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Consumer Reports

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    70 million Americans report stolen data

    More than 70 million American adults discovered that their personal information had been compromised in 2014, according to projections from a recent nationally representative survey of more than 3,000 American adults, conducted by Consumer Reports.

    While some of those incidents may have resulted from stolen credit cards or other crimes, many stemmed from data breaches. And, as a slew of widely reported breaches last year showed, not only online shoppers are at risk. According to Consumer Reports’s survey, 79% of those notified of a data breach were told by a brick-and-mortar store or a financial institution. Just eighteen percent said the problem originated with an online retailer.

    Those findings are supported by research from the non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), which found that a record high 783 data breaches occurred in 2014, up more than 27.5 percent from 2013. “Last year was an exceptional year because of the raw numbers and the traction they were getting in the media,” says Eva Velasquez, CEO/president of ITRC.

    It’s important to protect your data from identity theft, whether you’ve been notified of a breach or not. That might sound obvious, but in the Consumer Reports survey, half of those who were affected by data theft said they did not change their online behavior afterward. Here are 10 simple steps you can take to lock down your sensitive info, and five things to do if you've been notified of a breach. You should also be sure to carefully check the “explanations of benefits” notices sent by your health insurance provider to make sure they’re for services you actually received and not something a medical identity thief ordered up, Velasquez says.

    Need to protect your computer from hackers? Check out our Security Software Buying Guide.

    The study arguably highlights the need for stronger consumer protections. Among the latest proposals in Congress is the Consumer Privacy Protection Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D, Vt.) that would cover not only financial data, but things like photos and videos stored in the cloud. It would also require companies to notify consumers of a breach within 30 days. "This measure, as well as another bill introduced by Senator Nelson (D, Fla.) will move the ball forward on better data protection for consumers," says Ellen Bloom, Senior Director of Federal Policy and the Washington Office for Consumers Union, the advocacy branch of Consumer Reports. "Congress needs to set strong federal standards for defending consumer data while allowing states to enact or maintain more stringent laws if necessary to protect their residents."

    —Donna Tapellini

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 05/08/15--02:59: Used-car must-haves
  • Used-car must-haves

    Need a slightly newer set of wheels? The smart money is on a late-model used car. It will offer some of the comfort and safety tech found in new cars, but at a more checkbook-friendly price.

    Start with recommended models from our April Auto issue—ones that tested well when new, plus have proven reliability and good crash-test results. Find vehicles in your price range and the best condition. Then focus on some of these features:

    One benefit that used-car shoppers can reap is the rapid depreciation of high-end features. The price gap between basic and top-trim models can shrink substantially after a few years. And with premium versions, you often get advanced safety gear in addition to the nicer furnishings.

    Heated seats are a near-necessity for people who live in the snow belt. They’re common on newer high-trim versions of cars that are midsized or larger, as well as on all luxury nameplates. And you’ll never forget your first heated steering wheel on a winter day.

    Tire-pressure monitoring has been mandatory since 2007. We much prefer systems that display an individual pressure reading for each tire rather than making you guess which tire is low or by how much.

    Electronic crash-prevention systems such as forward-collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, and lane-departure warning have been available on luxury cars for several years. But they have only recently started trickling down to the mainstream. Those features are worth seeking if the car fits your budget and meets your other requirements.

    Visit our used-car buying guide.

    We’ve never seen a huge benefit from high-end audio systems because road noise tends to drown out the subtle differences that make them stand out from more entry-level systems. (Read: "How do CDs, MP3s, and streaming music compare for in-car audio quality?")

    What we do like, though, is being able to play music from our own digital devices. So look for a USB input or, at the minimum, an auxiliary jack, and at least two 12-volt power points. Newer vehicles with Bluetooth connectivity offer even greater versatility.

    See our guide to infotainment systems.

    These basic features should top the list: side and head curtain airbags, antilock brakes, and electronic stability control. ESC, which became mandatory in 2012 but was widely available before then, is credited with being a lifesaver, especially in SUVs.

    Rear cameras can prevent back-over accidents, and they’re a must-have in SUVs and pickups. In addition to helping you maneuver into or out of tight parking spaces, they make hitching up a trailer almost goof-proof.

    Parents should look for a vehicle with low windowsills so that your kids can see out with ease. It will keep them looking at the scenery rather than provoking each other. Check that there’s room to easily install child safety seats, and look for convenient cup holders and storage nooks.

    Shorten cleanup time by choosing fake or real leather seats; they’re easier to clean than fabric seats. And any family vehicle should have a generous cargo compartment.

    Gordon Hard

    This article also appeared in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 ways to make sure your bike helmet protects you the way it should

    For something that protects you so solidly, a bike helmet needs to be treated with a surprising amount of TLC. Although the thin outer shell keeps the liner (which absorbs the impact) from being subjected to normal wear and tear, a helmet can still get minor dents or other damage if it's not handled carefully. To help make sure your bike helmet safeguards your head and brain the way it should, keep the following tips in mind:

    Use only mild, soapy water to clean your helmet

    Harsh cleaning products can damage the shell or the liner. Soap and water should be enough to remove any dirt from the shell, or to clean the straps, pads, and liners if they get a little funky.

    Store it properly

    Don't store a bike helmet in a place where it's likely to get knocked around or fall on to the floor. Even damage that isn't visible can affect the ability of the liner to do its job.

    Follow our advice for finding the best bike helmet for you and fitting your helmet properly.

    Keep your bike helmet cool

    Heat is a helmet's enemy. Many manufacturers warn against exposing helmets to temps above 150° F. The interior or trunk of a car can easily exceed that on a hot summer day.

    Replace your helmet every five to 10 years

    Replace it sooner if it is gouged or cracked or has been involved in an accident, even if you can’t see any damage. A bike helmet isn't designed to absorb multiple impacts, so yours will only protect you once.

    Think twice about buying a used bike helmet

    As tempting as it may be to save some cash by buying a helmet at a yard sale or taking hand-me-downs for your kids from friends, you don't know how the helmet has been handled. Even if it looks fine, it may be damaged. A new bike helmet doesn't have to cost a lot of money. In our tests, we found ones that performed well for as little at $12.

    —Susan Byrne

    This article also appeared in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    What to look for in a medical alert system

    You’ve probably seen the ads on TV and in magazines: How do you get help in a medical emergency when you’re alone at home? The makers of medical alert systems promise that their products will come to the rescue, whether you’ve fallen and you can’t get up or you’re experienc­ing symptoms of a heart attack, stroke, or seizure. The ads are reaching a receptive audience: Sales of med-alert services are growing as the baby boom generation ages.

    Medical alert systems were introduced in the 1970s as simple push-button devices worn around the neck. They summoned help by signaling a base station connected to a home phone line that would alert a call-center operator. Today’s systems are still wearable, but you can also mount help buttons throughout the home that allow for two-way voice communication with call centers. Some offer motion-­sensitive pendants that can detect a fall and place a call for help.

    Who needs one? Most buyers purchase a system for an aging parent who lives alone so that they can get help quickly if needed. That person might be at a heightened risk for falls because of poor eyesight or memory changes, says Barbara Resnick, Ph.D., professor of nursing at the University of Maryland and past president of the American Ger­iatrics Society. The systems can also be useful in nonemergency situations where the user doesn’t need an ambulance but does need someone to come to their aid. The call center will alert a preselected relative or friend who can come over and assist.

    The experts we consulted recommend looking for a medical alert system that meets all or most of these criteria.

    • It works for a user's specific disability. For example, a stroke survivor may need a device he or she can activate with one hand.
    • It offers a choice of a wristband and/or neck pendant. Cords worn around the neck can pose a strangulation risk; wristbands may irritate those with skin ailments.
    • It includes help buttons that can be wall-mounted near the floor in multiple rooms in case the user falls and isn’t wearing the pendant.
    • It offers multiple choices for whom to contact if you need help, from emergency services to a friend or relative who lives nearby.
    •  It has a battery backup in case of a power failure.
    • The base station can be contacted from anywhere on your property—even in your yard or at your mailbox.
    • The company has its own monitoring center, in the U.S., and employs its own trained emergency operators (rather than contracting that function out).
    • The monitoring center has been certified by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), a nonprofit safety and consulting company.

    All systems (listed in alphabetical order, below) offer daily 24-hour monitoring services and put two operators on each call. (One contacts emergency services; the other stays on the line with you.) All come with a waterproof neck pendant and wristband with a battery backup. Some offer a GPS mobile feature, which works when you are traveling away from home. Some also offer a mobile 911 phone, which places a call to local 911 services if you're out of your normal service range. It carries an additional fee. Some offer an automatic fall detection system, but they say it cannot detect 100 percent of falls, and the companies charge an extra fee for this service. Tip: As you shop, ask for quotes in writing because prices and services may change.

    Check our comparison chart below. Mobile user: Click on the link below to view the chart on the full site or scroll down for the details.

     

    Medical alert systems comparison

    Facts to consider Life Alert LifeStation Medical Alert MobileHelp Philips Lifeline Rescue Alert
    Monthly service cost            

    Landline/

    Cellular

    $30/

    $40

    $26/

    $33

    $30/

    $35

    NA/

    $35

    $30/

    $42

    $29/

    $43

    GPS mobile1 $20 $30 ($85 device fee) $40 $42 $55 (landline); $65 (cell)($149 device fee)
    $45 ($90 device fee)
    Features            
    Range (in feet) 300 500   600

    350 to

    600

    600 600
    Mobile 911 phone2 Yes Yes Yes No No Yes
    Automatic fall detection3 No No Yes Yes Yes No
    Fees            
    Minimum obligation 36 months4 30 days
    90 days
    None None None
    Activation $95 None None None $0 to $50 None
    Cancellation $90 None None
    None None $0 to $255
    Monitoring services            
    In-house or outsourced In-house

    In-

    house

    Outsourced Outsourced

    In-

    house

    In-

    house

    UL-listed (or comparable) Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes6

    1. Works when you are traveling away from home.

    2. Places a call to local 911 services if you’re out of your normal service range. Carries an additional fee. 

    3. Charges extra fee for this service. Companies say systems cannot detect 100 percent of falls.

    4. If user dies, contract is void. 

    5. Depends on payment plan.

    6. Certified by ETL, a standards-testing organization.

    Life Alert

    (800-494-9394)

    Monthly service cost

    Landline: $30 Cellular: $40 GPS mobile: $20

    Features

    Range: 300 feet

    Offers a mobile 911 phone? Yes

    Automatic fall detection? No

    Fees

    Minimum obligation: 36 months (If user dies, contract is void.)

    Activation:  $95

    Cancellation: $90

    Monitoring services

    In-house or outsourced? In-house

    UL-listed (or comparable)? Yes

    LifeStation

    (877-288-4962)

    Monthly service cost

    Landline: $26 Cellular: $33 GPS mobile: $30 ($85 device fee)

    Features

    Range: 500 feet

    Offers a mobile 911 phone? Yes

    Automatic fall detection? No

    Fees

    Minimum obligation: 30 days

    Activation:  No fee

    Cancellation: No fee

    Monitoring services

    In-house or outsourced? In-house

    UL-listed (or comparable)? Yes

    Medical Alert

    (800-800-2537)

    Monthly service cost

    Landline: $30 Cellular: $35 GPS mobile: $40

    Features

    Range: 600 feet

    Offers a mobile 911 phone? Yes

    Automatic fall detection? Yes

    Fees

    Minimum obligation: 90 days

    Activation: No fee

    Cancellation: No fee

    Monitoring services

    In-house or outsourced? Outsourced

    UL-listed (or comparable)? Yes

    MobileHelp

    (800-992-0616)

    Monthly service cost

    Landline: Not available. Cellular: $35 GPS mobile: $42

    Features

    Range: 350 to 600 feet

    Offers a mobile 911 phone? No

    Automatic fall detection? Yes  

    Fees

    Minimum obligation: None

    Activation:  No fee

    Cancellation: No fee

    Monitoring services

    In-house or outsourced? Outsourced

    UL-listed (or comparable)? Yes

    Philips Lifeline

    (855-214-1363)

    Monthly service cost

    Landline: $30 Cellular: $42  GPS mobile: $55 (landline), $65 (mobile) ($149 device fee)

    Features

    Range: 600 feet

    Offers a mobile 911 phone? No

    Automatic fall detection? Yes

    Fees

    Minimum obligation: None

    Activation:  $0 to $50

    Cancellation: No fee

    Monitoring services

    In-house or outsourced? In-house

    UL-listed (or comparable)? No

    Rescue Alert

    (800-688-9576)

    Monthly service cost

    Landline: $29 Cellular: $43 GPS mobile: $45 ($90 device fee)

    Features

    Range: 600 feet

    Offers a mobile 911 phone? Yes

    Automatic fall detection? No

    Fees

    Minimum obligation: None

    Activation:  No fee

    Cancellation: $0 to $25 (Depends on payment plan.)
     

    Monitoring services

    In-house or outsourced? In-house

    UL-listed (or comparable)? Yes (Certified by ETL, a standards-testing organization.)

    —Sue Byrne

    This article also appeared in the July 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health. It has been updated to reflect manufacturers' price changes.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Surprise medical bills are costing consumers

    When it came time for Lisa N. of Santa Cruz, California, to have her baby, she checked in to her local in-network hospital, using her in-network OB/GYN and neonatologist. She hadn’t been planning on getting an epidural, but ended up needing one. Lisa, who has insurance, also hadn’t planned on the hefty price tag for that epidural. Everything—from the doctor and delivery, to the hospital room and nursing services—was covered under her insurance . . . except for the anesthesiologist who administered the epidural. Cost for the anesthesiologist: $3,000.

    Lisa eventually found out that even though the anesthesiologist worked at the in-network hospital, this physician was considered out-of-network. Even worse, it turned out there were zero in-network anesthesiologists at that hospital.

    Lisa’s experience is far from the exception. These types of surprise medical bills—where a consumers’ health plan paid less than expected—affected nearly one third of privately insured Americans in the past two years, according to a new national survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. And of the consumers hit with medical bill shock, almost one in four received a bill from a doctor they did not expect to get a bill from.

    Our survey findings shine a light on some of the loopholes in the health insurance system that perpetuate medical bill shock and put consumers in the middle of a reimbursement battle between their insurance providers and out-of-network doctors, in what is referred to as "balance billing."

    If you go to a hospital or doctor in your network, the unfortunate truth is that there is no guarantee that all your treatment will be billed as such. Avoiding these types of charges can be difficult during routine appointments and can be nearly impossible in emergency medical situations where consumers don’t have the luxury of stopping treatment to check that every doctor they’re seeing is in their plan’s network.

    Find out what to do if you're hit with out-of-network charges.

    It’s clear that consumers also struggle with resolving these billing issues and don’t know who to turn to for help. Our survey found that more than half (53 percent) of those with surprise medical bills reported that the issue was either not resolved as they liked or not resolved at all, with a majority of this group (57 percent) ultimately paying the bill in full. More concerning is that they didn’t know about resources where they could turn to for help: An overwhelming majority (87 percent) did not know which agency or department in their state government is tasked with handling complaints about health insurance.

    To help consumers who are hit with surprise medical bills, Consumers Union just launched a new online Insurance Complaint Tool. The tool provides state-specific assistance, resources, and information for consumers across the country. It’s not only important that consumers know who to contact, but state agencies insurance departments also need to know about the problems that consumers are facing.

    But there’s also work than can be done to prevent these types of bills in the first place. Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes the solution to surprise medical bills requires a combination of strong consumer protections and increased transparency. That’s why we’re currently working to pass legislation in several states, including California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Texas, which would strengthen protections against surprise medical bills. We were also strong advocates of a new groundbreaking New York law that bans balance billing in emergency medical situations.

    If you’ve ever fallen victim to out-of-network "gotchas" where you think you're covered but it turns out you now owe thousands, Consumers Union wants to hear from you. Click here to share your story and visit our Insurance Complaint Tool to find assistance in your state.

    This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

    Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Ford recalls almost 600,000 cars, SUVs, and trucks

    It’s been a big week for recalls at Ford.

    The carmaker has issued four separate recalls in the past several days, totaling almost 600,000 sedans, SUVs, and pickup trucks sold in the U.S. and Canada.

    The largest of the recalls involves approximately 520,000 2013-15 Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ sedans and Ford Edge SUVs built with steering gear motor attachment bolts that may fracture due to corrosion. The result could be a loss of power assist making the vehicles more difficult to control. While a fracture would not make the vehicles impossible to steer, the loss of power assist would require increased steering effort, which could result in a crash. Under the terms of the recall, dealers in colder climates will install and seal new bolts and replace damaged steering gears at no cost. Customers outside snowbelt states will be eligible for an extended warranty for related repairs.

    Another recall covers about 50,000 Ford Edge, Escape, Fiesta, and Transit Connect models from the 2014-15 model years. There is a risk that a fuel pump seizure could cause the vehicle not to start or to stall while driving with a resultant loss of control. Dealers will replace the fuel delivery module of affected vehicles at no cost to the consumer.

    The remaining two recalls involve approximately 22,600 2015 Lincoln MKZ sedans equipped with parking lights that are brighter than federal regulations allow, and approximately 100 2015 Ford F-150 pickup trucks inadvertently built with heat shields either missing or improperly installed, which could result in a fire. Dealers will make necessary repairs.

    All recalls are issued for safety reasons and should be taken seriously by owners. Learn more in "The truth about car recalls."

    Check for car recalls on your car.

    Jim Travers

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Volkswagen Golf R versus Volkswagen GTI

    In 1975, Volkswagen took its plucky Golf hatchback, stuffed more power under the hood, and called it the GTI. It quickly developed a rabid fan base and spawned a whole new segment: the performance hatch, combining speed with practicality.

    Through the years other automakers have joined the party, but Volkswagen was the pioneer and continually updated the GTI. This year, VW has added a second variant to its compact hot-hatch mix—the Golf R—that sits atop the automaker’s performance hierarchy.

    At its heart, the Golf R’s 2.0-liter engine is the same size as the GTI motor, but with a larger turbo and myriad performance modifications. The result is a whopping 292 horsepower—72 more than the GTI—sent through a six-speed dual clutch transmission. So much power in such a small package; it’s amazing the Golf R doesn’t levitate.

    While the GTI is a front-drive tire squealer, the Golf R’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system sends power to the rear wheels when it senses slippage up front. Grippy Bridgestone Potenza performance tires help put power to the road.

    Like the GTI, the Golf R can change its personality via the standard Drive Mode selector. Don't think this is a lame “sport mode” button that doesn’t really do anything. In the R, Drive Mode results in actual dynamic changes to the car’s engine response, shifting patterns, suspension settings, and steering feel.

    There's no doubt in our mind that our GTI is one of the most fun front-drive cars out there. But it’s no match for the Golf R’s added power put to all four wheels. This combination begs you to fling the car into corners, and hammer the accelerator as you clip the apex.

    Despite its thrilling performance, the Golf R tends to blend into a crowd. This could be an advantage, as rivals like the Ford Focus ST and Subaru WRX have more juvenile looks—which tend to scare away future in-laws and attract the attention of Officer Friendly. Even our GTI stands out visually compared to the Golf R.

    The starting MSRP for the Golf R is $36,595 with the dual-clutch transmission. The soon-to-arrive manual model will cost about a thousand dollars less. Our loaner VW had navigation, but it lacked a sunroof and had a price of $39,090.

    Still, for that money, you could buy a well-equipped GTI, and have thousands left over to modify it to your liking. That price also puts you within striking distance of the Audi S3 sedan, which has just as much power along with the cachet of the luxury badge. But the Golf R is a desirable proposition, delivering acceleration and handling most often found in luxury coupes, with the utility of the hatchback layout.

    So which car to choose? Put plainly, the choice is in hands of the driver. Both the Golf R and GTI deliver an immensely fun-to-drive product that is more sophisticated than the competition, in both looks and ride quality. A quick poll shows that, if it were their own money, two-thirds of the Auto Test staff would be parking a GTI in their driveway, thanks to its more livable blend of affordable performance and practicality.

    Read our complete Volkswagen GTI road test.

    George Kennedy

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    2016 BMW 3 Series receives key updates

    It’s hard to believe the latest BMW 3 Series has been out long enough to need updating. But BMW has announced that the car will get a thorough freshening for 2016.

    Top on the list of updates is a new six-cylinder engine that will subsequently make its way into other BMW models. Employing BMW’s TwinPower turbo setup, the new engine displaces the same 3.0 liters as the outgoing unit, but produces 20 more horsepower and 30 more lb.-ft. of torque, for a total output of 320 hp and 330 lb.-ft., respectively. With BMW’s model designations now disconnected from engine size, this top-of-the-line 3 Series is now christened the 340i, replacing the 335i. (The M3 and M4 remain the ultimate, high-performance versions of the platform.)

    The other new powertrain is a plug-in hybrid, dubbed the 330e, which BMW says will have a 22-mile electric range. It will likely use the combination 9-kWh lithium-ion battery pack and 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine from the BMW X5 eDrive. BMW says it will have 250 hp and an impressive 0-60 mph acceleration time of 6.1 seconds.

    In an acknowledgement that handling in the current 3 Series has been softened perhaps beyond BMW buyers’ expectations, the suspension for the updated model is said to be retuned for sportier performance, reduced body lean, and more steering feedback and precision. Whether you order the base, M Sport, or Adaptive M suspension, the front and rear setups get updated geometry and new struts. A new Track Handling package is available on gas-powered models only.

    BMW also says that both the six-speed manual and eight-speed automatic transmissions have been revised for greater efficiency and smoother shifts. The automatic also gets wider ratios for better fuel efficiency.

    Electronic updates include parking assistance that can drive you into both perpendicular and parallel parking spaces. The navigation system gains the ability to update automatically over the air on the car’s LTE wireless connection. BMW explains that new processors allow routes to calculate more quickly, maps to load faster and, display more 3D graphics. With “EcoPro,” the navigation system can guide you to the most efficient routes, and the car automatically adapts transmission shift points to suit terrain.

    The 3 Series Sports Wagon soldiers on and gets all the same updates.

    The current 3 Series was our sports sedan Top Pick last year, but some reliability issues booted it off our current list. Let’s hope BMW improved the 3’s reliability, as well.

    Read our latest BMW 3 Series and 4 Series road tests.

    —Eric Evarts

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Lumber Liquidators stops selling Chinese laminates

    The subject of formaldehyde emissions from laminate flooring has gotten a lot of attention lately. It began in early March, when the CBS news program, "60 Minutes," reported that retailer Lumber Liquidators was selling laminate flooring with formaldehyde emissions several times higher than California’s standards for flooring sold in that state. Lumber Liquidators has denied the accusations but nevertheless is pulling all Chinese-made laminate flooring from its inventory, pending its review. And the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is currently investigating the issue.

    Why does this matter? Formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound considered a carcinogen. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has spent years pushing for a national standard based on California’s, which sets the strictest limits of any state.

    While Consumer Reports tests flooring, it hasn't tested the specific products mentioned in the "60 Minutes" report, and our flooring Ratings do not include laminates from Lumber Liquidators. But if you’re concerned, here’s what you need to know:

    Where formaldehyde is used. The flooring in question is laminate, which is composed of a plastic image glued over layers of wood or plastic. The adhesives that bind the layers often emit formaldehyde. In addition to laminates, products that emit formaldehyde include engineered-wood flooring, furniture that uses medium-density fiberboard or permanent-press upholstery, urea-based varnishes, spray-foam insulation, and combustion sources such as gas stoves, wood-burning fireplaces, and cigarettes.

    Minimizing your exposure. Formaldehyde emissions are highest when products are new and diminish over time. Noticeable health effects from formaldehyde exposure include nose and throat irritation, a burning sensation in the eyes, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. (Sufferers of asthma, bronchitis, and other conditions can be especially sensitive.) And long-term exposure is associated with cancer in humans. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) says that most laminate and engineered-wood flooring labeled as compliant with the state’s formaldehyde limits meets those standards.

    Cautions on DIY testing. If a physician has advised that you might be sensitive to formaldehyde—or you’re concerned about the long-term threat—call in a professional to evaluate your home. CARB hosts a list of approved companies, nearly a dozen of which are U.S.-based; however, not all test private homes. And although you can buy home test kits and send results to a laboratory, the CPSC has not endorsed the accuracy of such products.

    Before you buy. There are alternatives to flooring products known to contain formaldehyde including solid-hardwood, vinyl, linoleum, and tile floors. If you are shopping for laminate or engineered-wood flooring, ask about products made with resins certified as Ultra-Low Emission Formaldehyde, ULEF, or No Added Formaldehyde, NAF. (In California, such flooring or its packaging are required to be labeled as such.)

    Other ways to minimize exposure. If you’ve purchased laminate or engineered-wood flooring and haven’t installed it yet, CARB suggests you leave it in the garage or beneath a covered carport to let it off-gas for a week to 10 days, presuming the flooring is CARB-compliant. If it isn’t compliant, it might need more time before residual odors dissipate or respiratory irritation is minimized.

    Consumer Reports is concerned about the testing results of the Lumber Liquidators products discussed in the "60 Minutes" report, and will be conducting its own tests on formaldehyde emissions for some of the laminate, engineered-wood, and bamboo flooring in our flooring tests, which we plan to publish later this year. We also look forward to seeing the results of the CPSC’s investigation.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Lenovo cites "missteps" on the new LaVie Z laptop

    When the Lenovo LaVie Z superlight laptop was introduced during CES 2015, it was among the hottest products at the show. So when we were finally able to order the LaVie Z 360 (we buy all the computers we test), we were looking forward to getting it into the lab. What arrived instead was a letter from the company apologizing for some flaws with the new product. (See the letter below.)

    On its website, Lenovo has shown the LaVie Z 360 working in several modes—laptop, tablet, tent, and stand—just like many convertible computers. The computer was also notable for its feathery weight. It was just 2.04 pounds, and very thin at 0.67 inches.

    The letter, which CR received by e-mail, explained that Lenovo had made “a couple missteps” in its "haste to bring the product to market." Apparently, when the computer is used in tent mode, the display doesn’t auto-rotate. Yep, that means you’d see an upside-down image. The letter explained that you could use Windows commands to fix that, but that "this is not a great user experience."

    In the market for a new computer? Our buying guide is full of great advice on how to find the best one.

    And that’s not all, Lenovo continued. In stand mode, the keyboard doesn’t automatically deactivate. "A user may be okay in Stand Mode with LaVie Z lying flat on a table, but if it were on your lap for example, the keys may depress and once again cause an unsatisfactory user experience." Yes, we agree: That would be unsatisfactory.

    This all seemed like a prelude to an announcement that shipments were being delayed for a couple of weeks while the problems were fixed. Not so. In reality, Lenovo was planning to ship the computers as is—while refunding 5 percent of the cost.

    We thought the company might be able to offer a firmware fix for the problems, so we contacted Lenovo to ask about that. We also wanted to ask about the decision to ship a flawed laptop, and why the company is providing this small discount instead of offering full refunds. We haven't yet received answers; we'll update you when we do. And we'll be testing the computer in our labs once it arrives.

    In the letter, Lenovo says it has updated its website, and indeed the specs for the LaVie Z 360 now talk only about tablet and laptop modes. But it’s too late for anyone who already bought the LaVie with greater expectations.

    —Donna Tapellini

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Vanguard advisory opens to smaller investors

    Vanguard's announcement this week that it would open up its new Personal Advisor Services to people with as little as $50,000 in savings could be a boon for small investors looking for a low-cost way to manage retirement savings, with some professional help. The service, which combines automatic "robo-adviser" services with advice from live advisers, will charge a management fee of 0.30 percent of managed assets, compared with the 1 percent typically charged to investors with less than $1 million under management. 

    Vanguard advisers will initially speak to clients by phone or videoconference to set up an investment plan and recommend holdings. They'll monitor accounts, rebalance portfolios when needed, and connect periodically with clients by phone or videoconferencing for updates and changes. 

    The automatic portion of the service, a software-driven robo-adviser, will recommend all-Vanguard mutual funds for most customers' core portfolio. In specific, the service will suggest index and actively-managed funds from among the company's very low-cost Admiral share class. Top Admiral funds currently held in Personal Advisor managed portfolios have fees ranging from 0.05 percent of 0.19 percent of assets. (Customers can add non-Vanguard funds to their lineups as well.)

    An investor with $50,000 entirely invested in Admiral shares of the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund, with its super-low expense ratio of 0.05 percent, would pay $25 per year in fees. The $150 per-year advisory charge would bring total fees to $175 in that first year (probably a bit more, assuming assets grew over the course of the year). Advisory fees alone would cost $500 per year for such a client using a typical financial adviser. 

    Fees are competitive with other robo-advisory services. On a balance of $50,000, Betterment and Wealthfront charge 0.25 percent of assets. Financial Guard charges $15.95 a month ($149.95) as a flat fee, regardless of portfolio size; on $50,000, that's equivalent to 0.30 percent, though that percentage drops as your portfolio grows.

    Read about how to make investment products such as mutual funds, ETFs, and annuities work for you at the Consumer Reports Investing Center.

    Now, the caveats. Unless you have $500,000 in assets, you won't be assigned to a dedicated advisor, nor are you guaranteed an adviser who already has a Certified Financial Planner designation. According to Katie Henderson, a Vanguard spokesperson, you'll be assigned a single person to help you get started. That includes filling out a form to determine your investment time horizon, your attitude toward investment risk, and other aspects that figure into your investment "profile." After that, you'll work with a team of planners, most of whom are CFPs, and others of whom are working toward the designation. 

    All Vanguard advisers are required to act as fiduciaries, meaning they must act in your best interest in recommending investments, Henderson told me. 

    There is no limit to the amount of time or the number of conversations you can have with your advisory team. (In the service's two-year pilot program, which included folks with investable assets of $100,000-plus, most clients spoke to Vanguard advisers 2 to 6 times a year.) But it's up to you to initiate the conversation. Advisers won't be contacting you for, say, a year-end review of your accounts.

    Your $50,000 in assets also must be outside an employer-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k) or 403(b). While Vanguard advisers will consider those accounts when designing your plan, they won't manage those assets. So, you'll have to rebalance those holdings yourself. 

    The program also isn't designed for employees participating in retirement plans administered by Vanguard. 

    When we recently evaluated several robo-adviser services, we found they were most useful for fledgling investors who needed basic guidance on accumulating wealth. But even beginning investors could benefit from having a human monitor their investments and rebalance assets periodically when one type of investment has grown too large in proportion to the others.

    If you don't want to devote even a couple hundred dollars to such a service, you could just log into a robo-adviser site, answer some questions, and check out the resulting asset allocation it suggests. You can then strike out on your own, using that allocation to design your own portfolio at no additional cost.

    But the Vanguard option, which combines robo-advising with a relatively low cost for human advice, could work well for lots of savers. The very low cost of its base investment offerings and its fiduciary promise make the offer look pretty good.

    Keep in mind that the more complex your finances are—and the closer you are to retirement—the more likely you'll benefit from a human adviser, without an emphasis on the "robo." If, for instance, you have a small business or need tax or estate-planning advice, you'll need the human touch.

    —Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

    Get useful, unbiased money advice every month with Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Is holding a garage sale worth it?

    Testers

    Yard and garage sales augur spring just as sure as robins, daffodils, and shortstops. They can be a great way to declutter while making a little cash. But for all their effort, are they worth your time? We did a test to find out. 

    Twelve households around Consumer Report’s Yonkers, N.Y., headquarters

    To determine the median time it takes to hold a yard or garage sale, plus the median profit and hourly “wage” for a sale.

    Step 1. Cleaning out closets, attics, garages, and other spaces took from 2 to 20 hours, participants reported.

    Time: 6.54 hours

    Step 2. Publicity included word of mouth and making and posting signs. Several sellers participated in a town or neighborhoodwide sale, which cut the time and money spent on promotion. Lynda Hammond, author of "The Garage Sale Gal’s Guide to Making Money Off Your Stuff" (Gibbs Smith, 2011), suggests making signs no bigger than 15x15 inches that simply say sale, with an arrow. Advertise on Craigslist, eBay Classifieds, GarageSaleHunter, and YardSaleSearch, and local news sites such as Patch. Mention the categories of items for sale. Post your sale on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social-media outlets.

    Time: 0.5 hours

    Step 3. Organizing and pricing took from less than an hour to 6 hours. Hammond maintains that pricing is time-consuming and stressful. She suggests merely asking buyers for their best offer, which could be higher than you anticipate. But our nonscientific analysis of the 12 yard sales showed the median time for pricing in advance was just an hour. One seller saved time with preprinted price labels found at a dollar store. Another priced similar items identically: all kids’ shirts, 25 cents; all kids’ pants, 50 cents. “I really wanted stuff to go, so we kept our prices low and told all comers that we were willing to bargain,” a seller said.

    Time: 1 hour

    Read more from Consumer Reports on the best ways to sell your stuff.

    Step 4. Setting up took half an hour to 5 hours. One seller stockpiled bags and boxes so that customers could carry items easily. Another mentioned the importance of having dollar bills and coins on hand for change. Other tips: Examine your sale goods; you may find lost dollar bills or keepsakes in pockets and corners. Organize items in one place for quick transfer outside on the morning of the sale.

    TIME: 2.24 hours

    Step 5. Most participants held their sales on just one weekend day. But Hammond recommends including a weekday and starting early—say, 6 a.m. on a Thursday or Friday—to snag commuters on their way to work, and parents after they drop off their kids at school. “You’ll have few other sales to compete with, and you’ll get serious shoppers,” she says. One seller let her kids set up a lemonade stand to make their own money and attract customers.

    Time: 6.56 hours

    Step 6. Breaking down and cleaning up took from 15 minutes to 3.5 hours. A seller who holds frequent sales puts unsold items back into labeled bins to be ready for the next sale. But most others donated their leftovers. (Those who itemize can find values for used goods at salvationarmyusa.org.) One seller said she fills bins with discards throughout the year for donation or another yard sale.

    Time: 1 hour

    The most profitable participant netted $956, based on 20.5 hours of work, which translated to an hourly “wage” of $46.63. Four sellers earned less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The lowest hourly “wage” was $4.32; that person netted $80 for 18.5 hours of work.

    Net earnings: $220

    Time: 17.84 hours

    Hourly ‘wage’ (net earnings/time spent): $12.33

    This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 reasons to call it quits on your old car

    By hanging on to Old Faithful, you’re keeping yourself from owning a safer, more efficient, and reliable automobile, not to mention having all of the nice stuff that comes with a newer model. Need more convincing?

    Here’s why you should throw in the oil rag on your old ride:

    Cost of maintenance. No matter how diligently you stay on top of a maintenance schedule, parts inevitably fail. Replacing them is expensive and—depending on the car—the parts can be hard to find. If your monthly repair bills exceed the cost of one month’s new-car payment, that’s a hint to trade up.

    Expired warranty. If your car is approaching an advanced age, even components with longer warranties, such as the engine and transmission, are far off in the rearview mirror. Defects previously covered under warranty get you no sympathy from a mechanic now.

    Efficiency. Direct injection, variable valve timing, cylinder deactivation, more advanced transmissions, and other new technology add up to new cars that go farther than ever on a gallon of fuel and expel fewer carbon emissions. Your old car may have been efficient when you bought it, but as engines age they stop achieving anywhere near the advertised MPG.

    Safety. Older cars lack blind-spot monitoring, collision avoidance, and other new technology, not to mention basics like curtain airbags and electronic stability control. Newer vehicles also have advanced steel and structural architecture that absorb the impact of a crash better.

    You don’t have to rough it. In the past 10 years, features once reserved for luxury cars—such as navigation, Bluetooth connectivity, and heated and cooled seats—are now in everyday vehicles. There’s no shame in allowing yourself to indulge in basic creature comforts.

    Also read: "Do you really need a new car?" and "Get your car to 200,000 miles."

    George Kennedy

    This article also appeared in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to pay for flights via apps and social media

    For some time now, airlines have used social media to send promotional deals to travelers. You also use social media apps to book flights, check flight status, use your phone as your boarding pass, and more. Now passengers can book their flights via Facebook or Twitter on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. JetBlue lets passengers pay for in-flight purchases using Apple Pay. And Virgin America has partnered with Visa Checkout so users can sign in to complete a transaction on a phone, tablet, or computer.

    If you want to fly on KLM, which serves 347 destinations, including 14 U.S. cities, you can request fare information on Twitter. You post a message requesting flight details, and KLM will send you a private message with a link to payment options. Your confirmation is sent via social media. You can also change a flight, check-in, choose a seat, order a meal, or arrange to fly with extra baggage via Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.  

    On JetBlue, customers can pay for food, beverages, onboard amenities, and upgraded seats with Apple Pay. The service is now offered on select coast-to-coast flights from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco, but should be available on all flights next month according to the carrier's website. Later this year, it will be connected to the JetBlue app, so you’ll also be able to book flights with Apple Pay.

    Visa Checkout users can now tap the Visa Checkout button and provide their username and password to pay for Virgin America flights, meals, or services from a phone, tablet, or PC. The service stores your credit card information when you sign-up (which can be done on Virgin's website).

    Want to fly using your frequent flyer miles or points? Our exclusive research shows which airlines book the most award seats

    To get the best deal, we recommend you search for the lowest fares by going to sites like Expedia, Kayak, Orbitz, and Travelocity first. Then compare the best rate you uncover to the options you find on the website, Facebook page, or Twitter feed of the airline you've chosen. That way you'll know if a price sent to you via Twitter or promoted on Facebook is really a great fare.

    ––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    What's your bike helmet habit?

    Do you faithfully wear a helmet every time you hop on a bike? And even if you do, are you sure you’ve got it on right? If not, you’re at risk of head injury and worse if you fall, whether on a city street or a bike trail.

    If you always wear a bike helmet, congratulations. You’re doing better than the nearly 60 percent of Americans who admit they never wear one when out riding their bikes. But Consumer Reports found that even among helmet wearers, there’s still some room for improvement.

    When our staffers observed 570 adult bike riders at a bike riding event near our New York office, we found that though most (84 percent) of the adults were wearing a bike helmet, 20 percent of them had loose chin straps, and about 10 percent of the helmets were on lopsided, meaning riders had them pushed too far back on their heads.

    Find the best bike helmet for you, and check out our bike helmet Ratings.

    Nearly all the 55 children we observed were wearing helmets—a good thing since it’s a New York state law anyway for kids 14 and younger. But more than one-third of the children had loose chin straps or cockeyed helmets. A helmet has to fit snugly to protect you, and it needs to be level, with the front edge no more than an inch or so above your eyebrows.

    Of the one-third of riders who stopped to take our informal survey, 83 percent were wearing helmets, and most of those people told us that their helmet was less than four years old. (Consumer Reports’ experts say you should get a new one if your helmet is gouged or cracked or you’ve been in an accident, even if it doesn’t look like it has been damaged.)  

    About half told us they had been in a bike accident; most said they were wearing a helmet at the time, and that it protected them.

    Most riders paid $21 to $50 for their helmets. The features that were most important to them, in order, were: Fit and adjustability, comfort, and price. Only a fraction admitted that style was a feature they looked for. The 17 percent of survey takers who weren’t wearing a helmet gave these reasons for not wearing one: They were uncomfortable, too difficult to adjust, or too expensive. In our bike helmet tests, we score all of these factors.

    There are no state laws forcing adults to wear helmets while cycling, but many cities and towns do require it, and a bill introduced in California this year would make wearing a helmet mandatory for all adults statewide. Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C., already have helmet laws for kids.

    Nearly 90 percent of our survey takers said they knew about New York's helmet law for kids, and that's good news, says Ilene Marcos, who owns a bicycle shop with her husband in Mount Kisco, N.Y. “People come to our store with their helmet literally in pieces. They say they have no doubt that their helmet saved their life.”

    —Sue Byrne
     

     

     

     

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Are certified preowned cars worth it?

    Dealers tout them, and seemingly savvy buyers look for the label, but does a vehicle that’s “certified preowned” really offŒer an advantage? Is the 100-point inspection that earns a car “certified” status all that thorough? Or are buyers merely plunking down extra cash for an expensive limited warranty?

    By definition, a “certified used car” is one that a manufacturer or dealer has vetted to a set of standards and deemed to be in better operating condition than its peers on the road. In reality, that’s not always the case.

    Certified used cars tend to cost thousands of dollars more than a typical used car—much of that upcharge is due to an included warranty or service contract. Consumer Reports has historically advised against paying extra for separate warranty coverage, often known as an extended warranty—one of the program’s main selling points.

    Actuarial data shows that you might be better served saving the cash you’re putting into the premium price of a certified preowned (CPO) and using it for a rainy day repair on a traditional used car.

    But if your CPO car has a major repair covered within its warranty period, you’ll be thankful you have that warranty. And the dealer’s inspection of a car for certification might sniff out items that could become big problems later. The inspection also should ensure that any outstanding recalls have been addressed.

    Although CPO cars usually come with an extended warranty, dealers will often push buyers toward an extended service contract that covers routine maintenance. Those costs can get expensive as mileage hits major service milestones at 60,000 miles and beyond.

    Be wary. There are various degrees of certification. A used car may be advertised as certified, but it may not have the backing of an official automaker certification program. Some dealers certify cars themselves or sell third-party certifications—and though the car may be plenty reliable, you could be stuck in a paperwork snarl when it comes time to make a warranty claim. You need to be aware of the differences, and you should ask the dealer to provide official documentation so that you know what kind of warranty you are buying. Also, not all certifications may be transferable from a previous owner to the next owner.

    We recommend that you have any used vehicle—certified or not—inspected by a trusted independent mechanic, preferably one experienced in auto-body work. Expect to pay about $100. Not all dealers will let you drive a car off the lot without a chaperone salesman, but a trustworthy dealer should understand your interest in getting an unbiased opinion.

    Most important, just because a car is certified does not necessarily mean it is trouble-free. Consumers have taken legal action claiming that certified inspections were not properly performed, or that certified vehicles had serious defects, some of which affected vehicle safety. Don’t assume that certification means the vehicle hasn’t been wrecked, flooded, or suffered other serious damage—or even that it has been properly inspected.

    Bottom line: We think it’s fine to buy a noncertified car and bank any savings. Choose a reliable model and a vehicle that receives your mechanic’s approval. If you choose a CPO, be sure to read the fine print on any warranty that is offered to determine whether the vehicle has been certified by a manufacturer, dealer, or third party.

    $23,200

    The average amount paid in 2014 for a car labeled ‘certified preowned.’

    2.3 million

    Number of certified preowned vehicles sold in 2014.

     

    George Kennedy

     

    This article also appeared in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 05/10/15--19:44: Drug that can make you dizzy
  • Drug that can make you dizzy

    Feeling dizzy or lightheaded is a side effect of many common drugs. And it can be risky because you could fall and hurt yourself. Falls in general are a major cause of injuries, sending millions to emergency rooms each year and causing more than 25,000 deaths, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Research shows that the more medications you take, the more likely you are to fall. But what can you do? You’re taking the meds because you need them. Turns out, people respond differently to different drugs, so if one makes you dizzy, another might not, say researchers at the Chicago Medical School. Or you might be able to reduce the dose—but only with your doctor’s approval, of course.

    Here are some common drugs that can cause dizziness (all require a prescription, unless noted), plus what to consider trying instead. If you don’t see your drug here but you’ve noticed dizziness, check the drug info given to you by the pharmacist or ask your doctor whether your medication could be the cause. (Important: If you or somebody you are with experiences dizziness along with chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, leg or arm weakness, seizures, or fainting, call an ambulance immediately.)

    Read about shocking side effects caused by sleeping pills, muscle relaxants, and other drugs. 

    Antidepressants

    Used for: Depression and anxiety.
    Examples: Fluoxetine (Prozac) and trazodone (Desyrel).
    What to try instead: Counseling or psychotherapy can often help. But don’t stop taking an antidepressant—or any prescription drug—without your doc’s OK.
     

    Anti-convulsants

    Used for: Bipolar disorder, diabetic neuropathy, epilepsy, and fibromyalgia.
    Examples: Divalproex (Depakote), gabapentin (Neurontin), and pregabalin (Lyrica).
    What to try instead: If you have epilepsy, it’s best to keep taking your meds and ask your doctor about whether you need a drug-level check, adjustment of your dosing schedule, or a different medication. But there’s limited evidence that anti-convulsants help with the other conditions listed, and they can pose serious risks. Talk to your doctor about other options that might be safer and work better.
     

    Blood pressure drugs

    Used for: High blood pressure.
    Examples: All drugs used to treat the condition, including ACE inhibitors such as lisinopril (Zestril), beta-blockers such as propranolol (Inderal), diuretics such as furosemide (Lasix) and hydrochlorothiazide, and calcium-channel blockers such as nifedipine (Procardia).
    What to try instead: Losing weight—with exercise and a healthy diet— can reduce or even eliminate the need for drugs. If that doesn’t lower your blood pressure enough, ask your doc about trying a different drug.

     

    Muscle relaxants

    Used for: Back, head, and neck pain.
    Examples: Cyclobenzaprine (Amrix) and metaxalone (Skelaxin).
    What to try instead: Little evidence shows that those drugs work, so first try nondrug therapies such as a heating pad, exercise, biofeedback, physical therapy, progressive relaxation, massage, and yoga. You might also want to try an over-thecounter pain reliever, such as ibuprofen (Advil and generic) or naproxen (Aleve and generic). They also have been associated with dizziness, but it’s rare.

    Read more about the best treatments for headache, neck, and lower back pain, and 5 things to know about prescription painkillers

    Pain relievers

    Used for:  Pain.
    Examples: Hydrocodone (an opioid) and over-the-counter ibuprofen and naproxen.
    What to try instead: For everyday pain, try acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic).
     

    Sleeping pills

    Used for:  Insomnia.
    Examples: Diphenhydramine (Benadryl, Unisom, Sominex), temazepam (Restoril), eszopiclone (Lunesta), and zolpidem (Ambien).
    What to try instead: A type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy may work as well as or even better than sleeping pills. Also try improving your sleep by avoiding caffeine after dinner and turning off computers and TV within 1 hour of bedtime. 
     

    Nitroglycerin

    Used for: Angina (chest pain).
    What to try instead: There is no substitute for nitroglycerin, but you can reduce your risk of dizziness by sitting down before taking it and remaining seated for up to 5 minutes afterward, says our chief medical adviser, Marvin M. Lipman, M.D.

    These materials were made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by a multistate settlement of consumer fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Make the telephone companies stop robocalls

    Your call is very important to us —NOT!!

    That was essentially the response from AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink, the three largest carriers in the United States, to a written request from Consumers Union (the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports) to take action against the growing onslaught of robocalls.  

    The letters to the telcos were written as part of the EndRobocalls campaign launched by the Consumers Union in February. Close to 300,000 people have signed the petition on the EndRobocalls.org campaign website demanding AT&T, CenturyLink, and Verizon provide customers free, effective call-blocking technologies to stop unwanted robocalls. Over 30,000 have shared their stories of how the deluge of unwanted calls—often over ten calls per day— interrupts their lives and compromises their safety.

    For more information on this subject, read How to End Annoying Robocalls.

    Tut tut, replied Verizon in a letter dated March 9th, 2015. “This is an area where we share a common interest. Robocalls burden our customers and potentially reduce the value of the service we provide.”

    But their sympathy ended there. “Although Verizon works hard to identify and shut down illegal robocalls … currently there is no way for a communications provider to ensure that a network-based blocking solution will not accidentally block a legitimate robocall, such as a school closing or public safety announcement.”

    Verizon’s suggestion: “Industry, law enforcement and consumer groups can work together to tackle this issue.” Meanwhile, consumers are welcome to research, buy and install call-blocking products (such as Nomorobo) on their own.

    AT&T declared in its letter that addressing robocalls “is a business priority for AT&T” and asserted that AT&T is working with “government and industry to combat the problem.” But, they sighed, “no easy or comprehensive solution exists to identify and eliminate the illegal or unwanted telemarketing or robocalls from the billions of calls that traverse carrier networks.”  Perhaps, they suggested, the transition from legacy landlines to Internet Protocol networks “will speed the development of more effective tools.” Don’t hold your breath.

    CenturyLink asserted that it felt your pain. “We understand consumers’ concern about the problem of unlawful, automated calls and share customers’ frustrations.” Its solution was to propose that consumers be reminded “that they need to exercise caution when dealing with any telephone solicitation.”   

    There is a solution

    The fact is, states the Consumers Union’s grassroots organizer Timothy Marvin, “Technology is available to stop robocalls, but [phone companies have] been reluctant to offer it to all [their] customers.” Given that consumers have found Nomorobo—a service designed to stop robocalls—to be effective, Marvin called on the phone companies to explain “why your engineers cannot create software that would provide a similar, or even more effective, service to all of your subscribers.”

    Meanwhile, you can keep up the pressure on the telcos by adding your signature and story at www.EndRobocalls.org. The more people who sign, the less the phone companies will be able to ignore your call.

    Catherine Fredman

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    Is canned fish as healthy for you as fresh fish?

    Q. Is canned fish as good for you as fresh?

    A. Both canned and fresh fish are a good source of protein and other important nutrients, and one isn't necessarily healthier than the other. For example, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that fresh and canned fish have comparable amounts of omega-3 fatty acids—good fats that may help lower your risk for cardiovascular disease

    In fact, a USDA study found slightly higher levels of two omega-3s in canned pink and red salmon than it found in fresh. Canned salmon has other merits, too. A 3.5-ounce serving delivers almost as much calcium as a glass of skim milk—if you eat the soft little bones. Another bonus is that most canned salmon is wild caught, not farmed (the label will indicate if it's wild or farmed), and according to some research, wild salmon contains less mercury than farmed. Wild salmon (both canned and fresh) is also considered safer when it comes to pesticides and is less likely to contain possible carcinogens called PCBs, which have been detected in farmed salmon.

    To determine how much canned tuna you can safely eat, select "Safer seafood choices" in our special report, "Choose the right fish to lower mercury exposure." Also read our report, "How Safe is Your Shrimp?"

    Both fresh and canned sardines are another healthy option. According to the Food and Drug Administration, sardines contain far less mercury than most other fish, and a 3.5-ounce serving contains as much omega-3 fatty acids as pink salmon.  

    However, when it comes to tuna, our experts are concerned about mercury levels in both canned and fresh. Consumer Reports recommends that pregnant women avoid all tuna because mercury can damage the brain and nervous system, especially when exposure occurs in the womb. And we suggest that everyone else limit their tuna consumption based on their body weight. Canned light tuna and fresh skipjack tuna contain less mercury than canned and fresh albacore, but limits based on weight still apply. For example, a 143-pound person can safely eat about 4 ounces of albacore a week, and 13 ounces of light tuna. We also recommend that pregnant women avoid eating other high-mercury fish, such as shark and swordfish.

    This article also appeared in the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    10 cleaning myths and what to do instead

    It’s time to trash some housecleaning remedies that have been passed down for generations yet produce iffy results or, worse, create more work. Consumer Reports asked some cleaning-industry experts about the effectiveness of 10 timeworn tips and here’s what they said.

    Myth: Newspaper does windows well

    Fact: Wet newspaper tears easily and the ink can transfer to window trim, leaving more to clean. “We use microfiber cloths to clean glass,” says Debra Johnson, home cleaning experts for Merry Maids, a national franchise. “They’re the best at cleaning without streaking.”

    Myth: Coca-cola belongs in the toilet

    Fact: Coke isn’t “it” when it comes to cleaning your toilet bowl. “Coke is acidic, so it could be effective at removing hard water stains,” says Johnson. “But even the Coca-Cola website recommends using other options.” Derek Christian, owner of My Maid Service, a home cleaning service in Ohio and Texas, prefers traditional cleansers as well. “The soda could actually darken stains and the sugar could encourage bacteria.”

    Myth: Handwashing dishes is better than using a dishwasher

    Fact: If your dishwasher is a decade old, this may be true, but today’s models beat handwashing by a mile. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star website, using a dishwasher that bears the Energy Star label can save some 5,000 gallons of water, more than $40 dollars in energy costs, and 230 hours in personal time over the course of a year, versus handwashing. And, because dishwashers heat the water to 140°F, they’ll sanitize the dishes, too.

    Myth: Coffee freshens garbage disposers

    Fact: “Coffee grounds may act as a mild abrasive, removing gunk from disposer blades,” says Christian. “But baking soda is a better choice: It’s also mildly abrasive, and because it’s a base it will counteract all the smelly acids that we put down the drain.”

    Myth: Vinegar cleans everything

    Fact: “Vinegar is an acid, so it can cut through dirt and can kill bacteria, but only if you use it at full or nearly full strength,” says Christian. “Most people put a capful in a bucket of water, and that doesn’t do much.” The acids in vinegar can damage natural stone and wood surfaces.

    Myth: Hairspray removes ballpoint ink

    Fact: This may have been true years ago, when hairsprays were formulated with more alcohol (which does remove ink) than they are today, but not anymore. “Today’s hairsprays are full of stiffeners and hardeners that will just make the stain worse,” says Christian. “Just use rubbing alcohol. It’s far less expensive than hairspray, and doesn’t include any extra ingredients.”

    Myth: Bleach cleans everything

    Fact: “Bleach actually doesn’t ‘clean’ anything—because it doesn’t remove soil,” says Christian. “It can lighten stains, making things look cleaner, and it kills bacteria, so it’s better as a sanitizer than as a cleaner.”

    Myth: Feathers make great dusters

    Fact: Genuine ostrich-feather dusters do attract dust, but they’re expensive and are generally not as effective as lambswool or microfiber options. “Most feather dusters just spread the dust around,” says Debrah Vanchura, cleaning pro and owner of Helping Hands in Portland, Ore. Also, they tend to drop feathers—leaving you more to pick up.

    Myth: Cleaning solutions work instantly

    Fact: Nope. “At Merry Maids we recommend allowing any cleaning solution to sit on the surface for two to three minutes,” says Johnson. “Always follow the directions on the product’s label. Some solutions, like disinfectants, need a full ten minutes to truly kill bacteria,” Christian adds.

    Myth: String makes the best mops

    Fact: Industrial-style string mops may look impressive, but studies have shown that microfiber mops are about 20 percent more effective at removing dirt and bacteria, says Christian. “String mops are very absorbent, so they’re great at cleaning up big spills,” he says, “but if you want to make sure you’re not leaving anything behind on the floor, use a microfiber mop.”

    —Adapted from Consumer Reports How to Clean (Practically) Anything

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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