and you earn a small bit of interest in your checking account. It also gives you fee-free access to Allpoint and Capital One ATMs.

      USAA

      For consumers in the military, or veterans and their families, USAA offers a wide range of financial services, including a free checking account. The account does not levy a monthly service fee and carries no minimum balance requirement. It offers free direct deposits, free transfers and bill pay, and free use of ATMs nationwide.

      Checking account fees at banks that do charge them might not sound very high at $5 to $10 a month, but they add up over time – and they are completely unnecessary for consumers who shop around.

      Years ago consumers opened checking accounts at their local bank and rarely paid a fee, unless they overdrew their account.Sometimes, even then there m...
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      Retail sales slip in March

      Auto sales were down sharply

      March turned out to be the third straight month in row for disappointing retail sales.

      After falling 0.4% in January and not moving at all in February, sales were down 0.3% last month, according to figures released by the Commerce Department. Despite that decline, sales were 1.7% above the same period a year earlier.

      The biggest drag came from a 2.1% drop in auto sales, followed by declines in sales by clothing and clothing accessory stores (-0.9%), food services and drinking places (-0.8%), and department stores (-0.6). Those declines were partially offset by gains with building material & garden equipment & supplies dealers (+1.4%), health and personal care stores (+1.0%), and gas stations (+0.9%).

      Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza says the March report does not bode well for the overall economy. "This morning’s confirmation of a third consecutive month of absent consumer activity," she said, "will no doubt prompt a further downward revision to first-quarter growth, potentially into negative territory.”

      The full March retail sales report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      March turned out to be the third straight month in row for disappointing retail sales.After falling 0.4% in January and not moving at all in February, ...
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      Mortgage applications shoot higher

      Contract interest rates were mostly lower

      Applications for mortgages rose for a second consecutive week as contract interest rates headed downward.

      Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) shows that applications surged 10% in the week ending April 8.

      “Helped by a persistently strong job market and low rates, applications for both conventional and government home purchase loans increased last week,” said MBA Chief Economist Mike Fratantoni. “The purchase index was at its second highest level since May 2010. Applications to refinance also increased as the 30-year contract rate decreased to its lowest level since January 2015.”

      The Refinance Index jumped 11% from the previous week to its highest level since February, with the refinance share of mortgage activity increasing to 54.9% of total applications from 54.5% the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 5% of total applications.

      The FHA share of total applications dipped to 10.8% from 11.3% the week prior, the VA share dropped from 12.2% to 11.9%, and the USDA share of total applications was unchanged at 0.8%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) slipped four basis points -- from 3.86% to 3.82%, with points increasing to 0.33 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. This is the lowest since January 2015. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dipped to 3.74% from 3.76% percent, with points increasing to 0.31 from 0.27 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. This is the lowest rate since February 2016. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA fell seven basis points to 3.66%, with points decreasing to 0.29 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. This is the lowest rate since April 2015. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs was unchanged at 3.10%, with points steady at 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was unchanged from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was 2.94%, with points decreasing to 0.2 from 0.26 (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.

      Applications for mortgages rose for a second consecutive week as contract interest rates headed downward.Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association (MB...
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      Best Buy ditches its fleet of VW Beetles, loads up on Priuses

      In Europe, a batch of recalled VW diesels are being recalled a second time

      Volkswagen has turned into one of those brands that never seems to have a good day anymore. In the latest bit of bad news, Best Buy's Geek Squad is ditching its fleet of VW Beetles for the Toyota Prius C. 

      And in Europe, some Volkswagen diesels are being recalled a second time because the first attempt to reprogram emissions systems didn't work as planned.

      Best Buy announced its trade-in plans yesterday, saying its 1,000 Priuses are more efficient and more tech-savvy than the aging Beetles.

      "The new Geekmobile, boldly bearing the updated logo, better reflects today’s new Geek Squad — the nationwide tech-support task force that is continually expanding its services to keep pace with ever-changing technology," said Best Buy's John Vomhof Jr.

      The new, greener Geekmobile will cut the Geek Squad fleet’s emissions by 50 percent, as compared with the previous vehicle, which rolled out nationwide in 2004, Vomhof said, adding that the switch to the hybrid will help Best Buy make significant progress toward its commitment to reducing its own carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2020.

      European fix failed

      In Europe, thousands of Volkswagens recalled over the diesel emissions scandal will need to be recalled again, Reuters reported. The news agency said a software update installed on 160,000 2.0-liter diesel cars fixed the emissions problem but triggered an increase in the cars' fuel consumption.

      A VW spokesman said the company will have to "go back to work on the software again."

      Volkswagen has admitted that it rigged emissions control software on its TDI diesels to operate at legal levels when the cars are being tested. The rest of the time, emissions are as much as 40 times greater than regulations permit.

      Analysts have warned that fixing the emissions problem may affect the cars performance or fuel consumption, or both. 

      Federal and state regulators in the U.S. have rejected VW proposals to fix the problem and a federal judge has given the company until April 24 to come up with an acceptable plan. 

      Volkswagen has turned into one of those brands that never seems to have a good day anymore. In the latest bit of bad news, Best Buy's Geek Squad is ditchin...
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      Southwest hikes price on consumers looking to board flights early

      Consumers will have to pay 20% more in order to get priority boarding

      Although profits have never been more lucrative for airline companies, that doesn’t mean that consumers have seen the last of price hikes.

      The Arizona Republic reports that Southwest Airlines has increased the fee that consumers pay in order to board flights early. Previously, the company charged consumers $12.50 to board early, but the price has now been raised to $15, a 20% increase.

      Being able to board early is especially important to Southwest passengers because the company does not have assigned seating; in other words, being able to get on the plane sooner directly affects the quality of the seat you’ll get and the amount of room you’ll have to work with in the overhead luggage compartments.

      Boarding groups

      Currently, Southwest has three boarding groups that travelers are put into when they check in for their flight – simply named Group A, Group B, and Group C. Passengers who are on the ball and check in early have the greatest chance of being put into Groups A or B, which allow them to board earlier.

      However, those who pay the extra fee for the EarlyBird Check-In option don’t have to worry about their check-in time; they are automatically put into a boarding group 36 hours before the flight – 12 hours before other passengers can even attempt to check in.

      Although opting for EarlyBird Check-In doesn’t automatically guarantee that a passenger will be in Group A, it does give them a significant advantage over other passengers. Its popularity with travelers has brought in millions of dollars for Southwest over the years; it earned the company an additional $280 million in 2015 and $230 million the year before. Now, with the price hike, it may be poised to make even more. 

      Although profits have never been more lucrative for airline companies, that doesn’t mean that consumers have seen the last of price hikes.The Arizona R...
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      How financial literacy education pays off

      Consumers who go through training reduce debt and manage money better

      Because consumers easily get overwhelmed with credit card debt, along with everyday bills, many financial organizations have stepped up financial literacy efforts.

      Consumers are encouraged to take courses in financial management, budgeting, and targeted savings. It appears to be paying off.

      The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) has studied consumers who went through a credit counseling program and those who didn't. An Ohio State study shows that those who received financial education did better in reducing levels of revolving and total debt, along with demonstrating better money management and financial confidence.

      Compelling evidence

      “Working together with financial institutions who support financial education, the NFCC Sharpen Your Financial Focus initiative has positively changed American consumers’ knowledge and behaviors related to personal finance,” Susan Keating, NFCC President and CEO, said in a statement. “The Ohio State University research team has provided the most compelling evidence that nonprofit financial education is a catalyst for specific changes that improve financial capability.”

      During the 18 months after going through the Sharpen Your Financial Focus course, consumers lowered their revolving debt by an average of $6,000 – $3,600 more than the group that didn't take the course. Those who went through the course lowered their total debt by nearly $9,000. Those who didn't take the course actually saw their debt increase.

      Isolating the impact

      Stephanie Moulton, an associate professor at Ohio State, says tracking several credit indicators over an 18 month period helped researchers isolate the impact that credit counseling had on the way consumers manage their finances.

      “The significant reduction in debt among counseled clients holds even after accounting for these other events,” she said.

      Sixty-seven percent of the people going through the course said the Sharpen classes made a positive impact, helping them better manage their money. Sixty-eight percent said the courses helped them manage their money better and 70% said it improved financial confidence.

      The U.S. government operates a financial literacy website, with tools and resouces to improve money management abilities. You can check it out here.

      Because consumers easily get overwhelmed with credit card debt, along with everyday bills, many financial organizations have stepped up financial literacy ...
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      Gas prices rising but diesel fuel falling

      The gap between the two motor fuels is narrowing for the first time in years

      For years, no matter how expensive gasoline got, you could be sure diesel fuel cost more. Usually a lot more.

      While drivers of diesel powered vehicles got great fuel economy, they paid a lot more per gallon. Lately, these drivers have enjoyed the same savings as their gasoline-driving counterparts.

      The national average price of self-serve regular gasoline is $2.05 a gallon, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey. The national average price of diesel fuel is $2.09 a gallon.

      Just a year ago, gasoline averaged $2.39 while a gallon of diesel fuel went for $2.79.

      Refinery issues

      One reasons for the narrowing gap between the gas and diesel pumps is gasoline prices have been rising in recent weeks, due to seasonal refinery maintenance and the switch over to summer blend gasoline.

      Gas prices are up 16 cents a gallon nationwide in the last month. The average diesel price has risen just six cents a gallon. While diesel production is affected by refinery maintenance, just as gasoline is, there is no summer blend to raise the cost.

      In some good news for motorists, the national average price of gasoline leveled off in the last week and is about the same price it was seven days ago. However, there remains some price volatility in local areas.

      Down in Missouri, up in Ohio

      For example, the AAA survey shows the average gasoline price dropped six cents a gallon in Missouri over the past week. The price is up four cents a gallon in Ohio during the same period.

      According to AAA's calculations, the national average gasoline price has been above $2 a gallon for 20 straight days, with prices at the pump expected to continue to show some volatility as the supply of summer-grade gas is distributed.

      On the plus side, refineries have stepped up their capacity, resulting in an increase in gasoline inventories. If not exported, that excess supply may continue to dampen gasoline prices.

      The ExxonMobil Torrance, Calif. refinery has restarted, alleviating chronic supply shortages on the West Coast. Barring any major disruptions or shortages in supply, AAA said it expects pump prices to be fairly steady in the coming weeks.  

      For years, no matter how expensive gasoline got, you could be sure diesel fuel cost more. Usually a lot more.While drivers of diesel powered vehicles g...
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      IIHS releases results of large pickup truck safety tests

      Only the Ford F-150 earned a top safety rating for small overlap protection

      The results are in for the new round of crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and three out of seven large pickup trucks evaluated earned an acceptable or higher rating for occupant protection in a small overlap front crash.

      Two body styles of each 2016 model-year pickup (crew cab and extended cab) were included in the tests. Crew cabs have four full doors and two full rows of seating. Extended cabs have two full front doors, two smaller rear doors and compact second-row seats.

      Top marks for Ford

      By improving the 2016 model F-150 SuperCab, Ford clinched a good rating in the small overlap crash test -- up from the 2015 model’s marginal rating. The F-150 is the only large pickup in the latest test group to earn the test's top rating. It joins the F-150 SuperCrew in earning a 2016 TOP SAFETY PICK award when equipped with Ford’s optional basic-rated forward collision warning system.

      “Ford is leading the way among large pickup manufacturers when it comes to protecting people in a range of crashes and offering technology to warn drivers of imminent frontal crashes,” said Raul Arbelaez, vice president of the IIHS Vehicle Research Center. “We commend Ford for taking last year’s test results to heart and upgrading protection for SuperCab occupants in small overlap crashes.”

      Vehicles that earn a basic rating for front crash prevention in addition to good ratings in the small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraint evaluations qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK. To qualify for 2016 TOP SAFETY PICK+, a vehicle must earn good ratings in the five crashworthiness tests and an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention.

      The also-rans

      Differences were observed in performance between the extended-cab and crew-cab versions of two other pickups. The Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Double Cab and the Toyota Tundra Double Cab both earned an acceptable rating for occupant protection in a small overlap crash. Survival space for the driver in these extended-cab pickups was maintained reasonably well overall, contributing to their acceptable ratings for structure.

      The story was different for the larger crew cabs. The Silverado 1500 Crew Cab and the Tundra CrewMax earned a marginal rating in the small overlap front test. Both models had considerable intrusion into the occupant compartment that compromised survival space for the driver.

      Ratings for both of the Silverado pickups extend to their GMC Sierra 1500 twins.

      The worst-performing pickups in the small overlap test are the Ram 1500 Crew Cab and the Ram 1500 Quad Cab. Both earned a marginal rating overall and a poor rating for structure. The force of the crash pushed the door-hinge pillar, instrument panel, and steering column back toward the driver dummy. In the Ram Crew Cab test, the dummy’s head contacted the front airbag but rolled around the left side as the steering column moved to the right, allowing the head to approach the intruding windshield pillar.

      IIHS plans to test the redesigned 2016 Nissan Titan and Honda Ridgeline later this year. The 2015 Titan Crew Cab is rated as good in the moderate overlap front test, acceptable for roof strength, and good for head restraints. The Ridgeline was last sold as a 2014 model. It earns good ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraint evaluations.

      The results are in for the new round of crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and three out of seven large pickup tru...
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      Postage rates post their first decline in almost 100 years

      The price reduction will cost the USPS an estimated $2 billion per year

      At the beginning of March, we reported that postal rates for the United States Postal Service (USPS) were poised to go down, something that hadn’t happened since 1919, according to CNN.

      The potential decline in price would be due to the last rate hike being established through a surcharge; if it wasn’t renewed, then its authorization would run out and rates would have to decline.

      This prospect was met with a lot of trepidation by the USPS, which has been steadily losing revenue for some time. The surcharge was meant to help bolster its earnings, but with it running out, things were looking grim.

      “The exigent surcharge granted to the Postal Service last year only partially alleviated our extreme multi-year revenue declines resulting from the Great Recession, which exceeded $7 billion in 2009 alone. . . Removing the surcharge and reducing our prices is an irrational outcome considering the Postal Service’s precarious financial condition,” said Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan, in a statement.

      Cheaper stamps

      Nevertheless, the rate cut took effect as of yesterday. While consumers can expect to pay slightly less for stamps going forward, the rate cut will invariably take a large financial toll on the USPS. Brennan estimates that the agency stands to lose $2 billion annually now that the surcharge is no longer in place.

      The adjustments for stamp prices are as follows:

      • Rates on First Class Mail Letters weighing one ounce have gone down two cents, from $0.49 to $0.47. A cost of $0.21 will be added for each additional ounce.
      • Rates on First Class Mail Flats weighing one ounce will have gone down four cents, from $0.98 to $0.94. A cost of $0.21 will be added for each additional ounce.
      • Rates on First Class Mail Letters weighing once ounce that fall under the “Metered Mail” category have gone down by two cents, from $0.485 to $0.465. A cost of $0.21 will be added for each additional ounce.
      • Rates on postcards have gone down by one cent, from $0.35 to $0.34.
      At the beginning of March, we reported that postal rates for the United States Postal Service (USPS) were poised to go down, something that hadn’t happened...
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      Netflix rates going up 25% next month

      The increase was announced last October and is now being applied

      Netflix is raising its standard subscription rate by $2 next month. Starting in May, the "standard option," which includes streaming and HD quality, will cost you $9.99 -- a 25% increase, in other words. 

      Strictly speaking, the increase was announced last October, when Netflix started charging new subscribers $9.99 but extended an olive branch to current subscribers, saying it would "grandfather" them at $7.99 for awhile. 

      Well, awhile is over and now the full sticker price applies to everyone who stays on the "standard" plan. 

      If $2 really means a lot to you, you can opt out of the rate hike and keep the $7.99 plan, but there will be no HD and only one person at a time will be able to use the service.

      Netflix says subscribers will be notified by email prior to the change. 

      Stealthy tactics

      There has been some confusion about the rate increase and the company's stealthy tactics have not helped clarify the situation. Recent press releases on the company's media center page are mostly hype and blather about new films and series.

      This has led to sites like Jezebel saying the rate hike is being "sneakily implemented." Motley Fool notes that 41% of respondents to one survey said they would cancel if their rate increased and The Observer called it "simultaneously savvy and sneaky."

      Netflix is raising its standard subscription rate by $2 next month. Starting in May, the "standard option," which includes streaming and HD quality, will c...
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      Millennial women think investing is for old, white men

      New study reveals why only 15% are currently investing

      Millennial women don’t understand the stock market. That’s the key takeaway from a new Harris Poll survey commissioned by investment app Stash. The survey revealed that 76% of millennial women find investing downright confusing.

      Young women also seem to be believe the stock market isn’t a place for them; sixty percent of participants said they equate a typical investor to an old, white man. Experts say there’s one big reason women aren’t investing: a lack of education on the subject.

      “While technology has transformed the way people can invest in the stock market, it’s crystal clear millennials still desperately need, and want, education around how to start investing,” said David Ronick, CEO of Stash. Ronick believes, however, that the problem is a solvable one.

      Breaking down barriers

      Investment apps like Stash seek to educate young people on the subject of investing with the hope of increasing their presence in the stock market. As it stands now, nearly 4 in 5 millennials (79%) are not currently investing in the stock market.

      So why aren't millennial women investing? As it turns out, they may not think they can. According to the survey, 43% of millennial women think they don’t have enough money to start investing. Seventy percent of millennials think they need at least $100 to start investing in the stock market.

      These are just a few of the misconceptions surrounding investing that Stash hopes to clear up. A stock market sherpa of sorts, Stash focuses on providing guidance to those who might be new to investing. Millennials, especially, might benefit from the investment app’s “start small and learn as you go” approach.

      Stash users can kick off their investment journey with as little as $5. For more information, visit their website or check out the Stash app (available on iOS and newly available for Android).

      Millennial women don’t understand the stock market. That’s the key takeaway from a new Harris Poll survey commissioned by investment app Stash. The survey ...
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      Wells Fargo to pay $1.2 billion for mortgage fraud

      The bank certified loans as eligible for FHA insurance when it knew they did not qualify

      Wells Fargo Bank has agreed to pay $1.2 billion to settle federal charges that it wrongfully certified home loans as being eligible for FHA mortgage insurance when it knew that they were not.

      The incidents occurred during the period from May 2001 through December 2008 and, in many cases, resulted in the government having to pay FHA claims when the loans defaulted, according to court documents.

      “Today, Wells Fargo, one of the biggest mortgage lenders in the world, has been held responsible for years of reckless underwriting, while relying on government insurance to deal with the damage,” said Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. “Wells Fargo has long taken advantage of the FHA mortgage insurance program, designed to help millions of Americans realize the dream of home ownership, to write thousands and thousands of faulty loans." 

      Shoddy practices

      Bharara said Wells Fargo used "shoddy underwriting practices to drive up loan volume, at the expense of loan quality."

      The settlement was approved today by U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman for the Southern District of New York.

      “This matter is not just a failure by Wells Fargo to comply with federal requirements in FHA’s Direct Endorsement Lender program – it’s a failure by one of our trusted participants in the FHA program to demonstrate a commitment to integrity and to ordinary Americans who are trying to fulfill their dreams of homeownership,” said HUD Inspector General David A. Montoya.

      Also named in the settlement is Kurt Lofrano, a Wells Fargo vice president in charge of credit risk and quality assurance during much of the time in question.

      Wells Fargo Bank has agreed to pay $1.2 billion to settle federal charges that it wrongfully certified home loans as being eligible for FHA mortgage insura...
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      VW diesel scandal traps Porsche Macans in port

      Regulators giving extra attention to certifying new models

      The Porsche Macan is one of those supercars that, with the slightest touch of the accelerator, will leave a smokin' spot where it stood. But many of the juiced-up SUVs bound for the U.S. are stuck in port thanks to their parent company's misdeeds.

      Ever since Volkswagen admitted to using a "defeat device" on its TDI diesel models to fool emissions testers, state and federal officials have been taking a closer look at how they certify new models, particularly in the case of the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

      The CARB certifies vehicles for California, home to more cars than any other state, and its ratings are used by 12 other states that have the stricter air quality regulations pioneered by California.

      Gridlock

      Trapped in the middle of this regulatory traffic jam is the Macan, Porsche's hottest selling model. All 2017 Macans shipped to states that observe the CARB standards are stuck in port awaiting CARB certification, Automotive News reports.   

      Porsche executives insist the delay is no cause for concern. "It takes longer, but we're following procedure," Klaus Zellmer, CEO of Porsche Cars North America said. "The formal procedure is setting the pace for us, and we understand that."

      Fine, but tell that to the dealers and customers who are waiting for the Macans being held hostage at ports of entry.

      A Washington State dealer quoted by the auto trade journal said he has seven pre-sold Macans stuck in port and none in stock. 

      The Porsche Macan is one of those supercars that, with the slightest touch of the accelerator, will leave a smokin' spot where it stood. But many of the ju...
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      Consumer advocates defend federal agency

      Consumer Financial Protection Bureau faces GOP opposition in Congress

      You don't often hear anyone sing the praises of a federal agency, but consumer advocates are sticking up for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The agency finds itself under attack by some who say it has overstepped its bounds in the five years since it was created.

      The CFPB was established by the landmark Dodd-Frank financial regulation law. The agency, headed by former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordrey, has been a staunch consumer advocate since its creation, especially in the areas of student loans, payday lending, and other areas affecting consumers financially.

      Republicans have criticized the agency, with some calling it “unaccountable.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a GOP presidential contender, has introduced legislation to abolish it.

      Last week a Congressional hearing questioned the CFPB's independence, prompting officials of the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) to speak up for the agency. In their rebuttal, they said CFPB is both independent and accountable and has protected consumers from abusive practices.

      Accountable to Congress and the public

      “The CFPB is accountable to both Congress and the public,” Rachel Weintraub, Legislative Director and General Counsel at CFA, said in a statement.

      She points out the agency's rules can be reviewed and even vetoed by other federal regulators.

      “No other regulator can be overridden in this manner,” she said.

      The CFA notes that, in its five years of existence, the CFPB has collected and returned more than $10 billion in restitution to consumers. It has also logged more than 650,000 complaints from consumers who are dealing with financial issues, ranging from credit cards to debt collection.

      Giving consumers a voice

      Tom Feltner, CFA director of financial services, says the complaint system gives consumers a voice when they run into frustrating financial issues.

      “These complaints, along with the thorough and objective research conducted by Bureau staff, should greatly inform when and how new financial protections should apply,” Feltner said.

      Most recently, the CFPB has turned its attention to payday loans, a financial practice regulated almost exclusively at the state level. In some states, payday lenders have almost no restrictions. In others they face limits on the fees they can charge.

      Weintraub says members of Congress should judge the CFPB by the help it is providing consumers and take a closer look at the economic damage inflicted by abusive financial products and practices.

      Among the examples that the CFA could point to was last summer's CFPB $700 million fine against Citibank for illegal credit card practices. According to the CFPB, Citibank deceived consumers to sign them up into five debt protection add-on products that carried a monthly fee.  

      You don't often hear anyone sing the praises of a federal agency, but consumer advocates are sticking up for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB...
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      A 0% balance transfer card can save you thousands

      Two cards now offer 21 months of 0% interest

      If you are like most consumers, you are trying to pay off a balance on a credit card or two. Given the high interest rates on credit cards, that's often hard to do.

      By transferring a balance from a high interest credit card to one that has no interest charges, the payoff can occur much faster. There are several credit cards that are specifically designed for balance transfers, giving the cardholder a few months of 0% interest.

      Lately, these introductory periods have gotten longer, so if you are not taking advantage of them, you're leaving money on the table.

      How much can you save? Let's do an experiment to find out.

      Experiment

      Let's suppose you have a $10,000 balance on a credit card that charges 15.9% interest. You have found $500 a month in your budget to apply to paying off the balance, so how many months will it take?

      Using a credit card payment calculator at Bankrate.com, we discover that it will take two years – 24 months.

      But suppose you were able to roll the entire $10,000 over to a credit card with 0% interest. Making the same $500 a month payment, you would pay off the balance in 20 months – four months sooner, saving $2,000 in interest payments.

      But is any credit card going to give you 20 months of 0% interest? We know of two that will.

      Citi Simplicity

      The Citi Simplicity card offers a 0% rate on balance transfers for 21 months, meaning you would pay no interest during our hypothetical payoff period. Other perks of the Citi card include no late fees, no penalty rate, and no annual fee.

      With just about any balance transfer card, there will be a fee involved in moving a balance from one card to another, which will cut into your interest savings. The Citi Simplicity card charges $5 or 3% of the transferred balance, whichever is greater.

      In our experiment, that would amount to a fee of $300, meaning the total savings from the transfer would be $1,700.

      Citi Diamond Preferred

      The Citi Diamond Preferred card also has a 21-month 0% interest on balance transfers. Like the Simplicity card, it has no annual fee and charges the same balance transfer rate – $5 or 3% of the transferred balance.

      Cardmembers also get 24/7 access to personalized concierge service, providing help in booking hotels and flights and finding entertainment.

      Both cards are good options for saving on interest costs while paying off debt. However, you'll need a pretty good credit score to get either one.

      If you want to avoid a balance transfer fee, the Chase Slate is the card for you. The 0% interest introductory period is a little shorter – 15 months instead of 21 – but there is no fee to move the balance. Credit score requirements are also a bit less than for the two Citi cards.

      If you are like most consumers, you are trying to pay off a balance on a credit card or two. Given the high interest rates on credit cards, that's often ha...
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      ATM scams surged in 2015

      Number of compromised cash machines rose over 500%

      Automated Teller Machines (ATM) have become so common that there is an entire generation that can't remember going inside the bank to cash a check. Most of us trust these machines without giving them a second thought.

      New research from FICO, an analytic software firm, suggests that this trust could be misplaced. It reports the number of ATMs compromised by criminals rose 546% in 2015. The total number of compromised ATMs was the highest ever recorded.

      ATMs can become compromised when a criminal installs a “skimmer” over the machine's key pad. When a consumer keys in his or her PIN, the skimmer captures the number, giving the criminal access to the consumer's bank account.

      The scammer might also install a tiny camera that can record the debit card number and PIN.

      Quick hits

      While the number of compromises rose sharply last year, the research found that the compromises didn't last as long, either because they were discovered, or more likely, because criminals reduced the time spent harvesting card data in an effort to reduce risk. T.J. Horan, vice president of fraud solutions at FICO, said it appears criminals are taking a “quick-hit” approach to ATM theft.

      “They are moving faster to make it harder for banks to react and shut down the compromises,” Horan said in a statement. “They are targeting non-bank ATMs, which are more vulnerable — in 2015, non-bank ATMs accounted for 60% of all compromises, up from 39% in 2014."

      A non-bank ATM is one you might find at a convenience store or public place, like a sports stadium.

      In the past, FICO says ATM compromises tended to be concentrated in urban areas. That changed last year, with the scam showing up in small towns and rural areas, spread across the U.S. Horan says ATM operators need to be more aware of tampering but so do consumers.

      What to do

      "To protect themselves from this kind of fraud, cardholders should be more vigilant," he said.

      Consumers should inspect an ATM before using it. If it looks strange, or has a very different interface than experienced in the past, it is prudent to go to another location. If you complete a transaction and suspect it has been compromised, be sure to contact your card issuer.

      Check bank transactions regularly to look for unauthorized withdrawals. If your bank offers text or email alerts for suspicious activity, make sure you sign up for it.

      ATMs for the most part are reliable and secure ways to get cash, but that safety and security shouldn't be taken for granted.

      Automated Teller Machines (ATM) have become so common that there is an entire generation that can't remember going inside the bank to cash a check. Most of...
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      Rainbow Play Systems reannounces recall of plastic yellow trapeze rings

      The rings can unexpectedly crack or break during use

      Because of a low response rate, Rainbow Play Systems is reannouncing its earlier recall of 133,000 plastic yellow trapeze rings manufactured by Nylacarb Corporation and sold in the U.S., Canada and Mexico

      The rings can unexpectedly crack or break during use, posing a fall hazard to children.

      The company has received more than 100 reports of the rings cracking or breaking, including 15 with reports of injuries consisting of bumps, bruises, lacerations, concussion and one broken finger.

      This recall involves only the yellow plastic trapeze rings. They are triangular in shape with rounded sides and have a loop at the top. They measure about 8½ inches high by 6½ inches wide. The yellow rings come as a pair and were connected to a trapeze bar.

      They were sold either as a separate component or as an attachment on the following Rainbow-branded residential wooden playsets: All-American, Backyard Circus, Carnival, Fiesta, King Kong, Monster, Sunray, Sunshine and Rainbow.

      All of these playsets have an aluminum plate located on the front of the wooden swing beam with the following name stamped on it, “Playgrounds America,” “Rainbow Play Systems Inc.,” or “Sunray Premium Playgrounds.”

      The rings, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Rainbow dealers nationwide from January 2007, through December 2011, and at several mass merchandisers including Sam’s Club, Toys R Us and Walmart from January 2009, through December 2009. The playsets retailed for between $900 and $10,000.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop children from using the recalled rings, contact Rainbow for ring removal instructions, then remove the rings from the playset and receive a $10 gift card.

      Consumers may contact Rainbow Play Systems toll-free at 888-201-1570 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at http://recall.rainbowplay.com/ for more information.  

      Because of a low response rate, Rainbow Play Systems is reannouncing its earlier recall of 133,000 plastic yellow trapeze rings manufactured by Nylacarb Co...
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      Model year 2004-2007 Honda Accords recalled

      The passenger front air bag module may not comply with the advanced air bag requirements

      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 11,602 model year 2004-2007 Accords manufactured October 1, 2003, to August 17, 2007.

      The vehicles may have been assembled with an incorrect passenger frontal air bag module that does not comply with the advanced air bag requirements. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 208, "Occupant Crash Protection."

      An air bag module does not meet the advanced air bag requirements can increase the risk of injury or death in the event of a crash.

      What to do

      Honda will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the air bag module as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin May 5, 2016.

      Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-800-999-1009. Honda's number for this recall is JZ3.

      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 11,602 model year 2004-2007 Accords manufactured October 1, 2003, to August 17, 2007. The vehicles may have b...
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      Four helpful gadgets for nervous new parents

      New devices include a self-warming bottle, an app-connected car seat, and even a "baby shusher"

      Nine months of reading the books and preparing the nursery is often no match for the experience of actually having a baby in the house. Parenting is a journey filled with surprises and challenges, and the infant stage can be even trickier to navigate.

      But luckily, for new parents, the digital age has given birth to an ever-growing number of gadgets that can make life a little easier. First-time parents or even seasononed parenting pros might happily welcome some of these new products into their lives.

      Gadgets for new parents

      • Project Nursery Baby Monitor. If the numerous tales of hackers hijacking baby monitors has you concerned, check out this wi-fi free baby monitor. Created by the team at Project Nursery and unveiled at CES 2016, the monitor features secure wireless technology. It’s also the first monitor to include a portable Mini Monitor with a 1.5” LCD screen, so parents can keep an eye on the baby from wherever they are in the house. Coming in May.
      • The Baby Shusher. This interesting new device helps calm and soothe an inconsolable baby by mimicking the sounds they heard in the womb. The rhythmic “shush” it uses has been shown to trigger their natural calming reflex. Buy it on Amazon for about $30.
      • iiamo Go Self-Warming Bottle. Babies keep you on your toes, which means there’s often little time to wait by the stove or bottle warmer. This self-warming bottle works by using environmentally friendly heating cartridges (which are filled only with salt and water). Just put the heating cartridge into the bottle’s heating chamber, turn it on, and shake the bottle. The entire heating process takes only four minutes. It’s available now on Amazon for $30.
      • The 4moms Self-Installing Car Seat. As we’ve reported, new parents often make mistakes installing car seats that could put their baby’s life at risk. This car seat seeks to eliminate installation mistakes, helping to keep your baby safe. The seat, which was also unveiled at CES 2016, comes with an app that walks parents through the installation process. Electric motors in the seat can even level the seat automatically and create just the right amount of tension in the straps. The app keeps constant tabs on the state of the car seat and can alert you if something isn’t quite right. It’s available for preorder (with June delivery) on the 4moms website for $500.
      Nine months of reading the books and preparing the nursery is often no match for the experience of actually having a baby in the house. Parenting is a jour...
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      Scientifically proven ways nature can improve our mood

      Nature has hidden antidepressants in some unusual places

      The great outdoors certainly lives up to its superlative. Research has shown that getting outside can lift our spirits and brighten our mood so much that it can actually be a form of therapy.

      Nature breaks can be especially beneficial to people who are stressed. Looking to spend some quality time with mother nature? Studies show that she will gladly return the favor of your company with some impressive health benefits.

      Dirt: an antidepressant?

      Most avid gardeners will tell you there’s no place they would rather be than in their garden. As it turns out, there may be a scientific reason for the positive vibes we get when we’re digging in the dirt.

      Studies show that the Mycobacterium vaccae (M. vaccae) found in soil actually has an effect on the brain that's similar to the drug Prozac. Cancer patients who were exposed to the inoffensive bacterium reported less stress and a better quality of life, most likely due to the bump in serotonin production.

      “What we think happens is that the bacteria activate immune cells, which release chemicals called cytokines that then act on receptors on the sensory nerves to increase their activity,” Christopher Lowry, a neuroscientist at the University of Bristol in England, hypothesizes.

      Self esteem

      Spending just a few minutes outside doing “green exercise” has been scientifically proven to boost self esteem. For city-dwellers, in particular, getting back to nature can do wonders on the mood. One study finds that you don’t have to spend all day outside to get a self esteem boost from nature; just five minutes will do.

      After analyzing data from ten different studies pertaining to outdoor activities (walking, cycling, gardening, etc), researchers found that the biggest dose of self esteem came as a result of just five minutes outside.

      "For the first time in the scientific literature, we have been able to show dose-response relationships for the positive effects of nature on human mental health," University of Essex researcher Jules Pretty tells the BBC

      Forest bathing

      The Japanese have a custom called forest bathing (“Shinrin-yoku”). The idea is simple: go for a walk in the woods. But its positive effects on health are seemingly endless.

      One study finds that forest environments contribute to our overall well-being by promoting lower concentrations of cortisol (the stress hormone), lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure.

      Scientists hypothesize that this could be partially because of an antimicrobial organic compound emitted from trees. Breathing phytoncides like a-pinene and limonene can actually make us happier.

      The great outdoors certainly lives up to its superlative. Research has shown that getting outside can lift our spirits and brighten our mood so much that i...
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      Despite Fed's efforts, mortgage rates fall

      Interest rates on home loans at three year low

      The Federal Reserve has embarked on a policy of raising interest rates. It has determined the economy is strong enough that the Federal Funds Rate no longer has to be near zero.

      After that announcement back in December, the stock market swooned and the conventional wisdom predicted that all kinds of interest rates would follow the Fed's lead.

      It hasn't worked out that way, particularly for mortgage rates. Bankrate.com reported this week that consumers applying for mortgages are finding the lowest rates in three years.

      T-bills set the rate

      The reason is simple. Mortgage rates follow the yield on the Treasury's long-term bonds. When those yields rise, so do mortgage rates.

      In the wake of the Fed's announced policy change, the bond market has rallied – meaning more money is flowing into bonds. That has had the effect of pushing the yield down significantly. When more investors want to buy bonds, the government doesn't have to pay as much interest. That's just how it works.

      According to Bankrate's April 6 survey, the benchmark 30-year fixed-rate mortgage dropped from 3.83% to 3.75%. That might not sound like a big drop, but over a 30 year term it can be thousands of dollars.

      Offset rising prices

      While the drop is good news for prospective home buyers, the savings may be offset by rising home prices. It may turn out that affordability remains the same, with lower monthly payments making a more expensive home more affordable.

      Despite the near record low mortgage rates, there isn't an increase in available money to buy homes. In fact, the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reported this week that credit standards tightened slightly.

      Most of the tightening, however, occurred in conventional loan programs. The MBA says consumers seeking a government-backed mortgage loan, such as an FHA mortgage, should find a slight increase in available money.

      The Federal Reserve has embarked on a policy of raising interest rates. It has determined the economy is strong enough that the Federal Funds Rate no longe...
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      What you should know about your credit report and score

      The biggest influence on your credit score is timely bill payment

      To understand money, it helps to understand credit. Today, big ticket items, like homes and cars, usually require a loan in order to purchase them.

      Every consumer who has opened a credit account somewhere has a credit report and a credit score. Understanding both can help you be a better money manager. The Federal Reserve has compiled this helpful consumer guide.

      Your credit report tells your credit history. It lists all the credit accounts you have, or had in the past. It indicates what the balance is and whether they are in good standing.

      It will also show any existing public record involving you and your finances. If there is a court judgment against you, tax liens against your property, or bankruptcy, they will show up in your credit report.

      A credit report will also contain a list of people or companies that recently requested a copy of your credit report.

      Why it's important

      Here's why your credit report is important: banks, insurance companies, prospective employers, and a lot of other people you interact with may get a copy of your credit report. What they look for is evidence of how you manage money.

      A lender looks at your credit report to decide whether or not to lend you money. Insurance companies may adjust your rate depending on what they see in your credit report.

      Prospective employers, if you give permission for them to review your credit report, may base their decision on whether or not to hire you by what they see in your credit report.

      Service providers and landlords will also take a look at your credit report before doing business with you, so having a clean report is important.

      The information contained in your credit report is used to assign you a credit score. That way, someone reviewing your credit history knows at a glance whether you have excellent credit or just fair.

      Adding up your credit score

      There are a number of factors that go into a credit score, but perhaps the most important – and the one you can most easily control – is whether you pay your bills on time. Paying every bill on time, every month, will push up your credit score faster than anything you can do. Having one or more debt collection actions against it will drag it down faster than anything else.

      Having too many accounts open – or too few – can bring down a score. Tapping out the credit limit on a credit card will do the same.

      By law, every consumer is entitled to review copies of his or her credit report compiled by all three credit reporting agencies each year. It's free, and you can start the process at www.annualcreditreport.com.

      Getting a copy of your FICO credit score is not free, but can usually be obtained for a small fee.

      To understand money, it helps to understand credit. Today, big ticket items, like homes and cars, usually require a loan in order to purchase them.Ever...
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      Honda recalls accessory rear trunk bases used to mount accessory trunks on Honda scooters

      The locking hook of the accessory removable trunk may not engage fully

      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 1,533 accessory rear trunk bases, part numbers 08L71-K35-J00, 08L70-KZY-910, and 81200-KWN-780 used to mount accessory trunks on Honda PCX125 and PCX150 scooters.

      The locking hook of the accessory removable trunk may not fully engage to the trunk mounting base, allowing the trunk to inadvertently detach.

      If the trunk detaches during riding, it may become a road hazard and increase the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Remedy parts are not currently available. Honda will send owners an interim notification to instruct them not to use the trunk or to visit a dealer for a temporary remedy. When parts are available, owners will receive a second notification and dealers will install a newly designed trunk base, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-800-999-1009. Honda's number for this recall is JY8.

      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 1,533 accessory rear trunk bases, part numbers 08L71-K35-J00, 08L70-KZY-910, and 81200-KWN-780 used to mount accessor...
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      Toyota Sienna Minivans recalled

      The front seat belt may not restrain the occupant properly

      Toyota Motor Sales USA is recalling approximately 230 model year 2016 Sienna Minivans.

      The vehicles may be equipped with incorrect front seat belt height adjuster assemblies mounted to the center-pillar. In the event of a severe crash, the incorrect height adjuster could separate.

      If this occurs, the seat belt may not properly restrain the occupant, which could increase the risk of injury.

      What to do

      Owners of the recalled vehicles will be notified by first class mail and dealers will replace the height adjusters with new ones at no cost.

      Owners may call Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331.

      Toyota Motor Sales USA is recalling approximately 230 model year 2016 Sienna Minivans. The vehicles may be equipped with incorrect front seat belt ...
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      Houston teen becomes tenth U.S. Takata airbag victim

      A minor rear-end collision results in death for 17-year-old

      Police used to marvel at how people walked away from head-on accidents that would have killed them prior to the widespread use of airbags. Now they marvel at the people who are killed in minor fender-benders when their airbags explode and hurl tiny pieces of metal into the passenger compartment.

      That's what happened to Huma Hanif, 17, when she rear-ended the car in front of her while driving outside Houston in her Honda Civic. A metal fragment became embedded in her neck and she bled out at the scene, police said.

      “She wasn’t speeding. The car had only moderate damage,” Sheriff's Office Danny Beckworth said, according to a report in The New York Times. “It’s a crash that we work with every day that everybody walks away from.”

      Fatal shortcomings

      U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla,) said the death illustrates the shortcomings in the U.S. safety recall program.

      “Sadly, this is yet another tragic death caused by a product that Takata knew was defective,” said Nelson.  “And it shows that the current recall efforts are just not getting the job done.  Takata and the automakers have to step up their efforts to locate, notify and fix every impacted car as soon as possible — before anyone else dies."

      Investigators said the teen's car had been recalled several times since 2011, but her family said they had never received any recall notices. Honda said it had mailed at least one recall notice to the car's registered owner, a member of the victim's family.

      Fourteen automakers have recalled 28 million Takata airbag inflaters in about 28 million vehicles, but millions of them have never been repaired and millions of other vehicles with Takata airbags have not yet been recalled.

      Police used to marvel at how people walked away from head-on accidents that would have killed them prior to the widespread use of airbags. Now they marvel...
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      What's behind Baby Boomers' avoidance of annuities?

      Researcher finds an unpleasant association

      With the huge Baby Boom generation beginning to retire, you might expect the annuity business to be booming. After all, with one lump sum investment, a retiree can look forward to a steady stream of monthly income until they die.

      But the annuity business isn't booming, and researchers at Boston College were called upon to try to figure out why. The researchers conclude that consumers avoid annuities for some of the same reasons they generally put retirement savings on the back burner: they associate it with death.

      Don't want to go there

      "People need to think about how long they expect to live in order to calculate the potential payout for an annuity," Linda Salisbury, a Boston College marketing professor and co-author of the study, said in a release. "Our goal was to understand how we can help people overcome their avoidance of annuity products."

      To arrive at their conclusion, the researchers divided subjects into two groups, telling both that they were 65 years old and starting retirement. One group was told to think about putting money into an IRA and the other was told to think about putting money into an annuity.

      Following the exercise, the participants were quizzed about the thoughts going through their mind. The researchers found 40% of the annuity group was thinking about death, while only 1% of the IRA group had those thoughts.

      Follow up test

      To further test the theory, the researchers then asked one group to write an essay about their own death and the other to write about dental pain they had experienced. Then, both groups got a sales pitch for annuities and were asked if they wanted to purchase one.

      The group that had written about death was 50% less likely to show interest in an annuity.

      Could the prospect of confronting one's own mortality really be the reason consumers shy away from annuities? If so, might it also explain why many Baby Boomers haven't done such a great job of planning for retirement?

      Language influence

      In a 2013 study, Keith Chen, of Yale University, offered another explanation. He found that cultures where there is the most saving for retirement speak languages where there is no grammatical distinction between the present and future.

      “Empirically, I find that speakers of such languages save more, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese,” he wrote. “This holds both across countries and within countries when comparing demographically similar native households.”

      In English, he points out, the language makes a difference between the present and future. That leads, he says, to less future-oriented behavior, such as saving for retirement.

      With the huge Baby Boom generation beginning to retire, you might expect the annuity business to be booming. After all, with one lump sum investment, a ret...
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      Home prices continued their rise in February

      Increases are expected to continue -- but at a slower pace

      Another rise for home prices in February on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis

      Property information provider CoreLogic reports that home prices nationwide -- including distressed sales -- increased 6.8% in February and were up 1.1% from January.

      “Home prices continue to rise across the U.S. with every state posting year-over-year gains during the last 12 months,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “Improved economic conditions and tight inventories continue to drive exceptionally strong gains in many markets, especially for homes priced below $500,000.”

      Looking ahead

      The CoreLogic Home Price Index Forecast projects an increase of 5.2% on a year-over-year basis from February 2016 to February 2017, and on a month-over-month basis a more modest 0.6% from February to March.

      “Fixed-rate mortgage rates dropped more than one-quarter of a percentage point in the first three months of 2016, and job creation averaged 209,000 over the same period,” said CoreLogic Chief Economist Dr. Frank Nothaft. “These economic forces will sustain home purchases during the spring and support the 5.2% home price appreciation CoreLogic has projected for the next year.”

      Another rise for home prices in February on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basisProperty information provider CoreLogic reports that home p...
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      Fresh From Texas recalls multiple apple products

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria Monocytogenes

      Fresh from Texas of San Antonio, Texas, is recalling numerous products containing sliced red apples.

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria Monocytogenes.

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      The following products and production lots, sold by H-E-B stores in Texas, are being recalled:

      ProductUPC CodeBest By DatePackaging
      H-E-B READY FRESH GO SLICED RED APPLES 22.5 oz412201860303/16 to 04/11Bagged Item
      H-E-B READY FRESH GO SLICED RED APPLES WITH CARAMEL DIP 16 OZ412207983003/16 to 04/11Bagged Item
      Value Pack Sliced Apples 28 oz.42797 9614903/16/2016 to 04/11/2016Clear Bowl
      Red & Green Apples Large 17 oz.41220 8764903/16/2016 to 04/11/2016Clear Container
      Large Sliced Red Apples 17 oz41220 8764603/16/2016 to 04/11/2016Clear Container
      Fruit Party Tray 45 oz41220 8799703/16/2016 to 04/03/2016Clear Rectangle Container
      Deluxe Fruit Tray 52 oz42797 9666103/16/2016 to 04/03/2016Clear Round Container
      Apples & Grapes 10 oz41220 8766603/16/2016 to 04/03/2016Clear Container
      Fruit & Veg Combo Tray 40oz42797 9668803/16/2016 to 04/03/2016Clear Rectangle Tray
      H-E-B READY FRESH GO FRESH FRUIT MEDLEY 7 oz.41220 0240203/16/2016 to 04/03/2016Clear Container
      H-E-B READY FRESH GO CARROTS, APPLES & CELERY WITH RANCH DIP 6.75 oz41220 5444803/16/2016 to 04/03/2016Clear Container with 4 compartments
      H-E-B READY FRESH GO CARROTS, APPLES WITH SESAME STICKS, & HUMMUS 6oz41220 0214403/16/2016 to 04/03/2016Clear Rectangle Container with 4 compartments
      H-E-B READY FRESH GO CARROTS, APPLES WITH YOGURT PRETZELS AND RANCH DIP 4.75 oz.41220 0211903/16/2016 to 04/03/2016Clear Rectangle Container with 4 compartments
      H-E-B READY FRESH GO PINEAPPLE, GRAPES & APPLES WITH BANANA CHIPS 6oz41220 0213803/16/2016 to 04/03/2016Clear Container with 4 compartments

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products may return them to the store for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions or concerns may contact Fresh from Texas at (817) 690-2330 Monday- Friday 24 hours a day.

      Fresh from Texas of San Antonio, Texas, is recalling numerous products containing sliced red apples. The products may be contaminated with Listeria...
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      Nissan recalls Frontier V6 vehicles

      The starter harness terminal may contact the heat shield, resulting in an electrical short

      Nissan North America is recalling 1,554 2016 Frontier V6 vehicles manufactured February 29, 2016, to March 7, 2016.

      The starter motor wire harness may have been installed in an incorrect position, allowing the starter harness terminal to contact the heat shield resulting in an electrical short.

      An electrical short increases the risk of a fire.

      What to do

      Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and reposition the starter wire harness, as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin April 2016.

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

      Nissan North America is recalling 1,554 2016 Frontier V6 vehicles manufactured February 29, 2016, to March 7, 2016. The starter motor wire harness ...
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      Toyota recalls RAV4 and Lexus RX and ES vehicles

      The vehicle could lose stability control, increasing the risk of crash

      Toyota Motor Sales, USA is recalling approximately 4,170 model year 2016 Toyota RAV4; approximately 90 model year 2016 RX350; and approximately 12,400 model year 2016 ES350 vehicles.

      The recalled vehicles are equipped with a Brake Actuator assembly that enables enhanced brake control

      functions including the Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), Traction Control (TRAC), and Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), among others.

      There is a possibility that a component inside the actuator was damaged during manufacturing, preventing the actuator from operating properly. This could cause a loss of vehicle stability control, increasing the risk of crash.

      What to do

      All known owners of the recalled vehicles will be notified by first class mail. Toyota and Lexus dealers will check the serial number of the Brake Actuator and replace actuators assembled during a specific production period.

      Owners may contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331 and Lexus at 1-800-255-3987.

      Toyota Motor Sales, USA is recalling approximately 4,170 model year 2016 Toyota RAV4; approximately 90 model year 2016 RX350; and approximately 12,400 mode...
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      Latest to sue VW: VW dealers

      Dealers say Volkswagen defrauded dealers as well as consumers with its Dieselgate scandal

      Just about everybody is mad at Volkswagen these days, including VW dealers. Now, a group of three dealers have filed a class action suit against the German automaker, saying it intentionally defrauded dealers and consumers with its illegal "defeat devices."

      The lawsuit, filed today in federal court in Illinois, charges that VW’s deception, coupled with the drop in value of diesel vehicles, the inability of franchise dealers to sell diesel vehicles, and the loss in value of the VW brand post-Dieselgate delivered a devastating blow to dealers’ profits and the value of their franchises

      “Plaintiffs and the Franchise Dealer Class have invested millions, collectively hundreds of millions of dollars in the Volkswagen brand,” the suit states. “But now the brand value has plummeted, sales of VW diesels have completely halted, and sales of all VW cars have plummeted.”

      The suit also alleges that VW forced dealers into a so-called "floorplan financial" scheme with VW-owned Volkswagen Credit.

      "Pump and dump"

      “For VW dealers – many of which are small, family-owned franchises – Dieselgate amounts to a classic ‘pump and dump’ operation, in which VW exploited the CleanDiesel eco-friendly market that it helped create, boosting the price of entry and continuation in the market for VW franchises,” said Steve Berman, managing partner of the Hagens Berman law firm. “All the while, VW withheld information about the impending Dieselgate fiasco, and left dealers to fend for themselves as the scandal unfolded.”

      The suit says that just as consumers readily purchased what they thought were reliable, environmentally friendly vehicles, franchise dealers built new showrooms and purchased new facilities, while heavily stocking lots with CleanDiesel vehicles, based on VW’s false marketing.

      “Franchise owners are now left with lots full of CleanDiesel vehicles they are unable to sell, and these cars have suffered tremendous loss of value and take up inventory space and carrying costs,” Berman added. “VW dealerships large and small have been at the mercy of an unethical corporation, much like the hundreds of thousands of owners across the country, and we believe it’s time to take a stand for their rights.”

      Just about everybody is mad at Volkswagen these days, including VW dealers. Now, a group of three dealers have filed a class action suit against the German...
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      Amazon expands same-day delivery to 11 markets

      That brings the total number of same day delivery markets to 27

      Amazon has added 11 more metro areas where members of Prime can get free same day delivery, as long as the order is for more than $35. The same day delivery will be available seven days a week in:

      • Charlotte
      • Cincinnati
      • Fresno
      • Louisville
      • Milwaukee
      • Nashville
      • Raleigh
      • Richmond
      • Sacramento
      • Stockton
      • Tucson

      Amazon says it has also added same day delivery areas in parts of Central New Jersey, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and San Diego. According to the online retailer, Prime same day delivery now exists in 27 metro areas in the U.S.

      “Prime was developed to make shopping on Amazon fast and convenient, and millions of members have used Prime free same-day delivery to make their lives even easier,” Greg Greeley, Vice President of Prime, said in a statement.

      He said the company plans to keep enhancing Amazon's membership service as operational capabilities grow.

      Amazon Prime is an annual membership program costing $99 a year. Among its benefits is unlimited free two-day shipping across all categories.

      Amazon has added 11 more metro areas where members of Prime can get free same day delivery, as long as the order is for more than $35. The same day deliver...
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      Five low cost alternatives to a for-profit college

      Traditional colleges now provide some stiff competition

      Students choose a for-profit college for a lot of different reasons.

      For-profit schools, like DeVry, University of Phoenix, and Strayer, were among the first to offer online courses, ideally suited to non-traditional students who wanted to pursue a degree while already in the workforce.

      By and large, for-profit colleges have open enrollment, meaning almost anyone with a high school diploma who applies gets in. Traditional colleges over the last two decades have erected barriers, selecting only the students they want.

      Finally, for-profit schools advertise, meaning more prospective students are aware of them and might be more likely to choose a for-profit school without looking into the alternatives.

      Unfortuately, for-profit schools can be pretty expensive – and in the recent case of Corinthian College – accreditation has been an issue. Many students have left for-profit schools, with and without degrees, carrying a mountain of debt.

      In recent years, for-profit schools have gotten some stiff competition from traditional colleges and universities, which are able to provide a quality, online education at much more affordable prices.

      Most of them don't advertise, so here are five that deserve a closer look. If they are state supported schools, they usually charge more for out-of-state students. We selected schools that either don't charge extra, or the difference isn't that great.

      New Mexico Highlands University

      The school, with a campus in Las Vegas, New Mexico., was established in 1893. It offers degree programs in arts and sciences, business, education, and social work.

      Tuition in its online programs costs $200 per credit hour for New Mexico residents and $314 for out of state students.

      Murray State University

      Murray State was founded in the early 20th century in Murray, Ky. It offers a large number of both graduate and undergraduate degree programs that are accessible online.

      The in-state tuition rate is $317 a credit hour. Murray State has reciprocal arrangements with some other states in the region for reduced out of state tuition. For example, the cost is $383.50 for Alabama residents, $387 for Ohio residents, $335 for Tennessee residents, and $367 for residents of Missouri.

      Columbia College

      Columbia College is a private school, founded in 1851, with its campus in Columbia, Missouri. Since 2000, it has poured resources into its online degree programs and charges the same for in-state and out-of-state students – $275 per credit hour.

      Bellevue University

      Located in Bellevue, Nebraska, Bellevue University is another private school where the tuition is the same for everyone, regardless of where the student lives. It has ranked highly in the U.S. News annual college edition and offers 47 online undergraduate degree programs at a cost of $275 per credit hour.

      Middle Georgia State University

      Part of the University of Georgia system, Middle Georgia is located in Macon and offers a wide range of graduate and undergraduate programs online.

      Students pursing an online degree pay a tuition of $169 per credit hour.

      Since state supported colleges are usually cheaper for in-state residents, looks for an inexpensive education alternative where you live. Check out options in your state here.

      Students choose a for-profit college for a lot of different reasons.For-profit schools, like DeVry, University of Phoenix, and Strayer, were among the ...
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      Mortgage applications rise for the first time in four weeks

      Contract interest rates were down sharply

      After falling for the previous three weeks, applications for mortgages have rebounded.

      The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports applications were up 2.7% during the week ending April 1.

      The Refinance Index shot up 7% from the previous week, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity to 54.5% of total applications from 52.4% a week earlier.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity slipped by 4.7% of total applications, the FHA share of total applications dipped to 11.3% from 11.5%, the VA share was 12.2%, and the USDA share of total applications dropped to 0.8% from 0.9% the week prior.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) dropped eight basis points -- from 3.94% to 3.86% -- with points decreasing to 0.32 from 0.36 (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) fell to 3.76% from 3.82%, 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 slipped three basis points to 3.7%, with points increasing to 0.36 from 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages was down from 3.19% to 3.10%, with points increasing to 0.37 from 0.30 (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 13 basis points to 2.94%, with points decreasing to 0.26 from 0.38 (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.

      After falling for the previous three weeks, applications for mortgages have rebounded.The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports applications were ...
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      Consumers missing the boat on travel rewards credit cards

      When you sign up can determine the payoff

      When it comes to travel rewards credit cards, when you apply can make a big difference. At certain times of the year the rewards are much greater.

      NerdWallet's 2016 Travel Credit Card Study shows most consumers are oblivious to this fact and are leaving an average of 15,338 rewards points on the table by applying for a card at the wrong time. That works out to an average of $177 in lost value.

      Sean McQuay, NerdWallet's credit card expert, says consumers may love travel credit cards, but they aren't making the most of them.

      Limited time offers

      "Many consumers know that signing up for a travel card means getting a sign-up bonus, but most don't realize that there are limited-time offers that often push those sign-up bonuses up by an average of nearly $200 and that those offers follow a seasonal pattern every year,” McQuay said in a statement.

      But by signing up at an optimal time, he says consumers can significantly improve the value of their credit card.

      For general travel, November is the best month to sign up based on the sign up bonus. Despite that, the study found most consumers sign up for this type of card in July. As a result, NerdWallet estimates about 91% of consumers miss out on maximum rewards.

      November is also the best month to sign up for an airline rewards card, but the study found that most consumers sign up for them in January.

      For a hotel rewards card, the best time to sign up is August. Unfortunately, most consumers sign up for one in April, missing out on the maximum bonus.

      Wait five months

      It usually is not a good idea to sign up for a travel credit card just for a specific trip. In fact, it pays to wait at least five months between the time you get the credit card and when you take a trip. That's because many cards require a minimum amount of spending before the maximum reward kicks in.

      But McQuay says if you are not currently earning rewards, it may be advantageous to take the current sign-up offer to make sure you begin accruing rewards immediately.

      “Ultimately, only you can make the best decision about when you apply for a credit card," he said.

      When it comes to travel rewards credit cards, when you apply can make a big difference. At certain times of the year the rewards are much greater.NerdW...
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      The non-manufacturing economy continues to perk along

      A dozen services industries reported expansion in March

      Things are sailing along nicely in the non-manufacturing sector of the economy, with growth continuing in March for the 74th consecutive month.

      The Non-Manufacturing Institute for Supply Management (ISM) Report On Business shows the services sector grew 1.1% last month to 54.5%, representing a slightly faster rate of expansion. A reading above 50 indicates an expansion, while below that suggests contraction

      The Non-Manufacturing Business Activity Index was up 2%, for the 80th consecutive month of growth; the New Orders Index gained 1.2%, and the the Employment Index inched up 0.6% after falling in February.

      The Prices Index was up 3.6% to 49.1%, indicating prices dipped in March for the fifth time in the last seven months.

      Industry performance

      The 12 non-manufacturing industries reporting growth in March are:

      1. Educational Services;
      2. Information;
      3. Wholesale Trade;
      4. Finance & Insurance;
      5. Health Care & Social Assistance;
      6. Retail Trade;
      7. Mining;
      8. Management of Companies & Support Services;
      9. Accommodation & Food Services;
      10. Public Administration;
      11. Utilities; and
      12. Professional, Scientific & Technical Services.

      The two industries reporting contraction in March are:

      1. Arts, Entertainment & Recreation; and
      2. Transportation & Warehousing.
      Things are sailing along nicely in the non-manufacturing sector of the economy, with growth continuing in March for the 74th consecutive month.The Non-...
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      Alimentos Congelados, S.A. recalls frozen broccoli cuts

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria Monocytogenes

      Alimentos Congelados, S.A. (Pinula) is recalling 1,800 cases of frozen broccoli cuts.

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria Monocytogenes

      The company has not received any complaints in relation to this product and is not aware of any illnesses associated with the product to date.

      The following product distributed in poly nags to stores in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina, is being recalled:

      • WYLWOOD Fresh Frozen Broccoli Cuts, NET WT. 16 OZ (1 LB), UPC 5193300110, with bag code: A25335P and A15335P

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should not consume it, but throw it away.

      Consumers wanting a refund or with questions may contact the company at 1-800-888-4646 Monday thru Friday between 8:00AM and 5:00 PM (EST).

      Alimentos Congelados, S.A. (Pinula) is recalling 1,800 cases of frozen broccoli cuts. The product may be contaminated with Listeria Monocytogenes...
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      Grosfillex recalls commercial side chairs and armless bar stools

      The backrest can crack and detach

      Grosfillex of Robesonia, Pa., is recalling about 92,000 Havana side chairs and armless bar stools.

      The backrest can crack and detach, posing a fall hazard to the user.

      The firm has received three reports of incidents, including neck and shoulder injuries.

      This recall involves the Grosfillex Havana commercial side chairs and armless bar stools sold in charcoal, espresso, tobacco and white. The high-backs and seats are covered with woven plastic wicker and have aluminum legs.

      The side chairs measure about 35 ½ inches tall by 18 ½ inches wide and 22 inches deep. The bar stools measure about 45 ½ inches tall by 20 inches wide by 24 inches deep. Grosfillex and CE # 2194 is molded on the underside of the seat.

      The chairs and stools, manufactured in France and the U.S., were sold at distributors and dealers nationwide in the food service and hospitality industries from April 2008, through August 2015, for between $75 and $150.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and stools and contact Grosfillex for free replacements if the product is under the three-year warranty or for a product voucher for recalled products no longer under warranty.

      Consumers may contact Grosfillex toll free at 844-845-4570 extension 3210 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday, by email at gfxprogram@grosfillex.com or online at www.grosfillexfurniture.com and click on Product Safety Alert for more information.

      Grosfillex of Robesonia, Pa., is recalling about 92,000 Havana side chairs and armless bar stools. The backrest can crack and detach, posing a fall...
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      Online fundraising gets lots of likes but not necessarily much money

      Researchers say organizations should be sure to define their goals before launching a campaign

      They didn't set out to throw cold water on the idea of fundraising via social media, but researchers at the University of Toronto Mississauga say non-profit organizations should think carefully about their goals before jumping in with both feet. 

      "It is true that once you rely on social media, your message can easily reach people by the millions," said management professor Nicola Lacetera. "But then the question becomes 'What do people do with these messages?'"

      Lacetera and two colleagues conducted research on the ALS Society's ice bucket fundraising challenge and other social media campaigns to find out how effective they were as fundraisers.

      In one case, they studied Help Attack! -- a program that lets Facebook and Twitter users donate to charities each time they post or tweet. Potential donors had the option to broadcast their pledges, but about 16 percent of them deleted their pledges before payment was actually required.

      "Donations make you feel good and look good, but do you actually need to donate to get those effects?" Lacetera asked. "You can do that just with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger by simply 'liking' a campaign. The ability to broadcast doesn't have a big effect on action and real money."

      Conclusion: "The jury is still out as to how to get people financially involved. It's an important and exciting challenge to figure out how to leverage the great power of these platforms for social causes," Lacetera said.

      They didn't set out to throw cold water on the idea of fundraising via social media, but researchers at the University of Toronto Mississauga say non-profi...
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      Virgin America tops 2015 Airline Quality Rating

      But consumer complaints about airlines hit a 15 year high

      Virgin America placed first for the fourth straight year in the 26th annual annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR), compiled by Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Prescott, Arizona, campus.

      Overall, airlines turned in a mixed performance in 2015, with six of 13 domestic airlines improving over the last year and six losing ground. One, Spirit, is in the rating for the first time.

      The industry showed overall improvement in three of the four core categories contained in the AQR study. On-time performance, rate of involuntary denied boardings, and the rate of lost or damaged bags showed improvement over the 2014 study.

      Rising complaints

      On the downside, the rate of customer complaints increased, on a per passenger served basis, to the highest level in 15 years.

      The airlines that improved their standing in 2015 were JetBlue, Delta, ExpressJet, SkyWest, Southwest, and United.

      The airlines that lost ground were Alaska Air, American, Envoy, Frontier, Hawaiian, and Virgin America. Even though it took a step back, Virgin America still placed first in the AQR, followed by JetBlue and Delta.

      Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, says the latest rankings suggest the recent round of airline mergers is settling in and carriers have adjusted.

      Merger benefits

      "Bigger has produced some operating gains for the airlines, but customer perceptions of poor outcomes are still reflected in a higher number of customer complaints for the year," Headley said in a release.

      Study co-researcher Brent Bowen, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Prescott, says the results from this year have a dark side. The results, he says, show the air traveling public is not happy.

      "Passengers are reaching out and letting us know exactly that, based on the number of complaints filed with the Department of Transportation,” he said. “The human element of air travel is obviously deteriorating, and passengers are fed up."

      Headly says the system works best when it isn't stressed by high passenger volume. Traffic has been increasing in 2015 but Headly says an expansion of capacity this year could lessen the stress.

      Bowen says airlines are reaping record profits and should be plowing some of that money back into quality improvements. He also says airports need to make improvements in infrastructure to make the commercial aviation system work better in the future.

      Virgin America placed first for the fourth straight year in the 26th annual annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR), compiled by Wichita State University and E...
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      Alaska Air taking over Virgin America

      Deal would expand West Coast carrier's footprint

      Alaska Air, a carrier operating primarily on the West Coast, is acquiring Virgin America. It's the latest airline industry consolidation and perhaps the only combination that wouldn't raise significant anti-trust hurdles at the Justice Department.

      Virgin founder Richard Branson admits, however, that he is sad to see his little gem of an airline join the consolidation trend.

      "I would be lying if I didn't admit sadness that our wonderful airline is merging with another," Branson wrote Monday in a post on Virgin's website. Because of federal regulations, Branson -- who is British -- was not allowed to hold controlling interest in his airline and was thus effectively sidelined during merger negotiations. 

      "So there was sadly nothing I could do to stop it," he said.

      The merger expands Alaska Air's existing footprint in California and will help it compete with the big four domestic carriers. Virgin America operates some transcontinental flights, but its major presence is in California.

      Alaska Air says Virgin America customers will find expanded service to Silicon Valley markets, as well as Seattle. It says the combination of the two airlines will provide more connections to international flights leaving Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

      East Coast presence

      It will also create an East Coast presence for Alaska Air, with access to slot-controlled airports like Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the two major New York City-area airports, JFK and LaGuardia.

      "With our expanded network and strong presence in California, we'll offer customers more attractive flight options for nonstop travel,” Brad Tilden, chairman and CEO of Alaska Air Group, said in a release. “We look forward to bringing together two incredible groups of employees to build on the successes they have achieved as standalone companies to make us an even stronger competitor nationally."

      Besides being a win for stockholders, the two companies say the merger is a win for consumers too. They point out that Alaska Air has won the Wall Street Journal's top ranking among the nine largest domestic carriers for overall operational performance three years in a row. The number two airline? Virgin America.

      Virgin America has also been consistently voted “Best Domestic Airline” by Leisure's Annual World's Best Awards and Conde Nast Traveler's Readers' Choice Awards. Both airlines have been highly rated in terms of quality and efficiency.

      1,200 daily departures

      The combined company will maintain hubs in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Anchorage, Alaska, and Portland, Oregon, with 1,200 daily departures. Its fleet will include 280 aircraft, including Virgin America's 60 Airbus A319 and A320 jets, with three classes of service.

      The deal has won the unanimous approval of the boards of directors of both companies, but is conditioned on regulatory clearance, a green light from Virgin America shareholders, and satisfaction of other customary closing conditions.

      The companies say they expect to complete the transaction with regulators' approval no later than Jan. 1, 2017.

      Alaska Air, a carrier operating primarily on the West Coast, is acquiring Virgin America. It's the latest airline industry consolidation and perhaps the on...
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      Three good credit cards for students

      All three offer some rewards and forgiving features

      Not all credit cards are alike, and some are better than others for certain periods of life. When you're young, it pays to have a credit card that takes that into account.

      Fortunately, there are several credit cards designed specifically for young people still in school. Here are three pretty good ones.

      Discover It Chrome for Students

      The Discover It Chrome for Students has some forgiving features that might come in handy. There is no annual fee, no fee for going over your limit, no foreign transaction fee, and no late fee on first late payment. In fact, a late payment won't raise your interest rate, as it would with most other cards.

      The rewards are pretty good too. You'll get 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations, capped at $1,000 spending on the combined categories. You'll get 1% back on all other purchases.

      Currently, Discover will match all the cash back received in the first year for new cardholders. It will also reward students for hitting the books, adding $20 cash back each school year your GPA is at least 3.0.

      Freeze-It is a nice security feature, allowing you to prevent new purchases, cash advances, and balance transfers on misplaced cards instantly, using a mobile app or PC.

      Wells Fargo Cash Back College Visa

      The Wells Fargo Cash Back College Visa Card is another credit card that can benefit a young person with limited credit history. You can build your credit as you use the card – as long as you use it responsibly. There is no annual fee.

      You can also rack up a few rewards along the way, earning 3% cash rewards on gasoline, groceries, and drug store purchases the first six months you have the card and 1% cash back on virtually all other net purchases.

      Cash rewards can be redeemed in $25 increments and you can set it up so that the money is deposited into a Wells Fargo savings account. You can also apply the money to a qualifying Wells Fargo credit account or receive a check.

      Journey Student Rewards card from Capital One

      The Journey Student Rewards card from Capital One is another good choice for someone starting out to build a positive credit profile. You get 1% Cash back on everything you buy and there's no annual fee, so you are already ahead of the game.

      Beyond that, Journey will send you text alerts so you know when your payment is due. Make the payment on time and Journey will give you a 25% bonus on the cash you've earned.

      Not all credit cards are alike, and some are better than others for certain periods of life. When you're young, it pays to have a credit card that takes th...
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      Finally -- the manufacturing economy is growing again

      March showed the first expansion in the sector in six months

      It's been a long time coming, but the manufacturing sector of the economy is growing again.

      According to the latest Manufacturing Institute for Supply Management (ISM) Report On Business, the March Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) was up 2.3% from February -- to 51.8%. A reading above 50 indicates growth, while under 50 suggests contraction.

      The March increase was the first since August 2015. The overall economy, meanwhile, expanded for the 82nd consecutive month.

      Within the sector, The New Orders Index posted a gain of 6.8%, production was up 2.5%, and the Prices Index soared 13%, indicating higher raw materials prices for the first time since October 2014.

      Industry performance

      Of the 18 manufacturing industries, 12 reported growth in March:

      1. Printing & Related Support Activities;
      2. Furniture & Related Products;
      3. Nonmetallic Mineral Products;
      4. Miscellaneous Manufacturing;
      5. Machinery;
      6. Plastics & Rubber Products;
      7. Food, Beverage & Tobacco Products;
      8. Fabricated Metal Products;
      9. Chemical Products;
      10. Paper Products;
      11. Primary Metals; and
      12. Computer & Electronic Products.

      The industries reporting contraction in March were:

      1. Apparel, Leather & Allied Products;
      2. Textile Mills;
      3. Electrical Equipment, Appliances & Components;
      4. Transportation Equipment; and
      5. Petroleum & Coal Products.
      It's been a long time coming, but the manufacturing sector of the economy is growing again.According to the latest Manufacturing Institute for Supply M...
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      Chrysler recalls Ram 1500 trucks

      The vehicles could lose power steering assist

      Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 442 model year 2015-2016 Ram 1500 trucks manufactured January 22, 2015, to September 13, 2015.

      Contamination of the Electric Power Steering (EPS) control circuit board may cause a short and result in the loss of power steering assist.

      If the vehicle experiences a loss of power steering assist, extra steering effort will be required, especially at lower speeds, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

      What to do

      Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the EPS unit, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is S19.

      Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 442 model year 2015-2016 Ram 1500 trucks manufactured January 22, 2015, to September 13, 2015. Contamination of ...
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      Watch out for crooked income tax preparers

      It's your name on the return and you're responsible for any chicanery

      Many years ago, my accountant looked at me sadly as he finished my tax return. "You are really getting hit this year," he said. "You need some dependents. My daughter is a lovely girl with three beautiful children. That's four deductions right there."

      "What are you suggesting?" I asked. "I've never even met your daughter."

      "You don't have to," he said. "It would just be for tax purposes."

      He wound up in prison and all of his former clients, including me, were ruthlessly audited by the IRS. Another accountant once tried to rent me his house in the Bahamas and said I could write off the travel and rent as a business deduction, claiming I had attended a professional conference. 

      The world is, of course, full of con men, scam artists, and chiselers of all stripes, never more so than at this time of year when the iron boot of the state falls upon us all, demanding its fair share of our income for the year.

      While you are no doubt honest and forthright, not all tax preparers are and some, like my former CPAs, may make suggestions that sound attractive but in reality are paths that can lead straight to the federal penitentiary. It's your name on the tax return and if you let your preparer pull any funny business, you may be held equally responsible.

      2.1 million

      The IRS and the Justice Department are onto just about any clever little tax dodge you can think of and the chances of getting caught are actually pretty high. Of the 150 million returns filed in 2014, the IRS identified more than 2.1 million as claiming fraudulent refunds totaling more than $15.7 billion. In 2015, 35 fraudulent tax preparers were shut down and many were prosecuted on criminal charges. 

      “Every year, thousands of federal income tax returns are prepared by people who care much more about making a quick buck than about preparing accurate returns,” said Acting Assistant U.S. Attorney General Caroline D. Ciraolo.  “Most tax return preparers are honest.  But some preparers who charge clients a percentage of their tax refund intentionally prepare false returns to increase their clients’ refund, and thus their own fees."

      Ciraolo said also that some preparers who charge by the form will intentionally prepare incorrect forms that their clients don’t need in order to increase their compensation. 

      "Taxpayers might think that they’re getting a good deal on their taxes, or that as long as someone else prepares the return, they’re not responsible.  They’re wrong.  Taxpayers who have their return prepared incorrectly are required to pay the tax they owe, or pay back the refund they weren’t entitled to get.  These clients might also owe interest and penalties, which can be substantial," she said.

      Red flags

      Ciraolo lists some red flags you can watch for when choosing a tax preparer:

      Your refund should never be deposited directly into a preparer’s bank account. To be sure your payment goes where it is supposed to go, it must be made directly to the IRS and your state tax collector. 

      Never sign a blank return or a blank form, or sign a return or a form without reading it first. By law, a return preparer must provide a client with a completed copy of the return no later than the time the customer is asked to sign the return. Failing to review it carefully can land you in hot water.

      Don’t use a preparer who mischaracterizes your expenses. Remember that trip to the Bahamas? The IRS nabbed a preparer who pulled a similar stunt, deducting purchases at Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines as “medical expenses.” 

      Don't set up phony businesses. One of the most common dishonest return-preparation practices is to prepare returns that include non-existent businesses, sometimes based on a client’s hobbies. Collecting trout lures is fine but don't call it a business if it isn't. 

      Some other fraudulent schemes and practices that have been stopped by federal courts include:

      • Fabricating fake Form W-2 (Wage and Tax Statement) information;
      • Claiming bogus education and first-time homebuyer credits;
      • Claiming phony child and dependent care credits or residential energy credits;
      • Claiming fraudulent fuel tax credits;
      • Falsely exempting foreign earned income;
      • Inflating unreimbursed employee business expense deductions; and
      • Fraudulently inflating or decreasing a client’s income or deductions to maximize the Earned Income Tax Credit.

      The IRS advises taxpayers who ask a tax professional to prepare their return to be careful in the professional they select. The IRS offers some basic tips and guidelines and even a number of instructional YouTube videos. They're worth checking out.

      No less a public figure than Donald Trump freely admits to doing everything legal to minimize his annual tax payment. There's nothing wrong with that but the key word is "legal." When presented with an option that sounds too good to be true, chances are it is. 

      Many years ago, my accountant looked at me sadly as he finished my tax return. "You are really getting hit this year," he said. "You need some dependents. ...
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      American Airlines changes its policy and will allow consumers to cancel flights

      Consumers who preferred the old hold policy will still be able to use it for now, though

      Travel plans change all the time, so it goes without saying that consumers need to be able to change flights or cancel them altogether. By law, all airline companies need to offer consumers one of two options: either they can allow travelers to cancel their flight within 24 hours and dispense a refund or they can put the flight on hold so that the consumer locks in the current price, allowing them to shop around for a better deal.

      The vast majority of airlines have adopted the former rule, where they would allow consumers to cancel their flight and receive a refund. However, up until now, American Airlines was one of the few companies that offered the hold option. This left many consumers confused when they tried to cancel their flights in the past, but now that will no longer be an issue. The Washington Post reports that the company has said that it will be switching to the cancellation policy as of today.

      Hold policy still active for now

      The policy change will alleviate a lot of customer confusion over why they couldn’t cancel their American flight, especially when the option is so common with other carriers. “Up until now, we’ve done it a little differently than other airlines. . . Reasonably enough, people assumed the policies were the same,” said American Airlines spokesman Josh Freed.

      While the new cancellation policy may be more attractive to some consumers, the hold policy does have its merits. The system allowed consumers to put a 24-hour hold on any flight reservation that was more than a week away.

      This provided something of a safety net; if the price on the flight went up, then consumers could still get the flight on the old price. If the price went down, then travelers could re-book the flight at a lower cost. The holds could also be canceled and placed on other flights, which would then give consumers another 24-hour window to keep searching for cheaper rates.

      Luckily, consumers who like the hold option don’t need to say goodbye to it quite yet. While the change goes into effect as of today, consumers who want to use the hold option will still have the ability to do so for some time. Freed says that travelers will still be able to place holds on 24-hour flights booked with reward miles, and those who choose to use the American Airlines website will still be able to use it too until the company phases it out at a later date. 

      Travel plans change all the time, so it goes without saying that consumers need to be able to change flights or cancel them altogether. By law, all airline...
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      Car shoppers getting new tool to check their credit

      Free tool will be accessible through dealer websites

      Equifax and Black Book Avtivator are teaming up to give consumers an easy way to check their credit score before heading to a car dealer. The tool – Black Book Activator eCredit – will be accessible on participating dealer websites.

      The tool will allow car shoppers to check their Equifax Risk Score at no charge. While it isn't the consumer's FICO score, generally regarded as the industry standard, Equifax says its score is a key measurement that can help consumers better understand the financing options they will be offered.

      Knowing your credit score going into a vehicle transaction is generally regarded as an important piece of knowledge. A good score should get you a good rate. A lower score may limit your financing options.

      The information provided by the new tool is both instant and private. Equifax says it is not shared with third parties, including the dealer. The dealer will access the consumer's FICO score if and when the financing process begins.

      Social Security number unnecessary

      Equifax says using the new tool will also be secure. Unlike some sites providing free credit ratings, users will not have to enter Social Security numbers. The tool only needs a name, address and a couple of answers to a multiple choice quiz, to verify the identity of the user.

      "Our testing and consumer feedback have shown that car shoppers want access to their credit scores as they are making buying decisions, but until now, there hasn't been a simple, non-intrusive way for auto shoppers to get an instant, accurate score without sharing a lot of detailed information," Mike McFall, president of Black Book Activator Division, said in a release."Working closely with Equifax, we've created an easy plug-in for dealers, and a truly risk-free way for consumers to gain insight about which vehicles might make the most sense for their budgets, moving them one step closer to purchase."

      Market testing

      The tool has been tested with several dealers before the rollout. Frances Looper, Internet Manager at Love Chevrolet in Columbia, S.C., says the tool is helpful for a dealer that makes its initial contact with prospective customers online.

      “As a bonus, users don't leave our site to get the information, and they don't feel as if their privacy has been compromised,” she said. “It makes everything friendlier.”

      Your credit score not only determines what kind of loan you receive, it may determine whether you can actually get a loan. Carfax notes that auto lenders generally have a more flexible definition of excellent credit than mortgage lenders.

      It says a minimum credit score to finance a used car might be 640 to 680, depending on the dealer. Below that, you might be assigned a subprime loan, with rates three to five times higher than prime borrowers.

      Credit score benchmarks are generally higher for new car loans.

      Equifax and Black Book Avtivator are teaming up to give consumers an easy way to check their credit score before heading to a car dealer. The tool – Black...
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      New car prices rose 2% in March

      Consumers having to extend loan terms to afford them

      For another month, U.S. consumers paid more to drive a new car. The average transaction price in March was $33,666, up 2% over March 2015, according to Kelley Blue Book (KBB).

      “March average transaction prices reveal continued increases for nearly every manufacturer, with the industry average up 2% year-over-year,” Tim Fleming, analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said in a release.

      But Fleming points out that carmakers had to increase their spending on incentives, meaning the car companies themselves paid a portion of that higher price.

      In another troubling sign, an increasing share of consumers had to finance their purchase over six to seven years in order to afford the monthly payment. That's bad for both consumers and carmakers.

      Buying cars they can't afford

      For consumers, it suggests they are buying vehicles they can't really afford. If the vehicles depreciate faster than consumers can pay for them, a number of consumers could quickly find themselves under water, owing more for a car or truck than the vehicle is worth.

      The bad news for carmakers – if a consumer is taking seven years to pay for a car, he or she will be less likely to replace it until after that time.

      Just because the average transaction price continues to rise, it doesn't mean the price of all cars in the showroom are rising. It simply means that consumers are choosing to purchase more expensive cars, or cars with more options.

      With lower gasoline prices, consumers are buying larger cars and trucks which tend to be more expensive than their smaller, more fuel efficient counterparts.

      Good more for Chrysler and Toyota

      According to KBB, Fiat Chrysler scored the largest percentage increase in transactions prices in March, rising 3.3%. The Dodge brand was particularly strong – up 5% – on robust sales of the Challenger, Charger and RAM pick-up.

      Toyota was close behind, with transaction prices rising 3.1%. Toyota scored gains on every model except the Venza, which has been dropped from the fleet line up.

      Among brands, Volkswagen group was the laggard. Its transaction prices were down 4.5% as it continues to wrestle with the diesel emissions cheating scandal.

      That may create opportunities for consumers looking for a bargain, since the prices of both the Jetta and Passat, two models affected by the brand’s diesel crisis, were both down 9%.

      For another month, U.S. consumers paid more to drive a new car. The average transaction price in March was $33,666, up 2% over March 2015, according to Kel...
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      Fed Chair Janet Yellen just made mortgages cheaper

      Her dovish speech sent rates lower

      If you are getting ready to buy a home or refinance an existing one, send Janet Yellen a thank you note.

      The Federal Reserve Chair has just ensured you'll continue to have a nice low interest rate when you are ready to close.

      Yellen made a speech to the Economic Club of New York this week that is having widespread impact, and not just on mortgage rates. Yellen made it clear she now believes economic conditions have changed since December, when the Fed announced a 25 basis point rise in the Federal Funds interest rate.

      It was a minor increase, but with it the Fed served notice that six years of 0% interest rates was ending, and monetary policy had to get back to normal. More rate hikes were expected this year.

      The Fed was worried that the unreasonably low cost of credit had distorted the value of assets – especially stocks. It also wanted to be able to lower rates in the future if inflation got out of hand.

      Reality intrudes

      The problem was that the economy – both in the U.S. and globally – showed real signs of weakness. The stock market plunged as Wall Street realized the cheap money party was ending and interest rates were rising into the teeth of a possible global recession.

      When Yellen made her speech this week, signaling that the Fed is backing away from its plan to boost rates several times this year, stocks soared. More money also poured into U.S. government bonds, raising their price but lowering their yield – the interest they pay.

      That is significant to home buyers because 30-year mortgage rates are closely linked with the yield on the government's long-term bonds.

      Rate the same as a year ago

      Bankrate reports that its March 30 survey of large mortgage lenders show the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage rate fell immediately, from 3.9% to 3.83%. That's almost the same as it was a year ago, when mortgage rates were at historic lows.

      Conventional wisdom called for mortgage rates to steadily rise throughout 2016, taking some of the pressure off rising home prices, especially in the nation's hottest markets. Now, it looks like mortgage rates will stay low, at least for the foreseeable future.

      That doesn't sound like a problem, but it might be. Lower interest rates mean buyers can afford to pay a little more for a house, meaning sellers can hold out for more money.

      The problem comes in because there are so few homes – new and existing – for sale. Economists worry that could force prices to unsustainable levels that would not be healthy for the housing market.

      If you are getting ready to buy a home or refinance an existing one, send Janet Yellen a thank you note.The Federal Reserve Chair has just ensured you'...
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      Manhattan Toy recalls table top toys Due to Choking Hazard

      The round plastic beads can break, posing a choking hazard

      The Manhattan Toy Company, of Minneapolis is recalling about 2,500 Busy Loops table top toys in the U.S. and Canada.

      The round plastic beads can break, posing a choking hazard.

      The firm has received two reports of beads breaking off the toy. No injuries have been reported.

      Busy Loops table top toys have orange, green, blue and purple plastic tubing with plastic beads threaded on the tubing that can slide up and down. The tubes sit on a blue plastic base with an orange plastic suction cup.

      The toy is about 4.5” W x 4.5” L x 7” H. The model number 700470 and lot code FH are printed on the bottom of the blue base.

      The toys, manufactured in China, were sold at BuyBuy Baby and other toy stores nationwide, and online at Amazon.com and Kohls.com from September 2015, through January 2016, for about $15.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled toy and return it to the store where it was purchased or contact Manhattan Toy for a full refund.

      Consumers may Contact Manhattan Toy Company at 800-541-1345 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at www.manhattantoy.com and click on Recalls for more information.

      The Manhattan Toy Company, of Minneapolis is recalling about 2,500 Busy Loops table top toys in the U.S. and Canada. The round plastic beads can br...
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      Volkswagen recalls Passats equipped with TDI engines

      An electrical short can cause electrical connectors of an underbody sensor to overheat

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 91,000 model year 2012-2014 Passats equipped with TDI engines.

      Due to improperly assembled wire seals in a connector for an underbody sensor, water may enter and corrode the electrical connectors of the sensor, causing an electrical short.

      An electrical short can cause the electrical connectors of the sensor to overheat, increasing the risk of a fire.

      What to do

      Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the connector, replacing it as necessary, 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 23T3.

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 91,000 model year 2012-2014 Passats equipped with TDI engines. Due to improperly assembled wire seals in a...
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