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So why is it that you can't watch Empire, Utopia, or other top-ranked TV or cable shows live on the Internet?

Don't blame Netflix, it's more likely that your cable TV or satellite provider has its thumb on the hose.

To put it simply, big cable companies pay program producers a lot of money to redistribute their product. The value of that product is reduced if the producers make it available on the Internet. To prevent that, the cable companies insert clauses into their contracts that either prohibit distribution on the Internet or reduce the price they're willing to pay for content that winds up on the Web. 

The question of how much influence big cable companies have over distribution of shows on the Internet is being studied by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as it considers the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable.

The FCC recently invited several big media firms, including Disney and 21st Century Fox, to discuss the contract clauses that big cable companies use to restrict Internet streaming. No one is saying exactly what was said, but a Disney spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that the "FCC should, of course, consider these issues."

The Charter-Time Warner merger would create a colossus nearly as large as Comcast, so it is seen as a prime target for some kind of FCC action to prevent cable companies from using their might to bottle up prime content and prevent consumers from "cutting the cord," dumping cable and getting all their TV programming from the Web. 

Charter has said that any restrictions should be placed on all cable companies, not just a combined Charter-Time Warner. But critics, including five Democratic U.S. senators, have expressed "significant concern" about the merger, suggesting it would create a "broadband duopoly" that would leave the combined company in control of nearly two thirds of the nation's broadband homes.

In a letter to the FCC and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the senators say that cable companies are "essential gatekeepers to what customers watch and how they watch it." Signing the letter were Sens. Edward Markey (D-MA), Al Franken (D-MN), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

The FCC commissioners are presidential appointees. If you want more competition in cable and broadband service, let your Congressional representatives know how you feel about it. You can find their addresses at and

Those cute little Volkswagen "clean diesels" -- you know, the ones with the defeat devices that cheat emissions tests -- will directly contribute to at least 60 premature deaths in the United States, more if a recall is not conducted promptly, a new MIT-led study finds.

Researchers took the amount of estimated excess pollution per car -- roughly 40 times the amount permitted by law -- and multiplied that times 482,000, the number of affected cars sold. Then they extrapolated the results to include population distribution and health risk factors and concluded the deceitful diesels will have "significant effects" on public health.

"It seemed to be an important issue in which we could bring to bear impartial information to help quantify the human implications of the Volkswagen emissions issue," said Steven Barrett, lead author of the study and an associate professor of aeronautrics and astronautics at MIT. "The main motivation is to inform the public and inform the developing regulatory situation."

According to the study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, excess emissions from Volkswagen's defeat devices will cause around 60 people in the U.S. to die 10 to 20 years prematurely.

If the automaker recalls every affected vehicle by the end of 2016, more than 130 additional early deaths may be avoided. If, however, Volkswagen does not order a recall in the U.S., the excess emissions, compounding in the future, will cause 140 people to die early.

Besides the death toll, the researchers estimated that Volkswagen's trickery will contribute directly to 31 cases of chronic bronchitis and 34 hospital admissions involving respiratory and cardiac conditions. They calculate that individuals will experience about 120,000 minor restricted activity days, including work absences, and about 210,000 lower-respiratory symptom days.

"We all have risk factors in our lives, and [excess emissions] is another small risk factor," Barrett explains. "If you take into account the additional risk due to the excess Volkswagen emissions, then roughly 60 people have died or will die early, and on average, a decade or more early."

Barrett says that, per mile driven, this number is about 20 percent of the number of deaths caused by highway accidents.

The Republican presidential candidates hammered fellow candidate and front-runner Donald Trump last week over Trump University, a for-profit school he set up to provide real estate training.

"There are people who borrowed $36,000 to go to Trump University, and they're suing now — $36,000 to go to a university that's a fake school," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), during last week's debate. "And you know what they got? They got to take a picture with a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump."

Trump University is the defendant in a class action lawsuit, originally filed in 2010, that claims, among other things, that students were promised a one-year apprenticeship, but it ended after they paid for a three-day seminar. Attendees who were promised a personal photo with Trump received only the chance to take a photo with a cardboard cutout; many of the instructors had little or no academic qualifications.

The Republican presidential campaign has actually focused renewed attention on for-profit universities and their role in mounting student loan debt.

While Trump University was more of an industry-specific training institute rather than university, many students who have enrolled in for-profit colleges have lived to regret it, especially those who borrowed large sums to attend now-defunct Corinthian College.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris is calling on the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to do more to protect students defrauded by Corinthian Colleges and other for-profit schools.

The ED recently held the second of three negotiated rulemaking sessions to determine how student borrowers can get relief from federal student loans when these loans were used at a school engaging in decietful and abusive policies. Harris' office was one of two representatives for state attorneys general taking part.

“Too many students defrauded by for-profit colleges remain buried under mountains of student debt,” Harris said in a release. “I call on the Department of Education to revise their proposed regulations to ensure meaningful debt relief is available to any student misled by a predatory college."

Harris's office worked with federal investigators when looking into Corinthian College practices. The investigation found job placement rates were widely misrepresented to enrolled and prospective Corinthian students.

As a result, thousands of students who attended Corinthian have asked the ED to discharge their federal loans because they were deceived by Corinthian’s inflated job placement rates.

Harris maintains that Corinthian was not the only for-profit school engaging in this kind of activity. She says other for-profit institutions have used similar dishonest tactics against their students, and it is expected that many more students will need to utilize this defense.

Harris says another problem lies in vague federal regulations that make it hard to determine exactly who is eligible to have their student loans discharged. She says she would like to see new regulations define the criteria more clearly.

She's calling for a number of changes in the new draft of ED rules, including a broadening of the categories of school misconduct that would give rise to a defense to repayment.

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Amazon recently launched seven of its own private label clothing brands: Franklin & Freeman, Franklin Tailored, James & Erin, Lark & Ro, North Eleven, Scout + Ro, and Society New York.

Reports note that while there wasn’t much in the way of launch day fanfare, the stylish and affordably priced brands seem poised for success.

Getting in on the fast fashion game by offering relatively inexpensive basics will allow Amazon to take advantage of gaps in its variety from outside vendors, says fashion site WWD.

The new lines -- which currently account for 1,800 listings on the site -- are as fashionable as they are budget-friendly. Women’s dresses are priced under $100, while men’s suits are listed for under $300.

James & Erin, North Eleven, Society New York, and Lark & Ro focus on women’s apparel, while Franklin & Freeman and Franklin Tailored offer dress shoes and apparel for men. Scout + Ro has the little ones covered.

Lark & Ro, which sells dresses for $66.50, offers a “practical yet polished look” for women on-the-go. Their collection of smart casual looks has everything from classic staples to fun florals. Lark & Ro also claims to source fabrics that will hold up all day, without creasing or wrinkles.

Franklin & Freeman focuses on men’s dress shoes and loafers, the majority of which will only set you back about $65. To go with your new shoes, head over to Franklin Tailored to take care of your suit and tie needs. Ties are priced at around $25 and suits are generally under $250.

Scout + Ro offers clothing for boys and girls aged 4 to 14. The brand describes its kid-friendly clothing as, “confident, comfortable, and ready-for-anything.” Girls and boys tops are going for around $10 to $15 and pants for around $20.

While Amazon has not officially confirmed it, reports speculate that the brand is already working to build its private label team. Job openings for head of marketing, senior brand manager, senior sourcing manager, and senior merchandiser for its private fashion label unit are currently open.

“Apparel is one of Amazon’s fastest-growing categories,” notes Ed Yruma, KeyBlanc Capital analyst, whose team believes the low barriers to entry, size, and significant competitive set "make this an attractive category for Amazon." 

He adds, however, that there is more work to be done to scale the site’s foray into the realm of apparel. Yruma believes greater brand cooperation with third-party seller restrictions and an owned-brand approach will be necessary for future growth and success.

It seems that skin cells are becoming a hot topic of discussion in the scientific community lately. After last week’s report on how skin cells are being us..

If you own a car that is at least a few years old, you no doubt have received a post card, or official-looking letter, warning you that your vehicle is about to go out of warranty.

It might even warn you that the communication you are holding in your hand is your “final notice!”

In truth, your car has probably been out of warranty for some time, or it may still be covered by the manufacturer's warranty. The sender of the card or letter is simply hoping you will be panicked into purchasing a service contract for several thousand dollars.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson believes solicitations like that are deceptive and might cause an unsuspecting consumer to purchase a service contract he or she doesn't really want or need.

Swanson has sued United Auto Defense, LLC, a company based in Missouri, that she says used deceptive business practices to sell costly and unnecessary vehicle service contracts in her state. She also warned consumers to be on guard against companies that pose as vehicle manufacturers to sell warranties.

Swanson said her investigation uncovered the fact that United Auto Defense was sending out postcards that were designed to look like they came from the vehicle manufacturer.

“The company got people to buy warranties whose vehicles were already covered by a warranty,” Swanson said in a release. “People should be on guard against companies posing as manufacturers or dealers to sell expensive warranties that are riddled with loopholes.”

Swanson took strong exception to one of United Auto Defense's mailings that she said was labeled a “Technical Service Bulletin.” The mailing told recipients that “Technical Service Bulletins…are recommended procedures for repairing vehicles. Not to be confused with a recall, a TSB is issued by vehicle manufacturers and authorized repair facilities when there are several occurrences of an unanticipated problem.”

There are legitimate companies that sell vehicle service contracts – often mistakenly referred to as extended warranties. The debate is over whether they are worth the money.

When purchasing a used car, having a three-month warranty to cover a major repair might be a wise investment.

If you are considering an extended service contract, however, make sure you understand what it covers and what limitations and deductibles apply.  

First comes love, then comes marriage -- but building a bridge from one to the other can often come with a high price tag. Society standards dictate that before entering the realm of marriage, you must first cough up the price of admission: a wedding.

It seems Americans have no problem with that, either. Weddings are a $60 billion per year industry here in the U.S. Between the rings, the venue, and other wedding-related activities, couples spent an average of $30,000 to get married last year, according to the Knot.

The biggest wedding expense was the venue, with couples spending an average of $14,006. Engagement rings took second place on the short list of biggest budget-eaters, costing an average of $5,855 (the band, $3,587). Photography and flowers also took a big bite out of wedding budgets, costing couples $2,556 and $2,141, respectively. 

That rule of thumb which states that a man must spend two months’ salary on his lady’s engagement ring? That’s actually a product of a clever marketing campaign.

De Beers diamond company not only suggested that “a diamond is forever,” they slapped a price point on it. “Two months salary showed the future Mrs. Smith what the future would be like,” read the 1980s advertisement.

But lucky for modern day grooms-to-be, more brides are looking past traditional norms when it comes to engagement rings. Non-diamond engagement ring alternatives -- such as man-made diamonds and other precious gems -- are becoming coveted, and not just for their lower price tag.

The more unique look of alternative engagement rings has brides-to-be swooning. “Alternative,” “non-traditional,” and even “unconventional” are all popular searches on sites like Pinterest and Etsy.

The “W” word can magically raise the cost of a venue. Instead of telling vendors and venue owners that you’re planning a wedding, just say that you’re planning an event.

"If you don't mention the word 'wedding,' the price is often 25 percent to 30 percent cheaper," Alan Fields, co-author of "Bridal Bargains: Secrets to Planning a Fantastic Wedding on a Realistic Budget” told 20/20.

Avoiding the marriage markup in the venue category can be as easy as taking the sentimental route. Choosing a location with meaning -- a park with positive memories attached or the setting of your first date, for example -- can often be a lot more special than a big reception hall.

Consider doing your own flowers. Craft store vases, backyard greenery, and sites like can all be a big help if you plan to tackle the role of florist on your own. You could even consider having bridesmaids walk down the aisle with flower alternatives, such as lanterns.

Music can also be taken care of without having to hire a professional. All it takes is a laptop to become your own DJ.

“Our venue had a professional sound system built in. We literally plugged in a MacBook Pro, had a friend help us create a playlist that flowed, and danced the night away,” said Emily Erker Szucs via Facebook.

To avoid spending big on wedding photography, keep in mind that it will be much cheaper to hire a photographer during the off-season or any day except Saturday or Sunday.

You could also consider having a friend or family member take the pictures, either as a wedding gift or at a discounted rate. When it comes to saving money on a wedding, it's always a good idea to graciously accept help when it's offered.

It was announced with much fanfare last year that the exclusive deal between American Express and Costco would end on March 31, 2016, when the Citi Visa would become the only credit card accepted by Costco.

That's the estimated size of the portfolio of loans outstanding to 51 million holders of the co-branded Amex/Costco credit card. In a statement today, just 32 days away from the announced transition date, American Express said it has concluded negotiations with Citi, which will acquire the portfolio for about $1 billion.

"The sale is expected to close June 2016, at which time all eligible Costco American Express Card cobranded accounts will be transferred to Citi. Additional details will be provided to Card Members in advance of the partnership end date," American Express said in a statement.

If that sounds to you like the March 31 date has slipped, you're probably right. Here's how Citi put it: "The transaction is expected to close in mid-2016 at which time Citi will begin issuing Costco credit cards."

Costco has not troubled itself to issue any public guidance to its members, but Citi says it will issue new Citi Visas to all eligible holders of Amex Costco cards in "mid-2016."

"We are immensely pleased to have entered into an agreement to acquire the Costco portfolio and look forward to a long-term partnership with Costco and the opportunity to deliver value, convenience and seamless service to their 51 million loyal members across the country," said Jud Linville, Chief Executive Officer, Citi Cards.

The Walt Disney Company theme parks are borrowing a page from other travel industries, basing ticket prices on demand.

Effective immediately, tickets to Disney parks are being priced according to the season and anticipated demand. Prices will be higher on holidays and during prime visitation season.

The policy only affects one-day tickets and not multiple visit passes. Disney said it is adopting seasonal pricing as a way to spread out visitation at its parks.

“The demand for Disney parks continues to grow, particularly during peak periods,” the company said in a blog posting over the weekend. “At the same time, we have an unwavering commitment to exceeding the expectations of all our guests.”

From now on, Disney will divide each month into “value,” “regular,” and “peak” days with an eight to 11 month calendar available for viewing online. For example, if consumers plan a visit for September, they’ll have a variety of options, including many days in the value period, which will give them the opportunity to pay less for a One-Day ticket.

If consumers plan to visit during a peak period, like the winter holidays, they will pay more. Purchasing a One-Day ticket in a non-peak period, or choosing multi-day tickets and annual passes, will provide additional flexibility and value, the company said.

We checked the Disneyland Park site to discover the difference between the three price levels. Seven days during the month are identified as “value” and tickets start at $95. There are 10 “regular” days starting at $105. There are 14 “peak” days in March, when tickets start at $119.

Consumers are probably beginning to plan summer vacations. But if those trips involve air travel, when you book and when you fly can affect the total cost of the vacation.

If you don't plan to travel for a couple of months, you're in luck. reports the best time to book your flight is 54 days before departure.

This year's study of dates and pricing analyzed 1.3 billion fares and identified five booking “zones” that can save consumers money.

The study included airfares for roughly 3 million different trips across every day of the year. And by “trip,” the company means an itinerary going from Point A to Point B on a specific date with a specific return date.

For each trip, CheapAir identified the lowest fare offered every day from 320 days in advance until 1 day in advance.

“Fifty-four days is a good number to start with, but it’s important to know that every trip is different,” Jeff Klee, CEO of, said in a release. “That’s why we have what we call the ‘Prime Booking Window’ which is between 21 and 112 days before departure.

Klee says for most trips within the U.S., the best time to buy a ticket will be somewhere in that range.

“But because different markets have different dynamics, we now also provide the Prime Booking Window for the specific city you want to visit,” he said.

Klee says most airfares follow a fairly consistent pattern. Once the fare is posted, the price is pretty high. As the departure date approaches, the fare begins to drop.

When the departure date is just a few weeks away, the fare begins to go up again. To save money, Klee says you have to hit the bottom of that curve, picking the “just right” moment to book your flight. The biggest mistake is waiting too late to purchase.

“People ask all the time if it’s true that at the last minute the airlines have unsold seats that they practically ‘give away’, but that’s rarely the case,” Klee said. “Fares usually go up dramatically within 14 days of the flight.”

Generally, fares are posted for 11 months before departure. has divided that booking window into five “zones.” Here’s what travelers should know about each one:

Based on its findings, CheapAir has developed a tool to help consumers find the best time to book. You can check it out here.

Millennials' strongly-held views about food may have its roots in the 2004 documentary “Super-Size Me,” in which independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days, gaining 24 pounds and damaging his health.

Despite the fact that no one in their right mind would recommend such a diet, suddenly young people, who as children loved to eat at fast food restaurants, wouldn't set foot in one.

The trend has continued, with nutritionist David Despain writing in Food Technology Magazine that the effects have shaken up the food industry. He writes that entrepreneurial companies are disrupting the food chain through product innovation, storytelling, and home delivery services.

These small companies cater to consumers who embrace the “small is beautiful” mantra, and if it's small and local, so much the better.

Despain cites a 2015 study by Mintel that found 43% of Millennials do not trust large food manufacturers, compared to only 18% of non-Millennials who have that prejudice.

Because of this distrust, Despain believes Millennials want brands to form a “genuine, authentic connection” with them. They have also mixed their taste in food with morality, seeking out products with local or novel ingredients and brands that are “attached to a greater ethical mission.”

As a result, small food brands are successfully connecting with consumers by offering natural and transparent products and aligning ingredients and marketing with a social cause.

But guess what? So are large food companies -- or at least they're trying. Gordon Food Service, a major corporation selling food to restaurants and institutions, has explored Millennial tastes in-depth, noting this generation is seeking “authenticity” in its food choice.

“It’s about authenticity of experience—food with integrity that’s handcrafted in the back of the house,” the company writes on its website.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, one of the food industry's largest trade groups, recently collaborated with Deloitte to study food trends influenced by Millennials. It not only found that values continue to play an oversized role in food decisions, but the trend is no longer confined to one generation.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s not just the Millennials or most affluent putting these evolving drivers in the mix,” Jack Ringquist, principal, Deloitte Consulting, said in a release. “Our research reveals that the preference for these attributes does not differ by generation, income level or region, but is pervasive across these groups.”

The bottom line, the food industry trade group concluded, is that the U.S. consumer has changed in a fundamental way and large food companies need to adapt to remain competitive.

Many already are. Despain says major retailers are catering to new consumer needs by changing the assortment on their shelves to include more products from smaller brands. Investors, too, see tremendous potential in smaller food companies and have been eager to finance new food ventures.

Meanwhile, as large food companies struggle to stay relevant, small food businesses are quickly becoming competitive and disrupting the traditional food chain, Despain writes.

As if to prove that what goes up must come down, pending home sales fell in January following their highest average year in nearly a decade.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, declined 2.5% last month to 106.0. Still, the index is 1.4% above a year ago and, while the PHSI has increased year-over-year for 17 consecutive months, last month’s annual gain was the second smallest during that time frame.

“While January’s blizzard possibly caused some of the pullback in the Northeast, the recent acceleration in home prices and minimal inventory throughout the country appears to be the primary obstacle holding back would-be buyers,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “Additionally, some buyers could be waiting for a hike in listings come springtime.”

Existing-home sales increased last month and were considerably higher than the start of 2015, but price growth quickened to 8.2% -- the largest annual gain since April 2015 (8.5%).

While the hope is that appreciating home values will start to entice more homeowners to sell, Yun says supply and affordability conditions won’t meaningfully improve until home builders start ramping up production -- especially of homes at lower price points. Chief Economist Jonathan Smoke said he expects to see an increase in new contracts in February "as web activity and stated buyer intentions combine with better weather for most of the country to enable an early start to the spring buying season."

In addition, he said, "The existing home market should see marginal growth in 2016, but tight supply will continue to be the biggest inhibitor of sales."

General Motors is recalling 139 model year 2016 Chevrolet Camaro, Malibu, Silverado and GMC Sierra vehicles.

The radio may intermittently fail to provide an audio warning when the key has been left in the ignition and the door is opened or when the driver does not fasten their seat belt. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) number 114, "Theft Protection", and/or 208, "Occupant Crash Protection."

GM will notify owners, and dealers will update the radio software, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020, or GMC customer service at 1-800-462-8782. GM's number for this recall is 15808.

Maytag Dairy Farms is again expanding its recall of Maytag Blue blue cheese wedges, wheels and crumbles.

This expanded recall is of 35 lots of 1-, 4- and 8-oz. Wedges; 2- and 4-lb. wheels; and 43 batches of 8-oz. crumbles and 5-lb. crumbles. This includes the five lots and 15 batches that were recalled earlier this month are noted in the following tables:

The recalled products were sold through distributors, wholesalers, retail stores, restaurants and direct mail orders nationwide between November 24, 2015, and February 11, 2016.

Consumers may call Maytag Dairy Farms at 800-247-2458 or 641-791-2010 Monday – Friday 9AM-5PM (CST) to arrange for a refund and return of the product.

It’s not unusual to see cruisers drinking alcoholic beverages in the morning and at lunch. You may wonder if this normal cruise behavior or did these cruis..

A recent innovation of using skin cells may prove effective in fighting brain cancer, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By utilizing technology that won a Nobel prize in 2007, pharmacy researchers have been able to turn certain types of skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells. When changed, the cells are able to effectively hunt down and destroy brain tumor cells called glioblastoma.

The new technique could prove to be groundbreaking for patients suffering from brain cancer. Current treatment methods only give those suffering from glioblastoma a 30% chance of living beyond two years. This is due to the tumors’ complexity; while surgery can be effective in removing as much of the tumor as possible, it is not good at removing the tendrils that sprout from them. These tendrils burrow deeper into the brain and cause remnants of the tumor to grow back. Most patients only survive a year and a half after receiving a diagnosis.

So in order to effectively treat this form of cancer, researchers went to work on finding ways to eliminate these tendrils. Dr. Shawn Hingtgen and his team went to work with this goal in mind. By reprogramming a certain type of skin cell called a fibroblast, he and his team were able to create induced neural stem cells. These stem cells are able to more easily move through the brain and destroy the tendrils that surgery cannot remove.

The results of the research have been promising thus far. Depending on the type of tumor, researchers were able to increase survival rates in mice by 160-220 percent.

The next step for researchers is to start working with human stem cells. Hingtgen and his team hope to be able to load different anti-cancer drugs into them so that their potency will be increased. “We wanted to find out if these induced neural stem cells would home in on cancer cells and whether they could be used to deliver a therapeutic agent. This is the first time this direct reprogramming technology has been used to treat cancer,” he said.

There are still some kinks that need to be worked out before the stem cells can effectively work in a human model. For example, after being inserted into the body, the stem cells have a tendency to become disorganized and not work effectively.

Hingtgen and his team are working on ways of binding them to a physical matrix so that they will have more longevity and work more efficiently. “Without a structure like that, the stem cells wander off too quickly to do any good,” said Hingtgen.

Despite the stock market’s turbulent start to 2016, the housing market appears to be fine. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), existing-home sales rose 0.4% in January, hitting their highest annual rate in six months.

We’re off to a solid start on the existing sales front, notes Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, and strong demand is evident as we head into spring.

"The housing market has shown promising resilience in recent months, but home prices are still rising too fast because of ongoing supply constraints," he said. "Despite the global economic slowdown, the housing sector continues to recover and will likely help the U.S. economy avoid a recession."

Experts say inventory in nine local markets is moving three weeks faster than last month, and the spring buying season has already begun.’s preliminary analysis of February data shows strong demand and slight inventory growth.

“It looks like the groundhog was correct -- spring is coming early this year, and not just when it comes to the weather,” said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist of “Early readings on February inventory and activity indicate that the spring home buying season has begun.”

Not only is housing inventory moving faster (six days faster than last year and four days faster than January), Median listing prices have risen to $230,000 -- an 8% increase from last year.

“On a local level,” he says, “The acceleration is really dramatic with nine of the top ten hottest markets shaving three weeks or more from their median age in January.”

California once again dominates the list of’s Hottest Markets, with cities in the Golden State accounting for 11 of the top 20 spots.

J.C. Penney, a retailer once left for dead, is turning heads on Wall Street, perhaps because it has regained the respect of consumers on Main Street.

The proof was delivered in the company's fourth quarter and full-year earnings report late Thursday. Comparable store sales grew 4.1 % for the fourth quarter and 4.5 % for the full year.

The company said the combination of strong sales growth, better profit margins, and disciplined expense reduction resulted in full year adjusted earnings of $715 million, a $435 million increase.

"We are very pleased with our performance for the fourth quarter and full year,” J.C. Penney CEO Marvin Ellison said in a press release announcing the earnings. “Our focus on private brands, omnichannel and revenue per customer is clearly resonating as we continue to win market share in a competitive environment.”

Ellison probably has every right to be pleased since the company suffered what can only be described as a disastrous makeover and customer revolt just four years ago. For those who don't recall those events, here's what happened.

At the urging of activist board member Bill Ackman, J.C. Penney at the beginning of 2012 abandoned its long tradition of serving a middle class, middle aged, and middle-of-the-road consumer. The company hoped to replace that J.C. Penney customer with one who was younger and cooler.

It changed its brand to JCP and launched its offensive with the TV commercial below, which few people understood but old J.C. Penney customers universally hated.

"This is the worst ad of all time, stop it immediately," wrote Kathy, of Hillsboro, Ore. "We will boycott J.C. Penney until it offers an apology to all its customers!"

"I am complaining about the obnoxious television commercial aired announcing your new pricing campaign," wrote Carole, of Lakewood, Calif. "It has to be one of the most irritating, annoying commercials ever created for television. If you think this will make anyone shop at your stores, you are mistaken as far as I'm concerned.”

What Kathy and Carole didn't understand was that the ad was probably designed to evoke that reaction in them. To many industry observers, Penneys appeared to be firing its customers, with plans to replace them.

The old customers left, but the hoped-for new ones didn't arrive, at least not in the necessary numbers. Just over a year later, amid mounting losses, J.C. Penney went back to the future, reinstalling its former CEO and returning to many of its previous pricing and operational policies.

Enough of its customers have returned that the company now appears to be back on its feet. In fact, it's doing better than some of its rivals like Macy's and Sears, that have struggled in the increasingly tough retail environment.

Looking for a way to make fast food even faster? There’s an app for that. To an increasing extent, restaurants and fast food chains are using apps as a way..

It took a long time for California gasoline prices to finally start falling, joining much of the rest of the country. But those prices are headed higher again, as early as next week.

Refiners have been stuck with excess supplies of the cheaper, winter grade gasoline that cannot be legally sold after next Tuesday. To get rid of it, wholesalers have slashed prices in recent weeks.

That's led to an average statewide price at the pump of $2.34 cents a gallon in California, more expensive than the national average but down nearly 80 cents a gallon from this time last year.

“Now that the winter gasoline has been consumed, those big discounts have vaporized, leading it to appear to be a big hike in price,” Gasbuddy senior petroleum analyst Patrick DeHaan said in an email to ConsumerAffairs. “I expect prices there to rise 20 to 35 cents a gallon over the next week as stations resupply with the more expensive, or less discounted, fuel.”

DeHaan says this transition occurs every year around this time and is the reason behind the seasonal lift in prices at the pump.

“As the summer fuel season starts, inventories are generally limited – they build over time – and that means going from a glut of cheap winter gasoline to tight supply of CARB-mandated summer spec fuel,” DeHaan said.

DeHaan predicts Northern California will see a similar rise in three to four weeks. He says the price hike may come in at a lesser or greater degree, depending on refinery maintenance, supply, demand, and other factors that can affect price.

“The rest of the country will also see a lift in gasoline prices over the next two to three months before prices peak in May or June just ahead of the deadline for the transition to be completed,” DeHaan said.

The national average price of gasoline, which had been steadily falling for months, appears to have stalled for now. According to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey, the national average price of self-serve regular is $1.728, a fraction of a cent higher than a week ago.

The survey shows consumers in the vast majority of states are still paying average prices below $2 per gallon. Missouri and Oklahoma remain the cheapest in the nation, at $1.46. On the other end of the spectrum, motorists in the West are paying some of the nation’s highest averages led by Hawaii at $2.57 and California.

Prices are also moving in different directions in different parts of the country. Weekly comparisons show prices are down in 30 states and Washington, D.C. on the week with the largest savings west of the Rockies. At the same time, drivers in 20 states have seen prices at the pump go up since last week.

It turns out there is a difference between the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and the disease itself.

Good health and physical and mental exercise as you age may in fact delay the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms, but researchers writing in a medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology say it won't prevent the disease.

The study centered around people who carry a gene linked to Alzheimer's, the so-called APOE4 gene. An estimated 20% of the U.S. population carries it.

The researchers divided people with the gene into two groups. One group stayed mentally active in middle age and one didn't.

The mentally active group had lower levels of proteins, called amyloid plaques, that can build up in brain tissue and lead to Alzheimer’s disease than those who did not stay mentally active.

The difference was significant. The mentally active group had the same plaque build-up at age 79 that the non-active group had at 74.

“Recent studies have shown conflicting results about the value of physical and mental activity related to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and we noticed that levels of education differed in those studies,” study author Prashanthi Vemuri of the Mayo Clinic, said in a release. “When we looked specifically at the level of lifetime learning, we found that carriers of the APOE4 gene who had higher education and continued to learn through middle age had fewer amyloid deposition on imaging when compared to those who did not continue with intellectual activity in middle age.”

Some patients are diagnosed with Alzheimer's when they are actually suffering from frontotemporal dementia, which delays the correct treatment for them.

“Some people cannot tell frontotemporal dementia from Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Joseph Masdeu, director of the Nantz National Alzheimer Center at Houston Methodist Hospital, said in a release. “However, these diseases have different symptoms and treatments. And with advances in neuroimaging, we can see a clear difference in how frontotemporal dementia manifests in the brain.”

The accumulation of the protein beta amyloid in Alzheimer's can lead to excess production of an abnormal form of the important brain protein, tau.

But beta amyloid is absent in frontotemporal dementia, and a different abnormal form of tau is detected.

“A misdiagnosis of Alzheimer’s can prevent a person with frontotemporal dementia from participating in future trials for this group of disorders” Masdeu said.

Since potential Alzheimer’s treatments would not help a patient with frontotemporal dementia, misdiagnosed patients participating in Alzheimer’s clinical trials can skew that data and prevent the advancement of those treatments, Masdeu said.

The start of 2016 brought talk of “peak auto,” when many industry observers predicted new car sales, which rose at a record pace in 2015, would take a breather.

After an expected dip in January, robust sales have taken some by surprise this month. With dealers about to close out February, Kelley Blue Book (KBB) expects to see a 9% year-over-year rise, to 1.37 million units.

“February 2016 numbers should reveal solid growth and continued momentum in the auto industry,” Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst for KBB, said in a release. “Economic indicators remain positive for the industry, with the unemployment rate down below 5%, average home prices on the rise, and gas prices averaging under $2 per gallon.

It hasn't hurt, Gutierrez says, that manufacturers and dealers have been generous with the incentives this month, with discounts approaching pre-recession levels.

Despite Honda's problems with the Civic, which resulted in a stoppage of sales this month, Honda may well emerge as the winner of February sales. Preliminary figures suggest a 13% sales surge.

Most of Honda's strength is coming from the new Civic, even though recent sales were obviously slowed by the engine problem. That said, the re-designed Civic remains extremely popular with consumers and is averaging 45 days in dealer inventory before selling, much lower than the compact car segment average of 80 days.

Ford also appears to be having a successful February. KBB says Ford sales may post double-digit growth this month, helped by the popularity of its truck and SUV models. In particular, the F-Series and Explorer are leading the way.

And why not? With gas prices around $2 a gallon most places, consumers are indulging their preferences for bigger vehicles.

“Once again, small utility vehicles remain the most popular segment in February 2016 and are expected to increase 25% in volume,” said Gutierrez. “Consumers continue to be drawn to this segment in favor of traditional sedans, helping brands such as Jeep and Subaru reach new records nearly every month.”

Truck sales continue to look strong. KBB says mid-size models are in high demand as the fastest selling segment in the industry, spending just 40 days in dealer inventory on average.

Consumers were doing a little better in January as both personal income and disposable personal income (DPI) went up. For that matter, so did spending.

The Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reports incomes rose $79.6 billion, or 0.5%, last month and disposable personal income (DPI) -- personal income less personal current taxes -- increased $63.5 billion, or 0.5%.

Wages and salaries rose $48.1 billion in January, following an $18.3 billion gain in December. Private wages and salaries were up $43.7 billion, while government wages and salaries increased $4.4 billion, compared with an increase of $2.4 billion in December.

Personal outlays -- PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments -- jumped $67.5 billion in January, compared with an increase of $14.3 billion in December.

Personal saving, which is DPI less personal outlays, fell from $709.2 billion in December to $705.1 billion last month. Still, the personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 5.2%, the same rate as in December.

The Commerce Department has taken its second of three looks at how the economy was doing at year's end and found that things were a bit better than originally believed.

The government says real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the value of the goods and services produced by the nation’s economy less the value of the goods and services used up in production, adjusted for price changes -- grew at an annual rate of 1.0% in the fourth quarter instead of the 0.7% in the original estimate. The GDP was up 2.0% in the third quarter.

The difference in the first and second estimates is the fact that private inventory investment decreased less than previously reported.

Overall, the increase in real GDP in the fourth quarter reflected contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), residential fixed investment and federal government spending. These were partly offset by declines in exports, nonresidential fixed investment, state and local government spending and private inventory investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of the GDP, decreased.

The slowdown from the third quarter was due largely to a deceleration in PCE and downturns in nonresidential fixed investment, in state and local government spending, and in exports that were partly offset by a smaller decrease in private inventory investment, a downturn in imports, and an acceleration in federal government spending.

The price index for gross domestic purchases -- which measures prices paid by U.S. residents -- increased 0.4% in the fourth quarter, compared with an increase of 1.3% in the third. The “core” rate, which excludes food and energy prices, was up 1.0%, compared with a third quarter advance of 1.3%.

A superior rating for its standard front crash prevention system has earned the redesigned 2017 Audi Q7 a TOP SAFETY PICK+ award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

The IIHS doesn't routinely test large SUVs, and the Q7 is the first to be put through the challenging small overlap front crash test, which was introduced in 2012. The Q7 was tested because Audi nominated it for TOP SAFETY PICK+ and paid for the vehicles used.

In 2016, vehicles qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK or TOP SAFETY PICK+ if they have good ratings in all five crashworthiness evaluations -- small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints, as well as an available front crash prevention system.

If the system earns a basic rating, the vehicle qualifies for TOP SAFETY PICK. The "plus" is awarded to vehicles with an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention.

In the front crash prevention evaluation, the Q7 avoided a collision in the 12 mph track test. In the 25 mph test, the vehicle's speed was cut by an average of 23 mph. The system also includes a forward collision warning component that meets National Highway Traffic Safety Administration criteria.

Evenflo is recalling 56,247 Transitions 3-in-1 Combination Booster Seats, model numbers 34411686, 34411695 and 34411029, produced from December 18, 2014, through January 29, 2016.

The central front adjuster (CFA) button that is used to loosen the seat's internal harness may be within the child's reach, allowing the child to activate the CFA and loosen the internal harness.

If the internal harness is not tightened snugly around the child, the child would be at an increased risk of injury in the event of a crash.

This safety issue affects only the use of the seat in the forward-facing harnessed booster (22-65 lbs. and 28-50 in.) configuration.

Evenflo will notify owners and provide a remedy kit that includes a newly-designed seat pad and CFA assembly, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin during February 2016.

The recalled product bears establishment number “Est. 18356” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and was shipped to institutional and retail locations nationwide.

A federal judge today gave Volkswagen one month to come up with a firm plan to bring nearly 600,000 of its "clean diesel" cars into compliance with United States clean air laws.

At a hearing in San Francisco, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer reminded VW that with every passing day, its cars are pumping excess pollution into the air and consumers who were taken in by VW's advertising are stuck with cars they can't sell.

Breyer, who is overseeing hundreds of lawsuits against VW, gave the company until March 24 to say how it will repair or replace the cars and how it will compensate owners -- and said he expects whatever plan VW comes up with to take no longer than six months. 

“It seems to me six months is long enough to determine whether or not there is an engineering process that can be utilized by Volkswagen and will be acceptable to the U.S. government,” Breyer said, Automotive News reported.

Lawyers for VW said they are in negotiations with various federal and state agencies and with armies of lawyers representing various individual and class action plaintiffs, but Breyer said he wanted to introduce a "sense of urgency" into finding and implementing a solution.

Federal regulators earlier rejected VW's initial plans to retrofit about 500,000 of the affected vehicles with 2.0-liter engines. A plan to repair vehicles with 3.0-liter engines is still pending.

"The story about lawyers is that if you give them a year to do something, it will take them a year to do something. If you give them 30 days to do something, they'll do something in 30 days," he said.

VW has said it is working as fast as it can to reach a solution that is acceptable to U.S. and European regulators.

Breyer earlier appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as a settlement adviser in hopes of keeping the settlement and repair talks on track.

Pancreatic cancer is often lethal, but a discovery by a team of international researchers may make it less so.

The team, which includes researchers from The University of Glasgow, found that pancreatic cancer is actually four different types of the disease. The cancers occur when large sections of DNA get misplaced. This action is also damaging to genes.

Sean Grimmond, of the University of Melbourne Cancer Research Center, led the study. He says it demonstrates that pancreatic cancer is actually four diseases, each with treatments and survival rates. 

According to the researchers, the shuffling of chunks of DNA creates genetic chaos. Genes can be eliminated, switched on and off, or entirely new versions might be created. It's believed that some of this damage could potentially be targeted with existing drugs.

“Despite many decades of research into pancreatic cancer we have faced numerous obstacles in finding new and effective treatments," study co-lead Andrew Biankin said in a release. “But our crucial study sheds light on how the chaotic chromosomal rearrangements cause a huge range of genetic faults that are behind the disease and provide opportunities for more personalized pancreatic cancer treatment.”

Instead of treating just one type of pancreatic cancer, physicians may be able to select the treatment that will be most effective for a particular subtype. The researchers think their findings can better predict which pancreatic cancer patients may benefit from platinum-based drugs, that are commonly used in chemotherapy treatments and typically used for testicular or ovarian cancer.

To date, these drugs have not been deployed very much against pancreatic cancer. However, the study found that some patients who had unstable chromosome rearrangements and defects in the DNA repair pathways could potentially benefit, “sometimes showing exceptional improvement.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, a pancreatic cancer diagnosis often has a poor outcome, even when diagnosed early. And because symptoms don't show up in the early stages, it is rarely caught early. The Mayo Clinic says that's the reason it is one of the most deadly forms of cancer.

Nissan Leaf owners could find themselves on the hot seat, according to a security researcher who says the electric car's heating and cooling system could be taken over by hackers using a simple app.

Australian researcher Troy Hunt says that using the NissanConnect app could allow hackers to turn on the air conditioning or heating system on Nissan Leafs, Tom's Hardware reports.

While this isn't exactly life-threatening, it could be used to run down the car's batteries, leaving the driver stranded. It could also be used to track a car's daily movements, information that could be used for all kinds of nefarious purposes.

What's perhaps most distressing about the apparent security flaw is that Hunt contacted Nissan a month ago and alerted the company to the issue but has received no response and sees no sign the company has taken any action.

Security researchers often go public with such findings if companies drag their feet. Their concern is that if they have found a vulnerability, others who aren't so well-intentioned have as well.

With automakers rushing to produce self-driving cars, it's a bit worrisome that they may not feel a sense of urgency about closing software loopholes that could endanger motorists, security researchers say.

It's generally assumed that insurance rates will go up after you have an accident and file a claim, but by how much? More than you might think, according to a report by

The biggest increase would come if you happen to live in California. There, a driver making a first claim would face an average increase of 78%. Massachusetts and Wisconsin are nearly as expensive, with average rate hikes of 67% and 54% respectively.

On the other hand, claims are less expensive for drivers in Maryland, Michigan, and Oklahoma, who see their rates rise between 22% and 25%.

If you have an accident and make a claim, the only worse thing you can do is have another accident and make a second claim. The study says your insurance rate will be twice as high as a driver without a claim.

“Previous claims are a big factor in car insurance rates and can affect the amount you pay for years,” Laura Adams, senior analyst at InsuranceQuotes, said in a release. “If you get a rate hike for making a small claim, it could end up hurting your finances over the long run. In some cases, not making a claim can be a smarter move.”

That's a hard concept for many consumers to grasp. You pay for insurance every month, so why can't you use it when you need it?

That's certainly a rational argument, but unfortunately that's not how the insurance system works. Insurance is all based on perceived risk – the chances you will file a claim that costs the company money.

Insurance companies believe that once you file a claim, chances are good you will file another at some point. Fair or not, under the concept of shared risk, you'll be penalized.

It becomes a judgment call when it makes economic sense to file an insurance claim and when it pays to pay for damage yourself. has this handy calculator to help you figure it out.

Why have insurance at all if you are penalized for using it? Good question. In a majority of cases it would pay to “self-insure,” putting the money you would pay for car insurance each month into a savings account.

Unfortunately, your self-insurance policy would not be able to cover all potential accidents – which could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and liability.

That's why every state requires motorists to carry auto insurance, or pay into a state-maintained “uninsured driver” fund each month.

The race to upgrade broadband delivery is heating up with today's announcement by Google that it is accelerating its move into San Francisco by using existing fiber to drop service into selected apartment and condo buildings and some public housing complexes in the city.

It announced a similar plan in Huntsville, Alabama, earlier this week, saying it would offer service via a municipal fiber network now being built there.

Google first used the "drop-in" service method in Atlanta, where AT&T has been rolling out its GigaPower service and Comcast is offering its 2-gigabit Gigabit Pro service. 

Google Fiber has set up a website where consumers can check on whether -- and when -- the high-speed service may be available on their block. 

After a decade or so in which telecom and cable companies have pretty much divided the country to suit themselves, Google and other upstarts are bringing competition to the broadband delivery business, coming in on top of existing carriers.

With the addition of San Francisco, Google Fiber says it has now committed to build out its high-speed gigabit services to ten metro areas.  It is also exploring expansions in Chicago; Portland, OR.; Los Angeles, San Jose, Irvine and San Diego, CA.; Phoenix; Oklahoma City; Louisville, KY.; and Jacksonville and Tampa, FL.

Bread is a big part of many consumer diets, but it is pretty much off-limits to those who are carb cautious and gluten-free. But avoiding carbs doesn’t hav..

Identity theft seems like a high-tech crime, carried out by hacking into databases, harvesting purloined emails, and using phishing expeditions to trick consumers into revealing their private data.

But sometimes it's as simple as reading the name on your mail. That's what prosecutors say postal carrier Elizabeth Grant did. The Seale, Alabama, woman worked for years delivering mail. On the side, she stole the names and addresses of the people on her mail route and provided them to her co-conspirators.

Her accomplices prepared phony tax returns and when the government mailed out refund checks, Grant stole them and turned the checks over to her partners in crime, trial testimony indicated.

The scheme resulted in more than 700 false returns being filed and more than $1.5 million in tax refunds being stolen.

Grant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to more than five years in prison yesterday by a federal judge in Alabama. Several of her collaborators were sentenced earlier.

Wearable tech can help keep you fit and even measure your emotional well-being. Now, wearable tech is donning yet another hat -- it’s stepping into the arena of pet health.

Most pet owners are guilty of talking to their pets, but unfortunately there’s never been a way for them to talk back. With the Kyon Pet Tracker, your dog (or cat) can actually communicate with you.

The Fitbit-esque smart collar boasts an array of features that seek to help keep your dog safe and out of trouble. The embedded GPS tracker will let you know exactly where your dog is -- down to what floor of a building -- at all times. (A far cry from a “Lost Dog” flyer in the event that Fido has wandered off.)

You can also track your pup’s health and safety thanks to the collar’s onboard LED display. “I’m hot” and other messages will appear on the display (as well as your phone) to let you know what kind of attention your pet needs. You’ll also be alerted if your pet has fallen into a pool or is at risk of drowning so you can swoop in and save them.

“The Kyon collar gives pets a voice,” company co-founder Leon Yohai said in a press release. “Our product is unique and ensures beloved pets are healthy and happy, while also preserving owners’ peace of mind.”

Expected to be in wide release this summer, the Pet Tracker will retail for $249.99. A $4.99 monthly fee will also be required to cover cellular network costs. Kyon will launch a Kickstarter campaign soon to raise $70,000 to finish funding the device’s production. A limited number of early backers will be able to purchase the smart collar for as low as $189.

If you're retiring this year, congratulations. Life will get better if you've planned well, but remember that taxes can play a huge role in your financial future during retirement.

Once you are no longer working full time and depending mostly on Social Security and retirement savings accounts, your tax situation can change. Dara Luber, senior manager of retirement at TD Ameritrade, says retirees – and those soon to be retired – need to pay closer attention to aspects of the tax law that can help or hurt.

“You need to be aware of how Obamacare and tax penalties related to the Affordable Care Act might have tax implications,” Luber told ConsumerAffairs. “You need to know whether tax brackets are changing.”

You also need to be aware of advantages that are available to older consumers, like changes to catch-up contributions. Ignoring legal changes could mean missing out on tax-favorable, last minute catch-ups to a retirement fund.

When you turn 65, the way you file your taxes may change. You may be eligible for certain credits and deductions, and will be able to take a higher standard deduction, which may be more advantageous than claiming itemized deductions. Tax planning may change, especially if you are withdrawing funds from a tax-deferred retirement account.

“You may want to take into consideration things like your required minimum distribution if you are 70 and a half, you may want to take into consideration some state tax benefits in terms of your Social Security, and how that's taxed,” Luber said.

At the same time, certain credits or deductions you've enjoyed in the past may no longer apply. You may need to consider paying estimated quarterly taxes once you hit retirement.

Luber says there is no cookie cutter retirement plan, but you can take into account some fairly general assumptions by asking yourself some questions.

“Do you think taxes are going up? What do you think will happen with Social Security and Medicare? The answers can affect your tax planning,” she said.

Fortunately, there are many resources to help retirees deal with tax issues. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) provides an extensive resource for retirement issues. TD Ameritrade also maintains a 2016 Tax Resource Center that may prove helpful.

Finally, Luber says it is important to consult with a tax professional as you transition into retirement. If you have been doing your own taxes each year, it might be wise to obtain the services of an enrolled agent—a tax professional who is licensed by the IRS, at least for the first year.

If your retirement involves a move, you may want to check with your new state's CPA society, the Accreditation Council for Accountancy and Taxation, or the National Association of Enrolled Agents.

The important thing is to make sure you are aware of all the benefits and responsibilities that come to a retired taxpayer. Retirement will likely change many of the ways you live your life, including the way you manage your finances and taxes.

“It's really a balancing act, trying to figure out how you limit your taxes and keep more in savings and still have enough to live on in retirement,” Luber said.

While DraftKings and FanDuel battle with New York and other states that have accused the daily fantasy sports leaders of running illegal gambling operations, one state has moved in the other direction.

The Virginia General Assembly passed a measure on Wednesday setting up a legal framework for daily fantasy sports games. It was sent to Gov. Terry McAuliffe. who is expected to sign it.

Should he do so, Virginia would become the first state to formally recognize the popular games as legal.

"Today the Virginia General Assembly took an important step toward ensuring that fans in Virginia can continue to enjoy fantasy sports contests with thoughtful and appropriate consumer protections in place,” DraftKings' spokesman Grifin Finan said, in a statement emailed to ConsumerAffairs. “We thank Delegates Jackson Miller and Marcus Simon and Senator Ryan McDougle for their leadership in bringing a common sense regulatory framework through the legislature. We are grateful for their support and are actively engaged with dozens of legislatures around the country to replicate this success.”

According to DraftKings, more than 56 million Americans and 1.2 million Virginians play fantasy sports each year in a variety of sports, including football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and golf.

The legal framework measure cleared both houses of the Virginia legislature with bipartisan support. The measure would require daily fantasy companies to register with the state and pay a $50,000 application fee.

The Virginia action stands in stark contrast to New York, where Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has sued both DraftKings and FanDuel, charging them with violating New York's gambling laws.

In early January, Schneiderman amended his complaint, asking the court to order the two companies to pay civil damages and make restitution to New York players who lost money. An appeals court is currently considering the case.

The prices of houses in the U.S were up in the final three months of last year for the 18th quarter in a row.

According to the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI), prices were up 1.4% from the third quarter of last year and 5.8% from the fourth quarter of 2014.

"Instability in financial markets did not seem to put much of a drag on home prices in the fourth quarter," said FHFA Supervisory Economist Andrew Leventis. "The fourth quarter 1.4% increase for the U.S. was in line with the extremely steady -- but historically elevated -- appreciation rates we have been observing for several years now."

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

While the purchase-only HPI posted a year-over-year gain of 5.8%, prices of other goods and services fell 0.8%. The inflation-adjusted price of homes rose approximately 6.7% over the latest year.

In other economic news, first-time applications for state unemployment benefits moved sharply higher last week.

The Department of Labor (DOL) reports seasonally adjusted initial claims totaled 272,000 in the week ending February 20, -- up 10,000 from the previous week.

Even with that increase, which was not affected by any special factors, the number of claims remains at the lower end of the 250,000-300,000 range that has prevailed since July 2014.

The four-week moving average, which lacks the weekly tally's volatility and is seen by economists as a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was 272,000, down 1,250 from the previous week.

Toyota's 2016 Highlander has earned a good rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) small overlap front test -- improving from acceptable -- to clinch a 2016 TOP SAFETY PICK+ award.

Last year's model was also a TOP SAFETY PICK+, but the criteria for the award was tightened for 2016. Previously, an acceptable rating for small overlap protection was enough, but now a good rating is required. Toyota made structural modifications to improve small overlap performance for 2016.

During the test of the 2016 Highlander, the dummy's movement was better controlled than in the test of the earlier model. The head hit the front airbag, which stayed in front of the dummy until rebound. The dummy in the previous test slid off the airbag's left side.

To qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK or TOP SAFETY PICK+, a vehicle must earn good ratings in all five crashworthiness evaluations -- small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraints.

TOP SAFETY PICK winners also have an available front crash prevention system that earns a basic rating; vehicles earning the "plus" have an “advanced” or “superior” rating. The Highlander's optional front crash prevention is rated “advanced.”

Toyota Motor Company is recalling 25,706 model year 2013-2016 Toyota Scion FR-S vehicles manufactured March 13, 2012, to January 14, 2016 and equipped an automatic transmission and ignition key. Vehicles with a push-to-start button are not affected.

In the recalled vehicles, it may be possible to remove the ignition key without the transmission being in the "Park" position. As such, these vehicles fail to conform to the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard number 114, "Theft Protection and Rollaway Prevention."

If the key can be removed from the ignition when the transmission is not in the "Park" position, the vehicle could roll away increasing the risk of a crash and occupant or pedestrian injuries.

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the ignition key/transmission interlock wiring connections, correcting them as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on March 1, 2016.

Owners may contact Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331. Toyota's number for this recall is G0E.

The following products, sold between July 2, 2015, and February 3, 2016, at grocery, foodservice, other retail outlets and direct mail orders via the company website nationwide, are being recalled:

Customers who purchased the recalled items should not consume them, but return them to the place of purchase for a full refund or replacement.

Consumers with questions may contact Marathon Ventures at (402) 934-8223 Monday through Friday from 8:00 AM to 4:30PM (CT) or by e-mail at

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 1,037 model year 2009 Volkswagen Routans manufactured February 7, 2008, to August 28, 2008.

The air bag control units may corrode and fail resulting in failure of the air bags may to deploy in the event of a crash, increasing the risk of occupant injury. Additionally, the air bags may inadvertently deploy, increasing the risk of a crash.

VW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the air bag control unit, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

When Starbucks announced this week it is changing its rewards program to hand out stars based on spending instead of visits, it set off a firestorm of prot..

Let's face it, Facebook, we humans aren't quite as simple as we look. When informed of an event, circumstance or observation, we have a wide range of potential reactions -- amusement, anger, dismay, skepticism, denial and so forth.

That's why we have been annoyed, irate and disappointed that until now, we have been able to display only a single emotion on Facebook -- the dim-witted, happy face "Like."

But now we are happy, amused, relieved and downright jubilant to learn that one of the world's largest and supposedly forward-looking corporations has finally recognized that there is more to life than liking stuff.

All of which is by way of saying, in case you haven't already heard, that Facebook is expanding its Like button to display a somewhat wider range of emotions, though the permitted range is still limited to those that might be displayed by one who is heavily medicated.

Facebook calls this new function Reactions, "an extension of the Like button, to give you more ways to share your reaction to a post in a quick and easy way," as product manager Sammi Krug put it in a likeable enough posting.

Why is it called an extension? Because to make it work, you start out with the Like button we've all come to know and like.

"To add a reaction, hold down the Like button on mobile or hover over the Like button on desktop to see the reaction image options, then tap either Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad or Angry," said Krug. 

Much as we like hearing this, it's unlikely anyone would argue that these six emoji-like figures represent the entire range of human emotions. Fortunately, last time we checked, Facebook still accommodates text, meaning we can use the old shopworn but nevertheless likeable collection of alphabet extensions called words to express ourselves. 

A U.S. Senate investigation into defective Takata airbags has found what investigators say was widespread manipulation of airbag inflator test data by Takata employees, with some occurring after the recalls began. 

In another development, an auto industry group reports that the ammonium nitrate propellant was a key factor in the deadly ruptures -- but not the only one.

The Senate findings, by the minority staff of the Commerce Committee, were unveiled on the Senate floor by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the panel's ranking member. Nelson said committee investigators made the findings after reviewing thousands of company documents and emails dating back more than a decade.

“These new documents speak for themselves,” said Nelson. “There is no doubt in my mind that Takata failed to prioritize the safety of its products.” 

The findings update a report Nelson released last June showing Takata had known for years that there were serious production and testing issues.

The auto industry group said the ammonium nitrate propellant used in millions of airbag inflators was contained in assemblies that failed to protect the chemical from moisture in humid claimtes.

Over time, exposure to humidity coupled with temperature swings can cause the ammonium nitrate to combusst violently, rupting the inflator when the airbags deploy in a crash, the Independent Testing Coalition report said, according to a report in Automotive News.

“You can’t have the energetic disassembly without all three factors,” Kelly told Automotive News. “You have to have all three.”

Takata and safety regulators have long contended that a hot, muggy climates played a role in the airbag ruptures, but the ITC report is the first time a root cause has been identified.

Citibank faces a bill of more than $50 million to clean up its illegal debt sales and collection practices, following two separate enforcement actions by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

In the first action, the CFPB ordered Citibank to provide nearly $5 million in consumer relief and pay a $3 million penalty for selling credit card debt with inflated interest rates and for failing to forward consumer payments promptly to debt buyers.

The second action is against both Citibank and two debt collection law firms it used that falsified court documents filed in debt collection cases in New Jersey state courts. Citibank and the law firms were ordered to refund $11 million to consumers and forgo collecting about $34 million from nearly 7,000 consumers.

“Citibank sent inaccurate information to buyers when it sold off credit card debt and it also used law firms that altered court documents,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Today’s action provides redress to consumers who were victimized by slipshod practices as part of our ongoing work to fight abuses in the debt collection market.”

“The fact that Citibank was involved in these types of activities ... is unfortunately not surprising. In fact, Citibank ranked fourth among all companies for the most debt collection-related complaints in a two-year sample of complaints filed with the CFPB, and received the most complaints of any major bank," Hall said.

The CFPB said that from 2010 to 2013, Citibank sold portfolios of charged-off credit card accounts but in some instances, provided inaccurate and inflated APR information for almost 130,000 credit card accounts it sold to debt buyers. These buyers then used the exaggerated APR in debt collection attempts.

Citibank also failed to promptly forward to debt buyers approximately 14,000 customer payments totaling almost $1 million, the agency said. 

Computer company ASUS has agreed to a 20-year consent order that requires it to upgrade its security programs in response to Federal Trade Commission charges that critical security flaws in its routers put the home networks of hundreds of thousands of consumers at risk.

The FTC's complaint also charges that the routers’ insecure “cloud” services led to the compromise of thousands of consumers’ connected storage devices, exposing their sensitive personal information on the internet.

“The Internet of Things is growing by leaps and bounds, with millions of consumers connecting smart devices to their home networks,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Routers play a key role in securing those home networks, so it’s critical that companies like ASUS put reasonable security in place to protect consumers and their personal information.”

ASUS marketed its routers as including numerous security features that the company claimed could “protect computers from any unauthorized access, hacking, and virus attacks” and “protect [the] local network against attacks from hackers.” Despite these claims, the FTC’s complaint alleges that ASUS didn’t take reasonable steps to secure the software on its routers.

For instance, the FTC said, hackers could exploit pervasive security bugs in the router’s web-based control panel to change any of the router’s security settings without the consumer’s knowledge.  

The complaint specifies a number of other design flaws, including the fact that the company set – and allowed consumers to retain – the same default login credentials on every router: username “admin” and password “admin”.

According to the complaint, ASUS’s routers also featured services called AiCloud and AiDisk that allowed consumers to plug a USB hard drive into the router to create their own “cloud” storage accessible from any of their devices. While ASUS advertised these services as a “private personal cloud for selective file sharing” and a way to “safely secure and access your treasured data through your router,” the FTC’s complaint alleges that the services had serious security flaws.  

The agency said that in many cases, ASUS did not address security flaws in a timely manner and did not notify consumers about the risks posed by the vulnerable routers.  In addition, the complaint alleges that ASUS did not notify consumers about the availability of security updates.

It has been a little less than a week since consumers found out that some Parmesan food products were less than 100% cheese. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still investigating the issue, but it seems that some consumers took the news worse than others.

Bloomberg reports that Wal-Mart is being sued for selling Parmesan products that contained wood pulp – a complete contradiction of labels that read “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese.” Researchers have found that up to 10% of Wal-Mart’s Great Value brand was made up of a wood-based anti-clumping agent called cellulose.

Some consumers were taken aback by the report and said that they would have reconsidered their purchase if they had known about the cellulose beforehand. “The 100% representation was false and mis-characterized the amount and percentage of Parmesan cheese in the container,” said Marc Moschetta, the suit’s plaintiff.

Moschetta is currently trying to obtain class-action status for his suit, a step that would include other consumers taken in by the allegedly false claims.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has been cautious in its handling of the matter. “We take this matter seriously. . . We will review the allegations once we have received the complaint and will respond appropriately with the court,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Randy Hargrove.

The suit was filed in a Manhattan court on Tuesday under the name “Moschetta v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.”

Consumers don't have to do anything at this stage of the class action process. If and when the suit attains class action status and the case goes to trial or is settled, affected consumers may be eligible for compensation.

As consumers become increasingly interested in vegetarian lifestyles and products with clean labels, animal-based proteins are becoming less of a mealtime staple. According to a report, the global soy food market anticipates a CAGR growth of 6.43% during the 2016-2020 period.

A number of considerations, both nutritional and environmental, may be fueling consumers’ desire to swap meat for soy protein.

Label transparency has become a huge selling point (especially to young people) when it comes to food items. Dietary restrictions -- as well as an increase in people adhering to vegetarian, flexitarian, or vegan diets -- have made the concept of knowing exactly what’s in food about to be purchased more important than ever. 

Sustainability concerns may also be contributing to the spotlight on soy. With more consumers taking to heart the needs of the planet, many are veering away from the resource-depleting nature of the average American meat-based diet.

But are all plant proteins created equally? Not according to Nancy Chapman MPH, RD, executive director of the Soyfoods Association of North America. Chapman says it’s important for consumers to understand the differences between plant proteins as more products show up on grocery store shelves.

There are a number of plant-based proteins -- beans, lentils, and quinoa, to name a few -- but according to Chapman, soy is the only plant protein that is highly digestible and comparable to beef, milk, fish, and egg protein in terms of protein quality.

“Like animal protein, a complete protein has all nine essential amino acids in the ratios needed for human growth and health,” says Chapman in a statement. Soy-containing foods such as tofu, tempeh, and edamame all offer a complete protein containing all amino acids.

Kind to the earth. As previously mentioned, soy uses fewer natural resources (land, water, and energy) than any other protein. Soybeans offer 941 pounds of protein per acre of land. For a meat-protein, the land requirements for production are ten times greater.  

Heart healthy. Soy is a lean protein that has no cholesterol and contains less saturated fat than most other protein sources. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recognizes soy for its role in reducing cardiovascular disease.

Good for kids: Soymilk is the only dairy alternative that meets U.S. Department of Agriculture child nutrition requirements for protein, calcium, vitamins A and D, and potassium.

An annual survey of consumers has found that 40% of U.S. households report “good” or “excellent” progress in meeting savings goals.

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA), which manages the America Saves program, is disappointed with the result. More distressing, the group says it is consistent with the survey's other responses.

For example, only 49% of consumers said they are able to save at least 5% of their income. Just 52% think they are on track with their retirement savings. Fewer than 43% have an automatic savings plan outside of work and just 38% carry no consumer debt.

But the situation might not be as bleak as it seems. Around 70% of consumers reported at least some progress in meeting savings needs.

Two-thirds are able to save at least some money each month. And 63% reported “sufficient emergency savings to pay for unexpected expenses like car repairs or a doctor visit.”

“The most important reason for the gender gap in savings is differences in income and wealth,” Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the CFA, said in a release. “The fact that men have larger incomes and financial assets than women makes it easier for them to save.”

But Americans, on the whole, save less than their counterparts in some other countries. China and Japan, for example, have much higher consumer savings rates than the U.S.

Last week, NPR's TED Radio House presented the proposition that language might affect a person's tendency to put money away for the future. Keith Chen, an associate professor of economics UCLA, suggests that languages that do not make strong distinctions between the present and future make it easier for those language speakers to stay focused on the future. You can listen to the results of his research here.

When the America Saves researchers asked consumers why they didn't save more, they got a different answer. For those still working who said they were not saving enough for retirement, about one-quarter said all their money went to meet day-to-day expenses. Another quarter said they were paying off debt.

For those under 45, paying off college loans leaves little money to put away. For consumers over 45, mortgage or rent was cited as the reason there is little or no money for savings at the end of the month.

The Independent Testing Coalition, a group made up of 10 auto manufacturers that used Takata airbags, delivered its findings this week, saying it found out what made the airbags explode, spreading shrapnel through the vehicles.

Coalition chief David Kelly, who is a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), is quoted as saying the use of ammonium nitrate as a propellant was one of three causes for the ruptures and explosions that have killed at least 10 people.

The coalition also found that moisture getting into the inflator assembly was another factor and harsh environmental conditions provided the third element of the perfect storm.

“Finding definitive causes of what went wrong with Takata airbags is a huge step forward in ultimately resolving the problem and providing a pathway for the future in airbag development, Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Autotrader, said in an email to ConsumerAffairs. “Just as important, the process used to investigate flawed Takata airbags, which brought together outside experts as well as engineers from a host of automakers, is a great example of how industry problems can be solved.”

Now that scientists know why the Takata airbags exploded, sending bits of metal flying through the interior of the cars, work can begin on fixing vehicles that contain the flawed and dangerous airbags. Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, says that's easier said than done.

“The biggest challenge to this recall is getting the repairs done, and even then, those repaired vehicles may have to be reengineered if ammonium nitrate is found to be unsuitable,” she said. This recall is not going away any time soon, and hopefully the death toll won’t rise while the investigation continues.”

Besides the danger to humans, Lindland says the recall will strain the resources of the entire auto industry. She predicts regulators, automakers, Takata itself, and other parties will all be tied up in this for years to come while the expense mounts.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) constantly polls consumers to measure their satisfaction with the products and services they buy.

Last year, the ACSI showed customer satisfaction with retailers fell for the second straight year. Oddly though, despite the decline, the satisfaction level is back to its long-term average.

That suggests retailers in recent years had been providing better customer service than in the past. Claes Fornell, ACSI founder and Chairman, says that's exactly what happened.

According to Fornell, companies worked harder for customer loyalty in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis. In particular, customer service reps worked harder because of job insecurity and the difficulty in getting a new job.

Now that the economy has improved over the last couple of years, Fornell speculates it's back to business as usual, and the level of customer service seems to have worsened. Or at least, consumers think it has.

Internet retailers lost ground in 2015 but remain ahead of brick and mortar competitors in the customer service rankings. Amazon went down but remains ahead of everyone else.

Among department stores, Nordstrom holds the top spot. Walmart is at the bottom. Macy's is somewhere near the middle after an eight point drop last year.

"Macy's is in a tough spot as it tries to figure out how to best allocate resources between storefront and online channel," ACSI Managing Director David VanAmburg said in a release. "Closing stores and reducing workforce might help the bottom line in the short term, but only at the expense of customer satisfaction, which could create problems in the long term."

In the dollar store category, Dollar Tree edged out Dollar General but neither are highly rated. For supermarkets, consumers have seen service slip after several years of giving out high scores. But some chains do much better than others.

For example, Wegmans is one of only three retailers in the survey to actually improve performance last year and leads the supermarket category. Other customer-pleasing supermarkets are Trader Joe's, H-E-B, and Publix. Target and Whole Foods lost the most ground in 2015 while Walmart, Giant Eagle, and Albertsons rated lowest for customer service.

Health and personal care stores lost more customer service ground than any other retail category, shedding 5.2% to a record low of 73 on the ACSI scale.

Wal-Mart's drug stores are at the bottom with 68, completing a reverse hat trick. The nation's largest retailer scored last in the three retail ACSI categories in which it competes. Kroger at 81 and Target's in-store pharmacy business at 80 were rated the best customer service among pharmacies.

In a joint release, the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development report that sales plunged 9.2% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 494,000. That's 5.2% below the January 2015 rate of 521,000.

Prices were mixed last month. The median sales price of new houses sold in January was $278,800 -- down $13,200 on a year-over-year basis. The average sales price was $365,700, a gain of $9,700 from January of last year. The median is the point at which half the houses sold for more and half sold for less.

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of January was 238,000, which translates to a supply of 5.8 months at the current sales rate. That's the highest inventory since last September.

The January decline does not present a concern for the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Chief economist David Crowe, in an interview with ConsumerAffairs, characterized the drop as “an adjustment after three very good months. He said the January decline may have come as prospective buyers, fearing that mortgage rates would be on the rise, pushed to complete their purchases in December.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports applications were down 4.3% in the week ending February 19. The results include an adjustment to account for the President’s Day holiday.

The Refinance Index, which had powered the previous weeks' increases, fell 8%, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity down to 61.0% of total applications from 64.3% the previous week.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was 5.8% of total applications, the FHA share was 12.0%, the VA share was 13.0%, and the USDA share of total applications was 0.7%.

American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 42,129 model year 2016 Civics manufactured September 22, 2015, to February 3, 2016 and equipped with 2.0L engines.

The recalled vehicles have engines with piston assemblies that may have been manufactured without a piston wrist pin circlip or with an incorrectly installed piston wrist pin circlip.

If a circlip is missing or incorrectly installed, the piston wrist pin may not be secure and may drift and damage the engine cylinder causing the engine to seize, and increasing the risk of a crash or a fire.

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the piston assemblies, as necessary, free of charge. Parts are expected to be available in the Summer of 2016. Owners will be mailed an interim notification beginning March 15, 2016, and will be mailed a second notice when parts are available.

Health Matters America of Cheektowaga, N.Y., is recalling specific lots of Organic traditions Sprouted Flax Seed Powder and Organic traditions Sprouted Chia & Flax Seed Powder.

Customers who purchased the recalled products/lots should return them to place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1(888) 343-3278, Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm, or by e-mail at

When pain strikes, what do you reach for? It can be confusing to walk up and down the pain reliever aisle at the drug store.

We've all heard of the brands through advertising, but what is in them and what do they do? Dr. David Maine, Director of The Center for Interventional Pain Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, gets these questions all the time.

Maine says there are two common types of pain relievers that get the most use today. One is ibuprofen and the other is acetaminophen. The two drugs, he says, are very different.

Of course, you don't go to the drug store to pick up a bottle of acetaminophen. Instead, you reach for the brand name product, Tylenol. Tylenol is what you take when you have a headaches and Maine says it is also used to treat pain in children.

On the other hand, if you have an aching back, you might reach for a drug containing ibuprofen, like Advil. Ibuprofen drugs attack inflamation in the body.

Both ibuprofen and acetaminophin are effective against pain, but both come with potential side effects.

"I don't think there's a specific medication when you think about Tylenol or non-steroidals such as ibuprofen that one is necessarily safer than the other," Maine said in a release. "I think ibuprofen and non-steroidals in general are more effective for treating pain conditions, but safety lies in how you're taking the medication and dose and they can both cause significant problems if taken excessively in doses that are not recommended."

Common ibuprofen side effects may include upset stomach, mild heartburn, nausea, vomiting, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, dizziness, headache, nervousness, mild itching or rash, or ringing in your ears.

Ibuprofen can also be problematic for people with heart conditions, since it can increase your risk of fatal heart attack or stroke, especially if you use it long term, take high doses, or if you have heart disease.

Acetaminophen can be dangerous if you take more than recommended, and that's easy to do because it's in so many other drug products you might be taking at the same time.

In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that acetaminophen could cause serious skin reactions, a danger that was already described in product labeling.

It is a good idea to discuss both drugs with your doctor if you are taking more than just an occasional tablet. Even though they are sold over-the-counter, both are powerful pain relievers and might even be substitutes for more powerful opioid painkillers that have the potential to become addictive and be abused.

What about old fashioned aspirin? It is still used to treat mild pain, as well as reducing inflammation and fever. Some doctors have also recommended a daily low dose of the drug to prevent heart attacks.

Maine stresses that if you are already taking pain medication, be wary of combination drugs, like cold medications, that can may contain painkillers, so you don't take too much.

Volkswagen may have a long way to go until it can fully regain the consumer confidence it lost due to the diesel scandal. But if the company’s January deliveries and sales are any indication, then perhaps it is on its way.

Reuters reports that deliveries at VW’s core autos division grew in January after posting a decline in 2015. A rebound in sales numbers were also distributed along several different brands, including luxury brand Audi and Czech unit Skoda.

Chief executive officer Matthias Mueller told German news agency DPA on Tuesday that he is confident that VW will win back customers as time goes on.

“We are quite confident by regaining the trust of our customers, of the public and of our remaining shareholders, we will have a good year 2016,” he said.

Despite the positive sales numbers, VW still has a long way to go in the U.S. before its diesel scandal can be put to rest. There is still no technical fix for the 600,000 vehicles in the country, and the legal ramifications still continue to pile up. Mueller admitted that things certainly do look bleak for VW on this front. “We will certainly be a loser in the U.S.,” he said.

Juicing is often done because people think it’s healthy -- a quick and efficient way to stay on top of that whole, “eat your veggies” thing. Many claim juicing helps the body absorb all the nutrients from the veggies by process of “pre-digestion,” and of course there’s the belief that juicing can promote weight loss.

But some say the popularity of juicing is an example of marketing having triumphed over science: “a wasteful form of food consumption that’s worse for you than cooking and bad for the environment,” the Daily Beast says of the $2 billion per year industry.

Indeed, drinking veggies instead of eating them has some often overlooked downsides, including loss of important nutrients and damage to the environment.

According to the Mayo Clinic, whole fruits and vegetables have healthy fiber which is lost during juicing. Claims that the body has an easier time digesting fruits and vegetables in the form of juice are not supported by scientific evidence. The loss of this fiber can leave you feeling less full than if you’d eaten the food in its original form.

It can also be detrimental to blood sugar levels, especially if you juice fruits that are high in sugar (such as beets). Because the body needs fiber to control how fast fructose is absorbed, fruit sugars consumed without fiber can send blood sugar levels soaring.

Also lost during juicing? Fat. While this may seem like a “pro,” it’s actually a pretty big knock to the nutritional value of juice. The body needs fat to absorb vitamins (A, D, E, and K, to name a few); without fat, those vitamins don’t stick around very long.

Juicing also produces a greater amount of waste, which can take a toll on the environment. Because so few cities have a required composting program, the pulp left behind after the juice has been extracted heads straight to the landfill, where it will spend the rest of its days emitting harmful methane.

On the positive side, however, juicing can be a great way to incorporate different types of fruits and vegetables into your diet. Those who aren’t especially fond of fruits and vegetables may discover that certain juice recipes can help make produce a little more palatable.

Ultimately though, there’s a reason we have teeth: more nutrients are absorbed by eating fruits and vegetables in their original form.

If you haven't heard of Yik Yak, it's a "hyperlocal" app that lets users post anonymously to other users in a specific area. It has gotten a bad rap from college administrators and others because it has been used to post threats and racial slurs.

But a study by University of Florida researchers finds it may not be as bad as all that. Writing in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, the UF researchers say they didn't find much of that kind of activity in their study.

"Our analysis was brief and focused on a specific point in time -- not enough time to make an accurate representation of postings on Yik Yak," said Erik Black, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine's department of pediatrics and lead author of the paper. "But the most intriguing finding with this study is we didn't see what we expected to see."

"There was definitely profanity and some aspects that would make anyone uncomfortable -- but those aspects weren't in any way worrisome since the profanity wasn't directed at anyone," said Lindsay Thompson, M.D., a physician in the department of pediatrics and co-author of the paper. "I think having a healthy skepticism is appropriate. But in this situation, among college students, fears and moves toward censorship would be unfounded."

A "worrisome" post would be one that could cause an individual to be singled out for abuse or ridicule, Black and Thompson said. 

The researchers defined "worrisome" postings as any yaks that could cause an individual to be revealed. Otherwise, Black and Thompson felt they could not label any particular posting as worrisome primarily because they lacked the understanding of the yak's context on that campus.

Social media in general offer the opportunity for users to post comments anonymously that they might not make in person. The researchers said that while Yik Yak is no different in that respect from other social media, they found few instances in which yaks included the full name of the person being discussed.

"We're not condoning the type of rhetoric we see on the application. Profane, racist and misogynistic language is not OK," Black said. "Yik Yak may provide the opportunity to pull back the proverbial covers on underlying sentiment on campuses."

Target is the latest big retailer to remove hoverboards from its website and shelves, joining Amazon and Toys 'R Us in temporarily suspending sales of the popular but potentially explosive devices. 

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission a few days ago warned retailers that since no hoverboard was approved by UL (formerly Underwriters Laboratory), they were all considered unsafe and should not be sold.

UL initially said it did not have a certification program in place for hoverboards but now says it has developed a program and is ready to begin certifying the popular devices, which were at the top of many Christmas lists during the holiday season.

The problem is that the lithium-ion batteries in the self-balancing boards can catch fire. There have been at least 52 reports of fires blamed on hoverboards, the agency noted.

Some manufacturers have blamed the problem on substandard components used in some cheaper boards, an argument safety advocates consider weak since, at last word, no manufacturer had bothered to win UL certification.

AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, and Young Invincibles recently hosted an event called "Cheers to Your Future: A Happy Hour on Millennials’ Economic Outlook" in support of “Secure Choice” -- a legislation that would give working New Yorkers of every age the option to save at work via payroll deduction.

The legislation could be a positive step towards helping Millennials save for retirement. Compared to earlier generations, Millennials haven’t had it so easy when it comes to saving for retirement; a nationwide survey showed that Millennials have less wealth overall than earlier generations, and over half of low-income Millennials lack access to workplace retirement savings programs.

Savings plans like Secure Choice can go a long way towards helping an individual become self-reliant in retirement. But what other steps might a young person take to help them prepare for retirement?

To answer this question, we spoke with Michelle Perry Higgins, Principle and financial planner at California Financial Advisors, San Ramon, Calif. She advises young people to learn to balance the funds coming in so they don’t go out too quickly.

“You might be in awe of your paycheck and ecstatic to have money coming in regularly,” says Higgins, “But be smart with your money.”

She recommends visualizing various buckets: one for retirement, one for emergency reserves, one to pay down debt, and one for day-to-day expenses (yes, including some fun!). Keeping these buckets full can help ensure funds stay balanced -- which may also help you resist the urge to splurge while out shopping.

“Remember,” says Higgins, “Budgets are sexy. Budgets are cool. Budgets breed confidence and self-respect.” Buying a new pair of shoes may produce momentary happiness, but your self-respect will be shot if you can’t make rent because you splurged on the shoes.

Higgins also recommends saving 20% of your income for retirement. Even though retirement may feel like a million years away, it’s a mistake to think, “I just graduated. I’ve got plenty of time,” says Higgins.

“Be savvier than that,” she says. "Once you get in the habit of saving 20% of your income for retirement, you’ll never miss the money."

You can also check and see if your employer offers a retirement plan (some will even match a percentage of your contribution). It’s a painless way to save, says Higgins, because the money is deducted directly from your paycheck.

Once a year, Higgins recommends checking in with a fee-based financial planner. With clear goals in place, you’ll never question your financial position.

More money-saving tips for young people can be found in her book, "College Poor No More! 100 $avings Tips for College Students."

Thousands of students paid as much as $989 for a "high school diploma" from Stratford Career Institute that turned out to be worthless, the Federal Trade Commission charges in a federal lawsuit.

“Stratford promised that its high school program could help students get better jobs and access higher education,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “For many students, those promises were false because schools and employers rejected Stratford’s supposed ‘diploma.’”

In its complaint, the FTC alleges that Stratford advertised its "diploma" as the key to higher earnings, promotions and the ability to apply for higher education.

But in reality, the agency charged, the Stratford :diploma" was not accepted by many employers and colleges.

According to the complaint, the school purchased online advertising tied to search terms like “official high school diploma,” “real high school diploma online,” and “legal high school diploma,” among others.

But Stratford’s own records, the complaint alleges, show that consumers who tried to use the Stratford diplomas were often told by prospective employers and college admissions officers that the program was not the same as a traditional high school.

The complaint notes that the Stratford program requires only 18 credits for completion, while many states require substantially more, including credits in courses not offered by Stratford.

The complaint alleges that Stratford violated the FTC Act’s prohibition on deceptive acts by making false and unsubstantiated promises to consumers.

The coffee retailer says that starting in April, the My Starbucks Rewards program will become Starbucks Rewards.

Currently, rewards members earn one gold star on every visit to a starbucks store. Starting in April, they will earn two gold stars for every $1 spent.

To get to the “Gold Levels,” members now need 30 stars. In April, under the new program, it will take 300 stars. The current required 12 stars for a free reward will go to 125 stars.

The company said it was making the change because it was the top suggestion customers submitted on My Starbucks Idea. However, not all customers like the change and many are being very vocal about it.

“They make the new program out to be better but it is a marketing tactic,” Celeste wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “When the new points system launches, customers will have to earn 300 stars -- or spend close to $150 -- to reach gold status. After that, they will need 125 stars (the equivalent to spending about $63) in exchange for a free item. That is completely ridiculous.”

The issue is lighting up social media as well, with #StarbucksRewards an outlet for negative reaction.

“This is going to be a messy breakup,” one customer tweeted. “Wow, your new rewards program isn't very rewarding,” another wrote.

In announcing the change, Starbucks said it believed a loyalty program based on what they buy, not how many times they visit, is what its customers wanted. Apparently not all do.

Age can take a toll on the senses. Eyesight may worsen. Hearing starts to go. Even the senses of smell and taste may be diminished.

Health researchers have studied the effects when someone loses one of the senses, but there has been little research of what happens when a person loses multiple senses.

For example, existing studies have found that when a person loses the sense of smell, vision, or hearing, he or she is at greater risk of cognitive decline and poor mental health.

Now, a new study has looked at what happens when older adults lose two or more senses. It found that decline is often more rapid.

Writing up their findings in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, University of Chicago researchers studied data collected by the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP), a population-based study of adults aged 57-85.

In particular, the study collected information about the subjects' senses of vision, touch, smell, hearing, and taste. The participants were also asked to rate their physical health.

The researchers found that 94% experienced loss in at least one of their senses; 67% had two or more sensory losses. Nearly 20% of those who suffered correctable deficiencies – such as hearing and vision – rated the corrections as only fair or poor.

The researchers concluded that quality of life in old age is, in many ways, contingent upon keeping the five senses functioning satisfactorily. They also said that losing more than one sense might explain why older adults report having a poorer quality of life and face challenges in interacting with other people and the world around them.

But how can we use this data? For one thing, the study authors say there should be additional research into multi-sensory loss because it might help doctors design better programs to prevent or treat loss and to ease the suffering such losses cause.

Jimmy McMillan, who founded New York's Rent Is Too Damn High Party, was just a little ahead of his time.

Raising the issue of skyrocketing rents, both before and after the financial crisis, McMillan has had the issue pretty much to himself. Now, urban activists are wondering why the issue doesn't come up in presidential debates.

The Center of Opportunity Urbanism (COU), a think tank in Houston, says skyrocketing rents, growing much faster than incomes, threaten the economy and American households.

“America faces a growing crisis in housing supply unseen since the aftermath of the Second World War,” COU Executive Director Joel Kotkin, said in a study of the issue.

Kotkin says the cost of housing is driving families out of many regions, particularly along the ocean coasts.

The study finds housing costs – particularly skyrocketing rents – are largely absent from the 2016 presidential campaigns. The campaigns, Kotkin says, call for lower taxes and higher minimum wages, but they fail to recognize how a housing crisis contributes to, and is at the root of, the country's socio-economic problems.

"You would think that housing affordability would be the number one issue in this year's presidential contest, in light of the concern candidates from both parties have shown over the plight of America's middle class," said Kotkin. "But nowhere amongst the campaign rhetoric do we hear anything about this nation's very real housing crisis. If they care about middle-class Americans, they should put solving this growing problem at the top of their agendas."

In the wake of the financial crisis, banks made it much harder to qualify for a mortgage. As a result, homes for sale went begging while consumers competed for rental properties. The increased demand sent rents soaring.

The real estate industry has also tried to call attention to the plight of renters. In 2014 Zillow warned that rental affordability was currently much worse than mortgage affordability, largely because rents didn't experience the huge drop seen in home values during the recession. Instead, rents continued to climb. As a result, renters have continued to pay a dangerously high percentage of their income for housing.

Zillow economist Stan Humphries warned that skyrocketing rents would eventually drag down the real estate market.

"As rents keep rising, along with interest rates and home values, saving for a down payment and attaining homeownership becomes that much more difficult for millions of current renters, particularly millennial renters already saddled with uncertain job prospects and enormous student debt,” Humphries said at the time.

The COU study, meanwhile, says the rent crisis is contributing to a number of housing trends, including more diverse suburbs, aging Baby Boomers remaining in their homes, and gentrified – and very expensive – urban neighborhoods.

The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index, after posting a moderate gain in January, turned downward this month, dipping from 97.8 to 92.2.

The decrease was led by the Present Situation Index, which fell from 116.6 to 112.1, and the Expectations Index, which dropped to 78.9 from January's reading of 85.3.

“Consumers’ assessment of current conditions weakened, primarily due to a less favorable assessment of business conditions,” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “Consumers’ short-term outlook grew more pessimistic, with consumers expressing greater apprehension about business conditions, their personal financial situation, and to a lesser degree, labor market prospects.

Franco said continued turmoil in the financial markets may be rattling consumers, but their assessment of current conditions suggests the economy will continue to expand at a moderate pace in the near-term.”

The percentage of consumers saying business conditions were “good” decreased from 27.7% to 26.0%, while those who think they're “bad” increased from 18.8% to 19.8%.

Consumers’ appraisal of the labor market was also negative, with those who say jobs are “plentiful” falling from 23.0% to 22.1%, while those who think jobs are “hard to get” rose to 24.2% from 23.6%.

Consumers were more pessimistic about the short-term outlook than in January. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months dropped from 15.9% to 14.6%, while those who look for conditions to worsen jumped to 12.0% from 10.7%.

Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead decreased from 13.4% to 12.2%, while those expecting fewer jobs inched up from 17.0% to 17.2%.

The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to increase fell from 18.6% to 17.2%, while the proportion expecting a reduction rose from 10.7% to 12.5%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was February 11.

Sales of previously-owned homes rose slightly, but hit their highest annual rate in six months during January, with prices increasing at the fastest clip since last April.

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), total existing-home sales -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums, and co-ops -- crept up 0.4% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.47 million. Sales are now 11.0% higher than a year ago -- the largest year-over-year gain since July 2013.

Existing sales kicked off 2016 on solid footing, rising slightly to the strongest pace since July 2015. "The housing market has shown promising resilience in recent months, but home prices are still rising too fast because of ongoing supply constraints," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "Despite the global economic slowdown, the housing sector continues to recover and will likely help the U.S. economy avoid a recession."

The median existing-home price for all housing types in January was $213,800, up 8.2% from January 2015. Last month's increase was the largest since 8.5% in April 2015 and marks the 47th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

Total housing inventory at the end of the month increased 3.4% to 1.82 million existing homes available for sale, but is still 2.2% lower than a year ago. Unsold inventory is at a 4.0-month supply at the current sales pace, compared with 3.9 months in December 2015.

"The spring buying season is right around the corner and current supply levels aren't even close to what's needed to accommodate the subsequent growth in housing demand," said Yun. "Home prices ascending near or above double-digit appreciation aren't healthy -- especially considering the fact that household income and wages are barely rising."

Home prices continued their rise across the country over the last 12 months, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices. The Index, which cove..

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling320,409 model year 2003-2006 Toyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LX470; 2005-2006 Toyota Tundra and Sequoia; and 2004-2006 Toyota 4Runner and Lexus GX470 vehicles equipped with side curtain-shield-air bags.

The recalled vehicles have an air bag control module that may be improperly programmed, causing the side curtain-shield-air bags to deploy inadvertently and increasing the risk of occupant injury.

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will replace the air bag control module with one that has improved programming, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin April 2, 2016.

Owners may contact Toyota customer service at 1-888-271-9371. Toyota's number for this recall is G0C and GLB.

The company has received five reports of the left leg of the fork cracking above the disc brake mount. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves ENVE Carbon Fiber Road Fork 2.0 Disc 1.25” taper models. The bicycle forks included in this recall have serial numbers beginning with: VCT1406, VCT1410, VCT1411, VCT1501, VCT1502, VCT1503, VCT1505, VCT1506, VCT1507, VCT1508, VCT1509 and VCT1510. The serial number is located on the black steerer tube.

The forks, manufactured in Vietnam, were sold at authorized ENVE dealers nationwide and online from June 2014, through December 2015, for about $540 for the fork.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled forks and contact ENVE for a full refund or a substitute Road Fork 2.0 Disc 1.5” taper model and appropriate headset replacement. ENVE is contacting consumers who purchased the bicycle forks directly.

Consumers may contact ENVE toll-free at 877-358-2869 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (MT) Monday through Friday, by email at or online at by clicking on the Road Disc Fork Recall link under the Support tab for more information.

Hyundai Motor America is recalling 11,176 model year 2011 Hyundai Tucsons manufactured July 22, 2010, to October 31, 2010.

The recalled vehicles have a transmission fluid cooler hose that may have been improperly manufactured, resulting in a transmission fluid leak.

If enough transmission fluid leaks out, the transmission may not function properly and the vehicle may stop moving, increasing the risk of a crash.

Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will replace the transmission fluid cooler hose, free of charge.

Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-800-633-5151. Hyundai's number for this recall is 139.

Millions of consumers are eagerly awaiting their income tax refund from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), while millions more have already received their money.

Economists like to track what consumers do with the money, since it can provide clues about what is going on in the consumer economy. This year,'s survey shows a stark departure from recent trends.

Only 23% will use the money they get back from the government to pay off debts, while 22% will save or invest it. In 2007, just before the financial crisis, 55% said they were going to pay off debt, and 59% planned to save or invest the money.

"Over the 10 years that we have asked people what they will do with their refunds, we've never seen numbers this low for these two important categories," spokesperson Mickey Macedo said in a release.

The survey also found that fewer consumers plan to use their refunds for home improvements, vacations, to pay mortgages or education loans, or to make purchases.

Or maybe, consumers feel like they must use their refunds to meet day-to-day expenses, which would not be a healthy sign. has conducted a similar survey. It found that three out of four consumers expecting a refund plan to use it to pay down existing debt. Just 25% said they planned to put the money into savings.

Just 5% said they planned to make a major purchase like a car or home and only 4% said they would splurge on purchases.

"It's really encouraging to see that most people are planning to use a tax refund to better their financial situation by saving or paying off debt," Elyssa Kirkham, the lead GOBankingRates finance reporter on the study, said in a release. "Using a tax refund this way will buy the taxpayer more financial security and peace of mind, instead of a one-off splurge that soon loses its value or is forgotten."

The survey showed 30% of respondents are not receiving a tax refund, which is actually the best usage of the money. While it is fun to get a nice check in February and March, many consumers lose sight of the fact that the government has been holding onto their money all year, interest free.

True, there aren't many places where you could earn much of a return on your cash, but even in a low-interest savings account, the money would be available to you during the year in an emergency, rather than having to wait for a refund from the government.

Though there is little empirical evidence in this area, chances are consumers want to get a refund because it is a forced savings plan. The money is taken from their paychecks and returned to them in one lump sum.

With interest rates almost nil, many financial advisors now say that's not such a bad thing. No-interest saving is better than no saving at all.

Still, consumers should remember that when they overpay their taxes on each paycheck, they're making an interest-free loan to the government. Maybe if they took home a little more money each month, they wouldn't need a big refund to pay down debt once a year.

You can adjust your withholding at work by adjusting the number of dependents you claim. The IRS Withholding Calculator can help you make the adjustment.

Honda has had a string of mishaps and setbacks lately. The redesigned 2016 Civic was supposed to change all that, but instead it's adding to the list of problems.

Bloomberg reports that Honda is preparing to recall the 2016 Civic and has ordered dealers to stop selling some versions of the little car because of piston-ring problems that could cause the engine to fail.

It quoted auto enthusiast blogs that said Honda had issued a dealer service bulletin earlier this month, warning dealers of the problem. About 34,000 Civics could be affected.

The stop-sale order to dealers requires that cars not be sold until they are examined to be sure the piston rings are not missing or mis-set, the reports said. 

Replacement parts are not expected to be available until mid-March, according to a posting on

The official recall notice will be issued when it has been acknowledged by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). 

It's that time of year. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is busy, tax preparers are busy, and scammers are busy.

In fact, the IRS says phishing and malware incidents so far this tax season are up an incredible 400%.

Most of these schemes are carried out by email, but the IRS says a variation is showing up regularly using text messages. The communications try to appear like they are from the IRS, or from others in the tax industry.

They ask potential victims questions about their refunds, filing status, personal identifying information, and PINs. The IRS says the surge in these attacks is taking place all across the country.

"This dramatic jump in these scams comes at the busiest time of tax season," IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in a statement. "Watch out for fraudsters slipping these official-looking emails into inboxes, trying to confuse people at the very time they work on their taxes. We urge people not to click on these emails."

In particular, fraudsters are looking for information that could help them file a fake tax return before the real taxpayer does. If the scammer has someone's name, for example, he would just need their Social Security number in order to file a phony return, showing a huge tax refund is due.

The money is often sent to the scammer before the real taxpayer gets around to filing. Only then is the fraud discovered.

What is distressing to the tax agency is that this year's 1,389 incidents have already exceeded the 2014 yearly total of 1,361, and they are halfway to matching the 2015 total of 2,748.

"While more attention has focused on the continuing IRS phone scams, we are deeply worried this increase in email schemes threatens more taxpayers," Koskinen said. "We continue to work cooperatively with our partners on this issue, and we have taken steps to strengthen our processing systems and fraud filters to watch for scam artists trying to use stolen information to file bogus tax returns."

The phishing emails often ask victims to click on a link to provide requested information. If the target does as requested, he or she is taken to sites designed to imitate an official-looking website, such as

At these sites, victims are asked for Social Security numbers and other personal information. The sites may also carry malware, which can infect computers and allow criminals to access files or track keystrokes to gain information.

Consumers can easily protect themselves from these phishing attacks by realizing that the IRS generally contacts taxpayers by U.S. mail, not email. It would certainly not request sensitive information, like PINs and Social Security numbers, by unsecured email.

Consumers who receive emails that look like they are from the IRS or tax software company, seeking information, clarification, or confirmation of something, should assume it is a scam and delete it.

The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team advises that the best way to spot an email phishing scam is when the communication is unexpected or unsolicited. The agency has other helpful tips here.

For millennials, it’s the little things in life: same-day delivery, craft brews, the ability to express an entire thought using only emoji. Other groups may view them as entitled, but ironically, it doesn’t take much -- or much square footage -- to make a millennial happy.

As we reported, the “tiny house” movement jives rather well with the budget constraints and lifestyle of young people -- but they’re not the only ones getting in on the trend. Older people, both single and partnered up, have also enjoyed the budget-friendly nature and practicality of small space living.

Now, it appears small space living is taking on city life, in the form of micro-unit apartments and condominiums. As rents go up in the nation’s most expensive markets, some developers are finding there is a market for apartments smaller than 400 square feet.

The National Association of Realtors (NARS) notes that small space living is not a new concept, of course. New Yorkers are used to coming home to just a few hundred square feet, as are residents of other big cities like Tokyo, Paris, and Singapore to name a few. But as the practicality of small space living begins to outweigh its perceived encumbrances, more consumers all over are happily snapping up teeny tiny spaces in big cities.

There is a health component to small space living, however -- one which has left many wondering how small is too small. Cramped conditions can take a toll on one’s mental and physical well-being, experts say.

“Micro-apartments might be fantastic for young professionals in their 20’s,” says Dak Kopec, director of design for human health at Boston Architectural College and author of Environmental Psychology for Design. “But they definitely can be unhealthy for older people, say in their 30’s and 40’s, who face different stress factors that can make tight living conditions a problem.”

Home is supposed to be the safe space on the other end of a day spent enduring cramped office buildings and crowded streets -- the light at the end of the tunnel. But if that mental reprieve gets taken away, there can be consequences. Too much crowding-related stress has been shown to increase rates of domestic violence and substance abuse, Kopec tells The Atlantic.

While micro-apartments may address the need for affordable housing in cities, the task of imbuing them with some mental breathing room presents a whole new challenge.

The East 27th Street building in New York City -- winner of a 2012 competition to design and build a residential tower of micro-units -- does a good job rounding out the concept of small space living. What residents lack in physical space, the building makes up for in views and amenities.

Units boast nine-foot high ceilings, while the building itself offers a gym with floor-to-ceiling park views, a lobby with a public garden and a Juliet balcony. Eric Bunge, a principle at nArchitects, says features like these can help reduce the risk of claustrophobia and balance the discrepancy between housing standards and actual housing conditions.

When this balance is achieved, most city officials agree that small space living can play a big role in cities. In declaring affordable living options crucial to the health of the city, former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn shares the sentiment of Mayor Bloomberg in New York.

“It’s not good for the health of the city to create jobs here and not create places to live,” said McGinn.

Whether due to their perceived health consciousness or the higher total on their receipt, the organic shopper stands out in the crowd. However, as we reported, there may not be much difference between organic foods and conventional foods in terms of vitamins and bacteria levels.

Previous research concluded that the only thing organic food had going for it was a lower level of pesticides. Stanford University researchers found that 7% of organic fruits and vegetables had small levels of pesticide tracings, compared to 38% of conventional food items.

So go ahead and buy what’s on sale, said Joan Salge Blake, registered dietician and a spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition Dietetics. The section of the store your fruits and veggies are from is not nearly as important as consuming enough of it (a minimum of 4.5 cups per day).

It may not come as a surprise that the 2012 study received a fair amount of backlash from organic food aficionados. But fast forward a few years, and the scales have tipped again -- this time in favor of organic (milk and meat, at least).

A new study has found clear differences between organic and non-organic milk and meat. Organic milk and meat were found to contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced products, according to the study, which was led by Newcastle University and based on data from around the world.

The study, published recently in the British Journal of Nutrition, suggests that a switch to organic meat and milk may be helpful in terms of increasing our intake of fatty acids -- an important nutritional component which diets often lack.

“Omega-3s are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function,” Chris Seal, Professor of Food and Human Nutrition at Newcastle University said in a statement. He explains that getting enough in our diet is difficult -- a task which especially those in Western Europe struggle with.

Switching from conventional to organic would raise omega-3 fat intake without increasing calories and undesirable saturated fat, Seal explains. Other positive changes in fat profiles included lower levels of myristic and palmitic acid in organic meat and a lower omega-3/omega-6 ratio in organic milk. These more desirable fat profiles were chalked up to organic farming standards, which calls for outdoor grazing and low concentrate feeding in dairy diets.

Previous studies by the same team of experts showed that organic crops and crop-based foods are up to 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally-grown crops and contained less of the toxic metal cadmium.

"We have shown without doubt there are composition differences between organic and conventional food,” concludes Newcastle University's Professor Carlo Leifert, who led the studies. “Taken together, the three studies on crops, meat and milk suggest that a switch to organic fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products would provide significantly higher amounts of dietary antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.”

An Ohio man has been sentenced to nine years in federal prison for his part in a sweepstakes scam that victimized two elderly consumers. Paul R. Toth Jr., 41, of Wintersville, Ohio, was also ordered to pay $307,000 in restitution.

Toth was convicted in a two-day trial last year of money laundering charges in connection with a scheme to defraud the victims out of more than $300,000 in savings.

Prosecutors said that Toth's co-conspirators, operating from a base in Costa Rica, deceived the victims into thinking they had won a large prize in a sweepstakes contest. To collect, they had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to Costa Rica as a "refundable insurance fee," they were told.

Evidence at trial indicated that Toth was a U.S.-based "smasher" for the scam artists. His job was pick up victims' money and deliver it to Costa Rica. Prosecutors said Toth transferred about $200,000 to the scam artists and pocketed the rest.

Toth was sentenced last week by U.S. District Judge Robert J. Conrad Jr. of the Western District of North Carolina.

The most basic way to avoid being scammed by phony sweepstakes is to remember that you can't win a contest you didn't enter. 

Also, you will never be asked to pay any kind of fee to collect legitimate sweepstakes winnings. And, it goes without saying, you should never give your bank or credit card information to anyone who says they will transfer the winnings to you. 

Too much sugar has been a problem for many consumers looking to lose weight, but putting more of it into your body may help in other ways. Scientists have ..

Everyone makes mistakes, even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).Earlier this month the CDC, along with the Consumer Product Safety C..

We've all done it -- hit the little button that signs us up for "occasional" email updates, only to discover that we have voluntarily stepped in front of a fire hose. 

The deluge begins almost immediately, as we're flooded with emails about what others are saying, what our supposed friends are doing, and what obscure changes have been made to an app or site we've long since forgotten about.

The worst offenders? Social networks, according to, an online service that helps consumers unsubscribe from email lists they regret joining. 

StumbleUpon leads this year's report of the most-unsubscribed, with 43% of consumers opting out of receiving future email updates. Live Nation and Good Reads were close behind with 38% and 35%. also tabulates the overachievers in the big sender category, with Groupon taking top honors this year, sending an average of 388 emails per person last year. Arch competitor LivingSocial was close behind with 363, followed by Facebook at 310. claims to have stopped 4.6 billion emails through its service, and unsubscribed people from 423,234,234 email subscriptions over the past three years.

While traditional automakers are focused on electric vehicles and self-driving cars, a Massachusetts technology firm has set its sights higher. Like, in the sky.

Earlier this month Terrafugia announced that it has completed static load testing of a prototype of the wing for its TF-X -- for all intents and purposes a flying car. The company said the tests showed that the one-tenth scale carbon fiber wing will be able to safely withstand the necessary loads during wind tunnel testing. It's an important step, the company says, that will get the TF-X airborne faster than anyone expected.

The TF-X just may bring the world one step closer to the realty of “The Jetsons.” The vehicle is a plug-in hybrid electric flying car with semi-autonomous flight and vertical takeoff and landing capabilities. That means you could back it out of your garage, lift off from your driveway, fly to the office, and land in the parking lot.

The company says progress so far suggests the TF-X could enter production in eight to 12 years, but could begin flight testing within two years.

The TF-X is just one personal flying vehicle that is on its way to becoming a reality. Chinese manufacturer Ehang, a drone manufacturer, was the surprise hit of January's Consumer Electronics Slow when it displayed what it said was the world's first electric, personal Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (AAV).

The aircraft is designed for short-to-medium distances and the company believes it holds huge potential, not only for the transportation industry, but also for many other fields such as shipping, medical care, and retail.

A Dutch company called PAL-V is also making progress on a flying vehicle. It describes its prototype gyrocopter as a lean, agile two-seater that can speed down motorways, launch from airstrips, and allow someone to escape the limitations of traffic.

Earth-bound traffic that is. With the rapid development of personal flying vehicles – some of which may not require a pilot's license – the air may soon be as congested as the ground.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is likely viewing all these developments with a concerned eye. After all, it is only now coming to grips with the explosive growth in the number of unmanned drones, operated by consumers for entertainment. Millions were sold over the holidays.

It will ultimately be the FAA's job to keep autonomous flying vehicles, operated by consumers, from running into each other in the sky, not to mention separated from the millions of drones zipping around.

The Department of Transportation's (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report shows complaints filed during 2015 were up 29.8% from 2014 -- for a total of 20,170 compared with 15,539 the year before.

In December alone, there were 1,565 complaints about airline service from consumers, up 46.9% from the same month a year earlier and 19.6% from November.

The complaints cover a range of aviation service issues such as flight problems, baggage, reservation and ticketing, refunds, consumer service, disability, and discrimination. Consumers can compare the overall complaint records of individual airlines to determine which ones provide the best service so that they can make te best choice. The complaints also serve as a basis for investigations, rulemaking, legislation, and research.

Also included in the report is data on on-time performance, cancellations, tarmac delays, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays. Consumers can also view statistics on mishandled baggage reports, the number of passengers denied confirmed space (oversales/bumping), and  the total number of animals that died, were injured, or were lost during air transport in December, as well as the calendar year.

The expanded recall adds lot # 150482, which includes roughly 1,100 pounds of cheese, some of which has been distributed to retail locations prior to the initial recall, which was for lot # 150481.

Customers may call Maytag Dairy Farms at 800-247-2458 or 641-791-2010 to arrange for a refund and return of the product.

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 325 model year 2016 Beetle Convertibles manufactured June 18, 2015, to November 9, 2015 and equipped with 18-inch wheels.

The recalled vehicles may have incorrect sidewall height ratio information on the tire placard. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 110, "Tire Selection and Rims."

If the tires are replaced using a smaller diameter tire, it can cause incorrect readings of the speedometer, which could increase the risk of a crash.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will install a corrected tire placard, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in February 2016.

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 01B3.

Country Life Natural Foods of Pullman, Mich., is recalling shelled raw pistachios, sold in 2-lb bags and 30-lb boxes.

The 2-lb. bags bear the batch number 1357 in the lower left corner of the Country Life Natural Foods Label. The 30-lb boxes bear the name “SAM International” lot number 102914, and best by date of April 29, 2016.

The recalled products were distributed in Arkansas, California, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin through retail stores, mail order and direct delivery.

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

Consumers with questions may call Country Life Natural Foods at 800-456-7694, 9:00 am – 5:00 pm (EST) Monday through Thursday, and 9:00 am – 1:00 pm (EST) Friday.

This recall involves Eurotech Lume office chairs. The black, mesh mid-back, adjustable chairs have a black base with five wheels. Item number MF2500 and the date of manufacture in YY/MM/DD format are printed on a label located on the underside of the seat. Dates of manufacture included in the recall are between 14/10/08 and 15/10/16.

The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at Davies Office in New York and Office Furniture Depot stores in New Jersey and by other independent distributors from January 2015, through November 2015, for about $300.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and contact Raynor to receive a full refund.

Consumers may contact Raynor toll-free at 866-800-1377 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday or online at and click on Warranties at the bottom right hand corner of the page and then on the Lume Chair Recall link for more information.

General Motors is recalling 2,988 model year 2015 Chevrolet Colorados manufactured January 6, 2015, to March 17, 2015, and 2015 GMC Canyons manufactured January 6, 2015, to March 19, 2015.

A poor electrical connection within the steering gear connector may cause a loss of power steering assist. A loss or reduction in power steering assist may increase the risk of a crash.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the steering gear pinion sensor cover assembly, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020 or GMC customer service at 1-800-462-8782. GM's number for this recall is 15595.

WBY Foods of Marblehead, Mass., is recalling Chappaqua Crunch Simply Granola with Blueberries & Bananas.

The recalled product comes in a 13-oz. clear plastic pouch and marked with best beginning with Feb. 5, 2016 and ending with May 31, 2016, and was distributed in retail stores in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington DC, Virginia, No. Carolina, So. Carolina, Georgia and Florida, and through mail order.

The product comes in a 13 ounce clear plastic pouch and marked with best by dates on the back. The recall includes best by dates beginning with Feb. 5, 2016 and ending with May 31, 2016.

Customers who purchased the recalled product should return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-800-488-4602, Monday thru Friday, 8:00 AM - 3:30 PM (EST).

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 5,070 model year 2016 Lexus RX350 and RX450h vehicles manufactured November 16, 2015, to December 23, 2015.

Due to an improper weld, the gas needed to inflate the driver's knee air bag may escape from the inflator. A defective inflator may increase the risk of injury in the event of a crash.

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and, if necessary, replace the knee air bag assembly, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin March 27, 2016.

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

Jeep fire victims Chantae and Danny Reed (Photo via Center for Auto Safety)Takata airbag inflators have killed nine people in the United States while..

When my daughter was a teen she would interview me before vacations: How many days will we be gone? What will we be doing? What kinds of clothes do I need?

From my responses she would handwrite an elaborate list of exactly what was needed with quantities. Her packing list was the envy of the family; while we all fretted over what to take, she would carefully select and place items in her open suitcase, crossing them off her list, one by one.

Fast forward several years and I am preparing for a trip to Alaska. With no idea what to expect, weather-wise or otherwise, a friend suggested I do an online search with “What to pack for Alaska.” It was a brilliant idea and I found several sites that listed essentials. From their lists I culled a personal “What to Pack for Alaska for 11 Days” document that I saved online.

As I made subsequent trips, I would open up my how to pack list, update the destination and the number of days, and then customize. As I took additional trips and learned more about travel, packing, and how to streamline, I edited and updated my list.

With my trusty packing list, I rarely forget items. Follow these tips to create your very own list and you’ll never forget to pack the essentials:

Open a document in your word processing program and title it “What to Pack for (your destination(s) for (however many) Days.

List the essentials you will need, one on a line, for example: undergarments, bedtime clothing, tops, bottoms, shoes, socks, belts, sweaters, jackets, swimwear, exercise/casual wear, and on.

Be specific in which color and item you will take, for example: pink silk top, khaki and black pants, brown belt, or, three short sleeve knit shirts in navy, yellow, and black.

List your toiletries, including everything you will need. Don’t forget over the counter medications and prescription medications.

Add eye glasses, contacts, contact solution, sunglasses, back up eyeglasses, cell phone, iPad, laptop, chargers, books, and ebook reader.

Include a line item for an emergency kit and follow with a detailed list of what you might need. Do the same for a makeup kit.

Add travel guides and documentation such as passports and insurance cards, as well as photocopies of your credit cards, picture ID, insurance cards, and your passport.

Do you plan on bringing a carry on, tote, or backpack? If so include as a line item and identify the items to pack. Remember articles that make travel more comfortable, such as a travel packs of tissues, a water bottle, reading material, and chewing gum, hard candies, or snacks.

Afraid you might forget the shoes that go perfectly with your special dress? Or the lucky tie you wear for presentations? You can put your worries to rest now that you have the tools to make a packing list.

After sifting through 52 reports of hoverboard fires, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is declaring that all hoverboards lacking UL certificat..

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has laid out a number of expensive, but popular, proposals as his campaign against Hillary Clinton has gained momentum.

In recent weeks he has revealed tax proposals that he believes would pay for them, though like any ambitious program, critics have questioned some of his numbers.

While most of the revenue hikes are aimed at Wall Street professionals and the wealthy, some would undoubtedly affect middle class consumers who invest in stocks, or have their retirement assets invested in the market. Also, middle-income taxpayers would probably see their taxes rise.

It is also hard to imagine them being passed by a Republican Congress. Still, he could be the Democratic candidate for President and the proposals reflect the thinking of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Among the most ambitious Sanders proposal is one covering everyone with Medicare, the health insurance now provided to Americans age 65 and older. To pay the cost – which has been hard to pin down – Sanders would raise or initiate a wide range of taxes that would touch just about everyone.

According to the candidate's campaign website, the Medicare for all proposal, which would replace Obamacare with a single-payer system, would be paid for with a 6.2% income-based health care premium paid by employers, and a 2.2% income-based premium paid by households.

In addition, tax rates would be adjusted more progressively so that taxpayers paid a higher rate than they do now. It would also tax capital gains and dividends as ordinary income, instead of the lower rate at which they are now taxed.

Finally, it would reduce tax deductions for upper income Americans and increase the estate tax. Sanders has said the higher taxes Americans would face would be off-set by lower costs for healthcare coverage.

Another big ticket proposal would be to pay college tuition for students at state supported institutions, at a projected cost of $75 billion a year. It would be paid for by imposing what Sanders calls a “Wall Street tax.” The government would impose a tax on every stock, bond, and derivative transaction.

The tax would not just be paid by hedge funds and day-traders, but also mutual funds and individual stock purchases. But the pros would undoubtedly pay the most, since the more transactions you make, the more you pay the tax. Sanders says such a transaction tax could raise $300 billion.

Right now federal law provides for unpaid family leave. Sanders proposes to provide paid leave for family and medical emergencies. To pay for it he proposes an additional payroll tax on workers that would average about $1.61 per week.

Sanders would address the Social Security shortfall with one measure. He would eliminate the current cap of FICA withholding. In 2015, Social Security and Medicare taxes were levied only on the $118,500 of income. Under Sanders' plan, consumers would pay the tax on their entire income, regardless of how much it is.

Sanders other proposals would be mostly paid for by taxes on corporations or reducing tax advantages for upper income earners.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health worry young adults are increasingly abusing the stimulant prescription medication, Adderall.

They report that doctors are not writing an increasing number of Adderall presciptions. However, they are seeing a dramatic rise in emergency room (ER) visits by young adults who have misused the drug.

Previously, the researchers said, the belief was that Adderall's misuse was most widespread among children and adolescents. Their findings suggest otherwise.

They looked at trends from 2006 through 2011 and found that it is mainly 18-to-25-year-olds who are abusing Adderall, usually getting it from family and friends and without a physician's prescription.

“The growing problem is among young adults,” study co-author Ramin Mojtabai said in a release. “In college, especially, these drugs are used as study-aid medication to help students stay up all night and cram.”

Mojtabai and his colleagues think students who are abusing Adderall believe it will make them smarter and more capable of studying.

“We need to educate this group that there could be serious adverse effects from taking these drugs and we don’t know much at all about their long-term health effects,” he said.

Adderall, the brand name for dextroamphetamine-amphetamine, does improve focus, Mojtabai says, but it can also cause sleep disruption and serious cardiovascular side effects, such as high blood pressure and stroke. It has also been linked to depression and mental health issues.

According to, an online addiction treatment resource, people abusing Adderall often experience headaches, dry mouth, nausea, digestive issues, reduced appetite, and anxiety.

Mojtabai says he would like to see drugs like Adderall monitored in the same way that prescription painkillers have started to be monitored in recent years. He says a prescription database would help a physician make sure the patient isn’t receiving multiple medications from multiple physicians, a warning sign of diversion or abuse.

Anxiety sure has a knack for showing up right at bedtime, and a noggin fraught with anxiety can make it nearly nearly impossible to fall asleep. Mattress c..

Protecting our skin becomes a priority during the cold winter months, but it should also be a priority to take care of your dog’s skin. We humans can combat the cold by stocking up on thick jackets and extra moisturizer, but dogs look to us for help.

It may be tempting to let Fido skip baths during the winter since he’s inside more often (and theoretically, less dirty), but pet experts say not to skimp on the baths -- mid-winter grooming is important to pets’ health and therefore shouldn’t be avoided by pet owners.

"When heating systems are running day in and day out, a dog's skin becomes dry and itchy, just like ours does," says Traci Simo, of Canine Company. "If you see your pet scratching, licking or biting himself during the winter months, that's a sign that he's uncomfortable. If you don't intervene, that behavior can lead to more severe skin problems."

Shampoo. Pets with dry, itchy skin may need a shampoo and moisturizing treatment monthly. Simo recommends a massaging shampoo followed by a deep moisturizing treatment. "Use only products specifically formulated for pets. Dogs' skin has a different pH, so using human products can actually make skin problems worse."

Let the coat air-dry. Because dog’s skin burns more easily, it’s best not to use a hair dryer, she says. Towel thoroughly, and comb through the hair to help the process along.

Brush often. Simo recommends daily brushing to help stimulate the skin's natural oils. This will help your pup stay comfortable.

It’s important to note that if you’ve got a pooch with sensitive skin, PetMD advises not to overdo it on the winter baths. Bathing with shampoos or soaps should be limited during the winter months, as it can actually make dry skin worse. Simple water baths should do the trick under most circumstances. Should you need to bathe your pet with shampoo, PetMD recommends using a moisturizing shampoo for sensitive skin along with a moisturizing rinse.

Simo also adds that parasite problems are expected to begin early this year due to the unusual winter weather we experienced in the northeast. She recommends not waiting until spring officially arrives to begin applying flea and tick prevention products.

You may have gone through it before – you’re just sitting down to dinner when the phone rings. Many people can get very angry about telemarketer calls, and..

Health officials in recent years have expressed concern about the medication prescribed for older adults, particularly opioid painkillers.But two resea..

For consumers considering the purchase of a used vehicle, now might be a good time to kick some tires.

Analysts at NADA Used Car Guide, a division of J.D. Power and Associates, report the used vehicle market retreated a bit in January, with lower prices than cars brought in December.

NADA maintains a used car price index to track price movement and found January's used vehicle price index reflected a slightly greater decline of 0.3% compared to December, bringing the index to 122.2.

Jonathan Banks, executive analyst for NADA Used Car Guide says one reason for more consumer-friendly prices is a significant increase in vehicles to choose from. When supply edges out demand, prices tend to go down.

At car auctions, where used cars enter the wholesale market, Banks says sales volume of models up to eight years old grew by 38% over the four week period ending January 25, reaching 322,200 units.

Bad weather in the east also slowed used car sales in January, but NADA Used Car Guide predicts that pent-up demand is being played out in the marketplace this month. For that reason, consumers can expect used car prices to move higher in March.

The temporary slowdown might also be explained by the type of vehicles being sold at auction. Older cars with fewer features command a lower price.

In August, we reported a jump in used car prices precisely because the cars being sold tended to be newer, bringing a higher price. Automotive site reported the average used car transaction price was $18,800 in the second quarter of last year – $1,300 higher than the second quarter of 2014.  

In the last decade, hackers have shifted their primary targets from consumers' PCs to corporations' networks.

The payoff from breaking into your computer might not be so much. Getting into Target, on the other hand, could be huge.

Just how huge hasn't been widely appreciated, but researchers at Michigan State University recently calculated that even small-scale hacking operations are making millions of dollars in profits by targeting corporate databases and stealing credit and debit card data.

"In the past two years there have been hundreds of data breaches involving customer information, some very serious like the Target breach in 2013," Thomas J. Holt, Michigan State University criminologist and lead investigator of the study, said in a release. "It's happening so often that average consumers are just getting into this mindset of, 'Well, my bank will just re-issue the card, it's not a problem.' But this is more than a hassle or inconvenience. It's a real economic phenomenon that has real economic impact and consequences."

Holt and his fellow researchers found online forums in English and Russian where criminals who stole personal information auctioned it off in batches of 50 or 100. Someone who buys the data can then try to access the victims' bank accounts or buy goods or services with the stolen cards.

Holt says, on average, a batch of 50 stolen credit or debit cards can bring between $250,000 and $1 million on the black market. Buyers consider it a reasonable price, since they, on average, can use those 50 credit or so debit cards to pull in between $2 million and $8 million.

Holt says there needs to be a more intensive, coordinated approach by law enforcement agencies around the world to crack down on cybercrime. He says consumers also need to understand the stakes.

"My goal is make people cognizant of just how much their personal information means, how much value there is," Holt said. "If we don't understand the scope of this problem, if we just treat it as a nuisance, then we're going to enable and embolden this as a form of crime that won't stop."

Consumer Security company Mcafee estimates the annual cost to the economy of cybercrime activity is more than $400 billion.

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) was unchanged in January, thanks to a drop in the cost of energy and no change in food prices, according to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Energy costs were down 2.8%, with all major components falling for a second straight month. Gasoline prices fell 4.8%, fuel oil plunged 6.5%, electricity was off 0.7%, and natural gas posted a 0.6% decline.

Over the last 12 months, fuel oil prices have plummeted 28.7%, natural gas has decreased 12.7%, gasoline has fallen 7.3%, and the cost of electricity is down 2.4%.

Food prices were unchanged last month after falling in November and December. With the food at home category down 0.2% it's second decline in a row. Five of the six major grocery store food group categories were lower led by for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs (-1.3%). Cereals and bakery products, dairy and related products, nonalcoholic beverages, and other food at home all declined 0.2%. In contrast, fruits and vegetables increased 1.3% the largest increase since March 2011. The food at home index has declined 0.5% over the past 12 months. Food away from home (restaurant meals) rose 0.3% percent in January and is up 2.7% over the last 12 months.

The “core” rate of inflation, excluding the volatile food and energy categories, was up 0.3% for the month, due to increases in the cost of shelter (+0.3%), medical care (+0.5%), alcoholic beverages (+0.5% and motor vehicle (+0.4%). Education and communication prices were both unchanged in January, while household furnishings and operations costs dipped 0.1%.

Over the past, the core rate of inflation is up 2.2%, its highest 12-month change since the period ending June 2012.

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and Google are engaged in conversations about privacy – in particular, the privacy of data Google collects about students.

In recent weeks, Franken asked the search giant to explain its student data privacy policies, and now he says Google has responded.

Franken said the company provided thorough answers, but there is room for clarification. For example, he says he would like to know what exactly Google is doing with the data it collects from students.

He would also like to know whether the company plans to give students and parents a choice of “opting-in” to data collection.

"I believe Americans have a fundamental right to privacy, and that right includes the ability to control who is getting your personal data and how it's being used," Franken said in a release.

Franken says he thinks Google has done great work in education technology, but wants to make sure the company is doing everything it can to protect the privacy of students. "Google's response to my questioning was thorough, and I appreciate its engagement on this topic,” Franken said. “But I'm still concerned about what exactly Google does with the information it collects and processes from students who are browsing outside websites—like YouTube—while logged in to Google's education services.”

Franken says he thinks the issue could be resolved by providing parents and students with stronger privacy protections.

Meanwhile, another technology company is invoking the privacy issue in a standoff with the government. Apple CEO Tim Cook has said the company will fight a federal court order to unlock the iPhone of one of the suspects in December's San Bernadino terrorist attack.

The FBI wants to view the contents of the phone, but an Apple security feature will erase the contents after a number of unsuccessful attempts to log in.

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

Apple maintains that once created, the software would be quickly stolen by hackers and used against Apple customers.

Why should you have to rent your cable set-top box from the cable company? Good question and one the Federal Communications Commission has voted to consider.

As we reported last month, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wants to open the set-top box market to competition, allowing consumers to buy their own boxes, just as they now buy their own telephones, computers and other communications devices.

“The issue is whether you are forced to rent that box every month after month,” Wheeler, a Democrat, said. “The consumers have no choice today."

The commission voted 3-2 today along party lines to go along with Wheeler's plan to draft new rules that would open the market to competition, potentially saving consumers money and helping speed the development of more advanced devices.

Consumers now pay an average of $231 per year to rent their set-top box, amounting to about $20 billion in revenue for cable companies, according to a survey by Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)

Besides the expense, most of today's boxes are clunky and hard to use. The hope is that opening the market to competition will make it possible for devices like the Roku box to service all of a household's video-sorting needs.

Federal law now requires most fast food restaurants to post calorie information on menus, but it you're trying to lose weight by cutting calories, Cornell University researchers say you're off base.

Instead, they suggest simple, routine behaviors may be your key to losing or maintaining a healthy weight.

To explain what they mean, Cornell Food and Brand Lab researchers developed an online Global Healthy Weight Registry. People who had already achieved a healthy weight were asked to sign up and then answer questions about their diet, exercise, and daily routines.

That became the focus of scientific analysis, which zeroed in on some common routine behaviors of those who stay healthy and slim.

For example, the analysis determined that 96% of the people ate breakfast every day and 42% exercised five or more times a week. At least half said they weighed themselves at least once a week.

Although 74% never or rarely dieted, 92% of the people in the registry said they were generally conscious of what they ate. As part of their healthy habits that lead to weight control, 44% reported at least one non-restrictive strategy, such as listening to inner cues, cooking at home, and eating high-quality, non-processed foods.

"Most slim people don't employ restrictive diets or intense health regimes to stay at a healthy weight,” study co-author Brian Wansink said in a release. “Instead, they practice easy habits like not skipping breakfast, and listening to inner cues. If you struggle with weight, try adding these simple practices to your routine, you may be surprised how easy it is to be healthy!"

While there have been studies showing calorie restriction provides health benefits in other areas, many nutritionists stress the importance of eating a healthy diet, not necessarily a small one.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends a diet rich in nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. It also says a healthy diet is made up of fruits and vegetables, whole grains -- like oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, and brown rice -- seafood, lean meats, poultry, and eggs.

Doctors at Northwestern Medicine have completed a study they say could provide a reliable way to predict who will get cancer, and even who will die from th..

The Federal Communications Commission plans to fine four long idstance carriers $29.6 million for a variety of apparent fraudulent, deceptive, and manipulative practices targeting consumers with Hispanic surnames. 

The commission charges that OneLink Communications, Inc., TeleDias Communications, Inc., TeleUno, Inc., and Cytel, Inc., “slammed” consumers by switching their long distance carriers without authorization and “crammed” unauthorized charges onto consumers’ bills. 

In addition, it says the companies fabricated audio recordings that they then submitted to the FCC as “proof" that the consumers authorized these changes and charges.  

“Charging consumers for services they did not want or authorize is simply unacceptable,” said Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc. “We are committed to combating slamming and cramming because these unjust and unreasonable practices result in consumers paying for services they never requested or received, and spending their time trying to reverse unauthorized carrier charges.”

Over 140 consumers filed complaints with the FCC after discovering that the companies allegedly switched their long distance carriers and charged them for new services without their authorization.

A class action lawsuit charges that Mecedes-Benz BlueTEC diesels have a problem similar to Volkswagen's "clean diesel" engines. It alleges that the Mercedes engines emit 65 time the legal level of nitrogen oxide (NOx) when operated at temperatures below 50 degrees.

“Mercedes labeled its BlueTEC vehicles as ‘earth friendly,’ selling consumers the false notion that these diesel cars were less harmful to the environment, but Mercedes never divulged to consumers that BlueTEC diesels pollute at illegal levels when driven at lower temperatures and that its ‘champion of the environment’ mantra was a sham,” said Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman, the law firm filing the complaint.  

“It appears that Mercedes has been caught in a similar scheme as Volkswagen and programmed these BlueTEC vehicles to pollute, all the while reaping profits from those who have fallen victim to its aggressive and deceptive eco-conscious branding,” Berman said.

The suit filed Feb. 18, 2016 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois accuses Mercedes of deceiving consumers with false representations of its BlueTEC vehicles, which it marketed as “the world’s cleanest and most advanced diesel” with “ultra-low emissions, high fuel economy and responsive performance” that emits “up to 30% lower greenhouse-gas emissions than gasoline.”  

According to the complaint, on-road testing confirmed that Mercedes’ so-called Clean Diesel cars produced average on-road NOx emissions that are 19 times higher than the U.S. standard, with some instantaneous readings as high as 65 times more than the U.S. limit.

The suit asks that Mercedes be ordered to recall or repair the affected vehicles and that consumers receive compensation for the diminished value of their cars. 

“When we filed the first lawsuit against Volkswagen regarding their use of emissions-cheating software, we felt they were not the only culprits duping consumers into paying a high price for deceptive diesels,” Berman said.  “Mercedes’ deception involves a cover-up of even higher levels of pollution, and consumers paid high prices for these luxury vehicles they thought were clean, only to be forced to drive diesel cars dirtier than their gasoline counterparts.”

The complaint states that, “Exposure to these pollutants has been linked with serious health dangers, including asthma attacks and other respiratory illness serious enough to send people to the hospital.  Ozone and particulate matter exposure have been associated with premature death due to respiratory-related or cardiovascular-related effects.”

Appearances can be deceiving, especially when you're talking about Parmesan cheese, according to recent reports which indicate that a lot of what is sold as Parmesan is anything but.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is building a case against one cheese processor, Castle Cheese of Slipper Rock, Pa., alleging that its "100 percent real Parmesan" contains fillers including wood pulp, Bloomberg News reports.

The FDA began investigating Castle back in November 2012 after receiving a tip. In July 2013, it sent the company a warning letter saying it had found "doctored" Parmesan in Castle's products.

In fact, said the FDA, some of what Castle labeled as "100 percent grated Parmesan" contained "no Parmesan cheese" whatsoever.

Bloomberg ran independent lab tests on various brands claiming to be "100 percent" Parmesan and found much the same thing. Walmart's Parmesan tested at 7.8 percent while Whole Foods' 365 brand came out with 0.3 percent cellulose. Kraft had 3.8 percent, Bloomberg found, to cite just a few examples. The companies all said they are investigating. 

Sometimes even the greenest thumbs can't keep a plant from dying. Different plants need different soil types, amounts of water, sunlight, and so on -- and if you're juggling the needs of many houseplants, it can get confusing. 

But what if your plant could actually tell you what it needs? Well be-leaf it or not, technology has come so far as to give plants a voice. That's right, we're living in a time where plants can communicate their needs to those in charge of meeting them. 

Pet Plant by Junyi Heo. With a futuristic looking pot, Pet Plant measures soil conditions, temperature, humidity, and water and helps growers cater to the levels of those variables in each individual plant. The plant can virtually express its condition through a series of pictograms on an LCD display. It also knows if you've overwatered and will drain itself if that happens. The pot charges via USB cord. 

Smartpots. With this NASA-inspired technology, plants are given just the right amount of water, oxygen, and nutrients. Sensors and software do all the work; all you have to do is add batteries and fill the water tank once a month. 

PlantLink. This smart gardening gadget looks like a plug (without the cord). It can be "plugged in" to any plant to check its water needs. Combining water sensors with a PlantLink app, the system calibrates a plants needs using a catalog of 50,000 plants, both indoor and outdoor.

Botanicalls. What if your plant could call you on the phone? With Botanicalls, it's possible. A sensor placed in the dirt can determine when a plant gets too dry. It can then can call up its owner with the plea: "Water me, please," followed by a "Thank you" when you respond. Botanicalls seeks to change the relationship between plants and their owners by increasing garderner confidence.

America has a sleep problem. So says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reporting that its research shows more than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend adults between 18 and 60 years old sleep at least seven hours each night to promote optimal health and well-being.

People who can't fall asleep, or have their sleep interrupted by periods of restlessness, are at greater risk of developing chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and even mental distress.

The proliferation of television commercials for special mattresses and pillows suggests there is a significant market for these products among people who find it hard to get enough sleep.

“As a nation we are not getting enough sleep,” Dr. Wayne Giles, director of CDC’s Division of Population Health, said in a release.

He recommends lifestyle changes such as going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time each morning. Turning off or removing televisions, computers, mobile devices from the bedroom, can also help people get the healthy sleep they need, he says.

Some people may find it hard to get the proper amount of sleep because they suffer from one of any number of sleep disorders. The National Sleep Foundation says delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD), officially called circadian rhythm sleep disorder, delayed sleep phase type, is among the more common disorders. It's an inability to fall asleep at a desired, conventional clock time and awaken at a socially acceptable morning time.

Insomnia is perhaps the most common sleep-related disorder. A brief episode of difficulty sleeping is called acute insomnia, and is usually caused by a stressful life event. Chronic insomnia is a long-term pattern of difficulty sleeping. Insomnia is usually considered chronic if a person has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at least three nights per week for three months or longer. It can have many causes.

The CDC is urging healthcare providers to routinely assess patients’ sleep patterns and discuss sleep-related problems such as snoring and excessive daytime sleepiness. It would also like providers to do more to educate patients about the importance of sleep to their health.

As we reported, consumers often consider an engagement ring’s history when it comes to deciding how much they’re willing to pay for it. In an analysis of o..

Declines in both home prices and interest rates resulted in a slight increase in nationwide housing affordability in the last three months of 2015.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (HOI) shows 63.3% of new and existing homes sold during the fourth quarter were affordable to families earning the U.S. median income of $65,800. In the previous quarter, 62.2% of homes sold were affordable to median-income earners.

“Affordable home prices, attractive mortgage rates, and pent-up demand are keeping the housing market on a gradual, upward path,” said NAHB Chairman Ed Brady. “While this bodes well for housing in 2016, builders continue to face a number of challenges, including excessive and costly regulations and a lack of available lots and skilled labor.”

The national median home price fell from $231,000 in the third quarter to $226,000 in the fourth, while average mortgage rates dipped from 4.18% to 4.09%.

Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, Ohio-Pa., was rated the nation’s most affordable major housing market, with previous leader Syracuse, N.Y., falling to the second slot. In Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, 90.1% of all new and existing homes sold in last year’s fourth quarter were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $53,700.

Rounding out the top five affordable major housing markets in respective order were Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; Toledo, Ohio; and Columbia, S.C.

For the 13th consecutive quarter, San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, Calif. was the nation’s least affordable major housing market. There, just 10.4% of homes sold in the fourth quarter were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $103,400.

Other major metros at the bottom of the affordability chart were located in California. In descending order, they included Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale; Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine; San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara; and Santa Rosa-Petaluma.

“The signs point to continuing growth in home sales,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “We’ve seen an improvement in affordability due to favorable home prices and interest rates. Steady employment and economic growth, along with rising consumer confidence and pent-up demand will also help encourage more buyers to enter the marketplace.”

In other economic news, the Department of Labor (DOL) reports first-time applications for state unemployment benefits fell by 7,000 in the week ending February 13 to a seasonally adjusted 262,000 the lowest level in 12 weeks.

The four-week moving average, which is considered a more accurate gauge because it lacks the weekly tally's volatility, was down 8,000 from the previous week to 273,250.

Lipari Foods of Warren, Mich., is recalling various raw pistachio products packaged by sister company JLM.

The recalled products were distributed to food service and retail stores throughout Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

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

Consumers with questions may call customer service at 1-800-729-3354, from8:15 am – 4:30 pm (EST) Monday through Friday.

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 825 model year 2011-2015 Touareg Hybrids manufactured March 20, 2010, to April 11, 2015.

The hybrid battery tray may not drain water sufficiently. If water collects in the hybrid battery tray, it may cause an electrical short in the high voltage battery increasing the risk of a fire.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will install a fitted drain valve to allow water to drain properly, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in late February 2016.

Forever Cheese of Long Island City, N.Y., is recalling 40 cases of Mitica brand Pecorino Aged Cheese in Walnut Leaves (Pecorino Foglie di Noci).

The recalled product is from one production code NOC15313 (found on shipping case only) and invoiced as Lot X2537 which the retailer or distributor would be familiar with. Each shipping case contains two wheels of varying weights; each wheel weighs a minimum of 2 lbs. It has a natural grayish rind, and will be labeled at the point of sale at the retail level or on a restaurant menu.

The cheese was shipped to distributors between January 27 and February 3, 2016, and was further sold to retailers and restaurants located in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Colorado, Vermont, Virginia, Florida and Connecticut.

Consumers with questions may contact Sarah Weisensel at 1-888-930-8693, Monday through Friday, 9 am – 5 pm (EST).

Toyota Motor Sales, USA is recalling approximately 1.1 million model year 2006-2012 RAV4 and model year 2012-2014 RAV4 EV vehicles.

The recalled vehicles are equipped with lap-shoulder seatbelts in both second-row outboard seats. There is a possibility that, in the event of a very severe front crash, the lap belt webbing could contact a portion of the metal seat cushion frame, become cut and separate.

If this occurs, the seat belt may not properly restrain the occupant, which could increase the risk of injury.

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

If you’re the proud owner of a chip-enabled credit card, you’ve probably noticed that not every card reader accepts the new technology. Despite having a slot for the new chip cards, many terminals still instruct customers to swipe the magnetic strip instead of dipping the chip.

Only about 17% of retail locations are currently equipped to accept chip cards. In other words, just one in five checkout lines are equipped with an activated chip card reader. 

So why is it that so many terminals are EMV compatible but haven’t yet been enabled to accept chip cards?

According to payments consultant Allen Weinberg, it’s because many retailers (particularly the larger ones) are taking a “wait-and-see” approach on enabling the chip card transactions. It seems they’d rather leave the task of teaching customers how to use the chip cards to other merhants.

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

Weinberg notes that small businesses are another factor in the slow incorporation of EMV cards. Many of them aren’t even equipped with a chip-card enabled terminal yet.

Why? Weinberg says that like larger businesses, small business aren’t in a hurry to teach their community how to use the cards. They also either don’t think they’re at significant risk of fraud or simply weren’t aware the shift to chip cards was coming.

Cost might also be a factor for small businesses. Chip card readers and installation can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars per terminal, as we reported. The industry average is around $2,000.

Now that we’re on the other side of the liability shift -- when credit card fraud became the responsibility of retailers instead of banks if they didn’t have their chip card systems running -- Weinberg says it won’t take much for merchants to “get religion,” as he puts it, and upgrade their systems. It’ll only take one instance of fraud or chargeback from people abusing the liability shift to motivate them to upgrade their terminals.

Terry Crowley, CEO of TranSend, a company that makes software to help merchants and their equipment work with the EMV standard, says there’s an invisible hand at work that is about to accelerate the incorporation of EMV cards.

“If you use a chip card at a point of sale that says swipe -- and you later say that wasn’t me -- there’s very little a merchant can do to dispute that charge,” Crowley tells Brian Krebs, adding that the "friendly" fraud is inevitable. “When people are made aware that if I swipe and I have a chip card, that lunch can be free if I’m a bad consumer.”

After this invisible hand takes hold, the U.S. will be able to jump on the chip card bandwagon with the rest of the world.

At the moment there is no approved vaccine to protect against the Zika virus, but a number of pharmaceutical companies have made the fast-spreading disease a new target of research.

One company, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, says it is pretty far along, reporting pre-clinical testing of its synthetic vaccine for the Zika virus produced what it calls “robust and durable immune responses.” As a result, the company said its SynCon vaccine has demonstrated potential to prevent and treat infections from the virus.

The virus, spread by mosquitoes, is currently sweeping Latin American countries, particularly Brazil. Health officials there have documented neurological and autoimmune complications potentially associated with the virus, including microcephaly in newborns and Guillain-Barre syndrome.

"Using our SynCon technology we rapidly generated a synthetic vaccine candidate that shows promise as a preventive and treatment," Dr. J. Joseph Kim, Inovio's president and CEO, said in a release. “With robust antibody and killer T cell responses generated by our vaccine in mice, we will next test the vaccine in non-human primates and initiate clinical product manufacturing.”

In addition to the vaccine it may yield, Inovio says the research itself has added to the body of knowledge about the virus. In the pre-clinical study, researchers created multiple Zika virus antigens. The vaccine resulted in the development of detectable specific antibodies in the blood, in all vaccinated mice.

The company said the discovery is vital given the potential importance of neutralizing antibodies in preventing infection.

Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) said it is investigating how Zika virus infection affects reproduction, pregnancy, and the developing fetus.

The virus currently has been reported in about 30 countries and territories, notably in Latin America and the Caribbean. Doctors believe it may be responsible for a spike in cases of microcephaly, an abnormally small head resulting from an underdeveloped and/or damaged brain, among newborn babies.

That link, however, has not been confirmed. NIH says one of its highest priorities is to establish conclusively what role, if any, the Zika virus has played in the marked increase in this birth defect.

NIH also cites recent reports that Zika virus may be sexually transmitted, calling for studies to determine if the virus is present in reproductive fluids.

It says evidence from the studies could help health officials develop guidance for preventing the spread of Zika virus through intimate contact, particularly for women who are pregnant or likely to become pregnant.  

A new study conducted by researchers at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore (CHAM) has put the importance of proper nutrition into perspective. They have found that food insecurity, defined by limited or uncertain availability of nutritional food, made adolescents twice as likely to have emotional or mental health problems.

The study utilized data from 8,600 students who ranged in age from 12 to 16 years old. Researchers spoke with parents, guardians, and caregivers and asked questions to gauge each household’s food availability. Certain screening questions were also asked about each student in order to determine if any mental health disorders were manifesting.

According to answers given by caregivers, students who did not have concrete availability to nutritional food were twice as likely to have emotional or conduct problems -- a problem affecting one out of every 10 subjects surveyed. Behaviors such as bullying, stealing, destroying property, truancy, and fighting were all more prevalent in these cases. These students also tended to be more hyperactive and struggle with peer relationships, according to the study.

The study is impactful because availability of food is not a typical marker for these kinds of behaviors. “Food insecurity is not a risk factor for mental health that pediatricians typically address, but given our findings it is a topic we should consider discussing during our interactions with families,” said co-author and professor of Pediatrics, Ruth E. K. Stein.

Stein goes on to say that keeping food insecurity in mind when assessing a patient is crucial so that agencies can provide adequate support. The researchers also suggest that government programs that address the problem of food insecurity could be invaluable to the overall health of those affected by this problem.

Dr. Elizabeth Poole-Di Salvo, co-author of the study and assistant professor of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College, agrees and reiterates just how widespread of a problem food insecurity is in the U.S.

“Our study adds to the growing understanding of the adverse health risks experienced by children and adolescents living with food insecurity. . . As more than 15 million children in the U.S. under the age of 18 years-old live in households with food insecurity, this is a public health issue of the utmost importance,” she said.

Safety advocates may not think much of the idea, but Radio Flyer is introducing a miniaturized Tesla Model S for a younger audience, complete with lithium-ion battery technology.

The miniature Model S has working headlights, a trunk suitable for carrying soccer balls and other essentials, and a sound system that works with portable music players.

Priced at $499, the car is said to be suitable for ages 3-8 and has a weight capacity of 81 pounds. 

Google continues to sort out the pieces after reshuffling its corporate structure and naming its parent corporation Alphabet. Among the latest piece of the puzzle is a relabeling for Google Ideas, the search giant's think tank. It will henceforth be known as Jigsaw.

Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt says Jigsaw will address some of humanity's most intractable problems, from countering violent extremism to online censorship,  to "expand access to information for the world’s most vulnerable populations and to defend against the world’s most challenging security threats," 

Some of Jigsaw's current initiatives include Project Shield, which harnesses Google’s computing infrastructure to protect independent voices from DDoS attacks; contributions to open-source efforts like uProxy, which lets people share access to the free and open internet; and Password Alert, which helps protect against phishing.   Some of the team’s other initiatives aim to counter money laundering, organized crime, police brutality, human trafficking, and terrorism.

"For one thing, the new name acknowledges that the world is a complex puzzle of physical and digital challenges. For another, it reflects our belief that collaborative problem-solving yields the best solutions," Schmidt said.

 “Staying true to its think tank roots," Schmidt wrote, “the team has also explored global challenges using data visualizations, such as the Digital Attack Map, which displays the top digital attacks in the world in real time, and the global arms visualization, which illuminates the global arms trade. Currently some of the team’s research is exploring hate and harassment online with the goal of substantially reducing it.”

If you or someone in your family are headed to college soon, you undoubtedly would like to get the cost down as much as possible.

To do that you need to start with the Free Applications for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA form. By filling out the form you complete a financial profile that colleges and other sources of financial aid can consider.

If you hope to obtain federal and state grants, work-study assistance, and loans, you'll need to complete the form. According to the College Board, you can complete and track the application online.

Most colleges also provide aid to students based on the information contained in the FAFSA form. Temple University offers five tips for filling out the FAFSA form with a minimum of hassle.

FAFSA applications for the 2016–2017 school year opened Jan. 1, and Temple’s Director of Student Financial Services Craig Fennell says you should file as early as possible.

It's also a good idea to file your 2015 tax return as soon a possible, since you'll need that to document income.

Remember that the application is free. While it may seem overwhelming, there is plenty of free guidance if you need it, so be wary of paid services that offer to complete the form for you, for a fee.

You're going to need to create unique credentials, known as FSA IDs. Be sure to put your log-in information in a safe place because you'll need it again. You must complete the FAFSA for every academic year, using the same unique FSA ID, to qualify for financial aid.

After filling out the report, your job isn't over. You'll get a Student Aid Report that is a summary of your form. It gives you a chance to tweak it or correct errors.

“The comments section will tell you what you have not done and what you’ve done well,” said Emilie Van Trieste, Temple’s associate director for Student Financial Services. Temple, for example, can’t process a financial aid request with an incomplete FAFSA.”

Once you are accepted by a college, you have to decide whether to accept your aid package. But make sure you know exactly what you’re signing up for. Read up on all the terms and commitments that come with each form of assistance before accepting.

Let's face it -- most people hate telemarketers. But few of us really know how to deal effectively with them. Then there's Roger Anderson, the telecommunications engineer behind the Jolly Roger Telephone Co. 

Anderson has devised an answering machine that's intended to waste telemarketers' time, stringing them along with friendly but noncommital answers that he hopes will eventually cause the call center business to collapse.

Sound unlikely? Maybe so, but Anderson's trusty little bot has been doing a pretty good job so far. Listen (warning -- crude language from the telemarketer):

The concept is quite simple, but Anderson says it's devilishly effective. His bot sounds friendly but most telemarketers become so frustrated with it that they end up terminating the call.

Anderson thinks he's onto something that could bring the telemarketing industry to a grinding halt, thereby removing one of the greatest irritations of modern life, and the route by which scam artists and identity thieves penetrate our lives.

Anderson currently has only one personality for his bot -- a friendly but rather odd and vague man who says he was napping when the phone rang. He has launched a fund-raising campaign on Kickstarter in hopes of raising enough money to develop more personalities and make his bot as ubiquitous as, well, the telephone.

Imaginative kids with a never ending thirst for new toys may find a new ally in Mattel’s latest creation: the “ThingMaker.” Introduced recently at the New York Toy Fair, the $300 ThingMaker 3D Printer and the ThingMaker Design App will allow children to print their own toys at home.

The ThingMaker 3D printing eco-system is designed to virtually hand over the “keys to the toy factory,” says the company. And if the name sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because Mattel first debuted the original at-home device maker in the 1960s. (Remember “Creepy Crawlers”?)

Through a collaboration with Autodesk, Inc, the new version of the ThingMaker has been totally reimagined for the 21st century. "In today's digital age, it's more important than ever for families to transcend the digital world and make their ideas real,” says Aslan Appleman, senior director at Mattel in a statement.

What better way for children to bring their ideas to life than the ability to create and print their own toys? Encouraging kids to interact with the toy during the process of creating it was a big theme at this year’s Toy Fair, and the ThingMaker is certainly in line with that theme. Kids can create dolls and robots or even wearable items like bracelets and rings; the possibilities are endless. 

Users can either upload design files via Mattel's Design App (which works on Android or iOS devices) or use their own ideas to spawn a creation. When an item is ready for production, designs are sent to the 3D Printer, which prints the parts in batches to be assembled via ball-and-socket joints. All of the toys can be customized with different colors and textures.

The time needed for the 3D Printer to turn out the physical parts can vary. For a smaller item, it can take as little as 30 minutes; for a larger one, it can take between 6-8 hours.

Although the kids can watch the process through the clear window, the ThingMaker’s printing door is locked and its printing head is retracted after a job to keep kids from burning themselves. According to USA Today, Mattel is positioning ThingMaker for kids over 13, and it rates printed objects as safe for children three and over.

The printer won’t become available for purchase until later this fall, but pre-orders are now being taken on Amazon. Because Mattel’s ThingMaker Design App is based on Autodesk’s Spark, an open 3D printing platform, the Design App also works with other 3D printers. It is now available and free to download for iOS and Android devices.

Real estate marketplace Zillow has released a survey that may be seized as ammunition by both sides of the illegal immigration debate.In a nut shell, i..

As the cost of new cars has gone up, leases have become more popular. Consumers find they can drive an expensive car for a lot less per month if they lease..

According to the Department of Labor (DOL), the Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand, which measures prices one step shy of the consumer level, was up a seasonally adjusted 0.1% last month. The PPI was down 0.2% in December after posting a 0.4% advance in November.

A 0.5% increase for services was behind the January advance, with nearly half of that attributable to a 4.0% increase in the cost of machinery and equipment wholesaling. Services related to securities brokerage and dealing; loan services (partial); apparel, footwear, and accessories retailing; fuels and lubricants retailing; and airline passenger services also rose.

Prices for food and alcohol retailing declined 4.1%, with health, beauty, optical goods retailing, and physician care also falling.

Prices for goods were down 0.7% for the second straight month. Energy costs were down 5.0%, thanks to a drop of 8.8% in gasoline prices. Additionally, the cost of for home heating oil, electric power, jet fuel, and basic organic chemicals fell.

Food prices advanced 1.0%, led by a surge of 17% for fresh and dry vegetables. Prices for pharmaceutical preparations and residential natural gas also increased.

Construction of privately-owned housing fell 3.8% in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,099,000, according to figures released by the Commerce Department. Nevertheless, housing starts were 1.8% above the rate (1,080,000 ) of the same month a year ago.

The decline was broad-based, with single-family starts down 3.9% -- a rate of 731,000. The rate for units in buildings with five units or more came in at 354,000, down 3.7%.

"Despite the modest dip in starts this month, we expect to see ongoing, gradual growth in housing production in 2016," said National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Chief Economist David Crowe. "An improving economy, solid job creation and pent-up demand for housing should keep the market moving forward."

Building permits were down 0.2% at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,202,000, with single-family authorizations off 1.6% and permits for units in buildings with five units or up 2.1% at a rate of 442,000.

NAHB Chairman Ed Brady notes that builders are "being cautious as they face some market uncertainties and supply side constraints."

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports overall applications were up 8.2% in the week ending February 12. The Refinance Index jumped 16% from the previous week, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity up 3.1% to 64.3% -- its highest level since February 2015.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity rose to 6.7% of total applications, the FHA share was 11.5%, the VA share of total applications increased to 11.7% from 11.1% the week before and the USDA share was unchanged at 0.6%.

FCA US LLC (Chrysler) is recalling 184 model year 2015-2016 Chrysler Town and Country, and 2014-2015 Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles manufactured August 16, 2014, to December 5, 2015.

The windshield on the recalled vehicles may have been installed using expired urethane primer, allowing the windshield to become displaced in the event of a crash. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) number 212, "Windshield Mounting."

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the windshield, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on March 4, 2016.

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is S02.

Whole Foods Market of Austin, Texas, is recalling Pecorino Aged Cheese in Walnut Leaves sold in a store in Florida and one New York City.

The recalled cheese was cut and packaged in clear plastic wrap with scale labels beginning with PLU code 294239 and "sell by" dates of 3/3/16 through 3/8/16 in the New York City store.

In West Palm Beach, Fla., the recalled cheese was sold with scale labels beginning with PLU code 290107 and "sell by" dates of 2/29/16 through 3/8/16.

Customers who purchased this product should discard it and bring their receipt to the store for a full refund.

Consumers with questions should contact their local store or call 512-477-5566 ext. 20060 between 9am and 5pm (CST) Monday through Friday.

General Motors is recalling 179,861 model year 2003-2011 Saab 9-3 vehicles manufactured May 31, 2002, to February 15, 2011; 2010-2011 Saab 9-5 vehicles manufactured June 23, 2010, to February 21, 2011; and 2008-2009 Saturn Astra vehicles manufactured April 11, 2007, to July 24, 2008.

Upon deployment of the driver's-side front air bag, excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture with metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the inflator on Saab 9-3 and 9-5 vehicles and will replace the airbag module on Saturn Astra vehicles, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Saab customer service at 1-800-955-9007 or Saturn customer service at 1-800-553-6000. GM's number for this recall is 28810.

Thanks to intense lobbying, many states that have suggested that daily fantasy sports (DFS) sites like DraftKings and FanDuel engage in illegal gambling are now considering laws to allow exceptions.

DFS leagues have gotten around federal gambling statutes because they have been declared games of skill instead of luck. Players choose “teams,” made up of real players, and get points for how well the players perform during a given game.

In illegal gambling, players choose a team and are rewarded if the team wins a particular game, or performs better than expected – beating the odds.

A number of attorneys general have looked at DFS and decided “if it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it's probably a duck.”

In Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan is among them. She issued an opinion in December that declared DFS games to be in violation of the state's gambling laws.

“Absent legislation specifically exempting daily fantasy sports games from the gambling provisions, it is my opinion that daily fantasy sports contests constitute illegal gambling under Illinois law,” Madigan concluded.

In Illinois, and a number of states, legislatures are, in fact, considering measures that would declare that, while DFS might in fact look an awful lot like gambling, it really isn't.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the industry's lobbying arm is spending big – as much as $10 million – to support DFS-friendly legislation in all but 16 states – even states that have not yet taken a position on the legality of DFS.

In late January, the Tampa Bay Times reported legislation to establish the legality of DFS is making progress in the Florida legislature. While most states considering legalization would tax DFS revenue, the Florida legislation would require major DFS companies to pay $500,000 to register with the state.

As we reported back in October, the huge popularity of DFS, the involvement of major media companies and sports leagues, and the mountains of cash involved, all suggested that DFS was already “too big to fail.”

With some states already moving aggressively against the established DFS enterprises – most notably New York and Nevada – it might not be surprising that the industry is moving quickly to shore up its legal position in the rest of the states – perhaps before the start of baseball season.

The House of Representatives has approved a measure to amend the federal restaurant menu labeling law, changing the formula used to determine calorie content.

The Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2015 passed the house by a 266 to 144 vote. It now goes to the Senate.

The legislation would amend Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules that went into effect last year, requiring restaurants to post calorie information on menus and menu boards.

A significant change to the law would strike “the number of calories contained in the standard menu item, as usually prepared and offered for sale and inserting the number of calories contained in the whole standard menu item, or the number of servings (as reasonably determined by the restaurant or similar retail food establishment) and number of calories per serving, or the number of calories per the common unit division of the standard menu item, such as for a multiserving item that is typically divided before presentation to the consumer.”

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the legislation reverses what he called a “classic example of administration over-reach.”

“The administration’s own estimates state this regulation could cost American businesses $1 billion to comply and 500,000 hours of paperwork,” Upton said during debate on the bill. “That’s a huge chunk of time and money that could be better spent hiring more folks, or creating an improved experience for customers.”

Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has a different take.

“Despite the clever name, this anti-menu labeling bill is neither common sense nor would it disclose additional nutrition information,” Wootan said in a release. “It would result in consumer confusion and prevent disclosure of straightforward, consistent calorie information at many food service establishments.”

The CSPI says changing the law would end up withholding nutrition information from consumers, limiting their ability to make informed choices. It says more than 100 nutrition and health organizations have opposed the change.

“Menu labeling allows people to make informed food choices for a big and obesity-promoting part of their diets. Dozens of studies link restaurant meals to higher calorie intakes and obesity,” said Wootan.

She points to a recent Harvard study that she said found restaurant menu calorie labeling could prevent up to 41,000 cases of childhood obesity and could save more than $4.6 billion in healthcare costs over ten years.

Anyone who has it will tell you that arthritic pain can be debilitating. Rheumatoid arthritis, in particular, affects smaller joints, such as those located in the hands and feet. It causes swelling, cartilage damage, bone erosion, and joint deformity -- and can put those suffering from it through almost constant pain.

Now, one study says that a common compound found in one favorite hot beverage could go a long way towards reducing that pain. Salah-uddin Ahmed and teams of researchers from Washington State University in Spokane and Hajipur, India have found that a certain molecule found in green tea can effectively counter some of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

The molecule in question is called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG). It possesses many anti-inflammatory properties that make it perfectly suited for fighting the effects of rheumatoid arthritis. The added benefit is that it doesn’t block other kinds of cellular function. This is definitely an improvement over other treatment options that don’t quite do the job.

“Existing drugs for rheumatoid arthritis are expensive, immunosuppressive and sometimes unsuitable for long-term use,” said Ahmed. “This study has opened the field of research into using EGCG for targeting TAK1 – an important signaling protein – through which proinflammatory cytokines transmit their signals to cause inflammation and tissue destruction in rheumatoid arthritis.”

Ahmed and his fellow researchers are continuing to test EGCG in animal models. Results look hopeful thus far; one animal model showed reduced ankle swelling after taking EGCG over a 10-day treatment plan. The full study has been published in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatology. faces a contempt vote in the U.S. Senate after failing to adequately answer senators' questions about how it screens its classified ads for sex traffickers.

The free-classifieds site, once owned by Village Voice, accounts for 71% of all suspected child sex trafficking, representatives of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children told Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who announced the plan for a contempt vote last week.

Portman commented after revealing a 196-page report that includes gruesome details of incidents involving children who were bought and sold for sexual exploitation, allegedly via Backpage ads.  

The possible contempt charge stems from Backpage's failure to adequately disclose how it combats and prevents traffickers from advertising on its site, according to a spokesperson for Portman.

Backpage has questioned the government's authority to access its records and says it plans to argue that its activities are protected under the First Amendment.

Are there plants in your garden that bit the dust long ago? If so, your soil may actually be thanking you. According to blog writers Kelley House and Kate Norvell, both certified professional social scientists, leaving plants in your garden over the winter is a good thing, and it’s something everyone should consider doing on a yearly basis.

The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) February 15 Soils Matter blog post explains that plant “litter” that remains after a harvest is called “residue.” Leaving the residues in place over the winter instead of pulling them up or tilling them into the soil surface offers these benefits to the soil and your garden:

The concept of leaving plants in your garden over the winter is in line with another growing trend in U.S. agriculture. “No-till farming” — where crops are grown in undisturbed soil, without tillage or plowing — has been on the rise since the 1980s.

While it may seem like a simple concept, it has some important larger-scale connotations. Because plowing and tillage have been major sources of soil erosion around the world (as well as key factors behind the Dust Bowl), leaving soil undisturbed offers numerous environmental benefits. Farmers who began using the no-till approach found that they could conserve water, reduce erosion, and use less fossil fuel and labor to grow crops. Between 1982 and 1997, cropland erosion in the U.S. dropped nearly 40%.

The technique hasn’t caught on in all countries, however. But if it did, the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP) says we could see big climate benefits. It would lock more carbon in the soil and curtail fossil-fuel use in farm operations. The UNEP estimates that no-tillage operations in the United States have helped avoid 241 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide since the 1970s — the equivalent to the annual emissions of about 50 million cars.

In a report, the UNEP argues that governments will have to step in to encourage the practice to get it to spread, either by offering research and training or by providing financial support.

Consumers with retirement accounts operate under certain assumptions that guide the way they invest and otherwise manage their assets.

In his latest budget proposal, President Obama would make a number of changes that could alter many of those assumptions. While they are unlikely to survive the current budget process, especially in an election year, Morningstar points out that they reflect sentiment in Washington, at least on the Democratic side of the aisle.

These provisions could reappear in other, unrelated legislation down the road, especially when both Democrats and Republicans are looking for ways to add revenue.

In its analysis, Morningstar focuses on proposed changes to the Roth IRA that could result in higher taxes for retirees using that instrument. The Roth IRA is different from the traditional IRA, in that contributions to it are not tax deductible. When you make withdrawals, they aren't taxable income – the way withdrawals from traditional IRAs are.

The big advantage to a Roth IRA is the money grows tax-free as long as it stays in the account. Morningstar says the Obama administration has two proposals that target wealthy consumers who use Roth IRAs.

The first would curtail the ability to convert traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs, a tool many affluent savers use to get around the Roth's income limits. The second would require funds to be taken out of a Roth at some point. Right now that money can stay in there earning tax free income until it's passed on to an heir.

Fidelity Investments has a chart to help you compare the Roth and Traditional IRAs to determine which is a better fit for you. Just keep in mind that some of the current rules might change in the future if you are an upper income saver. reports financial advisors seem to favor the Roth for most people because it potentially has greater tax advantages. If you don't earn a six-figure income, those advantages could very well stay intact for years to come.

Whether it's a Roth or traditional IRA, you should be saving for retirement. If you still aren't sure which way to go, talk to a trusted and objective financial advisor.

Thanks to a new app called Scholarly, college students can order up a tutor faster than they can have a pizza delivered.

Created by Sultan Khan and Haasith Sanka — two computer science students at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) — the app can connect struggling students with knowledgeable tutors in the general vicinity.

The way it works is simple: tutors create profiles, which can be viewed by students looking for help in a certain subject. After setting a meeting location, the two parties can meet to untangle whatever academic knot a student is wrestling with.

In addition to being easy, it’s mutually beneficial. Tutors can earn extra cash, while students can get the academic help they need — all with no middle man other than a smartphone.

Khan and Sanka describe Scholarly as "The Uber for Tutors," and hope the on-demand tutoring service will help fellow students.

“We both believe that one-on-one tutoring is beneficial, so we are proud to have created something that will contribute to students’ success,” said Sanka of the app, which recently won first place at the world’s largest education Hackathon.

The duo developed the android version of Scholarly at HackingEDU last October. The competition drew more than 1,000 hackers from universities around the world. Within a 36-hour time frame, students were challenged to turn their ideas into functional software that would improve the education system.

After presenting Scholarly to a panel of judges, Khan and Sanka ultimately left with a first place ranking for their app. Since winning, the students have been working to improve the android app and create the iOS version.

“One of the challenges about developing apps is that even when you’ve done a good job there is always room for improvement,” Khan told UCR Today. “That’s one of the things I love about creating apps and the reason I want to work in the field of software development when I graduate.”

While most of the app’s activity is currently generated by UCR students, Khan and Sanka hope to expand the service to K-12 students and their parents in the coming months. It is now available as a free download on Google Play and in the Apple App Store.

ADT Corporation, which provides home security and monitoring services in the U.S., is being acquired by an affiliate of Apollo Global Management, which own..

Burger King has always marched to the beat of its own drummer. Its marketing has always been a little eccentric.

Now, when most fast food restaurants are catering to health-conscious Millennials and trying to show they have some redeeming nutritional value, Burger King appears to be heading in a different direction.

The burger chain, home of the Whopper, hopes to become famous for its grilled hot dogs as well. The company says the new menu item will be available at participating restaurants nationwide, starting February 23rd.

"The introduction of Grilled Dogs just made sense to our guests and for our brand," Alex Macedo, President, North America, for the Burger King brand, said in a release. "We're applying over 60 years of flame-grilling expertise with the Whopper sandwich to make Grilled Dogs the next great American icon."

Nutritional questions aside – and to be honest, there are probably a lot more calorie laden items on the menu than hot dogs – the move appears aimed at enhancing the bottom line. The profit margin in a hot dog is probably huge. It's also easy to prepare. Better still, Burger King will pretty much have the fast food hot dog market to itself.

And Americans seem to like hot dogs. They're associated with baseball games and the Fourth of July. Burger King estimates that Americans eat over 20 billion hot dogs a year.

The company believes its introduction of Grilled Dogs positions its restaurants to take a large bite out of that market with one of its' biggest launches in recent history.

Burger King says its Grilled Dogs will be available in both the Classic Grilled Dog and the Chili Cheese Grilled Dog. The Classic Grilled Dog is a flame-grilled hot dog made with 100% beef, topped with ketchup, mustard, chopped onions, relish, and served on a baked bun.

The Chili Cheese Grilled Dog is the same beef hot dog topped with warm chili, shredded cheddar cheese, and served on a baked bun. Both are sold separately or as a combo meal.

Burger King has some marketing firepower behind the launch, enlisting pop culture personality Snoop Dogg to help promote the rollout.

According to CalorieKing, a plain hot dog on a bun has 240 calories. Keep in mind a lot of the calories are in the chili, cheese, and other condiments you pile on.

According to health site, a beef hot dog contains 13 grams of fat, with about 60% monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and 40% saturated fat.

“The American Heart Association recommends that Americans consume no more than 7% of their total caloric intake from saturated fats, as this type of unhealthy fat increases your risk of heart disease,” the site advises.  

General Motors' attempt to sell used cars direct to consumers is encountering roadblocks thrown up by dealers, including threats of a lawsuit by California dealers.

GM announced the effort a few weeks ago, saying it would be good for GM, for dealers, and for consumers, who would be able to shop for and buy a used Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, or Cadillac online. 

Dubbed the GM Factory Pre-Owned Collection, the program had hoped to sell 30,000 or so vehicles, supplementing its Shop-Click-Drive, a similar program that sells new cars. 

“It creates opportunity for our dealers, it creates opportunity for us,” GM President Dan Ammann said as he unveiled the program last month during the 2016 Deutsche Bank Global Auto Industry Conference in Detroit, the Detroit News reported.

But now, dealers are dragging their feet, with only one in four signing up to participate and California dealers threatening legal action.

"We have had our attorneys review the program and they have raised various legal issues that need to be addressed by GM," said a letter to GM, signed by Brian Maas, the association's president, Automotive News reported.

The letter suggests the program puts GM in competition with its dealers and says it may violate state laws that prohibit auto brokering without a license.

The dealers are also distressed at the site's use of a suggested price from Kelley Blue Book, saying the prices are "unrealistic" and "misleading."

The cars GM is trying to sell aren't trade-ins, as is often the case with cars on dealers' lots. They come mostly from rental fleets and lease turn-ins, have less than 37,000 miles, and come with factory-endorsed extended warranties. 

GM executies say dealers just aren't used to the new system and will like it if they give it a chance.

The web portal is "an opportunity to really just connect the customer back to the dealer," Brian Sweeney, Chevrolet U.S. vice president, told Automotive News.

Trader Joe's is the latest to join the cage-free egg movement, saying it will sell only cage-free eggs by 2025, earlier in some states.

In a letter to customers, Trader Joe's said its store-brand eggs have been cage-free since 2005, amounting to about 62% of all the eggs it sells. It said that by 2020, all of its stores in Western states will sell only cage-free eggs, with the rest of the nation following suit by 2025.

"If market conditions allow us to accomplish these goals earlier, while still providing our customers outstanding value, we will do so," the company said, noting that it already offers a variety of egg choices.

"We have offered a range of choices from 'conventional' and 'cage-free' sources (among them organic, cage-free, free-range, and fertile options; a list of egg-related terms and meanings can be found in our Product Information FAQs)," the letter added.

“We wholeheartedly commend Trader Joe’s for their decision. No supermarket with a future wants to leave cruelty on their shelves – it’s just plain bad for business,” said Leah Garces, U.S. Director Compassion in World Farming, an animal rights group that recently produced a parody of Adele's smash hit "Hello," asking Trader Joe's to make the change.

The Trader's change of heart came just a few weeks after one of the group's supporters, Jessie Duroe Hadley, started a petition on that quickly gathered more than 100,000 signatures.

Trader Joe's joins BJ's, Target, Costco, Subway, McDonald's, and other major retailers and food producers in promising to switch to cage-free eggs. Animal rights groups argue that caged chickens lead short, miserable lives and many consumer activists say confining chickens in close quarters can lead to health problems, both for the chickens and the humans who devour them.

Taking a cue from consumers, the confidence of builders in the market for newly-built single-family homes took a hit in February.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) fell three points to 58 from an upwardly revised January reading of 61.

"Builders are reflecting consumers' concerns about recent negative economic trends," said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "However, the fundamentals are in place for continued growth of the housing market. Historically low mortgage rates, steady job gains, improved household formations and significant pent up demand all point to a gradual upward trend for housing in the year ahead."

The HMI 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.

The HMI component measuring sales expectations in the next six months rose one point to 65 in February, while the index measuring current sales condition fell three points to 65 and the component charting buyer traffic dropped five points to 39.

Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, all four regions registered slight declines. The Midwest fell one point to 57, the West registered a three-point drop to 72 and the Northeast and South each posted a two-point decline to 47 and 59, respectively.

"Though builders report the dip in confidence this month is partly attributable to the high cost and lack of availability of lots and labor, they are still positive about the housing market," said NAHB Chairman Ed Brady. "Of note, they expressed optimism that sales will pick up in the coming months."

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

Consumers with questions may call customer service at 973-361-7044 from 8:15 am – 4:30 pm, (EST), Monday through Friday.

BMW of North America is recalling 840,000 model year 2008-2013 128i and 135i coupes and convertibles and 1 Series M coupes; 2006-2011 325i, 325xi, 328i, 328xi, 328i xDrive, 330i, 330xi, 335i, 335xi, 335i xDrive Sedans; 2009-2011 335d sedans; 2006-2012 325xiT, 328i and 328xi sports wagons; 2007-2013 328i, 328xi, 328i xDrive, 335i, 335xi, 335i xDrive, 335is and M3 Coupes and Convertibles; 2013-2015 X1 sDrive28i, X1 xDrive28i and X1 xDrive35i SAVs; 2007-2010 X3 xDrive30i SAVs; 2007-2013 X5 xDrive30i, X5 xDrive35i, X5 xDrive48i, X5 xDrive50i and X5 M SAVs; 2009-2013 BMW X5 xDrive35d SAVs; 2008-2014 X6 xDrive35i, X6 xDrive50i, and X6 M SACs; 2010-2011 BMW X6 xDrive50i SACs; and 2008-2011 M3 Sedan vehicles.

Upon deployment of the driver-side front air bag, excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture with metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the driver's front air bag, free of charge. Parts are not currently available. Owners will be mailed an interim notification beginning March 31, 2016. A second notice will be mailed when remedy parts are available.

American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 2.23 million model year 2007-2011 Honda CR-V; 2011-2015 CR-Z; 2010-2014 FCX Clarity, and Insight; 2009-2013 Fit; 2013-2014 Fit EV; 2007-2014 Ridgeline; 2013-2016 Acura ILX; 2013-2014 Acura ILX Hybrid; 2007-2016 RDX; 2005-2012 Acura RL;2009-2014 Acura TL; and 2010-2013 Acura ZDX vehicles.

The recalled vehicles are equipped with a dual-stage driver front air bag that may be susceptible to moisture intrusion which, over time, could cause the inflator to rupture with metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the inflator, free of charge. Remedy parts are expected to be available in Fall 2016. Interim notices will be mailed to owners beginning on March 14, 2016. Owners will receive a second notice when remedy parts become available.

Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-888-234-2138. Honda's numbers for this recall are JX2, JX3 and JX4.

Garden of Life is expanding its earlier recall to include additional lots of its Raw Meal Organic Shake & Meal Chocolate, Original, Vanilla and Vanilla Chai products.

Customers who have any of the recalled product should return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-866-465-0051, Monday-Friday from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm (EST).

Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 711,266 model year 2009-2010 ML320 BlueTec 4Matic, GL320 BlueTec 4Matic and R320 CDI 4Matic; 2011 E350 Cabriolet and E550 Cabriolet; 2009-2011 ML350, ML350 4Matic, ML550 4Matic, ML63 AMG, and C63 AMG; 2010-2011 ML450 4Matic Hybrid, E350 Coupe, E350 4Matic, E550 Coupe, E550 4Matic, and E63 AMG; 2011-2012 GL350 BlueTec 4Matic and R350 BlueTec 4Matic; 2009-2012 GL450 4Matic, GL550 4Matic and R350 4Matic; 2007-2008 SLK280, SLK350, and SLK55 AMG; 2011-2014 SLS AMG Coupe; 2012 SLS AMG Cabriolet; 2013-2014 SLS AMG GT and SLS AMG GT Cabriolet; 2005 C230 Kompressor and C320; 2006-2007 C230; 2006-2011 C350, 2008-2011 C300 and C300 4Matic; 2010-2012 GLK350 and GLK350 4Matic; and 2006-2007 Chrysler Crossfire vehicles.

Upon deployment of the driver's front air bag, excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture, with metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

MBUSA will their notify owners, and Fiat Chrysler will notify the affected Chrysler owners. Dealers for the respective brands will replace the driver's front air bag module, free of charge. A notification schedule has not yet been provided.

Mercedes-Benz owners may contact MBUSA customer service at 1-800-367-6372 and Chrysler owners may contact Fiat Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403.

One of the top questions on taxpayers' minds this time of year has to be, “Should I do my own taxes, or hire someone to do it?”

If you opt for the latter, keep in mind that while the vast majority of tax professionals provide honest, high-quality service, there are scoundrels out there who set up shop each filing season to perpetrate refund fraud, identity theft, and other scams that hurt taxpayers.

"Choose your tax return preparer carefully because you entrust them with your private financial information that needs to be protected," said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. "Most preparers provide high-quality service but we run across cases each year where unscrupulous preparers steal from their clients and misfile their taxes."

Return preparers are a vital part of the U.S. tax system. Some 60% of taxpayers use them to prepare their returns.

It is important to choose carefully when hiring an individual or firm to prepare your return. Well-intentioned taxpayers can be misled by preparers who don’t understand taxes or who mislead people into taking credits or deductions they aren’t entitled to in order to increase their fee. Every year, these types of tax preparers face everything from penalties to even jail time for defrauding their clients.

In an attempt to settle two lawsuits, ride-sharing company Uber has agreed to pay $28.5 million to approximately 25 million consumers who used the service in the month of January. The suits allege that Uber misled consumers about its safety procedures and associated fees, according to the Chicago Tribune. The deal still requires a judge’s approval before it can be finalized.

Until recently, Uber had used advertising language that promoted its focus on safety. For example, customers paid a “Safe Ride Fee” of up to $2.30 per trip. It also stated that it used “industry-leading background checks” for their private contract drivers. However, the suits claim that this simply isn’t the case, citing that drivers do not even have their fingerprints checked, a routine requirement for taxi drivers.

Under the settlement, Uber will change its language to better reflect the level of safety the service provides. The “Safe Ride Fee” is also being renamed to a “Booking Fee.”

Despite the grievances that have been filed, Uber is adamant that its service does provide a good level of protection for its customers. For example, riders can still view the photo ID and license number of a driver before taking a trip. Still, the company admits that their service is not perfect.

“However no means of transportation can ever be 100 percent safe. Accidents and incidents do happen. . . That’s why it’s important to ensure that the language we use to describe safety at Uber is clear and precise,” said the company.

The company goes on to comment that it is ready to put these suits to rest so that it can focus on delivering the service that many consumers have come to rely on. “We are glad to put these cases behind us and we will continue to invest in new technology and great customer services so that we can help improve safety in the cities we serve,” it said.

Boost Software has agreed to settlements with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi after being charged with deceptively marketing computer software and tech support services.

The company and affiliated entities used websites and pop-up ads to market PC HealthBoost, a registry software product. It claimed PC HealthBoost could dramatically increase computer speed and protect the device from errors, crashes, and freezes.

After consumers downloaded a free version of PC HealthBoost, a system scan allegedly misled consumers to believe that their computer had hundreds or thousands of errors in need of repair, regardless of whether the computer had any performance issues.

The federal and state complaints charged Boost Software then urged consumers to pay nearly $30 for the registered version of PC HealthBoost. According to Bondi, PC HealthBoost does not significantly increase computer speed or prevent computer freezes or crashes for the typical computer user.

If consumers purchased the registered version of PC HealthBoost, they were allegedly instructed to call a toll-free number to activate their software. Vast Tech Support, LLC, another of the defendants, owned the number and routed consumers to its call center, OMG Tech Help, LLC.

The complaints allege that during the call, Vast Tech telemarketers gained access to consumers’ computers and ran a scripted diagnostic process that purported to show the computers had performance or security issues. The telemarketers then allegedly scared consumers into spending hundreds of dollars on unnecessary computer repairs.

“These defendants deceived consumers and used high-pressure sales tactics to convince them that their computers required tech support products,” Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Proetction, said in a statement. “I’m pleased these settlements will keep the defendants out of the tech support scam business.”

Besides Boost Software, the settlements include Jon Paul Holdings, LLC, managing member of Vast Tech Support, LLC; Jon-Paul Vasta, beneficial owner of Jon Paul Holdings, LLC; Success Capital, LLC, managing member of Vast Tech Support, LLC; and Elliot Loewenstern, managing member of Success Capital, LLC, and CEO of Vast Tech Support, LLC and OMG Tech Help, LLC.

The defendants agreed to stop deceptive marketing and pay judgments totaling more than $200,000. The agreement suspended judgments of more than $37 million.

Tech support scams have become more common in recent years and Microsoft has now joined the nationwide effort to bring them to an end. In the most aggressive of these scams, a caller will pretend to be from Microsoft Tech Support, informing you your computer is dangerously compromised and asking to be allowed to take control of it, or try to sell an expensive product to “fix” it.

Microsoft points out its personnel never initiate such calls and would have no way to know if a consumer's computer was compromised or not.

Walkable neighborhoods are a hot commodity in the real estate world these days. As we reported, Millennials have been especially fond of taking up residenc..

That car hurtling at you on the other side of the thin white line? Chances are one in five that it has an outstanding safety recall, according to a recent analysis.

Used-car history provider Carfax says there are more than 47 million cars in the U.S. with "open" recalls -- meaning recalls that have not been completed. That's up 27% from a year ago.

Many, of course, are cars equipped with the dread Takata airbags, but others have problems like hoods that may fly open unexpectedly, fuel pipes that can rupture in a collision, and brake lines that may corrode faster than expected.

"Our data shows there's still much hard work to be done in addressing recalls," Larry Gamache, communications director at Carfax, said.

Gamache said it is troubling that the type of vehicle with the highest rate of unfixed safety issues is the family-oriented minivan, with one out of every 4.6 having open recalls.

SUVs are second at one in 5.1 vehicles, followed by pickup trucks and cars, each at one in 5.5 vehicles.

The highest rates of unfixed vehicles were, in order, Texas, Mississippi, Alaska, Utah, and West Virginia, Carfax said.

If you have received a recall notice in the mail, you should contact your dealer to have the repairs completed as quickly as possible at no charge. Dealers may sometimes not have the necessary parts on hand and there may be a delay.

Dealers are not required to provide you with a loaner while the repairs are made but it never hurts to ask.

To check whether there are outstanding recalls on your car, check or the Carfax recall check page.

As we reported a few weeks ago, Blue Buffalo has agreed to pay $32 million to settle a class action lawsuit that charged its products made pets sick. The s..

Get ready for faster Internet speeds. AT&T says its customers can expect speeds 10 to 100 times faster than today’s average 4G LTE connections when it begins rolling out its 5G service.

The company said it will begin running field trials for the new service in Austin, Tex., later this year.

AT&T said 5G will change the way Internet speed is described. Instead of measuring it in megabytes per second (MPS) it will be measured in gigabytes per second (GPS). For reference, at one gigabit per second, the company says you will be able to download a TV show in less than three seconds.

“New experiences like virtual reality, self-driving cars, robotics, smart cities and more are about to test networks like never before,” John Donovan, Chief Strategy Officer and Group President of AT&T Technology and Operations, said in a release.

Already, AT&T says it's existing networks have been put to the test. It says data traffic on its wireless network grew more than 150,000% from 2007 through 2015, driven largely by video.

Last year, it said more than 60% of the data traffic on its total network was video. That traffic is only going to grow.

“4K video, virtual reality, and IoT will drive the next wave of traffic growth,” the company said in a press release. “5G is ideal for those bandwidth-hungry applications because it will support multiple radio interfaces, enable more spectrum efficiency, and take advantage of SDN and network function virtualization (NFV).”

Verizon laid out its 5G plans last September. At the time, it said it's field trials would also begin this year.

At the time, it said it anticipates speeding up the expected 2020 launch date, when most industry sources predict 5G's U.S. launch.  

The U.S. housing market appeared to cool off during the last three months of 2015, but that didn't stop home prices from going up. However, the report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) suggests homes in metropolitan areas, rather than rural America, saw the most gains.

The report shows that the median existing single-family home price increased in 81% of NAR's measured markets, down from 87% in the third quarter. Still, that might not be bad considering sales of existing homes fell 5.4% during the period.

"Even with slightly cooling demand, the unshakeable trend of inadequate supply in relation to the overall pool of prospective buyers inflicted upward pressure on home prices in several metro areas," NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said in a release.

The result, says Yun, is that a number of qualified buyers are being shut out of the housing market if they happen to live in the top job producing, but increasingly expensive, parts of the country – especially on the West Coast and parts of the South.

"Without a significant ramp-up in new home construction and more homeowners listing their homes for sale, buyers are likely to see little relief in the form of slowing price growth in the months ahead," Yun said.

A consumer who wanted to buy a single-family home at the national median price, putting 5% down, would need an income of $49,535. But first he or she would need to find a desirable home for sale. Increasingly, that's getting harder to do.

At the end of the fourth quarter, there were 1.79 million existing homes available for sale, down from 1.86 million homes for sale at the end of the fourth quarter in 2014. The average supply during the fourth quarter was 4.6 months – down from 4.9 months a year ago.

This is creating a strong seller's market, especially in hot metro areas. Great if you're trying to sell your home – not so great if you want to buy.

Nashville, Tennessee is one of the hot housing markets where affordability is slipping away. Christie Wilson, CEO of The Wilson Group Real Estate Services, says parts of the Nashville area have become “micro-markets” and are experiencing what she calls a mini-bubble.

"The lack of inventory continues to drive prices up in certain price ranges and certain neighborhoods that have those price points, such as anything under $350,000," she said in an interview with the Nashville Tennessean. "But there is a lot of inventory in higher price points, and so there very well could be a pricing correction in the future."

Real estate marketplace Zillow recently reported that urban home values have been rising faster than those in suburban areas. It says the shift reflects demographic trends of Millennials delaying family life and choosing condos, and shifting preferences, as people seek walkable neighborhoods with urban amenities.  

“Forever” is the promise of both the engagement ring and your betrothed. But if “forever” suddenly comes to a halt, what happens to the value of your ring? New research shows that a diamond ring’s history can have a big impact on its re-sale value.

In a study, rings disclosed as products of divorce and other failed relationships were much less likely to sell — and were sold at lower prices — than rings without a negative history. In other words, when the relationship crumbles so does the value of the ring meant to symbolize it.

This finding contradicts previous research claiming that consumer expectations are fully met when an item cleanly fits into a category, says the study’s researcher Anne Bowers, an associate professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “Here’s a product that technically speaking, fits exactly the criteria for an engagement ring, and yet you still have problems,” says Prof. Bowers.

As it turns out, trains of thought such as, “I’m getting married, I need a ring, here is a nice ring” can easily be derailed by a ring’s history.

Analysis of data from 1.5 million eBay listings of diamond solitaire engagement rings over a 13-month period showed that rings with no disclosed negative history were more likely to sell and at higher prices. On the contrary, in cases where sellers disclosed a failed a relationship behind the ring — marked by comments like “not going to happen,” or “ring ring, wrong guy” — were less successful.

However, a separate survey showed that consumers were more likely to believe that a diamond ring from a divorce was authentic compared to the same one from a happy marriage or a jewelry store, but they weren’t willing to pay as much for it.

According to Prof. Bowers, these results point to the fact that researchers should "think more carefully about what it is that defines whether or not you fit into a market.” When it comes to defining a market category, there are more than just physical characteristics — there are social characteristics, as well.

If marketers can develop different expectations of engagement rings — such as an interest in the size or cut of the diamond or simply getting a great deal — there is potential to "shift consumers away from the primary market, such as what online used ring marketer, ‘I Do Now I Don't’ has been trying to do,” says Bowers.

And if you’re stuck with a ring of your own to unload, Bowers says your best bet will be to try to sell it back to the jeweler you bought it from — but “be prepared to take a big loss.”

Consumer reviews on the Internet can be very helpful tools when you are trying to find a good business and avoid a bad one. But you have to be able to trust the information.

Unfortunately, as consumers have come to rely more on sites like ConsumerAffairs, some companies have tried to game the system, creating their own review sites and passing off the content as objective consumer reviews.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman investigated the practice and brought action against four firms. This week, he announced settlements that require the companies to be honest and transparent in online reviews and endorsements and pay penalties ranging from $20,000 to $50,000.

“Consumers rely on reviews and other endorsements on the Internet to inform themselves in making daily purchasing decisions,” Schneiderman said in a release. “This investigation continues my office’s historical work into ‘astroturfing’ over the Internet and signals to companies that consumers deserve honesty and transparency in their reviews, endorsements and related content.”

Included in the settlement is Machinima, a California-based online entertainment network that distributes video content relating to video games and gaming culture via a multi-channel network. Schneiderman says his investigation found that Machinima paid gaming experts known as “influencers” to post YouTube videos endorsing Microsoft’s Xbox One system and several games.

Premier Retail Group, Inc., a chain of cosmetic and beauty supply stores, was found to be paying Yelp reviewers to post positive reviews about the stores and products, whether they had any experience with them or not.

The investigation found Here2Four, Incorporated, a California Internet marketing company, solicited over 50 freelance writers to write over 200 fake reviews of its small-business clients for $10 to $15 per review.

Finally, the investigation found New York-based Rani Spa agreed to pay a writer to post fictitious Yelp reviews.

Schneiderman said the practices engaged in by all four companies violated New York state law, which prohibits misrepresentation and deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any business.

For good measure, he says it also violates the Federal Trade Commission Guide Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

For the month, retail and food services sales -- adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes totaled $449.9 billion -- up 0.2% from December and an advance of 3.4% from the same time a year earlier.

As it released it's January numbers, the government revised its December figures to show a sales gain of 0.2% instead of the 0.1% decline previously reported.

January's sales increase was led by a year-over-year gain of 9.1% in sales of sporting goods, hobby, and book and music stores. Sales by nonstore retailers were up 8.7% from last year.

Despite the lack of "oomph" in the report, Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza says the number suggests a more active consumer.

"A stronger-than-expected improvement in retail spending at the start of the year," she says, "coupled with a sizable upward revision to purchases at the end of last year suggests household spending is on relatively firmer footing than previously thought."

The trade group is projecting retail industry sales -- excluding automobiles, gas stations, and restaurants -- will grow 3.1%, higher than the 10-year average of 2.7%. The NRF also says it expects non-store sales to grow between 6 and 9% this year.

“Wage stagnation is easing, jobs are being created and consumer confidence remains steady, so despite the headwinds our economy faces from international developments -- particularly in China -- we think 2016 will be favorable for growth in the retail industry,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “All of the experts agree that the consumer is in the driver’s seat and steering our economic recovery. The best thing the government can do is stay out of the way, stop proposing rules and regulations that create hurdles toward greater capital investment and focus on policies that help retailers provide increased income and job stability for their employees.”

“The economy had a bumpy ride in 2015 with fits and starts along the way,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz. “Despite the volatility, the economy continued to reduce unemployment, raise wages and actually increase real GDP by 2.4 percent.”

Kleinhenz says lower gas prices are creating more discretionary income to save, pay down debt, spend on travel, eat out, and use personal services. “Retailers have benefited as well,” he concluded, “and continue to find ways to compete and succeed in a very cost-conscious environment.”

This recall involves all model year 2016 Arctic Cat turbo 9000 snowmobiles. Recalled models include the M 9000, XF 9000, XF9000 Cross Trek and ZR 9000 snowmobiles. The recalled snowmobiles were sold in black, green, orange and white.

The model name is on a decal on the top of the chassis between the seat and the rear bumper. The name Arctic Cat is on each side of the snowmobiles. The letter G in the 10th position of the vehicle identification number (VIN) indicates that the unit was made in the 2016 model year. The VIN is stamped into the chassis near the right foot rest.

The snowmobiles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold exclusively at Arctic Cat dealers nationwide from June 2015, through January 2016, for between $14,000 and $16,000.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled snowmobiles and contact an Arctic Cat dealer to schedule a free repair. Arctic Cat is contacting its customers directly.

Consumers may contact Arctic Cat at 800-279-6851 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at and click on Customer Care, then Product Recall and then List of Safety Bulletins for more information.

Nuna Baby Essentials of Morgantown, Pa., is recalling about 5,700 ZAAZTM high chairs in the U.S. and Canada.

The company has received 50 reports of the arm bar detaching, including six reports of children falling from the high chair. Four incidents resulted in injuries, including bruising and a cut on the forehead.

ZAAZ and the model number are printed under the high chair seat on a white sticker. These high chairs look like a regular kitchen table chair and have removable trays, arm bars footrests, seat pads and harnesses so that they can convert into toddler chairs. “Nuna” is printed above the footrest of the unit.

The high chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at Albee Baby, Giggle, Magic Bean, Nordstrom and other specialty stores nationwide and online at and and other online retailers from February 2013, through November 2015, for about between $250 and $300.

Consumers should immediately stop using these recalled high chairs and contact the firm to receive a free new arm bar and instructions on how to replace it.

Consumers may contact Nuna Baby Essentials toll-free at 855-686-2872 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday or online at for more information.

A long era of uncertainty over the future of Internet taxes may be coming to a close. With a 75-20 vote in the Senate today, Congress passed the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (PITFA), which bans taxing Internet access.

Summed up by Congress, the act “amends the Internet Tax Freedom Act to make permanent the ban on state and local taxation of Internet access and on multiple or discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce.”

While billed as a pro-consumer measure, the measure was supported most fervently by the cable and telecommunications industries.

"We applaud the Senate on today’s passage of the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA)," said Michael Powell, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the cable industry's trade association. "Internet access is more than a convenience, it’s critical to the daily lives of Americans."

"By keeping Internet access free from state and local taxes, ITFA will permanently keep down the cost of connectivity, enable more American consumers and businesses to get online and allow the Internet to further power economic growth. We urge President Obama to sign this important legislation to make ITFA permanent once and for all,” said Powell. 

PIFTA makes permanent the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA), which was first passed in 1998. It placed a temporary ban, or moratorium, on taxing Internet access. 

The key word here is “temporary.” ITFA was never made permanent, even though it received bipartisan support. Some senators consistently prevented the tax ban from being made permanent. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), for one, wanted to make passage of PITFA contingent on passage of another piece of legislation called the Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA), which stipulates that consumers must pay sales tax on online purchases.

After being promised a vote on a new MFA in 2017, Durbin finally relented and agreed to the bill’s passing, ending 17 years of annual ITFA extensions. 

The bill now awaits the signature of President Barack Obama. Whether he intends to sign it is unknown. If he does, states who have taxes in place for Internet access will need to cease collections by 2020.

Despite the Federal Reserve's insistence that it will continue to raise interest rates, the money you can earn on your money is almost non-existent. The yield on a 10-year Treasury bond is well under 2% and no one expects it to go up anytime soon.

Savers in search of yield – earnings on their money – often look at stock in companies that pay quarterly or monthly dividends. The return is usually a lot more than you can get on a certificate of deposit (CD) and the value of the stock can appreciate. Of course, since it is a stock, its value can also go down.

Still, with Coca-Cola currently paying a yield of 3.11% and AT&T paying over 5%, a lot of investors are willing to take the risk. And with the market's steep sell-off this year, some stocks are recently paying eye-popping, double-digit yields.

But be careful. The dividend yield goes up when the value of the stock goes down – assuming the dividend remains constant.

Here's an example: let's say the stock of XYZ Corp. is trading at about $35 a share and pays a dividend of $1.50 per share. Dividing $1.50 by $35 gives you a nice, solid yield of 4.2%.

But suppose the stock of XYZ Corp. falls, along with the stock market, to $20 a share. Now the yield is 7.5%.

That looks like a great return, but it could be a trap because XYZ Corp. now has what is called an “accidental” high yield. It hasn't increased its dividend -- the yield is high because the price of the stock has fallen, relative to the dividend the company is paying.

That last part is where the trap comes in. If the company's stock has fallen because of declining profits it may not continue to pay a dividend of $1.50 a share. In fact, it can change the amount of its dividend at any time.

It might cut the dividend in half, or stop paying it altogether. That has happened in recent weeks in the energy sector, when oil companies decided they had to cut their payout to shareholders in the face of declining oil prices.

In 2010, when the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, spilling millions of barrels of oil and exposing the company to huge liabilities, BP eliminated its 8% dividend overnight.

When a company cuts its dividend, the misery just gets worse, because in almost every case, the price of the stock will go down even more. People who bought the stock for the high dividend don't want it anymore when the payout declines or is eliminated.

If you are still holding the stock you purchased for its “accidental” high dividend, not only will you get a smaller yield in the future, you might not be able to sell the stock for some time without incurring a loss.

When considering a dividend-paying stock, investment experts advise always considering the fundamental strength of the company first, investing in stocks you might buy, whether they paid a dividend or not.

Even then, dividend investing is not a buy-and-hold strategy. Investors must remain vigilant to market fluctuations that could affect company fundamentals and future payouts.

Before embarking on such a strategy, make sure you seek the advice of a trusted and objective financial advisor.  

When a scammer hooks a victim, he wants to make sure he gets the money neatly and cleanly, in a way that it can't be traced or recovered.For years, mon..

Dog lovers without a pooch of their own may be able to get their next dog fix with Bark’n’Borrow — an app through which you can find a dog to borrow.

The way the app works is simple. Create a profile, pass the screening to become a verified “dog lover,” and you’ll be able to connect with a community of dog lovers in your local area.

The three-sided marketplace aspect of Bark’n’Borrow allows you to become either a Sitter (someone who gets paid for their time), a Borrower (rewarded simply with canine companionship), or a dog owner looking for some extra love for your dog.

If you’re a borrower looking to spend time with a dog — whether it’s for an afternoon walk, a day of play, or the entire time a pooch’s human is on vacation — just peruse some doggy profiles and you’ll be on your way.

Similar to a dating app for humans, each dog has a profile which includes a photo and some basic info, such as breed, obedience level, and how it well it gets along with other dogs and children. Profiles also include typical dog characteristics, such as “curious,” “affectionate,” and “energetic.”

Once you’ve found a winner, borrowers can reach out to the owner. If everyone gets along after meeting, they can arrange for dog walking or sitting later.

Despite the meet-and-greets, however, there is a definite trust aspect to the service. Handing off your dog to a relative stranger might feel a little strange to a dog owner, but the company assures owners that each potential borrower has undergone a careful vetting process.

Bark’n’Borrow’s founder Liam Berkeley believes the service might be a natural step in the sharing economy. In the age of AirBnB and Uber, dog sharing doesn’t seem too outlandish a concept.

He says the idea for the app came to him when he was unable to commit to a dog due to work demands.  "I was contemplating rescuing a dog — I grew up with dogs — but I was working 12 or 13 hour days," Liam Berkeley tells Fast Company. "My girlfriend at the time was still in school and had a job on the side. So as much as we were thinking of getting one, we knew it wasn't the best idea."

So Berkeley would occasionally borrow neighbors' dogs and take them for hikes. He soon discovered there was no shortage of people like himself who missed having a dog of their own, so he decided to create the simple dog-matching service.

Dog owners and borrowers currently pay nothing for the service, but eventually Berkeley plans to charge a small fee for borrowers as well. The fee, he tells Fast Company, will help cover insurance and customer support, and a portion of the profits will go to animal rescue.

Race car driver and businessman Scott Tucker has been indicted for allegedly operating a nationwide internet payday lending enterprise that systematically evaded state laws in order to charge illegal interest rates as high as 700% on loans to cash-strapped consumers.

Tucker and his attorney, Timothy Muir, are named in criminal indictments unsealed yesterday (Wednesday) in New York. They face charges of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”) and the Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”). Both defendants were arrested in Kansas City, Kansas. 

In Manhattan, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Tucker and Muir "targeted and exploited millions of struggling, everyday people by charging illegally high interest rates – as much as 700 percent."

Bharara said the two claimed their $2 billion business was actually owned and operated by Native American tribes. "But," he said, through the work of the FBI and IRS, "this deceptive and predatory scheme to take advantage of the most financially vulnerable in our communities has been exposed for what it is – a criminal scheme.”  

Bharara also announced a non-prosecution agreement with two tribal corporations controlled by the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. The tribes agreed to forfeit $48 million in criminal proceeds from the payday lending operation.

The indictment charges that from at least 1997 until 2013, Tucker made small, short-term, high-interest, unsecured loans, commonly referred to as “payday loans,” through the Internet. He did business under a number of names, inclduing Ameriloan, f/k/a Cash Advance; One Click Cash, f/k/a Preferred Cash Loans; United Cash Loans; US FastCash; 500 FastCash; Advantage Cash Services; and Star Cash Processing (the “Tucker Payday Lenders”). 

The loans were issued to more than 4.5 million working people throughout the United States, including hundreds of thousands of people in New York, many of whom were struggling to pay basic living expenses, Bharara said. Many of these loans were issued in states, including New York, with laws that expressly forbade lending at the exorbitant interest rates TUCKER charged, he added.

The Federal Trade Commission has also been investigating Tucker. In January, the agency asked a federal court to pay $1.3 billion in damages to customers who were allegedly overcharged for their loans. That case is still pending.

If you believe you were a victim of one of Tucker's operations, and you wish to provide information to law enforcement or receive notice of future developments in the case, please contact the Victim/Witness Unit at the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, at (866) 874-8900. 

Just about every high school kid would like to cut class and study at home, which usually translates to sleeping, texting, and gaming. But that doesn't mean that online "high schools" offer anything of value.

In fact, the Federal Trade Commission says two online high schools are little more than diploma mills that mislead consumers into thinking they can get a legitimate diploma or GED for as little as $135.

“The defendants took advantage of people who wanted a high school diploma,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “If a company says you can get a diploma in no time at all or by simply taking an online test, it's almost certainly a scam.”

In its federal court complaints, the FTC alleges that the "schools" mislead consumers about their legitimacy, using names like West Madison Falls High School, Columbia Northern High School, Stafford High School, and many others.

Documents filed by the FTC in both cases allege that the operations bought a number of website names designed to look like legitimate online high schools and use deceptive metatags with terms like “GED” and “GED online” to bring the bogus sites higher in search rankings. Once consumers arrive at the schools’ sites, they are met with messages that imply that the diplomas offered by the defendants are equivalent to an actual high school diploma.

According to the FTC documents, the “courses” amount to four untimed, unmonitored multiple-choice tests, requiring that students answer 70 percent of each test correctly.

The defendants also mislead consumers with statements about membership in accrediting bodies that do not exist and are creations of the defendants themselves, according to the FTC’s complaints.

The FTC’s filings ask the court to put in place a temporary restraining order halting the operations and freezing the assets of the two separate sets of defendants: Stepping Stonez Development, LLC, also doing business as American Certification Specialists, Intentional Growth, LLC, and Stephen J Remley; and Capitol Network Distance Learning Programs, LLC, Capitol Network Digital Licensing Programs, LLC, Veritas Sales, Inc., Nicholas A. Pollicino, Anthony J. Clavien, and Adam F. Pollicino.

Morgan Stanley will pay $2.6 billion to settle claims that it misled investors about the value of subprime mortgages, a prime factor in the financial collapse of the last decade. 

“Today’s settlement holds Morgan Stanley appropriately accountable for misleading investors about the subprime mortgage loans underlying the securities it sold,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart F. Delery in announcing the penalty, the largest in a series that has so far totaled about $5 billion.

As part of the agreement, Morgan Stanley admits in writing that it failed to disclose critical information to prospective investors about the quality of the mortgage loans underlying its residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) and about its due diligence practices. 

Investors suffered billions of dollars in losses from investing in RMBS issued by Morgan Stanley in 2006 and 2007, a process dramatized in the recent film "Short."

In today's settlement, Morgan Stanley acknowledges that it made misleading representations to prospective investors about the characteristics of the subprime mortgage loans underlying its RMBS.

In particular, Morgan Stanley told investors that it did not securitize underwater loans (loans that exceeded the value of the property).  However, Morgan Stanley did not disclose to investors that in April 2006 it had expanded its “risk tolerance” in evaluating loans in order to purchase and securitize “everything possible.” 

As Morgan Stanley’s manager of valuation due diligence told an employee in 2006, “please do not mention the ‘slightly higher risk tolerance’ in these communications.  We are running under the radar and do not want to document these types of things.” 

Through these undisclosed practices, Morgan Stanley increased the percentage of mortgage loans it purchased for its RMBS, notwithstanding its awareness about “deteriorating appraisal quality” and “sloppy underwriting” by the sellers of these loans. 

In the U.S., about 610,000 people die of heart disease every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That works out to about one in every four deaths.

Heart disease is one of the few afflictions that hasn't diminished over the years, perhaps because the very modern conveniences that have contributed to longer life spans in other areas have also made heart disease more likely.

Dr. Mauro Moscucci, Chief of the LifeBridge Health Cardiovascular Institute and Chairman of the Department of Medicine at Sinai Hospital, has identified seven major risk factors that could make it more likely you will suffer from heart disease.

Moscucci says prevention is the best way to deal with a heart problem. If you have concerns with any of the seven risk factors, it might be a good idea to have a conversation with your healthcare provider.

Will you be on the receiving end of a Valentine’s gift from a member of the millennial generation? If so, you might want to keep your expectations in check, as a new survey has dubbed millennials “the worst” gift-givers.

In a survey of over 5,000 millennials, over 80% said they received unwrapped gifts, and over 90% said they had been given gifts without cards or name tags. Furthermore, 83% of millennials stated that they ultimately would have preferred a gift card. When asked why, 60% of the millennials indicated that it was due to the lack of thought put into the gift.

Their shortcomings in the gift-giving department could easily be written off as the byproduct of a generation often perceived as lazy. But in pulling the thread on the issue, one might find it’s a matter of nurture over nature. The age in which millennials were raised — one in which technology provides an easy answer to almost every question — seems to have shaped the nature of their attitude towards gift-giving.

Where generations past were forced to go to the store, browse the aisles, and generally put a little more thought into the gift selection process, millennials have had online retail at their disposal. According to Jon Loew, CEO of Vift, an online “video gift message” platform, the convenience of online retail has taken a toll on millennials’ creativity.

Choosing a gift from a site like Amazon is almost too easy, says Loew, as it can lead buyers to default to the first unimaginative gift that comes to their minds. Click “buy,” enter a shipping address, and boom: you’ve checked “Buy birthday gift for Steve” off your to-do list.

Ironically, however, Loew believes the very technology that set into motion this trend of thoughtless gift-giving can actually turn it around. With Vift, consumers can add a personal touch by including a video message that will arrive at the same time as the gift.

The same way you purchase products online — from your couch, on your smartphone or laptop — you can send a Vift video gift message. Loew believes these video messages can help online shoppers avoid such faux pas as forgetting to follow up the gift with a call or text to the recipient or forgetting to include a card.

And while the camera shy might be a bit apprehensive to record a video message, Loew believes Millennials as a group are more than comfortable on video. “From the growth of Snapchat, Instagram, and Vine, it is clear that they love to record and share themselves,” says Loew in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. 

Vift messages — either via email or SMS text message — are delivered when a shipment reaches its destination or on a sender-specified date. He also adds that Vift messages won’t take a big bite out of Millennials’ wallets, either; they can be sent for $1.99.

Loew sees Vift messages as the next best thing to actually being present when a recipient opens their gift. “The meaningfulness of a video that you can watch, hear, and keep forever,” says Loew, is something that even surpasses a cute card with a funny message or a few personal words.

Allergy conditions are on the rise, especially among aging Baby Boomers. An alternative to moving to Arizona is to get regular allergy shots. But is it wor..

Tom and Jennifer Viemont were trying to plan for their teen-age children's college education when they stumbled across a startling fact; there are dozens of colleges in Europe that Americans can attend for a fraction of the cost of U.S. schools.

The result is their website,, where students and their families can find out about these opportunities.

It runs counter to what most Americans think about Europe. It has to be expensive, right? Not necessarily.

“I spent the last nine months talking to administrators, talking to American students already doing this and visiting schools myself,” Jennifer Viemont told ConsumerAffairs. “So in April, we'll have a searchable portal of all these European universities that offer bachelor's degree programs completely in English.”

“It's globally ranked and has business accreditation, and they have an international business program conducted entirely in English,” Viemont said. “The tuition, even to international students, is zero.”

That's not a misprint. Finland already does what Bernie Sanders advocates here – providing free tuition, even to international students. Students aren't required to purchase expensive textbooks, keeping those costs low as well.

And Allto University is not unique. Viamont says her database includes 40 English-language bachelor's degree programs that are free. The average cost of all schools on the list is $7,200 a year – but she says that average is pulled up by the American colleges in Europe that – like their counterparts back home – are expensive.

Students who attend Allto University are required to study a semester abroad. Viamont says if you do it at one of Allto's partner universities, the tuition for that semester is also free, regardless of what that school normally charges.

“I live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Duke University is sort of in my back yard,” she said. “If you go there you're going to be paying close to 50 grand a year. If you go for your semester abroad at Allto, that's one of the partner universities, so you're going to Duke for free.”

That's right, an American student studying in Finland, for free, could come back to the U.S. for a semester of study at Duke and pay no tuition.

What's a degree from a European University worth? More than you think. School reputations might vary, as they do in the U.S., but Viemont says all programs are accredited and that schools within the European Higher Education Area must meet the same standards.

“A degree from Romania is going to hold the same weight as a degree from France, other than the reputation of the particular school,” she said.

Viemont says there are alternatives to attending U.S. colleges and piling up huge student loan debts. While she says she isn't trying to convince anyone to go abroad for their college degree, she thinks it's a viable option for many American students.

“It's always good to have choices, and I don't think people know about this choice,” Viemont said.

Lumber Liquidators came under fire in 2015 after allegations surfaced that hazardous levels of formaldehyde existed in its laminate wood products. As a res..

Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas says the latest data on relocation rates show that -- on average -- 11% of those finding employment each quarter in 2015 moved for a new position. That's down significantly from a four-quarter average of 13% in 2014 and 2013.

Relocation reached a post-recession high in the second half of 2014, as 15% of job seekers pulled up stakes for new opportunities during the final two quarters of the year.

The new data is based on a quarterly survey of approximately 1,000 people completing the job search.

“It is typical to see these small windows of relocation surges,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “They tend to occur at the beginning of recessions and then again as the economy moves from recovery to expansion.”

Challenger said last year definitely marked a turning point in the recovery. “We finally regained all of the jobs lost as a result of the 2008-2009 recession and, by the end of the year, the national unemployment rate fell to 5.0%. Even with the struggles in the oil industry, the number of metropolitan areas throughout the country with unemployment rates below the national average continued to grow."

The relocation rate in the last half of 2014 was the highest since the first half of 2009, when an average of 16.3% of job seekers moved in the immediate wake of the recession.

Relocation activity plunged after the first half of 2009 as home values continued to decline, which made it virtually impossible to sell an existing home without taking a significant loss. But, Challenger noted, “The housing market improved in enough places by the second half of 2014 to, once again, make relocation a job search consideration."

“However,” he continued, “the window in which relocation is the best option typically closes quickly, since moving involves so much cost and risk -- even in the strongest economy.”

Challenger advises those relocating for a new position to make professional and social networking a top priority.

“Join local professional associations related to your occupation or industry,” he said. “Volunteer for charitable and service organizations. And, do not overlook your new neighbors. Getting to know people in your new area will not only make the transition easier, but these are the people who will help you if your new employment situation does not work out.”

Elsewhere on the jobs front, the Department of Labor (DOL) reports that the number of people lining up to apply for unemployment benefits for the first time fell by 16,000 in the week ending February 6 to a seasonally adjusted total of 269,000.The previous week's claims level was unchanged.

The four-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, came in at 281,250 -- down 3,500 from the previous week.

Pier 1 Imports U.S. of Fort Worth, Texas, is recalling about 804 Capella Island Swivel Dining chairs in the U.S. and Canada.

The company has received three reports of the chairs breaking, including two reports of customers falling. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves Pier 1 Imports Capella Island Swivel Dining chairs. The plastic wicker chairs have a natural wood color. The chair measures about 26 inches wide by 26 inches deep and 39 inches high.

The chairs, manufactured in Vietnam, were sold exclusively at Pier 1 Imports stores nationwide and online at from January 2015, through October 2015, for between $240 and $500.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and return them to any Pier 1 Imports store for a full refund or a merchandise credit.

Consumers may contact Pier 1 Imports at 800-245-4595 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday, Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) or Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (CT) or online at and click on the “Product Notes & Recalls” at the bottom of the page for more information.

General Motors is recalling 426,593 model year 2015-2016 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 and 3500 heavy duty trucks manufactured October 1, 2013, to February 1, 2016; 2015-2016 Chevrolet Tahoe Police Pursuit Vehicles (PPV) manufactured March 1, 2014, to February 1, 2016; and 2015-2016 GMC Sierra 2500 and 3500 heavy duty trucks manufactured October 29, 2013, to February 1, 2016.

The brake pedal pivot nut may loosen, causing the brake pedal to be loose or inoperative. If the brake pedal becomes loose or inoperative, the driver may be unable to stop the vehicle by using the brake pedal. Additionally, a loose pedal may also interfere with the accelerator pedal. Either condition may increase the risk of a crash.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the brake pedal pivot nuts, adding thread adhesive and tightening the nut as necessary, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020 or GMC customer service at 1-800-462-8782. GM's number for this recall is 20760.

So let's say you're tooling down the road in one of Google's self-driving cars. A motorcycle policeman pulls you over and says you blew through a stop sign. Who gets the ticket?

Google thinks it should, since it is Google's software that is in control of the car. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) agrees, in a letter to Google.

But if that makes it sound like self-driving cars are just about ready to come streaming onto the 405, think again. Tests in Northern climes are finding that the autonomous vehicles are not much better than humans when it comes to dealing with snow and ice.

Back to the feds for a minute. NHTSA has, in effect, weighed in on the side of Google and other would-be self-driving manufacturers, opposing the position taken by the California DMV, which has required that there be a licensed driver in every self-driving car, ready to take over if things go south.

"We agree with Google its [self-driving vehicle] will not have a 'driver' in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years," NHTSA said in its letter to Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving unit. "If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the 'driver' as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving." 

It's understandable that this might remind you of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision a few years back that corporations have all the rights of human beings. It seems illogical at first, but perhaps it grows on you over time. 

It's not an idle question though. While some fledgling autonomous-vehicle makers plan to have things like steering wheels and brake pedals in their cars, Google doesn't. It wants its cars to be totally self-directed and, in fact, wants the humans to sit on their hands and stay out of the way.

Many traffic safety experts argue that this will reduce traffic accidents and the deaths and injuries that result from them. Personal injury lawyers, meanwhile, are understandably anticipating the day that they have the chance to slap a great big lawsuit on Google.

Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, says that while legal questions will remain, the NHTSA finding could help get self-driving cars on the road more quickly.

“Questions of fault and liability will remain, but if a computer driver has the same legal rights as a human driver it could allow car companies, and tech companies, to quickly deploy autonomous vehicles on public roads, both for testing purposes and even public use,” Brauer said in an email to ConsumerAffairs.

This all sounds good on a balmy day in Mountain View, but a Bloomberg report throws cold water -- or perhaps snowballs -- on the notion that self-driving cars are just about ready to roll from one corner of the earth to another.

It reports on a Volvo test of a self-driving XC90 SUV near the Arctic Circle. Everything was going along just fine until frozen snow flakes caked on the radar sensors that read the road. The car rolled to a halt while researchers went back to the drawing boards.

But while that may have solved the specific Volvo problem, there are many other questions that remain to be answered when one considers that roughly 70 percent of the American population lives in the snow belt. For example, lane markers get covered up by snow while radar beams reflect off falling snow flakes and produce false readings.

Ford says in a press release that it has developed a system that basically "memorizes" the road, helping to compensate for poor visiblity.

“It’s one thing for a car to drive itself in perfect weather,” said Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles. “It’s quite another to do so when the car’s sensors can’t see the road because it’s covered in snow. Weather isn’t perfect, and that’s why we’re testing autonomous vehicles in wintry conditions – for the roughly 70 percent of U.S. residents who live in snowy regions.”

As if Takata and Volkswagen don't have enough problems already, VW says it will recall about 850,000 vehicles containing potentially defective Takata airbag inflators, the kind that can blow up and spew lethal shards of shrapnel into drivers and passengers.

The VW recall covers the 2009-2014 Volkswagen CC sedan, 2010-2014 Jetta SportWagen and Golf compacts, 2012-2014 VW Eos convertible, as well as 2012-2014 Passat midsize sedans assembled in the United States and 2006-2010 Passat sedans and wagons built in Germany.

Audi’s recall covers the 2005-2013 A3 compact, 2006-2009 A4 Cabrio, 2009-2012 Q5 crossover, and 2010-2011 A5 Cabrio.

VW has not yet issued an official recall. When it does, dealers will be notified and notices will appear on ConsumerAffairs and elsewhere. Consumers will receive a notice by mail from VW asking them to contact their dealers.

Dealers do not yet have the parts to perform the recall and, until the recalls are issued, no one can tell you whether your vehicle is included. 

You can search the official government recall database using your car's VIN number here. Remember, recently announced recalls may not yet be listed.

The VW/Audi recalls follow last month's declaration by Takata that it had identified an additional 5.1 million U.S. vehicles that contained its defective airbags. All told, 14 automakers have recalled about 24 million cars since the Takata crisis began in 2009.

The Daimler group said earlier that it was recalling about 750,000 Mercedes-Benz cars and about 136,000 vans after being notified that they contained potentially defective airbags.

When you travel for business, it’s best to prepare for as many contingencies as possible. A colleague of mine wished he had done just that; he attended a c..

It's an election year. What can members of Congress do to please the voters back home? How about stopping the annoying debt collection calls?

Twenty-five state attorneys general have signed a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee, urging it to pass the ‘‘Help Americans Never Get Unwanted Phone calls Act of 2015,’’ also known as the ‘‘HANGUP” Act, and send it to the Senate floor.

The proposed legislation specifically would repeal a recent amendment to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) to allow debt-collection robocalls to consumers’ cell phones. That amendment was slipped into the end-of-the-year budget act.

Before that amendment was passed, the TCPA outlawed all robocalls to cell phones. As amended, the TCPA now permits citizens to receive unwanted and previously illegal robocalls to their cell phones if the calls are made to collect a federally guaranteed debt, like a student loan.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said by passing the HANGUP Act, Congress could stop the barrage of debt-collection robocalls that run up the bills of consumers who pay for calls to their cell phones.

“Debt-collection calls and robocalls consistently top the list of complaints our office receives,” Koster said in a release. “Consumers have made it clear that they are fed up with robocalls, and our laws should be moving to restrict unwanted calls, not encourage them.”

Koster said his office received more than 41,000 complaints last year about unwanted calls, a majority of which were robocalls.

“My attorney general colleagues and I work aggressively in our states to stop unwanted, harassing calls to peoples’ landlines and cell phones,” Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a release. “This is a huge annoyance to our citizens, and we hear from them every day about it. It’s even more frustrating when the federal government actively works to weaken our efforts aimed at protecting and serving our citizens. I urge Congress to stop allowing loopholes that legitimize robocalls and open citizens up to a barrage of unwanted or misplaced calls.”

On June 18, 2015, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) formally adopted a rule change saying federal law does not prohibit telecommunication service providers from offering, upon a customer’s request, services intended to block unwanted calls. This clarification moved enforcement efforts forward and armed consumers with ways to prevent unwanted calls. The recent amendment, however, is a step back in the fight against robocalls, Koster said.

The attorneys general say consumers who would like to get rid of annoying robocalls can help by calling their Congressional representatives.

We’ve all been there: that moment when an instant of boredom becomes twenty minutes of mindlessly toggling back and forth between apps. “This is way better than sitting here doing nothing,” your brain tells you, as you take in yet another photo of your high school friend’s dog.

While these phone-staring sessions are usually nothing more than a time waster, they can easily turn into something more harmful if left unchecked. As technology sinks its roots deeper into our daily lives, digital dependency is becoming more common. For many, device use can spiral into compulsion territory.

So how can you tell if you’re in an unhealthy relationship with your smartphone? You can start by turning it off, says Mariya Shiyko, PhD., an Assistant Professor in Northeastern University’s Department of Applied Psychology.

According to Shiyko, an expert on digital detoxes, the best way to tell if you could stand to distance yourself from your device is by turning it off for a few hours.

“See if you can continue engaging with life without constantly thinking about the end of this miserable break, compulsively reaching for your phone or checking the time,” says Shiyko in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. During this break, are you able to function well and enjoy life? If not, then you may be too dependent on your device.

“You know it’s not healthy if you NEED your device,” says Shiyko, adding that if your happiness and well-being become tied up in anything else — whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or your phone — it has become an addiction. Digital addiction is no different from any other forms of addiction, she says.

There’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine just as there’s nothing inherently wrong with technology, explains Shiyko — but with each, there is the potential for misuse. 

If you’ve decided to give technology a rest, the next question might be “How?” — especially if you frequently use your device for work purposes. Shiyko says that as with anything else, you can go big or small.

Digital detoxing, she says, is similar to a bodily cleanse in that there are many different routes to take. “A spring cleanse for your body might look like a week on juices and light vegetarian meals or it may be one fasting day per week continuously,” says Shiyko. “Everyone needs to find what works for them.”

She suggests choosing one weekend a month to keep your phone and email locked up. Or you could go smaller by detaching yourself from computers and devices for half a day on a weekend, or simply by turning them off after 8 PM daily.

Instead of being glued to a computer screen or a TV, go outside or make plans to visit your friends or family in person, says Shikyo. In conquering your reliance on technology, you’ll experience benefits similar to those of a person who is mentally healthy — less stress, anxiety, depression, and higher levels of life satisfaction.

“The more mental freedom one has, independently of gadgets or political news,” says Shiyko, "the more one can enjoy meaningful interpersonal interactions, creativity, and multitudes of opportunities that technology enables.”

Coming of age precisely as the housing market collapsed should, by all accounts, have caused millennials to become leery of mortgages — but it hasn’t. Despite the housing crash, research shows that more than 85% of the millennial generation still believe that owning a home makes more financial sense than renting.

It comes as a surprise to many that the generation known for choosing to buy the latest gadget rather than a big-ticket item would be interested in owning property. But the general public has the wrong perception about them, says Yilan Xu, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics at Illinois.

"It doesn't seem like they would want to. But it turns out that millennials still do eventually want to own a home,” says Xu. “They just face significant obstacles in doing so."

According to a new paper co-written by a University of Illinois expert in household and individual financial behaviors, there are several factors that affect the housing demand of the millennial generation, including mortgage accessibility, the burden of student loan debt, and the fact that millennials are taking their time settling down and starting families.

All of these factors indicate that the American dream of homeownership is not dead, says Xu — it’s just deferred.

According to Xu, there is an upside in millennials delaying homeownership. In considering what happened during the credit expansion, Xu notes that many people who were not really ready for homeownership were lured into it.

“That’s certainly not what we want to see again,” she says. But Xu explains that the more stringent credit conditions will select the more financially prepared millennials for homeownership.

“As a result, millennials' homeownership will be more sustainable, and their financial stability and wealth accumulation may be enhanced,” says Xu. “If that's the case, then maybe a little delay in buying their first home isn't too bad if they're a more responsible homeowner."

Last year, as we reported, the generation once pigeonholed as renters surprised us. Millennials accounted for 68% of first-time home buyer sales in the first half of the year, according to the NAR’s 2015 Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends report.

This is an important piece of data, says’s Chief Economist Jonathan Smoke, because the people who have increased the demand (and price) of rental inventory are increasingly trading rent payments for mortgages.

“People who believe that Millennials are disinterested in home ownership are grossly mistaken,” said Smoke. He adds that they’ve just had to work a little harder to establish credit and save for a down payment.

But now that older millennials are beginning to enjoy the life events that drive homeownership — marriage and children — now is the most appropriate time for them to consider homeownership, says Smoke. We’re beginning to see the impact of that, he says.

Twitter has been pretty much a text-based service since its inception, with the usual ads and photos interspersed here and there.

But that's about to change. Twitter is introducing a new ad product that will blast a video ad your way the first time you open Twitter each day.

It's called First View, and it is being promoted as the kind of premium ad Twitter has been lacking until now -- "premium" in this sense meaning expensive. 

"Now, marketers can tell a powerful visual story across the Twitter audience," Twitter tweeted in a prepared statement. "Today we’re introducing First View: an engaging and highly visible way to share your brand story with compelling video creative across Twitter’s massive audience."

Critics have been tweeting dire warnings of Twitter's demise lately and the company is obviously hoping First View helps turn that perception around.

For Twitter fans, it simply means that once each day, the first time you open Twitter, there will be a video ad sitting atop your feed. 

First View will be video-only initially, but Twitter says it may allow other types of ads in the future.

Crooks have been using stolen Social Security numbers to try to get information that could be used to steal tax refunds, the Internal Revenue Service said.

Most of the automated attacks were aimed at generating E-file PINs, the IRS said. The PINs would then be used to generate phony returns or to waylay refunds.

The Social Security numbers were used in abot 464,000 automated attacks, of which about 101,000 successfully generated a PIN, the IRS said.

The agency, which is no stranger to hacking, said that no personal taxpayer information was disclosed in this incident and said that affected taxpayers would be notified by mail.

Consumers should note that the official notification will come via the U.S. Postal Service. Scam artists will soon be out in force, sending emails and calling taxpayers claiming to be the IRS. 

Last May, the IRS admitted that hackers had stolen the personal data of as many as 334,000 taxpayers after initially saying only 100,000 had been affected.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) says he will question IRS Commissioner John Koskinen about the attack at a hearing today, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“While it appears that the IRS was able to successfully block this attempted breach this time around, it’s past time we fundamentally rethink our approach in authenticating taxpayers and processing tax returns,” Mr. Hatch said, according to the Journal.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen was the subject of close attention Wednesday as she testified before the House Financial Services Committee.

After all, since the Fed hiked its key interest rate in December, the stock market has been in turmoil, with averages selling off significantly. Some market analysts have suggested the U.S. economy is sliding into a recession and have questioned the Fed's wisdom in hiking rates in the face of a slowing economy.

But if anyone expected Yellen to back away from the Fed's December rate hike, they were disappointed. Yellen told the committee that since her last appearance before it in July, the economy has made further progress toward full employment. In fact, the January unemployment rate fell to 4.9%.

“Financial conditions in the United States have recently become less supportive of growth, with declines in broad measures of equity prices, higher borrowing rates for riskier borrowers, and a further appreciation of the dollar,” Yellen said in prepared testimony. “These developments, if they prove persistent, could weigh on the outlook for economic activity and the labor market, although declines in longer-term interest rates and oil prices provide some offset.”

"If" may be the key word in that paragraph. Right now there is no strong consensus on the direction of the economy. Yellen said the Fed would be looking to see if there are ongoing employment gains and faster wage growth. If there are, she says that should promote faster economic growth.

With rapid economic growth comes inflation – at least it has in the past. The Fed's policy of gradually raising interest rates is designed to keep inflation under control.

In her appearance before the committee, Yellen made it clear that the Fed began on the path of rising interest rates because it believes the economy is growing, and so far it has seen nothing to suggest it was mistaken.

But she acknowledged that might not be the case in the rest of the world, and global economic trouble can always have a negative impact in the U.S. While the Fed is raising rates as a hedge against possible inflation, Japan has instituted negative interest rates – meaning it costs money to put money into bonds – to head off deflation.

“As is always the case, the economic outlook is uncertain,” Yellen said. “Foreign economic developments, in particular, pose risks to U.S. economic growth.”

She points to economic problems in China as a potential trouble spot that could have ramifications in the U.S. She also conceded that inflation remains below the Fed's target of 2%, which to many suggests the U.S. economy is not growing that fast.

But Yellen attributes the low rate to a steep drop in energy prices. She again defended the Fed's decision in December to hike interest rates, saying it reflected the belief that economic activity would continue to expand at a moderate pace and labor market indicators would continue to strengthen.

The recession has been over for years and unemployment has fallen below 5%. Consumers should be feeling pretty good, right?

Prosper Marketplace's latest Financial Wellness Study, which examines personal finance in America, found nearly 60% of Americans lack the financial freedom to enjoy life.

At a time when consumers should be bulking up their savings accounts, adding to their retirement portfolios, and planning a vacation here and there, only 29% said they feel they are in control of their finances.

It gets worse. Nearly 50% said they are living paycheck to paycheck. More than 50% said they could not absorb a financial shock.

Even more troubling is the fact that Americans over 55, who should be getting ready for their retirement years, are those most likely to say they are financially insecure. Fifty-nine percent of those 55 and older say they are not confident in their ability to handle an unexpected financial setback.

Consumers haven't been able to put much money away in savings. More than half said they have less than $5,000 in either checking or savings accounts. More than one third have been unable to save $1,000.

In addition to lacking a financial cushion, most consumers are running up debt. Sixty percent of consumers say they have credit card debt and two thirds can't pay the balance off each month.

But the survey contains at least one bright spot. Most consumers say getting out of debt is a major goal for 2016.

In fact, debt relief ranked as a top priority, followed closely by making consistent progress toward paying off debt.

When asked what they will do to better manage their finances, 38% said they currently have a financial plan for themselves; another 23% claim to be making financial plans in 2016.

Only 30% of consumers say they currently contribute to their retirement plans, but an additional 28% said they will be doing so in the near future.

“Our research is consistent with our impression of the financial well-being of the average American: while our national economy may have pulled out of the depths of the recession, the after-effects are still being felt, with many Americans still struggling to get ahead financially,” said Aaron Vermut, CEO of Prosper Marketplace.

Interestingly, the research found that Millennials appear to be in better financial position than older consumers. They are also more likely to use technology tools to help them plan and manage their finances.

Sixty-five percent said they are currently using technology to improve their financial well-being, with 84% of that group saying it makes them feel more in control of their finances.  

Buying a car is one thing. Paying to keep it on the road is another. Each year Kelley Blue Book (KBB) looks at the current models and ranks them according to the lowest operating cost over a five year period.

For the 2016 model year, Hyundai emerges as the most cost-efficient brand, while Acura claims the honors for the lowest projected ownership costs among luxury brands.

Repair cost isn't the only consideration that goes into the ranking. In fact, today's new cars tend to need fewer repairs in the first five years than a decade ago. The biggest cost of operating a new car is its depreciation – or it's loss of value.

There's an old saying that a new car loses value when you drive it off the lot. There is some truth to that, but some models lose value faster than others.

Other factors that go into the rankings include expected fuel costs, finance and insurance fees, maintenance and repair costs, and state fees.

“New-car shoppers usually pay a lot of attention to how much a car will cost upfront; however, sometimes an even more expensive car on the front end can actually save you money during the first five years of ownership by having low total ownership costs,” said Dan Ingle, vice president of vehicle valuations, industry solutions and international for KBB.

The analysts at KBB say Hyundai has a mid-range depreciation and insurance cost, making it the 2016 Five-Year Cost to Own: Best Brand among all automakers. They attribute the strong showing, in large part, to the 2016 Accent, Elantra, Sonata, Tucson, and Veloster.

Acura takes the top spot among luxury brands, as it currently has the lowest average Kelley Blue Book Fair Purchase Price, depreciation, and fuel costs of any luxury brand. It ranks competitively in insurance and maintenance costs. The KBB team in particular cites the 2016 ILX, MDX, RDX, and TLX.

KBB also breaks down ownership costs into subcategories. If you're interested in an alternative energy or hybrid vehicle, the Toyota Prius C is your best bet. Among full-sized SUVs, the Ford Explorer takes the top spot.

The Dodge Caravan wins the honor among minivans while the Ford F-150 comes in first among full-sized pick-ups.

Retail gasoline prices continue to fall across the U.S., hitting levels even the experts believed would never be seen again.

The national average price of self-serve regular is around $1.72 a gallon, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey. A year ago, the average price was $2.17 a gallon.

Motorists can thank oil prices, which continue to fall in the face of an increasing supply glut. AAA reports the U.S. is swimming in oil, with crude oil inventories at their highest level for this time of year in nearly eight decades.

Barring any major disruptions in supply, AAA predicts gas prices will remain near their lowest price point since the Great Recession, at least for the next couple of weeks. Once refineries begin to curtail operations for seasonal maintenance, oil prices will be less of a factor and gasoline prices should rise a bit.

The combination of increased demand and reduced supply often leads to upward swings in the price at the pump. Still, with prices so low and oil prices headed down instead of up, increases at the pump should be fairly painless.

For years, the national average gasoline price has disguised the fact that gas was cheap in some parts of the country and really expensive in other parts. AAA says prices are now more even than they've been in years, with the southeast and southwest still enjoying the lowest prices but the Pacific northwest not outrageously expensive.

According to AAA, drivers in 44 states continue to pay gas prices below $2 per gallon. Oklahoma pays the least at $1.42 a gallon. Hawaii pays the most at $2.63 a gallon.

In addition, prices at the pump are moving in the right direction, as far as drivers are concerned. Gasoline prices are down in nearly every state week-over-week and consumers in 20 states are saving a nickel or more per gallon at the pump.

The biggest price drops in the last week came in the Midwest. Drivers in Ohio and Indiana saw their price drop 14 cents a gallon. Michigan motorists are saving 13 cents a gallon.

Job openings rose to 5.6 million in December, according to new figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for an openings rate of 3.8%.

The number of openings for private payrolls was up, but was little changed for government. Openings increased in construction (+69,000), nondurable goods manufacturing (+60,000) and durable goods manufacturing (+26,000). In the regions, job openings increased in the West.

The number of job openings (not seasonally adjusted) increased over the 12 months ending in December for total nonfarm and total private, and edged up for government. The largest changes in openings over the year came in health care and social assistance (+172,000) and finance and insurance (+99,000). The number of job openings increased  over the year in the Northeast, Midwest, and West.

There were 5.4 million hires in December -- little changed from November, but up 5.0 million from December 2007, the first month of the recession. The hires rate for the month was 3.7%. There was little change in the number of hires for total private and government, with what gains there were coming in professional and business services.

Over the 12 months ending in December, the number of hires (not seasonally adjusted) was little changed for total nonfarm and total private and edged up for government. At the industry level, hires increased in accommodation and food services (+93,000); transportation, warehousing, and utilities (+43,000); and federal government (+11,000). Hires edged down in construction. The number of hires was little changed in all four regions over the year.

Total separations includes quits, layoffs and discharges, and other separations, with total separations referred to as turnover. Quits are generally voluntary separations initiated by the employee, while layoffs and discharges are involuntary separations initiated by the employer. Other separations include separations due to retirement, death, and disability, as well as transfers to other locations of the same firm.

There were 5.1 million total separations in December, roughly the same as November, for a total separations rate of 3.5%. There was little change in the number of total separations for total private and government. In December, total separations edged up in accommodation and food services and in state and local government. The number of total separations was little changed in all four regions.

There were 3.1 million quits in December for a rate of 2.1%, with the number of quits coming in higher than in December 2007 (2.8 million). The number of quits rose for total private and government over the month. Quits rose in state and local government (+20,000) but fell in nondurable goods manufacturing (-25,000). Quits increased in the South over the month.

The number of quits (not seasonally adjusted) increased over the 12 months ending in December for total nonfarm, total private, and government. Quits increased over the year in several industries with the largest changes occurring in professional and business services (+102,000), accommodation and food services (+68,000), and retail trade (+58,000). In the regions, quits rose in the South and Midwest.

There were 1.6 million layoffs and discharges -- little changed from November, for a rate of 1.1%. The number of layoffs and discharges was little changed over the month for total private and unchanged for government, and showed little change in all four regions.

The number of layoffs and discharges (not seasonally adjusted) decreased over the 12 months ending in December for total nonfarm and total private and edged up for government. Layoffs and discharges rose in mining and logging (+7,000) and fell in construction (-129,000) and retail trade (-64,000). The number of layoffs and discharges was little changed in all four regions over the year.

In December, there were 411,000 other separations for total nonfarm, little changed from November. Over the month, the number of other separations was little changed for total private at 343,000 and for government at 68,000.

Over the 12 months ending in December, the number of other separations (not seasonally adjusted) fell for total nonfarm and total private and was little changed for government. Other separations increased over the year in federal government (+7,000). Other separations decreased in the South region over the year.

Large numbers of hires and separations occur every month throughout the business cycle. Net employment change results from the relationship between hires and separations. When the number of hires exceeds the number of separations, employment rises, even if the hires level is steady or declining.

Conversely, when the number of hires is less than the number of separations, employment declines, even if the hires level is steady or rising. Over the 12 months ending in December 2015, hires totaled 61.4 million and separations totaled 58.8 million, yielding a net employment gain of 2.6 million. These totals include workers who may have been hired and separated more than once during the year.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), applications jumped 9.3% during the week ending February 5.

The Refinance Index shot up 16%, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity to 61.2% of total applications from 59.2% the week before.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity rose to 6.4% of total applications, The FHA share dipped to 12.3% from 12.9% the prior week, the VA share was unchanged from 11.1% and the USDA share of total applications slipped to 0.6% from 0.7% a week earlier.

Living Tree Community Foods of Berkeley, Calif., is recalling Organic Macadamia Nuts and Organic Macadamia Butter.

The recalled products were distributed throughout the U.S. via retail stores (California, Connecticut) and to mail order customers.

Living Tree Community Foods Organic Macadamia Nuts come in a 4-oz. clear plastic pouch marked with lot #153442 on the top.

Living Tree Community Foods Organic Macadamia Butter comes in an 8-oz. glass jar, with a Living Tree Community label on it.

Affected lot numbers are: 134415, 136215, 101716. The UPC Code is: 641432000987. These items were shipped between December 12, 2015, and February 3, 2016.

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

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-510-526-7106 from 8:30-4:30 (PST) Monday thru Thursday and 8:30-3:00pm (PST) on Friday.

Connectors for the automatic transmission key interlock on some vehicles may not have been connected during pre-delivery service prior to sale. That would make it possible to remove the key in gear positions other than “Park,” increasing the risk of vehicle rollaway and a crash. Thus, theese vehicles do not comply with a portion of Federal/Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114.

All known owners of the subject vehicles will be notified by first class mail and instructed to return the vehicle to a Toyota dealer to have the ignition key interlock function confirmed, and if necessary, delivery mode connectors connected at no charge.

Back in December it was announced that Volkswagen would be turning to Kenneth Feinberg to settle claims related to its diesel scandal. The American attorney, who is noted for handling compensation funds for GM’s ignition switch scandal and many others, has told a German newspaper that VW will be offering “generous compensation packages to the roughly 600,000 U.S. owners of diesel vehicles whose emissions are over the legal limit,” according to a Reuters report.

However, in what manner -- and when -- consumers can expect to be compensated is still uncertain. The company has not yet determined whether vehicle owners will be given cash, car buy-back options, repairs to existing cars, or replacement cars, according to Feinberg’s report.

The process of determining adequate compensation has been slowed mostly because VW has had trouble putting a price on the scandal. The company has not been able to come to an agreement with federal agencies on how the problem will be fixed – something that Feinberg is quick to note.

“My hands are tied as long as VW and the authorities have not overcome their differences,” he said, stating that it’s unlikely that the fund would be set up within the established 60-90-day period. However, he is confident that once things get rolling he’ll be able to create a plan that will be accepted by the public. He will be looking to duplicate his past successes in creating compensation plans.

“Look at my prior cases: 97 percent of the victims of Sept. 11 accepted my offer. At GM and BP it was more than 90 percent, too. That has to be my target for VW,” he said.

For many consumers, being compensated for the scandal is simply a matter of fairness. The scandal may not have affected them on a personal level, but the general outcry shows that consumers won’t stand for being misled.

“It is a purely business transaction, less emotional. I see that from emails I get from vehicle owners, who say things like: ‘Mr. Feinberg, I know I haven’t lost a relative, I just want to be treated fairly.’ They are all quite reasonable,” he said.

The attorney shouldn’t have too much resistance when it comes to setting a price that consumers will agree on; VW has given him complete authority over setting compensation prices. 

Since the housing market crash, fewer people have been able to buy homes, meaning more people have to rent.

Rents have quickly escalated to the point that last summer, Zillow declared a “rent affordability crisis.”

It's bad enough that rent keeps going through the roof, but a new study claims renters face another hit in the pocketbook – they pay more for car insurance than people who own their homes.

An analysis of auto insurance premiums by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) found major insurance companies charge consumers with good driving records as much as 47% more for car insurance if they rent.

The study is based on a sampling of insurance quotes across the country for a 30-year old safe driver. If that driver happened to be a renter rather than an owner, the CFA found he or she paid about $112 more per year.

The CFA said Liberty Mutual penalized renters the most with premium hikes, averaging 19% more for state mandated auto insurance coverage.

The CFA maintains this practice ends up placing an economic hardship on low-to-moderate income consumers who tend to be renters. In 2013, the median income of renters was $27,800 compared with $63,400 for homeowners.

"To raise people's auto insurance premium because they can't afford to buy their homes unfairly discriminates against lower-income drivers," Robert Hunter, the CFA's Insurance Director and the former Insurance Commissioner of Texas, said in a release. "A good driver is a good driver whether she rents or owns her home. Insurance companies should not be allowed to target people based on homeownership status."

But homeownership status is far from the only thing that can affect what you pay for car insurance. As we have previously reported, your credit score can also affect your rate. Only three states – California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii – outlaw the practice of using credit scores to set auto insurance rates.

Other external factors that insurance companies use to gauge risk – and thereby set rates – are marital status and the Zip Code in which you live. Again, some states – notably California – don't allow those criteria to be used.

The CFA says the average rate differential for renters is 6%, but when you break it down on a company-by-company level, there are several that charge renters double-digit increases over homeowners.

The consumer groups says Geico was the only company tested that did not consider homeownership status in any of the 10 cities it measured. And in one case – in Chicago – the CFA said it found Allstate actually gave renters a break, lowering their car insurance premiums by 11% compared to homeowners.

The ad-blocking epidemic is an annoyance for larger website publishers, like newspapers and TV networks, but it's threatening to choke off smaller and more specialized websites, even some of the most popular ones. 

Wired is fighting back. After calculating that more than one in five of its readers are using ad-blocking software, Wired is challenging those readers to either pay up or go away.

Wired says it will charge $3.99 for four weeks of ad-free access to its site -- less than $1 a week -- when the change becomes effective sometime in the next few weeks.

In places where ads now appear, those who pay the $3.99 will see more articles and information, said Mark McClusky, the site's head of product and business development. 

"At WIRED, we believe that change is good. Over the past 23 years, we’ve pushed the boundaries of media, from our print magazine to launching the first publishing website. We even invented the banner ad. We’re going to continue to experiment to find new ways to bring you the stories you love and to build a healthy business that supports the storytelling. We hope you’ll join us on this journey. We’d really appreciate it."

Wired executives don't know whether the subscription fee will work -- and even if it does, they're not sure it will replace the advertising revenue that's being lost to ad blockers.

The move is seen as bold but overdue by many in the business. Ad-blocking, after all, is basically the same as stealing a newspaper from the rack or downloading a pirated song or movie. 

More publishers had been expected to block ad-blockers after Apple began allowing blockers in its app store, but one estimate says fewer than four percent of sites have done so.

Encouraging children’s interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) can help set them up for success both in school and in life. Not..

Sale Slash LLC will stop flooding consumers' in-boxes with weight loss offers, can its fake news sites and bogus celebrity endorsements, and pay $10 million, most of which will be used for consumer reimbursement. 

The Glendale, California, company sold diet pills, including Premium Green Coffee, Pure Garcinia Cambogia, Premium White Kidney Bean Extract, Pure Forskolin Extract, and Pure Caralluma Fimbriata Extract, while using fake endorsements from celebrities ike Oprah Winfrey.

“Sale Slash’s business model was built on lies,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “They used spam email, fake news sites, and phony celebrity endorsements to make their outlandish weight loss claims.”

The court order settling the FTC's charges prohibits Sale Slash and its affiliates from making weight-loss claims unless they are not misleading and are supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence. Such evidence specifically includes a human clinical test or study substantiating the claim.

In another case, two Maine-based marketers will surrender "substantial" personal and business assets and will be prohibited from making deceptive claims about health products and engaging in deceptive marketing practices under a settlement reached with the FTC and the State of Maine’s Office of the Attorney General.

The agencies’ joint complaint charges Anthony Dill, his wife Staci Dill, and their two companies, Direct Alternatives and Original Organics LLC, with violating the FTC Act and Maine consumer protection laws in connection with their promotion and sale of weight loss supplements AF Plus and Final Trim.

In total, the defendants sold more than $16 million worth of the two products over the past four years. The companies have since ceased all sales.

“The Dills’ companies told a blizzard of lies,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “They sold worthless weight-loss supplements, lied about their supposed ‘risk-free trial’ offers, took people’s money with unauthorized auto-renewal plans, and made it nearly impossible to return their bogus products.”

“This company preyed on the vulnerability of consumers who seek a legitimate weight loss program,” said Attorney General Janet T. Mills. “The alleged conduct here is not limited to making false claims about their products; it also includes charging consumers hundreds of dollars in automatic monthly orders and making it very difficult for customers to cancel orders or get their money back. The Maine Attorney General’s Office is grateful to the FTC for the resources and assistance it brought to this case.”

The joint complaint alleges that the defendants falsely claimed users would quickly and easily lose significant weight and reduce their waist size by taking AF Plus and Final Trim and that the results were “proven” by scientific studies. The defendants used radio ads – at least one of which claimed to be a public service announcement – to sell their products.

Running Fred is pretty scary. It's a game that takes place in an old castle, where devilish fiends chase innocent kids with sharp objects. But that's not the worst thing you can say about it.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says Running Fred, which is a Google Chrome browser extension that runs on Android phones, has been running wild, taking over consumers' phones and installing other apps that cause all kinds of problems. The trouble began when a company called Vulcun bought Running Fred.

“After Vulcun acquired the Running Fred game, they used it to install a different app, commandeer people’s computers, and bombard them with ads,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

But it's now "game over." Vulcun has agreed to corral Running Fred and stop installing the rogue apps on users' phones.

In its complaint, the FTC alleges that Vulcun and its founders, Ali Moiz and Murtaza Hussein, purchased Running Fred and replaced it with Vulcun’s own extension, which purported to offer users unbiased recommendations of popular Android applications.

What Vulcun’s extension actually did, the FTC charged, was to install apps directly on the Android devices of consumers while bypassing the permissions process in the Android operating system.

The extension caused a number of consumers to complain to Google, the owner of both Chrome and Android, according to the FTC. Some complained that the browser extension was opening multiple tabs and windows on their browser and advertising various apps. Others complained about the installation of apps on their mobile device without their permission, noting that the apps would reinstall themselves even when deleted.

The FTC’s complaint charges that Vulcun’s actions unfairly put consumers’ privacy at risk. By bypassing the permissions process in the Android operating system, the apps placed on consumers’ mobile devices also could have easily accessed users’ address books, photos, location, and device identifiers.  Indeed, once installed, the apps could have gained further access to even more sensitive data by using their own malicious code, according to the complaint.

In addition, the complaint alleges that Vulcun misled consumers by saying that their extensions, including Weekly Android Apps and another called Apps By Cindy, provided independent and impartial selections of apps, as well as misrepresenting third-party endorsements received by the extensions.

Under the terms of the settlement, the defendants will be required to tell consumers about the types of information a product or service will access and how it will be used, display any built-in permissions notice associated with installing a product or service, and get users express affirmative consent before the installation or material change of a product or service.

The Flint, Michigan water crisis – in which the city's water supply has been found to contain unsafe amounts of lead – has consumers across the country on edge.

The New York Times has a report on other jurisdictions that have experienced water issues that haven't generated the news coverage Flint has. For example, lead levels rose in Sebring, Ohio's water supply last August after the town stopped adding a chemical to keep lead pipes from corroding.

Even the nation's capital experienced a jump in lead levels in 2001 after the city changed some of its water purification procedures.

Meanwhile, states and localities are on high alert to find problems before they make headlines. Acting New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman has announced the sentencing of a former licensed operator of the New Brunswick and Milltown public water supplies.

Hoffman said Edward O'Rourke was sentenced to three years in prison after he was convicted of falsifying water purity records.

In pleading guilty to the charges, O’Rourke admitted that he intentionally submitted false water purity testing data between April 2010 and December 2012 to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in order to cover up the fact that he had failed to properly oversee the testing of drinking water samples.

While there were discrepancies that did not meet water purity standards, the investigation did not reveal any evidence that water distributed to the public ever contained coliform bacteria.

“Tens of thousands of residents relied on O’Rourke as the man responsible for ensuring that their drinking water was safe, and he not only failed to properly test the water, he lied again and again to cover up his failures,” Hoffman said in a release. “O’Rourke exhibited a remarkable lack of concern for the health of the people of these two communities.”

In Michigan, meanwhile, state Attorney General Bill Schuette is concerned that Flint residents have something else to worry about – scammers. He says a high profile crisis like this brings con artists out of the woodwork.

Among the scams he's worried about is one in which scammers pretend to be official workers, gain entry to residents' homes, and then steal things of value – including sensitive personal information.

He also warns people in Michigan – and around the country – to be dubious of charity solicitations on behalf of Flint residents. He says it's generally better to contact a charity directly to ensure its true identity.

Has a bad day ever left you crawling towards the welcoming arms of a shopping mall? If so, you’re not alone. Half of all Americans report engaging in compensatory consumption — or “retail therapy” — as a way to feel better.

Whether you botched an interview or tripped over your words during an important presentation, that nagging feeling that you could have done better is powerful and persistent. And for many, it can be alleviated by buying something. New research shows, however, that what you buy matters.

Arizona State University professor Monika Lisjak — who studied several hundred university students — found that buying something that reminds you of your setback can actually make you feel worse, leading you to waste precious mental energy ruminating on the setback.

Buying something to improve your competence is called “within-domain compensation,” and it can backfire, she says. Attempting to repair hurt feelings by going shopping is one thing, but it’s best to steer clear of products related to improving your situation. A book on improving public speaking skills, for instance, might not be the best purchase after a (self-perceived) poorly delivered speech.

“They end up dwelling on their problems,” Lisjak said in the article, which appeared recently in the Journal of Consumer Research. That rumination can drain energy.

Lisjak also found that people who are in a state of dwelling on a failure were more likely to have low self-control (expressed by eating M&M candies) and were less likely to do well on tasks (solving math problems).

The results of this study, said Lisjak, could have implications for marketing. Companies might consider selling products that are “across domain” in order to take consumers’ minds off their setbacks.

While buying the shoes might help you feel better in the short term, there are plenty of other ways to get past a failure. Here are a few tips:

States considering following Colorado and Washington's legalization of marijuana might want to keep an eye on aging Baby Boomers.

In the 1960s many Boomers embraced the recreational use of marijuana and some have maintained lifelong use, regardless of the fact that the plant remains a controlled substance in 49 states.

While its supporters have long maintained marijuana's benign nature, scientists have never been totally convinced. Stefan Kertesz, M.D., an associate professor with the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, has been studying the effects of long-term marijuana use.

Kertesz and other researchers on his team say they found past exposure to marijuana use to be significantly associated with worse verbal memory in middle age.

“For every five years of marijuana exposure, one out of two participants would remember one word less,” Kertesz said.

Kertesz says people today who use marijuana should remember that the potency of today's pot is much higher than in the past. He's concerned that today's users face more significant risks down the road.

“It’s crucial to recognize that young brains are truly different and not fully developed until age 22 and are at more risk from marijuana,” he said. “Parents and teachers need to be vigilant that this poses a larger risk to adolescents.”

He's somewhat discouraged on that count, since he's seen data from 2012 indicating that 37% of high school seniors between the ages of 17 and 18 had used marijuana – 6.5% admitting to daily use.

But it is the aging population that regularly used marijuana in the past Kertesz is concerned about at the moment. He says the drug acutely impairs cognitive functioning, and increasing evidence suggests it shows up later in life after marijuana use has stopped.

Heavy, long-term use of marijuana has been associated with cognitive impairment, he says, particularly in learning and remembering new information.

Kertesz isn't the first researcher to go down this road. The National Institutes of Health reports many other studies have linked marijuana to cognitive decline, mostly with long-term usage. It points to one study suggesting cannabis use has a detrimental effect on prospective memory ability in young adults, but users may not be aware of these deficits.  

The problems students have had with some for-profit school are well documented. Remember Corinthian College?

You don't have to have a long memory. In September 2014 the U.S. government sued the for-profit college for what it called an illegal predatory lending scheme.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) charged that  Corinthian lured tens of thousands of students to take out private loans to cover expensive tuition costs by advertising bogus job prospects and career services. To make matters worse, CFPB said Corinthian then used illegal debt collection tactics to strong-arm students into paying back those loans while still in school.

Before it declared bankruptcy and closed less than a year later, thousands of students had borrowed huge sums to attend, with nothing to show for it.

Now, the Department of Education wants to make sure potential train wrecks like Corinthian cross its radar screen before consumers have been harmed. It has announced creation of a Student Aid Enforcement Unit to respond more quickly and efficiently at the first suggestions of trouble.

"When Americans invest their time, money and effort to gain new skills, they have a right to expect they'll actually get an education that leads to a better life for them and their families," Acting Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said in a release. "When that doesn't happen we all pay the price. So let me be clear: schools looking to cheat students and taxpayers will be held accountable."

To head up the unit, Robert Kaye is coming over from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), where he was a top enforcement attorney.

The new unit will have four divisions that will perform special roles. The Investigations Group will be the early warning system, on the lookout for potential misconduct or high-risk activity among higher education institutions so that it can protect federal funding.

The Borrower Defense Group will provide legal support, It will analyze claims and make injury determinations.

The Administrative Actions And Appeals Service Group will impose administrative actions, such as suspending an institution and levying a fine. It will also try to resolve appeals by program participants.

The Clery Group will make sure for-profit colleges comply with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, requiring colleges and universities participating in federal financial aid programs to disclose campus crime statistics and security information.

The latest National Foreclosure Report from CoreLogic shows completed foreclosures posted a year-over-year decline of 22.6% in December -- from 41,000 to 32,000 -- and are down 72.8% from their September 2010 peak of 117,722.

In addition, the property information, analytics, and data-enabled services provider reports the foreclosure inventory that same month dropped 23.8%. The foreclosure inventory represents the number of homes at some stage of the foreclosure process and completed foreclosures reflect the total number of homes lost to foreclosure.

Since the beginning of the financial meltdown in September 2008, there have been approximately 6.1 million completed foreclosures across the country. And since homeownership rates peaked in the second quarter of 2004, there have been about 8 million homes lost to foreclosure.

As of this past December, the national foreclosure inventory included approximately 433,000, or 1.1%, of all homes with a mortgage, compared with 568,000 homes, or 1.5% the year before. The December 2015 foreclosure inventory rate is the lowest for any month since November 2007.

“Reflecting on the full-year foreclosure results for 2015, we can see that completed foreclosures are down more than 20% for the year, which is the lowest level since 2006, before the crisis,” said Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic. “Maryland, which can be described as a suburb of the solid D.C. market, led the way with a 59% decline in foreclosures in 2015.”

CoreLogic also reports that the number of mortgages in serious delinquency (defined as 90 days or more past due, including loans in foreclosure or real estate owned) declined by 23.3% from December 2014 to December 2015, with 1.2 million mortgages, or 3.2%, in this category. The December 2015 serious delinquency rate is the lowest in eight years.

“The supply of distressed inventory continues to shrink rapidly. While this is positive for the housing market overall, it also drives a decline in the inventory of affordable for-sale homes,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “The lack of housing stock, particularly affordable inventory, is a growing issue and will limit a full housing recovery in the short to medium term.”

Fresh Express Incorporated is recalling a limited quantity of 32-oz. Fresh Express Chopped Romaine with a Product Code of G034A06A and Use-By Date of February 19.

The sealed condiment packets containing individual packets of dressing, croutons and Parmesan cheese used in the brand’s Caesar salads were mistakenly placed in a limited quantity of the chopped romaine product. Ingredients in the individual packets include milk, eggs, wheat and fish, allergens not listed on the label.

Recalled Product DistributionFresh Express Precautionary Recall, Chopped Romaine – 2/06/16 (No other Fresh Express Salads are included in this recall)

A refund is available where purchased or by contacting the Fresh Express consumer response center toll-free at (800) 242-5472 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (ET).

KHS America of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., is recalling about 150 Monkey Glockenspiel children’s musical instruments.

The pink metal note bar on the glockenspiel may contain excessive levels of lead in the paint, violating the federal lead paint standard. If the paint is scraped off and ingested lead can cause adverse health effects.

The Green Tones 8-note Monkey Glockenspiel is a children’s musical instrument with eight metal bars in multiple colors mounted on a wooden base shaped like a monkey. The bars are individually attached to the base with one screw at each end.

The second bar from the top is pink, 3.5 inches long and has a “B” stamped on it. This is the bar that needs to be replaced.

The Green Tones logo is stamped on the back of the glockenspiel and the tracking number HS0178410914 is printed in black at the bottom.

The instruments, manufactured in Israel, were sold at independent toy and music retailers and online at and from January 2015, through September 2015, for about $40.

Consumers should immediately remove the pink bar from the glockenspiel and contact KHS America for information on getting a free replacement pink bar.

Consumers may contact KHS America Green Tones at 800-283-4676 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday or online at for more information.

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There's no doubt falling gasoline prices have offered consumers a nice break. They've also pulled down the official inflation rate, which remains near record lows.

In fact, the Federal Reserve would like to see a little more inflation in the economy, since its worry over the last few years has been that prices aren't rising enough.

But behind the numbers suggesting little or no increase in consumer costs, the cost for some things that are common consumer expenditures continues to go up. They include housing, vehicles, restaurant meals, college tuition, and healthcare services.

The cost of putting a roof over your head is one thing that has gone up sharply over the last year, regardless of whether you are renting or buying. In mid 2015, real estate marketplace Zillow warned that rental affordability had worsened, with renters forced to pay 30.2% of their monthly income toward rent – the highest percentage ever.

Before the real estate bubble and bust, U.S. renters were spending about 24.4% of their incomes on rent. Zillow expects rents to flatten out this year after a double-digit rise last year.

"There are good reasons to rent temporarily – when you move to a new city, for example – but from an affordability perspective, rents are crazy right now,” Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Svenja Gudell noted in an August press release. “If you can possibly come up with a down payment, then it's a good time to buy a home and start putting your money toward a mortgage."

But consumers buying homes also face rising prices. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) report for December showed a 7.6% rise in the median home price in 2015.

The cost of both new and used cars has risen faster than the official inflation rate. Analysts at Kelley Blue Book (KBB) report the average transaction price of a new car hit another record high in January. KBB said the cost of a new set of wheels rose nearly $1,000 from January 2016 to last month, hitting $34,112.

However, KBB points out that doesn't reflect increases in vehicle prices as much as it does consumers' preference for more expensive vehicles, primarily SUV and pick-up trucks. That said, prices for full-size and mid-size trucks increased by 5.9% and 7.9%, respectively.

The average price of a used car has also gone up lately. Automotive site reported that consumers are buying newer used cars, which cost more. It found average used car prices hit a record high of $18,800 in the second quarter of last year, up 7.6% — or $1,300 per vehicle — from the second quarter of 2014. Meanwhile, the average age of used cars sold in Q2 2015 was 4.5 years, down from an average of 4.9 years the same time last year.

Like energy, food costs have generally been lower for consumers in recent months. With the exception of fresh vegetables, most other grocery items are down or have risen no more than the official inflation rate.

The exception is restaurant meals. According to the Labor Department's December report, food consumed away from home rose 2.6% in 2015.

For consumers attending college, costs continue to rise much faster than the inflation rate. According to the experts at FinAid, an online guide to college financial aid, tuition generally increases at about double the inflation rate, going back to the 1970s.

But lately increases have been much higher. On average, the site says, tuition tends to increase about 8% per year. At that rate, the cost of college doubles every nine years.

That brings us to healthcare, and in particular, the cost of prescription drugs. The AARP reports that overall healthcare costs, while still going up faster than inflation, have begun to stabilize. The exception is for prescription medication.

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Valentine’s Day and flowers go together like Hallmark and greeting cards, peanut butter and jelly, and cupcakes and frosting. Sending your sweetheart a bouquet of flowers is the perfect way to say “I care." And if the fact that an estimated $1.9 billion will be spent on flowers this Valentine’s Day is any evidence, consumers know it.

Shopping online for a bouquet is the preferred choice of many, but ConsumerAffairs wondered: is the bouquet you see online really what will end up on your loved one’s doorstep? As it turns out, not all flower delivery services are created equal.

To help you select the best bouquet, ConsumerAffairs personally reviewed and dissected five different bouquets.

Online shopping gets bigger every year, in large part because it is more efficient and convenient for consumers.

It takes less time to shop online, comparing prices without going store to store. It also requires less driving, which saves energy, puts less stress on roadways, and creates less pollution.

Experts at the University of Delaware don't quibble with the convenience of online shopping, but their research casts doubt on the other part.

Researchers conducted a multi-year study that suggests online shopping might have unseen impact, only making it seem greener than driving to the nearest mall.

"Our simulation results showed that home shopping puts an additional burden on the local transportation network, as identified through four measures of effectiveness – travel time, delay, average speed, and greenhouse gas emissions," co-author Mingxin Li said in a release.

To the consumer shopping from home, or placing an order using their smartphone, e-shopping seems like it would be saving resources. It requires less energy and space, right?

Arde Faghri, University of Delaware professor and leader of the study, says it's the unseen impact that raises the environmental toll from online shopping. It puts more delivery trucks on the roads, which translates into more wear-and-tear on pavements and increased environmental pollution through the emission of fine particulate matter from diesel engines.

Then there's the impact on traffic patterns. Residential and downtown streets were designed mainly to accommodate cars, not delivery trucks of varying sizes that make frequent stops to park, load, and unload.

The dramatic increase in truck traffic, he maintains, can interfere with through traffic, causing delays and compromising safety. And in the end, he says it isn't keeping consumers at home and off the roads.

"We found that the total number of vehicles miles traveled hasn't decreased at all with the growth of online shopping," Faghri said. "This suggests that people are using the time they save by shopping on the internet to do other things like eating out at restaurants, going to the movies, or visiting friends."

Faghri admits his research has its limitations. For one thing, it was conducted in a relatively small geographic area – Newark, Delaware.

However, he does believe it has value to local, state, regional, and national planners, who may be unaware of what the explosion in online shopping will mean for traffic flow and infrastructure needs.

The other impact, he says, is easier to see. In the future there will be less need for sales personnel and a greater demand for truck drivers.

Add the state of New Jersey to the long list of plaintiffs suing Volkswagen for using deceptive software to allow its VW, Porsche, and Audi diesel-powered cars to masquerade as low-emission vehicles.

“For the past decade Volkswagen engaged in one of the largest frauds in the history of the automobile industry,” the state’s lawsuit asserts. “It developed and distributed into the marketplace sophisticated software to evade emissions requirements, it misled regulators about the true environmental impact of its vehicles, and it misled consumers about the products that it was marketing as supposedly good for the environment.”

“Our lawsuit alleges that Volkswagen put profit ahead of honesty, integrity, fair business practices and – most disturbing of all – the well-being of people living and breathing the air here in New Jersey and across the country,” said Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman. 

The New Jersey suit is similar to those filed by New Mexico, Texas, and West Virginia. The company also faces a federal complaint that seeks billions of dollars in damages, as well as a growing list of individual and class action suits.

Volkswagen says its primary concern at the moment is figuring out how to recall and fix the affected vehicles in a manner that satisfies regulators.

The New Jersey suit, filed Friday in Hudson County Superior Court, alleges that Volkswagen “profited greatly” from its effort – launched in 2005 – to gain a greater share of the U.S. passenger vehicle market by quietly developing, then deceptively promoting, diesel vehicles that appeared to be environmentally friendly, but in fact were equipped with pollution control systems that only functioned during emissions testing.

The alleged conspiracy enabled Volkswagen to steadily increase its passenger vehicle sales over time so that by 2014, it accounted for about 70% of new diesel passenger car sales in the U.S.  The New Jersey suit alleges that Volkswagen fraudulently increased its sales and market share “at the expense of the unsuspecting public.” By emphasizing the supposed superiority of German engineering, the company successfully charged “inflated purchase prices” for the cars, which spewed illegal qualities of nitrogen oxide (NOx) into the air, endangering the health of New Jerseyans, the suit argues.

NOx pollution has been shown to contribute to harmful ground-level ozone (smog) and fine particulate matter (soot), and exposure to NOx and its byproducts has been linked to such serious health problems as cardiopulmonary disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and exacerbation of asthma, the complaint alleges.

Current estimates are that Volkswagen sold approximately 580,000 vehicles equipped with the defeat software in the United States, about 17,420 of them in New Jersey.

The Jel Sert Company of West Chicago, Ill., is recalling 52 cases of Margaritaville Banana Cream Pie Filling.

The product was not available to consumers on store shelves, only through directly provided sales samples and gift packages.

WWRD U.S. of Wall, N.J., is recalling nearly 700 Wedgwood Peter Rabbit decorative baby rattles in the U.S. and Canada.

The ball bearings inside each side of the decorative rattle can be released, posing a choking hazard to young children.

The firm has received two reports of ball bearings releasing from the decorative giftware baby rattle. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves all Wedgwood Peter Rabbit decorative baby rattles. The silver-plated giftware is shaped like a baby rattle, but is intended to be used as decoration only. It measures about 4 ½ inches long and 2 inches wide.

A Peter Rabbit figure and “hop hop hop” underneath are embossed on one end cap and “hop little rabbit” over the Peter Rabbit figure is embossed on the other end cap.

The decorative rattles, manufactured in China, were sold at Bloomingdales, Macy’s, WWRD Outlets and other department stores nationwide and online at and from April 2015, through December 2015, for between $75 and $95.

Consumers should immediately stop using the decorative rattles and take them away from young children and contact WWRD for a full refund.

Consumers may contact WWRD toll-free at 877-892-9973 anytime or online at for more information.

Marin Pasta Works of San Rafael, Calif., is recalling approximately 491 pounds of pork ravioli products.

The following sausage, Parmesan and spinach ravioli items, produced between Jan. 4, 2016, and Feb. 4, 2016 and distributed to retail locations in California, are being recalled:

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

The toy truck’s remote control can short circuit, causing it to overheat and posing fire and burn hazards.

The company has received five reports of the toy’s remote control overheating. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves a toy excavator and a shovel loader. The remote controlled plastic toys are orange with black and orange wheels. Both have tracking code 90RWE15 marked on the back of the battery compartment. UPC number 00430000549030 can be found on the bottom of the packaging.

Power, Shovel Loader and Super Power are printed on stickers located on the side of the excavator. UPC 00400001622537 can be found on the bottom of the packaging. 6000Kg Peakload, FL-330 Deluxe Crane, and Crane Super Truck are printed on stickers located on the side of the shovel loader.

The toy trucks, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Dollar General stores nationwide and online at from July 2015, through December 2015, for about $10.

Consumers should immediately take the recalled toy vehicles away from children and contact Dollar General for a full refund.

Consumers may contact Dollar General at 800-678-9258 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday, by email at or online at

FCA US LLC (Chrysler) is recalling 441,578 model year 2011-2016 Dodge Charger vehicles manufactured August 23, 2010, to January 7, 2016.

When the vehicle is lifted using the supplied tire jack without chocking the wheels, the vehicle's body-side sill may give causing the tire jack to fail and the car to fall.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will provide owners with wheel chocks, free of charge. Parts are not currently available. Owners will be sent an interim notification by early April 2016. A second letter will be mailed when the chocks are available.

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is S03.

Graco Children's Products, Inc. is recalling 15,064 Extend2Fit Convertible child seats manufactured November 27, 2015, to January 20, 2016.

The child seats may have the recline label affixed at the wrong location, resulting in confusion about how to use the seat properly. As such, these child seats fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 213, "Child Restraint Systems."

If the instructions are followed as shown, a rear-facing infant could be placed in an upright position and/or a forward-facing toddler could be placed in a recline position. Either scenario may increase the risk of injury to the child in the event of a crash.

Graco will notify owners and provide a new corrected label with application instructions, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 26, 2016.

Graco Children's Products Inc. is recalling 31,838 ComfortSport child restraints, model numbers 1813040 and 1794333; Ready Ride child restraints, model numbers 1924520 and 1924519; and Classic Ride child restraints, model number 1812930. These seats were manufactured between March 1, 2014, and February 28, 2015.

The restraints are missing a statement on the affixed label that informs of location of the instruction manual. Without that notice, these seats fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 213 "Child Restraint Systems."

If the label does not inform the seat owner of the instruction manual's location, the owner may not be able to refer to it and may use the seat improperly, increasing the risk of injury to the child in the event of a crash.

Graco will notify the registered owners and will mail them corrected labels to affix to the child restraints.

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A non-profit auto safety group has sued U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx for failing to set up a public website revealing safety concerns for every car and truck model.

The Center for Auto Safety's suit notes that Congress instructed the Department of Transportation (DOT) three years ago to establish a website showing every communication from automakers to dealers and consumers about safety defects broken down by make, model, and year.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lists recalls -- but not service bulletins -- in a convoluted and difficult-to-use database that requires the consumer to have the vehicle identification number (VIN) to look up recalls. This is useless to consumers who are looking for outstanding recalls and bulletins on different models they are considering buying, critics have noted. 

"DOT failure to implement the law costs consumers money for repairs that covered by Service Bulletins and endangers their lives by witholding Service Bulletins that disclosures [sic] defects that can cause crashes, deaths and injuries," Clarence Ditlow, the center's executive director, said.

"Today the Center for Auto Safety filed suit against DOT Secretary Foxx to force the Secretary to do what the law so clearly requires," Ditlow added. "This is yet another example of where voluntary and cooperative action by the auto industry so praised by Secretary Foxx fails." 

The Congressional mandate in question is the "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act'' enacted on July 6, 2012. It clearly states that "the Secretary shall make available on a publicly accessible Internet website, a true or representative copy of each communication to the manufacturer's dealers or to owners or purchasers of a motor vehicle or replacement equipment produced by the manufacturer about a defect or noncompliance with a motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter in a vehicle or equipment that is sold or serviced."  

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Martin Shkreli's brief but remarkable appearance Thursday before the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee has refocused attention on skyrocketing prescription drug prices and why they are so expensive.

In his work as a self-described patent troll, Erich Spangenberg said he stumbled across at least one answer.

Since the 1990s, he says drug companies – faced with the expiration of a patent on a profitable drug – make tiny tweaks, then apply for and almost always receive a new patent, extending the profitable life of the drug.

“I realized that within the pharma world, people in the patent office and those who were prosecuting these patents were living in a world very different from the rest of us,” Spangenberg said in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

Spangenberg says this practice, called “evergreening,” keeps cheaper generic drugs off the market and is much more common than Shkreli's action as head of Turing Pharmaceuticals, when he purchased a 60 year-old drug and boosted the price 5000% overnight.

Spangenberg said he has documented cases where a drug company extended the life of a patent simply by switching to siliconized rubber bottle stoppers or adjusting the size of the tablet. Another new patent was granted on a drug, not for any changes to the drug itself, but for how it was being distributed – the addition of a central pharmacy and central database.

“So, the novelty being a central pharmacy and a central database,” he said. “If you've had a computer class, the concept of a central database – there's nothing novel about it.”

And novelty is the key issue, he says. To get a new patent, Spangenberg says there needs to be a significant innovation to the drug itself.

The way to stop the worst evergreening abuses, he says, is simply to have the U.S. Patent Office do its job. When laughable patent applications come in, he says, they should be rejected, with the government only approving drug applications that are actually innovations.

“What bureaucrat wants to be known as the person who took down a multi-billion dollar drug franchise?” Spangenberg asked.

Additionally, people trying to bring about reforms of the system that would lead to more generics and more competition face difficult odds, to say the least.

“The number of lobbyists that pharma has, and the amount they spend for that, it's sad to say, but they've bought Washington,” Spangenberg said.

While he says he has been accused of trying to destroy pharma innovation, Spangenberg sees nothing innovative in the evergreening patents that allow drug companies to reap profits from old drugs without producing new ones.

If the Patent Office required companies to innovate in order to receive patent protection, Spangenberg predicts innovation would take off.

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If you enjoy gardening but lack outdoor space, container garden may be just the solution. But even those with ample outdoor space may enjoy the advantages of growing vegetables in pots.

Choosing container gardening over in-ground gardening comes with many perks, including no weeding, less chance of soil-borne plant diseases, and the decreased likelihood that rabbits and other creatures will dine on the fruit of your labor. Using your own two hands to grow food instead of heading to the produce section is also better for the environment and your local community. 

For these and many other reasons, vegetable container gardening can be rewarding — but it can also be challenging. In learning the basics, however, you’ll find that it’s not as tricky as you might think.

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More than ever, kids are sharing adults’ preoccupation with cooking. Shows like MasterChef Junior and Kids Baking Championship serve up this heightened interest with a healthy dose of competition. Off-screen, however, parents are seeing kids cooking programs help build kids’ culinary confidence and strengthen their family bond.

The iCook 4-H program seeks to increase both culinary skills and physical activity while promoting family mealtime. Each of the six two-hour lessons includes a nutritional component tied with the cooking lesson and a physical activity, such as playing a game, says Kendra Kattelmann, director of the didactic program in dietetics at South Dakota State University. “The lessons talk about better choices, healthier choices,” she said.

The objective of the project was to test whether a two-year intervention — based on boosting kids' culinary confidence, increasing physical activity, and increasing family meals — can positively impact the BMI of youth. Since decreased frequency of family meals has been associated with low socioeconomic status and obesity in children, recruitment for the program was done in lower income areas, such as schools with at least half of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch. 

The five-year National Institute of Food and Agriculture project — which began in August 2012 and will end on July 31, 2016— aims to help kids in the 9-to-10-year old age range discover that healthy dishes can be as fun to make as they are tasty. Proponents hope that the lessons learned will help children make healthier choices as they get older.

For many of the program’s participants, the lessons learned at iCook have seen everyday use, both in the kitchen and at the table. “I learned how to make a bunch of healthy foods and how to stay healthy,” said Sarah Dunn, adding that she made steamed vegetables and spinach smoothies that “actually tasted good.” And Sarah's parents, Jeff and Julie Dunn, say they still use the lessons they learned on how better to prompt mealtime conversations.

Rather than asking “How was school?” explains Julie, they now say, “Tell me two good or not-so-good things about your day.” Adds Jeff: "It's all about getting some face time."

Through combining healthy cooking skills with physical activity, the program also tries to help prevent childhood obesity. However, says Sarah Colby, an assistant professor in UT’s Department of Nutrition and Coordinator of iCook 4-H, “We don’t focus on weight at all." The focus, rather, is on helping families enjoy food, cooking, physical activity, and being together. "Having a healthy weight is something that can come from healthy living," says Colby.

Researchers have identified lack of parental education in nutrition, sedentary lifestyles, availability of high-caloric foods, and scarcity of healthful foods as contributing to the obesity crisis, says the USDA.

Because parents play such a big role in their children’s health, the program gathers accelerometer data from parents as well as a portion (25%) of the children. Adults' progress is measured in terms of kitchen proficiency, attitudes and practices on child feeding and obesity proneness, family mealtime characteristics, and quality of life.

The states participating in iCook 4-H were Tennessee, Maine, Nebraska, South Dakota, and West Virginia.

To help kids learn lessons similar to those taught in the iCook 4-H program, check out a kids cooking school near you. A state-by-state guide can be found here. 

A Presidential task force has released a proposed federal rule aimed at reducing or preventing Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud.

The rule lays out proposed new requirements for seafood, including requiring traceability at the first point of entry into U.S. commerce for a select number of species considered “at risk” of IUU and seafood fraud.

The rule only addresses the collection of information on imported fish and fish products at the point of entry into U.S. commerce. Fish products simply transiting through the U.S., but not sold here, are not covered.

The list of at-risk species and species groups covered by the rule includes: abalone; Atlantic cod; Pacific cod; blue crab; red king crab; dolphinfish (mahi mahi); grouper; red snapper; sea cucumber; shrimp; sharks; swordfish; and albacore, bigeye, skipjack, and yellowfin tuna.

The rule is open for public comment for 60 days. It didn't take the environmental group Oceana that long to render its verdict; the rule is a nice start, the group says, but doesn't go far enough.

“Oceana welcomes the proposed rule as a first step in fighting illegal fishing and seafood fraud,” Oceana’s senior campaign director Beth Lowell said in a statement. “However, the steps outlined will not fully solve these problems.”

Lowell said the administration should add three additional components: it needs to apply to all seafood; products need to be traced throughout the entire supply chain to final point of sale. If there is a phased-in implementation process, then there must be a concrete timeline to expand the rule to all species and extend traceability from boat to plate in the final rule.

Oceana points out that there are more than 1,800 species of seafood for sale in the U.S. It says limiting traceability to “at risk” seafood leaves the rest of the seafood supply unguarded.

The group also takes issue with the fact that new tracking requirements stop at the first point of entry into U.S. commerce. That, the group concedes, may protect consumers from buying some products caught by IUU fishing, but it does not stop seafood fraud. Fraud, the group says, can happen anywhere throughout the supply chain, even within U.S. borders.

As a case in point, Oceana issued a report in October claiming that 43% of the salmon it collected from supermarkets and restaurants was mislabeled. In nearly 70% of the cases, it said DNA testing confirmed farmed Atlantic salmon was being sold as wild caught.

Scientists are divided over whether farm raised or wild caught is more nutritious. However, a 2004 study found a higher level of contaminants in farm raised salmon.

In this case, however, Oceana says the issue is labeling. It says if you pay extra for wild caught salmon, that's what you should get.

A new study of elder abuse in the U.S. says banks and other financial institutions have a greater role to play in preventing the financial exploitation of their older clients.

The study, published in Public Policy & Aging Report (PP&AR), finds financial exploitation of older adults and diminished financial capacity resulting from age-related cognitive impairments both pose major economic threats.

"The problem is complex, but it is also a problem that unquestionably exists and is assuming remarkably large personal, monetary, and social dimensions," the authors write. "Elder financial abuse involves millions of individuals and billions of dollars. It damages health, harms wellbeing, and arguably costs lives."

In 2009, U.S. household wealth was estimated to be $53.1 trillion. Older adults held approximately $18.1 trillion of it. The MetLife Study of Elder Financial Abuse estimates elder abuse cost older Americans at least $2.9 billion in 2010.

"In a very real sense, a huge portion of U.S. wealth is at risk due to the progressive decline of financial skills of the older adult age group," writes Daniel Marson, in one of the PP&AR articles. "Thus ironically, the age group that has amassed the most wealth over the longest period of accumulation is simultaneously at the greatest risk of financial self-impoverishment and exploitation by others."

Older adults can be exploited by scammers, who contact them by telephone, email, or sometimes by simply knocking on their doors. More often than not, they may be exploited by a family member.

And they aren't always cognitively impaired. A study cited by the National Institute of Justice found that out of 472 victims of financial exploitation, those living independently were 66% more likely to be exploited financially. Those not experiencing dementia or confusion were 29% more likely to be exploited.

The report suggests scientists may be able to develop predictive models and algorithms for the detection of diminished financial capacity in older adults. When a warning signal flashes, a protective institution could step in.

That, the authors contend, should enable the banking industry to improve its interactions with older adults by creating proactive planning programs, recognizing signs of cognitive impairment, dementia, and financial exploitation, and by learning new methods of assessing financial decision-making abilities.

Creating a system of real-time assessments and interventions, the report concludes, would help curb financial exploitation, as well as poor financial decisions by aging adults who are beginning to lose cognitive ability.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) says its 55+ Housing Market Index (HMI) had a fourth-quarter reading of 61 -- up one point from the previous quarter and the seventh consecutive quarter with a reading above 50.

“Builders and developers for the 55+ housing sector continue to report increased optimism in the market,” said Jim Chapman, chairman of NAHB's 55+ Housing Industry Council. “We are seeing steady consumer demand for homes and communities that are designed to address the specific needs of the mature homebuyer.”

There are separate 55+ HMIs for two segments of the 55+ housing market: single-family homes and multifamily condominiums. Each 55+ HMI measures builder sentiment based on a survey that asks if current sales, prospective buyer traffic, and anticipated six-month sales for that market are good, fair, or poor (high, average, or low for traffic). An index number above 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

One of the three index components of the 55+ single-family HMI posted an increase from the previous quarter: traffic of prospective buyers increased six points to 52. Present sales held steady at 65 while expected sales for the next six months dipped four points to 63.

The 55+ multifamily condo HMI dropped eight points to 42, falling back to a range typical of the past year and a half. All three components declined as well: present sales fell 10 points to 44, expected sales for the next six months fell 10 points to 46 and traffic of prospective buyers edged down three points to 37.

Three of the four indices tracking production and demand of 55+ multifamily rentals posted gains in the fourth quarter. Present production and expected future production both rose one point to 56 and 61, respectively, and future demand increased three points to 71, while current demand for existing units fell four points to 66.

“This quarter’s 55+ HMI is in line with our forecast for the overall housing market, which shows a gradual, steady recovery,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “In addition, the 55+ housing market is benefiting from growing home equity on the balance sheets of 55+ households, an improving economic outlook, historically low mortgage rates and a growing population as baby boomers age."

Another 151,000 people found work in January, well below the pace of December in which 262,000 jobs were created. That December figure, by the way, was revised down by 30,000 from the initial estimate. Economists at had projected the creation of 188,000 jobs.

In its report, the Department of Labor (DOL) also said the unemployment rate inched down 0.1% to 4.9%.

Job gains occurred in several industries, including retail trade (+58,000), food services and drinking places (+47,000), health care (+37,000), and manufacturing (+29,000). Employment declined in private educational services (-29,000), transportation and warehousing (-20,000), and mining (-7,000).

The number of people out of work was little changed at 7.8 million. Over the past 12 months, the number of unemployed persons and the unemployment rate were down by 1.1 million and 0.8%, respectively.

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men (4.5%) and whites (4.3%) declined in January. The jobless rates for adult women (4.5%), teenagers (16.0%), blacks (8.8%), Asians (3.7%), and Hispanics (5.9%) showed little change over the month.

The number of long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or more) was essentially unchanged in January, at 2.1 million, and has shown little movement since June. They account for 26.9% of the unemployed.

After accounting for the annual adjustments to the population controls, the civilian labor force and total employment, as measured by the household survey, were little changed in January. The labor force participation rate, at 62.7%, was little changed.

The employment-population ratio at 59.6% changed little over the month, but was up by 0.3% since October.

Average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls increased by 12 cents last month to $25.39. Over the year, average hourly earnings have gone 2.5%. Average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees rose by 6 cents to $21.33.

Speaking of jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports initial applications for state unemployment benefits were up 8,000 in the week ending January 30, to a seasonally adjusted initial total of 285,000. That's the highest level in two weeks. The previous week's total was revised down by 1,000 to 277,000.

The four-week moving average, which strips out the volatility of the weekly number and is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, rose by 2,000 to 284,750.

The company says that one sample from one was found to be positive for Salmonella, it's recalling all lots currently on the market, until the source of the contamination can be identified.

The following recalled products, produced under the name Izzie Macs! in plastic bags and macadamia nut butter under the name Baby Bruddah's Mac Nut Buttah in plastic tubs, were distributed from Oct 21, 2015 - Jan 20, 2016:

Customers who purchased the above products should not consume them, but return them to the store where they were purchased for a full refund or replacement. Mahina Mele Farms, LLC will reimburse the wholesaler for any returned product.

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 734 model year 2015 Volkswagen Tiguans manufactured January 15, 2015, to January 21, 2015, and 2015 Audi Q5s manufactured January 13, 2015, to February 3, 2015.

The recalled vehicles are equipped with driver and front seat passenger seat-mounted air bag inflators that may rupture in the event of a crash. Metal fragments could strike the driver or other occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

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

Owners may contact Audi customer service at 1-800-822-2834 or Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298.

There have been two reports of the battery packs’ lithium ion batteries bursting during charging and emitting black smoke, damaging carpet and leaving a black mark on a wall. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves Rockwood portable power packs with lithium ion batteries and cables. They are used to charge a variety of electronic devices and car batteries and have a recessed LED flashlight.

The power packs have a black plastic cover with “Rockwood” printed in white on the top. They measure about 6 inches long, 3 inches wide and 1 inch tall. A yellow and white danger label is on the bottom. Item number 30554 is printed on the packaging.

The power packs, manufactured in China, were sold at Eastwood stores in Chicago, Parma, Ohio, and Pottstown, Pa., in Eastwood’s catalog and online at and other websites from January 2015, through October 2015, for between $50 and $110.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled power packs and return them to Eastwood for a full refund.

Consumers may contact Eastwood at 800-345-1178 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday or online at

Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations (BATO) is recalling 35,907 FS561 replacement tires, size 255/70R22.5, manufactured January 25, 2015, to January 27, 2016 (DOT weeks 0515-0416) for use on trailers.

The tires may experience possible tread separation or detachment due to scrubbing during use which may result in a sudden loss of air pressure, increasing the risk of a crash.

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

There is no end in sight for the Takata airbag crisis. As the number of recalls continues to grow, consumers and Congress grow restless, and safety advocates call for criminal prosecutions and imprisonment of top executives.

In the latest development, Honda said it is expanding its recall of late-model Honda and Acura vehicles equipped with the devices, possibly adding as many as 2.3 million vehicles to the recall list. The company told dealers of the decision last week and is expected to make it public today (Thursday).

With as many as 60 million defective airbag inflators potentially on the recall list, Takata Corp. faces an uncertain future. The staggering cost of the recalls is expected to endanger the company's future even as the plodding pace of the recall endangers the lives of consumers everytime they take the wheel. CEO Shigehisa Takada, grandson of the company's founder, may be forced to resign as the amount of money needed to carry out the recalls continues to rise, recent reports have said.

Of course, there are worse things than resigning. Going to prison is one of them -- and that's what safety crusader Clarence Ditlow says should happen. He says the grisly injuries inflicted by the defective Takata airbag inflators are the result of corporate greed and should be punished by a harsh prison sentence.

According to Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, Takata decided in the year 2000 to stop using sodium azide as a propellant in its airbags and replaced it with ammonium nitrate, "an incredibly powerful explosive."

"It’s what Terry McVeigh used to bring down the government office building in Oklahoma City. It’s what a lot of terrorists in the Mideast are using in the improvised explosive devices. And so, yet this propellant that Takata used, it was known to degrade, known to explode, they put it into the airbag inflator to save, once again, a few pennies per inflator," Ditlow said in a radio interview.

In the U.S. Senate, Democrats Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) urged President Obama to recall every vehicle with airbags using ammonium nitrate as their propellant, and to use “every tool at his disposal” to accelerate the repair of all vehicles with potentially-lethal Takata airbags.

The renewed calls for action follow the December death of Joel Knight in South Carolina, who was killed when his truck struck a stray cow. Instead of cushioning the impact from the wreck, the airbag ruptured, firing shrapnel into Mr. Knight’s neck and killing him, The New York Times reported.

The senators said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) "has consistently deferred to Takata," allowing some automakers to take voluntary rather than mandatory actions to recall and replace defective airbags and later by limited mandatory recalls to "high-humidity" states on the theory that the problem would not occur in low-humidity climates.

"This, coupled with NHTSA’s willingness to allow Takata to take until the end of 2018 to prove that ammonium nitrate is safe in existing airbags; and until 2019 to show that the latest models of the inflators that use the compound are safe, is an outrageous dereliction of NHTSA’s basic duty to protect consumers,” the senators said in a letter to Obama.

As of the end of December 2015, 23 million airbags in 19 million vehicles had been recalled in the U.S. Two weeks ago, Takata agreed to recall another 5.1 million inflators and Honda is expected to recall another 2.3 million today.

Most of the recalls have not yet been carried out. It's estimated that only about a third of the potentially deadly inflators have actually been replaced.

So far there have been some isolated cases of Americans returning from Latin America with the Zika virus, the disease spread by mosquitoes.

But since most of the U.S. is experiencing winter weather, which is not conducive to the insects, Americans haven't had to worry too much about the virus.

That will change with the arrival of spring, says Richard Duhrkopf, associate professor of biology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences. Duhrkopf, considered a national expert on mosquitoes, says the threat of Zika virus is very real for the U.S.

“Since we are in February, we will not see any viral transmission immediately, but as the weather warms up and there is a greater flow of the virus into the country, I am confident we will see transmission this summer,” Duhrkopf said in a release.

Zika has been a major crisis in countries like Brazil. The effects of the virus on most people is fairly mild. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the most common symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis, or red eyes.

The greater threat is to pregnant women. There have been cases of neurological disorders and birth defects in Brazil due to virus. On Monday, the World Health Organization declared the virus to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

As to the overall threat, Duhrkopf said Zika is in some ways less serious than West Nile or dengue. Then again, it could be a much more serious threat to pregnant women because of what has been observed in Brazil. Duhrkopf says that appears to be a new development in the disease.

“Zika virus has been around and transmitted in Africa and Asia for about a decade,” he said. “There have been no reports of the kinds of birth complications we are seeing in Brazil. So, we really don’t know what to make [of] them.”

Duhrkopf said he is troubled by some of the misinformation that is being spread about Zika. He said a report that the U.S. is not threatened because the type of mosquitoes spreading the disease are not found here is totally untrue.

“We have Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus throughout the state of Texas, and both are well distributed throughout – especially the southern parts of the country,” he said.

Rebekah Kading, an assistant professor at Colorado State University, says the Aedes aegypti is known as the "rat" of the mosquito world, and is the main culprit spreading the virus. It prefers warmer climates but spreads easily. It also loves to bite people.

"Aedes aegypti is known to feed more frequently, which leads to more virus transmission," she said.”

With the arrival of warm weather, consumers should use insect repellant and consider using one with DEET, which experts say provides the best protection against mosquitoes.

Kading also recommends dumping water standing in containers in or near your home and wearing long sleeves and pants if you're spending extended time outdoors.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) suffered a computer system outage Wednesday and, as a result, has been unable to process tax returns.

“Several of our systems are not currently operating, including our modernized e-file system and a number of other related systems,” the agency said in a bulletin on its website. “The IRS is currently in the process of making repairs and working to restore normal operations as soon as possible.”

The IRS said some of the systems might be available late today. It said it remains in close contact with e-file software transmitters and the tax community while the problem is worked on.

If you are trying to use some of the taxpayer and preparer tools on, you may find they are not available. For example, the Where's My Refund feature, which allows taxpayers to track the progress of their refunds, was knocked out in the system failure.

The agency said taxpayers can still prepare and file their tax returns as they normally would. Taxpayers can also continue to send their tax returns to their e-file provider. These companies will hold the tax returns until the problem is fixed and the IRS resumes accepting electronic tax returns.

The system failure has not affected returns already in the system for processing. The IRS says taxpayers who have already filed their tax returns don't have to do anything else but wait for the problem to be repaired.

At this point the problem appears to be temporary, though its scope is still being determined. But the IRS said it does not expect there to be major delays in getting tax refunds to taxpayers. It says nine out of 10 taxpayers should get refunds within 21 days.

Eating chicken will be getting a little bit safer under new standards adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

The new standards are supposed to reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter in ground chicken and turkey products, as well as in raw chicken breasts, legs, and wings. FSIS estimates the new standards will prevent 50,000 illnesses annually.

FSIS has also updated its microbial testing schedule and will soon begin posting more information online about individual companies' food safety performance.

"Over the past seven years, USDA has put in place tighter and more strategic food safety measures than ever before for meat and poultry products. We have made strides in modernizing every aspect of food safety inspection, from company record keeping, to labeling requirements, to the way we perform testing in our labs," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a prepared statement.

A coalition of consumer groups, the Safe Food Coalition, is commending the new standards while calling on the USDA to take a tougher stance overall on the presence of drug-resistant Salmonella in food.

“These new standards are a welcome step that will better protect the public from dangerous foodborne illness,” the coalition said. “Salmonella and Campylobacter cause millions of illnesses every year, yet progress on reducing the number of infections has been stalled for over a decade. These standards will help to address an antiquated testing protocol and shine a light on companies that need to clean up their act.”

Until now, the FSIS has been testing whole chicken carcasses, but will now add chicken parts to its testing schedule. That follows testing which found the level of contamination in poultry parts may be higher than in whole carcasses because of cross-contamination that occurs in the evisceration process.

Under the new standards, FSIS will conduct a follow-up investigation of an establishment with large numbers of positive samples, but not necessarily demand that the company recall contaminated product.

“Unfortunately, these new standards leave an important loophole in place,” the Safe Food Coalition said. “We continue to urge FSIS to declare certain antibiotic resistant serotypes of Salmonellato be adulterants, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest asked the agency to do in the petition it first filed in May 2011, and refiled in October 2014."

The coalition cautioned that any standard will only be as reliable as the testing to measure compliance.

“FSIS must ensure that its testing is accurate and reliable for all plants, regardless of the chemicals used in when processing the birds,” the group said. 

Can you be both healthy and overweight? The commonly accepted answer these days is no, and increasingly, the Body Mass Index, or BMI, is used as an indicator of whether one is dangerously overweight or obese.

But a new UCLA study finds that using BMI to gauge health incorrectly labels 54 million Americans as unhealthy even though they may not be. The study is being published online today in the International Journal of Obesity.

"Many people see obesity as a death sentence," said A. Janet Tomiyama, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA College and the study's lead author. "But the data show there are tens of millions of people who are overweight and obese and are perfectly healthy."

BMI is calculated by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by the square of the person's height in meters. A BMI over 25 is currently considered as an indication that an individual is unhealthily overweight.

Many employers uses BMI to judge the health of prospective employees and a rule pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would permit insurance companies to charge higher premiums to those with higher BMIs. 

Tomiyama and colleagues analyzed the link beteen BMI and several other health markers, including blood pressure, glucose levels, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, using data from the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

They found that close to half of Americans who are considered "overweight" by virtue of their BMIs (47.4%, or 34.4 million people) are healthy, as are 19.8 million who are considered "obese."

Given their health readings other than BMI, the people in both of those groups would be unlikely to incur higher medical expenses, and it would be unfair to charge them more for health care premiums, Tomiyama said.

"There are healthy people who could be penalized based on a faulty health measure, while the unhealthy people of normal weight will fly under the radar and won't get charged more for their health insurance," she said. "Employers, policy makers and insurance companies should focus on actual health markers."

Jeffrey Hunger, co-author of the paper and a doctoral candidate at UC Santa Barbara, said the research shows that BMI is a deeply flawed measure of health. "This should be the final nail in the coffin for BMI," he said.

Hunger recommends that people focus on eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, rather than obsessing about their weight, and strongly opposes stigmatizing people who are overweight.

If you’re looking to grow your family by four paws, an animal shelter is the perfect place to start. But as with all important decisions, choosing wisely is key. While many great love stories have started in the halls of an animal shelter, just as many have landed pets back where they started all because they weren’t a right fit.

A common mistake when adopting a pet, says Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA’s Adoption Center, is choosing an animal simply because they’re cute, as opposed to selecting one that matches your household and lifestyle.

“We wouldn’t choose a person that we would want to live with solely on the basis of their looks," she says, adding that adopting a pet the right way requires planning — not just randomly selecting an animal that you may be immediately taken with.

Your lifestyle will dictate how much time and effort you’re able to pour into your new addition. All dogs are different, and many require more training and exercise in order to be a happy, balanced member of the family.

If you’re primarily looking for a couch potato who won’t require much more than two short walks a day, it might be in your best interest to avoid puppies. If you’re a runner, maybe a more active dog would make the perfect jogging partner. Imagine yourself coming home after a long day of work — how much time are you willing to devote to a dog then? Being honest with yourself about your lifestyle and how a dog fits into it can help ensure you adopt a match rather than a clash.

Taking into account the amount of physical space you can give a dog is important, too. If you live alone in a small, walk-up apartment, your best canine match might be on the smaller, more docile side. On the other hand, if you’ve got a backyard and lots of kids for a dog to play with, a large, active dog might be a great fit.

“Remember,” says the Humane Society, “You're not just getting a dog; your new dog is getting a family!”

While you’re at the shelter, keep in mind that the animals will be stressed out, causing them to keep their true colors under wraps. “Even if you walk past a kennel with a dog who isn’t vying for attention, don’t count him out,” says the Humane Society. “He may just be a little scared or lonely.”

An adoption counselor can help you find a dog that will match your lifestyle. And as you spend time with each animal, consider the following questions:

How old is the dog? Puppies are cute, no doubt about it, but they require much more training and supervision. If you’re not interested in coming home to chewed shoes and toilet paper strewn across the house, you might want to adopt an adult dog. Adopting a puppy means you’ll need an abundance of time and patience during the housetraining process.

How shy or assertive is the dog? You might be drawn to the active dog who is bending over backwards to catch your eye, but if you just want a couch cuddler, a quieter dog might be a better match for you.

Martin Shkreli, the 32-year old hedge fund manager who became the face of prescription drug price-gouging, appeared briefly Thursday before a House committee looking into skyrocketing drug costs.

In the face of pointed questions by members of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, Shkreli responded with just 20 words.

"On the advice of counsel, I invoke my Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and respectfully decline to answer your question," he replied to every question.

Shkreli came to public notoriety in August when the company he founded, Turing Pharmaceuticals, purchased the rights to a 60 year-old drug called Daraprim, used to treat parasitic infections and, in some cases, HIV. The company immediately raised the price of the drug from $13.50 a tablet to $750 a pill.

Shkreli was publicly unapologetic in the face of wide-spread outrage. He was later fired as CEO of the company he founded and currently faces security fraud charges.

As committee members directed accusatory questions at him, Shkreli smirked and at one point rolled his eyes. Before the committee dismissed the reluctant witness, Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-SC) tried to appeal to Shkreli's conscience, pleading with him to use his influence to bring about change in the pharmaceutical industry.

“People's lives are at stake because of the price increases you imposed and the access problems that has created,” Cummings said. “You are in a unique position. Rightly or wrongly, you've been viewed as the so-called bad boy of pharma. You have a spotlight and a platform. You could use that to come clean, to right your wrongs, and to become one of the most effective patient advocates in the country.”

Shkreli smiled but said nothing. At that point, Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) acknowledged that it was pointless to question Shkreli further and dismissed him.

Shkreli's current troubles have nothing to do with drug prices. Rather, federal regulators have charged him with several counts of securities fraud, in his associations with a drug company and hedge fund he managed.

Though he was silent before the committee, Shkreli has been outspoken outside the halls of Congress. He gave an interview this week to Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business News Channel in which he said people stop him on the street for selfies and autographs.

Family cars, one might say, are the mothers of the car world. They have to be able to do and handle a lot, all while keeping kids safe and happy. So when it comes to selecting a family car, there are many factors to consider. Can it accommodate both the kids and the Costco haul? What about Fido … all 70 pounds of him?

If you’re in the market for a new vessel in which to tow your most precious cargo, be sure to check out Kelley Blue Book’s list of the 16 Best Family Cars of 2016. To make the list, the cars had to endure two weeks of being lived with and driven by the experts at

“We loaded cargo, contorted ourselves into third rows, watched movies on rear-seat screens, toted rowing teams to marinas – in short, we did everything that you and your family might do with a vehicle day-to-day,” said Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst of Kelley Blue Book’s And since many of the testers were parents themselves, Nerad says the process drew heavily upon the real life needs and wants of modern families.

In addition, also took notes on how three different types of child safety car seats fit specifically into each of the vehicles on this year's list. Those notes can be found here. 

In this disruptive world in which we live, you can literally be on top of the world one year and plunging off a cliff the next.Just ask GoPro.The a..

The new year started with a bang as U.S employers announced a January increase in job cuts that's 218% above the 15-year low recorded a month earlier.

Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports employers reported 75,114 planned job cuts to kick off 2016 -- 42% higher than the same month a year ago.

Last month represents the highest monthly tally since July 2015, when cuts reached 105,696, and the largest January total since the first month of 2009.

Even though holiday sales to close out 2015 were relatively strong, retailers led all other industries in January job cuts, announcing plans to eliminate 22,246 payroll positions -- the highest retail total since January 2009, when 53,968 people were sacked.

The cuts were dominated by Walmart, which announced plans to close 269 stores worldwide, which is expected to affect 16,000 workers. Macys is also planning to close stores in 2016, a move that will hit 4,820 employees.

“Retail job cuts came on the heels of a relatively strong holiday sales, which increased by nearly 8.0 percent,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “However, a growing portion of the sales gains are occurring online. At Macy’s, for example, November and December sales at its brick-and-mortar stores fell by about 5.0 percent, while orders through its online entities were up 25 percent from a year earlier, according to reports.”

In addition to increased retail job cuts, January also saw the return of heavy terminations in the energy sector, where firms announced plans to reduce headcounts by 20,246 -- up from 1,682 in December.

The January total for the energy sector was higher since the decline in oil prices began in late 2014. The previous high was January 2015, when 20,193 jobs in the sector were eliminated.

Since oil prices began their decline, Halliburton has announced 22,000 job cuts through multiple job-cut announcements. Schlumberger has also reported multiple reductions since late 2014, with total job cuts exceeding 30,000. Baker Hughes has also announced multiple cuts, totaling 16,000.

“The pace of downsizing in the energy sector ebbed in the second half of 2015, but the latest activity, which included more cuts from Halliburton and Schlumberger, is evidence the industry is far from concluding its cost-cutting initiatives,” said Challenger. “With oil prices expected to stay low for the foreseeable future, the potential for continued layoffs remains elevated.”

The latest Institute for Supply Management (ISM) Non-Manufacturing Report On Business put out the nation's supply executive and purchasing managers say the Non-manufacturing Index (NMI) registered 53.5% in January, down 2.3% from December. That's the lowest level in two years, but the 72nd consecutive month of growth.

The New Orders Index was down 2.4% to 56.5%, the Employment Index came in at 52.1% -- a dip if 4.2%, and the Prices Index was off 4.6% for a reading of 46.4%, indicating prices fell in January for the third time in the last five months.

Despite the deceleration in the growth rate, the majority of supply executives and purchasing managers surveyed were positive about business conditions. However, there is a concern regarding global conditions, stock market volatility, and the effect on commercial and consumer confidence.

While service sector activity was still expanding, Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist, Lindsey Piegza said it's important to remember that there's a lag in service activity, typically trailing the trends in the manufacturing sector by three to six months. "Now, as we turn the corner into the new year," she said, "the weakness evident throughout the economy at year-end has become increasingly evident in the service sector as well."

The air bag control units may corrode and fail, resulting in a failure of the air bags to deploy in the event of a crash, increasing the risk of occupant injury.

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the air bag control units, free of charge. Parts are expected to be available in Fall 2016. Interim notifications will be mailed to owners beginning on March 15, 2016, and a second notice will be mailed when remedy parts are available.

FCA US LLC (Chrysler) is recalling 112,001 model year 2009 Dodge Journey vehicles manufactured December 31, 2007, to August 31, 2008; 2008-2009 Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country vehicles manufactured June 18, 2007, to August 31, 2008; and 2009 Volkswagen Routan vehicles manufactured August 11, 2008, to August 31, 2008.

The air bag control units may corrode and fail, which could result in failure of the air bags to deploy in the event of a crash, increasing the risk of occupant injury. Additionally, the air bags may inadvertently deploy, increasing the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the air bag control unit, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is S07.

A growing number of consumers are "unbanked," meaning they don't have a checking or savings account at a bank or credit union, making it hard for them to build a credit ratings and conduct routine chores of daily living.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau wants the banking industry to step up to the challenge of improving the accuracy of information used to screen potential customers and begin offering lower-risk deposit accounts that would help consumers avoid the overdrafts that have driven many of them out of retail bank accounts.

“Consumers should not be sidelined out of the basic banking services they need because of the flaws and limitations in a murky system,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “People deserve to have more options for access to lower-risk deposit accounts that can better fit their needs.”

Consumers often find themselves paying overdraft charges that are thousands of times more than the amount of the overdaft in question. That's what happened to Amaka of West Melbourne, Fla.

"I was overdraft $0.11 cents after paying for school fees. The charged me $35 dollars for 11 cents. Now they keep sending me fees. Now I'm overdraft $107.35 because of it and the fees won't stop until you're positive," Amaka said in a recent ConsumerAffairs review of Bank of America.

One way that banks and credit unions screen account applicants for risk is to use information provided by checking account reporting companies, which have databases of information on involuntary closures of consumer checking accounts supplied by banks and credit unions.

Sometimes those reports can cause problems when the consumer tries to open an account at another bank. That's what Elizabeth of Bellerose, N.Y., said happened to her.

"TD Bank charged me thousands in overdraft fees," she said. "Closed my accounts and reported me to Chex Systems for account abuse. Cant open a new account anywhere because of them. ... "They robbed me blind and now are holding me financially hostage with chexsystems."

In October 2014, the CFPB laid out concerns about the information accuracy of these reports, people’s ability to access the reports and dispute incorrect information, and the ways in which the reports were being used.

Today, in a letter to the 25 largest retail banks, the CFPB is encouraging banks and credit unions to provide account options for consumers that make it less likely they will overdraw their accounts, and also warning that inaccurate reporting could result in penalties.

Among other things, the CFPB wants banks to create accounts that do not authorize them to spend money they don't have. The agency is also weighing what additional consumers protections are needed to help prevent overdrafts.

The CFPB is also releasing resources to encourage consumers to shop for lower-risk checking and prepaid accounts that will not authorize them to exceed their account balances. These products can help consumers maintain their accounts longer, and the banks and credit unions that offer them are often more accepting in their screening practices. The resources include tips and information about choosing an account and managing an account.

The CFPB also released a consumer advisory to help people know what to do if they have been denied a deposit account or have an involuntary account closure. The CFPB is concerned that most consumers are unaware of what to do if they are rejected by a bank; and most are probably unaware of the screening system that provided the information to the bank about their checking-account profile.

Toyota Motor Credit has agreed to pay $21.9 million in restitution and change its policies to make it harder for dealers to mark up interest rates for minority car buyers.

“We are dedicated to promoting fair and equal access to credit in the auto finance marketplace,” said Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which announced the settlement. “Toyota Motor Credit is among the largest indirect auto lenders, and we commend its industry leadership in shifting to reduced discretion to address the significant fair lending risks.”

The problem, simply put, is that dealers have had too much latitude to play games with interest rates and have often gouged minority consumers, charging them higher interest rates even when they had good credit records.

Big bucks are at stake. Auto loans are the third-largest source of outstanding household debt in the United States, after mortgages and student loans.

“No consumer should be forced to pay more money for a loan because of their race or national origin,” said U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker of the Central District of California. “This settlement resolves our claims by providing compensation for affected consumers and seeking to ensure that future loans funded by Toyota reflect equal terms.”

The $21.9 million will be used to pay restitution to thousands of African-American, Asian, and Pacific Islander borrowers who paid higher interest rates than white borrowers for their auto loans.

The Toyota settlement is a step in the right direction but doesn't solve the problem, said Chris Kukla of the Center for Responsible Lending.

"The terms of the settlement continue to move in the right direction. However, dealer discretion to mark up interest rates remains an unfair and hidden practice with continued potential for discrimination," Kukla said. "The only effective way to completely eliminate the discriminatory impact and the unfairness of hidden dealer interest rate markups is to end the practice altogether."

"The recent news that Ally paid an additional $38 million in restitution to compensate borrowers harmed after Ally’s settlement with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Justice shows that the issue of discrimination due to car dealer interest rate markup is real and needs to end," Kukla said.

As an indirect auto lender, Toyota Motor Credit sets interest rates, or “buy rates,” for consumers based on credit scores and other risk criteria. Those rates are conveyed to auto dealers.

Indirect auto lenders like Toyota Motor Credit then allow auto dealers to charge a higher interest rate when they finalize the deal with the consumer. This is typically called “dealer markup.” Markups can generate compensation for dealers while giving them the discretion to charge consumers different rates regardless of consumer creditworthiness.

Over the time period under review, Toyota Motor Credit permitted dealers to mark up consumers’ interest rates as much as 2.5 percent.

The Toyota settlement is the latest in a series. Earlier settlements with Ally Financial and Honda Finance generated $122 million in penalties and restitution.

A lot of consumers choose to stick with products that claim to be made in the USA but do those claims really adhere to the facts?

Not always. Case in point: the Federal Trade Commission filed suit against Chemence, Inc., an Ohio corporation, alleging that the company is deceiving consumers by making "Made in USA" claims for its glue, sold under the names Kwik Frame, Kwik Fix, and Krylex.

The glues may be sticky but the source of their components is a little slippery, to hear the FTC tell it. It says more than half of the chemicals come from non-USA sources.

According to the FTC's complaint, Chemence’s unqualified “made in the USA” or “proudly made in the USA” claims tell consumers that its cyanoacrylate glue products are all, or virtually all, made in the United States.

However, the FTC alleges that a significant proportion of the costs of the chemical inputs to Chemence’s glues – approximately 55 percent – is attributable to imported chemicals that are essential to the glues’ function. Therefore, the complaint alleges that Chemence’s unqualified claims are deceptive.

“For many shoppers, a claim that a product is made in the USA is a big selling point,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Companies should not overstate the amount of U.S. content their products actually contain.”

The FTC also alleges that Chemence assists others in deceiving consumers by distributing its Made in USA marketing materials to private-label sellers and other retailers who promote these glues.

The FTC is seeking a court order permanently prohibiting Chemence from making claims it can't adhere to.

When the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos kick off Super Bowl 50 Sunday evening, nearly half of America will be watching.

The Super Bowl is always the highest-rated television program of the year and the last truly universally-watched television event.

This year, because it is the 50th anniversary, there will be even more hype than usual and pre-game programming that could well start at sun-up. Millions of Americans, whether cheering for Cam Newton or Peyton Manning, will spend between four and eight hours in front of the TV screen.

Dr. Winifred Bragg, medical director of the Spine and Orthopedic Pain Center in Norfolk, Va., says too many people will end up with back pain Monday morning and may even miss work. She calls it Super Bowl Flu.

First, stand up every once in a while. An easy way to do it is to stand every time those eagerly anticipated commercials come on. Watch them while standing up.

While sitting, give yourself some back support. Put a lumbar roll—or rolled up towel—behind your back as you watch the game. Better yet, she says, don't sit on the couch the entire game. If you have one, sit on a stability ball while Denver has the ball and on the couch when Carolina is on offense.

Perhaps the best idea is to keep snacks in another room. That way you have to get up and walk every time you want a snack.  

Certain majors can often beg the question, “What do you plan to do with that?” A valid question, given that college graduates are now leaving school with an average of $35,000 in student loan debt.

Being saddled with a financial burden that large can make it hard to move forward with other goals. In a Gallup survey, one in four people said they pushed back their timeline for important post-grad milestones like buying a house, a car, or starting a family. Nineteen percent even said their student debt burden was an obstacle to getting married.

To avoid having to delay these important post-grad milestones, it’s crucial to take into account how your major can influence your attractiveness to lenders. So what exactly do lenders consider before deeming an individual financially healthy enough to borrow money?

According to a report released recently by Credible, debt-to-income (DTI) ratio is a huge factor in determining if an individual is financially healthy enough to be given a loan. And when judging a person’s ability to repay a loan, the lower the DTI the better.

"A person's DTI can be a yes/no factor for a lender, regardless of the person's job history," Credible's chief executive officer, Stephen Dash tells Bloomberg Business. A DTI of 36% or lower is the “sweet spot," according to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).

To find the DTI for different majors, Credible looked at the debt load and college major of students in its study sample and added in their estimated car, rent, and credit card payments. It divided its estimates of monthly debt payments into the average monthly income numbers for each degree type. And in what may or may not come as a surprise, psychology doesn’t rank too high on the “creditworthy” graduates list.

College graduates who studied medicine were in the best shape, financially, to pay back their student loans -- much better than those who studied psychology, says Credible.

Degrees in pharmacy, dentistry, and post-graduate medicine had the lowest DTI ratios, the report showed. More than any other majors, these students go on to land salaries that are high enough to offset their student debt, making them loan-worthy.

The majors that made it the hardest to pay back debt include history, education, and psychology. However, if students attend graduate school for one of those subjects, they’ll be able to shift their salary-to-debt ratio more in their favor, thus lowering their DTI ratio says Dash.

Scion is dead. Long live Scion. In other words, Toyota is killing Scion but will keep making Scion cars. It will just call them Toyotas.

Is this sort of like Volkswagen bragging that its Tiguan sales set a record in January when it struggled to sell anything but Tiguans, which don't come with a diesel option in the U.S.?

It may not be the same, but it is certainly similar. Toyota says it's killing the Scion brand because it has done its job and is no longer needed. When it rolled out the Scion name in 2002, it was trying to appeal to younger buyers who considered Toyotas dull and unexciting.

The brand sold over 1 million funky little cars in the intervening 13 years and Toyota says it is now plugged into younger buyers so it no longer needs the Scion brand and is putting it out to pasture. You know, sort of like they do with old news reporters who have told all their stories.

Could be, but the fact remains that Scion sales last year totaled 56,000, less than half the brand's peak of 173,000 in 2005, according to Automotive News.  

So as not to prolong the agony, Scion will be put down quickly. The brand will be axed in August and existing Scion models will be magically transformed into Toyotas, sort of like Cinderella at midnight.

Scion dealerships are all located within Toyota dealerships and will continue to sell and service the Toyota-Scions, so as far as consumers are concerned, nothing much will have changed, at least as Toyota tells it.

If you wear a popular fitness tracker to keep up with steps taken, miles walked, and calories burned, chances are you find it highly motivating. Some users have called it a personal trainer on their wrist.

But researchers at the University of Toronto say there is something consumers should know. Like any electronic device that connects via WiFi, the data collected by most of these fitness trackers might not always be private.

In a study, researchers say they found there are major security and privacy issues in trackers made by Basis, Fitbit, Garmin, Jawbone, Mio, Withings, and Xiaomi. The researchers reached their conclusion after analyzing data transmissions between the Internet and apps for the fitness trackers.

The seven trackers communicate with smartphone apps through Bluetooth. The researchers say that Bluetooth leaks personal data, and that anyone near a device could track a user’s location over time.

They also report certain devices by Garmin and Withings transmit information without encryption. Someone would have to know how to intercept the data, they say, but if they had the knowledge, it could be done.

Andrew Hilts, one of the report’s authors, says the security issue exists because each device has a unique identifier that is constantly sent out via Bluetooth. It's there even when you think it is turned off.

Hilts says the issue is easily resolved if device manufacturers implement an existing Bluetooth privacy standard. Until they do, he says, users will be vulnerable to location-based surveillance.

“We hope our findings will help consumers make more informed decisions about how they use fitness trackers, help companies improve the privacy and security of their offerings, and help regulators understand the current landscape of wearable products,” Hilts said in a release.

There is a rule to writing press releases that goes something like this: if you can't say something nice about yourself, don't say anything at all.

So when Volkswagen, still fighting to overcome negative consumer sentiment related to its diesel cheating scandal, reported January vehicle sales in the U.S., it seized on one of the few bright spots. Sales of the VW Tiguan were pretty good.

In fact, VW says the Tiguan “produced the best January results on record,” selling 2,528 units – an increase of 71% over last January. As it turns out, the Tiguan accounted for 12.5% of all VW sales in the U.S. last month, since a total of 20,079 Volkswagens moved off dealer lots.

“We are encouraged by the strong performance of the Tiguan,” Mark McNabb, chief operating officer, Volkswagen of America, said in the release. “January sales numbers were down due to the seasonal nature of the fleet business. Despite that and the weather conditions in the Northeast portion of the country, Volkswagen dealers improved in terms of retail business.”

VW was also happy with sales of the Golf R, noting 477 vehicles were delivered. It said sales of the e-Golf were pretty good too – all 328 vehicles.

The rest of the release contains a chart that lists delivery of other VW models – those that went unmentioned in the body of the release. Here are a few:

As we reported last week, overall new car sales are expected to be down once all of January's sales figures are added up.

Analysts at Kelley Blue Book project, however, that total U.S. car sales will be down just 3%, due in part to the blizzard that socked the East Coast.

On busy mornings, it may be tempting — necessary, even — to send kids off to school with a quick bowl of cereal or a grab-and-go breakfast bar. But how long can breakfasts like these stick to their ribs? It may not surprise you to learn that they'd be better off come lunchtime if they'd had a higher protein breakfast like eggs.

New research shows, however, that the effects of a protein-rich breakfast don’t linger past mid-day. Children will eat less at lunch than if they’d had cereal or oatmeal in the morning, yes — but only their mid-day meal will see the effects of a protein-filled breakfast. 

This discovery, researchers claim, could have important implications for the prevention of obesity, particularly for young people, as even a small amount of excess calories can cause weight gain and obesity if sustained.

A team of researchers, led by Tanja Kral, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Biobehavioral Health Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing recruited forty 8- to 10-year-old children to consume one of three 350-calorie breakfasts (eggs, oatmeal, or cereal).

The children were then allowed to eat as much or as little lunch as they desired, while answering questions like, “How much do you think you could eat right now?” Their parents also logged in a food journal what children ate for the rest of the day.  

The researchers found that, after consuming the egg breakfast (scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast, diced peaches, and one percent milk), children’s energy intake at lunch was reduced by seventy calories. That 70-calorie drop translates to about four percent of a child’s daily caloric needs.

Kral said it wasn’t a surprise that the egg breakfast was the most satiating. What she was surprised to discover was that, according to the children's reports, eating the egg breakfast didn't make them feel “fuller” than cereal or oatmeal, even though they ate less for lunch.

“We expected that the reduced lunch intake would be accompanied by lower levels of hunger and greater fullness after eating the high protein breakfast," said Kral, “But this wasn't the case."

The study, recently published in Eating Behaviors, could be the precursor to future research on the subject of foods that help children feel full. Such discoveries could help children — especially those who are prone to weight gain — reduce excessive eating.

"Approximately 17 percent of US children and adolescents are considered obese," Kral says. "It's really important that we identify certain types of food that can help children feel full and also moderate caloric intake, especially in children who are prone to excess weight gain."

In January most state attorneys general sent letters to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), asking the agency to issue new guidelines for prescribing o..

There have been studies suggesting that fish oils are good for brain function and may delay or prevent dementia. At the same time, fish can contain mercury, picked up from the environment, and mercury is believed to contribute to cognitive impairment.

Researchers at Rush University Medical Center have studied the relationship between mercury and diseases associated with dementia. They report that as mercury levels rise with seafood consumption, there were no associations with harm to the brain.

Instead, they discovered that seafood consumption was associated with less Alzheimer's disease neuropathology, in spite of the increased mercury levels.

However, the the protection associated with seafood was only seen in people with a common genotype (APOE-?4) that increases the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. In other words, for people at risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, eating seafood made it less likely.

"Seafood consumption is promoted for its many health benefits even though it's contaminated by mercury," study leader Martha Clare Morris, said in a release. "Since mercury is a known neurotoxin, we wanted to determine whether seafood consumption is correlated with increased brain mercury levels in older adults, and also whether seafood consumption or brain mercury levels are correlated with brain neuropathologies."

The researchers conclude that seafood consumption was significantly correlated with less Alzheimer disease pathology. In particular, it was associated with lower density of amyloid plaques in the brain and less severe and widespread tangles within the neurons. Plaques and tangles are normally present in Alzheimer's patients.

A 2010 German study, published on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) website, concluded that exposure to inorganic mercury led to “significant memory deficits.” Some autopsy studies found increased mercury levels in brain tissues of AD patients.

The issue, then, may be the extent of mercury levels found in seafood. The Rush University researchers say it's likely that the types of fish consumed by the study participants reflect the top 10 consumed species in the U.S., which have low to moderate levels of mercury.

How much seafood should you eat? A report by the Harvard School of Public Health notes that it is a controversial subject. The report suggests striking a healthy balance, with fish showing up on the menu once or twice a week.

If you want to know what kind of fish is best, has compiled a list of the best and the worst.

The CoreLogic Home Price Index (HPI) shows house prices nationwide -- including distressed sales – rose 6.3% in December from the same time a year earlier. In addition, prices were up 0.8% from November.

“Nationally, home prices have been rising at a 5 to 6% annual rate for more than a year,” said Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic. “However, local-market growth can vary substantially from that. Some metropolitan areas have had double-digit appreciation, such as Denver, Colorado and Naples, Florida, while others have had price declines, like New Orleans, Louisiana and Rochester, New York.”

The CoreLogic HPI Forecast indicates home prices will increase by 5.4% on a year-over-year basis from December 2015 to December 2016, and on a month-over-month basis home prices are expected to increase 0.2% from December 2015 to January 2016.

“Higher property valuations appear to be driving up single-family construction as we head into the spring. Additional housing stock, especially in urban centers on the coasts such as San Francisco, could help to temper home price growth in the longer term,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “In the short and medium term, local markets with strong employment growth are likely to experience a continued rise in home sales and price growth well above the U.S. average.”

The January ADP National Employment Report says the economy cranked out 205,000 jobs from December to January.

According to the report, which is derived from ADP's actual payroll data, the bulk of the new positions (82,000) came from medium-sized businesses, those with 50-499 employees. That was closely followed by small companies, those with under 50 workers (79,000).

Employment at large concerns -- those with 500 or more employees -- came in at 44,000, while firms with 500-999 added 15,000 jobs, and companies with over 1,000 workers gained 30,000 jobs.

"One of the main reasons for lower overall employment gains in January was the drop off in jobs added at the largest companies compared to December,” said Ahu Yildirmaz, VP and head of the ADP Research Institute. “These businesses are more sensitive to current economic conditions than small and mid-sized companies. Over the past year, businesses with less than 500 employees have created nearly 80% of new jobs."

Goods-producing employment rose by 13,000 jobs last month, down sharply from December's upwardly revised 30,000. Within that sector. the construction industry added 21,000 jobs, which was roughly in line with the average monthly jobs gained last year. Manufacturing, meanwhile, neither added nor lost jobs.

Employment by service-providing firms rose by 192,000 jobs in January, compared with 237,000 in December. Professional/business services contributed 44,000 jobs, trade/transportation/utilities grew by 35,000, and financial activities added 19,000 positions -- the most since March 2006.

Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics, noted that, "Job growth remains strong despite the turmoil in the global economy and financial markets. Manufacturers and energy companies are reducing payrolls, but job gains across all other industries remain robust. The U.S. economy remains on track to return to full employment by mid-year."

The latest Mortgage Applications Survey by the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) shows applications fell 2.6% in the week ending January 29.

The Refinance Index, on the other hand, inched up 0.3% from the previous week to its highest level since October 2015. That pushed the refinance share of mortgage activity up slightly -- to 59.2% of total applications from 59.0%.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity came in at 5.9% of total applications, the FHA share was 12.9%, the VA share remained at 11.1%, and the USDA share was unchanged from 0.7% the week prior.

Mazda is recalling approximately 19,000 model year 2004-2006 model year B-Series trucks with Takata driver-side front air bag inflators in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Saipan.

There have been no reports of accidents or injuries on the Mazda-badged vehicles subject to this recall.

Model year 2007-2009 B-Series Trucks with Takata passenger-side front air bag inflators are part of a previous recall.

The following Mazda models with passenger- and/or driver-side front Takata air bag inflators are currently being recalled:

Consumers with questions may contact Tamara Mlynarczyk at 202-467-5092 or Jeremy Barnes, 949-727-6844.

Toyota Motor Sales, USA is recalling approximately 320,000 model year 2003-2006 Land Cruiser; 2004-2006 4Runner; 2005-2006 Tundra and Sequoia; 2003-2006 LX470; and 2004-2006 GX470 vehicles.

The recalled vehicles are equipped with side Curtain-Shield-Airbags (CSAs) which deploy from the roof in the event of certain types of crashes. Due to improper programming in the airbag control modules, there is a possibility that, under certain specific and limited conditions shortly after startup, the CSAs and seat belt pretensioners could activate when not necessary.

Toyota and Lexus dealers will replace the airbag control module with one that has improved programming at no cost to owners.

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

A lawsuit challenges CVS' claim that its Algal-900 DHA dietary supplement has been "clinically shown" to improve memory. The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says the claim is false.

In fact, says CSPI, two high-quality clinical studies found the opposite -- that omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA, work no better than a placebo at improving cognitive function. CSPI filed the class action lawsuit along with two law firms and claims that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has previously discredited the study CVS cites as evidence of the drug's usefulness.  

“CVS cites no scientific evidence that supports the outlandish memory claims used to market Algal-900 DHA supplements,” said CSPI litigation director Maia Kats. “CVS is relying on a discredited study, and one that the FTC has specifically prohibited from being used by another company in this context. And CVS is ignoring a large body of clinical testing and research on omega-3s, DHA and memory that indicates no benefit whatsoever in adults.”

Packaging for Algal-900 DHA prominently states that the product provides “clinically shown memory improvement,” and that it is “the only DHA form & dosage clinically shown to improve memory.”

On the back of the label, CVS states that in a clinical study daily supplementation with 900 milligrams of algal DHA resulted in a 50 percent reduction in errors in an episodic memory test, and that the algal DHA group’s “memory improved like it was 7 years younger versus the placebo group.”

That study, known as the MIDAS study, was funded and conducted by Martek Biosciences Corporation for the purposes of promoting its own algae-based DHA supplement. But the FTC determined that the study does “not reveal any improvement in working memory” and banned Martek from basing any memory claims on it.

A 2014 meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at 34 studies involving 12,999 participants and concluded that consuming omega-3 fatty acids does not “promote cognitive function in terms of composite memory, executive function, and processing speed domains.”

“CVS is knowingly exploiting the fears of consumers, many elderly, who may have legitimate concerns about their memory or cognitive function, which makes these illegal claims especially concerning,” said Kats.

There are plenty of people out there who simply don’t enjoy flying. The long lines, security, and often-cramped flights can really give consumers headaches. Luckily, a couple of airlines have recently changed their certain policies to make the process more comfortable.

United Airlines will be stepping up its game when it comes to boarding certain passengers, while American airlines has upgraded its in-flight entertainment to keep travelers happy. Both airlines are adding free snacks.

The first step to taking off is boarding a flight, and it can be downright miserable if the wait is long and your children are unhappy. That is why United Airlines’ altered boarding procedures could come as a huge relief to some consumers; the company has decided to rescind a decision it made four years ago and once again allow families with young children to board flights early, the Chicago Tribune reported.

The change couldn’t come any sooner for families, who will be able to avoid some waiting time when getting on flights after February 15, the day the change will go into effect.

“It takes a little bit of the stress out of the travel situation,” said Sandra Pineau-Boddison, United Airlines senior vice president of customers, in a prepared statement. “Some things are just the right thing to do.”

Both carriers are adding free snacks on some flgihts. And American says it will be adding more free entertainment options to its flights. 

United is offering an Asian-style snack mix of rice crackers, sesame sticks and wasabi peas, or a zesty ranch mix of mini pretzel sticks, Cajun corn sticks and ranch soy nuts. United is serving up the complimentary snacks to economy-cabin customers on flights within North America, to and from Central Americaand between Honolulu and Guam.

Stroopwafels, available on flights before 9:45 a.m., may be enjoyed straight out of the package or warmed on top of a cup of coffee or tea to soften the waffle and melt the caramel filling.The packaged snack mixes will be available on flights departing at 9:45 a.m. or later.

“American Airlines is continuing to elevate the customer experience by adding complimentary snacks and more free movies, TV shows, and music in the Main Cabin,” said the company in a news release.

American passengers can expect the additional snacks and meals to begin rolling out in February, but only on certain flights. They include trips from New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK) to San Francisco (SFO), and Miami (MIA) to Los Angeles (LAX). Other domestic flights will have additional snacks by April. Complimentary meal service will also be available for flights from Dallas (DFW) to Hawaii starting in May.

For entertainment, American is expanding its in-flight library to include 40 movies, 60 TV shows, and 300 music albums. The airline will also be offering international live TV on its long-haul international flights, a first for the industry according to the press release. The company hopes these expanded options will keep consumers coming back for future flights.

“We want customers to choose American every time they fly. . . We are giving our customer more choices to enhance their personal flying experience by offering new service and new entertainment options in all cabins,” said Fernand Fernandez, vice president of American Global Marketing. 

Lumber Liquidators has been fined $13 million for illegally importing hardwood flooring manufactured in China. Prosecutors said much of the lumber had been..

Senior citizens have seen plenty of science fiction movies over the years, so it might not be surprising they are just a little leery of inviting a robot into their home to help with household chores.

After all, Hal, the computer/robot in "2001, A Space Odyssey," made an indelible impression. Hal might have blindsided Dave, the astronaut, but we're all the wiser now. And those “mental models” seniors have formed over the years very much shape their comfort level with machines, researchers say.

"When interfaces are designed to be almost human-like in their autonomy, seniors may react to them with fear, skepticism and other negative emotions," S. Shyam Sundar, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State, said in a release. "But, with those considerations in mind, there are actually several areas where older people would accept robot help."

With a large population of aging Americans, robots are seen as a cost-effective way to provide older people with in-home support. But Sundar says the research makes clear that seniors may accept mechanical helpers in some roles more than others.

In a study, seniors felt most comfortable with robots as helpers and butlers, when they were following the user's instructions. What appears to make them uncomfortable, however, is when robots are autonomous. They don't want a robot that can make its own decisions and may not need to wait for a senior's commands to engage in a task.

"It is clear senior citizens want robots to play passive and non-confrontational roles," said Sundar. "Seniors do not mind having robots as companions, but they worry about the potential loss of control over social order to robots."

Like it or not, robots are likely to take on a greater care-giving role in the future. Some 8,000 Americans turn 65 years old -- the typical retirement age for workers -- each day, according to the researchers. Even if they seem a little creepy, these robots might prove to be very useful.

The concept of robot caregivers got an early start in Japan, which has a large aging population. Last March the Riken Institiute and Sumitomo Riko company highlighted efforts to develop a new robot nurse with a human-like touch. It doesn't talk but it does listen. And it's powerful enough to carry about 176 pounds, meaning it could help a patient move from a bed to a wheelchair.

"We really hope that this robot will lead to advances in nursing care, relieving the burden on care-givers today,” Toshiharu Mukai, leader of the Robot Sensor Systems Research Team, said in a release.

“We intend to continue with research toward more practical robots capable of providing powerful yet gentle care to elderly people."

Comcast is the latest carrier to announce big plans for 1-gigabit Internet service, saying it will bring the service to Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, Detroit, and Miami this year.

Google and AT&T; are expanding their lists of gigabit cities and there are several start-ups and newcomers claiming to have solved the problem of deploying super-speedy broadband service quickly and relatively cheaply.

Comcast's service, dubbed DOCSIS 3.1, gets more bandwidth out of existing circuitry, meaning that if it works as advertised, Comcast can deploy it without having to string new cable, an expensive and time-consuming process.

Last month, Comcast announced it had successfully installed its first DOCSIS 3.1 modem in Philadelphia, and one was installed in Atlanta a few days later.

"DOCSIS 3.1 represents a tremendous step forward in our commitment to keeping customers at the technology forefront," said Comcast Central Division President, Bill Connors. "Combined with all the upgrades we have already put into our advanced fiber optic-coax network, this technology will not only provide more gigabit speed choices for customers, it will also eventually make these ultra-fast speeds available to the most homes in our service areas."

Among the more widely noted start-ups is Starry, which announced its launch in Boston last week. Starry uses wireless technology that relies on extreme high-frequency signals to transmit data over a short distance. It essentially plans to use customer antennas as repeaters to spread its service throughout dense urban areas like New York and Boston.

Skeptics are, well, skeptical. Experts say it is difficult to string together networks in the manner Starry anticipates, but Starry CEO Chet Kanojia says he's confident his idea will work.

Kanojia is best known as the former CEO of Aereo, a streaming video service that used an innovative -- or, if you prefer, unusual -- technology to relay over-the-air TV signals to consumers via the Internet. Aereo crashed and burned after legal tussles over copyright issues.

Dark, moody touches might be the trend in appliances this year, but when it comes to interior paint, experts say lighter tones are the trend to watch in 2016.

“Deep, saturated shades have been popular for years,” says Debbie Zimmer, paint and color expert for the Paint Quality Institute, “But the palette that’s in vogue right now is just the opposite.”

Zimmer says interior designers and colorists are favoring off-whites and other tones that just “tease the eye with traces of color.” But to get the look, experts aren’t just reaching for the gallon of white paint.

The new lighter hues aren’t simply pure white, yellow, or green. According to Zimmer, they’re the product of color layering. To achieve a more sophisticated look, she says, experts are “often marrying three or more different hues to create soft color that is often hard to put a name to.”

Because of this color layering, many of the shades are susceptible to changing under different lighting and at different times of the day. What might appear pale green under the natural light of daytime might look yellow under incandescent light.

Due to the chameleon-like nature of these airy, multifaceted tones, Zimmer recommends taking them on a test drive before getting out the drop cloth and rollers. Before fully committing to the color, apply a hearty swipe of the paint to several walls.

Try living with them for a day or two to ensure that you love the new tint under every lighting condition. If the color doesn’t match your expectation, it’s much easier to cover up a sample stroke than an entire room.

And should you wind up with a collection of not-quite-right shades following the color-auditioning process, there are many projects that can benefit from your leftover paint. Check out these ten uses for leftover paint.

According to Zimmer, the trend to tints is part of the ebb and flow that occurs in the paint industry every five years or so. It's been all about the gray in recent years, but now, lighter hues are getting their time in the spotlight.

In getting on board with this new look, you’ll see benefits beyond just aesthetic. Enrobing your room in lighter-colored paint not only makes the space feel more open and spacious, it can have psychological benefits as well.

Busy homeowners will feel the calming, spirit-lifting effects of brighter surroundings. And soft tints derived from certain color families — green and blue, for example — have a restful quality that can be restorative after a stressful day, says Zimmer.

You might especially appreciate a lighter space during the winter. It might get darker earlier than you’d like outside, but inside, it’ll be light and bright.  

The Super Bowl has it all: the two (allegedly) top teams in the NFL battling for the Lombardi trophy, commercials that people actually stick around to watch and, of course, the parties with enough food to feed at least one small country.

With more than 1.3 billon chicken wings and 4 million pizzas expected to be scarfed during the game, there are plenty of opportunities for the host to do the wrong thing.

“This Super Bowl Sunday, sports fans across the U.S. will have a great time watching the game with friends and family, while sharing some of our favorite foods that we are fortunate in this country to enjoy,” said Deputy Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety Al Almanza. “A long game and a big crowd means more opportunities for food poisoning, but some easy precautions can go far in preventing illness.”

To keep everyone in the game, the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service offers the following food safety tips.

In recent years, packaging manufacturers have moved away from Bisphenol A (BPA), the hardening agent that was once found in nearly all plastic bottles and containers.

A 2010 report from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raised concerns about BPA exposure, especially to pregnant women, children, and infants. Despite the fact that the FDA says low levels of human exposure to BPA are safe, manufacturers have begun to look for alternatives.

One alternative is Bisphenol S (BPS), and that's the agent used in many containers labeled as “BPA-Free.” However, researchers at UCLA have now raised concerns about the safety of the replacement.

Their study, reported in the medical journal Endocrinology, links BPS to early puberty and a rise in breast and prostate cancers.

“Our study shows that making plastic products with BPA alternatives does not necessarily leave them safer,” senior author Nancy Wayne, a reproductive endocrinologist and a professor of physiology at UCLA, said in a release.

Wayne and her team used zebrafish for their study. It found that exposure to low levels of BPA and BPS—equivalent to the traces found in polluted river waters -- altered the animals’ physiology at the embryonic stage almost immediately, sometimes in as little as 25 hours.

As a result, eggs hatched earlier than normal. Embryos also developed much faster when either of the chemicals was present.

“Exposure to low levels of BPA had a significant impact on the embryos’ development of brain cells that control reproduction, and the genes that control reproduction later in life,” said Wayne. “We saw many of these same effects with BPS found in BPA-free products. BPS is not harmless.”

BPA became an issue in the marketplace when it was shown to leach into food, particularly under heat, from the lining of cans and from consumer products such as water bottles, baby bottles, food-storage containers, and plastic tableware. It prompted Walmart to stop selling children's products containing BPA in 2008.

In 2012 the American Chemical Society (ACS) reported that people were also being exposed to BPS from the thermal paper used in cash register receipts. ACS noted at the time that BPS is closely related to BPA, with some of the same estrogen-mimicking effects, and “unanswered questions exist about whether it is safer.”

An increasing number of states are struggling with an epidemic of opioid drug abuse that has resulted in a surge of overdose deaths and injuries.

Rural states have been especially hard hit. In Maine, state officials recently reported 174 opioid drug overdose deaths between January and September 2015. When numbers for the full year are in, officials say they expect between 230 and 250 deaths.

"Ohio is facing the worst drug epidemic in my lifetime," Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said in a release. "The human toll, the increased crime, and the overall community impact of this epidemic are devastating. We must work together to find – and share – effective solutions.”

Overdoses have become so common that emergency medical personnel carry naloxone, a drug that works as an antidote to opioid overdose. Now, CVS Health has announced it will make naloxone available without a prescription at all CVS Pharmacy locations across Ohio beginning in late March.

DeWine applauded the move, saying it will help put a life-saving tool in the hands of Ohioans who may have a family member or someone close to them suffering from an opiate addiction.

CVS Health said it would also help Ohio's law enforcement agencies receive a drug collection unit to safely dispose of unwanted medications, including controlled substances. Opioids include illegal drugs -- heroin and fentanyl -- and prescription pain relievers, including oxycodone and hydrocodone.

“The increasing number of deaths from opioid overdose is alarming,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said at the end of December. “The opioid epidemic is devastating American families and communities. To curb these trends and save lives, we must help prevent addiction and provide support and treatment to those who suffer from opioid use disorders."

Increases in prescription opioid pain reliever and heroin deaths are the biggest driver of the drug overdose epidemic, a recent CDC report found. Deaths from heroin increased in 2014, continuing a sharp rise that has seen heroin overdoses triple since 2010. Deaths involving illicitly made fentanyl, a potent opioid often added to or sold as heroin, also are on the upswing.

Rates of drug overdose deaths were highest among five states: West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Ohio.

The Mayo Clinic estimates that 2.1 million people in the United States suffered from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers in 2012. By contrast, about 467,000 were addicted to heroin.  

The stock market got off to a rocky start in 2016, but, as January enters the books, it doesn't seem to have negatively affected the housing market. At least that's's take.

The online real estate marketplace says a preliminary analysis of data shows the market turmoil hasn't dampened the pent-up demand that lifted sales in 2015. True, there was cooler demand last month, but the site says that's typical for January

“Our initial readings on January affirm the positive growth we expect to see in the residential real estate market in 2016,” Jonathan Smoke, chief economist of, said in an email to ConsumerAffairs. “Our traffic, searches and listing views exhibited the January ‘pop’ we saw last year, which made for a strong spring. In addition, a large number of prospective buyers have been telling us since the second half of 2015 that they plan to purchase in the spring and summer of 2016.”

Based on the website's traffic, Smoke says the spring could be an active home-buying season. January median list prices are expected to show a substantial increase year over year, despite a slight decrease from December.

In spite of rising prices, the company says homes are selling 4% faster this year when compared to last year. Yearly inventory is 1,510,329 while monthly inventory continues its seasonal decrease. Buyers are encountering tighter supplies and fewer choices.

“All indicators point to this spring being the busiest since 2006, but we’ll need to see inventory grow more robustly this year to satisfy these buyers,” Smoke said. “The decline in the stock market so far seems to be a net positive for real estate demand. Fixed 30-year mortgage rates are now about 25 basis points lower than at the end of 2015 as a result of the financial market weakness. That extra buying power appears to be offsetting any weakness from buyers whose stock-related losses impair their ability to buy.”

The median listing price for January is estimated at $227,000, an 8% increase year over year and virtually flat over December. Prices, of course, are significantly higher in the hottest markets.

San Francisco hangs onto the top spot as the nation's hottest housing market, as California maintains its dominance with seven of the top 10 markets and the majority of the top 20. Nashville is the biggest gainer, moving up six spots to number 7. Texas and Florida now feature multiple markets in the top 20.

From the demand side, says the hot markets get two to five times the number of views per listing compared to the national average. From the supply side, these markets are seeing inventory move 30 to 50 days more quickly than the rest of the U.S. They have also seen days on market drop by a combined average of 7% year-over-year.

Returning home from the honeymoon means getting back to reality. But for many newlyweds, getting back to reality doesn’t just mean going back to work — it..

Even as the overall economy grew for the 80th consecutive month, economic activity in the manufacturing sector contracted in January for the fourth month in a row.

According to the Institute for Supply Management (ISM), the January purchasing management index (PMI) was up 0.2% to 48.2% when compared to the seasonally adjusted December reading of 48%.

The New Orders Index jumped 2.7% to 51.5%, the Production Index moved up 0.3% to 50.0%, while the Employment Index dropped 2.1% to 45.9%.

Inventories of raw materials held steady at 43.5% and the Prices Index remained at 33.5%, indicating lower raw materials prices for the 15th consecutive month.

The recalled nuts, which come in a clear or green standup bag, with the date code stamped on the bottom of the bag, were distributed in retail stores in California, Oregon and Washington, and through online sales nationwide.

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

Pet food maker Blue Buffalo has agreed to pay $32 million to settle a group of class action lawsuits filed on behalf of consumers who said the company's pr..

Chances are you haven't heard the Presidential candidates in either party talking a lot about the national debt. It tends to get overshadowed by immigration, healthcare, and other economic issues.

The U.S. government must borrow increasing amounts of money each year to pay its bills. The national debt, in terms of that borrowing, is growing exponentially. Worse still, unfunded mandates, such as Social Security payments and government pensions, push that total much higher.

According to the Treasury Department, the national debt more than doubled between 2007 and 2015. The numbers are so large it's hard to even comprehend.

It might surprise you to learn that the United States has carried a national debt every year of its existence, except for one. In 1790 the U.S. government owed $70 million, a hefty sum in those days. It ran up the debt paying off the states' Revolutionary War debts.

Andrew Jackson, who hated debt, was elected President in 1828 and made it his mission to pay down the debt. He sold off U.S. government land during a land speculation boom and by 1835, the U.S. was debt-free.

However, it didn't last. Jackson left office and the land speculation bubble popped in 1837, ushering in a big depression. The government was back to borrowing again. And even when borrowing increased during wars, it was generally manageable because the country's economy was growing.

Think of it like a young couple's home mortgage. When they first buy a home, the mortgage payment takes a big bite out of their income. But as they get older and make more money, the debt is less of a burden.

Even during times of prosperity, the U.S. government didn't attempt to pay off the debt – it simply maintained it, spending about what it collected in revenue each year. During those years, it built the Interstate Highway System, launched the Space Program, and began new entitlement programs.

The issue that worries some economists today is that the U.S. government must borrow just to pay its bills. The economic growth that would make the burden of increasing debt easier to bear just hasn't been there since the financial crisis.

Either taxes must rise, spending must decrease, or a balance must be struck between the two. However the political process has been unable to even approach a solution.

There are, in fact, two sides to the debate. Some economists say a rising debt is preferable to harming the economy with large tax hikes or by slashing government spending.

Deficit “hawks” worry that interest on the debt is rising to the point that it competes with other expenses. Even the Congressional Budget Office points out that increasing interest payments will compete with other needs if the economy doesn't start growing again, or should interest rates spike. And it will be largely up to today's young people to deal with it.

In the 1992 Presidential election, third-party candidate Ross Perot captured public attention with his hand-drawn charts showing an exploding deficit. At the time, the national debt and yearly deficit was a good bit smaller.

It's been just a few weeks since a class action lawsuit was filed against EOS lip balm, claiming it caused consumers' lips to become dry and cracked and ca..

The simmering dispute over whether federal or local laws regulate drones is heating up, as Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer has filed criminal charges against two drone operators accused of violating the city's drone ordinances.

“Operating a drone near trafficked airspace places pilots and the public at serious risk,” said Feuer. “We'll continue to use our new city law to hold drone operators accountable and keep our residents safe.” 

Michael Ponce, 20, and Arvel Chappell, 35, were each charged with two criminal counts stemming from two separate incidents -- including allegedly operating a drone within five miles of an airport without permission and allegedly operating the device in excess of 400 feet above ground level. Chappell was also charged with one additional count of operating a drone at a time other than during daylight.

The Federal Aviation administration has taken the position that it has authority over the skies and late last year implemented regulations requiring drone operators to register their aircraft and abide by safety rules, including not flying near airports.

California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed statewide legislation that would have banned flying drones over private property, prompting Los Angeles to pass its own ordinances in October. The L.A. rules closely mirror the FAA's.

In the Los Angeles incidents, a police department airship allegedly observed Ponce operating a drone above 400 feet over Griffith Park, within three miles of a number of hospital heliports. The drone was seized and Ponce was cited.

On December 12, 2015, Chappell was cited by police for allegedly operating a drone in excess of 400 feet and within a quarter mile of Hooper Heliport, the LAPD Air Support Division’s base at Piper Tech in downtown Los Angeles. An air unit coming in to land allegedly had to alter its path in order to avoid the device. Ground units were notified and the device was seized.

"While people may think that flying a drone is a minor or victimless crime, the results could be devastating," said city council member Mitchell Englander, Chair of the Public Safety Committee. "We saw firsthand what happened during a major brush fire where drones grounded firefighting helicopters. A single drone can take down a helicopter or an airplane. If drones fly, first responders can't."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has wrapped up its investigation of the E. coli outbreaks at Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants in late 2015, saying the two outbreaks it investigated appear to be over.

The agency said the most recent Chipotle-linked illness reported to the CDC started on December 1. In all, federal and state health officials found that 55 people were infected with the outbreak strain of STEC O26 in 11 states. Twenty-one ill people were hospitalized.

In the second, smaller outbreak, five people were infected with a different strain of STEC O26 in three states. One consumer had to be hospitalized. There were no reports of hemolytic uremic syndrome and no deaths in either outbreak.

The investigation failed to pinpoint exactly what it was that made people sick. The CDC said the epidemiologic evidence collected during this investigation suggested that a common meal item or ingredient served at Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants was a likely source of both outbreaks.

It did find that most of the people who got sick ate many of the same food items at a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant. Because of the nature of Chipotle's menu, cooking or mixing together multiple items, it can make it more difficult for investigators to find the source of the contamination.

For it's part, Chipotle executives say they learned a lot from the two outbreaks that forced several restaurants to be closed for long periods of time.

“Over the last few months, we have been implementing an enhanced food safety plan that will establish Chipotle as an industry leader in food safety,” Steve Ells, founder, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle, said in a recent press release. “Most of the new protocols are already in place, thanks to the hard work and dedication our excellent restaurant teams. Additionally, we have implemented unprecedented food safety standards with our suppliers, which make the food coming into our restaurants safer than ever before.”

Chipotle said it carried out a “comprehensive reassessment” of its food safety practices, which helped it improve its food safety practices.

Buzz has been brewing lately over the health benefits of coffee. According to a recent Harvard study, those who drink three to five cups of java a day have a 15% lower chance of prematurely dying than non-drinkers.

To thank for this little perk? A chemical called chlorogenic acid (CGA) — an antioxidant that appears to modulate how quickly the body breaks down glucose. But since the process of roasting coffee beans reduces concentrations of CGA (from 50% to nearly 100%), coffee drinkers aren’t seeing the full benefit of coffee’s naturally high CGA levels.

One scientist, however, recently discovered a new method of roasting green coffee beans that retains CGA levels and enhances the health benefits of coffee. Through trial and error, Brandeis biophysicist Dan Perlman invented the process of "parbaking," which involves roasting the green coffee beans at a lower temperature and for less time.

The process of parbaking not only retains the concentration of CGA in the bean, it yields a flour. According to Perlman, this “coffee flour” can be used both as a food ingredient and a nutritional supplement.

Perlman’s newly patented process of creating coffee flour involves just barely roasting the bean (at around 300 degrees fahrenheit), then freezing it with liquid nitrogen and pulverizing it into a power.

“At the end of the process, you get a wheat-colored flour. Its taste is nutty, pleasant and mild," says Perlman, who also developed the "healthy fats" blend in the Smart Balance buttery spread.

The flour can then be used in countless ways, just not to make a cup of coffee. Perlman sees his coffee flour being blended with regular flours for baking, used in breakfast cereals and snack bars, and added to soups, juices, and nutritional drinks. And in doing so, you’ll be getting a caffeine boost, too.

"This flour contains 2.5 percent caffeine by weight,” Perlman tells Eater. “So if you were to put 4 grams of this into, say, a breakfast muffin, it would be the equivalent of drinking a cup of coffee."

Unlike a cup of coffee or an energy drink, however, the caffeine in coffee flour is absorbed gradually, says Perlman. So while it won't offer the instant kick of a shot of espresso, you will be able to experience a more sustained buzz throughout the day.

A similar — yet very different — product was launched last year. Also called CoffeeFlour, it's made from coffee cherry fruit instead of green coffee beans. But despite the product's publicity, Perlman says, "It may be difficult to convince people that it's a good idea to eat vegetable materials that have not been routinely consumed by humans over many decades."

Economists have a variety of tools to measure economic progress or a lack thereof. U-Haul track rentals has a very simple gauge.

In 2014, it says there were more U-Haul trucks leaving Chicago than arriving. Last year, the trend reversed, running counter to the state as a whole.

The turnaround was enough to earn the Windy City the number five spot on U-Haul's Top 10 U.S. Growth Cities for 2015.

"As a global transportation and communications hub, Chicago is attracting more major company headquarters each year as businesses recognize the region is one of the best places to live, work and visit in the nation," said Theresa E. Mintle, president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

U-Haul says 2015 was a pivotal year for Chicago. Company records show Chicago had 50.6% of one-way truck rental customers coming into the city as opposed to leaving. That was up from 49.6% in 2014, when out-bound traffic was in the majority.

U-Haul notes the city is still dealing with negative issues but that data suggests a turnaround is in progress.

"There are more than 400 neighborhood festivals every year in Chicago, each with food, culture and music to enjoy," Jamie Lee, president of U-Haul Company of North Shore Chicago, said in a release. "The views from the rooftops and sky decks are breathtaking, no matter if you are a visitor or a resident. When you see the cityscape, it's stunning."

The rest of Illinois' housing market is still dealing with some headwinds entering 2016. In a forum sponsored by the Illinois Association of Realtors, economists said factors such as available housing inventory, job growth, and ongoing political issues could have an impact.

Geoffrey Hewings, director of the Regional Economics Applications Laboratory (REAL) at the University of Illinois, said the state's political impasse has the potential to affect the housing market. It could create economic uncertainty that could hinder future home sales and prices, he said.

Currently, the state's Republican governor and Democratic House speaker are in a stand-off over taxes and spending.

Valentine's Day has become a more important holiday for retailers in recent years. Consumers of all ages tend to observe it in one way or another, usually involving some type of purchase.

A survey by SurveyMonkey on behalf of Jones-Dengler Marketing, operators of shopping website, found that 63% of the consumers surveyed said they plan to celebrate the holiday this year. The survey breaks down the results by age and gender.

It found 67% of women plan to observe Valentine's Day to just 62% of men. Young women are the most enthusiastic.

In fact, 71% of women between 18 and 29 said they would be doing something to celebrate Valentine's Day this year. Only 58% of men in the same age group said they would also be celebrating, suggesting a bit of relationship turbulence when February 14 arrives.

The survey finds consumers are fairly traditional when it comes to giving gifts. A night out is the most given gift – favored by 25% of the survey sample. It was followed by chocolate and flowers, both at 15%.

A night out is also what most people say they would most like to receive as a Valentine's Day gift – at 36%. Jewelry was second at 16% and flowers third at 13%.

The survey also shows why this holiday has become so important to retailers. Seventy-four percent of consumers say they plan to spend up to $100 on gifts. Women are the bigger spenders, out-spending men 82% to 64%.

The largest share of consumers spending up to $100 tend to be concentrated in the central U.S. -- that region is more likely to spend up to $100 than consumers living on the East Coast.

The survey also found that 10% of consumers plan to spend $200 or more on Valentine's Day celebrations. Twice as many men as women plan to spend that much, with the biggest spenders among the 30-44 age group.

While a lot of consumers will be celebrating Valentine's Day this year, not everyone is happy about it. The survey measured feelings about the holiday and found that 5% of the consumers saying they would celebrate Valentine's Day actually “hate” the holiday. More than half – 52% – say they are “neutral,” suggesting they may be participating under duress.

Getting the most bang for your buck from your healthcare spending is not a simple matter. Since what you pay for care goes through an insurance provider, it tends to complicate things.

You have to factor in what you pay for health insurance as well as what you end up paying out of pocket to the provider. In nearly every case, it's more than you think.

There are several things to consider. Most people focus first on the monthly premiums. If you can't afford them, then the coverage doesn't do you much good.

The advisors at suggest that other things are just as important as the monthly premium. You also need to deliberate on what services will cost beyond your coverage.

You also need to consider the type of insurance plan and the provider network. Different plan types provide different levels of coverage for care you get inside and outside of the plan’s network of doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, and other medical service providers.

Getting a health insurance plan with a high deductible will lower your monthly cost but can add a significant cost in the event of expensive medical care. New research shows consumers on high-deductible plans are no better at price shopping for health care professionals or services than people on traditional insurance.

“The main message of our research is this: Giving skin in the game or giving people financial incentives is not enough to prompt people to become better consumers of health care,” co-author Neeraj Sood, director of research at the University of Southern California (USC), said in a release.

More and more Americans are enrolled in high-deductible plans. Sood said about one in four U.S. employees are enrolled in high-deductible plans while about 80% of the people insured through the health care exchanges are enrolled in some sort of high-deductible plan.

Since consumers with high-deductible plans pay much of their initial health care costs out of pocket, you would think they would be better at choosing lower-cost providers. The USC survey, in fact, found that most people with high-deductible plans aren't convinced that high cost providers provide better care. So why use them?

Yet the survey found only about 10% of consumers with high-deductible plans did comparison shopping for providers. Sood says there may be two reasons for that.

“For one, it’s a hassle and very difficult to get good information about the prices and the quality of care by doctors, labs or other services,” he said. “And two, when it comes to doctors and services, people are concerned about quality of care, but there is not much information available about quality.”

The way consumers with high-deductible plans usually save money on health care is by reducing the number of visits to the doctor. In some cases, that's counter productive if preventive care or early detection could have prevented major complications later on.

With the exception of sledding and other snow day activities, there’s not a whole lot for kids to do outside during cold winter days. But keeping them occu..

Consumers found themselves with more money in their pockets as the holiday shopping season got underway -- and tucked a good chunk of it away.

The Commerce Department reports personal income rose $42.5 billion, or 0.3% in December, while disposable personal income (DPI) -- personal income less personal current taxes -- increased $37.8 billion or 0.3%. Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) dipped $0.7 billion, or less than 0.1%.

In November, personal income was up 0.3%, DPI rose 0.2 percent, and PCE increased by 0.5%, according to revised estimates.

Wages and salaries rose $13.1 billion in December, after surging $37.9 billion a month earlier. Within that category, private wages and salaries were up $10.3 billion, and government wages and salaries inched up $2.8 billion.

Personal outlays -- PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments -- increased $2.0 billion in December after surging $62.1 billion in November.

Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was $753.5 billion in December, up $35.7 billion from the month before. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 5.5%, versus with 5.3% in November.

Are you ready for some football? You've got a lot of company. The National Retail Federation's (NRF) Super Bowl Spending Survey conducted by Prospe..

Garden of Life LLC is recalling a limited quantity of its Raw Meal Organic Shake & Meal Chocolate, Original, Vanilla and Vanilla Chai.

Raw Meal products are distributed throughout the United States and sold at better health food stores and natural grocers.

Consumers who believe they may have a Raw Meal product affected by this recall, should look for the following lot codes prominently stamped on the underside of the plastic container:

Customers who purchased the recalled products may return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-866-465-0051, Monday-Friday from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm (EST).

We take privacy seriously; please refer to our Privacy Policy to learn more about how we keep you protected or submit a Do Not Sell My Personal Information request. Visiting our website constitutes electronic acceptance of our Terms of Use.

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