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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...

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Photo (c) Nito - Fotolia

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).

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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.

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Coming soon to the world of milk alternatives: pea milk

Ripple's pea-based milk may be a healthier, more sustainable milk alternative

Consumers have become less interested in cow’s milk over the last few years, opting instead for milk alternatives like almond or soy. Milk alternatives...

PhotoConsumers have become less interested in cow’s milk over the last few years, opting instead for milk alternatives like almond or soy.

Milk alternatives may have netted the interest of the eco-conscious and those with certain dietary restrictions, but almond milk and other milk alternatives aren’t quite as sustainable as one might think.

But soon, a more sustainable -- and even healthier -- type of milk will be joining the ranks of milk alternatives. Beginning May 2, consumers can find pea milk at their local Whole Foods (later, at Target and other retailers).  

Developed by Neil Renninger, PhD and Adam Lowry, pea milk may be an answer to the unsustainability of milk.

Small carbon footprint

The pea-based milk -- called Ripple, for its intended "ripple effect" of environmental benefits -- boasts larger quantities of protein and a 93% smaller carbon footprint than dairy milk. The process of making it is much kinder to the environment compared to almond milk.

A single almond requires 1.1 gallons of water to grow, according to Mother Jones. Almonds also require a good bit of fertilization and irrigation, which isn't especially good for the drought-stricken regions of California where they're grown. Peas, on the other hand, don’t demand much special treatment.

According to Ripple, the process of making pea milk requires 96% less water than almond milk, 99% less than dairy milk, and 76% less than soy milk.

Ripple's pea milk is also protein-rich, boasting eight grams of protein per glass -- the same as dairy milk. It triumphs over dairy milk in other ways, however. Ripple’s milk contains one third less saturated fat and 50% more calcium than dairy milk, as well as more potassium and vitamin D.

No pea taste

For anyone considering giving pea-based milk a chance, the name might be the biggest hurdle. But, actually, it tastes nothing like peas -- a feat that Lowry says was a challenge.

It took a year for the company to come up with a process of coaxing out a neutral-tasting protein that still retained the impressive nutritional content of peas.

"The primary challenge is one of flavor," Lowry told FoodNavigator-USA. "If you just make pea milk the way that you make almond milk, with regular yellow peas, you can get a very high protein beverage, but it frankly tastes terrible." 

The answer to this dilemma? A soon-to-be-patented process that "separates the good stuff from the peas from all of the stuff that kind of gives it that off-flavor and color." At the end of the process, you’re left with milk that has all the pea protein without that distinctive pea taste.

Ripple will come in chocolate, vanilla, and unsweetened flavors. It will retail for $4.99 for a 48-ounce bottle.

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JetBlue announces new LGA-BOS service

American and Delta currently dominate the busy route

JetBlue is starting six daily flights between New York's LaGuardia Airport and Boston's Logan International, it announced today. Delta and American current...

PhotoJetBlue is starting six daily flights between New York's LaGuardia Airport and Boston's Logan International, it announced today. Delta and American currently dominate the busy route.

“Increased competition in the congested New York market opens the door to better service and lower fares for our hometown New York customers,” said Robin Hayes, president and chief executive officer, JetBlue.

The new LaGuardia–Boston Logan route, which starts Oct. 31, 2016, is part of JetBlue’s plan to reach 150 daily flights in Boston, where it currently is the top airline in both flights per day and destinations served. JetBlue ranks fifth at LaGuardia.

Besides the New York-Boston route, JetBlue will shift two daily frequencies to Fort Lauderdale, and one each to Orlando, Tampa, Palm Beach, and Fort Myers. The carrier will operate up to 30 daily flights out of Newark starting on October 30.

Flights between Logan and LaGuardia will be operated on JetBlue’s Embraer 190 aircraft, which the airline said features the most legroom in coach and "spacious two-by-two seating."

Amenities will include live TV, SiriusXM radio, and free snacks and soft drinks, as well as free broadband.

Popcorn on United

Not to be outdone, United says it will offer Garrett Popcorn's Garrett Mix, a gooey caramel and cheese mixture that is popular in Chicago, United's base. Whether it will cause passengers elsewhere to salivate isn't clear.

The goopy mixture won't be free. It will go for $3.99 and will be available starting May 1 on all flights longer than two hours. 

United said it will also be offering Illy coffee -- an Italian blend -- on all flights beginning May 1.

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Venmo payment app under investigation by the feds

Parent company PayPal says the probe centers around possible deceptive practices

The popular peer-to-peer payments site Venmo is being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for possibly engaging in "deceptive or unfair practices,...

PhotoThe popular peer-to-peer payments site Venmo is being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for possibly engaging in "deceptive or unfair practices," its parent company PayPal said.

PayPal made the disclosure in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing Thursday that reads in part: “On March 28th, 2016, we received a Civil Investigative Demand (CID) from the Federal Trade Commission as part of its investigation to determine whether we, through our Venmo service, have been or are engaged in deceptive or unfair practices in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act."

“The CID requests the production of documents and answers to written questions related to our Venmo service. We are cooperating with the FTC in connection with the CID,” it continued.

Could spell trouble

PayPal warned that the investigation “may result in substantial costs, including legal fees, fines, penalties and remediation expenses and actions and require us to change aspects of the manner in which we operate Venmo,” the company said in the filing.

The national securities law firm Faruqi & Faruqi, LLP, was quick to pounce on the news, saying it is "investigating potential misconduct at PayPal Holdings, Inc."

The law firm said it is investigating whether the company's board of directors or its officers "committed mismanagement and breached their fiduciary duties."

Venmo is one of the most popular payment apps and appeals particularly to Millennial consumers, along with PayPal, Google Wallet, and Square Cash, according to a recent ConsumerAffairs report. 

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Comcast announces plan to increase its monthly data caps

Critics say that it falls far short of what consumers really want, though

Comcast is raising the data cap for broadband customers on its “unlimited” plans to 1 terabyte per month from the current 300 gigabytes, saying the change ...

PhotoComcast is raising the data cap for broadband customers on its “unlimited” plans to 1 terabyte per month from the current 300 gigabytes, saying the change will provide more headroom as streaming video and other bandwidth-hungry applications take off, but critics say the plan falls short.

“Today, more than 99 percent of our customers do not come close to using a terabyte. Our typical customer uses only 60 gigabytes of data in a month,” the company said.

Unfortunately, going over their data limits is something that Comcast customers have been doing much more of in recent years. In 2013, the company estimated that 2% of its customers went over their data cap. With the growth of streaming, that number had quadrupled to 8% by the end of 2015. With a $10 charge incurred for every 50 GB a customer goes over on the data limit, those fees can start to add up.

Missing the point?

Although Comcast may like to bill this plan change as progressive, critics argue that it falls far short of what consumers actually want – namely, no data cap at all. While it may be difficult for customers to go over the data limit with existing streaming or internet systems, it may not be that way for long, with all the technologies that are around the corner.

A report from Gizmodo points out that the emergence of “ultra-high-def” 4k content and innovations in virtual reality could make the new data ceiling completely inadequate. If that does eventually become the case, then customers will have to swallow the increased prices on unlimited data that are also being rolled out with the data plan change; instead of paying an extra $30 to $35 per month, consumers who want the unlimited option will now be paying an extra $50 per month.

Comcast Internet Service  April 28, 2016, 7:50 p.m.
Consumers rate Comcast Internet Service

Additionally, changes to the data cap fail to address issues that consumers have reported with the company’s billing, service, and customer support. Brandeeyes in Oakridge, Tenn., details her problems with the service in a ConsumerAffairs review.

“Always freezing up and the customer service is unreliable to say the least. Was told I’d be moved to unlimited data free of charge and 2 months later a charge of 55 was on my account raising my bill to 240 a month,” she said.

Still in testing

According to a report by Ars Technica, the new cap limits will not be rolled out immediately. Instead, Comcast plans to test them in select markets starting June 1 before rolling them out nationwide.

The areas that will be tested include various cities in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Central Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Virginia.

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April could see highest new car sales ever

Kelley Blue Book projects 4% sales increase over April 2015

For a few months now, industry analysts have been talking about “peak auto.” That refers to a point where carmakers have sold so many new cars that the mar...

PhotoFor a few months now, industry analysts have been talking about “peak auto.” That refers to a point where carmakers have sold so many new cars that the market just can't keep absorbing them in the same number. At some point, it has to level off.

Well, it hasn't happened yet.

The analysts at Kelley Blue Book (KBB) have prepared a preliminary analysis of April's sales data and project monthly new car sales rose 4% year-over-year.

The current April record is from 2005, during the heady, easy money days of the housing boom. This April, says KBB, could beat it by 1.5 million units. KBB analyst Tim Fleming suggests it could partly be due to pent-up demand.

"Following a disappointing March, we expect sales to get back on track in April with SAAR (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the mid-17 million range," Fleming said in a release.

Fleming notes that there was an increase in fleet spending, with businesses driving some of the demand. But he says you can't escape the fact that consumer car buying is at least holding steady, at a time when many in the industry have concluded the car-buying frenzy has passed.

Nissan picks up more market share

So what were people buying in April? KBB projects Nissan with the biggest gain in U.S. market share, rising 11.1% in April. What's notable about that is that Nissan did it by selling its cars, not the SUVs that have driven other brands' sales. KBB reports the redesigned Maxima and refreshed Sentra have made Nissan the growth leader for April.

Selling the most cars is Detroit powerhouse GM, but GM's market share is running in the wrong direction. It sold fewer cars this April than last and saw its U.S. market share shrink 3%.

Honda posted a strong sales gain, increasing its market share by 9.2%. Ford's market share rose 6.5% with Fiat Chrysler right behind, growing 6.3%

VW continues to lose ground

Volkswagen, in the process of resolving its diesel emissions cheating scandal, continued to lose ground in April, giving up a massive 6.8% of market share.

Consumers' recent love affair with SUVs appears to be cooling. KBB reports the compact SUV segment is still growing, but not as much as past months. April should see a segment sales increase of 4.6%, after increasing more than 16% in April 2015.

It's the same story with full-sized pick-ups. That segment should post an April sales gain of less than 5%, compared to a 12.3% April 2015 sales gain.

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Understanding the behaviors of risky drivers

Prevention strategies should be tailored to each individual's behavioral profile, researchers say

A new study out of McGill University has focused on the behaviors of risky drivers in an effort to better understand what makes them tick. The results sugg...

PhotoA new study out of McGill University has focused on the behaviors of risky drivers in an effort to better understand what makes them tick. The results suggest that these drivers, which include those who have tendencies to speed and drive while drunk, have distinct behavioral, personality, and neurobiological profiles that make them more likely to engage in these types of risky behavior.

Additionally, the study reveals that there is a disconnect between the drivers’ behaviors and how they view themselves as risk-takers in general. This, the researchers note, can be detrimental to efforts to correct or improve this behavior.

“Surprisingly, these drivers usually don’t consider themselves as risk takers. ... If drivers don’t believe they are risky, they will not accept the need to change,” said Thomas G. Brown, lead author of the study. “On the other hand, if we and they don’t understand their behavior, how can they expected to change it effectively?”

Understanding behaviors

In order to gain a better understanding, Brown and his colleagues examined four groups of men between the ages of 19 and 39. Three of the groups had distinguishing characteristics for risky driving behaviors and the fourth represented a control group of low-risk drivers.

The first group was made up of drivers who had been convicted of drunk driving on two separate occasions; the second group was comprised of individuals who had been caught speeding or committed another moving violations on three or more occasions in the past two years; the third group contained individuals who had engaged in both of these behaviors.

The researchers tested each of these groups for various factors, including their tendencies to consumer drugs and alcohol, act impulsively, seek out rewards and thrills in their decision-making, and learn from past mistakes to improve behavior.

The results showed that each group fit into a particular emotional and behavioral profile. In other words, individuals that repeatedly partake in one of these risky driving behaviors do so because of deep-seated reasons tied to the very nature of who they are.

Developing prevention strategies

The researchers believe that creating prevention strategies tailored to these profiles is the key to success. For example, they point out that drunk drivers would benefit from strategies that force them to recall the negative effects of drinking whenever they plan to drive.

“This might involve a strategy in which the driver mentally rehearses his plan for a night out when drinking is likely, specifically targeting how to avoid decision-making about driving once under the influence of alcohol,” said Brown.

The full study has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Millennials OK with self-driving cars, older consumers not so much

J.D. Power study finds fewer than a quarter of Baby Boomers like the idea

The Baby Boomers pioneered a lot of things, including the internet and, to a lesser extent, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But they are not very keen on th...

PhotoThe Baby Boomers pioneered a lot of things, including the internet and, to a lesser extent, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But they are not very keen on the notion of self-driving cars, a J.D. Power study finds.

The study found that fewer than a quarter of Boomers trust driverless cars while more than half of younger consumers say they do. In fact, many younger drivers would pay $3,000 for self-driving technology.

Of course, that may change with time, said Kristin Kolodge, executive director of driver interaction and HMI research at J.D. Power.

“Acceptance can be increased with exposure over time and experience with automated technologies. But trust is fragile and can be broken if there is an excessive number of incidents with automated vehicles,” Kolodge said.

Popular features

There's a lot to autonomy and some elements are more interesting than others. The study found that consumers are interested in things like smart headlights, night vision, and lane change assist. Cameras that could replace rear-view and side mirrors also ranked high.

The one view all generations share is a concern for technology security, especially privacy and the potential for systems to be hacked, hijacked, or to crash (either the vehicle or the system itself).

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New cancer pill costs skyrocket

Researchers find they are dramatically more expensive than drugs from 15 years ago

Recent congressional attention on prescription drug prices has focused mostly on older drugs, those purchased by pharmaceutical companies who immediately t...

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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...

PhotoAnother 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.

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House votes unanimously to strengthen email privacy

The measure requires a warrant before law enforcement can obtain emails and electronic documents

When's the last time the House of Representatives did anything unanimously? Well, in fact, it was yesterday, when the House voted 419-0 to pass the Email P...

PhotoWhen's the last time the House of Representatives did anything unanimously? Well, in fact, it was yesterday, when the House voted 419-0 to pass the Email Privacy Act, which toughens privacy protections for American consumers.

The measure, H.R. 699, requires law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant from a judge before obtaining emails and other electronic documents stored by third-parties like Google and Facebook. It earlier passed the House Judiciary Committee unanimously and now goes to the Senate.

The bill, which had an astonishing 314 co-sponsors, updates the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which was regarded as outdated. It was introduced last year by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kans.)

“Today is a great day for not only the Fourth Amendment advocates who have fought long and hard to move the Email Privacy Act, but also for all Americans, who are one step closer to having private and secure digital communications," Yoder said in a statement on his website. 

Good but not perfect

Privacy advocates applauded the House action but said the measure is not perfect.

"In particular, the Email Privacy Act doesn’t require the government to notify users when it seeks their online data from service providers, a vital safeguard ensuring users can obtain legal counsel to fight for their rights," said Sophia Cope, a civil liberties attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Cope noted, however, that many companies already provide notice to users of government requests voluntarily.

"The government should also be required to obtain a warrant when demanding a person’s geolocation data. And if the government does obtain any communications data in violation of the law, courts should have the ability to suppress that evidence in criminal prosecutions," Cope said, adding that overall the measure is "a win for user privacy."

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Senators focus on Valeant Pharmaceutical's price hikes

Lawmakers claim company's business model is anti-consumer

The title of the hearing by the Senate Select Committee on Aging should have been a tip-off.“Valeant Pharmaceuticals' Business Model: the Repercussions...

PhotoThe title of the hearing by the Senate Select Committee on Aging should have been a tip-off.

“Valeant Pharmaceuticals' Business Model: the Repercussions for Patients and the Health Care System” was an afternoon of bi-partisan heat directed at the drug company's executives and a board member.

Valeant is a company whose profits soared in recent years, as it purchased the rights to older drugs and significantly raised their prices. Wall Street rewarded the business model by pushing the stock price to all-time highs.

At Wednesday's hearing, lawmakers, led by Committee Chair Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) tried to make the case that Valeant's entire business model revolved around buying cheap drugs and making them very expensive. In other words, they claimed Valeant had no other way to make a profit.

Monopoly model

“Valeant’s monopoly model operates at the expense of real people,” Collins said during the hearing.

In the hot seats were Valeant CEO Michael Pearson, ousted Chief Financial Officer Howard Schiller, and Valeant director Bill Ackman. All three were pressed repeatedly to explain how the company could make a profit without buying off-patent drugs and jacking up the price.

Ackman said he wished he had done better due diligence. Pearson was not able to name a single drug the company had acquired and not significantly increased the price.

Last November, the committee determined that Valeant Pharmaceuticals acquired Nitropress, a drug used to treat cardiac arrest, raising its price from $215 per vial to $1,346 per vial – a 625% increase.

It said a similar price increase occurred for another cardiac drug called Isuprel. Its cost went from $180 per ampule to $1,472 per ampule. Cuprimine, a drug that treats Wilson's disease, rose in price from $8.88 per capsule to $262 per capsule – an increase of 2,900%.

At Wednesday's hearing, McCaskill delivered a blistering opening statement against Valeant and its pricing policies, claiming the company had used “patients as hostages,” a practice she branded as immoral. She also delivered a warning that lawmakers are prepared to provide more oversight of pharmaceutical pricing and intervene if necessary.

Hogs get slaughtered

“Pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered,” McCaskill said, quoting an old Wall Street saying. Then she added ominously “It’s time to slaughter some hogs.”

Whatever Congress ends up doing to Valeant, it will probably pale in comparison to the punishment Wall Street has dished out in recent months. Since August, when drug prices became a hot political issue, Valeant's stock price has plunged.

Part of the bloodletting no doubt has to do with the “accounting irregularities” the company reported late last year. But investors who have gotten rich from Valeant's now criticized business model headed for the exits long ago.

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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, tackl...

PhotoAs 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.

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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 s...

PhotoJewelry, 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.

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Preparing for a severe thunderstorm

Checking gutters and securing loose outdoor items are a few ways to prepare

Gentle April showers may be a gardener’s dream, but thunderstorms can turn into a homeowner’s nightmare. Severe thunderstorms -- which are often accompanie...

PhotoGentle April showers may be a gardener’s dream, but thunderstorms can turn into a homeowner’s nightmare. Severe thunderstorms -- which are often accompanied by hail, wind, flash flooding, and even tornadoes -- can cause costly property damage.

In fact, according to American Modern Insurance Group, severe thunderstorms wreaked $27 billion worth of havoc in 2011 alone. Insured property losses have cost many unprepared Americans, but there are measures you can take to protect yourself and your home from potentially damaging thunderstorms.

Thunderstorm preparedness tips

While there’s often no predicting the twists and turns mother nature will take, American Modern says homeowners can prepare for the unpredictable in these ways:

  • Put together a supply kit. Fill your disaster supply kit with essential items, such as water, non-perishable food, a flashlight, and first-aid materials. Keep the kit(s) where you most often find yourself, such as at home or in your car.
  • Bring outside items in: When a severe thunderstorm is on the way, go outside and collect items that could potentially become windborne debris. Store (or tie down) items such as lawn furniture, trash bins, trampolines, and bicycles.
  • Trim trees: While you’re out there securing outdoor items, look for any damaged trees or limbs. Trimming loose branches can help keep your property safe.
  • Check your gutters. Clogged gutters and damaged drainpipes can create a dam which can then become a roof leak. Clean gutters and downspouts to ensure rain water can flow freely.
  • Keep food cold. Severe storms can often cause power outages. To keep food cold for as long as possible after the power goes out, turn your refrigerator and freezer to the coldest setting prior to the storm.
  • Buy a portable generator. A generator can be handy in the event of a power outage, but it's important to remember to use them safely. Keep generators outside, protected from moisture, and at least 20 feet away from windows and doors. Never attempt to power the house by plugging a generator into a wall outlet.
  • Make an evacuation plan. To make sure everyone is on the same page before an emergency situation arises, create an evacuation game plan ahead of time. Also, keep your car filled with at least half a tank of gas -- many gas stations require electricity to power their pumps.
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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 cont...

PhotoSporting 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.

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Louisiana man accused of scamming Realtors

Realtors paid for TV and internet advertising that never happened

A Louisiana man has been indicted by a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh on charges of mail fraud in an alleged scam aimed at Realtors who thought they were...

PhotoA Louisiana man has been indicted by a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh on charges of mail fraud in an alleged scam aimed at Realtors who thought they were buying TV and internet advertising.

Prosecutors say Rex Alan Harris, 40, of Covington, La., defrauded hundreds of real estate agents nationwide. The agents paid thousands of dollars for advertising that was supposed to appear on major television outlets that reached the zip codes where the Realtors do business.

But the ads never materialized. Instead, Harris and his colleagues allegedly spent the money on New Orleans Saints season tickets as well as purchases through PayPal, Footlocker, Nike.com, and other sites. 

In all, Harris and company allegedly blew through more than $2 million, according to the indictment.

Realtors who paid money to any of the following entities -- “Our Family First Realty,” “Better Realty Deals,” “Amazing Realty Deals,” “The Top Agent/Monolith Media Group,” “American Real Estate Idols” or “Agents by City” -- may be victims and are encouraged to call the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) hotline at 1-800-CALL-FBI or 1-800-225-5324.

Arraignment is scheduled for May 23 in U.S. District Court in Western Pennsylvania.

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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 m...

PhotoAt 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.

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Drunken pilot episode gives JetBlue a black eye

Pilot blames .111 breathalyzer reading on his chewing gum

We may like to think that airline pilots lead a monastic life, performing slow yoga and consuming vegan snacks in their hotel rooms between flights but rea...

PhotoWe may like to think that airline pilots lead a monastic life, performing slow yoga and consuming vegan snacks in their hotel rooms between flights but reality is sometimes a bit less antiseptic.

Take the case of Dennis Murphy Jr., the JetBlue pilot charged with flying from New York's JFK to Orlando and back again while drunk. Murphy appeared in court Wednesday to face charges of “operating an air common carrier while under the influence of alcohol.”

While perhaps shocking, Murphy's alleged shenanigans are by no means unusual. Fox News reported recently that an average of one U.S. pilot per month violated alcohol and drug regulations between 2010 and 2015 and 38 tested positive for illegal drugs in 2015 alone. 

In Murphy's case, prosecutors say he underwent random alcohol testing after his return flight to JFK and was found to have a blood alcohol content of .111, nearly three times the allowable limit. Murphy blamed the high reading on the gum he was chewing, the New York Post reported.

Both flights Murphy operated that day were packed -- Flight 583 from JFK to Orlando carried 119 passengers and Flight 584 had 151. The flights themselves were uneventful, although Murphy's co-pilot reported that he was "drinking an unknown beverage from a cup" during both flights.

JetBlue says Murphy, 44, began flying for the airline in January 2015. He no longer works there, JetBlue added.

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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 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 th...

Photo
Photo (c) Melpomene - Fotolia

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.

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Photo (c) Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

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.

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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...

PhotoStile 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.

 

 

 

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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 chi...

PhotoIKEA 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.

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FDA should regulate powdered caffeine, senators argue

A single teaspoon of pure caffeine can cause death or serious illness

It's not just concentrated cocaine and heroin that can kill. Powdered caffeine can too, leading a consumer group and three U.S. senators to call on the Foo...

PhotoIt's not just concentrated cocaine and heroin that can kill. Powdered caffeine can too, leading a consumer group and three U.S. senators to call on the Food and Drug Administration to ban its sale.

“It is disturbing that despite several unintended and untimely deaths associated with powdered caffeine, the FDA has done little to regulate these products or adequately enforce the standards in place to protect Americans from the substantial risk associated with ingesting powdered caffeine in any form," said Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) in a letter to the FDA.

According to the FDA, a single teaspoon of pure caffeine is roughly equivalent to the amount in 25 cups of coffee. 

The Center for Science in the Public Interest joined the three senators at a news conference and cited the deaths of two young men -- Logan Stiner and Wade Sweatt -- who died after taking small quantities of powdered caffeine.

Wanted to avoid sugar

In a statement released at a news conference Tuesday, Sweatt's parents said that because their son "didn’t care for the taste of coffee and wanted to avoid caffeinated and sugary soda, one day two summers ago he tried powdered caffeine."

"He immediately knew something was wrong. He found his wife and told her, 'that powder is making me sick.' Although the EMTs took only a few minutes to get to his house, it was already too late," the Sweatts' statement said. "Wade was an engineer, who solved complicated technical problems every day and certainly never meant to do anything that would endanger his life. His only mistake was trusting that any substance sold to consumers could not possibly be as dangerous as we now know powdered caffeine truly is."  

The American Association of Poison Control Centers has reported that, since 2014, there have been 60 incidents involving powdered caffeine in at least 25 states, most involving consumers under 18 years of age.  

"Unfortunately, in the absence of strong regulatory action, companies are continuing to develop new delivery mechanisms and creative advertising ploys to attract new powdered caffeine users and are doing so without relaying the serious health consequences of improper use,” the senators said.

The FDA last year cautioned five companies about selling powdered caffeine, but CSPI Regulatory Affairs Director Laura MacCleery said stronger action is needed.

Easy and cheap

"After only a quick Google search, we were able to order a small bottle of liquid caffeine from South Korea that contains an astonishing 9,000 milligrams of caffeine—enough to kill nearly seven people—and yet the label says only to use it 'sparingly,'” MacCleery said. "We easily purchased large bags of pure powder sufficient to kill several dozen people, and a gallon jug of what looks like water but is actually a highly caffeinated liquid—a cup of which would be a fatal dose."

An FDA ban would allow enforcement action against any company selling powdered caffeine and would mean that such products could be seized by Customs at the border.

"It would also send a far clearer signal to the public about the risks. Any action less than a ban would be confirmation that FDA has lost its way," MacCleery said.

The latest pure caffeine product to be marketed in the U.S. is an inhaler-like product, which the FDA has not reviewed for safety.

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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 cour...

PhotoApple 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?

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Driveway sealcoat products much more toxic than expected, study finds

The sealcoats used east of the Rockies are more toxic than those used in the West

You might not think of your driveway as toxic, but maybe you should. That's the upshot of an Oregon State University study that found sealcoat products are...

PhotoYou might not think of your driveway as toxic, but maybe you should. That's the upshot of an Oregon State University study that found sealcoat products are much more toxic and mutagenic than previously suspected.

Most worrisome are sealcoat products based on coal tar emissions. The researchers said tests on zebrafish, which closely resemble humans in their reaction to toxins, showed developmental effects on embryos.

Sealcoating is usually brushed or sprayed onto asphalt pavements to extend their lifespan and make them look better. Coal tar is generally used in products distributed east of the U.S. continental divide, and those based on asphalt are most common west of the divide.

The main concern is a group of chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. They are products of combustion, and have been shown to be toxic to birds, fish, amphibians, plants, and mammals, including humans.

30 times more toxic

While there are many different kinds of PAHs, the researchers found that the ones used in coal tar sealcoats -- those used in the East -- were 30 times more toxic than one of the most common PAH compounds that was studied previously in these products by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The OSU study also showed that new PAH compounds found in coal tar sealcoats had a carcinogenic risk that was between 4% and 40% higher than any study had previously found.

By contrast, the study showed that sealcoats based on asphalt -- mostly used in the West -- were still toxic, but far less than those based on coal tar.

"This should assist individuals and municipalities to make more informed decisions about the use of sealcoats and weigh their potential health risks against the benefits of these products," said Staci Simonich, an OSU professor and one of the authors of the study. "And if a decision is made to use sealcoats, we concluded that the products based on asphalt are significantly less toxic than those based on coal tar."

Some states and many municipalities around the nation have already banned the use of coal tar-based sealcoats, due to the human, wildlife, and environmental health concerns. In the European Union, use of coal tar-based sealcoats is limited or banned.

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Study: too much caffeine before pregnancy may increase likelihood of miscarriage

Excessive caffeine consumption by men contributed to the risk just as much

Trying to conceive? If so, you and your partner may want to take it easy on the coffee. A new study finds that men and women who drink more than two caffei...

PhotoTrying to conceive? If so, you and your partner may want to take it easy on the coffee. A new study finds that men and women who drink more than two caffeinated beverages daily during the weeks prior to conception are more likely to miscarry.

The NIH study, published recently in the journal Fertility and Sterility, looked at the lifestyle habits (including cigarette and multivitamin use, in addition to caffeine consumption) of 501 Texas and Michigan couples who were trying to get pregnant. In the end, 344 couples were successful -- but 98 (28%) of those pregnancies resulted in a miscarriage.

"Male partner matters"

Not surprising to researchers was the fact that age made some women (those over 35) more likely to miscarry. However, data also showed that caffeine intake -- and not just that of the gender with the womb -- contributed to the likelihood of a miscarriage.

“Our findings also indicate that the male partner matters, too,” said Dr. Germaine Buck Louis, in a statement. “Male preconception consumption of caffeinated beverages was just as strongly associated with pregnancy loss as females.”

Preconception health is often viewed as being more important for women than for men -- but according to the CDC, men's preconception health is just as important. In addition to living a healthy lifestyle, this study suggests that men may want to cut back on caffeine.

Further research needed

The study authors say further research is needed on the subject. Existing research on the link between preconception caffeine intake and the likelihood of a miscarriage doesn’t yet explain the exact reasons for the association. There may be some other factor at work, such as food aversions in early pregnancy causing women to forego caffeinated beverages.

It is, however, clear to researchers that excessive caffeine consumption -- by either gender -- near the time of conception could affect the outcome of a pregnancy.

If you’re trying to conceive, the authors recommend limiting caffeine intake to less than three caffeinated beverages per day. Taking a daily multivitamin may also be beneficial; women who did so in the study were 55% less likely to miscarry than those who didn’t.

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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. Dis...

PhotoWhen 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.

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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 ag...

PhotoWells 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.

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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.Le...

PhotoIn 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.

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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 (NR...

PhotoPending 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.
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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...

PhotoAfter 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.

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Pilgrim’s Pride expands poultry product recall

The products may be contaminated with extraneous materials

Pilgrim’s Pride of Waco, Texas, is recalling approximately 4,568,080 pounds of fully-cooked chicken products.   The products may be contaminated with...

PhotoPilgrim’s Pride of Waco, Texas, is recalling approximately 4,568,080 pounds of fully-cooked chicken products.

 

The products may be contaminated with extraneous materials including plastic, wood, rubber, and metal.

 

The company is expanding its earlier recall to reflect a change in poundage, types of extraneous materials, and distribution area.

 

There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

 

The following products, produced from August 21, 2014, to March 1, 2016, are being recalled:

  • 30-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “6116 Gold Kist Farms Fully Cooked Whole Grain Breaded Chicken Nuggets Nugget Shaped Chicken Patties” with use by/sell by dates of 10/23/2016 and 03/01/2017, and packaging dates of 10/23/2015 and 03/01/2016.
  • 20-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “6145 Gold Kist Farms Menu Right Fully Cooked Whole Grain Breaded Chicken Nuggets Breaded Nugget Shaped Chicken Patties” with use by/sell by dates of 05/28/2016, and 04/27/2016 and packaging dates of 05/28/2015 and 04/27/2015.
  • 30-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “6253 Gold Kist Farms Fully Cooked Whole Grain Homestyle Breaded Strip Shaped Chicken Patties” with use by/sell by dates of 04/27/2016 and 08/06/2016, and packaging dates of 04/27/2015 and 08/06/2015.
  • 30-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “6353 Gold Kist Farms Fully Cooked Whole Grain Homestyle Breaded Breakfast Chicken Patties” with use/by sell by dates of 09/17/2016 and 09/21/2016 and packaging dates 09/17/2015 and 09/21/2015.
  • 30-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “6654 Gold Kist Farms Fully Cooked Whole Grain Homestyle Breaded Chicken Patty” with use by/sell by dates of 05/11/2016, 06/05/2016, and 08/21/2015, and packaging dates of 05/11/2015, 06/05/2015, and 08/21/2014.
  • 30-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “66660 Gold Kist Farms Fully Cooked Whole Grain Hot & Spicy Breaded Chicken Patty” with use by/sell by date of 07/18/2016 and packaging date of 07/18/2015.
  • 20-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “69160 Gold Kist Farms Fully Cooked Whole Grain Popcorn Style Chicken Patty Fritters” with use/by sell by dates of 08/19/2016 and 09/25/2016, and packaging dates of 8/19/2015 and 09/25/2015.
  • 10-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “70340 Pierce Chicken Fully Cooked Breaded Chicken Tenderloins” with a use by/sell by dates of 09/28/2016, 09/25/2016, and 11/09/2016, and packaging dates of 09/28/2015, 09/25/2015, and 11/09/2015.
  • 30-lb boxes containing of 5-lb clear bags of “612100 Gold Kist Farms Fully Cooked Whole Grain Breaded Chicken Nuggets Nugget Shaped Chicken Patties” with use by/sell by dates of 07/11/2016, 11/09/2016, and 11/25/2016 and packaging dates of 07/11/2015, 11/09/2015, and 11/25/2015.
  • 30-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “615300 Gold Kist Farms Fully Cooked Whole Grain Home-style Breaded Chicken Nuggets Nugget Shaped Chicken Patties” with use by/ sell by dates of 10/08/2016, 10/09/2016, 10/03/2016, 10/20/2016, 11/24/2016, 10/01/2016, 10/16/2016, 10/14/2016, and packaging dates of 10/08/2015, 10/01/2015, 10/16/2015, 10/09/2015, 10/03/2015, 10/20/2015, 11/24/2015, and 10/14/2015.
  • 30-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “625300 Gold Kist Farms Fully Cooked Whole Grain Home-style Breaded Chicken Strip Shaped Chicken Patties” with a use by/sell by date of 10/16/2016, and a packaging date of 10/16/2015.
  • 20-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “633100 Gold Kist Farms Fully Cooked Whole Grain Home-style Breaded Breakfast Chicken Breast Patties with Rib Meat” with a use by/sell by date of 10/03/2016, and a packaging date of 10/03/2015.
  • 30-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “662100 Gold Kist Farms Fully Cooked Whole Grain Breaded Chicken Patties” with use by/sell by dates of 10/07/2016 and 08/13/2016, and packaging dates of 10/07/2015 and 08/13/2015.
  • 30-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “665400 Gold Kist Farms Fully Cooked Whole Grain Home-style Breaded Chicken Patties” with use by/sell by dates of 10/06/2016, 07/24/2016, 07/01/2016, 07/25/2016, 08/29/2016, 09/12/2016, 12/02/2016, 12/21/2016, and packaging dates of 10/06/2015, 07/24/2015, 07/01/2015, 07/25/2015, 08/29/2016, 09/12/2016, 12/02/2016, 12/21/2016.
  • 30-lb boxes containing of 5-lb clear bags of “666600 Gold Kist Farms Fully Cooked Whole Grain Hot & Spicy Breaded Chicken Patties” with use by/sell by dates of 10/08/2016, 09/29/2015, 09/30/2016, and packaging dates of 10/08/2015, 09/29/2015, 09/30/2015.
  • 10-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “92105 Sweet Georgia Brand FULLY COOKED WHOLE GRAIN BREADED CHICKEN BREAST NUGGETS BREADED NUGGET SHAPED CHICKEN PATTIES WITH RIB MEAT” with a use/by sell by date of 05/28/2016, and a packaging date of 05/28/2015.
  • 10-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “92430 Sweet Georgia Brand FULLY COOKED BREADED CHICKEN TENDERLOINS” with use by/sell by dates of 09/28/2016, 11/09/2016, and packaging dates of 09/28/2016, 11/09/2016.
  • 10-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “93406 Sweet Georgia Brand FULLY COOKED WHOLE GRAIN POPCORN STYLE CHICKEN PATTY FRITTERS” with a use by/sell by date of 05/28/2016 and a packaging date of 05/28/2015.
  • 10-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “94208 Sweet Georgia Brand FULLY COOKED WHOLE GRAIN HOT AND SPICY BREADED CHICKEN PATTY” with a use by date of 07/18/2016 and a packaging date of 07/18/2015.
  • 10-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “96965 Sweet Georgia Brand FULLY COOKED WHOLE GRAIN BREADED CHICKEN NUGGETS NUGGET SHAPED CHICKEN PATTIES” with a use by/sell by date of 10/14/2016 and a packaging date of 10/14/2015.
  • 10-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “96971 Sweet Georgia Brand FULLY COOKED WHOLE GRAIN BREADED CHICKEN BREAST PATTIES WITH RIB MEAT” with a use by/sell by date of 10/08/2016 and a packaging date of 10/08/2015.
  • 10-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “96973 Sweet Georgia Brand FULLY COOKED WHOLE GRAIN BREADED CHICKEN PATTIES” with use by/sell by dates of 07/24/2016, 07/01/2016, 12/02/2016, 09/12/2016, and packaging dates of 07/24/2015, 07/01/2015, 12/02/2015, 09/12/2015.
  • 10-lb boxes containing 5-lb clear bags of “96978 Sweet Georgia Brand FULLY COOKED WHOLE GRAIN HOT AND SPICY BREADED CHICKEN PATTIES” with use by/sell by dates of 10/08/2016 and 9/30/2016, and packaging dates of 10/08/2015 and 9/30/2016.

What to do

 

Customers who purchased the recalled products should not consume them, but throw them away or return them to the place of purchase.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact James Brown at (800) 321-1470.  

 

 

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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 gr...

Photo
An autonomous Google car

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 

Photo
David Strickland

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. 

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Charter takeover of Time Warner gets nod from feds

Charter must agree not to squelch competition among video producers

The Charter takeover of Time Warner Cable is good to go once the ink dries. The merger has been tentatively approved by the Justice Department and the Fede...

PhotoThe Charter takeover of Time Warner Cable is good to go once the ink dries. The merger has been tentatively approved by the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), along with the related adquisition by Charter of Bright House Networks.

The approval requires Charter to adopt a number of policies aimed at making it easier for video producers to distribute their content and broaden the number of homes with high-speed Internet connections.

“Online video distributors offer consumers greater choices for video services,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Renata B. Hesse, head of the Antitrust Division. “Together with our counterparts at the FCC, we have secured comprehensive relief and we will work together to closely monitor compliance to ensure that New Charter will not have the power to choke off this important source of disruptive competition and deny consumers the benefits of innovation and new services.”

Consumer groups however, condemned the deal.

“There’s nothing about this massive merger that serves the public interest. There’s nothing about it that helps make the market for cable TV and Internet services more affordable and competitive for Americans," said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a public interest organization. 

"Customers of the newly merged entity will be socked with higher prices as Charter attempts to pay off the nearly $27 billion debt load it took on to finance this deal. The wasted expense of this merger is staggering. For the money Charter spent to make this happen it could have built new competitive broadband options for tens of millions of people," Aaron said. 

Second-largest

The combination of Charter, Time Warner, and Bright House will create the second-largest cable company in the U.S., with more than 17 million video subscribers.

The Justice Department initially challenged the merger, saying that Time Warner has been the most aggressive cable company at preventing content providers from distributing their material through alternative channels, like streaming video.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has approved the $88 billion transaction and the remaining four commissioners are expected to do so shortly.

The deal makes Charter the largest cable company in many of the country's major markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Tampa, and Indianapolis.

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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 ...

PhotoDespite 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. 

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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...

PhotoNew 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.

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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...

PhotoMotorists 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.

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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, i...

PhotoGoldman 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.

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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, accord...

PhotoAutomakers 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

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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 m...

PhotoExpectations 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.

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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 (...

PhotoHome 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.

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CVS Pharmacy recalls Gold Emblem Abound Organic Spiced Herbal Tea

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

CVS Pharmacy is recalling select cases of Gold Emblem Abound Organic Spiced Herbal Tea. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. No...

PhotoCVS Pharmacy is recalling select cases of Gold Emblem Abound Organic Spiced Herbal Tea.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

No illness have been reported to date related to this product

 

The recalled product is labeled “Gold Emblem Abound Organic Spiced Herbal Tea 1.41 oz” and was packed in 1.4 oz cartons. It has a single best by date of 18 Mar 2018 with a UPC code 0 50428 541043. The product was sold at CVS Pharmacy stores nationwide.

What to do

 

Customers who purchased the recalled product should immediately discontinue use and return the item to CVS Pharmacy for a refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the Company at 1-800-SHOP-CVS Monday - Friday 8:30 AM - 7:00 PM (ET).

 

 

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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 ...

PhotoCRF 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).

 

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Laundry detergent pods more lethal than other detergents, study finds

Coma, heart problems, and death seen only in children exposed to pods, not regular detergent

They're colorful and convenient, but laundry detergent pods are hazardous to children's health -- more dangerous than exposure to ordinary detergent, accor...

PhotoThey're colorful and convenient, but laundry detergent pods are hazardous to children's health -- more dangerous than exposure to ordinary detergent, according to a new study. 

A review of cases finds that the most serious clinical effects such as coma, trouble breathing, heart problems, and death, were seen in children exposed to the chemicals in laundry detergent packets rather than other types of detergent.

At least one child a day in the U.S. was admitted to a hospital due to a laundry detergent packet exposure during the period studied. The two child deaths in the study were both associated with exposure to laundry detergent packets.

The study, published online today in Pediatrics, was conducted by the Center for Injury Research and Policy of the Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital and the Central Ohio Poison Center.

It found that from January 2013 through December 2014, poison control centers received 62,254 calls related to laundry and dishwasher detergent exposures among children younger than 6 years old, with laundry detergent packets accounting for nearly half of all incidents. Dishwashing detergent packets accounted for only 5% of the incidents while traditional laundry detergent made up 17%.

Incidents related to laundry detergent packets saw the biggest rise - increasing 17% over the two year study period. Poison control centers received more than 30 calls a day about children who had been exposed to a laundry detergent packet, which is about one call every 45 minutes.

"Unacceptably high"

A new voluntary safety standard was adopted in 2015, calling for less colorful packaging and a foul-tasting coating, but the standard may not go far enough, said Gary Smith, MD, DrPH, senior author of the study, and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

"Unless this unacceptably high number of exposures declines dramatically, manufacturers need to continue to find ways to make this product and its packaging safer for children," Smith said.

What to do

Experts recommend that families with children younger than 6 years old use traditional detergent instead of packets.

"Many families don't realize how toxic these highly concentrated laundry detergent packets are," said Marcel J. Casavant, MD, co-author of the study chief of toxicology at Nationwide Children's Hospital, and medical director of the Central Ohio Poison Center. "Use traditional laundry detergent when you have young kids in your home. It isn't worth the risk when there is a safer and effective alternative available."

Casavant recommends that parents and caregivers follow these steps to ensure children's safety:

  • Use traditional laundry detergent, which is much less toxic than laundry detergent packets.
  • Store all laundry detergent, including packets, up, away, and out of sight, preferably in a locked cabinet.
  • Close laundry detergent packet packages or containers and put them away immediately after use.
  • Save the national Poison Help Line number (1-800-222-1222) in your cell phone and post it near your home phones.
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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 u...

PhotoVolvo 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. 

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The top 100 cities for starting your career

New York places number one overall, with Los Angeles and San Francisco right behind.

As we approach May, many college seniors will be getting ready to graduate and begin their lives as working adults. However, many may be unsure about where...

PhotoAs we approach May, many college seniors will be getting ready to graduate and begin their lives as working adults. However, many may be unsure about where to settle down and make their start. In order to answer this question, Bankrate.com conducted a study to see which cities had the most to offer young people looking to enter the workforce.

The study assessed 100 U.S. cities and ranked them according to several factors that would be important to young job seekers; these factors included job prospects, pay potential, quality of life, social opportunities, and opportunity for career advancement.

Best cities for starting a career

New York earned the top overall spot in the study due to its number one rankings in social opportunities and opportunities for career advancement. It was ranked sixth in pay potential and fourteenth in quality of life. However, young people looking to settle down in the city will face stiff competition for jobs. New York ranked 94th in job prospects.

Los Angeles and San Francisco placed second and third overall on the list, respectively. Los Angeles’ rankings closely followed New York’s performance. The city ranked second in social opportunities and opportunity for career advancement, sixth in quality of life, 26th in pay potential and 92nd in job prospects.

San Francisco had a strong showing due to its number one ranking in the quality of life category and number two ranking in pay potential. It finished fifth in opportunity for career advancement, tenth in social opportunities, and 78th in job prospects. Washington D.C., San Jose, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, and Philadelphia rounded out the remaining top 10 cities.

“Although young grads will be faced with major competition for available jobs in these top cities, the opportunities for career growth and quality of life among peers far exceed what is offered in less competitive job markets,” said Claes Bell, a Bankrate.com banking analyst.

Choose what suits you best

But while the top ten cities may be ideal for young people looking to enter a competitive environment, the researchers stress that this lifestyle may not be for everyone. For these consumers, it might not be a bad idea to look at cities that are lower down in the overall rankings.

“Not everyone is looking to climb to the top of the corporate ladder, so cities that ranked low on our list may be very desirable to some. It’s important for young folks to determine what factors are important to their future and use research such as this to determine what area best suits their needs,” said Bell.

You can view list of cities and their individual rankings by clicking here.

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Spring cleaning tips for pet owners

Avoid harmful chemicals with these natural alternatives

When the light of the springtime sun hits the inside of a pet owner’s home, they may suddenly see some pet-related messes to be cleaned. But whether you're...

PhotoWhen the light of the springtime sun hits the inside of a pet owner’s home, they may suddenly see some pet-related messes to be cleaned. But whether you're eradicating a thin layer of pet fur or just giving the house an annual deep clean, it’s important to be mindful of the fact that some cleaning products may pose a health hazard to dogs.

Due to their faster metabolisms and smaller lungs, animals are more vulnerable than humans to the effects of chemical-filled sprays and bleaches. Using traditional household cleaning products may put dogs at risk.

However, having pets and keeping a clean house don't have to be mutually exclusive. There are many ways to get a home looking sparkling clean without the use of chemical-based cleaning products.

Alternative cleaning methods

To help ensure your pet stays free of the effects of indoor air pollution, be sure to follow these tips from the pet experts at DogVacay.

  • Go organic. Instead of using harsh chemicals, go the organic route with cleaning products that are non-toxic as well as pollutant and chemical-free. Opt for dog-safe brands, like Zabada Clean and Natural Chemistry.
  • Read the labels. Just because a label includes the word “organic” doesn’t mean it’s automatically safe. Be sure to check ingredient lists and product reviews before purchasing a product. Steer clear of cleaning products with multisyllabic, difficult-to-pronounce ingredients (such as 2-Hexoxyethanol).
  • Don’t use bleach. Bleach can cause animal convulsions, nausea, and vomiting. For pet owners, a good alternative to bleach is lemon juice. Try tossing one-quarter cup of lemon juice into your laundry. It'll whiten clothes just as well as traditional bleach (and it'll smell much better). For sink stains, try baking soda and lemon juice.
  • Skip the ammonia. Ammonia can burn a dog’s membranes. When mixed with bleach, it creates a poisonous gas that can be deadly to dogs, especially to smaller breeds which are especially vulnerable. Vinegar, on the other hand, is a safe and effective alternative to traditional window and kitchen cleaners. Try filling a spray bottle with a one part water to one part vinegar combination to shine up surfaces.
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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 fina...

PhotoThere 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.

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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 ...

PhotoThe 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.

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More consumers living paycheck-to-paycheck

Despite improving economy, consumers can't seem to get ahead

The economic picture has been mixed lately. Employment appears to be growing, and while the economy is far from robust, it does appear to be expanding. Hom...

PhotoThe economic picture has been mixed lately. Employment appears to be growing, and while the economy is far from robust, it does appear to be expanding. Home sales are up, and so are car sales.

But despite this apparent growth, there is yet another survey suggesting that many consumers are struggling to make ends meet.

Fifth Third Bank commissioned a study to find out how consumers are doing when it comes to saving money for big things, like a car, a down payment on a home, or for education.

It found many Americans aren't saving anything, for one very big reason; after paying the bills, there is no money left to save. In fact, 47% of the consumers in the survey said they frequently live paycheck-to-paycheck.

This is disturbing on several levels. First, it shows Americans aren't setting aside money for the big expenses in life, and therefore may not be able to make those purchases.

Second, when an unexpected expense pops up – and they always do – these consumers won't have savings to dip into, resulting in a growing credit card balance or, heaven forbid, a visit to a payday lender.

Six months living expenses

Financial planners urge all consumers to have money to cover at least six months of living expenses at all time, and more than half in the survey had heard that advice.

Yet two-thirds of consumers said they don't have that much in savings and 30% said they have no savings at all.

There appears to be a wide gap between knowing and doing. Forty-six percent said Americans should start saving for retirement in their 20s. However, more than half don't contribute to a retirement plan.

Of those who said they had a retirement plan, half didn't know how much was in it.

Here's another disconnect – 60% of Baby Boomers who are approaching retirement age described themselves as “financially savvy.” But two-thirds of the Boomers in the survey are still carrying credit card debt, even though they are just a few years from retirement.

Start small

Jada Grandy, a senior vice president at Fifth Third, says she understands how daunting it can seem to start saving for financial goals when it seems to take every dime just to get through the month. But she says starting small, like putting away just $40 a month, can be a productive start.

“As that reserve grows, focus on building an emergency fund with three to six months of living expenses,” Grandy said. “Saving a little today can mean a lot is available tomorrow."

According to America Saves, a non-profit venture promoting the accumulation of savings, there are ways to put money away, even on a tight budget. The group suggests keeping a complete record of daily expenses in order to make you aware of where you are spending money and where you might be able to cut back.

If you qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which you can claim on your federal income tax return, that could provide a family with an annual lump sum of between $1,000 and $2,000 – a nice start to a savings funds.

You can find out more about the Earned Income Tax Credit here.

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Muscle mass helps reduce mortality regardless of weight, study finds

Staying fit may be more important than just losing weight, researchers say

If you're one of those people who thinks that lifting weights into middle and old age is little more than vanity, think again. A UCLA study finds that hear...

PhotoIf you're one of those people who thinks that lifting weights into middle and old age is little more than vanity, think again. A UCLA study finds that heart disease patients who have a high muscle mass and low fat mass have a lower mortality risk than those with other body compositions.

The findings also suggest that having lots of muscle mass even helps reduce the risk of death for those with a high level of body fat.

Researchers believe these results could explain the so-called "obesity paradox," which holds that people with a higher BMI have lower mortality levels, which goes against the widely held belief that the most important factor in cardiovascular health is reducing fat.

The study also highlights the importance of maintaining muscle mass, rather than focusing on weight loss, in order to prolong life, even in people who have a higher cardiovascular risk.

The researchers suggest that doctors encourage their patients to participate in resistance exercises -- weight lifting, in other words -- as a part of healthy lifestyle changes, rather than focusing primarily on weight loss.

Study details

In reaching their conclusions, the researchers examined data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of 6,451 participants who had prevalent cardiovascular disease. Each person was categorized into one of four groups:

  • low muscle/low fat mass
  • low muscle/high fat mass
  • high muscle/low fat mass
  • high muscle/high fat mass

Those with high muscle mass and low fat mass had the lowest risk of cardiovascular and total mortality.

The study was published in the American Journal of Cardiology.

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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 ...

PhotoSales 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.

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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.   Inco...

PhotoToyota 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.

 

 

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Meating Place recalls beef product

The product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7

Meating Place of Buffalo, N.Y., is recalling approximately 325 pounds of ground beef product. The product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7....

PhotoMeating Place of Buffalo, N.Y., is recalling approximately 325 pounds of ground beef product.

 

The product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

 

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

 

The following product, produced on April 15, 2016, is being recalled:.

5-lb. boxes of “LORIGO BRAND BEEF PATTIES KEEP FROZEN THE MEATING PLACE INC.” with a package code of 120106.

The recalled product, which bears establishment number “Est. 8631” inside the USDA mark of inspection, was shipped to retail and institutional locations in the Buffalo, N.Y., area.

 

What to do

 

Customers who purchased the product should not to consume them, but throw it away or return it to the place of purchase.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Vincent Lorigo at (716) 885-3623.

 

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Chrysler recalls Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans and Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs

Drivers may not know if the gear shift selector is in “Park” before they leave the vehicle

Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling more than a million model-year 2012-2014 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans, and model-year 2014-2015 Jeep Grand Cher...

PhotoChrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling more than a million model-year 2012-2014 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans, and model-year 2014-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs.

 

Ann estimated 811,586 are in the U.S., with another 52,144 vehicles in Canada; 16,805 in Mexico; and 248,667 outside the NAFTA region.

 

The recalled vehicles are equipped with electronic shift levers that return to the same position after each manipulation. Gear-selecti on is conveyed to the driver by multiple sets of indicator lights, not gear-selector position.

 

The vehicles also deliver warning chimes and alert messages if their driver-side doors are opened while their engines are still running and “Park” is not engaged. However, investigation suggested these measures may be insufficient to deter some drivers from exiting their vehicles without selecting “PARK.” Thus, drivers may draw erroneous conclusions about the status of their vehicles.

 

In fact, an investigation by Chrysler and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found some drivers have exited their vehicles without first selecting “Park.” This may may pose a safety risk if a vehicle’s engine is still running.

 

Chrysler is aware of 41 injuries that are potentially related. The vehicles involved in these events were inspected and no evidence of equipment failure was found.

 

What to do

 

Owners will be notified when service becomes available. In the interim, FCA US urges customers to follow the instructions in their owners’ manuals.

 

Chrysler will combine warnings with a transmission-shift strategy to automatically prevent a vehicle from moving, under certain circumstances, even if the driver fails to select “PARK.”

 

Consumers with questions may call the Chrysler customer care center at 1-800-853-1403.

 

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10 mistakes to avoid when booking a cruise

Doing your homework before selecting a cruise ship helps ensure smooth sailing

No matter how much you’ve researched, how many opinions you’ve sought, or how experienced you are, it’s still possible to make mistakes when booking and ta...

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Leaf ad tweaks Tesla's Model 3 in hopes of sparking sales

$5 billion later, Nissan has to wonder where it all went wrong

Nearly 400,000 people have given Tesla Motors a $1,000 deposit on the Tesla Model 3, an all-electric sedan that is not yet being built and that won't be re...

PhotoNearly 400,000 people have given Tesla Motors a $1,000 deposit on the Tesla Model 3, an all-electric sedan that is not yet being built and that won't be ready until late 2017 at the earliest.

This irks Nissan, which has been making the all-electric Leaf sedan at its Smyrna, Tenn., plant since 2010. The Leaf sells for as little as $22,360 after a $7,500 federal tax credit. The Tesla Model 3 will sell for about $35,000.

Nissan is trying to turn Tesla's unceasing hype against it with a series of ads that began today in major newspapers.

“No one should have any reservations about getting an electric car today,” trumpets the Nissan ad. "And why drop $1,000 to stand in line when you can get $4,000 cash back and best-in-class range?"

While the ad tries to make points at Tesla's expense, it no doubts results at least partly from the angst, remorse, and downright frustration that Nissan, General Motors, and other electric pioneers must be feeling about now.

Nissan has invested $5 billion around the world to produce battery modules and electric cars and vans. General Motors, of Volt and Bolt fame, has also spent billions and, by some estimates, was at one point losing $49,000 on each Volt it sold, based on a construction cost that industry obervers put at $89,000.   

The Volt includes a gasoline engine that functions as a back-up generator and gives the car a range of more than 300 miles. The all-electric Bolt is expected to have a range of about 200 miles. 

But for whatever reason, electric cars have just not caught on with consumers. The current slump in gas prices has reduced the economic incentive to pay an extra $10,000 or so for an electric car and not too many consumers are sufficiently fervent to subject themselves to a small, somewhat cramped electric car when they could be riding around in a ridiculously obese, unstable, and unsafe SUV. 

Leaf's U.S. sales were down 43% last year to just over 17,000 deliveries, barely 10% of the 150,000 annual sales Nissan had expected. Chevrolet sold just 2,114 Volts in December.

Maybe Nissan's ad will deliver a jolt to sales. Then again ...

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Uber settles with drivers for up to $100 million

The settlement awaits approval, but it may not be an end to litigation

Uber and its drivers have been at odds for a few years now. The company has asserted that its drivers are private contractors – not employees; however, dri...

PhotoUber and its drivers have been at odds for a few years now. The company has asserted that its drivers are private contractors – not employees; however, drivers have felt that they should have certain expenses covered by Uber, such as vehicle maintenance and gas. These mixed feelings resulted in two lawsuits in California and Massachusetts.

But, as of April 21, Uber has agreed to settle both lawsuits to the tune of up to $100 million, according to a Los Angeles Times report. Under the agreement, which still awaits approval from the U.S. District Court of Northern California, drivers would remain private contractors, but Uber would change some of its business practices and alter policies that affect driver deactivation.

Settlement details

If approved, the settlement would initially distribute $84 million to Uber drivers in California and Massachusetts. Drivers would be eligible for a cut of that money if they made at least one trip before the preliminary settlement approval.

Uber April 22, 2016, 4:47 p.m.
Consumers rate Uber

An additional $16 million would be distributed at a later date if Uber’s value increased by 1.5 times its current level when the company goes public or is acquired. Drivers would be paid according to the number of miles they have driven with a passenger in the car; those who logged 25,000 miles or more could see payments upwards of $8,000.

In terms of policy, Uber has also agreed to create a system where drivers cannot be automatically deactivated by the company. Instead, a system of warnings would be created that would allow drivers to correct their behavior before further action is taken. A panel would also be created by Uber so that drivers can appeal decisions if they feel that they were treated unfairly.

Perhaps the most important amendment of the settlement for passengers is a clarification that will be made about tips. The company would make it clear that tips are not included in the fare that passengers are charged. Consequently, drivers would be allowed to solicit for tips in the future.

Uber comes out on top?

Although many may feel that Uber drivers come out on top in this settlement, some experts are not so quick to agree. They state that the settlement actually deals with one of the big problems that Uber has faced since it started.

By keeping drivers classified as private contractors, the company avoids having to pay driver expenses, like gas and mileage. They also don’t have to provide health insurance, Social Security, overtime, or sick days – facets that would have cut into their profit margins.

However, there are some hurdles that the company must overcome going forward. Firstly, the settlement needs to be approved by the courts in order to make it official. But, even assuming that it is, that does not mean that the legal battle is over.

Plaintiff attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan has stated firmly that this settlement has not definitively decided whether Uber drivers are employees or private contractors. This opens up the possibility for future litigation.

“If we chose not to settle this case, we faced risks. . . We faced the risk that a jury in San Francisco (where Uber is everywhere and quite popular) may not side with the drivers over Uber. . . The debate will not end here,” she said.

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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 ...

PhotoSears 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
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Prince death prompts rush to buy his music

Consumers turn to eBay to find Prince CDs

The sudden death of pop music icon Prince has produced something of a run on compact discs – specifically Prince CDs.Despite music's recent migration t...

PhotoThe sudden death of pop music icon Prince has produced something of a run on compact discs – specifically Prince CDs.

Despite music's recent migration to digital media, Prince carefully kept his music off the Internet -- so if you wanted Prince's music, you pretty much had to buy the CD. As a result, stores that still sell CDs have been doing brisk business since news of the star's death was announced Thursday.

In fact, Prince's fierce independence and defense of his intellectual property set the standard in the industry, influencing other top performers to take a hard line against music streaming services.

A number of Prince CDs are for sale on eBay, and available sales data show fans have been buying them up. For example, “Prince My Best Work Classic Collections” has nearly sold out, with 30 copies selling in one hour.

The Prince Greatest Hits 2-CD Collection” has sold 49 copies on eBay, all 49 sold in the last 24 hours. Copies are selling for $16.77, about what a music CD normally costs.

However, a single copy of the 1984 “Prince and the Revolution Purple Rain” vinyl album is listed at the collector's price of $599. As of this writing, no takers yet. A Purple Rain poster has three people watching, with a “buy it now” price of $249.

The rock superstar's unexpected and untimely death sent shock waves through the music industry and resulted in massive media coverage. Media outlets from CBS News to the Drudge Report to Google adopted a purple motif Thursday and Friday in honor of Prince Rogers Nelson, dead at the age of 57.

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Class action targets RV refrigerator fires

"Thousands of reports" of fires but company allegedly failed to act

A class action lawsuit claims that Dometic Corp. sold defective refrigerators used in RVs and boats, leading to at least 3,000 explosions and fires since 1...

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Women lose more sleep over money than men

But a majority of both women and men stay awake with money worries

What keeps you awake at night? If you're a woman, it's probably money. If you're a man, it's probably something else.That's one of the nuggets in a Cre...

PhotoWhat keeps you awake at night? If you're a woman, it's probably money. If you're a man, it's probably something else.

That's one of the nuggets in a CreditCards.com report on money management. It cited a survey showing money worries are a big preoccupation but more so for women than men. Sixty-eight percent of women reported losing sleep over money, but only 56% of men had the same problem.

What kind of money worries? You name it. Both men and women said they worry about saving for retirement, paying for college, meeting healthcare expenses, paying the rent or mortgage, and dealing with credit card debt.

On average, both male and female consumers estimate at least two of these money worries regularly rob them of a good night's sleep.

Little middle ground

"There doesn't seem to be much middle ground when it comes to Americans' financial worries," Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com's senior industry analyst, said. "Many folks have none at all, but many of us are worried about several different problems all at once."

The biggest money worry troubling both men and women is retirement savings. Consumers as young as 30 report this is of special concern. It's most common for college graduates and consumers with household incomes of $75,000 or more.

Paying for college or student loans is the number one money worry for millennials and minorities of all ages. Paying medical expenses and insurance costs rank second among women.

Seniors sleep like a baby

Not surprisingly, the money-induced insomnia peaks between age 50 and 64. After age 65, you don't worry about it so much.

Strangely, the bills consumers tend to worry about the least are their credit card debts. That could be because credit card debt tends to be the most flexible. If a consumer runs short one month, he or she can simply make the minimum payment.

Whatever the reason, Shultz sees it as a positive sign.

"It seems to indicate that despite balances continuing to rise after the Great Recession, most Americans feel they have their card debt well under control," he said.

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Before saying 'I do,' couples should talk about money

Financial advisor says money is usually the root of all break-ups

Wedding season approaches, and with it many a young couple – and often the brides' parents – will be writing some massive checks.Before the big day arr...

PhotoWedding season approaches, and with it many a young couple – and often the brides' parents – will be writing some massive checks.

Before the big day arrives – and too many non-refundable deposits are made – financial advisor Christopher Krell says couples should have a candid conversation about money, including their approaches to both spending and saving.

Financial security is important, but Krell says it's not the only thing at stake. He points to a 2012 study published in the Family Relations Journal that concluded disagreements about money are the main reason marriages hit the rocks.

Kansas State University researcher Sonya Britt participated in that study, and a year later she expanded upon it, reaching the same conclusion.

"Results revealed it didn't matter how much you made or how much you were worth,” Britt said when she published her study. “Arguments about money are the top predictor for divorce because it happens at all levels."

Wedding spending can be an indicator

As we reported not long ago, marriages can get off to a rocky start because couples overspend on their wedding. In a survey, Emory University researchers found that no matter the income level, the more couples spent on their wedding, the shorter the marriage. Spending less than $1,000 on the big day significantly reduced the likelihood of divorce.

Because of the importance money plays in a relationship, Krell said he specializes in trying to get couples on the same page when it comes to financial planning. There are potential pitfalls in a financial relationship, and Krell says there are steps you can take to avoid them.

What to do

Communicate – You have to be able to have an honest conversation about money without it ending in a fight.

Organize – Figure out what you need to spend on essentials and what you can save each month. When you plan a budget, do it together. Both parties have to buy in or it won't work.

Get out of debt – It might take a while, but come up with a plan to pay off credit card balances. Pay more than the minimum, but don't overpay either. Commit to a monthly amount you can live with and pay it month in and month out until the balance is paid off.

Set goals – When you put money aside, have a plan for it. Part of it should be for retirement. Part should be for emergencies. Part should be for trips or special events. When those times arrive, you'll have money to pay for gifts or vacations and you won't have to load up your credit cards again.

Krell estimates more than two million couples will get married in 2016. Of those, more than 800,000 are likely to get a divorce or annulment.

“In many cases, these couples could have avoided divorce if they’d communicated from the beginning, had a good financial plan and aligned their finances,” Krell said.

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The secret to getting rich may be selling secrets

But buying these 'secrets' will likely leave you a little bit poorer

When someone starts promising to provide “inside” information, or reveal “secrets” to help you get rich, it may be a good idea to hold onto your wallet....

PhotoWhen someone starts promising to provide “inside” information, or reveal “secrets” to help you get rich, it may be a good idea to hold onto your wallet.

When an Iowa resident recently received a flier from New Jersey-based Success Publishers, titled “How I WIN $20,000 Every Month from The Lottery,” he forwarded it to Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who launched an investigation.

As a result, the company will permanently stop marketing to Iowa residents and make refunds to the 86 Iowa consumers who paid $10 to $100 for the information. In agreeing to the settlement with Miller, the company denied any liability or wrongdoing.

Miller says he sees these kinds of pitches from time to time.

Beat the lottery products

“These are what might be called ‘beat-the-lottery’ products that appear to violate Iowa’s Consumer Fraud Act,” Miller said in a statement. “We demanded that sales to Iowans must cease, and that Iowa consumers who paid money are entitled to refunds.”

Miller said he took action because the mailing made a number of broad claims of assured winnings. He said a recent mailing pitched secrets used by “rogue mathematicians,” who were said to win the lottery 90% of the time they played.

“These lottery systems make sweeping promises that recipients are certain to come out ahead, but games of chance always involve the risk of loss,” Miller said. “Like any other get-rich-quick scheme, consumers should treat win-the-lottery systems with extreme skepticism.”

Periodic crackdowns

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) generally advises consumers to avoid anything that smacks of a get-rich-quick scheme. Since 1996, the FTC and various states have cracked down on self-employment schemes promising massive wealth.

Typical of these schemes is an offer of a work-at-home “program.” For a fee of less than $50, the recipient is told he or she can start working from home and earn up to $1,000 a week.

Usually, the victim gets only a pamphlet containing contact information of companies purportedly offering work-at-home opportunities. In some cases, those companies, when contacted, would try to sell the victim on an additional work-at-home program.

In 2012, a federal court ordered companies hawking three get-rich-quick schemes – including a popular real estate program – to pay a record $478 million fine for deceiving nearly one million consumers.

The sad truth, of course, is that there is no secret way to quickly amass great wealth. If there were, you can be sure you couldn't buy it for three easy payments of $19.95.

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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...

PhotoWith 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.

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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 wa...

PhotoApril 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. 

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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, resultin...

PhotoFlying 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.

 

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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 RX...

PhotoToyota 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.

 

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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 90...

PhotoThe 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.

 

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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

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, ...

Photo[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.

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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.

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Three Michigan officials charged in Flint water crisis

State attorney general says investigation is ongoing

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed criminal charges against three bureaucrats in connection with Flint, Michigan's water contamination crisi...

PhotoMichigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed criminal charges against three bureaucrats in connection with Flint, Michigan's water contamination crisis.

The complaint against the trio of environmental officials includes 13 felony charges and five misdemeanors. The charges are the result of Schuette's investigation into the water crisis, launched last year.

In 2014, the City of Flint switched its water supply to the Flint River. Some Flint residents showed signs of lead poisoning shortly afterward..

Environmental experts called in to investigate determined that the corrosive water from the river interacted with the ancient lead supply pipes, causing lead to leach into the water supply.

No elected officials named

While some of Michigan's elected officials have come under criticism in connection with the debacle, none were named in the first wave of charges. However, Schuette says his investigation is ongoing.

Stephen Busch, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality District 8 Water Supervisor, faces three felony and two misdemeanor charges.

Michael Prysby, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality District 8 Water Engineer, faced four felony counts and two misdemeanor charges.

Michael Glasgow, City of Flint Laboratory and Water Quality Supervisor, was charged with one felony and one misdemeanor.

The charges

Busch and Prysby are accused of misconduct in office, allegedly misleading officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and failing to provide clean and safe drinking water to the citizens of Genesee County, Mich.

Glasgow is accused of tampering with evidence, allegedly removing, altering, concealing, and destroying a report on the contamination.

Schuette said he wanted to make clear that the justice system in Michigan is not rigged. The charges are meant to send that message.

“So many things went so terribly wrong in Flint,” Schuette said in a statement. “I made a decision that I must investigate what went wrong. It is my job as Attorney General to protect the citizens of Michigan. The citizens of Flint deserve that, the citizens of Michigan deserve that.”

Schuette said the ongoing investigation is “broad, detailed and comprehensive."

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Feds sue online lead aggregator

Burbank company allegedly resold loan applications, other personal data

A Burbank, Calif., company that resold loan applications containing personal information is being sued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), ...

PhotoA Burbank, Calif., company that resold loan applications containing personal information is being sued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), saying it failed to properly vet the buyers and sellers of the data.

“T3Leads steered consumers toward bad deals with lenders it didn’t vet and with no regard for how the consumers’ information would be used,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “This is a reminder to the middlemen who buy and sell consumer loan applications: if you engage in this type of conduct, you risk the consequences for harming people.”

In complaints filed today in federal court, the CFPB alleged that Dmitry Fomichev and Davit Gasparyan (also known as David Gasparyan) co-founded and operated T3Leads, a lead aggregator that bought and sold payday and installment loan applications.

T3Leads is what's called a lead aggregator. It buys information from "lead generators" -- websites that gather consumers' personal information by enticing them to "apply" for loans, insurance policies, or other services. 

Data is resold

Consumers fill out an online form and provide their personal data thinking they are actually applying for the service that's being advertised. Instead, their data is merely being collected and resold to companies that may or may not use it for the intended purpose.  

In its complaint, the CFPB alleges that T3Leads bought leads and sold them to payday lenders, installment lenders, and others with no regard for the promises lead generators made to consumers or for how the consumers’ information would be used.

Buyers of leads from T3Leads include lenders tied to Indian tribes or based overseas. These lenders often skirt state laws and deny the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, the CFPB alleges.

The CFPB alleges that T3Leads exploited consumers’ lack of understanding of the risks, costs, and conditions of the loans applied for and put consumer information at risk of being trafficked for illegal purposes.

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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 c...

PhotoResearchers 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.

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SkySafe takes aim at rogue drones

New device uses radio signals to make rogue drones land safely

Drones are supposed to stay away from airports, crime and disaster scenes, and other areas where they might endanger other aircraft, but commercial pilots ...

PhotoDrones are supposed to stay away from airports, crime and disaster scenes, and other areas where they might endanger other aircraft, but commercial pilots have reported drones flying dangerously close to their airliners and California fire-fighting crews have on several occasions had to ground their helicopters and slurry tankers because of news media drones.

Flying to the rescue is a start-up company called SkySafe, which has developed a device that uses radio signals to bring rogue drones to the ground safely when they're flying in areas where they shouldn't be.

Unlike the drones, which are available to anyone with a credit card, SkySafe will initially be sold only to law enforcement, government agencies, and corporations and institutions that are trying to protect vital territory.

SkySafe, founded by former MIT and UC San Diego researchers, recently landed seed financing and needs to raise more money before it begins production. It unveiled its plans today. 

Founder and CEO Grant Jordan said his system can protect a selected area continuously, scanning for signals emitted by drones. It can "whitelist" drones that are permitted in the area while intercepting others and forcing them to land.

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The income it takes to live comfortably in different cities​

Cost of necessities can vary greatly based on where you reside

When income meets city of residence, the level of comfort in your lifestyle can vary. Depending on where you live and how much you earn, you may either fin...

PhotoWhen income meets city of residence, the level of comfort in your lifestyle can vary. Depending on where you live and how much you earn, you may either find yourself in a shoebox-sized apartment or living in the lap of luxury.

Living comfortably is the goal for most people, but some cities can make it more difficult than others to attain a level of comfort. So how much should you be making in order to live comfortably in 50 major cities across the U.S? GoBankingRates used the 50-30-20 guideline to find out.

50-30-20 rule

According to the 50-30-20 budgeting rule, half of your after-tax income should go to necessities, 30% should be set aside for discretionary expenses, and 20% should be socked away in savings or paying off debt.

Using this strategy -- and a median income-based definition of “comfort” -- GoBankingRates analyzed cost of living data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other agencies to find out how much you should be making to live comfortably in 50 of the most populated cities.

Here are some of the cities on their list and the median income it takes to live comfortably in each:

  • San Francisco: $119,570
  • Baltimore: 53,897
  • Washington, DC: $83,104
  • New York: $87,446
  • Houston: $60,795
  • Los Angeles: $74,371
  • Denver: $62,842
  • Boston: $84,422
  • Nashville: $61,015
  • Miami: $77,057

The study found that the cost of necessities -- rent, utilities, cost of transportation, groceries, and healthcare -- were most affordable in Tucson, Arizona. Residents of San Francisco, on the other hand, pay far more for these necessities ($39,802 more per year compared to Tucson residents). 

To see data on all 50 cities analyzed in the study, click here.

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PlayDate smart ball allows pet parents to play with their pet from anywhere

The smart ball and app even lets you see video footage of your pet on your smartphone

In addition to missing our pets while we’re out and about, it’s normal to wish we could be home to play with them. Now, a new interactive pet camera may al...

PhotoIn addition to missing our pets while we’re out and about, it’s normal to wish we could be home to play with them. Now, a new interactive pet camera may allow pet owners to do just that -- right from their smartphones.

PlayDate, which calls itself the “world’s first truly interactive pet camera,” is a smart ball and mobile app combination that allows pet parents to see what their pet is up to, and even play with them remotely.

The invention may finally give pet owners an answer to the age-old question, “What does my dog do at home alone all day?” Many are eager to know the answer, judging from the fact that the creators of PlayDate quickly exceeded their IndieGoGo campaign goal.

Ball to chase

For pet parents who would rather their dog play than sleep all day, the smart ball is an ideal solution.

The ball -- which has a built-in 5 Megapixel, 160-degree camera -- can be controlled from your smartphone, making it possible to see and play with your pet even when you’re at work. A microphone is also nestled inside the ball, so if your pooch is being less-than-enthusiastic about playtime, you can use the speaker to talk to them.

The built-in camera is stabilized during rotations, so the footage you see won’t be shaky. It can also save pictures and video, which could result in some unique angles of your favorite companion.

Got a rough and tumble pup? No worries. The smart ball’s outer layer is a hard, replaceable polycarbonate shell, and the inner workings are protected by yet another layer.

Cats can also get in on the fun; a three-inch version of PlayDate (which can be decked out with ribbons) makes for a more cat-friendly play session.

The PlayDate smart ball is not available to purchase quite yet. But if all goes according to plan, the creators hope to start shipping to early backers in December of this year.  

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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 homebuye...

PhotoShopping 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.

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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 mi...

PhotoGasoline 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.

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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 Novemb...

PhotoNissan 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.

 

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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...

PhotoBrunton 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.

 

 

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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 ...

PhotoJust 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. 

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UnitedHealth, nation's largest health insurer, pulling out of Obamacare

The company says the market is smaller and riskier than it had anticipated

UnitedHealth Group is pulling out of Obamacare health exchanges in "most" of the 34 states where it is now participating in the program in 2017, leaving a ...

PhotoUnitedHealth Group is pulling out of Obamacare health exchanges in "most" of the 34 states where it is now participating in the program in 2017, leaving a hole that may be hard to fill.

The nation's largest health insurer, UnitedHealth says it has experienced higher than expected losses in the health exchanges that are a key part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the formal name of the Obamacare program. 

UnitedHealth has not released a list of the states where it is bailing out of the program, but the Insurance Journal, an industry publication, identified the following states where regulators say they have been notified UnitedHealth will not write business next year: Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Tennessee, Colorado, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, Connecticut, Michigan, Oklahoma and Washington. More states are expected to be added to the list as regulators are notified.

New York, Nevada and Virginia, on the other hand, are among the states where UnitedHealth has filed to participate in Obamacare in 2017. California and Wisconsin have said they do not disclose companies' plans until the list of participating companies is published each year.

Not enough people

United Health Care April 20, 2016, 4:25 p.m.
Consumers rate UnitedHealth

Insurance experts say the problem in some states is that there are not enough people participating in the exchanges to allow insurers to spread the risk over a large group of people. UnitedHealth CEO Stephen Hemsley conceded as much Tuesday on a conference call with Wall Street analysts, saying that the exchange market has turned out to be smaller and riskier than expected.

Others have noted that many Obamacare participants did not have health insurance prior to enrolling in the program and have been "playing catch-up," as one put it, attending to health problems that they ignored for years or even decades.

Some insurers have said that consumers have signed up for Obamacare, taken care of pending health issues, and then dropped their coverage. 

In one sense, UnitedHealth's problems can be seen as good news for consumers: if an insurer loses money, it means consumers have gotten more in return for their premiums than the company expected. The downside, of course, is that UnitedHealth's withdrawal could mean that fewer companies will be competing in the affected states next year.

It's impossible to generalize about the effect because most states are divided into regions. Heavily populated urban and suburban areas tend to have more companies competing for customers' business while more sparsely populated areas have fewer competitors.

The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the ACA will cover about 12 million people this year, providing tax subsidies that help consumers afford insurance offered through the exchanges.

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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 c...

PhotoIn 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.

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Mitsubishi admits to cheating on mpg claims

The company says it manipulated test data on 625,000 vehicles

Now it's Mitsubishi Motors that admits it put its thumb on the scale or, more precisely, manipulated test data to improve mileage ratings on 625,000 vehicl...

PhotoNow it's Mitsubishi Motors that admits it put its thumb on the scale or, more precisely, manipulated test data to improve mileage ratings on 625,000 vehicles. 

Some of the cars affected were built by Mitsubishi and supplied to Nissan, which discovered the deception, according to Mitsubishi. It's not yet clear whether the affected cars were all sold in Japan or whether some were exported.

The admission, coming after Volkswagen's deceptive software that hid the true emissions of the company's "clean diesels," is a second black eye for automobile manufacturers.

Mitsubishi Motors President Tetsuro Aikawa and two other executives bowed in apology at a briefing in Tokyo, news agencies reported.

While different from the VW dirty diesel scandal, the Mitsubishi admission further tarnishes automakers' credibility and recalls a 2014 scandal involving Hyundai and Kia, which paid fines and forfeited emissions credits after admitting they had overstated mileage ratings. 

Ford also backed off some of its claims for hybrid models in 2013 and 2014.

In the Mitsubishi case, Kyodo reported that Mitsubishi was suspected of manipulating the load placed on the tires of four different models in order to make their fuel economy performance appear better.

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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 lend...

PhotoIf 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.

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McDonald's tests different size Big Macs

Restaurants in Ohio and Texas are trying out the Grand Mac and Mac Jr.

McDonald's appears to be considering a number of new menu possibilities. In the wake of its successful launch of All-Day Breakfast, the fast food chain is ...

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Media multitaskers may benefit from breathing exercises, study finds

People who frequently use different media forms in conjunction with each other scored better on attention tests after meditation

In this digital age, it’s become especially common to have multiple forms of electronic media competing for our attention. Whether it’s texting while watch...

PhotoIn this digital age, it’s become especially common to have multiple forms of electronic media competing for our attention. Whether it’s texting while watching TV or checking email while talking on the phone, one thing is clear: media multitaskers often have difficulty focusing on just one task.

Studies have shown that simultaneously engaging with multiple types of media can affect a person’s ability to focus even after media sources have been turned off.

But now, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison say media multitaskers -- and their truncated attention spans -- may benefit from a short breathing exercise.

Breath counting

The meditation exercise, in which participants sat quietly counting their breaths, was shown to improve performance on tests designed to measure attention.

"In general, people perform better after this mindfulness task," Thomas Gorman, first author of the study said in a statement. "But we found a significant difference for heavy media multitaskers. They improved even more on tests of their attention."

The researchers found that heavy media multitaskers scored worse all around, but both groups did better on attention tests after the breathing exercise; heavy multitaskers experienced the biggest performance boost after the exercise.

Short-term effects

Although the effects of the meditation task did not appear to be long lasting, the researchers say its short-term effects could be useful. The effects suggest that heavy media multitaskers can, in fact, be extracted from their state of divided attention.

“One thing the presence of the short-term effects suggest is that the attentional system in heavy media multitaskers isn't intractably affected. It is possible for heavy media multitaskers to adopt a more focused attentional state,” explains C. Shawn Green, UW-Madison psychology professor and senior author of the study.

The researchers believe further research could help discover whether the approach can be modified to drive a more lasting improvement.

The study was published recently in the journal Scientific Reports.

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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 ...

PhotoConsumers 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.

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‘Splurge Alert’ app can help you fight the urge to splurge

Phone alerts and social support step in when you’re facing temptation

Do you have a penchant for bringing home certain items that aren’t necessarily in your budget? Well, as you may have guessed, there’s an app for that. ...

PhotoDo you have a penchant for bringing home certain items that aren’t necessarily in your budget? Well, as you may have guessed, there’s an app for that.

“Splurge Alert,” created by online banking firm Ally Financial, aims to help consumers avoid unnecessary spending by using smartphone alerts. The alerts are designed to encourage you to steer clear of locations where you tend to overspend.

If Starbucks is your weakness, just tell the app and it will be deemed a “splurge zone.” Geotracking allows the app to recognize when you’re near a splurge zone; if you are, you’ll receive alerts such as, “Grab a nice big cup of ‘Get the heck outta here.’”

If an alert on your phone isn’t enough to keep you from buying that grande mocha frap, you can enlist the help of your friends.

Social support

The app has an optional “Splurge Buddies” feature, which notifies a designated friend or family member -- or five -- if you’ve entered temptation territory.

Splurge Alert is the first app of its kind to combine geotracking with social support to help consumers manage spending habits and break bad habits.

According to a survey by Harris Poll, 85% of Americans admit to splurging. What counts as splurging? The majority of consumers (71%) say it's defined as buying an item that is not needed, regardless of price. Food and beverage tied with clothing, shoes, and accessories are the top categories in which consumers typically overspend.

Small purchases add up

When it comes to budgeting, small purchases can have a big impact. For many, it's the small, daily expenses that can lead to the biggest budgeting problems. 

"Many people believe that large one-time expenses can throw their budgets off track," said Andrea Riley, chief marketing officer of Ally in a statement. "But it's actually the everyday purchases -- coffee drinks, smoothies, clothing items -- that tend to be a problem area." 

The intent of the Splurge Alert app, Riley adds, is to raise awareness about spending habits in the hope of helping consumers reach their savings goals. 

Ally’s Splurge Alert (which is free) is available for iOS devices as a beta. Sign up to test it here.

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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...

PhotoIt'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.

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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 pock...

PhotoMiniland 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.

 

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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 l...

PhotoStaples 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.

 

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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 ...

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Navigating the hazards of renting

Be on the lookout for these headwinds and scams

People who rent their homes seem to have a lot of headwinds these days.First, rents have gotten expensive. In the wake of the financial crisis, fewer p...

PhotoPeople who rent their homes seem to have a lot of headwinds these days.

First, rents have gotten expensive. In the wake of the financial crisis, fewer people who wanted to buy a home could qualify for a mortgage. The competition for rental property sent rents sky high in many markets.

There also is apparently some hazard in dealing with landlords. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh has filed charges against an apartment company in his state, Willey Rental, and its owners.

Frosh's complaint says the company advertised residential properties in the Salisbury, Md., market and charged tenants upfront rent and security deposits, then failed to actually provide the tenants access to the property.

Worse still, Frosh charges the company refused to provide refunds.

Stressful enough

"Moving to a new home can be stressful enough, but discovering you don't have a home after you have paid your deposit and given up your old lease can be disruptive and overwhelming," Frosh said in a statement.

"Consumers who paid a security deposit and prepaid rent should get possession of the property or a full refund. . . We will take all necessary action to protect consumers who pay deposits in reliance on a landlord's promise but are given nothing."

Rental scams

Consumers looking for a home or apartment to rent have also been victimized in recent years by scammers. As the competition for rental property intensified, criminals took advantage of consumers' eagerness to rent a place before someone else beat them to it.

In one of the most common schemes, a scammer would break into a vacant apartment and list it for rent. He or she would then make appointments to show it to multiple prospects, in many cases signing leases and collecting deposits from more than one.

When the consumers who believed they had rented an apartment were ready to move in, they found the apartment locked, or someone else occupying it.

Signs of a scam

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), some signs of a rental scam may be: 

  • “Bargain” rents that are well below the market value; 
  • An out of town landlord who asks you to wire the rental deposit;
  • A request for money before you have even inspected the property.

If all this has soured you on the idea of renting, you might take heart from a recent opinion from Investopedia that, in most cases, renting is much better financially buying a home.

It says owning a home reduces your mobility, ties up your money, and isn't a very good investment. Just be sure to do proper research before financially committing to a location.

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CVS Health adopts curbside delivery

Service extends to front-of-store and over-the-counter items

Walmart does it. Now, so will CVS Health.The drug store chain has announced it will offer curbside pickup for customers using the CVS app to place an o...

PhotoWalmart does it. Now, so will CVS Health.

The drug store chain has announced it will offer curbside pickup for customers using the CVS app to place an order. The new service, called CVS Express, is currently being tested and marketed in San Francisco, Charlotte, and Atlanta. Additional markets will be added later in 2016.

CVS customers can use CVS Express to purchase all front store and over-the-counter items at no additional cost.

CVS is partnering with Curbside, a specialty services company that provides software to support curbside pick-ups for retailers. 

"This partnership with Curbside allows CVS Health to offer new and more convenient ways for our customers to shop with us ultimately making it easier for them to enjoy a healthy lifestyle in a way that works best for them," Helena Foulkes, Executive Vice President of CVS Health and President of CVS Pharmacy, said in a statement.

How it works

The company said consumers placing their orders using the mobile app would be able to pick up their orders in about one hour. Customers will park in a designated area near the front of the store and store personnel will deliver the order to the car.

Brian Tilzer, Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Officer of CVS Health, says digital tools are the key to making health care convenient and affordable. He says other digital steps are likely to follow.

Last week Walmart announced an expansion of its curbside delivery for groceries, now available in 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.

Walmart says the service has proved popular, with about 90% of curbside users having used the service at least once before.

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Allergies in pets: how to ease symptoms

Recognizing the signs of an allergic reaction is the first step toward giving pets relief

Just like humans, pets can have allergies -- and they can develop at any age. The most common allergies veterinarians see are atopy (which is often seasona...

PhotoJust like humans, pets can have allergies -- and they can develop at any age. The most common allergies veterinarians see are atopy (which is often seasonal and caused by something in a pet’s environment), food allergies, and contact dermatitis.

If you notice your pet licking and scratching certain areas (such as their toes, ears, and face), it might be a sign that they have an allergy and should be checked out by a vet. 

It goes without saying that we want the best for our pets. But sometimes, allergies in cats and dogs can be exacerbated by factors that are within our control, such as a nutrition. According to Will Post, founder and CEO of Hound & Gatos Pet Foods Corporation, many well-meaning pet parents fail to notice ingredients or materials that can actually make pets' allergies worse.

“If you have a pet with allergies it is important to pay close attention to both their food and things in their environment,” explains Post, adding that it’s important for pet owners to recognize and avoid possible allergy triggers.

Bringing pets relief

To minimize the risk of aggravating pets' allergies, it’s crucial to know what to look for and what to avoid in your dog or cat's food, toys, and environment. Bringing pets relief from their allergy symptoms could mean changing things up in the following categories:

  • Food. “Feeding them well is going to go a long way toward helping their allergies to improve,” says Post, who explains that healing the gut is the first step toward helping the body fix itself. Certain ingredients in pet food, such as corn, wheat, fillers, gravies, and preservatives should be avoided. Pets with allergies should be eating wholesome foods that are made of just meat. Posts notes that it’s also important to know about the meat: what type it is and where it was sourced.
  • Toys and bedding. Certain materials in toys and bedding can also make allergies worse. Plastic should be avoided as much as possible, says Post.
  • Environmental factors. Certain materials in the environment can also trigger allergic reactions. Trees, grass, weed pollens, mold spores, and dust mites are a few of the more common environmental allergens. If dust is the culprit, WebMD recommends cleaning pets bedding, dusting, and vacuuming at least twice a week. Weekly bathing can also help remove allergens. 

What to do

Other signs that your pet may have allergies include ear problems, skin rash, face rubbing, paw biting, and sometimes vomiting.

If you suspect your pet has an allergy, consult a veterinarian. For food allergies, vets may recommend specific foods or a home-cooked diet. If environmental factors or airborne allergens are causing allergic reactions, your vet may recommend medications or supplements.

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Visa says it has upgraded chip card technology

The company hopes to encourage its use with faster processing

According to Visa, consumers have received more than 265 million Visa credit and debit cards, making the U.S. the largest market for chip-embedded cards in...

PhotoAccording to Visa, consumers have received more than 265 million Visa credit and debit cards, making the U.S. the largest market for chip-embedded cards in the world.

However, just 20% of all merchant locations now have chip-enabled terminals.

Back in February, payments consultant Allen Weinberg speculated that large retailers are reluctant to begin using the new terminals because they think they are inefficient.

“They see [chip cards] as just slowing down lines and chose to wait until consumers learned what to do – and do it quickly – at someone else’s store,” Weinberg wrote.

Visa has announced a chip technology upgrade that it says will speed things up a bit and perhaps prompt more retail outlets to start using the chip-enabled terminals. The upgrade is called Quick Chip and is available at no charge to payment processors, banks, and other payment networks to offer to merchants.

Speeds up processing

Visa says Quick Chip streamlines chip card transactions by speeding up the processing. As a result, a customer can dip and remove his or her EMV chip card in two seconds or less, even removing the card before the transaction has completed processing.

The net result, says Visa, will be faster checkouts and processing. The card can be inserted and removed while items are still being scanned – a feature of the magnetic strip cards that makes them more efficient, if less secure.

In fact, Mark Nelsen, a senior vice president at Visa, says the upgrade will make the checkout experience using the chip cards comparable to the ease and speed of magnetic strip transactions.

Liability shift

The chip card readers were introduced in October, when liability for fraudulent transactions passed from credit card companies to merchants. The chip cards are more secure, though the National Retail Federation has argued that requiring only a signature when using the cards, and not a PIN, is a very real security flaw.

While most consumers have now received at least one chip-embedded debit or credit card, they aren't finding many places where they can use the new technology. Visa says its technology upgrade addresses a very real reason why.

Visa says the software needed for the upgrade can be downloaded with ease to any chip-compliant payment terminal. It says the technology will function with all cardholder verification methods, including signature and PIN. It does not require a merchant to make any changes to the way transactions are routed or handled.

It also does not require further testing if the terminal has already been certified as EMV chip compliant.

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Study: for women, education still doesn't mean equal pay

Gender barriers in work and politics warrant policy action, researchers say

Despite closing the education gap with men, some advocates say that women still aren’t getting equal access to quality jobs and government representation. ...

PhotoDespite closing the education gap with men, some advocates say that women still aren’t getting equal access to quality jobs and government representation.

A global study of gender equality finds that women have reached 90% of the education held by men, but only 70% of their rate of employment. Political representation -- though it has increased compared to men (from 14% in 1990) -- remains a meager 25%.

Findings from a University of Vermont study challenge the assumption that education translates into equal access to high-paying jobs. Furthermore, it points to a need for greater policy interventions that could help close political and workplace gender gaps.

The study’s author, Stephanie Seguino, says that holding onto the belief that markets will fix these gaps is a fallacy -- one that fails to account for centuries-old gender norms and male hierarchies.

"Clearly, education alone is not enough to solve this problem," says Prof. Seguino, a University of Vermont Economist. "We need concrete policy tools to break down gender barriers, because the market's 'invisible hand' is not working."

Two key reasons

The study, published in the Journal of African Development, offers two main reasons for women’s lower employment and income.

The first reason is that women experience greater exclusion from high-paying jobs; the second is that a disproportionate amount of unpaid household work is attributed to women (which includes care for children and aging parents).

To help fix the problem, Seguino suggests policy changes in public spending that include affordable childcare, paid parental leave, affordable daycare, and possibly even gender quotas.

Canada's recently adopted gender quota, Seguino notes, helped to increase female government representation to 50 percent overnight.

Potential conflict

Seguino says that leveling the playing field could very well come with some hiccups. As women’s employment increases, so does the potential for gender conflict.

She asserts that manufacturing declines may lead to male job losses, which can then threaten men’s role as the breadwinner. Taking a lower paying job presents a “challenge to their gender identity,” says Seguino, adding that it can create a gender conflict that many are reticent to discuss. She says that it is imperative, however, that policymakers address the issue.

"We won't have the political support for the investments and policy changes needed to improve women access to work, if it's assumed that policy makers are promoting women's wellbeing by making men worse off,” she concludes.

The full report, “Global Trends in Gender Equality,” can be found here.

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Michigan opposes oil pipeline request

Still reeling from Flint water crisis, state sees too much environmental risk

When Canadian oil producers proposed the XL Pipeline to move oil across the United States, Republica...

Photo
St. Clair River in Michigan - Photo (c) Wikipedia

When Canadian oil producers proposed the XL Pipeline to move oil across the United States, Republicans generally supported it while Democrats, who ultimately prevailed, opposed it.

Fast forward to this month, when Michigan's Republican attorney general, Bill Schuette, told the U.S. State Department that Michigan is opposed to a proposal to move Canadian oil across the state.

Admittedly, the circumstances are a bit different. For starters, the pipeline in question is 98 years old and runs along the bottom of the St. Clair River between Ontario and Michigan. That river empties into the Detroit River, which then makes its way to Lake Erie.

“As Attorney General of the State of Michigan, one of my highest priorities is protecting the Great Lakes, our most precious natural resources. The Great Lakes literally define our state and are the lifeblood of our environment and economy,” Schuette wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Schuette said very little is known about how they constructed pipelines back in 1918. He also noted that there has been no independent verification of the current pipeline condition, and whether it would be up to the task of transporting crude oil through environmentally-sensitive areas.

The Flint factor

It should be noted that Michigan is currently dealing with a rather large environmental problem. In the city of Flint, the water supply is being transported through lead pipes, contaminating the city's drinking water.

After the city switched its drinking water supply to the Flint River in 2014, the corrosive water caused lead from the pipes to leach into the water supply, creating a public health crisis with enormous political fallout.

When the proposal to allow crude oil to be moved through an aging pipeline was set in motion, it likely set off alarm bells among the state's office holders. Schuette says the proposal carries “significant, unnecessary risks” to public health and the environment.

“There is no available evidence that these two pipelines have ever transported significant quantities of crude oil or are needed for that purpose now,” Schuette said.

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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...

PhotoThe 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.

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Advancepierre Foods recalls pork product

The product contains eggs, an allergen not listed on the label

AdvancePierre Foods of Cincinnati, Ohio, is recalling approximately 3,469 pounds of breaded pork products. The product contains eggs, an allergen n...

PhotoAdvancePierre Foods of Cincinnati, Ohio, is recalling approximately 3,469 pounds of breaded pork products.

 

The product contains eggs, an allergen not listed on the label.

 

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

 

The the following product, produced on March 15, 2016, is being recalled:

  • 19.38-lb. box containing “CN FULLY COOKED BREADED PORK PATTIES,” with an Use-By-Date of March 15, 2017 and a case code of 3801.

The recalled product bears establishment number “EST. 2132” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and was shipped to institutions in Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and Ohio.

 

What to do

 

Customers who purchased the recalled product should not consume it, but throw it away or return it to the place of purchase.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Laura Phillips at (513) 381-8347.

 

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Norven herring in oil recalled

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

OLMA-XXI of Brooklyn, N.Y., is recalling Norven herring in oil The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. No illnesses ha...

PhotoOLMA-XXI of Brooklyn, N.Y., is recalling Norven herring in oil

 

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

The following product, packaged in plastic containers (tubs) and distributed to distributors and retail stores in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Florida and California, is being recalled:

  • Net Wt. 17.6 oz. (500g), UPC barcode 856687004196; Lot # 530611, Best before: 10/27/16 (stamped on bottom label);
  • Net Wt. 10.6 oz. (300g), UPC barcode 856687004189; Lot # 530611, Best before: 10/27/16 (stamped on bottom label).

What to do

 

Customers who purchased the recalled product should not consume it, but return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-718-675-0706, Monday - Friday, 8 am - 6 pm (EDT).

 

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Flyover Country: an app to help air travelers learn more about the land below

Users don't need to purchase in-flight Wi-Fi to access the information

The window seat of an airplane can offer a hard-to-beat aerial view of the earth. Most of the time, however, it can be hard to determine where in the world...

PhotoThe window seat of an airplane can offer a hard-to-beat aerial view of the earth. Most of the time, however, it can be hard to determine where in the world you are from that view alone.

Now, there’s an app that can help you make sense of what’s down below. Travelers who use the Flyover Country app can get in-depth information about the land they’re seeing on the other side of the clouds. 

The app can tell you what city you're looking at, why a river bends the way it does, or even if dinosaur bones were discovered in a particular spot. How does it work? According to Travel + Leisure, the app uses maps and information from geological and paleontological databases to identify the landscape passing beneath a plane.

The app’s creator, Shane Loeffler, was struck with the idea for the app during a long flight home. Loeffler, a geology student at the time, wanted to know more about the landscape passing under him some 30,000-feet below. With the help of a grant, Flyover Country was developed.

Uses cached data

The app utilizes the GPS on a user's phone to provide detailed information about their current location. Travelers can learn about the natural features they’re passing over (such as glaciers) and man-made features (such as mines), all while they read Wikipedia articles about them. 

Thanks to the app’s use of cached maps, data, and Wikipedia articles, fliers can learn about what they’re seeing without having to purchase in-flight Wi-Fi.

Flyover Country can also come in handy during road trips and hikes. In the future, the app may even be able to amuse night time air travelers with meteorological and astronomy facts.

Flyover Country is available as a free download from Google Play and the App Store.

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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 bod...

PhotoYou 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.

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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 J...

PhotoThe 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.

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Lots of greenery lengthens women's lives, study finds

Women with high levels of vegetation around their homes had a 12% lower death rate

You may think you're killing yourself mowing the lawn, weeding the garden, and trimming the roses. But a study finds that women with high levels of vegetat...

PhotoYou may think you're killing yourself mowing the lawn, weeding the garden, and trimming the roses. But a study finds that women with high levels of vegetation near their homes had a 12% lower death rate than women whose homes were more barren.

“It is important to know that trees and plants provide health benefits in our communities, as well as beauty,” said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). “The finding of reduced mortality suggests that vegetation may be important to health in a broad range of ways.”

The results were published April 14 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Lower mortality

The researchers found the biggest differences in death rates from kidney disease, respiratory disease, and cancer.

The scientists consistently found lower mortality rates in women as levels of trees and plants increased around their homes. This trend was seen for separate causes of death, as well as when all causes were combined.

When researchers compared women in the areas with highest greenness to women in the lowest, they found a 41% lower death rate for kidney disease, 34% lower death rate for respiratory disease, and 13% lower death rate for cancer in the greenest areas.

The study didn't draw any conclusions about men, so it's still possible yardwork is killing off America's males. 

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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...

PhotoEligible 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.”

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Norwegian Air Shuttle wins U.S. approval to launch cheap trans-Atlantic flights

U.S. Transportation Department glumly says it found "no legal basis" to deny the application

U.S. airlines have been so busy complaining about growing competition from Middle East carriers that Norwegian Air Shuttle has been sort of flying under th...

PhotoU.S. airlines have been so busy complaining about growing competition from Middle East carriers that Norwegian Air Shuttle has been sort of flying under the radar. But that ended Friday, when the U.S. Department of Transportation approved Norwegian's plans to expand cut-rate, no-frills, trans-Atlantic flights. 

The result could be a resurgence of the "backpackers specials" that were once offered by Icelandair and other carriers -- cheap flights with few amenities that enabled generations of young (and often not so young) Americans to bum around Europe when they had spare time but little money. 

Opponents say the cheap flights may look good to consumers but will be bad for business. Labor unions and domestic airlines have fought for years to keep Norwegian from winning approval for flights by its Irish subsidiary, which plans to shake up the lucrative trans-Atlantic market with some flights priced in the double digits.

Although it already flies a few flights, Norwegian plans to expand its schedule drastically once final U.S. approval for the Irish subsidiary is granted in a month or so.

No basis to deny

Labor unions have protested Norwegian's plans to use contract crews and U.S. airlines are pulling out every argument they can think of, but the Transportation Department said that under prevailing regulations and open skies agreements with European nations, it had little choice.

“There appears to be no legal basis to deny” the application, the department said. "DOT’s show cause order states that, based on the record as a whole, as well as its consultations with the Departments of Justice and State, the provision in the U.S.-EU Agreement that addresses labor does not afford a basis for rejecting an applicant that is otherwise qualified to receive a permit."

Pilots and flight attendants unions have expressed alarm at Norwegian's plans to use contract crews and have said American wages could be affected. The Air Line Pilots Association called the decision an "affront to fair competition."

The European Union approved Norwegian's plans long ago and has complained bitterly about U.S. foot-dragging.

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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 ...

PhotoAmazon 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.

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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.A...

PhotoOil 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.

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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 s...

PhotoThe 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.

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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 ...

PhotoThe 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.

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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...

PhotoYamaha 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.

 

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GM recalls nearly 1 million Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 1500 pickups

The flexible steel cable that connects the seat belt to the vehicle can fatigue and separate over time

General Motors is recalling 895,232 model year 2014-15 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 1500 pickups in the U.S. The flexible steel cable that co...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 895,232 model year 2014-15 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 1500 pickups in the U.S.

 

The flexible steel cable that connects the seat belt to the vehicle can fatigue and separate over time as a result of the driver repeatedly bending the cable when entering the seat.

 

There have been no reports of crashes, injuries or fatalities related to this issue.

 

For trucks in the field, dealers will enlarge the side shield opening, install a pusher bracket on the tensioner, and if necessary, replace the tensioner assembly.

 

What to do

 

Customers will be notified by General Motors.  

 

Owners may look up their vehicle identification number (VIN) at https://my.gm.com/web/portal/ownercenter to see if their vehicle is part of the recall.

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Obama issues executive order that could crack open cable set-top boxes

The clunky, outdated devices restrain competition and cost consumers millions, the White House argues

President Obama wants to free you from the tyranny of the cable set-top box, characterizing it as a clunky, outdated, and expensive device that costs consu...

PhotoPresident Obama wants to free you from the tyranny of the cable set-top box, characterizing it as a clunky, outdated, and expensive device that costs consumers millions of dollars.

Obama is calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to open set-top boxes to competition, allowing consumers to buy their own box and save the $1,000 or more they now spend over four years to lease the cable company's box.

Obama compared it to the days prior to telephone deregulation, when consumers could use only the telephones supplied to them by the telephone company and were not allowed to hook up answering machines, fax machines, or other devices.

Just the beginning ...

In a blog posting, Jason Furman, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Jeffrey Zients, Director of the National Economic Council, said the set-top box initiative is just the beginning.

"In many ways, the set-top box is the mascot for a new initiative we’re launching today. That box is a stand-in for what happens when you don’t have the choice to go elsewhere—for all the parts of our economy where competition could do more," Furman and Zients said. 

"Across our economy, too many consumers are dealing with inferior or overpriced products, too many workers aren’t getting the wage increases they deserve, too many entrepreneurs and small businesses are getting squeezed out unfairly by their bigger competitors, and overall we are not seeing the level of innovative growth we would like to see." 

In his executive order today, Obama called for proposals for executive action to promote competition and better protect consumers.  

Private sector

“Our private sector thrives, and innovation is the hallmark of the United States — that’s our big comparative advantage with other countries — but it starts to become less effective, and reduces both what consumers get and the kind of innovation we generate, if we get closed systems or if people are gaming the system,” Obama said in an interview with Yahoo Finance.

Though not likely to be well-received by the cable industry, Obama's move went over well with device makers and Internet interests. 

“Competition is the key to unlocking the set top box and unleashing innovation," said Chip Pickering, CEO of Incompas, a trade group for Internet companies. "Ending monopoly policy and injecting competition policy is a proven way to create American jobs, new markets and investment. Entrepreneurs are eager and ready to build a better box and apps of the future, and the White House wants to accelerate that process."

“Like the rest of us, President Obama must be tired of having to switch remote controls every time he watches House of Cards or other streaming content. New boxes from new companies will create a competition ecosphere that benefits consumers, innovators and content creators," Pickering said.

"Unlocking the set top box and ending monopoly policy is change consumers and free market conservatives can all believe in.” 

The FCC voted in February to consider opening the set-top box market to competition. Obama's action today is likely to spur quicker action on the proposals currently being considered. 

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Easy to pack souvenirs – and where to find them

Look for shops outside tourist areas selling locally made items

For many travelers, shopping for souvenirs is an enjoyable part of the travel experience. It’...

Photo
Hungary's Central Market (Photo by Robbie Miller Kaplan)

For many travelers, shopping for souvenirs is an enjoyable part of the travel experience. It’s fun to bring home items that remind us of our travels, and we also enjoy buying gifts for our friends, colleagues, and loved ones.  

However, shopping can also be a challenge, not only in locating items that are reflective of the locales we visit but finding the space to pack them in. And it can be quite frustrating to return home and realize the souvenirs you bought were all made in China – unless you just visited China. When in doubt, always ask shopkeepers to show you the items they carry that are made in their country.

You can find interesting and affordable souvenirs to take home; it’s just knowing where to shop. Here are some great spots to try:

Museum gifts shops
Museum gift shops not only offer an array of unique items reflecting both their museum collections and geographic location, but tend to sell merchandise of good quality. While visiting China I searched for lacquered boxes and trays. I found the prettiest and most reasonable ones at museum gift shops in Shanghai and Wuhan, as well as better quality pearl jewelry.

Local markets
You’ll enjoy the local markets for their artistically arranged produce, cheeses, baked goods, local specialties, and interesting residents. You’ll also find many things to take home as well. In the south of France, you can buy all things lavender, including soaps, candles, sachets, and bags of dried flowers. In Budapest, at Hungary’s Central Market Hall, you’ll find a wide selection of sweet paprika as well as embroidered and lace table linens.

Photo
Cheeses in Aix en Provence, France (Photo by Robbie Miller Kaplan)

Grocery stores
You don’t need to shop fancy chocolate shops to find excellent local candies. While visiting the Netherlands I found cocoa, cookies, and chocolates at more reasonable prices in the grocery store; some packed in souvenir tins. In Barcelona and Stockholm, the local grocers stocked a wide range of inexpensive chocolate bars.

Local shops away from the tourist spots
Avoid the shops surrounding the tourist areas that carry souvenir items. Just a few blocks away you’ll find few tourists and shops that cater to the locals. It’s here you will find better prices and more locally sourced items.

Souvenir safety

A downside to souvenir shopping is finding room in your luggage to fit your purchases. Avoid breakable items or those that might leak. Instead, search for ones that are easy to pack. Besides tee shirts and sweatshirts, here are some ideas to get you thinking:

  • Bookmarks
  • Scarves, pashminas, and ties
  • Table linens
  • Chocolates and individual packages of cookies
  • Packable hats, with or without logos
  • Children’s books, particularly in another language
  • Local stamps for collectors
  • Unframed artwork and prints
  • Reusable shopping bags and totes
  • Spices, seasonings, tea, and coffees
  • Notecards and stationery
  • Mouse pads

Just keep an open mind while shopping and you’ll find plenty to remember your wonderful travels.

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Microsoft files suit against the U.S. government over data privacy

The tech giant claims that the government violates First and Fourth Amendment rights when it forces access to cloud-based data

After the recent controversy between the Justice Department and Apple, wherein the latter had refused a court order to weaken its encryption to allow acces...

PhotoAfter the recent controversy between the Justice Department and Apple, wherein the latter had refused a court order to weaken its encryption to allow access to the cell phone of one of the San Bernadino shooters, privacy issues continue to be prominent.

Now, another tech giant is suing the U.S. government over supposedly indefinite gag clauses.

According to a Reuters report, Microsoft filed its lawsuit on Thursday over its right to tell consumers when a federal agency is looking at their emails. The company claims that the government is violating its First and Fourth Amendment rights by forcing it to remain silent when these actions take place.

Giving up rights

Microsoft is being put in this position in the first place due to the way that it stores data. Instead of having consumers store their own data on their personal computers, Microsoft keeps it on its own dedicated servers. According to the company, the U.S. government will often use Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to access this secure data in order to further ongoing investigations.

This idea does not sit well with many tech companies, and perhaps even less so with consumers. Microsoft, in particular, believes that the government is taking advantage of new cloud-based storage to expand its power.

“People do not give up their rights when they move their private information from physical storage to the cloud,” said Microsoft in its lawsuit.

Expecting support

Critics of the lawsuit are quick to point out that Microsoft may be motivated by more than just an impetus to protect privacy. The company openly admits that it hears a lot of consumer complaints about this issue and that it may be losing consumer confidence and business when it comes to cloud-based services.

Regardless of the motivation, though, Microsoft fully expects to receive the support of consumers and the tech industry. “Just as Apple was the company in the last case and we stood with Apple, we expect other tech companies to stand with us,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s Chief Legal Officer.

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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 paym...

PhotoThe 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.

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Feds fine airlines for violating disabled passengers' rights

Air France, Lufthansa, British Airways failed to respond properly to complaints

Air France, Lufthansa, and British Airways are being fined for not properly responding to complaints filed by disabled passengers. They're the latest to be...

PhotoAir France, Lufthansa, and British Airways are being fined for not properly responding to complaints filed by disabled passengers. They're the latest to be snared in a crackdown by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“When air travelers file complaints with airlines, they deserve prompt and complete responses that appropriately answer their specific concerns,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We will continue to take enforcement action when airlines violate our rules protecting the rights of passengers.”

The fines announced this week are relatively modest, ranging from $200,000 each for Air France and Lufthansa to $150,000 for British. In January, United was fined $2.75 million.

The United violations included tarmac delays and a case in which a passenger with cerebral palsy had to crawl off a United flight when the airline failed to provide a wheelchair.

Under federal rules, airlines must provided a written response to written complaints alleging discrimination against passengers with disabilities within 30 days.

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GoPro looks to integrate itself into other company's products

GoPro hopes to become more valuable to consumers by becoming a bigger part of their lives

GoPro continues to evolve from a platform to capture testosterone-fueled physical exploits to replacing the family camcorder of 1985.The company recent...

PhotoGoPro continues to evolve from a platform to capture testosterone-fueled physical exploits to replacing the family camcorder of 1985.

The company recently announced that it’s been working with developers to integrate GoPro products with other products, such as the Fisher-Price Walker, Gym, and Jumperoo.

The intent, says the company of its GoPro Developer program, is to help other companies create a “seamless user experience” between their products and GoPro products. Additionally, the integration of GoPro on Fisher-Price products may help the company go in a more family-focused direction.

Captures milestones

With company stock down sharply last year, it seems the market for daredevil videos is shrinking. The new integration with Fisher-Price could help business for GoPro.

Mounting cameras to Fisher-Price walkers and other products could also help families capture major milestones in their children’s lives. No longer would parents be stuck lamenting the fact that they didn’t get a video recording of their child’s first steps. GoPro would have it covered, and from the unique viewpoint the company’s cameras are known for capturing. 

The new Fisher-Point products, as they’re called, officially launched on April 14.

Large and small companies

The program is set to include large multinational companies, such as BMW and Periscope, as well as smaller upstarts. At the San Francisco unveiling of the initiative, more than 35 firms showcased their new GoPro-integrated products. So far, more than 100 companies have registered to participate in the GoPro Developer program.

How will the program help developers create a seamless user experience? GoPro says it will do so in three ways:

  • Mobile apps: The GoPro Developer program will allow developers to create apps that connect with GoPro cameras. These apps will feature camera command and control, live video preview, and media management.
  • Devices: Developers will be able to create devices that connect to a GoPro camera, either physically via the HEROBus or wirelessly via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
  • Mounts: The program will enable developers to create reliable physical mounting / housing solutions for GoPro devices.
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Windows users urged to uninstall QuickTime – now

Trend Micro says there are vulnerabilities that will not be patched

If you are running QuickTime for Windows on your PC, uninstall it now. That's the advice from Apple, which says it will no longer support the software....

PhotoIf you are running QuickTime for Windows on your PC, uninstall it now. That's the advice from Apple, which says it will no longer support the software.

The message is underscored by cybersecurity firm Trend Micro, which has highlighted “critical vulnerabilities” that it says plague the software. In an “urgent call to action,” Trend Micro says now that Apple will no longer support the software, there will be no patches to fix the vulnerabilities.

“We’re not aware of any active attacks against these vulnerabilities currently,” Trend Micro said on its web site. “But the only way to protect your Windows systems from potential attacks against these or other vulnerabilities in Apple QuickTime now is to uninstall it.”

If you're running Quicktime on Mac OSX, you have nothing to worry about. Apple will continue to support that version.

How to remove

Removing the software from a PC is simple, done through the “Programs” feature in Control Panel. If you need help, Apple provides these simple directions.

Trend Micro says it is important to remove the program from Windows because it contains corruption remote code execution vulnerabilities. In one vulnerability, a hacker might write data outside of an allocated heap buffer.

The second vulnerability is in the “stco atom,” where a hacker can write data outside of an allocated heap buffer by providing an invalid index.

The Department of Homeland Security is also urging consumers and enterprises to remove Quicktime from Windows PCs as soon as possible. It says computers running unsupported software are subject to heightened levels of cybersecurity danger, including malicious attacks and loss of data.

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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 no...

PhotoGot 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.

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Specialty drugs driving prescription costs higher

Report finds specialty drug spending doubled over the last five years

A new report says Americans spent more on drugs last year, which might not come as a shock, given the attention focused lately on several drugs companies t...

PhotoA new report says Americans spent more on drugs last year, which might not come as a shock, given the attention focused lately on several drugs companies that drastically hiked prices.

But the report from the IMS Institute suggests those cases were outliers – that the real driver of higher drug spending was specialty drugs.

Specialty drugs are prescription medicines designed to treat chronic and complex diseases, like cancer or hepatitis. They tend to be expensive under the best of circumstances.

The IMS report shows spending on specialty drugs nearly doubled over the last five years, making up more than two-thirds of total drug spending between 2010 and 2015. Last year, specialty drug spending rose 21.5%, to $150.8 billion.

Net invoice spending on all drugs rose 12.2%, though discounts from manufacturers reduced the actual spending to an increase of less than 9%.

New medicines are more expensive

Murray Aitken, IMS Health senior vice president, says health insurance providers have worked to slow the rise in drug costs but notes that when new drugs come on line, they hit the market at a high price.

“The level of price concessions achieved in 2015 points to a shift in market dynamics as manufacturers accept lower price increases on existing products,” he said. “At the same time, spending on new brands continued at near-historic levels.”

The aging Baby Boomer population will likely increase the demand for drugs going forward. Last year, the report showed that pharmacists filled 4.4 billion prescriptions, a 1% increase over the year before. The biggest demand was for drugs treating depression and diabetes.

Fewer narcotics

Narcotic drug prescriptions plunged 16.6%, no doubt due to growing provider concerns about the potential for abuse and addiction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued prescription guidelines for opioid drugs amid rising overdose deaths.

Patients are also paying more for their prescriptions. The report found the average cost to patients for a brand name prescription rose more than 25% since 2010, reaching $44 per prescription. The report attributes the rise in consumer costs to more health plans with high pharmacy deductibles, co-payments, and co-insurance.

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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 Co...

PhotoAirline 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.

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Lincoln MKCs and Ford Explorers recalled

The vehicles' engine block heaters have elements that may overheat while plugged in

Ford Motor Company is recalling 1,543 model year 2015-2016 Lincoln MKCs manufactured November 25, 2013, to January 25, 2016, and 2016 Ford Explorers manufa...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 1,543 model year 2015-2016 Lincoln MKCs manufactured November 25, 2013, to January 25, 2016, and 2016 Ford Explorers manufactured October 20, 2014, to January 28, 2016.

 

The vehicles are equipped with 2.3L GTDI engines and engine block heaters and the block heaters have elements that may overheat while plugged in, increasing the risk of a fire.

 

What to do

 

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the engine block heater, free of charge. Dealers will also inspect and replace the electrical cord, as necessary. The engine block heaters should not be used until the vehicle has been remedied. The recall is expected to begin May 16, 2016.

 

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 16S14.  

 

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BMW recalls model year 2016 740Li, 750Li, and 750Lxi vehicles

The air bags may not deploy, increasing the risk of occupant injury

BMW of North America is recalling 6,110 model year 2016 740Li, 750Li, and 750Lxi vehicles manufactured July 1, 2015, to December 11, 2015. The air ...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 6,110 model year 2016 740Li, 750Li, and 750Lxi vehicles manufactured July 1, 2015, to December 11, 2015.

 

The air bag control module may randomly reset due to an electrical short circuit as a result of residual metallic particles from the manufacturing process.

 

In the event of a crash while the air bag module is resetting, the air bags may not deploy, increasing the risk of occupant injury.

 

What to do

 

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the air bag control module, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin May 16, 2016.

 

Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417.

 

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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 s...

PhotoRegular 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.

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Feds draw blinds on Mercola tanning beds

The company claimed indoor tanning was safe, did not cause skin cancer and could delay aging

Mercola.com will pay refunds to consumers who bought its tanning beds and will be permanently banned from selling indoor tanning systems...

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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.R...

PhotoMaybe 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.

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Study finds consumers not too upset by data breaches

Only 11% say they stop doing business with a company that gets hacked

Data breaches are becoming increasingly common, but a new study finds that consumers aren't as upset about them as you might expect. In fact, the RAND Corp...

PhotoData breaches are becoming increasingly common, but a new study finds that consumers aren't as upset about them as you might expect. In fact, the RAND Corporation study found that only 11 percent of those notified about a breach stopped doing business with the hacked company.

"While data breaches have become an alarmingly common part of American life, most people appear satisfied with companies' responses to data breaches and few decide to take their business elsewhere," said lead author Lillian Ablon. "It's unclear whether this response will induce companies to improve their breach notification practices."

About a quarter of those surveyed said they were notified about their data being included in a data breach during the previous year. Of those who had been notified at any point in their lifetime, about 44 percent said they were aware of the breach before the company notified them and about 10 percent said they discovered the breach themselves by noticing suspicious activity on their account.

While it is often thought that consumers are suffering "breach fatigue," the survey found that 62 percent accepted offers of free credit monitoring. Many of those who declined the offer said they already had a credit monitoring service.

Most were satisfied

More than three-quarters said they were highly satisfied with the company's post-breach response. Ethnic minorities, however, were less likely to say they were satisfied with the company's response and were more likely to stop doing business with the hacked company.

"Our research shows the importance of legislation that requires companies to notify individuals when a breach occurs," Ablon said. "Data breach notification laws empower consumers to take quick action to reduce risk and create incentives for companies to improve data security. Unfortunately, data breach laws are not uniform or even present for every state."

All but three states -- Alabama, New Mexico, and South Dakota -- have such laws.

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Florida governor signs bill requiring life insurance companies to pay up

Insurers must now monitor death records and pay benefits promptly

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has signed a measure that requires life insurance companies to monitor death records to make sure families get their benefits when ...

PhotoFlorida Gov. Rick Scott has signed a measure that requires life insurance companies to monitor death records to make sure families get their benefits when relatives die.

Florida insurance commissioner Kevin McCarty called it a "monumental win" and said it makes Florida the first state in the nation to have the requirement.

The measure could result in payouts of hundreds of millions of dollars to beneficiaries over and above those who have already recovered about $500 million in a series of court actions in Florida.

Benefits often unpaid

About $8 billion has already been returned to consumers nationwide after a Florida-led investigation found that many insurers had failed to pay up when policyholders died. Ironically, many of the companies were using death records to stop payments on annuities when the annuity holder died but were failing to use the death records to pay beneficiaries.

“This is a monumental win for the state of Florida in addressing an inequitable industry-wide claims practice in the life insurance industry that was uncovered more than five years ago,” McCarty said.

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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 ...

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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 m...

PhotoThe 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.

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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 ha...

PhotoConsumers 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.

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Zika virus birth defects link confirmed

CDC traces cases of microcephaly to the mosquito-borne disease

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed that the Zika virus causes microcephaly, a severe birth defect in which an infant is bor...

PhotoThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed that the Zika virus causes microcephaly, a severe birth defect in which an infant is born with an abnormally small head and under developed brain.

CDC scientists reached that conclusion after reviewing research, including medical records from Brazil, where cases of mircocephaly increased in the wake of a Zika virus outbreak. The link had been strongly suspected, but now that it has been established, health officials say it clears the way for action.

“This study marks a turning point in the Zika outbreak,” CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a statement. “It is now clear that the virus causes microcephaly. We are also launching further studies to determine whether children who have microcephaly born to mothers infected by the Zika virus is the tip of the iceberg of what we could see in damaging effects on the brain and other developmental problems.”

Frieden said the evidence backs up the agency's previous advice to pregnant women and their partners to take steps to avoid the Zika virus, which is spread both by mosquitoes and sexual transmission.

No smoking gun

The CDC scientists say there was no single medical “smoking gun” that established the conclusive link between microcephaly and Zika. Instead, they say it was the mounting evidence from a recent flurry of research, along with established scientific criteria.

But while one question about the virus has been answered, scientists are still addressing other questions about the disease and its prevention. There have only been a few Zika cases recorded so far in the U.S., all involving people who returned from international travels after having contracted it.

As seasonal warm weather returns to all areas of the U.S., so will mosquitoes, and health officials are worried that the U.S. will experience more Zika virus cases. In February, Richard Duhrkopf, associate professor of biology at Baylor University, said there is no question that the virus will spread in the U.S. this summer.

Duhrkopf, a mosquito expert, said the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, main carriers of the virus, are common in the U.S., especially in southern states.

What to do

For consumers, Duhrkopf offers these tips for minimizing mosquitoes' presence around the home:

  • Rid your property of temporary standing water.
  • Take steps to reduce breeding around permanent standing water.
  • Keep artificial containers clean.
  • Dry up natural containers
  • Don't go outside around dusk or dawn.
  • Do not let general household maintenance slide.
  • Wear clothes that do not expose your skin.
  • Wear repellents when you go outside.
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Mountain Products recalls pork products

The products contain milk, soy and wheat, allergens not listed on the labels

Mountain Products of Lagrangeville, N.Y., is recalling approximately 467 pounds of Smokehouse brand bacon and Irish bangers sausages. The products ...

PhotoMountain Products of Lagrangeville, N.Y., is recalling approximately 467 pounds of Smokehouse brand bacon and Irish bangers sausages.

 

The products are formulated with breadcrumbs containing milk, soy and wheat, allergens which are not sub-listed on the finished product labels.

 

There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

 

The following items, produced between March 31, 201,4 and March 9, 2016, are being recalled:

  • 1-lb. packages of “SMOKED CAJUN STYLE PORK SAUSAGE READY TO EAT” with packing dates of 1/5/15.
  • 1-lb. packages of “HOT ITALIAN SAUSAGE” with packing dates of 9/9/15, 1/29/16, 3/9/16.
  • 1-lb. packages of “SWEET ITALIAN SAUSAGE” with packing dates of 9/9/15 and 3/9/16.
  • 1-lb. packages of “BREAKFAST SAUSAGE IN SHEEP CASING” with a packing date of 1/29/16.
  • 1-lb. packages of “IRISH BANGERS” with packing dates of 3/31/14, 1/5/15, 3/10/15, 6/10/15, 7/15/15, 9/9/15, 1/29/16, 3/2/16 and 3/9/16.
  • 1-lb. packages of “Giovanni’s Delizioso PARMESAN & OREGANO COUNTRY STYLE BACON” with a packing date of 11/20/15.

The recalled products bear establishment number “EST. M17458” inside the USDA mark of inspection and were shipped to retail locations in the Dutchess County, New York and California.

 

What to do

 

Customers who purchased these products should not consume them, but throw them away or return them to the place of purchase.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Mountain Products, at (845) 223-7900.

 

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Whole Foods Market recalls Asparagus, Pea and Ricotta salad

The product contains egg, an allergen not listed on the label

Whole Foods Market is recalling 10-oz. packages of Asparagus, Pea and Ricotta salad. The product was mislabeled and actually contains miniature Asp...

PhotoWhole Foods Market is recalling 10-oz. packages of Asparagus, Pea and Ricotta salad.

 

The product was mislabeled and actually contains miniature Asparagus, Sun Dried Tomato and Swiss Frittatas. Due to the labeling error, an egg allergen is not listed on the label.

 

No illnesses or reactions have been reported.

 

The recalled product, with the UPC Code 0 36406 30344 5, contains frittatas, has a "sell by" date of April 14, 2016 and was sold on Sunday, April 10, 2016, at the following Whole Foods Market locations:

 

Connecticut:

  • Darien
  • West Hartford

New Jersey:

  • Millburn
  • Middletown
  • Montclair
  • Ridgewood

New York:

  • Upper West Side, NYC

Rhode Island:

  • University Heights

Massachusetts:

  • Wellesley
  • Cambridge (Prospect St)
  • Cambridge, (Fresh Pond)
  • Dedham
  • Hingham
  • Wayland

What to do

 

Customers who purchased the recalled product may return it to the store for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions should contact their local store or call 617-492-5500 between 9am and 5pm (EST).

 

 

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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 eq...

PhotoToyota 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.

 

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Verizon unions set to strike Wednesday morning

More than 40,000 workers walk out along the East Coast

With all of its wireless and streaming video projects, it's easy to forget that Verizon is still the telephone company for millions of Americans along the ...

PhotoWith all of its wireless and streaming video projects, it's easy to forget that Verizon is still the telephone company for millions of Americans along the East Coast. So it's worth noting that 40,000 unionized workers who keep the circuits humming are scheduled to walk off their jobs at 6 a.m. on Wednesday.

Verizon workers, represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), have been working without a contract since August 1, 2015 and say the company has refused to bargain in good faith.

The strike affects an area from Massachusetts to Virginia, including Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Verizon says it's ready for the strike and notes that it is experienced in dealing with work stoppages. 

Ready for a strike

"Let's make it clear - we are ready for a strike," said Bob Mudge, president of Verizon's wireline network operations.  "With any sort of job action or disruption to our business, our primary goal is to ensure our customers can count on the critical communications services that they pay for and we provide. I want them to know that will happen."

Mudge said preparations include:

  • The training of thousands of non-union employees to fill-in for those walking a picket line.
  • Employees will be reassigned from all parts of the U.S. and all parts of the business including finance, marketing, real estate, engineering, and more.
  • Duties include handling customer inquiries, inside and outside network plant management, and fiber and copper network maintenance and repair -- both on the ground and on Verizon's poles.

Record profits

The unions say that despite making record profits, Verizon has been moving jobs to the Philippines, Mexico, and elsewhere, outsourcing work to low-wage contractors and transferring workers away from their families for months at a time.

The unions are also critical of Verizon's failure to continue expanding its FiOS network beyond the mostly urban areas it now serves. For its part, Verizon says it has built out the FiOS network in the areas it originally contemplated.
 
The unions argue that Verizon’s actions are hurting customers as well as workers.
 
"Service quality has deteriorated to the point that New York State’s Public Service Commission has convened a formal hearing to investigate problems and regulators in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have said they may do likewise.
 
Verizon recently sold off huge swaths of its landline network in urban areas of California, Texas, and Florida, raising $10 billion that it has said it will invest in expanding its wireless networks and acquiring content networks like AOL and, possibly, Yahoo. 

What to do

There's nothing consumers need to do to prepare for the strike. Services should continue to operate normally, but scheduled installations and emergency repairs may take longer than usual.
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Automakers want insurance companies to remind consumers of recalls

But consumers say dealers and manufacturers are often the cause of delays in completing recalls

It happens all the time. Consumers are killed or injuried in car crashes because of uncompleted safety recalls. Often it's because consumers didn't receive...

PhotoIt happens all the time. Consumers are killed or injuried in car crashes because of uncompleted safety recalls. Often it's because consumers didn't receive the letter informing them of the recall. That's apparently what happened in the case of Huma Hanif, 17, killed by a defective airbag after a minor fender-bender.

Automakers have a suggestion: they'd like insurance companies to help inform consumers of recalls and persuade them to follow through and get their cars fixed.

It's estimated that about 25% of recalls are never completed -- meaning that the defect is not repaired and the cars remain on the road.

Of course, this is not always the consumer's fault. Parts are frequently not available for months after a recall is announced, as Dolores of Long Island, New York, said in a recent ConsumerAffairs posting about the Takata airbags in her Honda.

"We finally got our letter on our Honda. However, won't have parts in until August? We could be killed by then!"

A common complaint

Such complaints are common, especially in the case of the massive Takata airbag recalls. But sometimes, consumers suspect the "no parts" excuse is bogus.  That's what John of Baltimore recounted in a recent ConsumerAffairs review of DARCARS Toyota.

"The Service Staff refused to perform the interim repair per the safety recall notice 15V-577 from the NHTSA for my 2011 RAV4 that I had scheduled through DARCARS earlier in the week," John said.

"Before I presented the document, the first staff member stated that DARCARS would do nothing because the safety recall notice was interim. Once I read the sentence 'As an interim repair, any authorized Toyota dealer will replace the wiper crank sub-assembly at NO CHARGE to you.' from the recall notice, the staff member changed her statement to DARCARS did not have the part in stock."

Finger-pointing

Sometimes, consumers trying to do their part find themselves in the middle of a finger-pointing contest. Kevin of Cockeysville, Md., helped his daughter try to get the local Lexus dealer to replace a faulty dashboard that had been recalled on her Lexus RX350.

White foam was sticking out of cracks in the dashboard when Kevin's daughter threw in the towel and traded the car for 60% less than she had paid for it. 

"Lexus customer service has been unresponsive responding that the dashes have been slow to ship from Japan and that their hands are tied. Are we really supposed to believe that it takes more than ten months for a dash to ship from Japan? I believe that Lexus isn't taking this recall seriously as they know that the longer they put off replacing the dashboards the less the recall will cost them as cars will be totaled or sold and some owners will simply give up," Kevin said.

"I have owned 14 Toyota cars and 7 Lexus cars as I am in sales and trade cars at least every two years. I pointed this out to Lexus but they did not care. They point a finger at the dealers and the dealers point a finger at Lexus."

"The reality is that they are both giving owners the middle finger."

Manufacturers' strategy

In their latest effort to deflect some of the heat over failed recall campaigns, automakers have sent letters to major insurance companies asking them to nag consumers about open recalls on their cars, according to a Reuters report.

The letters to the CEOs of State Farm, Liberty Mutual, Geico, Progressive, and Nationwide, among others, ask for  "assistance in establishing a new way to provide vehicle owners with information about any open safety recalls that may affect their car or truck and to urge that owners have the recall work performed as soon as possible," the news agency said.

The letters went out prior to Congressional hearings scheduled for Thursday.

The auto manufacturers are also asking Congress to approve $18 million of taxpayers' money to fund a pilot program by six states. The states would remind consumers of uncompleted recalls at the time they register their vehicles. 

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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 ...

Photo
Photo (c) Amazon

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.

Photo
Balancing act. Don't try this at home. (Staff photo)

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. 

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Three ingredients to avoid in order to have a healthier diet

Nutritionist group suggests limiting added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat

Eating a healthy diet is more than counting calories. As has been recently pointed out, not all calories are created equal.So it is important to eat th...

PhotoEating a healthy diet is more than counting calories. As has been recently pointed out, not all calories are created equal.

So it is important to eat the right kinds of calories, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recently laid out a way to consume a healthier diet by limiting three things; sugars, sodium, and saturated fats.

Sugar

Food processors add sugar to products to make them taste better -- but that better taste can come with a price. According to the latest Dietary Guidelines from the U.S. government, consumers should get no more than 10% of their daily calories from added sugars.

In fact, Academy spokesperson Lisa Cimperman says you should choose food and beverages with no added sugars whenever possible. That requires reading food labels closely, along with the list of ingredients.

Cimperman says you should be on the lookout for the following ingredients: high fructose corn syrup, dried cane syrup, evaporated cane juice, invert sugar, molasses, sucrose, brown rice syrup, honey, agave, or maple syrup.

As an alternative to a sweetened beverage, drink more water, low-fat or fat-free milk, and 100% fruit or vegetable juice.

Sodium

Sodium, or salt, is another ingredient food companies use to enhance flavor. It is in so much processed and restaurant food that it is easy to get too much – and too much can lead to high blood pressure.

The government's Dietary Guidelines recommend keeping daily sodium consumption to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day. That's why reading a food product's Nutrition Facts label is important. It not only tells you how much sodium is in each serving, but also what percentage of your daily total it makes up.

When shopping, Cimperman suggests looking for products, either canned or frozen, that contain no salt. Then, season them to taste using other non-sodium-based ingredients. You can still get a flavorful taste using citrus, herbs, and spices.

One of the best ways to cut down on sodium is to cook meals from scratch at home, limiting restaurant and take-out meals, which tend to be heavy on sodium use.

Saturated fats

There are different kinds of fats, some of which are actually healthy. They tend to occur naturally in nuts, and can also be found in most fish. However, the Dietary Guidelines suggest limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of your daily calorie intake.

You'll find saturated fats mostly in meat, whole milk, cream, butter, and cheese. You can cut down on saturated fat consumption by switching to skim or low-fat milk, looking for low-fat cheese, cooking with oils instead of butter, and selecting lean cuts of meat.

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Google Shopping records explosive first quarter sales

Mobile e-commerce played a major role in the increase

The disruptive effect of the internet on retail was on display in the first quarter of the year, as Google Shopping recorded strong growth from its product...

PhotoThe disruptive effect of the internet on retail was on display in the first quarter of the year, as Google Shopping recorded strong growth from its product placement ads (PPA).

According to a report by e-commerce marketing company Sidecar, revenue from Google Shopping surged 52% year-over-year.

Google Shopping, which began life as “Froogle,” allows consumers to shop for the best price for a product among several online merchants, who pay a fee to be listed. It allows smaller online vendors to gain more visibility and compete with giants like Amazon in the competitive market.

The Sidecar report shows much of the first quarter increase came from mobile PPA sales, which rose 164%. It found clicks were up 171% and orders grew by the same amount. The revenue participating retailers gained from purchases on mobile devices rose 45% over the first quarter of 2015.

Andre Golsorkhi, CEO of Sidecar, says a chief takeaway from the data is the growing importance of mobile devices and the need for retailers to target that channel.

Must-have channel

It is a must-have channel -- and, more important, a must-do-well channel," he said.

Mobile shopping got its start largely as part of the “showrooming” phenomenon. Consumers might go to a department or big box store to inspect a product. If satisfactory, they would use their mobile devices to search for the best price, and might even order it from a competitor while still in the store.

Since then, developers have turned out scores of apps that make it easier for consumers to shop for and purchase items using their phones.

The Wall Street Journal reports U.S. sales from mobile devices rose 56% last year, to $49.2 billion. The Journal says savvy retailers have trained consumers to think of their smartphones as a permanent impulse-buy aisle.

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New legislation seeks to rein in distracted driving

Using a new device called the "Textalyzer" may help police determine if a driver was using their phone around the time of a crash

Distracted driving has become an epidemic, and, quite often, smartphones are to blame. A 2015 report by the National Safety Council (NSC) found that cell p...

PhotoDistracted driving has become an epidemic, and, quite often, smartphones are to blame. A 2015 report by the National Safety Council (NSC) found that cell phone related activities accounted for 27% of all car crashes.

An even more recent report finds that you and your passengers are likely in close proximity to a distracted driver at any given moment. Video footage by SR22Agency.com captured 187 distracted drivers in just 20 minutes; 10 distracted drivers per minute on just one busy U.S. intersection.

Eighty one percent of drivers were distracted because they were talking on their cell phone. The second most popular form of distraction? Texting.

Now, a new legislation is aiming to hold drivers accountable for distracted driving due to mobile devices. Based on the concept of the Breathalyzer, a device called the "Textalyzer" is being developed to help authorities determine whether a driver involved in a crash was using their cell phone.

Driver accountability

According to Deborah Becker, co-founder of Distracted Operators Risk Casualties (DORCs), holding drivers accountable for their behavior behind the wheel can help prevent distracted driving. Drunk driving is down, says Becker, which makes mobile devices the most likely reason for this sudden spike in car crashes.

"When people were held accountable for drunk driving, that's when positive change occurred. It's time to recognize that distracted driving is a similar impairment, and should be dealt with in a similar fashion. This is a way to address people who are causing damage," said Lieberman, in a statement.

The proposed legislation -- called “Evan’s Law,” in memory of the DORC's co-founder Ben Lieberman’s 19-year-old son, who died in 2011 as a result of a distracted driver -- would have drivers submit their phone to roadside testing from a textalyzer.

Lieberman says meticulous steps are being taken to ensure that a driver's personal information remains protected. The technology will not provide access to any content on a driver's phone. Instead, the textalyzer will simply help authorities determine whether the device was being used around the time of the crash. The new technology is being developed by Cellebrite.

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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...

PhotoFlying 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. 

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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...

PhotoThe 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.

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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 m...

PhotoYears 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.

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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, ...

PhotoMarch 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.

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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 (MB...

PhotoApplications 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.

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Zika virus “scarier” than first thought

CDC official says the more they learn the worse it looks

At a White House briefing this week, Dr. Anne Schuchat of the the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took reporters by surprise when she said ...

PhotoAt a White House briefing this week, Dr. Anne Schuchat of the the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took reporters by surprise when she said the Zika virus “is a bit scarier than we initially thought.”

Admirable candor, perhaps, but health officials don't usually call diseases “scary.”

Schuchat says she doesn't expect the disease to be widespread in the U.S., but health officials are concerned about the potential birth defects linked to the virus in Brazil.

She echoed the White House's earlier call for Congress to fund efforts to keep Zika from spreading in the U.S. as mosquito season arrives. President Obama has asked Congress to spend $1.9 billion for mosquito control, disease detection and testing, development of a vaccine, and support for pregnant women's health.

More information

Since that request, the White House says researchers have uncovered more information about the Zika virus. They now know that sexual transmission is more common than first believed. The impact on fetal brain development is more serious than initially believed.

Worse still, the number of Zika-carrying mosquitoes in the U.S. has been vastly under-estimated.

As of April 6, the CDC has counted a total of 346 U.S. Zika cases among people who have returned from international travel. So far, at least, the agency has not found a single case that was acquired within the U.S.

Of the confirmed cases, 32 were pregnant women, seven had been sexually transmitted, and one had Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Latest research

Scientists continue to learn more about the virus, which has been around for decades but only recently has sparked widespread health concerns. Those concerns mounted when a number of infants born in Brazil with small heads and under developed brains was linked to mothers who had contracted the virus.

Researchers in Brazil now say there is evidence the Zika virus could be associated with a condition that attacks the brain's myelin, similar to multiple sclerosis (MS). Dr. Maria Lucia Brito Ferreira, with Restoration Hospital in Recife, Brazil, says it appears the virus has different effects on the brain than previously thought.

“This doesn’t mean that all people infected with Zika will experience these brain problems,” Ferreira said in a statement. “Of those who have nervous system problems, most do not have brain symptoms.”

But she says her study could shed light on possible lingering effects the virus may be associated with in the brain.

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Feds step in to stop 'all-natural' claims in skin care products

Four manufacturers have agreed to stop making claims they can't support

Four companies that make skin care products, shampoos, and sunscreens have agreed to stop claiming the products are "all natural" or "100% natural" followi...

PhotoFour companies that make skin care products, shampoos, and sunscreens have agreed to stop claiming the products are "all natural" or "100% natural" following a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). A fifth company faces a similar complaint.

“‘All natural’ or ‘100 percent natural’ means just that -- no artificial ingredients or chemicals,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Companies should take a lesson from these cases.”

The FTC said the products contained chemicals including dimethicone, ethyhexyl glycerin and phenoxyethanol. 

The companies are settling the charges and agreeing not to make claims they can't back up are:

Still facing an FTC complaint is California Naturel, Inc., located in Sausalito, California, which sells supposedly “all natural sunscreen” on its website, though the product contains Dimethicone. 

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Moleskine’s new Smart Writing Set can digitize your handwritten notes

The notebook makers are stepping up their digital game

Artists, writers, and list-makers can now have the ink in their beloved Moleskines transformed into a digital image. Moleskine has added to its collection ...

PhotoArtists, writers, and list-makers can now have the ink in their beloved Moleskines transformed into a digital image. Moleskine has added to its collection of “digitally enhanced objects” with its new Smart Writing Set.

The set is made up of three objects: the Paper Tablet notebook, the smart Pen+, and a companion app. Using the three in conjunction allows users to digitize their work and share it with others via smartphone or tablet.

Pen stores data

The beating heart of the Smart Writing Set is the pen. Created by Neo Smartpen, the pen (called Pen+) features an infrared camera that records movements on paper. It then sends those movements to the writing set’s mobile app.

Users can choose to transmit the notes or sketches to the app in real-time, or they can store data (up to 1,000 pages) inside the pen for later transfer. A smart pen, indeed -- but just as impressive is its corresponding notebook.

Tablet records notes

Moleskine’s Smart notebook, called a “paper tablet,” includes special, textured paper and a grid. This enables the pen to record your work and turn it into an editable digital image. Italian industrial designer Giulio Iacchetti designed the paper tablet to include rounded edges, which gives it a look similar to a real tablet.

Inside the paper tablet, you’ll also find an envelope icon. When tapped, it can attach your note or sketch to a new email on your smartphone. Files can also be shared via text, PDF, image, and SVG. In addition to sharing files, users can highlight digitized text and organize notes by tag for easier searching.

The Smart Writing Set isn’t exactly cheap, however. The Paper Tablet and Pen+ cost $200 (the app is free). Supplementary paper tablets can be purchased for $30.

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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 ditchin...

PhotoVolkswagen 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. 

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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 R...

PhotoAlthough 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. 

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Scientists find new approach to male contraception

The process involves stopping sperm from successfully swimming towards the egg

Researchers at the University of Virginia say they have found a new method of male contraception -- an enzyme that blocks sperm from reaching the egg. The ...

PhotoResearchers at the University of Virginia say they have found a new method of male contraception -- an enzyme that blocks sperm from reaching the egg. The method would be free of the hormonal side effects that sometimes affect women taking birth control pills.

John Herr, PhD, said that after many years of work, he and fellow researchers found a way to produce a key kinase enzyme found only in sperm, enabling them to design drugs that stop the sperm in its tracks.

Herr's research team previously developed SpermCheck, a home fertility test for men that is sold in pharmacies and stores around the world.

"The challenge in developing a new contraceptive is that a male 'pill' will be taken by perfectly healthy men," said Herr, director of UVA's Center for Research in Contraceptive and Reproductive Health. "Because of this fact, a male contraceptive drug should be very precise in its mechanism of action, without any off-target side effects on molecules with similar properties located in other organs." 

Next step

The next step, Herr said, is to identify a drug that binds to the enzyme and reduces sperm motility. A similar process is used to battle diseases such as leukemia, but this is the first time the approach has been used to create a form of birth control, said Herr's collaborator, research scientist Jagathpala Shetty, PhD.

"We believe this in an important contribution to our male contraceptive research, allowing us to identify male contraceptive drug candidates targeting the testes-specific kinases," Shetty said. "So far there are no kinase drugs in use in contraceptive research, so this will be one of the first efforts to identify a drug inhibiting testes-specific kinase function."

Herr noted that much work remains to be done, but he is hopeful that the many years of effort in achieving an active, full-length form of the enzyme will pay dividends by leading to a wider range of lead drug candidates.

"Because a male contraceptive treats an otherwise healthy person, it's going to have to be very safe and efficacious, without side effects. Thus contraceptive research has a much higher bar [than in other forms of drug development], and it's going to take a determined march to reach the goal of a new, reversible contraceptive option for men," Herr said. "We're on the path toward the male contraceptive drug, and this is a noteworthy benchmark along that path."

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How home improvement stores are embracing their busiest season

Consumers can find "Black Friday" level deals during March, April, and May

Spring is a notoriously busy season for home improvement retailers. As consumers swap their ice scrapers for garden shovels, stores such as Home Depot, Low...

PhotoSpring is a notoriously busy season for home improvement retailers. As consumers swap their ice scrapers for garden shovels, stores such as Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Sears see an increase in foot traffic.

This year, Home Depot and Lowe's hired a combined 126,000 employees nationwide to prepare for their busiest selling season.

“It’s our holiday season,” Matt Michaels, a spokesman for Lowe’s tells TampaBay.com. But it's clear that Lowe's and its orange-themed competitor are ready to welcome customers with open arms -- and with great deals.

Spring Black Friday

In an effort to take advantage of the influx of customers, Lowe’s and Home Depot are again observing their “Spring Black Friday” event. During the month of April (through the 11th for Lowe’s and through the 18th for Home Depot), the two stores are brimming with deals.

Spring Black Friday has been hugely successful in the past. Last year, Home Depot managed to push 1.3 million lawn mowers and 47 million vegetable and herb plants during the event.

Now, another store is joining the spring welcoming party by combining the online and in-store shopping experience in an interesting way. Sears has expanded its “Meet With An Expert” service to the Lawn and Garden Department.

Sales at Sears

Sears hopes that “Meet With An Expert” will help online shoppers save time and make informed decisions on outdoor equipment purchases. With the free service, customers can schedule an in-store appointment with an expert who is well-versed in the product they’re interested in taking home.

The department store also announced that it will be hosting its own “Spring It On Black Friday” event (April 22 - 23). Customers who have been bitten by the home improvement bug can snag deals on items for their entire home.

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Consumers and businesses turning to alternative financing

Crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending now much more common

The bank won't give you a loan? Not to worry. It turns out there are plenty of alternative financing alternatives giving banks a run for their money.A ...

PhotoThe bank won't give you a loan? Not to worry. It turns out there are plenty of alternative financing alternatives giving banks a run for their money.

A new report published by KPMG, the Cambridge Center for Alternative Finance, and the Polsky Center at the Chicago Booth School of Business shows that the global online finance market is growing rapidly. It made $36 billion in loans in 2015, up from $11 million the year before.

Online alternative finance includes things like crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending.

Fiona Grandi, National Leader for FinTech, KPMG, says the growth of new FinTech companies may be the big story of the decade, continuing to transform the financial sector.

Accelerating disruption

"The pace of disruption is sure to accelerate, forging the need and appetite for collaboration among incumbents and non-bank innovators," Grandi said in a release.

The report finds several factors influencing the surge in alternative financing. First and foremost, there is a generation raised on technology – everything from ATMs to online payment systems – that values the speed, convenience, and transparency these platforms offer. More importantly, they understand it.

Then, there was the financial crisis of 2008. Suddenly small businesses found it much harder to obtain capital for operation and expansion. Many would-be homeowners couldn't get mortgages.

Enterprises limited by nearly a decade of tight credit and declining loan approvals from banks have discovered online alternative sources of commercial loans. These nontraditional sources of money have sprung up in the wake of unmet demand.

Banks feeling the pressure

“Banks and other established players are feeling competitive pressures, recognizing new opportunities and responding with technology investments and strategic partnerships,” the report's authors write. “Over the last two years, an influx of institutional funding has prompted the growth of marketplace-originated securitization of alternative finance assets in the United States.”

As a result, the report finds that financial innovations and the technologies that enable them have grown nine fold in just the last two years. The biggest growth, the report found, has come in peer-to-peer consumer lending, responsible for more than $25 billion last year alone.

American businesses are also stepping up their use of the alternative finance system, borrowing $6.8 billion last year.

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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 ...

PhotoBecause 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.

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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 g...

PhotoFor 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.  

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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 tru...

PhotoThe 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.

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Reser's Fine Foods recalls refrigerated salads

The product may be contaminated by Listeria monocytogenes

Reser's Fine Foods of Beaverton, Ore., is recalling 19 refrigerated salad items. The company has been notified by one of its ingredient suppliers t...

PhotoReser's Fine Foods of Beaverton, Ore., is recalling 19 refrigerated salad items.

 

The company has been notified by one of its ingredient suppliers that one lot of onions used in the manufacture of the salads may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

The following products, sold in plastic containers and marked with a Use By Date and the #10 at the end of the line of printing, are being recalled:

 

RETAIL PRODUCTS

UPC

Description

Size

Use By Date

71117.00480

Reser's Deviled Egg Potato Salad

3lb

Apr-29-16

71117.17000

Reser's Potato Salad

3.5oz

May-10-16

71117.17100

Reser's Potato Salad

5.5oz

May-10-16

71117.18223

Reser's Potato Salad

8oz

May-9-16

71117.19000

Reser's Potato Salad

16oz

May-10-16

71117.19300

Reser's Potato Salad

3lb

May-9-16

71117.18224

Reser's Macaroni Salad

8oz

May-10-16

71117.19007

Reser's Macaroni Salad

16oz

May-9-16

71117.19305

Reser's Macaroni Salad

3lb

May-9-16 and May-10-16

71117.61576

Stonemill Kitchens Classic Potato Salad

5lb

Apr-27-16

21130.06688

Safeway Deviled Egg Potato Salad

16oz

Apr-28-16

21130.06716

Safeway Classic Potato Salad

5.5oz

May-10-16

21130.06742

Safeway Tuna Salad

15oz

Apr-27-16

81131.91693

Walmart Redskin Potato Salad

4lb

May-1-16

    

FOODSERVICE  PRODUCTS (FOR COMMERCIAL USE)

UPC

Description

Size

Use By Date

71117.00225

Reser's Deviled Egg Potato Salad

8lb

Apr-28-16

71117.00443

Savemart Potato Salad

8lb

May-10-16

71117.67702

Sysco Elbow Macaroni Salad

8lb

May-7-16

71117.06036

Safeway Tuna Salad 

3lb

Apr-27-16

41493.41720

FSA Potato Salad

8lb

May-10-16

 

 

 

 

The recalled products were distributed to retailers and distribution centers in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and British Columbia.

What to do

 

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

 

Consumers with question may contact Reser's consumer hotline at 1-888-257-7913 Monday – Friday from 8am – 9pm (EDT), Saturday 9am – 7pm (EDT), Sunday 11am – 7pm (EDT), or online at www.resers.com.

 

 

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Pilgrim’s Pride recalls poultry product

The product may be contaminated with extraneous plastic materials

Pilgrim’s Pride of Waco, Texas, is recalling approximately 40,780 pounds of fully cooked chicken nugget product. The products may be contaminated w...

PhotoPilgrim’s Pride of Waco, Texas, is recalling approximately 40,780 pounds of fully cooked chicken nugget product.

 

The products may be contaminated with extraneous plastic materials.

 

There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

 

The following product, produced on Oct. 5, 2015, is being recalled:

  • 20-lb. cardboard boxes containing two, 10-lb. clear plastic bags of fully cooked chicken nuggets labeled as “GOLD KIST FARMS Fully Cooked Whole Grain Popcorn Style Chicken Patty Fritters.”

The recalled products bear establishment number “EST. P-20728” inside the USDA mark of inspection and include package codes 5278105021, 5278105022, 5278105023, 5278105000, and 5278105001. They were shipped for institutional use to Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.

 

What to do

 

Customers who purchased this product should not consume it, but throw it away or return it to the place of purchase.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact James Brown at (800) 321-1470.  

 

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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...

PhotoAt 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.
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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 c...

PhotoNetflix 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."

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New drug may slow progression of multiple sclerosis

Australian researchers hoping to start clinical trials in 2018

Researchers say a new plant-derived drug may block the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS). The drug, named T20K, is extracted from a traditional medici...

PhotoResearchers say a new plant-derived drug may block the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS). The drug, named T20K, is extracted from a traditional medicinal plant, the Oldenlandia affinis, found in Mozambique and elsewhere. 

University of Queensland, Australia, researcher Dr. Christian Gruber said the breakthrough could be a step forward in MS and other autoimmune diseases.

"This is a really exciting discovery because it may offer a whole new quality of life for people with this debilitating disease," he said.

MS is a chronic incurable condition that afflicts about 2.5 million people worldwide. It is characterized by attacks that bring gradual deterioration in the patient's health. 

Clinical trials

Gruber said T20K has been successful in animal tests and applications for clinical trials in patients have been filed in several countries. Trials could begin as early as 2018, he said.

The drug is expected to be taken by mouth, unlike many current MS treatments that require frequent injections.

Gruber said the new treatment arose from a synthesised plant peptide, a class of drugs known as cyclotides.

"Cyclotides are present in a range of common plants, and they show significant potential for the treatment of auto immune diseases," he said. "The T20K peptides exhibit extraordinary stability and chemical features that are ideally what you want in an oral drug candidate."

He and his colleagues published their breakthrough in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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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 ...

PhotoMillennial 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).

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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 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 ju...

PhotoThe 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. 

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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...

PhotoYou 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.  

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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 ha...

PhotoIf 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.

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Common painkiller could make you more prone to mistakes

Researchers find acetaminophen affects brain function

Acetaminophen is the active ingredient in many popular over-the-counter painkillers and is widely used to treat everything from headaches to sore elbows....

PhotoAcetaminophen is the active ingredient in many popular over-the-counter painkillers and is widely used to treat everything from headaches to sore elbows.

But a group of researchers at the University of Toronto say their findings suggest it could also lead users to make mistakes without being aware of their errors.

It all has to do with brain function. One of the researchers, Dan Randles, says acetaminophen affects a certain area of the brain that suppresses pain. That same area happens to also to be the part of the brain that recognizes errors.

Shared neural process

"Past research tells us physical pain and social rejection share a neural process that we experience as distress, and both have been traced to the same part of the brain," Randles said in a release.

He points to previous work that demonstrates how acetaminophen inhibits pain. The researchers wondered if that same response inhibited how the brain processes information more generally.

Randles has previously conducted research that appeared to show people who have taken acetaminophen were less reactive when the situation they were in was uncertain. A series of small experiments seems to confirm the researchers' theory.

"The core idea of our study is that we don't fully understand how acetaminophen affects the brain," Randles said.

But it is very possible that taking acetaminophen makes it harder to recognize when you are making a mistake, slowing reaction time. It has significant implications for cognitive control in daily life, Randles concluded.

Mood altering

Prior research has been conducted that attempted to investigate acetaminophen's effect on the brain. Researchers at Ohio State conducted a series of experiments that led them to conclude that the painkiller can blunt positive emotions.

“This means that using Tylenol or similar products might have broader consequences than previously thought,” Geoffrey Durso, the study's lead author, said last year when the study was released.“Rather than just being a pain reliever, acetaminophen can be seen as an all-purpose emotion reliever.”

But the mood changes were subtle. Durso says most people taking acetaminophen probably aren't aware of any change in mood.

Acetaminophen is in a wide range of prescription medications. Doctors advise reading labels carefully to avoid overdosing. Too much of the drug can damage kidneys.

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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...

PhotoAutomated 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.

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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 Co...

PhotoBecause 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.  

 

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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 b...

PhotoAmerican 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.

 

 

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Stay well while traveling – how to avoid getting sick

Take a supply of common remedies with you, just in case all else fails

You carefully plan your vacation to ensure you’ll have a great time. While you can’t prevent every problem, if you add the following preventive steps to yo...

PhotoYou carefully plan your vacation to ensure you’ll have a great time. While you can’t prevent every problem, if you add the following preventive steps to your plans, you’ll have a good chance of staying healthy. The last thing you want to do while on vacation is get sick.

  1. Check with your primary care physician to see if you are up to date on your vaccines and boosters. Next, check the CDC’s guide on vaccines to see what vaccines you might need for the countries you plan to visit.  

  2. Contact your health insurer and let them know where you will be traveling and find out whether your medical needs will be covered under your current health insurance. If not, you might want to purchase a short-term travel policy.

  3. Make front and back copies of your health insurance and prescription cards. Take the originals with you and keep your copies in your luggage or another safe place.

  4. Order enough prescription drugs to last through your trip. Pack an extra week or two should you be detained, and always carry your prescription drugs with you. If you are concerned about running short or losing them, bring a copy of your prescriptions with you. (This isn't always easy, as outlined in a recent Rx411 article).

  5. Pack disinfecting wipes to keep yourself and immediate surroundings as germ-free as possible. Before getting settled in your airplane, bus, or train seat, sanitize your area. Use a cloth to clean the armrest, seatbelt, tray table, light, and air switch. When you arrive at your hotel, use the wipes for the door knobs, sink faucets, light switch, and anything else someone would have touched.

  6. Wash your hands often and carry a hand sanitizer to use before you eat and any time your hands have come in contact with another person or touched any public surface.

  7. Find out if the tap water is safe to drink. If not, use bottled water for drinking and brushing your teeth and avoid ice cubes.

  8. Be cautious when it comes to the foods you eat, such as raw food and street food. For more detailed information on food safety, check out the CDC’s Can I Eat This.

  9. Pack an emergency kit that prepares you for medical emergencies. Include ibuprofen or acetaminophen, several differently sized band aids, gauze, tape, cleansing wipes, cortisone cream, an ace bandage, and cold, allergy, heartburn, or upset stomach medications. Ask your primary care physician for other recommendations based on your travel itinerary.

  10. Keep the link to the CDC’s Traveler’s Guide to Health handy during your travels for a quick reference should you encounter a health emergency.   

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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 jour...

PhotoNine 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.
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7-Eleven now accepting income tax payments

It's intended for people who don't have credit cards or checking accounts

It's not quite as simple as ordering a Slurpee and slamming down a few bucks, but you can now pay your income taxes at more than 7,000 7-Eleven stores nati...

PhotoIt's not quite as simple as ordering a Slurpee and slamming down a few bucks, but you can now pay your income taxes at more than 7,000 7-Eleven stores nationwide.

The thank-heaven-for-7-Eleven payment plan is intended for people who need to pay their taxes with cash rather than a check or credit card. Never mind that people who deal only in cash may not exactly be in the habit of making large payments to the taxman.

The Internal Revenue Service says it's trying to make life simpler for those who lack traditional means of making payments. 

“We continue to look for new ways to provide services for our taxpayers. Taxpayers have many options to pay their tax bills by direct debit, a check or a credit card, but this provides a new way for people who can only pay their taxes in cash without having to travel to an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center," said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

Don't delay

Using this option isn't something you can put off til the last minute, though. You'll first have to go to the IRS.gov payments page, select the cash option, and follow the instructions.

Here are the steps listed by the IRS:

  • Taxpayers will receive an email from OfficialPayments.com confirming their information.
  • Once the IRS has verified the information, a company called PayNearMe sends the taxpayer an email with a link to the payment code and instructions.
  • Individuals may print the payment code provided or send it to their smartphone, along with a list of the closest 7-Eleven stores.
  • The retail store provides a receipt after accepting the cash and the payment usually posts to the taxpayer’s account within two business days.
  • There is a $1,000 payment limit per day and a $3.99 fee per payment.

Taxpayers with a traditional checking account can pay through IRS Direct Pay, which will conveniently whisk the money out of your checking account without you having to waste a stamp.

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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 i...

PhotoThe 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.

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FBI reminds companies to watch out for business email compromise scams

The agency says that these kinds of scams have grown by 270% since last year

The FBI has sent out a warning via its website about the dramatic increase in business email compromise (BEC) scams.BEC scams target businesses by spoo...

PhotoThe FBI has sent out a warning via its website about the dramatic increase in business email compromise (BEC) scams.

BEC scams target businesses by spoofing company emails or social platforms and pretending to be someone higher up in the business – usually the CEO, company attorney, or someone else in a trusted position.

After analyzing their target, usually an employee that handles financials for the business, the scammers request a seemingly legitimate wire transfer. The employee, thinking that the request is coming from an internal source at the company, grants the transfer and the company loses money.

These scams are proliferating at an alarming rate, according to the FBI. The agency states that there were over 17,000 reports from victims all over the world from October of 2013 to February of this year, accounting for over $2.3 billion in losses for affected companies.

Since January of 2015, the FBI estimates that there has been a 270% increase in identified victims and exposed loss, with companies in states like Arizona losing between $25,000 and $75,000 for each successful scam.

What to do

In order to curb the dangerous growth of these scams, the FBI has released tips that companies can follow in order to lower their risk of falling for a BEC scam. It says that employees should always be on the lookout for phony emails, especially those that may be trying to mimic the company’s layout.

Employees should also be skeptical about wire transfer requests that are made solely by email and that stress urgency. These kinds of transactions should always be verified either in person or with a phone call using trusted contact information.

Companies can lower their risk even more by setting up multi-level authentication as a general practice. This requires that employees and management take additional security steps in order to perform an action, such as verifying a wire transfer or other transaction.

If you fear that you’ve fallen victim to a BEC scam, the FBI encourages you to contact your financial institution right away to report it; companies should also request that the financial institution where the payment is going be contacted. Lastly, companies should report the scam to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), regardless of how much money was lost. 

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Senate kills plan to regulate size of airline seats

Cramped conditions cause health, safety hazards, backers of defeated bill say

Congress gets blamed for everything, and now you can add cramped airline seats to the list. The Senate voted 54 to 42 yesterday to nix a moratorium on any ...

PhotoCongress gets blamed for everything, and now you can add cramped airline seats to the list. The Senate voted 54 to 42 yesterday to nix a moratorium on any further reductions of seat sizes and the distance between rows.

The measure was proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who argued that despite record airline profits, the amount of legroom and seat width onboard airplanes has significantly shrunk, making air travel uncomfortable for many passengers.

“When talking to travelers, the number one compliant I hear is shrinking legroom and cramped seats – unfortunately that’s a message most Republicans in Congress chose to ignore," Schumer said. "Airlines have been cramming consumers into airplanes like sardines and instead of lowering their prices several major airlines went the other direction – they started charging for the extra inches in legroom that was once considered standard."

Schumer said a minimum seat standard is "necessary to protect consumer health, safety and comfort and I will continue to fight for this in Congress.”

Safety issue

In the House, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said adequate seating is a vital safety issue.

"Planes need to be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency, yet appropriate testing has not been done on all of today’s smaller seats," Cohen said. "In addition, doctors have warned that deep vein thrombosis can afflict passengers who don’t move their legs during longer flights.  The time to examine the safety implications of smaller seats is now, not after some future tragedy."

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