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      SEC brings charges against two men in Hamilton Ponzi scheme

      The suit claims the men promised huge profits in ticket resales

      Lin Manuel Miranda’s much-acclaimed musical Hamilton made a big splash in the theatre community in 2015 and 2016. Tickets for shows have sold out only minutes after being made available, and scalpers have collectively made millions from those who are desperate to see the show.

      While Miranda has publicly condemned scalpers who use ticket bots to snatch up tickets, more insidious individuals have tried to use the show’s appeal to scam people out of their money. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has filed a lawsuit against two such individuals – Joseph Meli and Matthew Harriton – claiming the pair operated a Ponzi Scheme that involved reselling tickets to Hamilton and separate concert events.

      “From in or about January 2015 through October 2016, Meli and Harriton offered and sold a total of approximately $81 million of interests in four different entities. . . all of which purportedly engaged in ticket resales,” the suit states.

      “Mirage of profitability”

      The SEC alleges that the defendants collected millions of dollars from 125 investors in 13 states. They told these investors that they had a deal with a Hamilton producer to purchase 35,000 tickets that could be resold in the secondary ticket market for high profits.

      However, the agency says that Meli and Harriton never had a legitimate contract and that the tickets were never actually purchased. In a press release, Paul G. Levenson – director of the SEC’s Boston regional office -- explains that the pair “were moving investor money in a circle and creating a mirage of profitability.”

      Meli and Harriton accomplished this by using $48 million from newer investors to repay principal returns to early investors. Meanwhile, the SEC claims that the men extracted $2 million through shell companies that was used for an array of personal purchases – including jewelry, tuitions for private school and camp, and casino payments.

      The SEC is asking for an emergency freeze of the defendants’ assets for the purposes of disgorging any illicit monetary gains, plus interest and penalties. Meli’s wife and one of the alleged shell companies have also been named as relief defendants for $365,000 in investor funds that they purportedly have in their possession.

      Lin Manuel Miranda’s much-acclaimed musical Hamilton made a big splash in the theatre community in 2015 and 2016. Tickets for shows have sold out only minu...

      Walmart rolls out free two-day shipping with no membership

      The days of paying for shipping may be quickly passing

      Before long, paying for shipping when you order something online will be unthinkable.

      During the holiday shopping season, nearly all retailers waive shipping charges for purchases over a certain amount. Amazon.com's Prime account, which costs $99 per year, provides free two-day shipping all year round.

      Walmart, which countered Prime with its own two-day shipping program for half the cost, has now upped the ante, saying it will provide free two-day shipping on more than two million items with no membership fee.

      If the item you purchase is not among the two million covered by the new program, Walmart says it will provide free shipping if the order totals $35, down from $50. Items shipped for pick-up at stores have no price threshold.

      Fighting back against Amazon

      As Amazon has continued to dominate the online retail space, Walmart has fought hard to maintain its position as the nation's largest retailer. In August it acquired Jet.com, another online retailer, to shore up it's ecommerce offerings.

      Jet.com was co-founded by Marc Lore, who sold his previous company – Diapers.com – to Amazon in 2010. Jet.com officially launched in 2015, promising consumers lower prices in exchange for longer delivery times.

      Lore is now president and CEO of Walmart U.S. eCommerce, and he says the new free two-day shipping program gives Walmart a powerful weapon.

      “Two-day free shipping is the first of many moves we will be making to enhance the customer experience and accelerate growth,” he said.

      What's covered

      The free two-day shipping will cover items like household products, including diapers, pet products, and food. It will also cover cleaning supplies, grooming products, and top-selling toys and electronics.

      Walmart said some consumers who had signed up and paid the $49 for the Shipping Pass service would get refunds.

      For consumers, it may be the clearest signal yet that the day is fast approaching when they will never be asked to pay for shipping. At least, that's where Lore thinks things are going.

      “In today's world of e-commerce, two-day free shipping is table stakes," he said on a conference call with analysts and reporters. "It no longer makes sense to charge for it.”

      Before long, paying for shipping when you order something online will be unthinkable.During the holiday shopping season, nearly all retailers waive shi...

      GM and Honda announce hydrogen fuel cell joint venture

      Companies hope to begin mass production of engines by 2020

      General Motors and Honda are fierce competitors when it comes to selling cars. But the two auto giants are working together to make hydrogen fuel cell systems cheaper and more efficient.

      The result of their collaboration may well power the vehicles produced by both companies in the future.

      The new entity created for this project is called Fuel Cell System Manufacturing, LLC and will be based in GM’s existing battery pack manufacturing facility site near Detroit. The companies say they hope to begin production of fuel cell systems around 2020. GM and Honda are sharing the $85 million start-up cost.

      Electricity from water

      Hydrogen fuel cells essentially convert energy from water into electricity to power a vehicle. It uses no gasoline. Karl Brauer, executive publisher at Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, says it's understandable that both companies would want to push this technology forward.

      “While substantial challenges remain, the fuel cell vehicles we’ve driven feel exactly like a traditional gas-powered cars," Brauer said. "They provide ample power while being smooth and quiet at all speeds."

      Brauer says these electric vehicles have excellent low-end torque and are extremely refined, all while giving off nothing more than water vapor. But right now, he says existing technology is only in the prototype stage.

      "That means they are extremely expensive and none can be purchased by consumers, only leased," Brauer said. "So there’s more work to be done. That's exactly how GM and Honda are approaching the issue, with a partnership that could hasten the reality of hydrogen as a viable and clean fuel.”

      Started work three years ago

      It turns out the two automakers have quietly been working together for three years to advance hydrogen fuel cell technology. Toshiaki Mikoshiba, president of Honda North America, says the foundation the two companies have built will allow them to move from prototype to mass production.

      Because of their early collaboration, Honda and GM appear to be out in front on this energy source. Between them they've accumulated more than 2,200 patents.

      “The combination of two leaders in fuel cell innovation is an exciting development in bringing fuel cells closer to the mainstream of propulsion applications,” said GM executive vice president Mark Reuss. “The eventual deployment of this technology in passenger vehicles will create more differentiated and environmentally friendly transportation options for consumers.”

      But challenges will remain, particularly in providing the infrastructure to support refueling. Kelley Blue Book analyst Michael Hurley says that means when new fuel cell vehicles come online, their use is likely going to be limited to commercial applications.

      General Motors and Honda are fierce competitors when it comes to selling cars. But the two auto giants are working together to make hydrogen fuel cell syst...

      Consumer confidence drops in January

      Concerns about the months ahead drove the decline

      The new year got off to a rocky start insofar as the way consumers see things.

      The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index dipped a point and a-half in January after hitting a 15-year high a month earlier.

      Although the Present Situation Index rose from 123.5 to 129.7, the Expectations Index dropped to 99.8 from 106.4 in December.

      “The decline in confidence was driven solely by a less optimistic outlook for business conditions, jobs, and especially consumers’ income prospects,” said Conference Board Director of Economic Indicators Lynn Franco. “Consumers’ assessment of current conditions, on the other hand, improved in January. Despite the retreat in confidence, consumers remain confident that the economy will continue to expand in the coming months.”

      The nuts and bolts

      Consumers were fairly optimistic about January's conditions. Those who saw business conditions as “good” rose slightly from 28.6% to 29.3%, while those saying business conditions are “bad” went from 17.8% to 16.1%.

      Their assessment of the labor market was also more positive than it was last month. The percentage of consumers who said jobs are “plentiful” rose from 26.0% to 27.4%, while those who think jobs are “hard to get” fell from 22.7% to 21.5%.

      The short-term outlook, which had increased considerably in December, declined in this month. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months dropped from 24.7% to 23.1%; those expecting business conditions to worsen increased from 8.9% to 10.7%.

      Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was somewhat mixed. The proportion expecting more jobs in the months ahead fell from 21.7% to 19.8%, while those anticipating fewer jobs was virtually unchanged at 14.0%. The percentage of consumers expecting their incomes to increase fell to 18.0% from 21.5%, while the proportion expecting a decline rose from 8.6% to 9.6%.

      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 January 19.

      The new year got off to a rocky start insofar as the way consumers see things.The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index dipped a point...

      Home price gains continue in November

      The S&P Corelogic Case-Shiller National Index is at a new peak

      Home prices continued their rise across the country over the last 12 months in November.

      The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index, covering all nine U.S. census divisions, posted a 5.6% for the month after rising 5.5% in October.

      The 10-City Composite posted advanced 4.5% on a year-over-year basis increase. The 20-City Composite reported a gain of 5.3%.

      Seattle, Portland, and Denver reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities over each of the last 10 months.

      Seattle led the way in November with a 10.4% year-over-year price increase, followed by Portland with 10.1% and Denver with an 8.7% increase.

      Eight cities reported greater price increases in the year ending November 2016 versus the year ending October 2016.

      “With the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National Home Price Index rising at about 5.5% annual rate over the last two-and-a-half years and having reached a new all-time high recently, one can argue that housing has recovered from the boom-bust cycle that began a dozen years ago,” said David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices.

      Month-over-month

      The National Index recorded a seasonally adjusted 0.8% month-over-month advance, while both the 10-City and 20-City Composites each reported 0.9% month-over-month increases. All 20 cities saw prices rise.

      Blitzer believes the plan by the Trump administration to seek faster economic growth, increased investment in infrastructure, and changes in tax policy could affect housing and home prices.

      “Mortgage rates have increased since the election and stronger economic growth could push them higher,” he explains. “Further gains in personal income and employment may increase the demand for housing and add to price pressures when home prices are already rising about twice as fast as inflation.”

      Home prices continued their rise across the country over the last 12 months in November.The S&P; CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA In...

      Volkswagen recalls various VW and Audi vehicles

      The vehicles have seat belt and airbag issues

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling total of 5,901 vehicles with seat belt and airbag issues. Included are model year 2017 Audi A7, A4, A6, Volkswagen Golf and Tiguan vehicles and 2016 Volkswagen e-Golf vehicles in which the driver and passenger front airbags or head airbags may not deploy properly.

      Additionally, VW is recalling model year 2017 Audi Q7, A4 Sedan, A4 Allroad, and 2018 Audi Q5 vehicles because the seat belt pretensioners may not activate properly.

      What to do

      Volkswagen and Audi will notify owners, and dealers will replace the affected airbags and seat belt pretensioners, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298 or Audi customer service at 1-800-253-2834.

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling total of 5,901 vehicles with seat belt and airbag issues. Included are model year 2017 Audi A7, A4, A6, Volkswagen...

      Hyundai recalls model year 2017 Elantras and Sonatas

      The driver's front airbag may not inflate properly

      Hyundai Motor Company is recalling 110 model year 2017 Hyundai Elantras manufactured April 15, 2016, to September 13, 2016, and Sonatas manufactured May 27, 2016 to September 16, 2016.

      The end seal for the driver's front airbag inflator may not have been properly installed, possibly resulting in reduced inflation of the front airbag in the event of a crash.

      What to do

      Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will replace the driver's frontal air bag module, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 13, 2017.

      Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-855-371-9460. Hyundai's number for this recall is 156.

      Hyundai Motor Company is recalling 110 model year 2017 Hyundai Elantras manufactured April 15, 2016, to September 13, 2016, and Sonatas manufactured May 27...

      Model year 2011-2017 Audi Q5s recalled

      The side airbag inflator may fracture

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 234,054 model year 2011-2017 Audi Q5s.

      The sunroof drainage system may allow water to soak into the foam surrounding the side head airbag inflator canister resulting in the corrosion of the canister. This corrosion can weaken the canister and, during deployment of the side head air bag, the inflator may fracture and propel fragments into the passenger compartment.

      What to do

      Audi will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the inflator and either coat it or replace it, as necessary, after removing the surrounding foam, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in February 2017.

      Owners may contact Audi customer service at 1-800-253-2834. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 69P1.

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 234,054 model year 2011-2017 Audi Q5s.The sunroof drainage system may allow water to soak into the foam surrou...

      How college students can reduce stress during their first year

      Researchers say being self-compassionate can increase overall well-being

      Going off to college for the first time can be a tough time for young people just leaving high school. No one ever knows exactly what to expect, and the heightened academic pressure and new surroundings may be overwhelming.

      All of those factors can lead to a lot of stress, but researchers from the University of British Columbia have found one way that new students can ease that burden. The key, they say, is to give yourself a break, be practical, and practice some self-compassion.

      "Research shows first-year university is stressful," said Peter Crocker, co-author of the study. "Students who are used to getting high grades may be shocked to not do as well in university, feel challenged living away from home, and are often missing important social support they had in high school. Self-compassion appears to be an effective strategy or resource to cope with these types of issues."

      Self-compassion

      So, what exactly is self-compassion? In basic terms, it’s a way for someone to avoid negative self-judgment and cope with feelings of inadequacy – perfect for the student who feels they aren’t performing up to their usual standards.

      The researchers point out that self-compassion is comprised of several different factors, including self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Having self-kindness means that a person is not overly critical of themselves; common humanity involves accepting that failure is a part of life that everyone must deal with; and mindfulness is described by living in the moment and staying calm and collected.

      Greater well-being

      While conducting the study, the researchers found that students who had high levels of self-compassion benefitted in several ways. In general, these people were more energetic, optimistic, and motivated than those with lower levels.

      The researchers conclude that colleges and universities would do well to consider methods of increasing self-compassion for first-year students as a way to increase overall well-being.

      "Our study suggests the psychological stress students may experience during the transition between high school and university can be mitigated with self-compassion because it enhances the psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which in turn, enriches well-being," said lead author Katie Gunnell.

      The full study has been published in Personality and Individual Differences.

      Going off to college for the first time can be a tough time for young people just leaving high school. No one ever knows exactly what to expect, and the he...

      Simple ways to 'date your mate'

      What one author says couples can do each week to strengthen their relationship

      Carving out time to focus on the health of your relationship isn’t always easy when there are kids to raise and careers to be managed, but author Tina Albrecht says it’s possible with a little time management.

      Albrecht, who is also a mother of three, recommends “dating your mate” to keep the spark alive. The key to staying in love is making time each week to enjoy a few simple and inexpensive dates with your partner, says Albrecht.

      But in order for this strategy to be effective, she says both partners must resist the urge to handle other chores or obligations while the date is in progress.

      Date ideas

      Many years may have passed since your very first dates, but thinking back to how you managed your time on those dates may give you an idea of how to date your spouse.

      Albrecht observes, "When you were dating and falling in love with your spouse, did you set up times to meet and have plans for things to do? Did you focus exclusively on what you were doing with him or her … or were you trying to juggle the date, your work, the phone, making a meal, and doing your laundry?"

      With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, Albrecht has a few timely suggestions for dating your mate.

      • Set aside at least one hour a week to talk to your mate alone about the upcoming week, the kids, books you are reading, or anything on your mind.
      • Rub each other's feet while talking about pleasant topics.
      • Watch a TV program you both enjoy. Invoke a "no interruptions" rule.
      • Build in a mid-week snuggle and catch-up session.
      • Designate one night a week as date night.

      Keep a journal

      She also recommends that couples keep a journal of what works best for them and their schedules. In that journal, make notes about what you did together and jot down what you’re already habitually doing that connects you.

      Additionally, couples can boost their level of gratitude by writing every day about what they’re grateful for about their spouse and the experiences they have had together.

      Carving out time to focus on the health of your relationship isn’t always easy when there are kids to raise and careers to be managed, but author Tina Albr...

      Delta still coping with weekend computer glitch

      Airline says it might have to cancel more flights today

      Another computer glitch hit Delta Airlines over the weekend, the second in five months. But after numerous cancellations and delays, Delta says it's getting back to normal. Still, travelers could continue to feel the effects.

      At 7:00 a.m. today, Delta issued a statement reporting that it is operating most of its flight schedule as it continues to recover from the systems crash that threw its schedule into turmoil Sunday. Delta said it had to cancel about 170 flights Sunday and might have to cancel more than 110 today.

      “I want to apologize to all of our customers who have been impacted by this frustrating situation,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian, in a statement. “This type of disruption is not acceptable to the Delta family, which prides itself on reliability and customer service. I also want to thank our employees who are working tirelessly to accommodate our customers.”

      Not happy

      Consumers who were inconvenienced were understandably irked. Bill, of Naples, Fla., posted a review to ConsumerAffairs as he sat aboard an aircraft, complaining that the airline was doing nothing to make a bad situation better.

      "We have been sitting in a line of 60 grounded planes on the runway at ATL for nearly 2 hours (so far) and in addition to receiving no information, the flight attendants are RESTING," Bill wrote in a post. "The other First Class passengers are a bit confused by this non-customer service behavior of the flight attendant staff. It is bad enough that Delta have an obviously unstable and/insecure computer system; but, the service is becoming terrible."

      The airline said its major IT systems went down at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. By midnight, Delta said things were returning to normal.

      Check the schedule

      Customers flying Delta today should check the airline's website or the Fly Delta app. Delta said it has waived the change fee for customers who were scheduled to fly yesterday and today.

      For air travelers, coping with airline computer glitches has become an almost regular occurrence. Just days ago, a computer glitch hit the United Airlines system. The impact was shorter-lived. The system was restored in about an hour.

      In August, both Delta and Southwest suffered technical breakdowns within days of one another. In the Southwest outage, the airline was forced to cancel 2,300 flights, stranding passengers all over the country.

      Delta's August outage forced it to cancel more than 1,250 flights.

      Another computer glitch hit Delta Airlines over the weekend, the second in five months. But after numerous cancellations and delays, Delta says it's gettin...

      Even the most expensive metros have affordable homes

      But Zillow reports there are always trade-offs

      If you are considering a home purchase in California, or other expensive housing areas of the country, you no doubt are trying to avoid the most expensive metros.

      Of course, that can be difficult if that's where your job happens to be. And it probably causes a lot of workers in Silicon Valley to automatically decide to rent instead of purchase.

      But a new report from real estate marketplace Zillow has drilled a little deeper into the data and found that there are sometimes pockets of affordability within the nation's most expensive housing metros. Zillow uses San Jose, Calif., as a prime example.

      It notes that people who purchase the average home in San Jose have to be ready to spend around 75% of their income on a mortgage payment, a non-starter for most people. But Zillow has found an affordable alternative just 15 miles away -- the town of Milpitas, Calif. There, Zillow reports a typical homeowner need only spend 35% of monthly income.

      There are always trade-offs

      So why doesn't everyone opt for the more affordable city, driving up the price of real estate in Milpitas? Zillow says these pockets of affordability tend to get overlooked because there are always trade offs -- a longer or more difficult commute or a lack of amenities of services. But Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Svenja Gudell says these trade-offs are often worth it.

      "Some cities in the most in-demand housing markets across the country have such a high housing burden that they are simply not feasible for buyers with lower incomes," she said. "If income growth doesn't keep pace with home value growth, especially as mortgage rates rise, inequality will persist."

      San Francisco is another extremely expensive housing market. Zillow reports home buyers in the city must spend, on average, nearly 54% of their monthly income on mortgage payments.

      Not quite as expensive

      Across the bay in Oakland, housing is a little cheaper, with the typical mortgage payment taking up 42% of monthly income.

      Gudell says you won't find the same price disparity in less heated housing markets. In those metros, prices in one town are likely to closely match those in neighboring jurisdictions.

      The average mortgage payment in Palo Alto, Calif., by the way, takes up the largest portion of monthly income in the U.S. -- 75%. The average mortgage payment in Detroit, on the other hand, requires the smallest -- 5.9%.

      If you are considering a home purchase in California, or other expensive housing areas of the country, you no doubt are trying to avoid the most expensive...

      Income and spending head higher in December

      Incomes gains in 2016 were down from the prior year

      Consumers found themselves with more money in their pockets in December.

      According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), personal income was up 0.3%, or $50.2 billion, last month, while disposable personal income (DPI) -- what's left after taxes -- advanced $43.6 billion, or 0.3%.

      The increase came about through gains in wages and salaries, personal current transfer receipts, and rental income of persons.

      For all of 2016, personal income was up 3.5% after rising 4.4% the year before. DPI advanced 3.8% the same as in 2015.

      Spending and saving

      On the spending side, personal consumption expenditures (PCE) -- consumer spending -- jumped $63.1 billion, or 0.5%. Spending gains came in outlays for both durable goods and services. 

      PCE for the full year increased 3.8% -- up 0.3% from 2015.

      The PCE price index -- an inflation gauge -- inched ahead 0.2% and by 0.1% when the volatile food and energy categories are stripped out.

      Personal saving totaled $768.4 billion last month, with the personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of DPI -- at 5.4%.

      The complete report may be found on the BEA website.

      Consumers found themselves with more money in their pockets in December.According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), personal income was up 0.3%...

      A rebound in pending home sales

      2016 was the best year for existing-home sales since 2006

      Following a decline a month earlier, pending home sales were on the rise in December.

      The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), which is based on contract signings, increased 1.6% last month to 109.0. That puts it 0.3% above last December.

      Despite contract activity that was mixed throughout the country, the PHSI ultimately ended on a high note to close out 2016.

      "Pending sales rebounded last month as enough buyers fended off rising mortgage rates and alarmingly low inventory levels1 to sign a contract," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "The main storyline in the early months of 2017 will be if supply can meaningfully increase to keep price growth at a moderate enough level for households to absorb higher borrowing costs. Sales will struggle to build on last year's strong pace if inventory conditions don't improve."

      Regional activity

      • The PHSI in the Northeast dipped 1.6% percent to 96.4 in December, and is now 1.2% below a year ago.
      • In the Midwest pending sales edged down 0.8% to 102.7, and down 3.4% from December 2015.
      • Pending home sales in the South were up 2.4% for an index reading of 121.3, and stand 0.5% above last December.
      • The index in the West jumped 5.0% in to 106.1, for a year-over-year gain of 5.0%.

      Looking ahead

      Existing-home sales are forecast to be around 5.54 million this year -- up 1.7% from 2016, which was the best year of sales since 2006. The national median existing-home price in 2017 is expected to increase around 4%. In 2016, existing sales increased 3.8 percent and prices rose 5.2 percent.

      Yun said he expects new-home construction -- which for another year undershot overall demand -- to jump to around 1.26 million units, an increase of 7.9% from 2016.

      "Especially if construction-related regulations are relaxed, all eyes will be on the home-building industry this year to see if they can finally start making up lost ground on the severe housing shortages impacting much of the country," he said.

      Following a decline a month earlier, pending home sales were on the rise in December.The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its Pending Hom...

      IKEA recalls beach chairs

      The beach chairs can collapse

      IKEA North America Services of Conshohocken, Pa., is recalling about 33,400 MYSINGSÖ beach chairs.

      The beach chairs can collapse, posing fall and fingertip amputation.

      The firm has received 13 reports worldwide of incidents, including 10 reports of injuries, six of which resulted in fingertip amputations. Three of the incidents, including one fingertip amputation injury, were reported in the U.S.

      This recall involves IKEA MYSINGSÖ foldable beach chairs with a wood base and an attached polyester fabric seat. The following article numbers are included in this recall:

      Seat Fabric Color & Pattern

      Article Number

      Light Red/Blue Striped

      902.280.08

      Red/Blue Striped

      302.580.79

      Solid White

      502.851.66

      Solid Red

      802.873.95

      Solid Green

      002.931.40

      Grey/White Chevron

      303.120.24

      Light Blue/White Chevron

      503.120.23

      Light Red/White Chevron

      003.120.25

      The article numbers are on labels on the wooden frame and sewn into the fabric.

      The beach chairs, manufactured in Bosnia and Herzegovina, were sold at IKEA stores nationwide and online at www.ikea-usa.com from February 2013, through December 2016, for about $25.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and return them to any IKEA store for a free replacement or full refund. Replacement MYSINGSÖ beach chairs are labeled with article numbers 703.380.17 and 903.380.16 and have plastic stoppers that prevent incorrect re-assembly.

      Consumers may contact IKEA toll-free at 888-966-4532 anytime or online at www.ikea-usa.com and click on Press Room at the bottom of the page, then on Product Recalls at the top of the page for more information.

      IKEA North America Services of Conshohocken, Pa., is recalling about 33,400 MYSINGSÖ beach chairs.The beach chairs can collapse, posing fall and finger...

      Volkswagen recalls various Audi vehicles with cooling issue

      The electric coolant pump may overheat

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 342,867 model year 2013-2017 Audi A5, A5 Cabriolet and Q5 vehicles, 2013-2016 Audi Allroad and Audi A4 vehicles and 2012-2015 Audi A6 vehicles.

      The vehicles, equipped with 2.0l Turbo FSI engines, have an electric coolant pump that can be blocked with debris from the cooling system, resulting in the pump overheating increasing the risk of a fire.

      What to do

      Audi will notify owners, and dealers will update the software so that the power supply to the coolant pump is deactivated if the pump becomes blocked with debris, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 20, 2017.

      Owners may contact Audi customer service at 1-800-253-2834. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 19M1.

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 342,867 model year 2013-2017 Audi A5, A5 Cabriolet and Q5 vehicles, 2013-2016 Audi Allroad and Audi A4 vehicles an...

      GOP acts to save the set-top box, nix consumer choice

      Republican lawmakers deep-six Obama plan to free cable subscribers from set-top box rental

      It looks like you can forget about getting rid of your cable TV set-top box. The Obama Administration had pushed hard for rules that would have broken the set-top box monopoly cable providers now enjoy, and the Federal Communications Commission last year voted to go along with the idea.

      “The issue is whether you are forced to rent that box every month after month,” then-FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, said last February. “The consumers have no choice today." He compared it to the bad old days of the telephone industry when only the telephone company could supply you with a phone.

      But a little thing called the presidential election came along before the new rules could be finalized, and now there's a different cast of characters in charge, a group that's not very concerned with the $231 the average consumer spends to rent a set-top box each year or the inconvenience the boxes cause.

      Newly named FCC chairman Ajit Pai has long opposed the idea of freeing cable from the box, as well as net neutrality and beefed-up privacy provisions for broadband providers, saying none of them have been shown to be necessary.

      A "suggestion" from Congress

      And just to make sure Pai doesn't change his mind, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC, have written to Pai "suggesting" he close the proceeding once and for all.

      "The regulatory overhang of the set-top box regulation has cast a shadow over investment and innovation in traditional video programming delivery," the committee members said. "We urge you to close the proceeding and permit the industry to innovate and serve consumers free from the restrictions of a government-chosen platform."

      Of course, the box is a "government-chosen platform," a part of cable companies' franchise agreements. It is a moneymaker and a means by which cable companies extract lengthy contracts out of customers who might otherwise choose to go month-to-month, as they can do with streaming services like Netflix. 

      The technically outmoded set-top box also requires consumers who want to also watch Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu to juggle different remotes, input sources, and other paraphernalia that are simple for some but completely confusing to others.

      If Wheeler's plan had gone through, a consumer could have used a simple Roku box, or something similar, to choose from cable, streaming video, and other programming sources. 

      The House members writing to Pai were Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), Communications Subcommittee chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Energy and Commerce Committee vice chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.), and every Republican member of the Communications Subcommittee.

      It looks like you can forget about getting rid of your cable TV set-top box. The Obama Administration had pushed hard for rules that would have broken the...

      Give adventure a try – what do you have to lose?

      Even if you're not up for sky-diving or white-water rafting, there are plenty of milder adventures

      Right up front I will admit – I am not an adventurer. I have never explored the forest canopy from a zip line, parasailed, taken a leap with a skydive, scaled a mountain, nor climbed a rock wall. I have a lackluster list of true travel adventurers.

      And yet even I have stories to tell. There was that bike ride in Holland.

      Biking in the Broek in Waterland

      On a visit to Amsterdam, I traveled with a group by coach to Broek in Waterland. Waterland, dating back to the middle ages, comprises nine small towns with majestic wooden mansions, ornamental architecture, well-kept grounds, and water everywhere.

      The brochure stated bikes would be waiting for us and we’d take a scenic bike tour along hidden paths, small roads, pastures, and other towns, providing us with a true impression of Holland. We’d make various stops along the way, including a pancake lunch. We would travel the Dutch way (by bike) and it would be an unforgettable experience! That it was!!

      Edam and Volendam

      We arrived in the city of Edam on a sunny day with barely a cloud in the sky. Edam is enchanting with beautiful wooden homes, narrow bridges along picturesque canals, and gardens bursting with blooms. We had a quick fit on our bikes and were divided into two groups; no surprise, I was in the slow group. Several of us who had not ridden a bike in years were told to stick together at the back. If we got tired we should look for our bus and we could store our bikes and hop aboard.

      Heading down a narrow path along the canals, the day could not have been more charming. We biked for an hour and stopped in the town of Volendam, situated on the Markermeer Lake. While the town was beautiful with colorful wooden houses and old fishing boats bobbing in the harbor, storm clouds were gathering to the left.

      Things turn hairy

      We made our way through town and the weather became threatening. The sky was turning black and way off we could see lightning streaks across the sky. If that wasn’t unnerving enough, we turned a corner and we were suddenly no longer on a narrow path, but riding alongside a busy roadway with not just cars, but buses and trucks to our right. I was frightened. I pumped and pumped and was incredibly careful to stay right in my lane. Around every corner I searched for our bus; there were many buses, but none were ours.

      I pedaled furiously, trying to keep up and make it to the next stop before the rain and lightning hit. Forty-five minutes later, the drops were falling and a man appeared in a driveway, motioning us to turn in. At long last, it was our bus driver. He told us to store our bikes in the shed and enter a cheese factory to the right. Instead, I left my bike and got on the bus. He asked me to get off as he needed to pick up two bicyclists who went the wrong way and were in Volendam – having tea! I refused to leave the bus and traveled with him to find the lost bicyclists.

      The day was not a loss – we arrived at the Pannenkoekenhuis De Witte Swaenand and ate the most delicious traditional Dutch apple pancakes. The rain washed out the bicycle trip and we ended the day at Zaanse Schans, viewing the windmills.

      Sometimes you need to go out of your comfort zone and take a chance – at least you’ll have a good story to share.

      Right up front I will admit – I am not an adventurer. I have never explored the forest canopy from a zip line, parasailed, taken a leap with a skydive, sca...

      Verizon reportedly eyeing Charter Communications

      Consumer group expresses alarm at potential merger

      A report that Verizon is thinking about acquiring Charter Communications, which recently acquired Time Warner Cable, has sent heads spinning.

      The speculation surfaced Thursday in The Wall Street Journal, which quoted sources as saying Verizon's CEO had made overtures to Charter executives. Such a deal would create a massive media company that controls large swaths of broadband internet, cable TV, mobile voice, and data services.

      The report comes on the heels of AT&T's announced intention to acquire Time Warner, a proposed tie-up that drew strong opposition from the likes of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. While industry analysts suggest media consolidation is going to continue, the idea is drawing heated opposition from some consumer groups.

      Viewing the deal with alarm

      Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron views such a deal with alarm, noting that such a merger would combine Verizon’s 114 million wireless subscribers under the same roof as Charter’s 17 million pay-TV customers and 22 million broadband subscribers. He further noted that Charter is already the nation’s second-largest cable-television provider after absorbing Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks last year.

      "This isn’t a trial balloon so much as a hallucination," Aaron said in a statement. "This unfathomable merger would consolidate unprecedented media power in one company, kill countless jobs and hike too-damn-high cable bills even higher."

      Fewer options in the Big Apple

      Aaron expressed amazement that such a merger could even be considered, since he said it would leave much of New York City with just one high-speed internet service provider.

      “A deal like this might excite Wall Street bankers and industry lobbyists, but anyone else can see that it would be a disaster for competition, innovation and the public interest,” Aaron concluded.

      Such a deal, it should be pointed out, is mere speculation at this point. However, industry analysts say the trend is unmistakable, and maybe unstoppable. They say companies providing wireless networks see the need to close ranks with those providing wired services, as well as with content providers.

      A report that Verizon is thinking about acquiring Charter Communications, which recently acquired Time Warner Cable, has sent heads spinning.The specul...

      PayPal and Amazon in discussions over payment partnership

      The move would allow Amazon customers to use their PayPal accounts to buy products

      Back in 2015, PayPal split away from eBay in an effort to focus on its electronic transactions business. Since then, the company has vigorously pursued agreements with other companies and institutions to increase the number of people who use its service.

      In February of 2015, the U.S. Treasury said that it would start accepting payments via PayPal at its Pay.gov site, giving consumers more options on how they can pay fines, penalties, or loan repayments. Even more recently, the company teamed up with MasterCard to offer consumers more tap-and-pay options.

      Now, it looks like the online payment company is looking to strike a deal with Amazon. Bloomberg reports that the two companies are discussing the possibility of letting consumers pay for Amazon purchases by using their PayPal accounts. While a verified plan has not been announced, officials say the deal is very possible.

      “We’re closing in on 200 million users on our platform right now. At that scale, it’s hard for any retailer to think about not accepting PayPal,” said CEO Dan Schulman.

      Potential deal

      The potential deal could be pretty attractive to Amazon users who are leery of submitting their credit card information to buy products. In a best-case scenario, the move would allow for more sales on Amazon’s end and create more point-of-sale presence for PayPal.

      However, while consumers would enjoy more freedom, some may question whether the deal is actually necessary for Amazon. Back in April, the company announced its own PayPal-like program that would allow customers to use their Amazon accounts to pay for products sold by associated merchants.

      However, as Schulman pointed out, the 197 million active users on PayPal may be hard to ignore, despite Amazon’s desire to control payments on its own. Thus far, Amazon has declined to comment on the matter.

      Back in 2015, PayPal split away from eBay in an effort to focus on its electronic transactions business. Since then, the company has vigorously pursued agr...

      Why you really need to start paying down your credit cards

      The average rate is the highest since 2007 and is going higher

      Among your New Years resolutions for 2017 may have been paying down your credit card debt.

      So, how's that working out?

      True, it has been less than one month, but if that resolution was on your list it should take on new urgency. The average credit card interest rate has remained at a record high, 15.42% for a second straight week, according to CreditCards.com.

      The average is made up of 100 of the most-used credit cards, representing every card category. For example, in the Low Interest Credit Card category, the average interest rate this week is 12.22%, up from 11.98% six months ago.

      If you're carrying a balance on a credit card for consumers with bad credit, you're paying an average rate of 22.98%, up only slightly from six months ago.

      And that balance transfer card that is giving you an introductory period of 0%? If that period ran out this week, you would be paying an average rate of 14.67%.

      Federal Reserve pushing rates higher

      Average rates on new card offers began to rise after the Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate by a quarter of a percent last month. Most major card issuers increased rates by the same amount, pushing the national average to an all-time record, the highest since CreditCards.com started tracking rates in 2007.

      But the record isn't likely to last for long. That's because the Fed has signaled it plans to boost rates at least a couple of more times this year. If the economy begins to heat up, they'll likely boost rates even more.

      Before that happens, it's a good idea to reduce your credit card balances as much as possible, focusing on the highest interest cards first. And you won't make much headway unless you pay significantly more than the minimum due.

      A University of Illinois study found 29% of consumers with credit card balances only pay the minimum each month. That means they take longer to repay the principal and pay more in interest.

      Consider this: if you have a $5,000 balance at 16.25% and pay only the minimum of around $51 each month, it would take 19 years to pay it off, and cost you more than $11,000 in interest. But paying $185 a month would repay the debt in about three years.

      Increase your payment

      Here's a tip: instead of paying the minimum, look at your bill and see what the interest, or finance charge is. Next, figure out how much more you can pay -- then add that amount to the interest charge. Your payment will cover the cost of interest and your additional payment will reduce the amount of what you owe.

      Transferring the balance to a credit card with a year or more of 0% interest is another effective way to pay down credit card debt. One of the best choices in a balance transfer card is the Chase Slate card, since it does not charge a balance transfer fee.

      Among your New Years resolutions for 2017 may have been paying down your credit card debt.So, how's that working out?True, it has been less than on...

      Auto leases hit record high in 2016

      Leases surged 29% in one year

      As the average transaction price on new cars moved higher and higher last year, more new car buyers opted to lease instead of purchase, according to automotive site Edmunds.com.

      Edmunds reports consumers leased 4.3 million vehicles, accounting for 31% of all new vehicle transactions last year. That's up 29% from 2015 and is nearly double the lease volume from five years ago.

      It's not hard to figure out why. With low gasoline prices, sales of trucks and SUVs have surged. The sticker prices on these vehicles are much higher than the small and midsize sedans that were more popular during the days of $3.50 a gallon for gas.

      Edmunds says the average lease payment was $120 less than the average finance payment last year. But that's just average. In some cases, the difference can be more pronounced.

      Chevy Suburban: purchase vs. lease

      Using TrueCar.com's pricing app, a fully loaded Chevrolet Suburban, GM's popular SUV, costs around $67,000. To buy it, you would be looking at a down payment of $6,700 while you could lease it for around $2,000 down, with a monthly payment of about $100 less than a purchase.

      So consumers are choosing to lease very expensive vehicles they might actually not be able to afford.

      Also, Edmunds points out that lease terms have remained at a fairly constant average of 36 months over the past five years, while the average purchase finance term is continuing to creep upward, averaging 69 months in 2016.

      "Leasing has long been the gateway for car shoppers who are looking to get a nicer vehicle than they could if they financed," said Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds executive director of industry analysis. "Because SUVs and trucks are holding their values so well right now, it makes them much more accessible for a much wider swath of the market, further fueling their popularity."

      Millennials are more likely to lease a vehicle than other age groups, even though in terms of sheer numbers they only make up about 12% of leased vehicles. Nearly a third of all Millennials who took delivery of a new vehicle in 2016 chose to lease, a jump from 21% five years ago.

      As the average transaction price on new cars moved higher and higher last year, more new car buyers opted to lease instead of purchase, according to automo...

      U.S. economic growth slows in 2016

      A tightening of consumer purse strings is a factor

      There was a considerable slowdown in the growth of the nation's economy last year.

      The Commerce Department reports real gross domestic product (GDP) increased 1.6% in 2016 after growing 2.6% the year before.

      The deceleration in growth reflected a downturn in private inventory investment, a slowdown in consumer spending (PCE), a downturn in nonresidential fixed investment, and decelerations in residential fixed investment and in state and local government spending.

      Those were offset by a slowdown in imports and speedups in federal government spending and exports.

      Fourth quarter results

      GDP in 2016's fourth quarter grew at a 1.9% annual clip following a third-quarter surge of 3.5%. It's worth keeping in mind that a "second" estimate for the fourth quarter, based on more complete data, will be released in late February. That second estimate may affect the 2016 GDP figure as well.

      The slowdown in real GDP in the fourth quarter reflected a downturn in exports, an acceleration in imports, a deceleration in PCE, and a downturn in federal government spending, all of which were partly offset by an upturn in residential fixed investment, an acceleration in private inventory investment, an upturn in state and local government spending, and an acceleration in nonresidential fixed investment.

      The PCE price index increased 2.2% in the fourth quarter. Excluding food and energy prices, the “core” PCE price index was up 1.3%.

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

      There was a considerable slowdown in the growth of the nation's economy last year.The Commerce Department reports real gross domestic product (GDP) inc...

      Consumers to shell out big bucks for the 2017 Super Bowl

      But it's not as much as they did a year ago

      While no knows whether Atlanta or New England will be this year's Super Bowl champ, it's a pretty good bet that U.S. retailers will come out on top.

      The National Retail Federation’s annual Super Bowl Spending Survey projects consumers in this country will spend an average of $75 for a total of $14.1 billion on decorations, party food, accessories, and other Super Bowl “necessities.” That's down about $1.4 billion from last year.

      “With the holidays past us, consumers are looking forward to spending time with friends and family for some good old-fashioned fun to celebrate the big game” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay.

      Prosper Insights & Analytics, which conducted the survey, says of the 76% who plan to watch the game, 80% say they will purchase food and beverages, 11% will buy team apparel or accessories, and 8% will splurge on new TVs to watch the game at home.

      Some 45 million people told the pollsters that they'll be hosting a Super Bowl party, and 27% plan to attend a party. Bars and restaurants can expect a good turnout with 12.4 million people planning to head out to watch at their favorite local spot.

      Why we watch

      Over 43% of viewers say the most important part is the game itself, 24% cite the commercials,15% just want to hang out with friends, and 12% think the half-time show is their top highlight.

      The survey also found that 78% of viewers watch the commercials for entertainment and 18% say they make them more aware of the advertiser’s brand. However, just 10% say the commercials influence them to purchase products.

      Sixteen percent believe advertisers should save their money and pass the savings along to the consumers, while 10% say the commercials make the game last too long.

      The survey, conducted January 4 -11, has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.1%. It asked 7,591 consumers about their Super Bowl plans.

      While no knows whether Atlanta or New England will be this year's Super Bowl champ, it's a pretty good bet that U.S. retailers will come out on top.The...

      Porsche recalls various vehicles with side airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator initiator may fail to ignite during a crash

      Porsche Cars North America is recalling 85 model year 2017 718 Boxster, 718 Boxster S, 718 Cayman, 718 Cayman S, 911 Carrera, 911 Carrera S, 911 Carrera S Cabriolet, 911 Carrera 4S, 911 Turbo, 911 Turbo S, 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet, and 911 Turbo Cabriolet vehicles.

      The seat mounted side airbag inflator initiator may fail to ignite during a crash.

      If the airbag inflator initiator fails to ignite, the side airbag will not deploy, increasing the risk of injury in the event of a crash.

      What to do

      Porsche will notify owners, and dealers will replace the affected airbag modules, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Porsche customer service at 1-800-767-7243. Porsche's number for this recall is AG10.

      Porsche Cars North America is recalling 85 model year 2017 718 Boxster, 718 Boxster S, 718 Cayman, 718 Cayman S, 911 Carrera, 911 Carrera S, 911 Carrera S...

      Country Home Products recalls field & brush mowers

      The fuel tank may expand and leak gasoline liquid or vapors

      Country Home Products of Vergennes, Vt., is recalling about 830 field & brush mowers.

      The fuel tank valve can malfunction and cause the fuel tank to expand and gasoline liquid or vapors to be unexpectedly released, posing fire and burn hazards.

      The firm has received 10 reports of fires, including one report of a burn injury to a consumer’s hand.

      This recall involves the Pro-XL-44 model of the DR brand tow-behind field and brush mower manufactured by Country Home Products. The mowers are towed behind a riding mower or ATV to clear acres of thick grass and brush.

      The recalled mowers have an electric start 20 HP Briggs & Stratton engine and a serial number between TB21001001 – TB21002555. The recalled mowers are black and orange and have two blades and four wheels and are 44 inches wide.

      There is a large label below the machine’s fuel tank that with “DR Field and Brush Mower” printed on it and a round DR logo is in the right hand corner. The serial number is printed on the rear right corner of the frame near the engine control panel.

      The mowers, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Country Home Products catalog, website and authorized independent DR dealers nationwide from October 2015, through July 2016, for about $3,600.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled mowers and contact Country Home Products to schedule a free repair from a dealer. Country Home Products is sending a repair kit to all registered owners.

      Consumers may contact Country Home Products toll-free at 877-271-5677 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday, by email at tbmrecall@chp.com or online at www.DRPower.com and click on “Product Recalls” at the bottom of the page for more information.

      Country Home Products of Vergennes, Vt., is recalling about 830 field & brush mowers.The fuel tank valve can malfunction and cause the fuel tank to exp...

      10 lessons for communities trying to control payday lending

      Researchers studied how communities have been successful and offer some advice

      Some states have tough usury laws that keep payday lenders from setting up shop. States that cap interest rates at 30% have found that payday lenders, who may charge 400% or more, will stay away.

      But in the absence of state regulations, local communities often find it is up to them to control these storefront operations that researchers at the University of Utah and University of New Mexico contend "often strip wealth from society’s most economically vulnerable individuals and communities.

      In fact, the researchers say these storefronts outnumber all McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, and Walgreens stores combined. After studying how Silicon Valley in Northern California, Greater Metropolitan Dallas in Texas, and Greater Salt Lake City in Utah handled the issue, the researchers have issued a report with 10 lessons for other communities who want to reduce or control payday loan activity within their jurisdictions.

      10 Lessons

      Lesson 1: Form a strong, broad-based community organization and draw up operating rules.

      Lesson 2: Tell a story. Don't get caught up in abstractions like “500 percent interest” or “debt traps,” but let actual borrowers tell how payday loans affected their lives and present that message to the community.

      Lesson 3: Learn to operate on a shoestring budget. It can be done.

      Lesson 4: When enlisting allies, don't overlook faith leaders. They are usually motivated and can be very effective.

      Lesson 5: Develop a strong media strategy, both for local media and using social media and other web-based platforms.

      Lesson 6: Enlist someone in elected office to run interference for you in political and government affairs.

      Lesson 7: When local government bodies are considering proposals dealing with payday lending, meet with them well in advance of any vote and present your case. Arguments should be tailored to what matters most to the individual policymakers.

      • Lesson 8: Remember that the industry will oppose your efforts and is well-funded. Be prepared for the pushback.

      • Lesson 9: If you are successful in passing an ordinance, help other municipalities do the same.

      • Lesson 10: Try to translate your success on the local level to similar efforts on the state and national level.

      Some communities have learned these lessons well. The Lubbock, Texas City Council is reportedly close to passing a payday lending ordinance.

      There is very little federal regulation of payday lenders, though the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has moved in that direction in recent months, proposing new rules amid strong political and industry opposition.

      Some states have tough usury laws that keep payday lenders from setting up shop. States that cap interest rates at 30% have found that payday lenders, who...

      Women are eating healthier and dieting less, study finds

      Over half of U.S. women are ditching dieting in favor of making small, permanent changes

      Women are veering away from fad diets and instead choosing to make more permanent lifestyle changes to improve their health, a new study finds.

      The Food Factor: Evolution of Eats survey by Better Homes and Gardens revealed that two-thirds of American women said they and their households were eating healthier in the last two years -- but not because of a specific diet or tactic.

      Of the women who said they were eating healthier, over half attributed the changes to significant modifications in what and how they eat.

      "While women continue to be health-conscious, their approach to their diet has changed," says Nancy Hopkins, Senior Food Editor of Better Homes & Gardens. "These women no longer want short term solutions from diet fads and tricks; they want to make meaningful changes that will last them over the course of their lives."

      Focus on healthy eating

      The study looked at women’s motivations, attitudes, and behaviors relating to food, cooking, and eating. Responses from more than 2,000 participants revealed that 63% of women are now choosing to focus on eating healthier foods in general. This is an increase from 2014 when only 50% of women said the same.

      Women are also eating less meat, perhaps as a result of being filled with more fruits and vegetables. With 71% of women eating more vegetables and 66% eating more fruits, women are eating 33% less meat than before. About 1 and 3 women have the occasional vegetarian meal during their day.

      Key findings from the survey revealed that there have been other big changes to dieting in recent years. Here's what's new in the last two years: 

      • Only 27% of women say they or any household member has followed a special diet in the last year.
      • 64% are paying more attention to nutrition than they did two years ago.
      • 53% say they are working to make small, permanent changes in their eating.
      • Half of women are now adding more salad to their diets, and 3 in 5 even grow their own fruits and vegetables.
      • 85% say they consider the healthfulness of a recipe before selecting it, and 50% have changed recipes so that they're healthier.
      Women are veering away from fad diets and instead choosing to make more permanent lifestyle changes to improve their health, a new study finds. The Foo...

      Trump names new acting chair of the FTC

      Maureen Ohlhausen, a Republican, has been on the commission since 2012

      As expected, President Trump has designated Maureen K. Ohlhausen as Acting Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.

      “I am deeply honored that President Trump has asked me to serve as Acting Chairman of the FTC and to preserve America’s true engine of prosperity: a free, honest, and competitive marketplace,” Ohlhausen said.

      “In pursuit of that mission, I will work to protect all consumers from fraud, deception, and unfair practices. I will safeguard competition while preserving American innovation and promoting economic liberty for all citizens. Finally, I will ensure the Commission minimizes the burdens on legitimate business as we carry out this vital work,” she said.

      Ohlhausen, a Republican, has been a member of the commission since being nominated by President Obama in 2012. Her term expires in September 2018.

      She is at present one of three commissioners on the FTC, which is supposed to be made up of five commissioners. There will be only two when Chairman Edith Ramirez' resignation becomes effective Feb. 10. The third is Terrell McSweeny, a Democrat, whose term expires in September 2017. 

      A maximum of three commissioners can be from the same party, so Trump will need to nominate two Republicans and one Democrat to bring the commission up to its authorized strength.

      As expected, President Trump has designated Maureen K. Ohlhausen as Acting Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.“I am dee...

      New home sales surge in December

      The latest LEI suggests continued economic growth

      New home sales finished a strong year with a strong month.

      The Commerce Department reports new single-family houses sold at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 536,000 in December -- up 10.4% from November.

      For all of last year, an estimated 563,000 new homes were sold -- 12.2% more than in 2015.

      December prices and inventory

      The median sales price -- the point at which half of the houses sold for more and half sold for less -- was $322,500, up $13,000 from November and a year-over-year gain of $23,500.

      The average sales price in December was $384,000, an increase of $18,00 from the month before and up $25,900 from the same month a year earlier.

      The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of December was 259,000 -- a supply of 5.8 months at the current sales rate.

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

      Leading Indicators

      The latest Conference Board Leading Economic Index (LEI) reading contains signs of optimism -- rising for a third straight month.

      Last month's 0.5% increase in the LEI follows gains of 0.1% in November and a 0.2% rise in October.

      The December advance suggests, according to Conference Board Director of Business Cycles and Growth Research Atman Ozymandias, “the economy will continue growing at a moderate pace -- perhaps even accelerating slightly in the early months of this year.”

      December’s large gain, he pointed out, “was mainly driven by improving sentiment about the outlook and suggests the business cycle still showed strong momentum in the final months of 2016.”

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

      The ten components of the LEI include:

      1. Average weekly hours, manufacturing
      2. Average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance
      3. Manufacturers’ new orders, consumer goods, and materials
      4. ISM Index of New Orders
      5. Manufacturers' new orders, non defense capital goods excluding aircraft orders
      6. Building permits, new private housing units
      7. Stock prices, 500 common stocks
      8. Leading Credit Index
      9. Interest rate spread, 10-year Treasury bonds less federal funds
      10. Average consumer expectations for business conditions
      New home sales finished a strong year with a strong month.The Commerce Department reports new single-family houses s...

      Economy: Home prices, jobless claims on the rise

      House prices posted a year-over-year gain of more than 6%

      Home prices across the U.S. edged up 0.5% from October to November rose in November, and posted a year-over-year advance of 6.1%.

      At the same time, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) revised its monthly House Price Index (HPI) downward to show a gain of 0.3% instead of the 0.4% increase initially reported.

      Regional breakdown

      For the nine census divisions, monthly price changes ranged from -0.2% in the South Atlantic division to +1.5% in the Pacific division.

      The 12-month changes were all positive, ranging from +4.7% in the Middle Atlantic division to +7.7% in the Pacific division.

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

      The complete report may be found on the FHFA website.

      Jobless claims

      An increase last week in the number of people filing first-time applications for state unemployment benefits.

      The Department of Labor (DOL) reports initial jobless claims rose by 22,000 in the week ending January 21 to a seasonally adjusted 259,000. The previous week's level was revised up by 3,000 to 237,000.

      The four-week moving average was down by 2,000 from the previous week to 245,500 -- the lowest level since November 3, 1973, when it was 244,000.

      The four-week moving average, due to its relative lack of volatility, is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market.

      The full report is available on the DOL website.

      Home prices across the U.S. edged up 0.5% from October to November rose in November, and posted a year-over-year advance...

      Atlas Meat recalls pork products

      The products may contain MSG, which is not declared on the label

      Atlas Meat Company of Fort Collins, Colo., is recalling approximately 2,579 pounds of pork sausage products.

      The products may contain monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is not declared on the label.

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

      The following items, from October 12, 2016, through January 23, 2017, are being recalled:

      • 0.80 to 1.5-lb. vacuum-sealed or butcher paper wrapped packages containing “Atlas Meat Pork Breakfast Ssg.”
      • 0.80 to 1.5-lb. vacuum-sealed or butcher paper wrapped packages containing “Atlas Meat Pork Italian ssg.”

      The recalled products, bearing establishment number “EST. 40306” inside the USDA mark of inspection, were sold directly to consumers at the firm’s Fort Collins, Colo., location and shipped to retail locations in Colorado and Wyoming.

      What to do

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Juan Meza at (970) 224-9210.

      Atlas Meat Company of Fort Collins, Colo., is recalling approximately 2,579 pounds of pork sausage products.The products may contain monosodium glutama...

      Pulse Performance recalls children’s electric scooters

      The knuckle that joins the wheel to the axle can break

      Pulse Performance Products of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., is recalling about 8,900 children’s electric scooters.

      The knuckle that joins the wheel to the axle can break, posing a fall hazard to the rider.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves Pulse Safe Start Transform electric scooters for children with manufacturing date codes between September 10, 2016 and October 11, 2016.

      The date code is printed on a label located under the platform in format XX(month)/XX(day)/2016 – 066QY. The scooters were sold in blue and have two wheels in front and one in the rear.

      The scooters, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Target stores nationwide from October 2016, through November 2016, for about $100.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately take the recalled scooters away from children and contact Pulse Performance Products for a full refund.

      Consumers may contact Pulse Performance Products toll-free at 844-287-8711 from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (PT) Monday through Friday or online at www.pulsescooters.com and click on “CPSC Safety Recalls” for more information.

      Pulse Performance Products of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., is recalling about 8,900 children’s electric scooters.The knuckle that joins the wheel to the a...

      Mazda recalls 696 vehicles with passenger front airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Mazda North America Operations is recalling a total of 696 vehicles with a passenger front airbag inflator issue.

      The recall includes model year 2009 B-Series trucks sold, or ever registered, in the states of Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, or "Zone B."

      Additionally, unless included in "Zone B,” Mazda is recalling certain 2007-2008 B-Series trucks sold, or ever registered, in the states of Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

      These vehicles are equipped with certain airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the passenger front airbag, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Mazda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front passenger airbag inflator, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin March 7, 2017.

      Owners may contact Mazda customer service at 1-800-222-5500. Mazda's number for this recall is 0817A.

      Mazda North America Operations is recalling a total of 696 vehicles with a passenger front airbag inflator issue.The recall includes model year 2009 B-...

      Subaru recalls Baja, Impreza, Tribeca, Forester, Legacy, Outback, and WRX vehicles

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Subaru of America is recalling 53,480 model year 2005-2006 Subaru Bajas, 2006-2011 Imprezas (including WRX and STI models), 2006-2012 Tribecas, 2009-2012 Foresters, Legacys & Outbacks, and 2012 WRX vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in the states of Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

      The vehicles are equipped with certain airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules, and used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the front airbags, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Subaru will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front passenger air bag inflator, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Subaru customer service at 1-800-782-2783. Subaru's number for this recall is TKA-17.

      Subaru of America is recalling 53,480 model year 2005-2006 Subaru Bajas, 2006-2011 Imprezas (including WRX and STI models), 2006-2012 Tribecas, 2009-2012 F...

      Trump's 'order' to revive Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines may not be binding

      The Army Corps of Engineers is still obliged to follow procedures established by law

      Two days before President Trump took office, the environmentalists and Native Americans fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline celebrated another small but hopeful legal victory -- the United States Army Corps of Engineers announced on January 18 that it was beginning a new environmental study into the pipeline's Lake Oahe crossing, as well as allowing people to leave public comments about the project until February 20.  

      The Corps back in December had already made a surprise announcement that it would consider alternative routes for the Dakota Access Pipeline, routes which would be explored via a formal Environmental Impact Statement. But then the Dakota Access Pipeline filed a motion seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the Corps from conducting that impact statement. The Corps then stalled on formally registering its impact statement, the necessary next step to begin.  

      Finally, on January 18, the Corps formally registered its Environmental Impact Statement, by posting a  "Notice of an Intent to Register" on its website. The notice, the Standing Rock Sioux said in a statement shortly afterward, is "yet another small victory on the path to justice."

      But with Trump signing what the Washington Post reported were "executive orders Tuesday to revive the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines," what happens next is unclear.  The Corps of Engineers' spokespeople have not returned multiple messages left Tuesday inquiring about the pipeline or the pending Environmental Impact Statement. And the Interior Department, which also oversees the pipeline, directed press inquiries back to the Corps. 

      Standing Rock attorneys say Corps must complete EIS

      Jan Hasselman, an attorney with EarthJustice representing the Standing Rock Sioux on the legal front as they fight the pipeline in court, contends that Trump's latest order isn't much of an order at all, despite the news reports describing it as such.  

      "The president’s action is not an executive order, as has been reported, but a 'memorandum' to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers directing them to complete the permitting process to the extent allowed under law,'" Hasselman writes. In fact, the document Trump signed is simply called, "MEMORANDUM FOR THE SECRETARY OF THE ARMY."

      In the memorandum, Trump directs the Corps to "review and approve in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, and with such conditions as are necessary or appropriate, requests for approvals to construct and operate the DAPL..." (the full document is embedded below). 

      Hasselman, the EarthJustice attorney, notes that the memo  is simply asking the Corps to complete its permitting process to the extent it can legally. "We believe that the Corps has already found that the law — including the Tribe’s treaty rights — requires a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and consideration of route alternatives," he adds. "Nothing in the Presidential Memorandum changes that or even addresses it." 

      He further suggests that more lawsuits will come if the Corps does not go through with its Environmental Impact Statement as promised: "If the Corps responds to this directive by issuing the easement without the EIS process, it will be violating the law and subjecting itself to additional litigation."

      Corps could still deny key easement, attorneys say

      Loose state laws as well as federal regulations that Barack Obama enacted during his presidency already allow for the expedited approval of oil and gas pipelines, as we've previously reported. In 2016, when approving portions of the Dakota Access Pipeline that it has authority over, the Corps of Engineers determined that the pipeline could cross 200 different waterways under Nationwide Permit #12, the agency's permitting system that allows for expedited approval of pipelines. 

      But the pipeline's crossing under Lake Oahe, a source of drinking water for the Sioux that connects to the Missouri River, remained in dispute as protesters organized and began attracting worldwide support. "The easement necessary for the pipeline to cross USACE-managed federal land at Lake Oahe is currently under review," agency spokesperson Moira Kelley wrote in a November 29 email. Five days later,  as religious clergy from various faiths and thousands of military veterans joined the Sioux at their resistance camp for a crowded and cold weekend,  the Corps suddenly announced that it would be considering alternative routes.

      As the Corps wrote on its website, "a consideration of alternative routes for the Dakota Access Pipeline Crossing would be best accomplished through an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis."

      With the Corps officially beginning its EIS during the final days of the Obama administration on January 18, is there a chance that it could still deny the pipeline's easement under Lake Oahe? Daveon Coleman, an EarthJustice spokesman, says to ConsumerAffairs in an email: "The short answer is yes, in theory, the Corps still has authority to deny the easement."

      Construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline by Amy Cranks on Scribd

      Two days before President Trump took office, the environmentalists and Native Americans fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline celebrated another small but ho...

      New Mexico files suit against Takata and 15 carmakers over defective airbag systems

      State officials say the companies misrepresented how dangerous the products were

      Consumers may have felt some vindication after Takata settled with the feds earlier this month for $1 billion, but a new suit brought by the state of New Mexico shows the company’s troubles are far from over.

      The state has filed a lawsuit against 15 car companies and Takata for allegedly covering up the fatal defect in its airbag inflators that led to the deaths of 11 people in the U.S.

      “In New Mexico, no child should ever be put in danger so international corporations can reap enormous profits,” Attorney General Hector Balderas said. “New Mexico families’ health and safety have been put at dangerous risk by Takata and the automakers, and we will hold them accountable. Corporations who harm New Mexicans will pay for their actions no matter their size or location around the world.”

      The suit claims that the company – along with Ford, Toyota, Honda, BMW, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Mazda, Volkswagen, Audi, Nissan, FCA, Ferrari, General Motors, Jaguar, and Mercedes-Benz – knew about the defect but misrepresented how dangerous it was.

      “Under New Mexico law, Takata had, and has, a duty to ensure that its airbag systems work safely and as intended, and must not make false, deceptive, or misleading statements or omissions regarding them to any person, including the public and its commercial partners,” the suit states.

      “Similarly, under New Mexico law, [the companies] had, and have, a duty to ensure their vehicles are safe and must not make false, deceptive, or misleading statements or omissions regarding their vehicles to any person.”

      Misrepresenting a dangerous defect

      However, state officials charge that Takata and the manufacturers failed in their duty, a fact that has led to the largest National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recall in history. The New Mexico Attorney General’s office further claims that not disclosing the dangers of the airbag systems and vehicles violates the state’s unfair trade practices act.

      The lawsuit claims that both Takata and the carmakers had ample time to publicize the airbag system issues, alleging that the problem was known to the former as early as the late 1990s.

      “Yet Takata concealed its knowledge, repeatedly denying and obfuscating the existence of the defect from regulators and the public across the country, including in New Mexico,” the suit states. “Indeed, as alleged more fully herein, Takata has made a number of public statements denying or minimizing the defect and assuring the public of its commitment to driver safety, in full knowledge of the deadly consequences of its explosive airbag systems.”

      Thousands in civil penalties per day

      The suit is slightly more lenient on carmakers, admitting that Takata falsely represented its products when they were being bought. However, it says that some manufacturers learned about the defect well before the recall began and chose to do nothing.

      The state is seeking civil penalties of $5,000 for each defective airbag that made its way into the state and $5,000 for each day the defendants concealed or misrepresented the defect from regulators and the public.

      As we’ve reported previously, consumers should find out if their car is included in the recall by going to SaferCar.gov. Enter your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) into the provided space to see if your vehicle has been part of a safety recall in the last 15 years.

      Consumers may have felt some vindication after Takata settled with the feds earlier this month for $1 billion, but a new suit brought by the state of New M...

      Pigs’ diets matter to Millennial consumers, survey finds

      Millennials are more likely than other generations to place importance on pigs' diets

      Millennials are all about transparency and authenticity, which makes them interested to know what’s in their food. But beyond knowing what’s going into their bodies, they want to know what went into the bodies of the animal products they eat.

      What pigs eat has a strong influence on the pork-buying habits of your average Millennial, according to a new survey by researchers from Cargill Animal Nutrition.

      In a poll of more than 2,000 people in the U.S. and Spain, the researchers found that 43% of American Millennials and 65% of Spanish Millennials say that a pig’s diet influences their purchasing decisions.

      One-third overall

      Although only 32% of Baby Boomers and 26% Gen Xers said that a pig’s diet influences their purchasing decisions, a growing number of overall consumers feel that it’s important to know that their pork was produced in a healthy and responsible manner.

      The survey found that one-third of all U.S. consumers said a pig’s diet factors influences their purchasing decision. In Spain, 60% of consumers said they place importance on the origin of their pork.

      "Many consumers, millennials in particular, are speaking loudly about the importance of knowing what is on the dinner table and where it came from," said Patrick Duerksen, a Cargill global marketing director.

      Duerksen says it’s important for those in the agricultural supply chain to help consumers understand that the pork they eat was produced in healthy manner. However, Millennial consumers may need some convincing if they are to believe that their pork was raised on a healthy diet.

      The trust factor

      Millennials are more likely than other generations to say that pigs’ diets matter, but they also have the lowest trust that the pigs they eat were raised on a diet they consider healthy.

      Forty-two percent of American Millennials and 67% of Spanish Millennials don't trust that diets fed to pigs are healthy, the survey found. But swine nutrition continues to advance, says Brooke Humphrey, global swine technology director for Cargill.

      "Cargill Animal Nutrition has worked closely with its customers to develop a range of nutrients and feed options, all geared to delivering proper nutrition to help farmers raise healthy pigs,” Humphrey said.

      Millennials are all about transparency and authenticity, which makes them interested to know what’s in their food. But beyond knowing what’s going into the...

      New ads add feeling to the usual sight, sound, and motion

      The ads are generating quite a bit of buzz in the advertising world

      The ad world is vibrating today with news of a series of "touch-enabled" ads that generated a 50% increase in response among consumers. The ads use what is called "tactile haptic" techniques that enable consumers to actually feel them.

      Yes, it does sound like nonsense, but take a look at this example, preferably using a smartphone that has vibration capabilities:

      Will this drain battery faster than ever? Probably, but researchers say a well-executed haptic application increased the viewer's engagement and sense of connection with the brand. 

      We're told it also helped generate feelings of "happiness and excitement." It sort of generated a buzz, you might say.

      The ad world is vibrating today with news of a series of "touch-enabled" ads that generated a 50% increase in response among consumers. The ads use what is...

      Researchers find new therapeutic target for treating glioblastoma

      They hope that future treatment methods will help combat these lethal brain tumors

      There aren’t many options for consumers who have glioblastoma. These lethal brain tumors are connected to the lowest survival rates after recurrence, at 5% for a five-year period. For the last decade or so, patients have been treated through a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. However, this only extends life for an average of four to six months after tumor recurrence, and there is currently no existing therapy that has been shown to be effective after tumors return.

      But now scientists believe there is a way to fight glioblastoma and improve survival outcomes. Researchers at the Peter O’Donnel Jr. Brain Institute and Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center say that targeting a brain protein that drives tumor growth may allow for future treatment of all forms of the disease.

      "These findings change our fundamental understanding of the molecular basis of glioblastoma, and how to treat it," said co-senior author Dr. Robert Bachoo. "We may have identified a set of critical genes we can target with drugs that are shared across nearly all glioblastomas."

      Finding a new therapeutic target

      During their studies, the researchers found that certain master proteins in the brain – called neurodevelopmental transcription factors -- are what ultimately drive glioblastoma growth. These proteins are responsible for the activity of hundreds of genes during brain development, but when they don’t do their job then the resulting mutations can cause tumor formation.

      Bachoo explains that these gene mutations in the brain initially allow tumors to grow, but the disease becomes beyond control after a certain point.

      "Our work shows that the gene mutations which the pharmaceutical industry and clinicians have been focusing on are essential only for starting tumor growth. Once the tumor has advanced to the stage where patients seek treatment, these mutations are no longer required for continued tumor growth; they are in effect redundant," he said.

      This new idea counters previous theories by the medical community, which long thought that glioblastoma growth was driven by brain proteins called receptor tyrosine kinase. It also explains why drugs used to inhibit these proteins were ineffective at stopping tumor growth.

      Solution still out of reach

      Though a solution may be years away, the researchers have suggested using a chemotherapy drug called mithramycin, which has been out of clinical use for years because it can cause liver toxicity in some patients. They conclude that finding a safer and more effective treatment for brain tumor patients will take time, but having a target for treatment is encouraging.

      "Our discovery has the potential for the development of a new therapy that may increase survival time for glioblastoma patients,” said Dr. Ralf Kittler.

      The full study has been published in Cell Reports.

      There aren’t many options for consumers who have glioblastoma. These lethal brain tumors are connected to the lowest survival rates after recurrence, at 5%...

      Florida and feds tag team debt settlement companies

      The settlement puts three companies out of business

      The state of Florida and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have reached a settlement with the operator of several debt settlement companies after filing a lawsuit last year.

      The state and federal governments teamed up to bring charges against Chastity Valdes and the companies she controlled, Consumer Assistance LLC, Consumer Assistance Project Corp. and Palermo Global LLC.

      The charges specifically accused the companies of targeting consumers with student loan debt with illegal debt relief offers.

      The suit claimed the companies took up-front fees in return for their promised debt relief and credit repair services. They allegedly promised victims they could reduce the amount of their student loans and repair their credit.

      Tough loan to get out of

      Student loans, of course, are among the most binding of debts and can't even be discharged in bankruptcy.

      Among the laws the defendants were accused of violating are the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Credit Repair Organizations Act.

      The settlement essentially puts the companies out of business. Under the terms of the agreement, they cannot sell debt relief and credit repair services, and can't even make any material claims about any products or services.

      They are also prohibited from misrepresenting endorsements, making money from consumers’ personal information, and being careless in the disposal of personal information.

      They would also be required to cough up $2.3 million in damages, if they had it. Since they don't, they have to turn over all of their assets to Florida and federal authorities. If it turns out they weren't being truthful about the amount of the assets, the full $2.3 million judgment will be imposed.

      Avoiding debt settlement pitches

      Debt settlement schemes most commonly target people with large amounts of credit card debt, usually making it sound like it's easy to get credit card companies to agree to accept a fraction of what is owed.

      That's hardly the way it works. When a consumer stops making payments, as advised by a debt settlement company, he or she is besieged by debt collectors. In the process, the consumer's credit score craters.

      The FTC doesn't say you should never try to settle your debt, but it does say you need to be very, very careful. And you should always avoid doing business with a debt settlement firm that charges an upfront fee, which is illegal.

      Remember, you can talk to your credit card company yourself, and will probably have better luck than a debt settlement company will.

      Learn more about what the FTC advises on debt settlement here.

      The state of Florida and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have reached a settlement with the operator of several debt settlement companies after filing a...

      Mortgage applications post third straight weekly gain

      Contact interest were mostly higher

      Mortgage applications are up for the third time in as many weeks, rising 4.0%, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

      The survey for the week ending January 20 included an adjustment for the Martin Luther King Day holiday.

      The Refinance Index inched up 0.2%, although the refinance share of mortgage activity fell to 50.0% of total applications from 53.0% the previous week -- the lowest level since July 2015.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 5.7%, the FHA share of total applications rose to 13.6% from 13.1% a week earlier, the VA share went to 12.2% from 12.1% the prior week, and the USDA share of total applications was unchanged at 0.9%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($424,000 or less) rose eight basis points -- to 4.35% from 4.27% -- with points decreasing to 0.30 from 0.39 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $424,000) went from 4.22% to 4.28%, with points decreasing to 0.31 from 0.36 (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 increased shot up nine basis points to 4.19%, with points increasing to 0.35 from 0.28 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs was up to 3.57% from 3.51%, with points decreasing to 0.28 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs dipped three basis points to 3.41%, with points increasing to 0.30 from 0.21 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate remained unchanged from last week.

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

      Mortgage applications are up for the third time in as many weeks, rising 4.0%, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.The survey for the week en...

      Land Rover recalls Range Rovers with passenger front airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Jaguar Land Rover North America is recalling a total of 8,769 vehicles with a passenger front airbag inflator issue.

      Included are model year 2012 Land Rover Range Rovers originally sold, or ever registered, in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan) and the U.S. Virgin Islands, or "Zone A."

      Additionally, unless included in "Zone A," Land Rover is recalling model year 2009 Land Rover Range Rover vehicles, originally sold, or ever registered, in Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, or "Zone B."

      Further, Land Rover is recalling model year 2007-2008 Land Rover Range Rover vehicles originally sold, or ever registered in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

      The vehicles are equipped with airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules, and used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the front airbags, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Land Rover will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front passenger air bag assemblies, free of charge. Parts are not currently available. Owners will be sent an interim notification around March 3, 2017. A second notice will be mailed when remedy parts are available.

      Owners may contact Land Rover customer service at 1-800-637-6837. Land Rover's number for this recall is P082.

      Jaguar Land Rover North America is recalling a total of 8,769 vehicles with a passenger front airbag inflator issue.Included are model year 2012 Land R...

      Mitsubishi recalls i-MiEV vehicles

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Mitsubishi Motors North America (MMNA) is recalling 1,964 model year 2012 and 2014 i-MiEV vehicles.

      The vehicles are equipped with airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the front air bags, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      MMNA will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front passenger air bag inflator, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact MMNA customer service at 1-888-648-7820. MMNA's number for this recall is SR-17-001.

      Mitsubishi Motors North America (MMNA) is recalling 1,964 model year 2012 and 2014 i-MiEV vehicles.The vehicles are equipped with airbag inflators asse...

      Ferrari recalls vehicles with passenger front airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Ferrari North America is recalling 825 model year 2012 California, 458 Italia, 458 Spider, and FF vehicles sold, or ever registered, in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

      The vehicles are equipped with airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the passenger front airbag, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Ferrari will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front passenger air bag assembly, free of charge. Ferrari plans to send an interim owner letter to owners beginning March 13, 2017, and a second letter will be sent when parts are available.

      Owners may contact Ferrari customer service at 1-866-551-2828. Ferrari's number for this recall is 61.

      Ferrari North America is recalling 825 model year 2012 California, 458 Italia, 458 Spider, and FF vehicles sold, or ever registered, in Alabama, California...

      HP expands recall of batteries for HP and Compaq notebook computers

      The batteries can overheat, posing fire and burn hazards

      HP of Palo Alto, Calif., is expanding its recall of lithium-ion batteries used in HP and Compaq notebook computers to about 101,000 from the 41,000 recalled in June 2016.

      The batteries can overheat, posing fire and burn hazards.

      The company has received one additional report of the battery overheating, melting and charring and causing about $1,000 in property damage. There were seven reports in the earlier recall

      This expanded recall involves lithium-ion batteries containing Panasonic cells that are used in HP notebook computers. The batteries are compatible with HP, Compaq, HP ProBook, HP ENVY, Compaq Presario, and HP Pavilion notebook computers.

      HP has expanded the number of recalled batteries, which were shipped with notebook computers sold between March 2013, and October 2016.

      The black batteries measure about 8 to 10.5 inches long, 2 inches wide and about 1 inch high. The battery bar code is printed on the back of the battery. “HP Notebook Battery” and the model number are printed on the battery.

      The batteries included in this expanded recall have bar codes starting with: 6BZLU, 6CGFK, 6CGFQ, 6CZMB, 6DEMA, 6DEMH, 6DGAL and 6EBVA.

      The batteries, manufactured in China, were sold at Best Buy, Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club and authorized dealers nationwide and online at www.hp.com and other websites from March 2013, through October 2016, for between $300 and $1,700. The batteries were also sold separately for between $50 and $90.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled batteries, remove them from the notebook computers and contact HP for a free replacement battery. Until a replacement battery is received, consumers should use the notebook computer by plugging it into AC power only.

      Consumers may contact HP toll-free at 888-202-4320 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at www.HP.com/go/batteryprogram2016 or www.hp.com and click “Recalls” at the bottom of the page for more information.

      HP of Palo Alto, Calif., is expanding its recall of lithium-ion batteries used in HP and Compaq notebook computers to about 101,000 from the 41,000 recalle...

      BMW recalls various vehicles with passenger front airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      BMW of North America is recalling a total of 48,380 vehicles with a passenger front airbag inflator issue.

      Te recall includes model year 2012 X5 xDrive30i, X5 xDrive35i, X5 xDrive48i, X5 xDrive50i, X5 M, X6 xDrive35i, X6 xDrive50i, and X6 M vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), and the U.S. Virgin Islands, or "Zone A."

      Additionally, unless included in "Zone A,", BMW is recalling certain 2009 X5 xDrive30i, X5 xDrive35i, X5 xDrive48i, X5 xDrive50i, and X5 M vehicles, 2008-2009 X6 xDrive 35i, X6 xDrive50i, X6 M, and 2009 X5 xDrive35d vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, or "Zone B."

      Further, unless included in "Zone A" or "Zone B," BMW is recalling certain 2007-2008 X5 xDrive30i, X5 xDrive35i, X5 xDrive48i, X5 xDrive50i and X5 M vehicles, and 2008 X6 xDrive35i, X6 xDrive50i, and X6 M vehicles originally sold, or ever registered in the states of Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

      The vehicles are equipped with airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the front airbags, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to high absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front passenger airbag inflator or airbag module, free of charge. Interim letters informing owners that parts are not yet available are expected to be mailed March 1, 2017. Owners will receive a second notice when remedy parts become available.

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

      BMW of North America is recalling a total of 48,380 vehicles with a passenger front airbag inflator issue.Te recall includes model year 2012 X5 xDrive3...

      Subaru recalls more than 62,000 vehicles passenger front airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death'

      Subaru of America is recalling 62,764 model year 2005-2006 Baja, 2006-2008 Imprezas (including WRX and STI models), Tribecas, and 2006 Saab 9-2X vehicles, originally sold, or ever registered, in the states of Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

      These vehicles are equipped with certain airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the passenger front airbag, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Subaru will notify their owners. General Motors will notify Saab owners. Dealers will replace the front passenger air bag inflator, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Subaru owners may contact Subaru customer service at 1-800-782-2783. Saab owners may contact the Saab customer assistance center at 1-800-955-9007. Subaru's number for this recall is TKC-17.

      Subaru of America is recalling 62,764 model year 2005-2006 Baja, 2006-2008 Imprezas (including WRX and STI models), Tribecas, and 2006 Saab 9-2X vehicles,...

      Toyota recalls model year 2016 and 2017 Tundras

      A portion of the resin rear step bumper may break away

      Toyota Motor North America is recalling approximately 73,000 model year 2016 and 2017 Toyota Tundras.

      The vehicles are equipped with resin rear step bumpers and resin reinforcement brackets at each corner. In the event of an impact to the corner of the bumper, the resin bracket may become damaged but not be noticed.

      If a person steps on the corner of the bumper that is damaged, a portion of it may break away, increasing the risk of injury.

      What to do

      Toyota dealers will replace the resin reinforcement brackets with new ones made of steel at no cost to customers. In addition, the rear bumper tread covers will be replaced as part of the remedy. Owners of the recalled vehicles will receive a notification by first class mail starting in the middle of February.

      Owners may call Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331 or Lexus customer service at 1-800-255-3987. 

      Toyota Motor North America is recalling approximately 73,000 model year 2016 and 2017 Toyota Tundras.The vehicles are equipped with resin rear step bum...

      Aetna fudged reason it pulled out of Obamacare exchanges, court finds

      Judge finds the company made the decision partly because of a blocked merger

      Consumers may remember back in August when Aetna, a health insurance provider, said it would be pulling out of Obamacare exchanges in many states in 2017. At the time, CEO Mark Bertolini expressed regret over the decision, saying that the company had faced increased pressure and was concerned about the sustainability of its exchange business.

      However, new details about the company’s withdrawal from these exchanges seem to paint a very different story.

      A new report by the Los Angeles Times shows that Aetna’s reasons for pulling out of the exchanges may have had less to do with losing too much money and more to do with following through on its threats. Federal judge John D. Bates found that the company made the decision at least partly because of an antitrust suit that blocked its $37 billion merger with Humana.

      Bates found that Aetna had threatened federal officials with pulling out of the Obamacare exchanges if the suit went forward. When it did, Aetna followed through on its threat and announced pullouts in 11 of the 15 states it previously covered. Bates made these observations as a part of a ruling he issued on Monday that blocked the merger between Aetna and Humana.

      “Aetna tried to leverage its participation in the exchanges for favorable treatment from the DOJ regarding the proposed merger,” Bates said in his decision.

      “Outside of normal business practice”

      Aetna allegedly did all that it could to keep its real reasons for pulling out of the exchanges quiet; executives elected to exclusively talk about the matter over the phone instead of email in order to not leave a paper trail. Anything that was written down was covered by client-attorney privilege, something Bates said came close to malfeasance.

      When Aetna announced that it was pulling its coverage of many states and counties, it surprised quite a few people because many of the areas had actually shown profitability. In fact, Bates said that the move was “so outside of normal business practice” that one top executive couldn’t make heads or tails of the decision.

      “I just can’t make sense out of the Florida dec[ision],” said Christopher Ciano in a message to Jonathan Mayhew, Aetna’s head of the national exchange business. “Based on the latest run rate data . . . we are making money from the on-exchange business. Was Florida’s performance ever debated?”

      Mayhew quickly told Ciano to discuss the matter over the phone with him, ending the written dialogue.

      Improving litigation position

      Aetna’s rationalization for pulling out of the exchanges is degraded further by a letter that Bertolini sent to the Justice Department in July. In the message, the CEO plainly ties the company’s future support of the exchanges with whether its Humana merger was successful.

      Additionally, at least 17 of the counties that the company pulled out of were areas that the DOJ claimed had “unlawfully low levels of competition in individual exchanges.” By pulling out of the areas, Aetna could claim that it had no ties to the areas to strengthen its merger argument.

      “The evidence provides persuasive support for the conclusion that Aetna withdrew from the on-exchange markets in the 17 complaint counties to improve its litigation position. The Court does not credit the minimal efforts of Aetna executives to claim otherwise,” said Bates.

      Cause and effect

      While Bates conceded that Aetna’s claim of losing money on the exchanges may be valid, he questioned the company’s claims that it was the only reason for pulling out. Exchanges with Aetna executives provided evidence that the merger deal and the pullouts were linked for the company, despite claims to the contrary. But what does that decision ultimately mean for the rest of us?

      In its report, the Times points out that Aetna’s departure from the exchanges gave Republicans a platform from which they could cast doubt on the stability of Obamacare, strengthening the case for repealing the act.

      Depending on how much you’re willing to heap on the company, one could allege that its actions put the health coverage of over 20 million Americans who rely on the program at risk. However, whether its decision will ultimately help the company achieve its own ends is now less sure. 

      Consumers may remember back in August when Aetna, a health insurance provider, said it would be pulling out of Obamacare exchanges in many states in 2017....

      New FCC chairman is no friend of net neutrality

      Consumer privacy protection rules also likely on the chopping block

      As expected, President Trump has named Ajit Pai chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, spreading joy throughout the advertising and telecommunications worlds.

      The Association of National Advertisers greeted the expected announcement jubilantly, anticipating a quick end to the privacy and net neutrality rules pushed through by Pai's predecessor. In an unusually blunt statement, the organization gave Pai his marching orders. 

      "ANA anticipates Pai will likely respond positively to its request – made alongside ISP’s and other industry groups – for a full reconsideration of the sweeping privacy rules imposed on ISP’s under former Chairman Tom Wheeler," said the ANA in a news release.  "And as Pai now leads a Republican majority of the FCC, he will also likely reexamine the expansion of the Commission’s regulatory authority under net neutrality rules."

      Pai's appointment came at about the same time as the Federal Trade Commission's release of a staff report warning of the privacy risks presented by cross-device tracking of consumers. 

      The FTC report recommends that, at the very least, companies that engage in cross-device tracking have an obligation to tell consumers they're doing it and to offer them a chance to opt out. Those who track such sensitive data as health and financial information should be required to seek permission in advance, the report recommends.

      "Days are numbered"

      Pai, a Republican, was nominated to the FCC by President Obama in 2011. (By law, only three of the five commissioners may be members of the same party). A Harvard Law graduate, he is the son of immigrants from India and grew up in Parsons, Kansas. He has been a critic of many of Wheeler's initiatives, particularly net neutrality. The FCC in March 2015 adopted rules that treat broadband service as a utility and require internet service providers to treat all traffic equally. 

      In a speech in December 2016, Pai said the rule's "days are numbered," arguing that the net neutrality rules were adopted without any evidence that they were needed.

      "There was no evidence of systemic failure in the Internet marketplace. As I said at the time, 'One could read the entire document . . . without finding anything more than hypothesized harms.' Or, in other words, public-utility regulation was a solution that wouldn’t work for a problem that didn’t exist."

      Privacy rules

      In October 2016, the FCC adopted new rules protecting consumer privacy on the internet. The rules give broadband customers tools to make informed choices about how their personal information is used and shared by internet service providers.

      "It's the consumers' information," said then-FCC Chairman Wheeler when the proposal was unveiled, "and the consumer should have the right to determine how it's used."

      Industry groups fought the proposal bitterly. USTelecom called it a "naked power grab." On Jan. 3, the group filed a petition asking the FCC to modify the rules, "to reflect cost-benefit consideration" and avoid conflict with existing FTC privacy rules. 

      "Broadband for all"

      In a speech to the FCC staff today, Pai said that "bringing broadband to all Americans" would be his top priority. 

      "There is a digital divide in this country—between those who can use cutting-edge communications services and those who do not," he said. "I believe one of our core priorities going forward should be to close that divide—to do what’s necessary to help the private sector build networks, send signals, and distribute information to American consumers, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else."

      As expected, President Trump has named Ajit Pai chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, spreading joy throughout the advertising and telecommuni...

      Court blocks Aetna-Humana merger

      Still pending is a decision on Aetna's takeover of Cigna

      A U.S. District Court Judge has blocked Aetna's acquisition of rival insurer Humana Inc. Judge John D. Bates of the D.C. Circuit held that the $34 billion deal woud stifle competition and violate federal antitrust laws.

      It was the last major antitrust case brought by the Obama Justice Department. Still pending is a challenge to Aetna's takeover of Cigna Corp. A ruling in that case is expected any day. 

      “Today’s decision is a victory for American consumers – especially seniors and working families and individuals,” said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brent Snyder, who is currently heading the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. “Competition spurs health insurers to offer higher quality and more affordable health insurance to seniors who choose Medicare Advantage plans and to low-income families and individuals who purchase insurance from public exchanges."

      Snyder said the merger "would have stifled competition and led to higher prices and lower quality health insurance." He said the ruling would "save customers and taxpayers up to $500 million per year" based on evidence entered in court showing that direct competition between Aetna and Humana led the companies to offer more generous benefits at lower prices.

      "Aetna attempted to buy a formidable rival, Humana, instead of competing independently to win customers," Snyder said. "Millions of consumers have benefited from competition between Aetna and Humana, and will continue to benefit because of today’s decision to block this merger."

      13-day trial

      The decision followed a 13-day trial in December 2016. In July 2016, the Justice Department along with eight states and the District of Columbia sued to stop the merger. The complaint alleged that a combined Aetna and Humana would substantially reduce competition for the sale of Medicare Advantage – a form of Medicare coverage provided by private insurers –and health insurance to individuals through the public exchanges. 

      Joining the Justice Department in the lawsuit were the District of Columbia and the States of Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

      A U.S. District Court Judge has blocked Aetna's acquisition of rival insurer Humana Inc. Judge John D. Bates of the D.C. Circuit held that the $34 billion...

      FTC report warns of privacy risks in cross-device tracking

      Consumers should be allowed to opt-out of surveillance that follows them from one device to another

      Privacy advocates aren't certain how they'll fare as the Trump Administration gets into gear, but federal agencies are continuing to press ahead with privacy protection initiatives, at least for now. However, they are not able to issue any new regulations under Trump's order that freezes all new rules.

      The latest such effort is a staff report from the Federal Trade Commission that deals with what's known as "cross-device tracking" -- stalking consumers as they move from smartphone to laptop to tablet and other devices.

      The surveillance is, of course, for the fairly pedestrian practice of targeting ads, but it feels invasive to many consumers and has the potential to be harmful if it's misused, most experts agree.

      The FTC report recommends that, at the very least, companies that engage in cross-device tracking have an obligation to tell consumers they're doing it and to offer them a chance to opt out. Those who track such sensitive data as health and financial information should be required to seek permission in advance, the report recommends.

      No action now

      The report was prepared by the FTC staff and at the moment is just a report. Any new regulations embodying its recommendations would need to be written and adopted by the full FTC, something that's not likely to happen until President Trump nominates some new commissioners.

      The FTC is supposed to be made up of five commissioners, but there are at present only three and there will be only two when Chairwoman Edith Ramirez leaves office Feb. 10.

      Perhaps seeking to head off critics, commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen -- a Republican who is expected to be Trump's choice to chair the commission -- issued a statement noting that the report does not break any new ground but simply extends the existing principle that consumers should be informed when their activities are being monitored and recorded for marketing purposes.

      "[The] report notes that consumers might be surprised if their activity on one device informed advertising on another device. As such, today’s report does not alter the FTC’s longstanding privacy principles but simply discusses their application in the context of a new technology," Ohlhausen said.

      The 23-page report does note that under existing rules, companies that fail to "provide truthful information about tracking practices" may be violating laws against deceptive and unfair conduct.

      "History sniffing"

      The agency has taken such action in the past. In one such case in 2012, it reached a settlement agreement with Epic Marketplace, a marketing research firm it had accused of "history sniffing."

      “Consumers searching the Internet shouldn’t have to worry about whether someone is going to go sniffing through the sensitive, personal details of their browsing history without their knowledge,” said then-FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “This type of unscrupulous behavior undermines consumers’ confidence, and we won’t tolerate it.”

      In the report released Monday afternoon, the staff further advised companies to be careful about making "blanket statements," saying that the information they gather on consumers is "anonymous" when in fact it may not be.

      "Often, raw email addresses and usernames are personally identifiable, in that they include full names," the report noted.. "Even hashed email addresses and usernames are persistent identifiers and can be vulnerable to reidentification in some cases."

      Privacy advocates aren't certain how they'll fare as the Trump Administration gets into gear, but federal agencies are continuing to press ahead with priva...

      Having trouble keeping your New Year's resolutions?

      Researchers say getting more sleep can help consumers achieve their goals

      We’re not quite through a month of the new year, but many consumers will have inevitably lost track of their New Year’s resolutions. While we may promise to eat healthier, exercise more, quit bad habits, and meet job goals at the beginning of the year, it takes resolve and a strong will to stick to it.

      However, researchers at the University of Michigan say that there is one thing that consumers can do to make keeping resolutions easier. Their study found that getting the right amount of sleep can help people achieve their goals by improving overall performance.

      Achieving goals

      Dr. Cathy Goldstein explains that not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can make consumers feel like their poor performance is normal. However, getting the recommended amount of sleep can help you accomplish a variety of goals. They include:

      Eating healthier. People are much more likely to eat junk food when they’re not getting enough sleep. The researchers found that those who stay up late into the night tend to snack more and weigh more, on average. Additionally, those who aren’t sleeping well tend to make poorer meal choices during the day, which can lead to weight gain.

      Exercising more. Anyone could tell you that going to the gym takes willpower, but it takes even more when you feel exhausted. Lack of sleep makes decreases our speed, strength, and endurance, and the physical payoffs we gain from going to the gym are reduced if our bodies aren’t ready for the workout.

      Getting a promotion. If you’re looking to impress your boss, it’s important that you get enough sleep. The researchers say that those who do tend to be more alert, motivated, and cheerful – attributes that are compromised when we’re tired. Further, the researchers say that being tired can lead to bad work habits, like taking extended breaks and wasting company time on social media or entertainment sites.

      Improving your relationship: Irritability is a trademark attribute of not getting enough sleep, and it can be a huge negative if you’re working through issues with your spouse or significant other. Unfortunately, your mood isn’t likely to improve if you’re not getting enough sleep, which will further harm the healing process.

      Quitting smoking: Previous studies have connected lack of sleep with increased nicotine dependence. While the reason behind the association is unknown, it’s a great hindrance to those looking to quit a smoking habit. Lack of sleep can also lead to poorer decision making, so quitting the habit for health reasons may be harder to justify.

      Encouraging healthy sleep

      To help consumers keep their resolutions and reach optimal health, the researchers have provided some tips for getting optimal amounts of sleep. First, they say that adults should try to get seven to eight hours every night, even on the weekends. Going to bed at the same time every night can also help put your body on a good schedule.

      Second, consumers are encouraged to stop using electronic devices right before going to bed. This includes the use of phones, tablets, and computers. “You’re most sensitive to bright light in the middle of the night. Even low levels can have a negative effect,” said one researcher.

      Finally, consumers should strive to keep their bedrooms as dark as possible. Installing blackout blinds or curtains can help block outside light sources, and finding replacements for electronic clocks or other devices that light up can promote a better sleeping environment.

      We’re not quite through a month of the new year, but many consumers will have inevitably lost track of their New Year’s resolutions. While we may promise t...

      2017 tax filing season is now open

      You have a couple of extra days this year to pony up

      It's NOT that most wonderful time of the year.

      Tax season is officially under way, with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) now accepting and processing 2016 federal individual income tax returns. More than 153 million returns are expected to be filed this year.

      "Following months of hard work, we successfully opened our processing systems today to start this year’s tax season,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “Getting to this point is a year-round effort for the IRS and the nation’s tax community.”

      You have until Tuesday, April 18, to file your 2016 return and pay any taxes you may owe. The deadline is later this year for a couple of reasons:

      • The usual April 15 deadline falls on Saturday this year, which would normally give taxpayers until at least the following Monday.
      • Emancipation Day -- a Washington, D.C., holiday, is observed on Monday, April 17, giving taxpayers nationwide an additional day to file. By law, D.C. holidays affect tax deadlines for everyone in the same way federal holidays do.

      Taxpayers requesting an extension will have until Monday, Oct. 16, 2017 to file.

      Refunds abound

      The IRS expects more than 70% of taxpayers to get tax refunds this year. Last year, 111 million refunds were issued, with an average refund of $2,860.

      A law change now requires the IRS to hold refunds on tax returns claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) until Feb. 15. Under this change required by the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act, the IRS must hold the entire refund -- even the portion not associated with the EITC and ACTC.

      Even though the IRS will begin releasing EITC and ACTC refunds on Feb. 15, many early filers will still not have actual access to their refunds until the week of Feb. 27. The additional delay is due to several factors, including weekends, the Presidents Day holiday and the time banks often need to process direct deposits.

      Use e-File and Free File

      The IRS expects more than 80% of returns will be filed electronically. Choosing e-file and direct deposit remains the fastest and safest way to file an accurate income tax return and receive a refund.

      The IRS Free File program, available at IRS.gov, gives eligible taxpayers a dozen options for brand-name products. Free File is a partnership with commercial partners offering free brand-name software to about 100 million individuals and families with incomes of $64,000 or less.

      Seventy percent of the nation’s taxpayers are eligible for IRS Free File. People who earned more than $64,000 may use Free File Fillable Forms, the electronic version of IRS paper forms.

      It's NOT that most wonderful time of the year.Tax season is officially under way, with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) now accepting and processing...

      Anesthesiologists explain those surprise medical bills

      The cheaper your insurance policy, the more likely you are to receive them

      We reported last week on new research from Johns Hopkins that looked at how consumers with health insurance are often blindsided by huge bills from out-of-network providers.

      It often happens when a patient goes to the emergency room, or has surgery and the surgeon is in-network but the anesthesiologist isn't. In fact, the Hopkins researchers singled out anesthesiologists as the most expensive out-of-network providers.

      Now the anesthesiologists are weighing in on the subject. Dr. Jeffrey S. Plagenhoef, president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA), says it's a real problem, explaining that his wife recently got a surprise medical bill, and she's a doctor who researched her health insurance policy ahead of time.

      “Health insurance plans are extremely complicated, and even savvy consumers face uncertainty about what is covered by their health insurance,” Plagenhoef said.

      Reasons for the surprise bills

      The reason for these huge bills, he says, is because these out-of-network providers may be paid at a lower rate than those in the network. The patient then makes up the difference. These out-of-network payment issues, he says, are caused by gaps in insurance coverage.

      Plagenhoef says there are two things patients should know about these surprise insurance gaps.

      The first may seem obvious. Before a medical procedure that will involve more than one provider, ask who will be involved and whether they are part of your health plan's network. Inform your insurance company about who is participating and whether there will be any gap issues.

      The second needs to be done when selecting a healthcare plan. If the premiums are low, it may not be the bargain you think it is. Seek details about what the plan does and does not cover and whether the network of physicians is narrow.

      The low monthly premiums, then, have to be measured against potential gap liability when services are required by more than the patient's doctor. Plagenhoef says patients need to know that insurance plans with narrow networks remove or reduce patient choice. If the network isn't adequate, he says, it limits insurance companies’ costs and shifts them to patients.

      We reported last week on new research from Johns Hopkins that looked at how consumers with health insurance are often blindsided by huge bills from out-of-...

      January offers some attractive new car deals

      Kelley Blue Book picks its top lease and purchase deals of the month

      If you waited for the start of the new year to shop for a new car, you're in luck. It appears there are some pretty good deals on both purchase and lease options this month.

      "The holidays may be over, but if you're looking to buy or lease a new vehicle, this month's list presents a wide variety of appealing deals," said Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book's KBB.com.

      In fact, he says this month offers bargains on a wide variety of vehicle types. A particular KBB favorite is the 2017 Nissan Rogue, a compact SUV. It's one of the 10 best-selling vehicles in the U.S.

      Lease deals

      Six of KBB's top 10 January deals are leases, with the Rogue at number one. KBB says you should be able to negotiate a price of $22,975 and lease it for 36 months with $1,899 down and $189 a month.

      In terms of spending the least amount of money, it's hard to beat the lease deal on the 2016 Hyundai Sonata. The estimated fair purchase price is $21,002 and the 36-month lease requires just $1,449 upfront and $179 a month.

      The 2017 Toyota Sienna goes for $34,197. You can lease it for 36 months with $1,999 down and $269 a month.

      The Buick Envision is an even more expensive vehicle, going for around $41,000. A 36-month lease requires $3,699 upfront and $299 a month.

      The popular Subaru Outback is also on the list of best lease deals this month. KBB puts its fair price at just over $25,000 with a 36 month lease costing $229 a month with $1,729 down.

      The Kia Cadenza is valued at $33,970 with a 39 month lease costing $299 a month with $1,499 upfront.

      Purchase deals

      If you'd rather purchase a vehicle, KBB has four suggestions. The 2017 Hyundai Veloster can be purchased for $17,711 with $4,000 cash back.

      The 2016 Chrysler 300 sells for around $34,000 with generous incentives -- 0% financing for qualified buyers and $3,000 cash back.

      Another Chrysler product, the popular Jeep Cherokee SUV, can be purchased for around $25,000 and comes with $4,500 cash back.

      For the economy-minded, the 2016 Chevrolet Spark goes for $13,697 this month with $1,000 cash back and 0% financing for qualified buyers.

      If you waited for the start of the new year to shop for a new car, you're in luck. It appears there are some pretty good deals on both purchase and lease o...

      Existing-home sales best in 10 years in 2016

      December saw a dip in sales

      Sales of previously-owned homes finished 2016 at their highest level in ten years.

      According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), existing-home sales -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums, and co-ops – totaled 5.45 million for the year, surpassing 2015 as the highest since 2006 (6.48 million).

      That performance came despite a December decline of 2.8% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.49 million -- the result of continuing affordability tensions and historically low supply levels.

      Job creation, low mortgage rates get the credit

      The housing market's best year since the Great Recession ended on a healthy but somewhat softer note. "Solid job creation throughout 2016 and exceptionally low mortgage rates translated into a good year for the housing market," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "However, higher mortgage rates and home prices combined with record low inventory levels stunted sales in much of the country in December."

      Yun blames the surge in mortgage rates since early November for the dip in sales as 2016 came to an end.

      The median price for existing-homes last month was $232,200 -- up 4.0% from December 2015, marking the 58th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

      Total housing inventory at the end of December plunged 10.8% to 1.65 million existing homes available for sale. That's the lowest level since NAR began tracking the supply in 1999.

      Inventory is down 6.3% from a year ago, has fallen year-over-year for 19 straight months, and is at a 3.6-month supply at the current sales pace.

      Regional breakdown

      • Existing-home sales in the Northeast dipped 6.2% to an annual rate of 760,000 but are still up 2.7% from a year ago. The median price was $245,900, down 3.8% from December 2015.
      • In the Midwest, sales were down 3.8% to an annual rate of 1.28 million, but are still 2.4% above a year ago. The median price rose 4.6% from a year earlier to $178,400.
      • Sales in the South in December were unchanged at an annual rate of 2.25 million and are up 0.4% year-over-year. The median price was $207,600 -- a gain of 6.5%.
      • The West saw sales drop 4.8% from a year ago to an annual rate of 1.20. They're now 1.6% below December 2015. The median price rose 6.0% from the previous December to $341,000.
      Sales of previously-owned homes finished 2016 at their highest level in ten years.According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), existing-hom...

      Mercedes-Benz recalls various vehicles with passenger front airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Mercedes-Benz USA is recalling a total of 103,406 vehicles with a passenger front airbag inflator issue.

      The recall includes model year 2012 C300 4Matic, C250, C250 Coupe, C350, C350 Coupe 4Matic, C350 Coupe, C63 AMG, C63 AMG Coupe, E350 Coupe 4Matic, E350 Cabrio, E350 Coupe, E550 Cabrio, E550 Coupe, GLK350 4Matic, GLK350, SLS AMG Cabrio, and SLS AMG Coupe vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), and the U.S. Virgin Islands, or "Zone A."

      Additionally, unless included in "Zone A," MBUSA is recalling model year 2009 C300 4Matic, C300, C350 and C63 AMG vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, or "Zone B."

      Further, unless included in "Zone A" or "Zone B," MBUSA is recalling model year 2008 C300 4Matic, C300, and C350 vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

      The vehicles are equipped with airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules, and used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the front airbags, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      MBUSA will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front passenger airbag modules, free of charge. Parts are not currently available. Owners will be sent an interim notification starting in February 2017. A second notice will be mailed when remedy parts are available.

      Owners may contact MBUSA customer service at 1-877-496-3691.

      Mercedes-Benz USA is recalling a total of 103,406 vehicles with a passenger front airbag inflator issue.The recall includes model year 2012 C300 4Matic...

      Tesla recalls model year 2012 Model S vehicles

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Tesla Motors is recalling 2,997 model year 2012 Model S vehicles sold, or ever registered in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

      The vehicles are equipped with certain airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the front airbags, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Tesla will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front passenger air bag, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in January 2017.

      Owners may contact Tesla customer service at 1-877-798-3752.

      Subaru's number for this recall is TKB-17.

      Tesla Motors is recalling 2,997 model year 2012 Model S vehicles sold, or ever registered in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Miss...

      Subaru recalls various vehicles with passenger front airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Subaru of America is recalling 69,529 model year 2005-2006 Bajas, 2009 Foresters, Legacys and Outbacks and 2006-2009 Imprezas (including WRX and STI models) and Tribecas originally sold, or ever registered, in the states of Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

      These vehicles are equipped with certain airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the front air bags, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Subaru will notify owners, and dealers will replace the passenger front airbag inflator, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Subaru customer service at 1-800-782-2783. Subaru's number for this recall is TKB-17.

      Subaru of America is recalling 69,529 model year 2005-2006 Bajas, 2009 Foresters, Legacys and Outbacks and 2006-2009 Imprezas (including WRX and STI models...

      Mazda recalls various vehicles with passenger front airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Mazda North America Operations is recalling 85,098 vehicles with an airbag inflator issue.

      Included are model year 2012 CX-7, CX-9 and Mazda6 vehicles sold, or ever registered, in the states of Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), and the U.S. Virgin Islands, or "Zone A."

      Additionally, unless included in "Zone A," Mazda is recalling 2009 CX-7, CX-9 and Mazda6 vehicles sold, or ever registered in the states of Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, or "Zone B."

      Further, unless included in "Zone A" or "Zone B," Mazda is recalling certain 2007-2008 CX-7 and CX-9 sold, or ever registered in the states of Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

      These vehicles are equipped with certain airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the passenger front airbag, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Mazda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front passenger side airbag inflator, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin March 7, 2017.

      Owners may contact Mazda customer service at 1-800-222-5500. Mazda's number for this recall is 0717A.

      Mazda North America Operations is recalling 85,098 vehicles with an airbag inflator issue.Included are model year 2012 CX-7, CX-9 and Mazda6 vehicles s...

      More than 300k vehicles with airbag inflator issue recalled by Honda

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling a total of 308,884 vehicles with an airbag inflator issue.

      Included are model year 2005-2006 Acura MDX and Honda CR-V vehicles, 2005-2011 Honda Elements, 2005-2012 Acura RLs, 2006-2012 Honda Ridgelines, 2007-2008 Honda Fits and 2005-2008 Honda Pilots originally sold, or ever registered, in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), and the U.S. Virgin Islands, or "Zone A."

      Additionally, if not included in "Zone A," Honda is recalling 2005-2006 Acura MDX and Honda CR-V vehicles, 2005-2009 Acura RLs and Honda Elements, 2007-2008 Honda Fit, 2005-2008 Honda Pilots and 2006-2009 Honda Ridgelines originally sold, or ever registered, in Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, or "Zone B."

      Further, if not included in "Zone A" or "Zone B," Honda is recalling 2005-2006 Acura MDX and Honda CR-V vehicles, 2005-2008 Acura RLs, Honda Elements and Honda Pilots, 2007-2008 Honda Fits and 2006-2008 Honda Ridgelines originally sold, or ever registered in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

      These vehicles are equipped with certain airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the front airbags, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Honda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front passenger air bag inflator, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-888-234-2138. Honda's numbers for this recall are KD9 and KE0.

      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling a total of 308,884 vehicles with an airbag inflator issue.Included are model year 2005-2006 Acura MDX and Honda C...

      Young people feel personally responsible for own work ability, study finds

      However, putting too much responsibility on these workers is unhealthy, says one researcher

      Are you responsible for knowing how to do your own job?

      The obvious answer seems to be yes, and many young workers would agree with the sentiment. But a new study by doctoral researcher Maria Boström suggests that employees should not shoulder all the responsibility for maintaining work ability. The fact that many do, she says, is actually pretty dangerous.

      "It is really serious when young people feel that they must assume responsibility for their own work ability. The employer, of course, has a large responsibility for creating good conditions in working life and one should not expect young people to assume such a large responsibility," she said.

      Common misconception

      Boström, who is a qualified physiotherapist and ergonomist, conducted a study that gauged perceptions of work ability in 24 participants between the ages of 25 and 30. The group was evenly split between men and women and was defined by varying levels of education and a wide disparity in the job they held; for example, the group included a carpenter, restaurant employee, doctor, engineer, and a cleaner.

      While the individual participants differed in many ways, one of the things they had in common was the way they perceived work ability. Each person believed that they were responsible for maintaining their ability to do their job and stay motivated.

      "They perceived that it is up to them. I'm the one who has to experience working life as being meaningful and I'm the one who has to possess knowledge and then be able to solve everything myself. I believe it is unfortunate that they perceive things in that way," says Maria Boström. "They perceive that if the boss is friendly, warm and provides support, work ability is enhanced, but they do not expect the boss to create conditions for a good work ability.”

      Creating a healthy environment

      Boström believes that having this mindset isn’t healthy for young workers because it sets a bad precedent for the rest of their working lives. This is seen primarily, she says, when it comes to taking on more work or finding time to step away from the job.

      "There are many players who can be of importance in order for people to be able to both enter, and deal with, working life. One needs to know when one can speak out and when one should speak out, for example when one has too much to do,” she said. “Recovery is important, not least of all for young people in working life. Moreover, young adults assess a balance between work and leisure, which benefits recovery and work ability.”

      To counteract this dangerous trend, Boström says that employers should focus on introduction, guidance, and mentorship. By developing these aspects early, she believes that young workers can enter the working world in a healthy way.

      The full study has been published in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health.

      Are you responsible for knowing how to do your own job?The obvious answer seems to be yes, and many young workers would agree with the sentiment. But a...

      Survey shows where America is moving

      The U-Haul annual report of one-way truck rentals declares Madison, Wisconsin to be the top destination

      Forget the sunbelt. U-Haul says its annual survey of American migration trends finds consumers are more likely to be moving to Madison, Wis., than any other American city.

      Madison, home to the University of Wisconsin and the World Dairy Expo, rose three spots from 2015's rankings. Austin, Tex., and Boise, Idaho are second and third on the list.

      The rankings aren't figured on the sheer number of rentals. Large cities would always have the advantage over smaller ones.

      Rather, the U-Haul list counts each city's net gain of one-way U-Haul truck arrivals, with departures subtracted, over a 12-month period. So Madison was number one because a lot more people rented trucks to move to Madison than departed. Maybe that's not surprising, considering there's a major university in the city. U-Haul executive Adam Sonnleitner, who is based in Madison, says there's more to it than that.

      Why Madison?

      "There's an apartment or condo complex going up every other week," Sonnleitner said. "Downtown housing is a hot trend. The university and campus are growing. Madison is a great place to live. There are activities every week, concerts every weekend. If you are bored in this town, it's because you don't have a life, more or less."

      U-Haul said arrivals made up 53% of one-way truck traffic in Madison last year. The number of arriving trucks rose 1% while trucks leaving town fell by 2%.

      Major cities in the top 25 include San Francisco at number four, New York at five, St. Paul at nine, Atlanta at 12, and Miami at 17.

      U-Haul also estimates an area's economic growth based on truck rental data. Over the next 10 days it's revealing the top 10 states for growth, with Arkansas the first to be named, checking in at number 10. U-Haul admits migration trends don't directly translate into growth, but says they are helpful gauges that reveal how well particular cities are doing at attracting and keeping residents.

      California placed seven cities on the top 25 list, Florida had four, and Texas had three.

      Forget the sunbelt. U-Haul says its annual survey of American migration trends finds consumers are more likely to be moving to Madison, Wis., than any othe...

      United Airlines flights grounded by computer glitch

      Stranded travelers took to the internet to complain during the one-hour delay

      Airline companies have come to rely on computer systems in order to keep things running smoothly, but a lot can go wrong when those systems break down. Consumers may remember the technical glitches that affected Southwest Airlines and Delta Airlines last year, which led to thousands of canceled flights and millions in lost revenue.

      Now, another airline company has been plagued by its own technical problem. According to a Reuters report, United Airlines was forced to ground all of its domestic flights for around an hour last night due to an “IT issue.” The company announced the ground halt in a tweet at 9:06 EST and apologized for the inconvenience.

      However, stranded fliers lashed out at the company both online and in person. “This has been the worst customer service experience and worst flying service ever experienced in 30+ years,” one traveler said. The airliner offered to waive change fees and provide travel waivers to affected passengers, but the damage had been done. After about an hour, the company announced that it had lifted the ground stop and resumed flights.

      The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said that no international flights were stopped by the computer glitch but was unsure of how many domestic flights had been affected.

      What’s also uncertain is how much the ground halt will end up costing United. The reparations paid to travelers, the loss of business, and the potential drop in unit prices could certainly add up. Experts estimated that Southwest lost between $54 million and $82 million as a result of its computer glitch in July, so the losses might not necessarily be chump change.

      Airline companies have come to rely on computer systems in order to keep things running smoothly, but a lot can go wrong when those systems break down. Con...

      Feds sue TCF National Bank for overdraft fee policy

      CFPB claims the bank tricked consumers into signing up for expensive service

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has filed a lawsuit against TCF National Bank, accusing it of tricking consumers into agreeing to pay for costly overdraft services.

      Under recent changes in the law, a bank cannot charge overdraft fees on debit purchases or ATM withdrawals unless the consumer specifically agrees.

      Before that change to the law, consumers might get hit with four or five overdraft fees after a shopping spree because they didn't have enough money in their account to cover the purchase.

      Instead of declining the purchase at the point of sale, so the consumer would know he or she was overdrawn, the banks would cover the purchase but assess an overdraft fee for each transaction.

      Short term loan

      Banks justified this as a service they were providing their customers -- a short-term loan, if you will. But many consumers objected, saying they would rather their purchase be declined and not have to pay a fee.

      So the law allows banks to provide this "service" to their customers, but requires customers to "opt-in," specifically telling the bank they want it.

      In the case of TCF National Bank, the CFPB charged the bank designed its application process to make it appear that customers had to agree to accept "overdraft protection" when they opened accounts.

      “Today we are suing TCF for tricking consumers into costly overdraft services in order to preserve its bottom line,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray."TCF bulldozed its way through protections against automatic overdraft enrollment and then celebrated its unusual sign-up success. With today’s action, we are standing up for consumers’ right to understand and choose what services they receive.”

      The suit asks for compensation for affected consumers, an injunction to prevent future violations, and a civil money penalty.

      Consumers' rights

      Meanwhile, CFPB has published an extensive document on its website, explaining consumers' rights when it comes to bank overdraft fees.

      The normal course of action when consumers make a debit card purchase for which there is not enough money in their account is for the sale to be declined. That alerts the consumer to the account deficiency and avoids expensive fees.

      Most banks are perfectly willing to cover these purchases but charge hefty fees for this service. The law makes clear that consumers must make an informed choice to have this service and a bank cannot unilaterally enroll them in it.

      It should be noted the law on overdraft fees applies only to debit cards. It does not include checks. If you write a check and have insufficient funds to cover it, your bank will assess a fee and make up the deficiency out of your next deposit.

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has filed a lawsuit against TCF National Bank, accusing it of tricking consumers into agreeing to pay for c...

      DISH Network hit with telemarketing violations

      Jury holds company responsible for dealer's robocalls

      A jury in Greenboro, N.C., has awarded plaintiffs with a $20.5 million verdict against DISH Network. The class action case stems from alleged violations of the Do Not Call law.

      The jury found that DISH was liable for more than 51,000 telemarketer calls placed by a DISH dealer to consumers who had placed their numbers on the national Do Not Call list. In the end, the jury said DISH was responsible for the violations and awarded the plaintiffs $400 per violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

      "This case has always been about enforcing the Do Not Call law and protecting people from nuisance telemarketing calls," said Dr. Thomas Krakauer, the class representative. "I am thrilled with the jury's verdict, and thrilled we were able to win this enforcement action."

      'Corporate shell game'

      Attorney Brian Glasser, part of the team representing the plaintiffs, said the case was won on the strength of the DISH witnesses. He argued in court that the satellite TV provider's order entry retailer program amounted to a "corporate shell game," allowing the company to sign up new customers through illegal telemarketing practices but avoid legal responsibility.

      "We believe this is the first and only jury trial for a certified class of consumers alleging Do Not Call violations," said attorney John Barrett, another of the plaintiffs' lawyers. "This was a strength-in-numbers case, one we could only bring as a class action, where we tried 51,000 claims in a single, five-day trial. We're particularly pleased with the message this verdict sends about the importance of the Do Not Call laws, the most popular consumer protection law in U.S. history."

      Telephone Consumer Protection Act

      The Telephone Consumer Protection Act was passed by Congress in 1991. It primarily restricts telemarketing and the use of robocallers. In 2003, it was updated to include a Do Not Call registry where consumers may register phone numbers that telemarketers may not legally call.

      There are exceptions, however. In the case of a business, if you have had contact with the company as a recent customer, or requested information, the company is allowed to call you for a limited time afterward.

      Charities, pollsters, and political organizations are also exempt. That's why consumers need to be on guard against a telemarketer who begins by conducting a survey but evolves into a sales pitch.

      If you are on the Do Not Call list and receive a pitch for a some kind of product or service, most likely it is a scam, operating from outside the U.S. and beyond the reach of the law.

      A jury in Greenboro, N.C., has awarded plaintiffs with a $20.5 million verdict against DISH Network. The class action case stems from alleged violations of...

      Kids' menus at restaurants no healthier than five years ago, study finds

      Children's menus are still loaded with sugary drinks, saturated fat, and high-calorie desserts

      Restaurant menus generally aren’t loaded with an abundance of healthy offerings, and menus geared toward pint-sized diners are no different.

      In 2011, many leading chain restaurants pledged to improve the nutritional value of their menu offerings for children. However, a new study finds that no significant improvements have been made to cut calories, saturated fat, or sodium in meals found on kids’ menus over the past five years.

      Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health say the Kids LiveWell program, launched by the National Restaurant Association in 2011, has had little impact on the restaurant industry as a whole.

      “Although some healthier options were available in select restaurants, there is no evidence that these voluntary pledges have had an industry-wide impact,” said lead author Alyssa Moran, a doctoral student at Harvard Chan School. “As public health practitioners, we need to do a better job of engaging restaurants in offering and promoting healthy meals to kids.”

      Beverage options still sugary

      To conduct the study, the team used data from MenuStat, a survey of the nutritional information of over 150,000 restaurant menu items conducted by the New York state government. The researchers looked at 45 of the top 100 restaurant chains in the U.S.

      Of this selection, 15 restaurants were participants in Kids LiveWell -- a program that aimed to improve dietary offerings for children. But despite their voluntary participation in the program, many restaurants haven’t improved the health of their children’s menu offerings.

      Often, the study found that restaurants simply swapped soda for other sugary drinks. Sugary drinks accounted for 80% of the beverage options on kids’ menus. Additionally, the average kids’ entree was still laden with saturated fat and sodium, and children’s desserts contained almost as many calories as an entree.

      Improvement needed

      The authors say these findings suggest that more meaningful changes are needed, especially since a previous study found that more than one in three children and adolescents consumed fast food every day in 2011 and 2012.

      In order to improve the nutritional quality of kids’ menu offerings, restaurant chains will have to uphold their pledge to reduce calories from added sugar and saturated fats.

      “Some restaurant chains in the U.S. have added healthier menu options, but at the end of the day, what we’re seeing is that little progress has been made to improve the nutritional quality of kid’s menu offerings despite industry pledges,” said senior author Dr. Christina Roberto, an assistant professor of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

      Partnerships with government agencies and researchers could be beneficial in holding restaurants accountable for their pledge to improve the nutritional quality of children's menus, the authors said. 

      The study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

      Restaurant menus generally aren’t loaded with an abundance of healthy offerings, and menus geared toward pint-sized diners are no different. In 2011, m...

      Ford recalls various vehicles with passenger front airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Ford Motor Company is recalling a total of 654,695 vehicles with an airbag inflator issue.

      Included are model year 2012 Ford Fusions and Mustangs and Lincoln Zephyrs and MKZs originally sold, or ever registered, in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), and the U.S. Virgin Islands, or "Zone A."

      Additionally, unless included in "Zone A,” Ford is recalling certain 2009 Ford Rangers, Edges, Fusions and Mustangs, Lincoln MKXs, MKZs and Zephyrs and Mercury Milans originally sold, or ever registered, in Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, or "Zone B."

      Additionally, unless included in "Zone A" or "Zone B," Ford is recalling certain 2007-2008 Ford Rangers, Edges and Lincoln MKXs, 2006-2008 Ford Fusions, Mercury Milans, Lincoln Zephyrs and MKZs, 2005-2008 Ford Mustangs and 2005-2006 Ford GTs originally sold, or ever registered, in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

      These vehicles are equipped with airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the passenger front airbag, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the passenger front airbag inflator, free of charge. Interim letters informing owners of the recall and that parts are not yet available are expected to begin February 27, 2017. Owners will receive a second notice when remedy parts become available.

      Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 17S01.

      Ford Motor Company is recalling a total of 654,695 vehicles with an airbag inflator issue.Included are model year 2012 Ford Fusions and Mustangs and Li...

      Daimler Vans USA recalls vehicles with passenger front airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Daimler Vans USA (DVUSA) is recalling a total of 11,279 vehicles with an airbag inflator issue.

      Included are model year 2012 Freightliner 2500 and 3500 Sprinter and Mercedes-Benz 2500 and 3500 Sprinter vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), and the U.S. Virgin Islands, or "Zone A."

      Additionally, DVUSA is recalling certain 2009 Dodge 2500 and 3500 Sprinter and Freightliner 2500 and 3500 Sprinter vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, or "Zone B."

      These vehicles are equipped with airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules, and used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the front airbags, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      DVUSA will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front passenger airbag module, free of charge. Interim letters informing owners about the recall and telling them that parts are not yet available are expected to be mailed in February 2017. Owners will receive a second notice when remedy parts become available.

      Owners may contact DVUSA customer service at 1-877-762-8267.

      Daimler Vans USA (DVUSA) is recalling a total of 11,279 vehicles with an airbag inflator issue.Included are model year 2012 Freightliner 2500 and 3500...

      Subaru recalls vehicles with airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Subaru of America is recalling 69,529 model year 2005-2006 Baja, 2009 Forester, Legacy and Outback and 2006-2009 Impreza (including WRX and STI models) and Tribeca vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

      Thee vehicles are equipped with certain air bag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the front airbags, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Subaru will notify owners, and dealers will replace the passenger front airbag inflator, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Subaru customer service at 1-800-782-2783. Subaru's number for this recall is TKB-17.

      Subaru of America is recalling 69,529 model year 2005-2006 Baja, 2009 Forester, Legacy and Outback and 2006-2009 Impreza (including WRX and STI models) and...

      Mountain View Packaging recalls chicken product

      The product contains wheat, egg and milk, allergens not declared on the label

      Mountain View Packaging of Boise, Idaho, is recalling approximately 1,080 pounds of chicken product.

      The product contains wheat, egg and milk, allergens not declared on the label.

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

      The following item, packaged on December 23 and 30, 2016, is being recalled:

      • 18-oz packages of “@ease Sweet Chili Chicken Meal Starter, Fully cooked, boneless, battered white meat chicken in a sweet chili sauce” with a “Best By” date of 5/17/2018 and UPC code of 36800-38348.

      The recalled product, bearing establishment number “EST. P-39904” inside the USDA mark of inspection, was sold to a distributor in Utah for further distribution in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

      What to do

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

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Gary Shaw at (208) 344-1183 x106. 

      Mountain View Packaging of Boise, Idaho, is recalling approximately 1,080 pounds of chicken product.The product contains wheat, egg and milk, allergens...

      Model year 2009, 2012 Jaguar Xfs recalled

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Jaguar Land Rover North America is recalling a total of 8,191 vehicles with an airbag inflator issue.

      Included are model year year 2012 Jaguar XFs originally sold, or ever registered, in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), and the U.S. Virgin Islands, or "Zone A."

      Additionally, unless included in "Zone A," Jaguar is recalling model year 2009 Jaguar XF vehicles, originally sold, or ever registered, in Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, or "Zone B." Vehicles not originally sold or ever registered in either Zones A or B are not subject to this safety recall.

      The vehicles are equipped with airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules, and used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the front airbags, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Jaguar will notify owners, and dealers will replace the passenger front airbag assembly, free of charge. Parts are not currently available. Owners will be sent an interim notification around March 3, 2017. A second notice will be mailed when remedy parts are available.

      Owners may contact Jaguar customer service at 1-800-452-4827. Jaguar's number for this recall is J070.

      Jaguar Land Rover North America is recalling a total of 8,191 vehicles with an airbag inflator issue.Included are model year year 2012 Jaguar XFs origi...

      Mazda recalls various vehicles with airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Mazda North America Operations is recalling a total of 8,018 vehicles with airbag inflator issues.

      Included are model year 2009 RX-8 vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, or "Zone B."

      Additionally, unless included in "Zone B,” Mazda is recalling model year 2005-2006 MPV and 2005-2008 RX-8 vehicles originally sold, or ever registered in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

      These vehicles are equipped with certain air bag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the passenger frontal airbag, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Mazda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front passenger side air bag inflator, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin March 7, 2017.

      Owners may contact Mazda customer service at 1-800-222-5500. Mazda's number for this recall is 0617A.

      Mazda North America Operations is recalling a total of 8,018 vehicles with airbag inflator issues.Included are model year 2009 RX-8 vehicles originally...

      The downside of working from home

      You'll probably put in more hours without getting paid for them

      Telecommuting is much more common than it once was. And while there are many benefits for employees sick of the morning commute and office politics, there can be a few drawbacks as well.

      Researchers at the University of Iowa and the University of Texas analyzed data from a study of American workers who put in the standard 40 hours each week. What they found was employees who worked just part of the time from home or other remote location put in an average three hours more per week, without pay, cutting into family time.

      Co-author Mary Noonan says the results should cause employees to rethink the value of telecommuting.

      “To think that telecommuting eases the burden may be a little simplistic,” Noonan said. “It cuts down on commuting time, and it appears to add more flexibility to the work day. But it can extend the day, and it doesn’t get you much more in terms of wage growth.”

      Extra productivity doesn't equal extra compensation

      That's because when you work from home, you may be more likely to keep working after normal business hours. While it might make you more productive, it won't necessarily add to your compensation.

      But won't putting in extra work help you get ahead, making you more valued within the organization and increase your future earnings? The researchers said they found no evidence to support that assumption.

      When they looked at the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, conducted between 1989 and 2008, they found little difference in earning growth between those who had worked remotely at some point and those who had always commuted to an office.

      Overtime pay

      The big difference may lie in overtime pay. The study suggests office workers are more likely to be paid for extra hours, while telecommuters just extend their work time, taking up home and family time.

      In spite of this, it's clear many employees choose to work from home if given the opportunity. The benefits are obvious -- being able to be at your desk at an early hour without having to fight morning rush hour traffic to get there is a big plus.

      Noonan says some employers are beginning to offer telecommuting opportunities to attract top talent. In these cases, she says employees should carefully track their time and ask for extra compensation when they work extra hours.

      Telecommuting is much more common than it once was. And while there are many benefits for employees sick of the morning commute and office politics, there...

      Florida sues to get back payment of tobacco settlement money

      When a tobacco company sells some of its brands, who pays the states their money?

      It's one of those ironies that governments do their best to persuade consumers not to smoke cigarettes, yet reap huge amounts of money because consumers continue to smoke.

      It all goes back to the landmark tobacco settlement of 1997, in which the tobacco companies agreed to make annual payments to the states to compensate for decades of unlawful actions relating to the marketing and sale of cigarettes.

      Hooked on the money like smokers are hooked on tobacco, the settlement money plugs big holes in many states' budgets.

      In Florida, Attorney General Pam Bondi has gone to court, filing an enforcement motion against ITG Brands and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR).

      8% of the market

      The action stems from the fact that RJR recently sold three cigarette brands, Winston, Kool, and Salem, along with a legacy Lorillard Tobacco Company brand, Maverick, to ITG for $7 billion. The money produced by these four brands is huge. Bondi says in 2016, the four brands accounted for approximately 17 billion cigarettes, making up about 8% of the U.S. cigarette market.

      Bondi's motion says RJR will not include the sales of these cigarette brands in the annual payments it is required to make, under the Master Settlement, to the state of Florida. She says ITG has also refused to make payments based on the sales of these brands, even though she says the company agreed to assume RJR's obligations.

      Meanwhile, she says, these same cigarette brands are being sold in Florida, where she says they continue to add to the state's public health care expenditures -- spending that 1997 agreement was designed to pay for. Somebody's got to pay, Bondi says.

      “The sale of major, pre-existing tobacco brands to another company for billions of dollars does not cause the payment obligations to vanish like a puff of smoke,” she said. “I look forward to the state obtaining prompt relief.”

      Bondi's motion seeks to make both ITG and RJR provide a complete and accurate accounting of the millions of dollars in missed payments to the state. She's asking the court to order back payment, as well as compel the companies to provide the data needed to accurately calculate future payments.

      It's one of those ironies that governments do their best to persuade consumers not to smoke cigarettes, yet reap huge amounts of money because consumers co...

      Why gas isn't going back to $3 a gallon

      American producers will keep oil prices in check

      Gasoline prices rose late last year, at a time when prices at the pump normally go down.

      The normal decrease is because the nation's refineries have completed the switch-over to winter grade gasoline, which is cheaper to produce. Consumers also tend to drive less in the late fall and early winter, reducing demand.

      So what was behind the uncharacteristic price rise? The price of oil, pure and simple.

      OPEC, primarily Saudi Arabia, agreed to cut back oil production. Even big non-OPEC producers, like Russia, vowed to produce less.

      Oil traders got the message. The oil glut that has existed for more than two years was about to get a lot smaller. With stockpiles falling, the price had to rise, the thinking went.

      $50-plus oil

      So far, oil prices have continued to follow that script. The price of both foreign and domestically produced oil has settled in the low $50 range, and that has sent prices at the pump higher. It's even caused some analysts to suggest that gasoline prices could creep back above $3 a gallon in the coming months, as they have in Hawaii, where pump prices are always higher because of steep transportation costs.

      But just how likely is it that we'll return to the "good old days" for energy speculators? There is one big thing working against gasoline prices going to $3 a gallon and beyond. The U.S. oil industry.

      The reason oil prices have been low for more than two years is because Saudi Arabia ramped up production specifically to drive American shale oil producers out of business. While they undoubtedly damaged the industry, driving some small companies out of business, they made those that survived much more efficient. As a result, shale producers can be profitable at $50 a barrel. As the price of oil goes up, these producers will produce more oil in the U.S., helping to offset the declines in the rest of the world.

      Ready for a comeback

      "U.S. shale is ready for a comeback," declared an article in Business Insider this week, noting that shale companies are starting to raise money for expanded production. Rig counts are at the highest level in more than a year.

      Already, consumers may be seeing the results when they fill up. Early this week AAA reported the national average gasoline price had dropped eight days in a row. It has since declined even more, to $2.32 a gallon.

      While AAA says the decline may be temporary, depending on whether OPEC can keep its commitment, U.S. producers are likely to keep energy speculators in check. With American producers not bound by any production agreements, it could be very risky for investors to bet on a big increase in oil prices in the months ahead.

      So, while some states may get close to $3 a gallon -- Hawaii is already there -- most states will probably stay below it.

      Gasoline prices rose late last year, at a time when prices at the pump normally go down.The normal decrease is because the nation's refineries have com...

      Skin cancer cream linked to dog deaths

      Even tiny amounts of the cream can kill dogs, FDA says

      A skin cream used to treat cancer in people has been linked to five dog deaths, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The agency is warning pet owners who have this drug -- known as 5% Fluorouracil cream USP (or 5-FU) -- to use care while storing and using the topical medication.

      The skin cancer cream is dangerous to pets in even the smallest amounts, the FDA warns. In one recent case, two dogs died after having simply punctured a tube of fluorouracil. Shortly thereafter, they began vomiting and having seizures. Twelve hours later, the pets died, reports NBC News.

      Cats also at risk

      Fluorouracil is a topical chemotherapy drug used to treat precancerous sun-damaged skin as well as some basal cell skin cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. It is also sold under the names Carac, Effudex, and Fluoroplex.

      Although no reports of cats suffering adverse events after being exposed to the medication have surfaced, the FDA says felines are also likely to be extremely sensitive to the drug. While cats may be unlikely to sink their teeth into a tube of the medication, they can be poisoned in other ways.

      For instance, if you apply the cream and then touch your cat, the cat may ingest the medication when grooming itself.

      What to do

      Pet owners who use Fluorouracil cream should take the following measures to keep pets safe:

      • Store fluorouracil and all other medications where pets can't get to them.

      • Safely discard or clean any cloth or applicator that may contain medication. Don't leave any residue of medication on hands, clothing, carpeting or furniture.

      • If your pet is exposed to fluorouracil, contact a veterinarian immediately. If a pet shows signs of medication exposure such as vomiting, seizing, or other illness, seek immediate veterinary care and be sure to provide the details of the exposure.

      A skin cream used to treat cancer in people has been linked to five dog deaths, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The agency is warning p...

      Airline fares post 3rd quarter year-over-year decline

      That doesn't count those annoying 'add-ons'

      The cost of flying was lower during the third quarter of last year than it was for the same period in 2015.

      The Transportation Department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) reports average domestic air fare fell 8.8% to $344 in the between July and September.

      Average fares are based on domestic itinerary fares consisting of round-trip fares, unless the customer does not purchase a return trip. In that case, the one-way fare is included. One-way trips accounted for 38% of fares calculated for the third quarter.

      The average domestic one-way air fare was $242 in the third quarter, while the average round-trip air fare was $424. Fares are based on the total ticket value, which consists of the price charged by the airlines plus any additional taxes and fees levied by an outside entity at the time of purchase.

      Fares include only the price paid at the time of the ticket purchase and do not include fees for optional services, such as baggage fees. Averages also do not include frequent-flyer or “zero fares.”

      Historical comparison

      Third-quarter fares were up 17.2% from the recession-affected low of $343 in 2009 to the third quarter of 2014. In the two-year period from the third quarter of 2014 to the third quarter of 2016, fares fell 14.4%.

      The third-quarter 2016 fare was down 26.5% from the average fare of $468 in 2000 -- the highest inflation-adjusted third quarter average fare in the 21 years since BTS began collecting air fare records. Since 1995, inflation-adjusted fares declined 24.1%.

      In recent years, airlines have obtained additional revenue from fees charged to passengers, as well as from other sources. U.S. passenger airlines collected 74.7% of their total revenue from passenger fares during the third quarter of 2016 compared with 87.6% in 1995.

      The complete report may be found on the BTS website.

      The cost of flying was lower during the third quarter of last year than it was for the same period in 2015.The Transportation Department’s Bureau of Tr...

      Nissan recalls model year 2017 Infiniti QX30s

      The passenger airbag may fail to deploy

      Nissan North America is recalling 509 model year 2017 Infiniti QX30s manufactured August 11, 2016, to September 27, 2016.

      The vehicles have a passenger airbag inflator initiator that may fail to ignite during a crash, preventing the air bag from deploying. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 208, "Occupant Crash Protection."

      A passenger air bag that fails to deploy in the event of a crash can increase the risk of injury.

      What to do

      Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will replace the passenger air bag assembly, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

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

      Nissan North America is recalling 509 model year 2017 Infiniti QX30s manufactured August 11, 2016, to September 27, 2016.The vehicles have a passenger...

      Mazda recalls various vehicles with airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Mazda North America Operations is recalling 9,018 vehicles including model year 2009 RX-8 vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, or "Zone B."

      Additionally, unless included in "Zone B" above, Mazda is recalling certain 2005-2006 MPV and 2005-2008 RX-8 vehicles originally sold, or ever registered in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

      These vehicles are equipped with airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the passenger front airbag, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Mazda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front passenger side air bag inflator, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin March 7, 2017.

      Owners may contact Mazda customer service at 1-800-222-5500. Mazda's number for this recall is 0617A.

      Mazda North America Operations is recalling 9,018 vehicles including model year 2009 RX-8 vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in Arizona, Arkansa...

      Toyota recalls a half million vehicles with airbag inflator issue

      The airbag inflator may rupture, resulting in injury or death

      Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling a total of 543,326 vehicles with airbag inflator issues.

      The recall includes model year 2012 Toyota 4Runner, Corolla, Corolla Matrix, Sienna, Yaris, Scion xB, Lexus ES350, GX460, IS-F, IS250, IS350, IS250C, IS350C, and Lexus LFA vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), and the U.S. Virgin Islands, or "Zone A."

      Additionally, unless included in "Zone A," Toyota is recalling model year 2009 Toyota Corolla, Corolla Matrix, Yaris, Yaris HB, Scion xB, Pontiac Vibe, Lexus, ES350, IS250, IS350, and IS-F vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, or "Zone B."

      Further, unless included in "Zone A" or "Zone B," Toyota is recalling model year 2006-2008 Lexus IS250 and IS350, 2007-2008 Lexus ES350, Toyota Yaris, Yaris HB, and 2008 Lexus IS-F and Scion xB vehicles originally sold, or ever registered in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

      These vehicles are equipped with air bag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the passenger front airbag, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Toyota will notify the Toyota, Scion and Lexus owners. General Motors will contact the Pontiac owners. Depending on the model, dealers will replace the passenger front airbag inflator or the airbag assembly, free of charge.

      Interim letters informing owners that parts are not yet available are expected to begin January 30, 2017. Owners will receive a second notice when remedy parts become available.

      Owners may contact Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331, or Pontiac customer service at 1-800-762-2737. Toyota's numbers for interim notification for this campaign are G1P (Toyota Zone A), G1R (Toyota Zone B), H1A (Toyota Zone C), G2G (Lexus Zone A), G2H (Lexus Zone B) and H2A (Lexus Zone C). Toyota's numbers for final remedy for this campaign are G0P (Toyota Zone A), G0R (Toyota Zone B), H0A (Toyota Zone C), GLG (Lexus Zone A), GLH (Lexus Zone B) and HLA (Lexus Zone C).

      Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling a total of 543,326 vehicles with airbag inflator issues.The recall includes model year 2012 Toyot...

      McLaren recalls model year 2012 MP4-12C vehicles

      The vehicle's airbag inflator may rupture

      McLaren Automotive Incorporated is recalling 359 model year 2012 MP4-12C vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in the states of Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

      These vehicles are equipped with certain airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the front airbags, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      McLaren will notify owners, and dealers will replace the air bag inflators, free of charge. Remedy parts are not currently available. McLaren will send a letter to the affected owners to notify them of the recall and will mail a follow up letter when remedy parts are available.

      Owners may contact McLaren customer service at 1-646-8916.

      McLaren Automotive Incorporated is recalling 359 model year 2012 MP4-12C vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in the states of Alabama, California...

      Honda recalls Goldwing motorcycles

      The motorcycle's airbag inflator may rupture

      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling a total of 882 Goldwing motorcycles.

      Included are model year 2006-2009 and 2012 Honda GL1800 (Goldwing) motorcycles originally sold, or ever registered, in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), and the U.S. Virgin Islands, or "Zone A."

      Additionally, if not included in "Zone A," Honda is recalling certain 2006-2009 Honda GL1800 (Goldwing) motorcycles originally sold, or ever registered, in Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, or "Zone B."

      Additionally, if not included in Zone A or Zone B above, Honda is recalling certain 2006-2008 Honda GL1800 (Goldwing) motorcycles originally sold, or ever registered, in the states of Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

      These vehicles are equipped with airbag inflators assembled as part of the air bag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment. In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the front airbags, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the operator resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Honda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the air bag module, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin January 24, 2017.

      Owners may contact Honda Motorcycle Customer Support at 1-866-784-1870. Honda's number for this recall is KE5.

      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling a total of 882 Goldwing motorcycles.Included are model year 2006-2009 and 2012 Honda GL1800 (Goldwing) motorcycle...

      Fisker Karmas recalled

      The vehicle's airbag inflator may rupture

      Karma Automotive is recalling 811 model year 2012 Fisker Karma vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in the states of Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.

      These vehicles are equipped with air bag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front airbag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the passenger frontal air bag, these inflators may rupture due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator rupture may result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Karma will notify owners, and dealers will replace the air bag inflators, free of charge. Remedy parts are not currently available. Karma will send a letter to the affected owners to notify them of the recall and will mail a follow up letter when remedy parts are available.

      The Karma Automotive client services team can be reached at 1-855-288-6109 or by email at clientservices@karmaautomotive.com. Karma's number for this recall is 5.84.17.001.01.

      Karma Automotive is recalling 811 model year 2012 Fisker Karma vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in the states of Alabama, California, Florida,...

      Another 3.1 million cars recalled to replace faulty Takata airbags

      An inflator rupture could result in metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants

      Another 3.1 million cars are being recalled because they are equipped with the Takata airbag inflators that can explode when they deploy and send shrapnel-like metal fragments into the passenger compartment. 

      The latest recalls are among more than 42 million announced since the problem was identified a few years ago. Takata, teetering on bankruptcy, reportedly faces a $1 billion fine in the United States and a federal grand jury has indicted three former Takata executives on conspiracy charges.

      The problem has been linked to 11 deaths and hundreds of injuries in the United States. On Tuesday, Honda said a Takata airbag blew up in one of its cars in Japan, injuring the driver.

      It's been estimated that there are still about 70 million cars in the United States equipped with the defective airbags, like the one that killed Huma Hanif, 17, fatally injured by shrapnel from the airbag when her Honda Civic rear-ended another car at low speed in Houston.

      Airbags in older cars like Hanif's, about 300,000 of them, are the biggest problem -- they have a 50 percent chance of exploding, safety officials say.

      "Abysmal" recall effort

      Critics have said the recall process is much too slow. In November 2016, Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), members of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, called the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's recall rate "abysmal" and have called on NHTSA to accelerate its efforts.

      "Takata has lied to cover up problems with its airbags and NHTSA has aided this malfeasance with an inept and illogical recall process. NHTSA’s recall rate is abysmal and it is in part responsible for this most recent death," they said in a statement after Huma Hanif's death became the tenth attributed to Takata airbags in the U.S.

      Outgoing federal highway safety chief Mark Rosekind has said that automakers have the "ultimate responsibility" for replacing the airbags, no matter what happens to Takata, Reuters reported. Whether the Trump Administration sticks with that position isn't yet clear. 

      The latest series of recalls includes the following makes:

      • Volkswagen
      • Honda
      • Nissan
      • Jaguar Land Rover
      • Subaru
      • Daimler
      • Ford
      • Tesla
      • BMW
      • Ferrari
      • Mercedes-Benz
      • Mazda
      • Toyota
      • McLaren

      Recall notices for individual models will be published over the next several days.

      What to do

      To find out if your car is included in this -- or any other -- recall, jot down your VIN number and go to SaferCar.gov. This is the only way to know for sure whether your car is on the recall list. Even when manufacturers specify the year and model of recalled cars, it doesn't necessarily include all cars in that group. 

      Automakers will notify owners by mail and sometimes by other methods when a recall is issued. If parts are not immediately available -- as is frequently the case -- another notification is supposed to be sent when parts are available. Dealers are unable to perform recalls until they have the parts in hand.

      Another 3.1 million cars are being recalled because they are equipped with the Takata airbag inflators that can explode when they deploy and send shrapnel-...

      Out-of-network doctors' bills can be breathtaking

      Researchers say anesthesiologists mark up services six times over what Medicare pays

      Right now, the biggest controversy in the healthcare field is the price of prescription medications. Politicians from Elizabeth Warren to Donald Trump have blasted them as being too high.

      What often escapes notice is the cost of seeing an out-of-network specialist, but researchers at Johns Hopkins, writing in JAMA, say privately-insured consumers are often blindsided with huge bills from these providers.

      When you choose a provider, you likely do a little research, especially making sure the provider accepts your health insurance. When you see internists, family doctors, or psychiatrists, you have some choice in the matter and have a way to control costs.

      But the Hopkins medical and business school researchers, who looked at cases where patients were treated by out-of-network providers, found a huge difference in costs.

      Emergency situations

      In many cases, patients have no choice in the matter because the situation is an emergency. They don't have time to find an in-network provider.

      In those cases, the researchers found the average anesthesiologist charged six times what Medicare pays. An emergency room doctor charged four times more.

      As the study points out, these charges don't just affect the uninsured, but also the well-covered when they see physicians out of their insurer’s network. Yes, you probably expect to pay more if you have to go out-of-network, but the researchers say patients are often shocked at how much more it costs.

      “The doctors with the highest markups are often the ones that patients don’t actually choose,” said Gerard F. Anderson, PhD, a professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School and the study's lead author.

      Bill shock

      What happens, he says, is two months later the patient gets a bill from a doctor he or she never really met. In nearly every case, he says, the price is outrageous.

      While the numbers are based on a national average, the researchers note that distinct geographic variations exist. For example, doctors in Wisconsin have almost twice the markup of doctors in neighboring Michigan. The largest mark-ups were for anesthesiologists.

      What's especially infuriating, the researchers say, is when patients deliberately select a hospital and physician that are in their insurance network, only to learn after-the-fact that one or more of the doctors was out-of-network and outrageously expensive.

      What's the remedy? The researchers say Congress should require physicians to disclose their network status to each patient before delivering the service. It would also improve transparency, they say, if doctors were required to post out-of-network prices.

      Right now, the biggest controversy in the healthcare field is the price of prescription medications. Politicians from Elizabeth Warren to Donald Trump have...

      Do you suffer from 'masked hypertension?'

      Researchers say one in eight Americans suffer from the condition

      Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is called "the silent killer." Elevated blood pressure can eventually lead to heart attack and stroke, and millions of people with hypertension don't know it.

      There is very effective medication to control blood pressure -- and a healthy lifestyle also helps -- but first you have to know that your blood pressure is too high.

      As we first reported back in early December, doctors have begun to worry about what they call "masked hypertension." A patient goes to the doctor and his blood pressure reading is a perfectly acceptable 129/82.

      But then he goes about his daily life -- going to work, picking up the kids, cleaning out the garage, and while he's doing all that his blood pressure might be an unhealthy 147/96. He doesn't know, of course, because he doesn't have a blood pressure cuff at home to measure it.

      Numbers are alarming

      Researchers at Stony Brook and Columbia universities have studied this phenomenon by attaching 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure monitors to subjects in their study. They now say that not only is the condition real, the numbers associated with it are alarming.

      They found 12.3% of people display a normal blood pressure reading in the clinic, are not taking blood pressure lowering medicines, have never had a heart attack or stroke, but have high blood pressure during their daily activities. This amounts to about one in eight adults over age 21 -- approximately 17.1 million people in the U.S.

      Lead investigator Joseph Schwartz of Stony Brook says the study is breaking new ground in estimating the size of the problem. He says it could lead to new guidelines to help identify patients with high blood pressure and improve hypertension preventive methods.

      What to do

      Until then, it is helpful to know the hypertension risk factors. People over age 50 are at risk of developing hypertension. So are those who are overweight or obese, or have a sedentary lifestyle with little physical exercise.

      Diet can also be a big risk factor. Eating unhealthy foods, especially those high in sodium, can increase the risk for hypertension. African-Americans are at a higher risk than other races.

      If you think you might fall into one of those risk categories, consider investing in a home blood pressure monitoring cuff and learn how to properly use it.

      Measuring your blood pressure two or three times a week, at different times of the day, might let you know if you are suffering from "masked hypertension," even though your readings at the doctor's office look just fine.

      Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is called "the silent killer." Elevated blood pressure can eventually lead to heart attack and stroke, and millions o...

      Feds shut down rental scam that peddled expensive credit reports

      Would-be renters were taken in by Craigslist ads, the FTC charges

      The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has broken up what it says was a property rental scam that lured consumers into signing up for expensive monthly credit reports.

      Credit Bureau Center LLC and three individuals are accused of luring consumers with fake rental property ads and deceptive promises of “free” credit reports in order to sign them up for a costly credit monitoring service.

      At the FTC’s request, a federal court temporarily halted the operation, which is said to have raked in millions of dollars. The agency seeks to permanently stop the allegedly illegal practices and return money to consumers.

      "Free" credit reports

      According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants placed Craigslist ads for rental properties that did not exist or that they were not authorized to offer for rent. When people responded to the ads, the defendants impersonated property owners and sent emails offering property tours if consumers would first obtain their credit reports and scores from the defendants’ websites.

      These sites claimed to provide “free” credit reports and scores but then enrolled consumers in a credit monitoring service with continuing $29.94 monthly charges. Many people did not realize they had been enrolled until they noticed unexpected charges on their bank or credit card statements, sometimes after several billing cycles.

      The complaint also alleges that consumers who obtained their credit reports and scores never got the promised property tours, and that their emails to the supposed property owner to arrange the tours went unanswered.

      The defendants are Credit Bureau Center LLC, formerly known as MyScore LLC and also doing business as eFreeScore.com, CreditUpdates.com, and FreeCreditNation.com The three accused men are owner Michael Brown, Danny Pierce, and Andrew Lloyd, whose deceptive ads and emails allegedly drove consumers to Credit Bureau Center’s websites.

      The defendants are charged with violating the FTC Act. Credit Bureau Center and Brown are also charged with violating the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and the Free Reports Rule, which requires that consumers be informed of their right to obtain free credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com or 877-322-8228.

      The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has broken up what it says was a property rental scam that lured consumers into signing up for expensive monthly credit...

      FDA issues new guidelines on fish intake during pregnancy

      Pregnant and nursing women should aim for 2-3 servings of 'best choice' fish per week

      Expectant moms, as well as those who are breastfeeding, are told to eat fish but steer clear of types that are high in mercury. Now, the FDA and the EPA have issued new guidelines on fish intake for kids and pregnant women.

      The new guidelines are intended to help clarify which fish are considered by the agencies to be healthy, low-mercury sources of nutrients for pregnant women and young children.

      According to the guidelines, recent and expectant mothers should avoid the following seven types of fish due to their high mercury content: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish, orange roughy, bigeye tuna, marlin, and king mackerel.

      Fish that are low in mercury include salmon, cod, shrimp, and tilapia. However, the FDA says pregnant women often don’t consume enough of these healthy, nutrient-packed varieties of fish.

      2-3 servings per week

      Fifty percent of pregnant women consume fewer than 2 ounces of fish per week, according to a survey by the FDA. Since fish contain nutrients that are beneficial to growing babies, women who are pregnant or nursing may want to consider ramping up their fish intake. 

      Due to their high protein and healthy fat content, the agencies continue to recommend consuming 2-3 servings (or 8 to 12 ounces) of lower-mercury fish per week. Twelve ounces is the recommended maximum weekly consumption, according to the new guidelines.

      “Fish are an important source of protein and other nutrients for young children and women who are or may become pregnant, or are breast-feeding. This advice clearly shows the great diversity of fish in the U.S. market that they can consume safely," said Dr. Stephen Ostroff, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine.

      “This new, clear and concrete advice is an excellent tool for making safe and healthy choices when buying fish," he said in a news release.

      To see which types of fish fall under the “best choices” category, click here.

      Expectant moms, as well as those who are breastfeeding, are told to eat fish but steer clear of types that are high in mercury. Now, the FDA and the EPA ha...

      Consumer credit defaults increased slightly in December

      But the level is still very low compared to eight years ago

      Consumers defaulted on debts at a slightly higher rate across a wide range of loan types in December, according to the S&P/Experian Consumer Credit Default Indices.

      The data provides a comprehensive barometer of how consumers are doing with their debts. Overall, the composite rate was up two basis points month-over-month at 0.89% in December.

      Broken down, here's what it showed: the credit card default rate was 2.95%, up 14 basis points; auto loan defaults came in at 1.03%, up three basis points; and the first mortgage default rate was 0.71%, up one basis point.

      What does it mean? For one thing, the default rates in all categories are still very low. On the other hand, they are all moving in the wrong direction. David Blitzer, managing director and chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices, isn't worried.

      Default rates are at a low level

      "National average consumer credit default rates continue at low levels in an improving economy," he said. "Auto and light truck sales were up each month since August as automobile consumer credit defaults held steady. Bank card sector defaults ticked up slightly in the last two months, reversing five months of flat to down reports. This may reflect rising retail since the spring and larger consumer credit extensions in October and November.”

      In other words, as more consumers buy things with credit, the odds increase that a few will not be able to keep up with payments. Blitzer concedes that rising interest rates are likely to lead to a slightly larger default rate in the months ahead.

      Geographic breakdown

      The indices reveal a geographic element to credit defaults. Miami had the largest increase in defaults, rising nine basis points to 1.53%. Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles were up only slightly, all three at less than 1%.

      Of all the major cities, New York was the only one that saw credit defaults go down, falling four basis points to 0.87%.

      A report last month from the personal finance site WalletHub took a more alarmist view, reporting a trifecta of ominous stats. It reported consumers ran up a record $21.9 billion in new credit card debt in the third quarter, the largest increase since 2007; the second quarter of the year saw a record $34.4 billion in new credit card debt in the second quarter; and the first quarter of the year saw the smallest pay-down in credit card debt since 2008.

      “So it is not a question of whether consumers are weakening financially, but rather how long this trend toward pre-recession habits will last and just how bad it will get,” the authors wrote. “Unfortunately, the immediate forecast does not appear too bright.”

      Consumers defaulted on debts at a slightly higher rate across a wide range of loan types in December, according to the S&P;/Experian Consumer Credit Defaul...

      New home construction surges in December

      Jobless claims post solid weekly drop

      Developers were building new homes at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,226,000 in December -- up 11.3% from November and 5.7% above the December 2015 rate.

      The Commerce Department reports the increase was due to the advance of 53.9% in the construction of apartment buildings. Single-family housing starts were down 4.0%.

      For all of 2016, an estimated 1,166,400 housing units were started , 4.9% more than during the prior year.

      The report, said National Association of Home Builders Chief Economist Robert Dietz, "represents firm growth for housing in 2016," adding, "we expect that 2017 will be another year of gradual, steady improvement in the housing market.”

      Building permits

      Building permits, an indicator of construction plans in the months ahead, inched up just 0.2% last month. Authorizations for single-family homes rose 4.7%, while permits for apartment buildings were down 10.1%

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

      Jobless claims

      First-time applications for state unemployment benefits were down during the second week of the year.

      According to the Department of Labor (DOL), initial jobless claims plunged by 15,000 to a seasonally adjusted total of 234,000. The previous week's level was revised up by 2,000.

      The four-week moving average which, because of its relative lack of volatility is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was down 10,250 to 246,750. That's the lowest level since November 3, 1973 when it was 244,000.

      The full report is available on the DOL website.

      Developers were building new homes at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,226,000 in December -- up 11.3% from No...

      Builder confidence slips in January

      The previous month's reading was lower than first reported

      A slight slip in January in the confidence of builders in the market for newly-built single-family homes.

      According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI), the confidence level was down two points to a level of 67. At the same time, the December HMI was downgraded one point.

      Nonetheless, there seems to be a lot of optimism regarding the year ahead.

      "Builders begin the year optimistic that a new Congress and administration will help create a better business climate for small businesses, particularly as it relates to streamlining and reforming the regulatory process," said NAHB Chairman Granger MacDonald.

      The HMI is derived from a monthly survey that gauges 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.

      All three HMI components were down in January. The component gauging current sales conditions fell three points to 72, while the index charting sales expectations in the next six months registered a two-point decline to 76 and the component measuring buyer traffic edged one point lower to 51.

      Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the Northeast rose two points to 52 and the Midwest posted a three-point gain to 64. The South and West each held steady at 67 and 79, respectively.

      "NAHB expects solid 10% growth in single-family construction in 2017, adding to the gains of 2016," said NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz. "Concerns going into the year include rising mortgage interest rates as well as a lack of lots and access to labor."

      A slight slip in January in the confidence of builders in the market for newly-built single-family homes.According to the National Association of Home...

      Trek Recalls Disc bicycles

      The front brake caliper can come into contact with a broken spoke

      Trek Bicycle Corp. of Waterloo, Wis., is recalling about 960 Trek 720 Disc bicycles and 340 wheel sets sold in the U.S. and Canada.

      The front brake caliper can come into contact with a broken spoke, posing a fall hazard to the rider.

      The company has received reports of 10 incidents where either the wheel spoke contacted the bike’s brake caliper or the spokes broke at the hub. There has been one reported injury involving a broken vertebra.

      This recall involves model year 2015, 2016, and 2017 Trek model 720 Disc bicycles and Bontrager Approved TLR disc 700C 24H Front and Rear Wheels with silver spokes. Trek's model 720 Disc have a lightweight aluminum frame and vibration-damping carbon fork.

      The bicycle models were sold in 49 through 61 cm frame sizes. “Trek” is printed across the bicycle frame. The model number can be found on the down tube. The aftermarket wheels are marked “Bontrager TLR” on the rim, and will have 24 silver spokes.

      The bicycles and wheel sets, manufactured in China, were sold at bicycle stores nationwide from November 2014, through October 2016 for between $1,500 and $1,900 for bikes and March 2015, through November 2016, for aftermarket wheels for between $80 and $90.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and wheel sets and return the bicycles to a Trek retailer for a free inspection and free replacement wheels.

      Consumers may contact Trek at 800-373-4594 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at www.trekbikes.com and click on Safety & Recalls at the bottom of the page for more information. 

      Trek Bicycle Corp. of Waterloo, Wis., is recalling about 960 Trek 720 Disc bicycles and 340 wheel sets sold in the U.S. and Canada.The front brake cali...

      Blue Ridge Beef recalls turkey product used to feed dogs

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      Blue Ridge Beef is recalling a frozen turkey product that is used to feed dogs.

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      The following product, sold in 2-lb. Chubs, is being recalled:

      • Lot #103 mfd12716, Turkey with bone, UPC code 854298001887

      The recalled product was distributed to retail stores in North carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

      What to do

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

      Consumers with questions may contact the company by email at blueridgebeefga@yahoo.com.

      Blue Ridge Beef is recalling a frozen turkey product that is used to feed dogs.The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.The foll...

      Olymel recalls pork products

      The products did not undergo federal inspection

      Olymel of Boucherville, Quebec, Canada, is recalling approximately 1,124 pounds of pork ribs products.

      The products were repacked and distributed without undergoing federal inspection.

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

      The following items, repacked and produced from January 10 – 13, 2017, are being recalled:

      • 10-lb. cardboard box of pork rib tips with a packaging date of Jan. 10-13, 2017.
      • 30-lb. cardboard box of pork rib tips with a packaging date of Jan. 10-13, 2017.

      The recalled products, bearing establishment number “Est. 8951” inside the USDA mark of inspection, were shipped to restaurants in Michigan.

      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 and media with questions about the recall may contact Richard Vigneault at (514) 497-1385.

      Olymel of Boucherville, Quebec, Canada, is recalling approximately 1,124 pounds of pork ribs products.The products were repacked and distributed withou...

      Qualcomm monopolizes cell phone component markets, FTC charges

      The company says the FTC doesn't understand its business and is using a flawed argument

      It's possible that you've never heard of Qualcomm, but chances are you have one or more of its products in your smartphone, tablet, or other consumer electronics product. In fact, Qualcomm is so dominant that it's a virtual certainty you do.

      That, says the Federal Trade Commission, is the problem. It has filed suit in federal court charging Qualcomm with using anticompetitive tactics to maintain its monopoly in the supply of a key semiconductor device used in cell phones and other consumer products.

      Qualcomm says the suit is "based on a flawed legal theory, a lack of economic support and significant misconceptions about the mobile technology industry." 

      Qualcomm is the world’s dominant supplier of baseband processors – vital components in cellular communications products. The FTC alleges that Qualcomm has used its dominant position "to impose onerous and anticompetitive supply and licensing terms on cell phone manufacturers and to weaken competitors."

      "Never withheld"

      Qualcomm denies that. "Qualcomm has never withheld or threatened to withhold chip supply in order to obtain agreement to unfair or unreasonable licensing terms. The FTC’s allegation to the contrary -- the central thesis of the complaint -- is wrong," the company said in a prepared statement.

      By excluding competitors, Qualcomm impedes innovation that would offer significant consumer benefits, including those that foster the increased interconnectivity of consumer products, vehicles, buildings, and other items commonly referred to as the Internet of Things, the suit argues.

      Qualcomm says that argument is flawed. "The complaint seeks to advance the interests and bargaining power of companies that have generated billions in profit from sales of products made possible by the fundamental 3G and 4G cellular technology developed by innovators like Qualcomm," it said.

      The complaint alleges that Qualcomm:

      • Maintains a “no license, no chips” policy under which it will supply its baseband processors only on the condition that cell phone manufacturers agree to Qualcomm’s preferred license terms.   
      • Refuses to license standard-essential patents to competitors.  
      • Extracted exclusivity from Apple in exchange for reduced patent royalties. 

      FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen voted against the filing and issued a dissenting statement, saying the FTC's action "lacks economic and evidentiary support ... was brought on the eve of a new presidential administration, and that, by its mere issuance, will undermine U.S. intellectual property rights in Asia and worldwide.” 

      It's possible that you've never heard of Qualcomm, but chances are you have one or more of its products in your smartphone, tablet, or other consumer elect...

      Depression can be just as bad for heart health as smoking or obesity, researchers say

      A long-term study found that 15% of cardiovascular deaths were attributed to the condition

      Maintaining a healthy heart is vital to having good overall health, but there are many issues that can get in the way. Being obese or smoking, for example, can stress the heart and lead to cardiovascular problems, but a new study shows that there is another condition that can be just as harmful.

      Researchers from Helmholtz Zentrum München, along with colleagues from the Technical University of Munich and the German Center for Cardiovascular Disease, have found that depression poses just as great a risk to heart health. Further, they believe that finding how it interacts with other risk factors is of paramount importance.

      “There is little doubt that depression is a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases,” said group leader Karl-Heinz Ladwig. “The question now is: What is the relationship between depression and other risk factors like tobacco smoke, high cholesterol levels, obesity or hypertension – how big a role does each factor play?”

      Comparable risk factor

      For the purposes of the study, Ladwig and his colleagues analyzed data from nearly 3,500 male patients between the ages of 45 and 74 for a total of 10 years. During that time, they tracked how depression impacted four other major risk factors for cardiovascular health.

      The results indicated that depression led to the development of a fatal cardiovascular disease just as often as elevated cholesterol levels or obesity. The only risk factors that had a greater association were high blood pressure and smoking. Across the entire sample, the researchers say 15% of cardiovascular deaths could be attributed to depression.

      “That is comparable to the other risk factors, such as hypercholesterolemia, obesity and smoking,” said Ladwig, pointing out that other risk factors caused between 8.4% and 21.4% of cardiovascular deaths.

      The researchers believe that their work may have large implications on how the medical community evaluates depression as a condition. They point out that the findings indicate that the disorder has a “medium effect size within the range of major, non-congenital risk for factors for cardiovascular diseases.”

      Ladwig says diagnostic investigation of co-morbid depression should become an industry standard, especially for high-risk patients.

      The full study has been published in Atherosclerosis.

      Maintaining a healthy heart is vital to having good overall health, but there are many issues that can get in the way. Being obese or smoking, for example,...

      Expedia lists top in-flight etiquette breaches

      The chief causes of in-flight angst haven't changed all that much over the years

      Oh, the overhead bin hog, thoughtlessly jamming his belongings into three different bins. Or the flipped out passenger going on a pro-or-anti-Trump rant in the aisle, live streamed on Facebook.

      No, they aren't near the top of Expedia's annual list of biggest and most annoying violations of air travel etiquette.

      Each year the study attempts to isolate the passenger behaviors that make their fellow passengers want to scream. This year's study, which queried more than 1,000 adults, found the biggest etiquette breaches haven't changed all that much from last year's study.

      Rear seat kicker

      Number one on the list, mentioned by 64% of respondents, is “the rear seat kicker.” The guy behind you just can't seem to get comfortable and makes you uncomfortable in the process, kicking the back of your seat as he crosses and uncrosses his legs.

      Cited by 59% of travelers is “the inattentive parents.” They have one or more children on the flight who are busy invading your personal space or screaming at the top of their little lungs. Their parents, meanwhile, remain buried in a magazine or blissfully entertained by a movie or music on headphones.

      Both were high on the list last year.

      "As we embark on 2017, millions and millions of people will be taking to the air this year, and should know that there's no better gift you can give to a fellow traveler than respect and generosity," said John Morrey, vice president and general manager at Expedia.com. "The Airplane Etiquette study shows that small acts of decorum can go a long way. After all, as it relates to flights, we are quite literally all in this together."

      In it together

      Not only are passenger “in it together,” they are literally in a tightly enclosed space together. So “the aromatic passenger” shows up as number three on the list, mentioned by 55% of travelers. It's not that these passengers haven't bathed recently, it's that sometimes they've dowsed themselves with generous amounts of cologne or perfume to try and hide that fact.

      Moving up the list at number four this year, at 40%, is “the audio insensitive.” This is the passenger who talks louder than necessary, or insists on listening to music without the benefit of headphones.

      "The boozer" is no stranger to the list and ties for fourth at 49%. This is the guy who loaded up at the airport bar before boarding and has a couple more while airborne. If he would quietly take a nap no one would probably care, but his penchant for inebriated behavior is just as obnoxious in the air as it is on the ground.

      Other sources of in-flight irritation include “chatty Cathy,” the seatmate who thinks you want to talk all the way across the Atlantic; “seat back guy,” the person in front of you who insists on reclining his seat all the way back; and “the amorous,” the couple engaging in public displays of affection, perhaps just before joining the Mile High Club.

      Personal space is at a premium on an airliner, at least in coach, and passengers are quick to object to invasions, both physical and auditory. The study found 35% of U.S. airline passengers think the airlines should offer a designated quiet section of the aircraft, just as they once provided smoking sections in days gone by.

      Oh, the overhead bin hog, thoughtlessly jamming his belongings into three different bins. Or the flipped out passenger going on a pro-or-anti-Trump rant in...

      New app uses AR and VR technology to showcase a property's potential

      RoOomy Reality lets home buyers see their interior design vision in different spaces

      While meandering through an open house, you might pause to imagine your interior design vision executed in the space. But imagining a home that isn’t yours decked out in furnishings and accessories that you love isn’t always easy.

      In fact, 90% of consumers have difficulty visualizing a space, according to the experts at Climb Real Estate and VR home design startup roOomy. To help solve this dilemma, the companies partnered with the augmented reality team at Google’s Tango to create a new app called roOomy Reality.

      With roOomy Reality, consumers can virtually decorate various rooms, then take their designs to open houses and see what their vision would look like in different homes with the AR Google Tango camera.

      Real-time view of interiors

      By combining live views of interiors with a consumer’s own ideas, the roOomy Reality platform aims to help consumers “make informed purchase designs on homes and home furnishings.”

      Users can bring their interior design vision to life by browsing roOomy’s catalog of 100,000 3D products from 35 home furnishing retailers -- and they can toggle between AR and VR views while doing so.

      In addition to helping buyers visualize various spaces, the app may also help real estate agents showcase their properties.

      Use in real estate

      Home staging can expedite the process of selling a property, but roOomy may take the benefits of home staging a step further by helping consumers picture a space filled with furnishings that suit their taste.

      “Homes that are well-staged sell faster and for more money as consumers struggle with fully visualizing a space’s potential,” said Pieter Aarts, CEO and Co-Founder of roOomy. “roOomy is eliminating this problem with its AR/VR app by allowing shoppers to easily experience how interior design styles and home furnishing products will look room to room.”

      “RoOomy’s platform powered by Tango utilizing mobile devices will be an invaluable tool for our agents, buyers and sellers alike,” added Mark Choey, CTO and Co-Founder of Climb. “We are excited to offer home buyers an experience that will help them feel more confident in their big purchases, while providing our agents with a way to better showcase their properties.”

      RoOomy will initially be rolled out to a group of real estate agents at Climb Real Estate, but will be available in the Google Play Store later this month.

      While meandering through an open house, you might pause to imagine your interior design vision executed in the space. But imagining a home that isn’t yours...

      FAA fines company $200,000 illegal drone flights

      The agency alleges that 65 illegal flights took place over Chicago and New York City

      Commercial drones are an ideal product for getting spectacular aerial views, but operators must be careful of where they fly them. That’s a lesson that SkyPan International is learning the hard way after reaching a settlement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

      The aerial photography company has agreed to pay $200,000 for allegedly conducting 65 illegal flights above the cities of Chicago and New York City from 2012 to 2014. In a press announcement, the FAA says the company will work with the agency to release three public service announcements in the next year to support public outreach campaigns that encourages other drone operators to comply with unmanned aircraft (UAS) regulations.

      SkyPan has refused to admit to any wrongdoing but says that the settlement will allow it to avoid future unnecessary expenses and let it get back to work.

      “SkyPan continues to strive to maintain the utmost levels of safety, security, and privacy protection in its operations. To that end, is pleased to join with the FAA to promote compliance with safety regulations governing UAS operations,” the company said.

      Reduced fine

      In addition to the $200,000 settlement, SkyPan has also agreed to pay $150,000 if it violates Federal Aviation Regulations in the next year, as well as another $150,000 if it violates the terms of the settlement.

      While having to cough up $200,000 is less than desirable, the result of the settlement is a far cry from the original settlement that the FAA had proposed in October, 2015. At that time, the agency had filed for a $1.9 million civil penalty against the company, which was the largest ever filed against a UAS operator.

      Consumers are reminded that they need a remote pilot certificate to operate as a commercial drone pilot, or supervision for someone who has the certification. In order to qualify, certificate seekers must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center or have an existing non-student Part 61 pilot certificate. Before receiving the certificate, applicants will also be subject to a background check conducted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

      More information can be found here.

      Commercial drones are an ideal product for getting spectacular aerial views, but operators must be careful of where they fly them. That’s a lesson that Sky...

      Fraud, cyber attacks called the 'new normal'

      Report finds insiders among the usual suspects

      The hacks against the Democratic National Committee and the resulting release of emails has been in the news of late, with accusations that the Russians were behind it, in an attempt to influence the U.S. election.

      Regardless of who was behind it, events like that were apparently pretty common in 2016. In fact, the 2016/17 Kroll Annual Global Fraud and Risk Report calls it the “new normal.”

      In a survey of corporate executives, 82% reported their companies were fraud victims last year, up from 75% the year before. Cyber incidents were even more common.

      But instead of coming from the Russians or other external forces, the survey found the most common attackers were current and former employees, as well as third parties. In other words, an inside job.

      Inside job

      About 60% of the cyber fraud victims identified insiders as responsible for carrying out the attacks. Younger staff members were identified as most likely to engage in fraud, significantly more than middle or senior management.

      Former employees were about as likely as freelance workers, or contract employees, to engage in cyber fraud.

      "This year's Kroll Global Fraud and Risk Report shows that it's becoming an increasingly risky world, with the largest ever proportion of companies reporting fraud and similarly high levels of cyber and security breaches,” said Tommy Helsby, Co-Chairman, Kroll Investigations and Disputes.

      Growing significance

      Helsby said the impact of the incidents is growing in significance. He says it hurts company revenues, business continuity, corporate reputation, customer satisfaction, and employee morale.

      "With fraud, cyber, and security incidents becoming the new normal for companies all over the world, it's clear that organizations need to have systemic processes in place to prevent, detect, and respond to these risks if they are to avoid reputational and financial damage," Helsby said.

      While cyber fraud is the fastest growing threat, other types of corporate fraud have all seen increases as well. Money laundering is up 11% from 2015. Theft of physical assets rose 7%.

      The hacks against the Democratic National Committee and the resulting release of emails has been in the news of late, with accusations that the Russians we...

      Consumer prices on the rise in December

      Gasoline costs were sharply higher

      A 3.0% spike in the cost of gasoline sent consumer prices higher last month.

      The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the December Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose 0.3% and is up 2.1% for all of 2016.

      Energy and food

      Energy costs shot up 1.5% in December -- the fourth straight increase -- led by a 3.0% increase in the price of gasoline. Electricity was unchanged and the price of natural gas dipped 0.4%, its second straight decline following four months of increases.

      Food prices were unchanged, with grocery store prices falling 0.2% -- the eighth consecutive decline. Four of the six major grocery store food groups fell in December: fruits and vegetables (-1.1%); meats, poultry, fish, and eggs (-0.4%); nonalcoholic beverages (- 0.3%); and cereals and bakery products (-0.1%). Dairy and related products rose 0.4% while other food at home was up 0.3%). Food away from home, or restaurant prices, were up 0.2%.

      The “core” rate of inflation, which excludes the volatile food and energy categories, was up 0.2% in December and up 2.2% for all of 2016.

      In December, housing costs were up 0.3%, car insurance prices jumped 0.8%, medical care rose 0.2%, and airline fares shot up 1.9%.

      The complete report is available on the BLS website.

      A 3.0% spike in the cost of gasoline sent consumer prices higher last month.The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the December Consumer Price In...

      Mortgage applications post second straight weekly gain

      Contract interest rates were mostly lower

      Applications for mortgages are up for the second week in a row, rising 0.8% during the weekend ending January 13. The Mortgage Bankers Association’s Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey includes an adjustment for the New Year’s holiday.

      The Refinance Index shot up 7% from the previous week, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity to 53.0% of total applications from 51.2% the previous week.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was 5.7% of total applications, the FHA share rose to 13.1% from 11.7% a week earlier, the VA share dipped to 12.1% from 12.8%, and the USDA share was unchanged at 0.9%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($424,000 or less) fell to its lowest level since last month -- 4.27%, from 4.32% -- with points decreasing to 0.39 from 0.41 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $424,000) went down five basis points -- to 4.22% from 4.27% -- with points increasing to 0.36 from 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA rose from 4.08% to 4.10%, with points decreasing to 0.28 from 0.35 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate remained unchanged from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs dipped five basis points to 3.51%, with points decreasing to 0.34 from 0.42 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs jumped to 3.44% from 3.32%, with points decreasing to 0.21 from 0.46 (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.

      Applications for mortgages are up for the second week in a row, rising 0.8% during the weekend ending January 13. The Mortgage Bankers Association’s Weekly...

      Flight cancellations and mishandled baggage rates hit record lows in November

      On-time arrival rates improved as well

      November was a good month for airlines and -- as a result -- the flying public.

      Airlines report they canceled just 0.29% of their scheduled domestic flights in November -- the lowest for any of the 263 months with comparable records beginning in January 1995, and below the previous low of 0.33% in September 2016

      In addition, according to the latest Air Travel Consumer Report, the U.S. carriers posted a mishandled baggage rate of 2.02 reports per 1,000 passengers in November. That's the lowest rate since mishandled baggage reporting started in 1987. The previous low was 2.06 a month earlier.

      If that isn't enough good news, the airlines -- and their passengers -- enjoyed an on-time arrival rate of 86.5% in November, an improvement over both the 83.7% from a year earlier and the 85.5% recorded a month earlier.

      The report also includes data on tarmac delays, chronically delayed flights, the causes of flight delays, flight problems, and baggage, reservation, and ticketing issues.

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

      November was a good month for airlines and -- as a result -- the flying public.Airlines report they canceled just 0.29% of their scheduled domestic fli...

      Dutch Valley Food Distributors recalls Cappuccino Snack Mix

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Dutch Valley Foods is recalling Cappuccino Snack Mix that may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      There have been no illnesses or issues reported regarding consumption of this product to date.

      The following product is being recalled:

      • Item # 552372 Cappuccino Snack Mix; Lot Code: 20161027; Best By: 5/25/17

      The recalled product is distributed in 10-lb. bulk cases, consisting of two 5-lb. bags in a case. The inner bags are clear and unlabeled.

      All Items packaged and sold within the parameters mentioned are subject to this recall, including items sold on our website, www.dutchvalleyfoods.com.

      The recalled items were sold on the company website, www.dutchvalleyfoods.com and distributed in Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should destroy them or to return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may call Dutch Valley Foods at 1-800-733 4191 Monday through Friday 8am - 5pm (EST).

      Dutch Valley Foods is recalling Cappuccino Snack Mix that may be contaminated with Salmonella.There have been no illnesses or issues reported regarding...

      New app can help determine your risk of catching a cold

      ColdSense combines your health history with local data to create a personalized risk profile

      Between the sniffles, sneezes, and the reading on the thermometer, it’s not hard to tell when you’ve got a cold. It’s also not too difficult to sense when a cold is coming on -- but figuring out when you were exposed to the cold is another story.

      Now, there’s a new app that may help you find out. ColdSense, from the makers of Zicam, looks at various factors in your lifestyle and environment to analyze your risk of catching a cold. It does so with the help of smartphone sensors and data stored in your device.

      "We live in an age when nearly everyone has a smartphone with them 24/7," said M'Lou Walker, CEO of Zicam. "And because we take them everywhere, our smartphones can help alert us to our likelihood of exposure to the common cold.”

      The result, she says, is an app that gives consumers a way to analyze various health and environmental factors that could translate to an elevated cold risk.

      Detects risk factors

      In addition to listening for coughs, sneezes, and other symptoms of a cold, ColdSense looks at data in your smartphone to determine your risk of coming down with a cold.

      With your permission, the app checks out your location, recent travels, calendar activities, sleep and health data, local weather, and even the frequency of coughs and sneezes in your area to help determine your likelihood of catching a cold.

      "No one has time to put up with a cold for longer than necessary," said Lori Norian, vice president of marketing at Zicam, in a statement. "ColdSense uses the latest in smartphone technology to provide an engaging and playful way to detect potential risk factors throughout cold season."

      Medication reminders

      Users who are already taking medication for a cold can also receive a notification to let them know when it’s time for their next dose. The ultimate goal of the Zicam-sponsored app, said Norian, is to encourage consumers to be more mindful of their health.

      “We just want to give a heightened awareness and consumer value,” she told the Observer. “If they’re sick, what contributed and how can they start treatment right away?”

      While the app shouldn’t be used in place of a doctor or as a substitute for medical advice, it might make cold season a little easier to get through. ColdSense is available on the iTunes App Store.

      Between the sniffles, sneezes, and the reading on the thermometer, it’s not hard to tell when you’ve got a cold. It’s also not too difficult to sense when...

      Those suffering from food allergies should get pre-boarding privileges, suit argues

      An advocacy group says travelers with severe nut and other food allergies should be able to board early

      Boarding a flight can be an arduous and time-consuming process for air travelers. After waiting in long security lines and finding their gate, the last thing consumers want to do is wait even longer to take their seat.

      However, being able to board first can make a lot of difference for some people. Those with disabilities often need the extra space and time to make sure that their flight is safe and comfortable. But one advocacy group says that one type of impairment is being ignored.

      The nonprofit advocacy group Food Allergy Research and Education has filed a complaint against American Airlines for denying pre-boarding privileges to fliers with food allergies, according to The Dallas Morning News. The group says that it is important that these travelers board early to ensure that their seating area is clean and free of allergens.

      “The Air Carrier [Access] Act says anyone with any type of disability can preboard to stabilize themselves on the aircraft before general boarding starts,” said Dr. James Baker, CEO and chief medical officer of Food Allergy Research and Education,. “We aren’t asking them not to serve nuts or restrict people from serving any type of food. All we want them to do is simply to remove the pre-boarding restriction for people with food allergies.”

      Ensuring a safe flight

      The group points out that under The Air Carrier Access Act, airliners “must offer preboarding to passengers with a disability who self-identify at the gate as needing additional time or assistance to board, stow accessibility equipment, or be seated.” Extending the pre-boarding privilege to travelers with food allergies would allow them to board before premium class passengers, elite status fliers, or people who upgraded to early-boarding priority.

      While the act doesn’t specifically mention people with food allergies, the group says that the Americans With Disabilities Act does set a precedent for covering individuals with severe allergies. Further, the group highlights how American’s policy for cleaning its aircraft makes it necessary for some fliers to ensure that their seat is sterilized.

      “Our planes are cleaned regularly, but these cleanings are not designed to ensure the removal of nut allergens, nor are our air filtration systems designed to remove nut allergens. We are unable to guarantee that customers will not be exposed to peanuts or other tree nuts during flight, and we strongly encourage customers to take all necessary medical precautions to prepare for the possibility of exposure," the airliner’s policy states.

      The Dallas Morning News points out that other airliners have similar policies, though American is currently the only one being singled out by the advocacy group. Delta Air Lines serves peanuts on its flights but allows passengers to make arrangements so that they can pre-board or request that they not be served. Southwest Airlines also offers to not serve peanuts on flights but excludes any pre-boarding privilege from its policy. United Airlines doesn’t serve peanuts on its flights but also does not include a pre-boarding stipulation in its policy.

      Boarding a flight can be an arduous and time-consuming process for air travelers. After waiting in long security lines and finding their gate, the last thi...

      Walmart announces building and hiring spree

      Who's afraid of Amazon? Apparently, Walmart isn't

      This past year was a rough one for American retailers. The competition from online channels, in particular Amazon, hit them where it hurt.

      By the end of 2016, Macy's had announced the closing of 68 more stores. Sears announced it was closing 140 Sears and Kmart stores. Just this week, American Apparel stepped up the process of closing its stores and laying off workers in the wake of its bankruptcy.

      But despite this trend, Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, is moving in the other direction. The company has announced major expansion plans, investing in present and future stores and taking initiatives that company officials say will create 34,000 new jobs.

      "Walmart is investing to better serve customers,” said Dan Bartlett, Walmart executive vice president for corporate affairs.

      Because there's a Walmart or Sam's Club store in so many American communities, the company says it can play an outsized role in supporting and creating employment, and thus boosting the U.S. economy.

      'Meaningful impact'

      “Our 2017 plans to grow our business – and our support for innovation in the textile industry – will have a meaningful impact across the county,” Bartlett said.

      However, the expansion plans come on the heels of a Wall Street Journal report that the nation's largest retailer planned to ax 1,000 corporate jobs before the start of the fiscal year. At the time, executives said the move was being made to make the company operate more efficiently.

      In the upcoming fiscal year, Walmart said it plans to invest $6.8 billion in capital investments, which will largely go to building and remodeling stores.

      Of the 34,000 new jobs, Walmart says 10,000 will be added to the company payroll as it opens or expands 59 stores. The rest, an estimated 24,000, will be construction jobs that will help implement the capital expansion plan.

      New training centers

      New and current Walmart employees will also get new training opportunities. My mid-year, Walmart said it plans to have opened 160 new training facilities around the U.S, quadrupling the present number. Nearly a quarter of a million Walmart employees will undergo up to six weeks of training during the year.

      With a new administration taking office with a sharp focus on increasing American manufacturing opportunities, Walmart has also announced plans to purchase an additional $250 billion in American-sourced products through 2023, which it says will create additional jobs.

      Currently, much of Walmart's inventory is produced in China, which could get a bit more pricey, depending on the new administration's trade policies.

      This past year was a rough one for American retailers. The competition from online channels, in particular Amazon, hit them where it hurt.By the end of...

      Florida becomes the last state to settle with Western Sky

      The online lender and its affiliates are barred from doing business in the state

      Florida officials have announced coordinated settlements with online lenders Western Sky Financial, LLC, CashCall, Inc., WS Funding, LLC, and Delbert Services Corporation.

      Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Drew Breakspear had charged the companies with running an online lending scheme.

      Coincidentally, there is a Florida class action settlement pending in U.S District Court for the Southern District of Florida, resolving charges that the lenders offered, serviced, and collected on Western Sky loans to Florida borrowers with illegal interest rates of more than 18%.

      Assuming the court takes final action, officials say some Florida consumers stand to share more than $11 million.

      “Lending schemes harm consumers seeking financial assistance, and with these settlements, Florida borrowers will now be better protected from such business practices,” Bondi said. “Thanks to a great partnership with the Office of Financial Regulation, Floridians will receive millions in restitution.”

      14,000 consumers to get compensation

      Bondi says the settlements are expected to provide payments for approximately 14,000 Florida consumers. To be eligible for a payout under the settlement, consumers must have borrowed from the lenders and paid back the principal plus 18% interest. Bondi says eligible borrowers will be officially notified when details are worked out.

      At the same time, Western Sky and its affiliates are barred from collecting more than $15 million in outstanding loans made to Florida consumers.

      Back in September a federal court ruled in a case involving the federal government and 16 states, that CashCall's business model did not provide an exemption from fair lending laws. The case was joined by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which had challenged CashCall's use of the “tribal model” to make and collect on loans in states that limit interest rates.

      Western Sky stopped accepting loan applications in 2013 after tangling in court with a number of states. But CashCall continued to automatically withdraw payments from customers' accounts even though the loans were voided as a result of the state probes, according to an American Banker report.

      Western Sky initially claimed immunity from state interest rate caps through its affiliation with the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe.

      Florida officials have announced coordinated settlements with online lenders Western Sky Financial, LLC, CashCall, Inc., WS Funding, LLC, and Delbert Servi...

      Why most of us still stand a good chance of getting hacked

      Survey finds many consumers still use incredibly weak passwords

      In recent years hackers have shifted their primary aim from individual consumers to large retailers and corporate networks because it offers more bang for the buck.

      It's a good thing too, because most of us individual consumers are sitting ducks.

      Make no mistake, hackers still launch attacks on individuals. It's one way they harness millions of individual zombie computers to carry out their various nefarious deeds. And Keeper Security, a cyber security firm, says consumers make it easy for them by using pathetically-easy passwords.

      In its blog, the company said it reviewed the passwords that leaked to the internet from data breaches in 2016, looking for the year's most common passwords. Incredibly, it found nearly 17% of consumers are still using “123456” as a password. That was number one. Believe it or not, the eighth most-common password in 2016 was “password.”

      Main takeaways

      Keeper Security says the main takeaways from its analysis include the fact that the list of most-used passwords hasn't changed much over the years. In other words, we haven't gotten very creative.

      “While it’s important for users to be aware of risks, a sizable minority are never going to take the time or effort to protect themselves,” the company writes. “IT administrators and website operators must do the job for them.”

      Long passwords are best, but four of the top 10 passwords on Keeper Security's list, and seven of the top 15, are six characters or shorter. Those passwords are no match for hackers' state-of-the-art tools that can break those flimsy passwords in seconds.

      Less random than you think

      Some consumers may think they're well ahead of the hackers by using passwords like “1q2w3e4r.” When you look at the sequence of numbers and letters it may appear random, but it's not. If you'll glance at a qwerty keyboard, you'll quickly see the combination is assembled by moving diagonally to the right from the number row to the top letter row. It's little more inventive than “123456.”

      The company says email providers should be doing a better job of using their services for spam delivery, and the way to do that is by enforcing tougher password rules.

      “We can criticize all we want about the chronic failure of users to employ strong passwords. After all, it’s in the user’s best interests to do so,” the company writes. “But the bigger responsibility lies with website owners who fail to enforce the most basic password complexity policies. It isn’t hard to do, but the list makes it clear that many still don’t bother.”

      Keeper Security said it had no trouble finding passwords published on the internet. It says there were at least 10 million of them, the result of 2016's data breaches.

      In recent years hackers have shifted their primary aim from individual consumers to large retailers and corporate networks because it offers more bang for...

      Perfect Fit Meals recalls chicken breast product

      The product may contain milk and wheat,allergens not declared on the label

      Perfect Fit Meals of Houston, Texas, is recalling approximately 3,546 pounds of chicken breast product.

      The product may contain milk and wheat allergens not declared on the label.

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

      The following ready-to-eat chicken breast item, produced on December 20 – 21, 2016, is being recalled:

      • 10.5 ounce sealed tray package containing “From the Kitchen of Cooking Light Magazine: Lemon Pepper Chicken” with “Use or Freeze By” date of 01/21/17 and lot code 2457744.2

      The recalled product, bearing establishment number “P-827” inside the USDA mark of inspection, was shipped to military commissaries and retail establishments nationwide.

      What to do

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

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Mona Powell at (281) 953-3200. 

      Perfect Fit Meals of Houston, Texas, is recalling approximately 3,546 pounds of chicken breast product.The product may contain milk and wheat allergens...

      Hostess Brands recalls Holiday White Peppermint Hostess Twinkies

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Hostess Brands is recalling its Holiday White Peppermint Hostess Twinkies.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      The recalled product (UPC 888109111571) were only sold in multipack boxes (9 individually wrapped cakes in a box to mass merchandisers, grocery stores, distributors, dollar and discount stores and convenience stores throughout the U.S.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should discontinue consumption and return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may call 1-800-483-7253 Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm (CT).

      Hostess Brands is recalling its Holiday White Peppermint Hostess Twinkies.The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.No illnesses have been re...

      Boosted recalls electric skateboards

      The lithium ion battery pack can overheat and smoke

      Boosted Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., is recalling about 3,300 electric-powered skateboards sold in the U.S. and Canada.

      The lithium ion battery pack can overheat and smoke, posing a fire hazard.

      The company has received two reports of the battery packs overheating and smoking. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves 2nd Generation Boosted Dual+ electric skateboards with lithium ion battery packs. “Boosted” is printed on the wooden skateboards. Serial numbers that start with S2634 through S2644 are located on a white sticker on the bottom of the boards.

      The battery packs were sold as original equipment with the skateboards and are attached to the bottom of the board in a black thermoplastic enclosure.

      Model number B2SR and “Boosted Lithium” are printed on the battery pack. The battery packs have an orange power button.

      The skateboards, manufactured in China, were sold online at boostedboards.com from September 2016, through November 2016, for about $1,500.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled skateboards and contact Boosted for a free replacement battery pack.

      Consumers may contact Boosted toll-free at 844-395-0070 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday or online at https://boostedboards.com and click on Battery Pack Recall for more information.

      Boosted Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., is recalling about 3,300 electric-powered skateboards sold in the U.S. and Canada.The lithium ion battery pack c...

      Tupperware U.S. recalls Southwest Chipotle Seasoning

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Tupperware U.S. of Orlando, Fla., is recalling limited quantities of Southwest Chipotle Seasoning that has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses have been reported.

      The Seasoning packets, distributed nationwide to consumers, show LOT #16189305 on the package back above the Best By date.

      What to do

      Customers in possession of any of the recalled product should send it to:

      Tupperware U.S., Inc.

      ATTN: Julie Castro

      14901 South Orange Blossom Trail

      Orlando, FL 32837

      The returning party should include a name, address, phone number and email address. Tupperware will send -- in return -- a $15 eGift Certificate, per Seasoning package, to cover the cost of the product and shipping.

      Consumers with questions may call 1-800-TUPPERWARE (1-800-887-7379).  

      Tupperware U.S. of Orlando, Fla., is recalling limited quantities of Southwest Chipotle Seasoning that has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella...

      Yamaha recalls snowmobiles

      The turbocharger overboost can cause severe engine damage

      Yamaha Motor Corporation U.S.A. of Cypress, Calif., is recalling about 400 snowmobiles with aftermarket turbochargers.

      The turbocharger overboost can cause severe engine damage, posing crash and fire hazards to the user.

      The firm has received 40 reports of engine damage due to the turbocharge overboost. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves Yamaha model year 2016 SR10 “SRViper” snowmobiles that are equipped with a dealer-installed Mountain Performance Inc. (MPI) Turbo Kit sold by Yamaha.

      The recalled snowmobiles were sold in several colors. The model name is printed on the left and right side of the front cowling. The vehicle identification number (VIN) and the model number are stamped on the frame (tunnel) near the right foot-well.

      The letter G in the 10th position of the VIN number indicates that the unit was made in the 2016 model year.

      Model

      Model Number

      Colors

      SRViper R-TX DX

      SR10RDGB, SR10RDGR

      Blue, Red/Black

      SRViper R-TX SE

      SR10RSGL, SR10RSGR

      Blue, Red/White

      SRViper R-TX LE

      SR10RLGL, SR10RLGW

      Blue, Red/White

      SRViper L-TX DX

      SR10LDGB, SR10LDGR

      Black/Red, Black

      SRViper L-TX SE

      SR10LSGL, SR10LSGR

      Blue, Red/White

      SRViper L-TX LE

      SR10LLGW

      Blue, White/Red

      SRViper S-TX DX 137

      SR10SD37GR

      Black/Red

      SRViper S-TX DX 146

      SR10SD46GB

      Black

      SRViper X-TX SE

      SR10XSGL, SR10XSGR

      Blue, Red/White

      SRViper X-TX LE

      SR10XLGL, SR10XLGW

      White/Blue, White/Red

      SRViper M-TX 141 SE

      SR10MS41GL, SR10MS41GR

      Blue, Red/White

      SRViper M-TX 153

      SR10M53GB, SR10M53GR

      Black, Red/White

      SRViper M-TX 153 SE

      SR10MS53GL, SR10MS53GR

      Blue, Red/White

      SRViper M-TX 153 LE

      SR10ML53GL, SR10ML53GW

      Blue, White/Red

      SRViper M-TX 162

      SR10M62GB, SR10M62GR

      Black, Red/Black

      SRViper M-TX 162 SE

      SR10MS62GL, SR10MS62GR

      Blue, Red/White

      SRViper M-TX 162 LE

      SR10ML62GL, SR10ML62GW

      Blue, White/Red

      The snowmobiles, manufactured in the U.S, were sold at Yamaha snowmobile dealers nationwide from August 2015, through April 2016, for between $12,800 and $14,100.

      The Mountain Performance Inc. (MPI) Turbo Kits were sold as an after-market accessory at Yamaha snowmobile dealers nationwide from March 2015, through September 2016, for about $3,300.

      What to do

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

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

      Yamaha Motor Corporation U.S.A. of Cypress, Calif., is recalling about 400 snowmobiles with aftermarket turbochargers.The turbocharger overboost can ca...

      Postcard from Virginia – Home to eight of our presidents

      It's hard to find a state with more historic sites than Virginia

      Did you know that four of the first five presidents of the United States came from the Commonwealth of Virginia? In all, eight presidents came from Virginia, more than any other state.

      If you enjoy American History, you’ll love Virginia, as did our eight presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor and Woodrow Wilson. Seven of the presidents have homes that are open to the public and worthy of a visit.

      Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington -- Alexandria, Virginia

      Located in historic Alexandria, Virginia and just outside Washington, D C., Mount Vernon is not just the home of George Washington, it’s his estate. It is beautifully restored and includes his mansion, over a dozen original structures, his Tomb, and extensive plantation and gardens. An iconic architectural feature of the mansion, designed by Washington himself, is the two-story porch that overlooks the Potomac River.

      There are ten different tours available, including a one-hour behind-the-scenes specialty tour that takes you to areas where the “National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets” filming took place. If you visit in the month of December, there is a candlelit tour of the mansion, just beautiful with a dusting of snow. There is a museum and education center, a colonial-inspired Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant, a food court, and several worthwhile gift shops. Use their website to plan your visit and make your reservations at http://www.mountvernon.org

      Nearby and not to be missed is Woodlawn, the estate George Washington gave as a wedding gift to his step-granddaughter Eleanor Parke Custis and her husband in 1799. It passed out of the family’s hands and is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation who oversaw the mansion’s restoration. The Garden Club of Virginia restored the beautiful gardens. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House is located on the property. For more information: http://www.woodlawnpopeleighey.org

      Montpelier, home of James Madison -- Montpelier Station, Virginia

      Located in Orange, Virginia, a two-hour drive from Washington D.C., is the lifelong home of James and Dolley Madison. Their historic home is situated on 2,650 acres of protected land with unobstructed views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

      Tours fall under three categories: The Scholar, The Adventurer, and For Family. Tour highlights include the Signature Tour, Madison and the Constitution, and Montpelier’s Enslaved Community, as well as adult, group, and special tours. There are over eight miles of walking trails that encompass horse pastures, wildflower meadows, and forests, including the Old-Growth Landmark Forest. James and Dolley Madison are both buried in the Madison Family Cemetery.  

      Make time to visit the Grills Gallery with Madison artifacts including Dolley Madison’s engagement ring and James Madison’s walking stick. The “Queen of Hearts: Dolley Madison in Popular Culture” exhibit explores the first lady’s popularity and how, after her death, her likeness began to appear on cigar boxes, milk bottles, and packaging for cakes, ice cream, and household products.

      Interested in an archeological dig? Montpelier offers four different five-day, immersive programs where you can work side-by-side with professional archaeologists. Grab-and-go dining service is available at the Exchange Café located in the David M. Rubenstein Visitor Center. Use their website to plan your visit and make your reservations at https://www.montpelier.org

      Watch for our “Postcard from Virginia Part Two” as we explore other presidential homes in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

      Did you know that four of the first five presidents of the United States came from the Commonwealth of Virginia? In all, eight presidents came from Virgini...

      How improving the online customer experience can help companies succeed

      Integrating new technologies can help strengthen customer relationships, expert says

      In a recent report, we detailed how holiday sales increased by 4% year-over-year in 2016. Experts with the National Retail Federation pointed to a growing economy as the main contributor, but they also said that online and non-store sales had a big impact, rising 12.6% from the previous year.

      This trend isn’t exactly surprising. Online sales have been growing for some time now as consumers turn to the internet to get needed items instead of visiting brick-and-mortar locations. Many companies have responded appropriately, boosting their online capabilities to keep their customers. However, experts at Syntel – a digital modernization servicer – believe that improving not only online capability, but the online customer experience will be key to future success.

      “Retailers are accountable to customers, and their success is measured not just in terms of the quality of the products they offer, but also by the quality and consistency of the customer experience. . . Business leaders need to recognize the impact of digital technologies on their business operations, as well as their ability to help retain and increase market share,” said Rakesh Khanna, CEO and President of Syntel.

      Improving customer relationships

      Improving customer satisfaction isn’t at all a new idea, but refocusing on it may be vital in a technologically advancing world. In 2015, research company Gartner predicted that over 50% of companies would change their business models to improve the customer experience by 2018, and recent trends seem to indicate that companies are moving in that direction.

      But how exactly should companies go about improving customer service? Khanna says that using services like automation, real-time data, and social media can help companies improve efficiency and increase engagement. Integrating new technologies quickly can also help put some companies over the top.

      “Those who invest in these technologies first will have an advantage in tomorrow’s marketplace, and the steps they take now will determine their future success. CEOs must be able to see the big picture, especially how integrating digital across the business can increase customer engagement and deliver efficiency that improves customer satisfaction across the entire purchasing experience,” said Khanna.

      Additionally, Khanna says that companies and businesses who aren’t up to snuff when it comes to integrating new technologies might be wise to seek outside partners who specialize in the area.

      “Businesses cannot start this digital transformation journey alone; they need partners who specialize in implementing and integrating digital systems across the enterprise in order to seamlessly transform their business model.”

      In a recent report, we detailed how holiday sales increased by 4% year-over-year in 2016. Experts with the National Retail Federation pointed to a growing...

      BRP recalls side-by-side off-road vehicles

      The vehicles can roll away when in the “park” or “P” position,

      BRP U.S. of Sturtevant, Wis., is recalling about 780 side-by-side off-road vehicles.

      The vehicles can unexpectedly roll away when in the “park” or “P” position, posing an injury hazard to users.

      The firm has received six reports of the vehicles moving when in the “park” or “P” position. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves model year 2016 Can-Am Defender, Defender DPS, and Defender XT model side-by-side off-road vehicles.

      The vehicles were sold in various colors and have four tires, two seats and a cargo box on the back. “Can-am” is printed on the side of the cargo box and the model name is printed on the side of the front of the vehicle beside the headlight. The model name and vehicle identification number (VIN) are printed on a label under the glove box.

      The vehicles, manufactured in Mexico, were sold at Can-Am dealers nationwide from October 2015, through December 2016, for between $10,000 and $15,700.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled vehicles and contact a BRP dealer to schedule a free repair. BRP is contacting all known purchasers directly.

      Consumers may contact BRP toll-free at 888-272-9222 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (ET) any day or online at www.can-am.brp.com and click on the Off-Road website and then the “Owners” tab at the top of the page and then “Safety” and then “View Notices” for more information.

      BRP U.S. of Sturtevant, Wis., is recalling about 780 side-by-side off-road vehicles.The vehicles can unexpectedly roll away when in the “park” or “P” p...

      Schreiber Processing recalls chicken tender products

      The products may be contaminated with plastic

      Schreiber Processing Corp. of Maspeth, N.Y., is recalling approximately 2,330 pounds of chicken tender products that may be contaminated with plastic.

      There have been no confirmed reports of injury or illness due to consumption of these products.

      The following products, produced on December 8, 2016, and packaged on December 9, 2016, are being recalled:

      • 10-lb. boxes containing “Meal Mart BATTERED & BREADED CHICKEN BREAST TENDERS” bearing item code 03-CTB and production code 0246

      The recalled products, bearing establishment number “P-787” inside the USDA mark of inspection, were shipped to institutional and retail locations in New Jersey, New York and Washington.

      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 Mordechai Milworn at (718) 894-2000 ext. 336.

      Schreiber Processing Corp. of Maspeth, N.Y., is recalling approximately 2,330 pounds of chicken tender products that may be contaminated with plastic.T...

      If Trump wants to fast-track oil and gas pipelines, he can thank Obama

      The Obama administration issued quick permits for massive oil and gas projects

      Luc Novovitch remembers being taken by surprise when he learned that a new, 148-mile natural gas pipeline was coming to the Texas county where he had served on the Commissioner’s Court, whether locals wanted it or not.

      Brewster County is a rural west Texas county, the population hovering around 9,000, that is popular among tourists for its scenic views and relative short drive to the Big Bend National Park. The desolate region had no massive natural gas pipelines until last year, when Energy Transfer Partners began constructing the Trans-Pecos Pipeline. 

      As locals learned in 2015, swaths of land in Brewster County fall in the path of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline project. The pipeline, according to operator Energy Transfer Partners, is expected to deliver 1.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day to Mexico. Originating in Texas’ northern Pecos County, the pipeline makes its way through Central West Texas before finally terminating at the United States-Mexico border.

      "The Trans-Pecos pipeline will provide new market outlets for domestically produced clean-burning natural gas, thereby encouraging continued production in the U.S. energy sector," Energy Transfer Partners says on their promotional website.

      A done deal

      By the time Energy Transfer Partners executive Rick Smith made a presentation to the Brewster County Commissioner’s Court about the project in April 2015, Novovitch remembers it was all but a done deal. 

      “I tried to bring the attention of the feds about what was going on, and it didn't really help,” Novovitch, who is no longer on the Brewster County Commissioners Court, now tells ConsumerAffairs. 

      With incoming President-elect Donald Trump expected to dismantle whatever environmental protections he can come January 20, environmentalists are concerned about what health and ecological dangers the new administration may bring.

      But if Donald Trump’s agenda includes fast-tracking as many oil and gas pipelines as possible, he can thank the Obama administration. Regulations that President Barack Obama used his executive authority to enact in 2012 have allowed for expedited reviews of oil and gas pipeline projects, setting what environmentalists warn is a dangerous precedent. 

      Obama counters Republican attacks with faster pipeline permits 

      In March 2012, as Republicans accused Obama of dragging his feet on approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline amid objections from environmentalists, the president took a trip to Cushing, Oklahoma. It was there, in the heart of oil country, that companies like Keystone XL’s Transcanada aimed to build more pipelines to transport all of the oil and gas produced by the domestic fracking boom.

      “We are drilling all over the place. Right now that's not the challenge. That's not the problem. The problem in a place like Cushing is that we’re actually producing so much oil and gas, in places like North Dakota and Colorado, that we don’t have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it where it needed to go," Obama told the crowd.

      At that time, Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum, calling for, as his memo described it, “Expedited Review of Pipeline Projects from Cushing to Port Arthur and Other Domestic Pipeline Infrastructure Projects.” The executive order sounds innocent enough, calling for public government agencies to “coordinate and expedite their reviews, consultations, and other processes as necessary" so as to create "a more efficient domestic pipeline system for the transportation of crude oil."

      But people and groups that have attempted to challenge pipeline projects describe the order as little more than a gift to the oil and gas industry. “It is downright foolhardy to cut corners on safety reviews for permitting the southern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline,” National Resources Defense Council’s program officer Susan Casey-Lefkowitz warned in a blog post, shortly after Obama enacted the expedited review process. 

      At the same time, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began giving the green light to oil and gas pipeline projects that pass waterways under a quick process called Nationwide Permit 12.

      “While the Corps’ use of NWP [Nationwide Permit] 12 is not new,” wrote a coalition of nearly two dozen environmental groups in a recent legal objection, “it is only since 2012 that the Corps began using NWP 12 to approve massive pipeline projects." 

      “To the best of our knowledge, prior to 2012, the Corps had never before used NWP 12 to permit hundreds or thousands of water crossings to approve a major pipeline project," the environmental groups added.

      Complicated permitting breaks massive pipeline projects into small parts

      The trick behind expedited permitting reviews is that they break up what should be one single regulatory action, evaluating the environmental impacts of a massive pipeline project as a whole, into piecemeal parts, according to Coyne Gibson, a volunteer with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance. Gibson and the alliance have been trying to fight the Trans-Pecos pipeline in the courts.  

      The Trans Pecos pipeline, Gibson explains, is expected to make 135 water crossings. “They claim that each of those in isolation has no significant impact," Gibson tells ConsumerAffairs. But regulators did not examine the bigger pictire, Gibson says, evaluating the impact of a natural gas pipeline making 135 waterway crossings as a whole. 

      Federal energy commissioners give green light

      Soon after Trans-Pecos made its presence known in Brewster County, locals like former County Commissioner Novovitch learned how limited federal involvement would be. Even though the pipeline crosses into Mexico, it flows only through one state in the United States. Federal regulators therefore classify the project as an “intrastate” pipeline.

      As an intrastate project, the pipeline is subject to limited federal review, as feds claim most of that burden falls onto the state of Texas. In fact, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission determined that only one small section of the 148-mile pipeline--just over 1,000 feet--should be subject to federal review, because that is the one section crossing the Texas border into Mexico. Otherwise, the feds and pipeline operator alike say it is merely an intrastate project. 

      "From [the Texas border town of] Presidio, magically it becomes international, so they have to apply for a presidential permit, just for this section,” Novovitch tells Consumer Affairs.”This is ridiculous. It’s an artifice. I kept asking FERC to consider the cumulative impacts.”

      The calls from Novovitch and other pipeline opponents to federal regulators were not heeded. “We have determined that if constructed in accordance with its application and supplements,” the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission wrote about the Trans-Pecos Pipeline January 2016, “approval of this proposal would not constitute a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” FERC officially granted the company its presidential permit in May 2016.

      Pipes dot the hills of the Big Bend region, but much of the project is already buried. The Trans-Pecos Pipeline, according to Energy Transfer Partners, is expected to be in service by March 2017.

      Luc Novovitch remembers being taken by surprise when he learned that a new, 148-mile natural gas pipeline was coming to the Texas county where he had serve...

      Takata expected to plead guilty, agree to $1 billion settlement

      The Japanese airbag manufacturer is responsible for the largest recall in U.S. history

      As the Obama administration prepares to pack up and leave town, it is wrapping up outstanding cases and ringing the cash register. The latest: airbag maker Takata Corp. is expected to agree to plead guilty Friday to criminal charges and pay $1 billion in fines and victim compensation. 

      The settlement includes a $25 million criminal fine, $125 million in victim compensation, and $850 million to compensate automakers that have suffered losses from massive recalls, according to reports in Automotive News.

      The settlement could help Takata win new financing from investors as it struggles to deal with the massive cost of the world's biggest auto safety recall.

      Incomplete or inaccurate

      It's expected that the company will plead guilty to charges of wire fraud, stemming from providing false test data to U.S. auto safety regulators. In 2015, the company admitted that it provided the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with incomplete or inaccurate data and paid a $70 million fine.

      While individual consumers would receive some compensation, most of the $1 billion would go to the 19 automakers who have spent millions of dollars recalling and repairing cars with defective Takata airbag inflators.

      The inflators have been tied to at least 16 deaths worldwide, 11 in the United States, nearly all of them in Hondas. The recall is expected to eventually include about 42 million vehicles in the U.S., making it the largest safety recall in U.S. history.

      As the Obama administration prepares to pack up and leave town, it is wrapping up outstanding cases and ringing the cash register. The latest: airbag maker...

      Consumers still punishing Wells Fargo

      Earnings report shows big drop in new bank and credit card accounts

      When federal regulators discovered last fall that Wells Fargo had been creating credit card and checking accounts for its customers without their permission, simply to boost its fees, regulators punished the bank with millions of dollars in fines.

      But it turns out consumers have also been punishing the bank.

      When Wells Fargo reported its earnings for the latest quarter and full year, it disclosed that new credit card accounts plunged 43% year-over-year and dropped 7% from the previous month.

      As for bank accounts, new checking accounts plunged 40% from December 2015. However, they were up slightly from November.

      But that bit of good news was overshadowed by the revelation that some current Wells Fargo checking account customers simply stopped using their accounts without closing them. Between November and December, active checking account customers fell by 100,000.

      5,300 bank employees fired

      Back in September, Wells Fargo reached a settlement with federal agencies and the City of Los Angeles over revelations it had opened millions of accounts without customers' knowledge or permission. In settling with government agencies, Wells Fargo announced that it had fired 5,300 employees and changed sales practices to end incentives to open new accounts.

      Regulators charged that, not only was it fraudulent to move money and open accounts without a customer's permission, the customer also incurred fees in the process, costing him or her money.

      In the earnings report Friday, Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan said the bank is working to regain the trust of consumers, employees and other key stakeholders.

      “I am pleased with the progress we have made in customer remediation, the ongoing review of sales practices across the company and fulfilling our regulatory requirements for sales practices matters,” Sloan said. “As planned, we launched our new retail bank compensation program this month, which is based on building lifelong relationships with our customers.”

      It should be noted that not everyone is punishing Wells Fargo. Even after reporting its earnings, which fell short of analysts' estimates, the company's stock rose on Wall Street. CNBC reported investors are looking past the bad news and are convinced the bank's profits will still rise in the future.

      When federal regulators discovered last fall that Wells Fargo had been creating credit card and checking accounts for its customers without their permissio...

      EPA once again reaffirms 2025 fuel efficiency standards

      The final determination is legally binding and won't be easy to overturn, experts say

      The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made it official -- locking down its finding that the tough fuel efficiency standards instituted by the Obama Administration should remain in force through 2025.

      The finding by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is part of an effort by federal agencies to try to preserve Obama's policies into the Trump Era. Automakers had made last-minute pleas for relief from the rules, which nearly double the current mileage standards.

      Environmental and consumer advocacy groups applauded the ruling.

      "The Clean Cars Standards are already successfully protecting both Americans’ lungs and their wallets. They’re also driving innovations that are creating auto industry jobs,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. “Today’s determination ensures that we can all continue to breathe – and drive – a little easier.”

      Krupp noted that despite industry complaints, automakers are in many cases already meeting or exceeding the current standards. In a statement, Krupp noted that the EPA had determined that:

      • The current standards will save consumers money and provide benefits to the health and welfare of Americans.
      • Automakers have outperformed the standards for the first four years of the program (from model year 2012 to 2015) and manufacturers are adopting fuel efficient technologies at unprecedented rates – all while vehicle sales have increased for seven consecutive years to an all-time record high in 2016.
      • There are more than 100 cars, SUVs, and pickups on the market today that already meet 2020 or later standards.
      • Auto manufacturers can meet the model year 2022 to 2025 standards at lower costs than predicted when the standards were finalized in 2012.

      Out of step?

      Automakers have argued that the tough fuel standards are out of step with consumer preferences and impose significant costs that are passed on to consumers.
      The Consumer Federation of America released a poll that it said showed even Trump supporters were largely in favor of better fuel efficiency.

      The survey, conducted in December, found two-thirds of Donald Trump voters support strong fuel economy standards, which were also supported by four-fifths of Hillary Clinton voters.

      “This is a pocketbook issue for American voters,” said Jack Gillis, CFA’s director of public affairs. “Consumers across the board want more miles-per-gallon, and they understand that national standards provide automakers with sensible targets they otherwise might not achieve. Gas prices are low now, but they won’t always stay this low.”

      EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency's decision to stick with the standards is based on an extensive technical record. 

      "At every step in the process, the analysis has shown that the greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and light trucks remain affordable and effective through 2025, and will save American drivers billions of dollars at the pump while protecting our health and the environment," she said.

      Striking a balance

      The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers criticized the decision and said it would work with regulators to find a compromise.
      "Our fundamental priority remains striking the right balance to continue fuel economy gains and carbon reduction without compromising consumer affordability and vital auto-sector jobs," said spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist.

      Automakers hope to work with regulators and California, Bergquist said, "to see whether we can find a prudent compromise path forward that avoids an unnecessary and counterproductive regulatory collision."

      The EPA's action is legally binding and will not be easy to undo, legal experts have said. It would require an extensive process to conduct an entirely new technical justification for weakening the standards, a task that would likely take years.

      The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made it official -- locking down its finding that the tough fuel efficiency standards instituted by the Obama...

      Study reveals best and worst states for lovers

      Top states for lovers had high marriage rates and low numbers of people living in isolation

      Where you live is an important factor when it comes to stocking your closet and making certain landscaping decisions. But could your geographic location also determine the quality of your relationship?

      Maybe so, according to a new study by a Michigan State University researcher, which found that some states may be more conducive to healthy relationships than others.

      Mississippi, Utah, and Wisconsin were found to be the top states for lovers, while North Dakota and the Great Plains (South Dakota, Kansas, and Colorado) ranked in the bottom 10 for quality relationships.

      And “Virginia is for lovers” seems only to apply if your true love is history. Virginia actually received a mediocre ranking in the study, which measured attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance in 127,000 adults from every state.

      Attachment anxiety

      Many states fit their respective stereotypes, said lead researcher William Chopik, an assistant psychology professor who studies relationships and their effects. The state of New York, for example, was deemed ninth worst for lovers, while California and Utah were both in the top 10.

      "When I think of New York, I think of the anxious Woody Allen type, and New York had one of the highest scores for attachment anxiety," Chopik said in a statement.

      "California, on the other hand, seems like a romantic place with beautiful sunsets, oceans and warm weather. And Utah residents are known to be very nice, warm and generous, which many people attribute to the large Mormon population."

      Top states for lovers

      For the study, Chopik and his colleague Matt Motyl of the University of Illinois at Chicago looked at levels of attachment anxiety (often referred to as “clinginess”) and attachment avoidance (whether the individual dislikes intimacy and tends to be more distant toward their partner).

      Because neither characteristic sets the stage for a healthy relationship, the best states for lovers were those that scored low on both measures.

      Top states for lovers also had high marriage rates and low numbers of people living in isolation. The Pacific coast was found to be the top region for quality relationships, while other high-ranking states included Vermont, Alaska, North Carolina, Delaware, Minnesota and Oregon.

      Worst states for lovers

      The worst states for lovers had the highest attachment anxiety and avoidance scores. North Dakota ranked the worst for quality relationships, followed by Kentucky, Kansas, South Dakota, Rhode Island, Ohio, South Carolina, Colorado, New York, and Indiana.

      Certain states (especially those with secluded mountainous areas) may cater to loners, while the weather and temperature in other regions might promote more positive interactions, the authors noted.

      But romantically-challenged residents of North Dakota shouldn’t take these findings as a sign that it's time to move.

      “To a certain degree, positive relationships are found everywhere and transcend time and place,” the authors concluded. “After all, home is where the heart is."

      The study has been published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

      Where you live is an important factor when it comes to stocking your closet and making certain landscaping decisions. But could your geographic location al...

      FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez resigns

      Top appointees are leaving their posts as the Obama Administration winds down

      Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez announced her resignation today as the Obama Administration enters its final week.

      “It has been the honor of a lifetime to lead the Federal Trade Commission and to have played a role in advancing American consumers’ ability to navigate fast-paced digital markets and promoting business competition across the economy. I thank my fellow Commissioners and all of the talented FTC staff for their support and dedicated public service during my tenure.”

      Ramirez's resignation will be effective Feb. 10. She was named chairwoman on March 4, 2013, and has served as an FTC commissioner since April 5, 2010, following her appointment by President Obama.

      “Edith Ramirez has been a leader in efforts to promote privacy protections for emerging technologies, stop unethical business practices, and inform consumers as they navigate the marketplace," said Rep Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Ranking Member of the House subcommittee on consumer protection. "Under Chairwoman Ramirez, the Federal Trade Commission saved consumers billions of dollars through its enforcement actions."

      Ramirez said in her announcement that she had prioritized protecting consumers and promoting competition in the technology and healthcare sectors, safeguarding consumer privacy and data security in the online world, and protecting diverse communities from deceptive and unfair practices and scams.

      Enforcement actions

      During her tenure, the FTC brought nearly 400 law enforcement actions covering a range of consumer protection issues and approximately 100 enforcement actions challenging anticompetitive mergers and business conduct in major sectors of the economy, including the healthcare provider, pharmaceutical, retail, and energy markets.

      These actions on consumers’ behalf included

      • a $10 billion settlement in 2016 with Volkswagen Group of America, to compensate consumers deceived by VW’s “clean diesel” advertising campaign;
      • a $1.2 billion dollar settlement with a pharmaceutical company for delaying generic competition for a sleep disorder drug;
      • a $200 million dollar settlement with Herbalife related to deceptive business practices; and
      • reimbursements of tens of millions of dollars to consumers whose mobile phone bills were “crammed” with unauthorized charges.

      Notable FTC actions included the agency’s successful challenges to the mergers of Sysco and U.S. Foods, Staples and Office Depot, and several hospital mergers. The FTC also won an action against Amazon for its unauthorized charges in children’s apps and a federal appeals court decision in the Wyndham Hotels case upholding the FTC’s authority to bring enforcement actions for unreasonable data security practices.

      Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez announced her resignation today as the Obama Administration enters its final week.“It has been the ho...

      Gun TV pauses to reload

      Billed as iTunes for guns, the home shopping network says it will return

      Gun TV, a home shopping network for guns, has signed off, at least for now. The channel's co-founder, Valerie Castle, vows it will be back but won't say just when.

      Based in Palm Springs, Calif., Gun TV went on the air less than a year ago, billing itself as iTunes for guns, ammo, holsters, and accessories. It was carried in Verizon Fios and numerous other cable systems, but some industry observers say that it never reached critical mass.

      In an email to the Desert Sun newspaper, the "fully loaded" channel said it was "pulling back on operations" while researching its distribution options.

      When the channel launched in January 2016, critics noted the unfortunate timing, just a few weeks after the horrific shooting that killed 14 people in nearby San Bernardino. But Gun TV said that, far from contributing to the proliferation of guns, it would be a force for safety and training for gun enthusiasts.

      Gun TV, a home shopping network for guns, has signed off, at least for now. The channel's co-founder, Valerie Castle, vows it will be back but won't say ju...

      New online site lets buyers browse house listings by school district

      Cruvita's school ranking system can help families find a home in a good school district

      For families with school-aged children, house hunting is often a much more grueling process. Homes without space for a playset in the backyard may be ruled out, while others may not make the cut due to a shortage of bedrooms.

      But ample square footage and family-friendly amenities often mean little if the house isn’t in a good school district. Real estate agents aren’t allowed to provide advice or opinions on schools, but they can direct buyers to sites like GreatSchools.org -- a site which ranks schools on a one-to-10 scale.

      Now, parents seeking a home in a neighborhood with a good school can also check out Cruvita.com, a site that lets buyers see house listings by school district. Using an algorithm-powered school ranking system, the real estate listings website aims to help families compare schools.

      Detailed ranking

      Consumers can browse listings by city, zip code, or country to get a list of schools ranked on the Cruvita School Score index -- a ranking system that assigns letter grades to most public schools in the U.S. based on a variety of factors.

      Cruvita says its school scores are based on “objective data,” meaning that house hunters with kids can have their search guided by facts rather than public opinion.

      "The objective data is more than just test scores. It is a patent-pending algorithm that uses educational data and several other pieces of socioeconomic data, including housing trends, to develop the score," Cruvita explains on its website.

      The site also says its detailed ranking system can help to eliminate the problem of not being able to choose between two schools.

      With scores ranging from 0 to 10,000 and an additional letter grade of A+ to F-, buyers would be hard pressed to find two schools with the exact same score. The Cruvita School Score index also ranks every school according to a standard grade score, so a B+ in Colorado is equal to a B+ in California.

      For families with school-aged children, house hunting is often a much more grueling process. Homes without space for a playset in the backyard may be ruled...

      Why rural living can be hazardous to your health

      A CDC report finds rural residents are more likely to die from five preventable causes

      A popular perception of rural life is it is healthier. There is less crime, less stress, and generally a slower pace of life.

      But when it comes to the five most preventable causes of death, a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that the risk of death in rural areas is significantly greater than in the city.

      In 2014 the CDC says there were 25,000 deaths in rural areas from heart disease, 19,000 from cancer, 12,000 from unintentional injuries, 11,000 from chronic lower respiratory disease, and 4,000 from stroke.

      On a percentage basis, there were fewer deaths in urban areas from these same causes.

      Striking gap in health

      "This new study shows there is a striking gap in health between rural and urban Americans," said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden. "To close this gap, we are working to better understand and address the health threats that put rural Americans at increased risk of early death."

      The report's authors point to several demographic, environmental, economic, and social factors that might put the 46 million rural Americans at higher risk of death. Rural consumers tend to be older and sicker than people living in cities. They are more likely to smoke, have high blood pressure, and to be obese.

      When quizzed, rural consumers report less physical activity and are less likely to use seatbelts. They are also more likely to be poor and have less access to healthcare and health insurance.

      Fewer healthcare resources

      In fact, the best health care facilities tend to be in high population areas. Because of a smaller patient population, rural hospitals tend to be smaller and have fewer resources than their urban counterparts. Rural counties also tend to have fewer emergency service resources, meaning someone suffering an accident or heart attack may take longer to get to a medical facility.

      Working with other federal agencies, the CDC says there are steps that should be taken in rural communities to improve health services. They include screening patients for high blood pressure and providing treatment for those at risk.

      The agency also urges steps to increase cancer screening, education, and detection, while also providing more smoking cessation programs and encouraging healthy lifestyles, such as daily exercise and healthy diets.

      Opioid addiction and overdose has also become a growing problem in rural areas, growing faster there than in cities. The CDC urges healthcare providers to follow the agency's guideline when prescribing these drugs for chronic pain.

      A popular perception of rural life is it is healthier. There is less crime, less stress, and generally a slower pace of life.But when it comes to the f...

      Consumer advocates blast make-up of autonomous vehicle advisory panel

      They accuse Obama of loading panel with industry executives

      Politics, they say, makes for strange bedfellows. It's something we should probably get used to over the next four years.

      Consumer Watchdog, a consumer advocacy group, wants President-elect Donald Trump to reverse an Obama administration appointment, firing General Motors CEO Mary Barra from the newly-established Department of Transportation Advisory Committee on Automation in Transportation (ACAT).

      The issue, apparently, is concern over the accelerating move toward self-driving vehicles. In a letter to the incoming President, Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, John M. Simpson, the group's privacy project director, and Joan Claybrook, Chair of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, wrote that automated vehicles and other emerging technology threaten jobs, invade privacy, and make roads and highways less safe.

      Singling out GM

      And as head of GM, the consumer advocates say Barra should not be co-chair of ACAT. GM is on record as planning to test and launch autonomous vehicles in the next few years.

      “We should not allow the robot makers alone to oversee the safety of vehicles coming out of robot factories, but the Obama Administration's eleventh hour appointments do just that," the consumer advocates wrote.

      There are 25 members of the advisory group, which will guide Department of Transportation policy on autonomous vehicles. The consumer advocates are alarmed that 13 of the members represent corporations with a stake in the policy and other members are from industry trade associations.

      "In keeping with your campaign pledge to 'drain the swamp' and protect the interests of ordinary people, we ask that the first firing of your Administration be co-chair Mary Barra, General Motors Chairman and CEO, who should not lead a panel recommending how to deploy her company's automated vehicles," the letter said.

      Concerns about safety

      The groups say autonomous vehicles may, indeed, provide benefits in the future, but advocates believe that any testing on public highways be done in a transparent way that protects the public safety.

      The letter-writers were particularly irked that an Uber executive has been appointed to the panel, despite the fact that the company reportedly refused to obtain required permits from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test its robot cars in San Francisco.

      Politics, they say, makes for strange bedfellows. It's something we should probably get used to over the next four years.Consumer Watchdog, a consumer...

      Surveys show U.S. consumers are still struggling

      More than half can't cover an unexpected repair bill

      Despite rising optimism about economic growth, American consumers appear to still be struggling to keep their heads above water.

      They may be making progress on paying down debt, but building up an emergency savings fund appears to be out of reach for most.

      A new report by personal finance site Bankrate says more than half of consumers do not have enough money on hand to pay an unexpected $500 car repair bill. While these bills don't crop up every month, they do occur.

      Not if, but when

      "It's not a matter of if, but when an unexpected expense will pop up," said Jill Cornfield, a Bankrate.com analyst. "Our survey shows that just under half of adults surveyed said they or a family member had a major expense in the past 12 months."

      So what happens when consumers face a major expense without the money to pay for it? Twenty-one percent said they would put it on a credit card, adding to their debt. Nearly as many said they would cut spending on other things, while 11% said they would turn to family or friends.

      Unstated, but perhaps assumed, is that a number of consumers would turn to payday lenders, becoming more deeply mired in a cycle of debt.

      College doesn't seem to help

      College graduates tend to have more savings than non-graduates, but the Bankrate study found nearly half of the highest income households – those earning more than $75,000 a year – don't have enough money to cover a $500 car repair bill.

      Interestingly, the Bankrate study found Millennials are most likely to have the savings on hand to cover an unexpected expense. Yet another study suggests it is this generation that is falling behind financially.

      The advocacy group Young Invincibles has analyzed Federal Reserve Data and says Millennials earn about 20% less than Baby Boomers did at their stage in life. Even Boomers without a college degree were doing better financially than their Millennial children who did go to college.

      “Too many career colleges charge high prices, but fail to adequately train students for the job market, leaving them under mountains of debt with few prospects,” said Christopher Nellum, Policy Director of Young Invincibles.

      Nellum said for-profit schools, in particular, fail the “gainful employment test.”

      What to do

      Building an emergency fund is one of the most-cited financial goals of consumers in 2017. Personal finance experts we recently interviewed offered tips for starting a savings plan, even when the budget is tight as a drum.

      Michelle Perry Higgins, Principal and Financial Planner of California Financial Advisors, in San Ramon, Calif., says consumers living paycheck-to-paycheck should start small, trying to save as little as 1% out of each paycheck. To prevent backsliding, she recommends making savings to these accounts a non-discretionary systematic withdrawal.

      Despite rising optimism about economic growth, American consumers appear to still be struggling to keep their heads above water.They may be making prog...

      Holiday sales increase by 4% in 2016

      Experts point to an improving economy as the main cause

      Holiday retail sales in November and December showed strong gains in 2016. The National Retail Federation (NRF) says sales increased year-over-year by 4% to $658.3 billion, mostly due to a strengthening economy.

      Additionally, non-store sales surged during the latter part of last year to $122.9 billion, which is up 12.6% from 2015. The increases eclipse previous NRF predictions of a 3.6% increase during the holidays, and experts say that it only shows that the economy is picking up steam.

      “These numbers show that the nation’s slow-but-steady economic recovery is picking up speed and that consumers feel good about the future. Retail mirrors the economy. And while there might have been some bumps in the road for individual companies, the retail industry overall had a solid holiday season and retailers will work to sustain this in the year ahead,” said NRF CEO and President Matthew Shay.

      Online sales flourish

      While the numbers look good for overall holiday retail, Shay points out that online and non-store sales continued to improve over sales at brick-and-mortar locations, going up by 12.6%. However, he adds that it doesn’t matter much to the retailer if consumers are buying online or at store locations – as long as the money keeps rolling in.

      “There has been a lot of talk about online versus in-store retail in the past few months, but that comes from people who don’t realize that online and retail today are the same thing,” Shay said.

      “In the new distributed commerce world that allows consumers to buy any product, anytime, anywhere, it really doesn’t matter whether a customer shops in a company’s store or on its website or mobile app. It’s all retail. Today’s retailers sell to shoppers any way they want to buy.”

      Economic improvements

      NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz points out that hourly earnings were up year-over-year in 2016, while job gains were strong and unemployment stayed relatively low. All of this, combined with strong economic indicators, led to strong retail sales over the holiday season.

      “The economy was clearly stronger in the fall and consumers were more active during the holiday season than they had been earlier in the year,” Kleinhenz said. “Economic indicators were up, retailers offered great deals, confidence improved and all of that empowered consumers to spend more.”

      Holiday retail sales in November and December showed strong gains in 2016. The National Retail Federation (NRF) says sales increased year-over-year by 4% t...

      Retail sales post December gain

      Strong auto sales were a big factor

      A sizable advance in auto sales helped push overall retail sales higher in December.

      The Commerce Depart reports sales totaled a seasonally adjusted $469.1 billion last month -- up 0.6% from November.

      Ups and downs

      The increase of 2.4% in auto sales led the December advance, followed by gas station (+2.0%), non-store retailers (+1.3%), and furniture and home furnishing stores (+0.5).

      Sales fell at miscellaneous store retailers (-1.0%), restaurants and bars (-0.8%), department stores (-0.6%), and general merchandise stores (-0.5%) Sales at clothing & clothing accessories stores were unchanged. For all of 2016, sales were up up 3.3% from the year before.

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

      A sizable advance in auto sales helped push overall retail sales higher in December.The Commerce Depart reports sales totaled a seasonally adjusted $46...

      Wholesale prices up again in December

      Jobless claims head higher

      Wholesale prices, or what the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calls the Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand, rose for the third time in four months in December.

      Last month's seasonally adjusted increase of 0.3% follows an advance of 0.4% in November and no change in October. For all of 2016, wholesale prices were up 1.6% after falling 1.1% the year before.

      Almost 80% of the December increase came from an increase of 0.7% in prices for goods. Within that category, energy prices were up 2.6%, with gasoline costs surging 7.8%. In addition, prices for light motor trucks, jet fuel, iron and steel scrap, chicken eggs, and liquefied petroleum gas also increased. The cost of fresh fruits and melons plunged 13.6%.

      The cost of services inched up 0.1%. Roughly 70% of that can be attributed to prices for services less trade, transportation, and warehousing, which rose 0.2 percent. Prices for transportation and warehousing services, on the other hand, dipped 0.4%.

      Prices for final demand less foods, energy, and trade services -- the “core” rate of inflation -- was up 0.1% in December. For the year as a whole, the core jumped 1.7% following an increase of 0.3% in 2015.

      The complete report may be found on the BLS website

      Initial jobless claims

      The year got started with a surge in the number of first-time applications for state unemployment benefits.

      The Department of Labor (DOL) reports initial jobless claims jumped by 10,000 in the week ending January 7 to a seasonally adjusted 247,000.

      Even with that increase, the initial claims total has remained under 300,000 for 97 consecutive weeks -- the longest streak since 1970.

      The four-week moving average, considered by may economists to be a more accurate gauge of the labor market because of its lack of volatility, was down 1,750 to 256,500.

      The full report is available on the DOL website.

      Wholesale prices, or what the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calls the Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand, rose...