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    Proposed Law Would Roll Back Mandatory Arbitration

    Two Democratic senators have introduced a bill that would cut companies' ability to push consumers with a grievance into arbitration instead of court.

    More and more, companies have clauses in their agreements with customers that force disputes into private arbitration, which often favors the companies. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions have backed this so-called mandatory arbitration.  

    The bill from Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Al Franken (D-Minnesota) would prevent companies from imposing forced arbitration in cases covered by consumer protection laws, as well as in employment discrimination and other civil rights matters.

    "This bill restores the Federal Arbitration Act to what Congress intended, arbitration as a way for businesses to decide to handle their business disputes, but not as a way to insulate their misconduct from accountability to consumers," said George Slover, senior policy counsel at Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

    Paul Bland, the executive director of the consumer-rights law firm Public Justice, said that the proposed legislation would allow consumers to take a company to court even if it has a mandatory arbitration clause in its terms.

    Arbitration clauses are in the fine print of many car loans and leases, credit cards, checking accounts, employment contractsinsurance policies, investing accounts, student loans and even online store and nursing home agreements. The clauses block consumers from taking companies to court to resolve any legal disputes.

    Disputes instead go to a private arbitrator, typically someone chosen by the company. The final decision is usually kept confidential, and there’s little basis for an appeal.

    Arbitration clauses also often bar consumers from joining with other people in class-action lawsuits, an effective way to fight widespread illegal or deceitful business practices.

    A series of Supreme Court decisions have backed mandatory arbitration clauses, citing the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925, which was originally enacted to allow businesses to agree to use arbitration to resolve contract disputes between themselves. For instance, a 2013 ruling the Court found that a company can use its arbitration agreement to stop class-action suits, even if the amount of an individual claim is so small that it is too costly to effectively pursue it as a separate claim.

    The proposed legislation states that the Federal Arbitration Act “did not, and should not have been interpreted to, supplant or nullify the legislatively created rights and remedies which Congress … has granted to the people of the United States for resolving disputes in State and Federal courts.”  

    If you’d like to ask your senators and representatives to support this bill, you can find contact links here.

    For more information on the Supreme Court's arbitration decisions, read this explanation by our colleague, Chris Morran, at the Consumerist.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Straight Talk About Popular Cars and SUVs

    General Motors has been searching for a more appealing formula for its Chevrolet Malibu. While a decent car, the outgoing generation lacked styling verve, fell behind on fuel economy, and didn’t equal its key rivals with rear accommodations. Redesigned for 2016, the new Malibu emerged looking svelte, with a significant weight loss to back it up. But at $26,790 with cloth seats and no automatic climate control, it's not a great deal at full MSRP, even compared to a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry.

    On the other hand, Kia has found a successful recipe; eschewing the bargain-basement cars of their past, recent Kias have been stylish and lavishly equipped, while still selling for attractive prices. Our 2016 Kia Optima EX test car sticks to this plan; equipped with leather and heated front seats, it stickers for just $25,860.

    Toyota updated their RAV4 small SUV, but you'll be hard to spot the changes. The big news is the addition of a hybrid RAV4, filling a void in the marketplace left by the discontinued Ford Escape Hybrid. Unlike the typical hybrid, Toyota doesn't charge a lot more for the fuel-saving technology, helpful given that low fuel prices are hurting the financial case for hybrids—at least until prices go back up at the pump.

    Our previous episode generated a lot of viewer comments about self-driving cars, so we survey the variety of opinions. Some have no interest in surrendering their steering wheel, while others note the confusion surrounding the limitations of today's technology. We also look at the role of driver training versus safety technology for new drivers. Finally, as the podcast equivalent of dessert, we compare and contrast Japanese sports cars from the last 15 years.  

    As with the other "Talking Cars," this episode on popular cars is also available free through the iTunes Store. Subscribe to the video or audio. You'll also find the video on YouTube.

    Share your comments on this show below, and let us know if you need any advice for choosing a car.

    Self-Driving Cars, episode 86
    2016 Detroit Auto Show, episode 85
    2015 Automotive Year in Review, episode 84
    Debating Two Thrilling Mercedes-Benz AMG Cars, episode 83
    Honda Civic, Lexus RX, & Owner Satisfaction, episode 82

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Why Your Valentine's Day Flower Delivery Might Be Late

    If you place an order for a Valentine's Day flower delivery online, you might miss a disclaimer that says the site does not guarantee delivery on major holidays—including Valentine's Day.

    The information may be tucked in the fine print of the site's terms. The 1-800Flowers site, for example, says "The floral and gift business experiences an increased volume of orders during major holiday periods, such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Mother's Day. While we ordinarily can guarantee delivery on the exact date you choose for delivery, the high volume of orders we handle during major holidays prevents us from guaranteeing delivery during those weeks." Teleflora's site suggests you place flower delivery orders several days in advance of major holidays, including Valentine's Day and Mother's Day.

    If there are some major weather problems such as those brought by winter storms, many more orders will likely be delayed. Yanique Woodall, a spokeswoman for 1-800Flowers, told us that the company monitored the weather and delivered many arrangements early as a result. Others, however, could arrive late. "We want our delivery people to be safe, too," she told us.

    If you wait until the last minute to make a change, it might be too late to cancel an online order and pick up a bouquet at your local florist instead. FTD's site, for example, says cancellations must be requested within 24 hours of placing a flower delivery order. If your cancellation is made within the 24 hour time frame but your order is scheduled to ship within 24 hours of its receipt of your notice, FTD says it will not be able to honor your request. It also notes that no requests for credits on product, freight, or shipping charges will be accepted if your shipment is delayed for reasons beyond FTD's reasonable control, including courier delays caused by inclement weather conditions.

    ProFlowers says it does not allow orders to be edited or cancelled within 48 hours of the requested delivery date, or within the seven days prior to Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day or Mother's Day, because of its extremely high volume of orders during these times.

    But you can likely track your order online; if it's going to be delayed, you can let your Valentine know it wasn't because you forgot—really this time.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Tesla to Fix Self-Parking Feature After Consumer Reports Raises Safety Concern

    Earlier this year, American automaker Tesla rolled out its new Summon feature to the company’s high-end electric Model S sedan. Tesla said this feature offers “increased safety and convenience.” It allows the Model S to drive itself up to 33 feet at very slow speeds in order to enter or leave a narrow parking spot or crowded home garage—without anyone inside the car. The operator must be within 10 feet of the vehicle, according to Tesla.

    Summon was included in the Tesla Version 7.1 software update, which was automatically sent out wirelessly to all Model S vehicles, including Consumer Reports’ P85D test car. We’ve tried the feature, and found it can be useful, but we also felt that Tesla’s implementation posed an avoidable safety concern of the car potentially having low-speed impact with objects or walls. We contacted Tesla about our findings and the company has agreed to update the system to make it safer. 

    Why Is Summon Mode Important?

    Summon allows the Model S to be operated by remote control when the car is moving at very low speeds of around 1 mph, driving into your garage and closing the door, or opening the garage door and driving out. (This presumes your automatic garage door system can be operated using the HomeLink standard.)

    Summon also can enable the Tesla Model S to pull in or out of a tight parking spot without a driver. That could save the driver from, say, accidentally dinging another vehicle when opening the door. This is particularly helpful considering the width of the Tesla Model S (2 inches wider than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class; 6 inches wider than a Honda Civic), which can make compact parking spaces even trickier to navigate.

    Summon is relatively simple in concept, but it is an important harbinger of things to come. Self-parking functionality is one of a handful of emerging technologies that is paving the way to a future state of fully autonomous cars, and Tesla has made a point of pushing the envelope by allowing the car to, in limited circumstances, operate without a driver. At Consumer Reports, we consider it part of our mission to test emerging automotive technologies first hand as soon as they become available—and such autonomous features are a primary reason we bought our Tesla Model S P85D last year.

    For instance, we were among the first to use Tesla's "AutoPilot"—a semi-autonomous system that enables the Model S to steer itself to stay in its lane. While we found it useful on the highway, we found that it struggled on secondary roads with unclear lane markings. We cautioned that in those situations, the system should not allow itself to be operated.

    With a software update earlier this year, Tesla made changes to restrict its use on residential roads and roads without a center divider—a move in the right direction. When we tried the new Summon feature recently, the initial implementation gave us pause as well.  

    How Summon Mode Works

    Summon mode is clearly labelled "Beta" and needs to be turned on in the Model S’s on-screen “Autopilot” menu by the owner before it can be used. The user also has to enable “Allow Narrow Spaces” before the vehicle will attempt to tuck into tight spots on its own, and Tesla warns that “Using Summon to park in narrow spaces...increases the risk of damage to your vehicle.”

    Summon initially was designed to operate with a key fob or Tesla smartphone app—and we tried out both. To use the key fob, we held down the top button until the hazard lights went on, and then pressed either the front or the rear of the fob to move the car forward or backward. Pressing any button on the fob stopped the vehicle. The smartphone app worked similarly. A tap on an on-screen button to begin movement, a tap to stop it.

    We tried Summon Mode as a consumer would. Parking it in a narrow-width garage at one of our testers’ homes, and setting up obstacles at our Connecticut auto testing facility to see if the Model S would detect and avoid them. 

    What We Found

    As we used the system, we became concerned that, in an emergency, a user might not be able stop the car right away if they were to press the wrong part of the key fob (the buttons are not marked) or if they dropped the key fob. The operation of Tesla’s app when we tried it on an iPhone 6S had issues too. When we closed the app with the car in motion (something that might happen accidentally), the car continued to move.

    There are fail-safes. The vehicle will stop if it encounters an obstacle that requires additional torque from the motor, a curb, for instance. The vehicle also will stop if anyone touches a door handle, though Tesla didn’t inform car owners of this. Sensors on the vehicle are designed to stop the car if it detects an obstacle in its path. However, the sensors do have blind-spots and cannot see all objects, so it is critical to be vigilant when using this feature, especially if you have children or pets.

    When you first enable the feature, a popup screen states that the Summon system may not detect obstacles that are very narrow, or placed very low or high. Our evaluation bore that out. We tried out the Model S P85D with several large objects that a homeowner might leave in a driveway or on the floor of a garage—such as a duffel bag and bicycle—and the car failed to stop before hitting them. One of our testers also damaged one of the car’s 21" wheels against a curb in his garage when using the Summon mode after he was unable to stop it in time. Obviously, Tesla doesn’t intend for the Model S to be used in Summon mode unsupervised, but if the car cannot be relied upon to stop itself to avoid any obstacle, then it must have a foolproof way for the user to apply the brakes remotely.  

    Tesla Responds To Consumer Reports

    Because of the slow speeds involved, we see these safety concerns as posing a relatively low risk, but the risk is unnecessary. Why? Because Tesla could still offer the Summon functionality on the Model S, but design its controls to operate as a “dead-man’s” switch—thus requiring constant tactile engagement from the user to operate. If you dropped the fob, with a dead man’s control, the car would halt. Other consumer-operated machines, such as lawnmowers, are routinely designed with dead man’s controls to ensure safe operation.

    For Tesla, a similar implementation would require the user to hold down the button on the key fob or app while the car is in motion. Simply letting go would stop the vehicle. BMW has a remote-control parking feature on the 7-Series in Europe, but it requires the user to continue holding the key fob for the vehicle to move.

    As is our normal practice when we have a safety concern, we contacted the manufacturer and described our findings. Tesla got back to us quickly and said that its engineers had examined the issue and had worked out a fix. A new software upgrade to be deployed later this week will limit the Summon operation to the smartphone app and require the user to keep his or her finger on the phone screen—essentially operating it as a dead man’s switch. While you can’t initiate operation of Summon with the key fob—you can stop the vehicle moving by touching a button on the fob.

    Tesla also provided us with this statement:

    “Summon is an important step towards a safer autonomous future. Since introducing Summon just four weeks ago, our customers have used it hundreds of thousands of times safely and successfully. As a beta feature, we continue to test Summon and collect feedback from real-world user experience. Consumer Reports surfaced valid concerns that we’ve already built fixes for, continuing to make Summon and our vehicles better.”

    Assuming the fix works as described, we expect it should resolve the issue, while still maintaining this convenient function on the Model S, and we applaud the speed at which Tesla sought to address our concerns.

    Until cars are truly autonomous and and can detect all obstacles, we'd like to see such safety mechanisms become standard on future vehicles that employ any remote-control operation, starting from launch. That’s a win for consumers—cutting-edge functionality that puts a priority on safety.  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The Fees That Raise Your Electric Bill Even When You Use Less Energy

    You’ve done all the right things: Ditched your old appliances for energy-efficient ones. Installed a programmable thermostat. Switched from incandescent lightbulbs to CFLs or LEDs. Added insulation and sealed cracks around your windows and doors. And odds are that your local utility even encouraged you to make your home more energy efficient. But behind the scenes, their lobbyists are manipulating the system so that you don’t reap the full savings of the energy-efficiency measures you’ve taken. And it’s likely to get worse, according to “Caught in a Fix: The Problem with Fixed Charges for Electricity,” a report commissioned by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

    What’s happening? Some utilities have increased electric rates across the board. But a bill uptick could also be due to a utility trick called higher “fixed charges.” Stay with us here. This is a bit wonky, but important. There are two parts to your electric bill. The charge for the electricity you use, kilowatts per hour, and a mandatory “fixed charge” that every consumer has to pay before the meter even starts running. These per-customer fixed charges have historically ranged from $5 to $10 a month. But many utilities are trying to double or triple the minimum charge, which penalizes consumers who use less energy and reduces their ability to control and lower their bills by using less energy.

    Recent Proposals Regarding Fixed Charges

    Utilities Have a Jekyll/Hyde Relationship With Efficiency

    Many states mandate efficiency targets for utilities, which is a good thing. Lower energy demand means consumers don’t have to pay for as many new power plants or transmission lines and it can lower pollution-related health costs. While utilities have efficiency targets and are rewarded when you use less energy (that’s what’s behind the barrage of customer flyers for efficiency audits and upgrades), some utilities are warning that greater efficiency and the growing use of solar energy will set off a “death spiral” scenario where utilities will see lower revenues and profits. The logic goes that when customers use less energy and have lower bills, utilities see their revenue and profits go down; when utility revenues and profits go down, they will have to charge customers even more, causing more customers to migrate to rooftop solar and further decrease utility revenue.  

    No surprise, the “solution” to this doomsday scenario proposed by many utilities is to increase the mandatory fixed charge. But, as our report found, this doesn’t even solve the purported problem, and there are viable alternatives to raising fixed charges that address the revenue concerns of utilities.

    How Mandatory Fixed Fees Hurt Electricity Customers

    How fees affect your bill. With fixed fees for electricity, homes using less power can be hit with steeper bill increases. This example models the impact of increasing fixed fees from $9 to $25 per month, with a corresponding decrease in the charge per kilowatt-hour (kWh) used.

    Highlights of the 'Caught in a Fix' Report

    • Low‐usage customers are hit the hardest. Customers who use less energy than average will experience the greatest percentage jump in their electric bills when the fixed charge is raised. There are many reasons a customer might have low energy usage: they may be located in apartments or dense housing units that require less energy; they may have small families or live alone; they may have energy‐efficient appliances or solar panels; or they may simply be conscientious about saving energy.

    • Fixed charges disproportionately impact low‐income customers. In nearly every state, low‐income customers consume less electricity than other residential customers, on average. Because fixed charges tend to increase bills for low‐usage customers while decreasing them for high‐use customers, fixed charges raise bills most for those who can least afford the increase.

    • Reduced incentives for energy efficiency can raise costs for all consumers. Increasing the flat charge portion of the bill instead of the variable portion of the bill means that a consumer's efforts to save energy may not translate into a lower electric bill, which reduces the incentive to invest in energy efficiency or distributed generation, in which power is generated at the point of consumption rather than from a central location. With less incentive to save, customers may increase their energy consumption, and states would then have to spend more to achieve the same levels of energy efficiency and clean energy. Where electricity demand rises, utilities will need to invest in new power plants, power lines, and substations, thereby raising electricity costs for all customers.

    Helping You Save Money When You Save Energy

    The good news is that some states have recently rejected utility proposals to increase mandatory fixed charges, which is encouraging, but there are still many pending proposals. Consumers Union is delivering petitions from consumers urging their utility commissioners to reject higher fixed charges. You can sign a petition on the Consumers Union website. If you think that your utility may be raising fixed charges, make your voice heard by calling or writing to your utility commissioners. In the meantime, most consumers can still save money when they save energy.  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Tax Preparation: Save Time, Get Your Refund Faster

    Tax preparation. Ugh. If only you could wave a wand and complete your return instantly. Or better yet, just skip all that and go straight for the refund. 

    Alas, those options aren't available quite yet. But the tips, tricks and tools below can help you smooth the process of preparing and filing your annual tax return, so you get your refund lickety-split.

    Focus first on income

    If you can’t give all your documents to  your tax preparer at once, concentrate on providing your income statements—Forms W-2, 1099, and 1098. In tax preparation, they are the basis of the return.

    If you can’t find a paper statement from an employer or investment company, check the entity’s website. Be aware that your state may now publish Form 1099-G, the state tax refund statement, online only; that’s the case with Connecticut, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. To access that form through your state’s tax authority, go to this directory.

    Sort and file

    Don’t depend on your tax preparer to open paper statements and organize documents. It can add hundreds of dollars to hourly tax preparation bills.  

    In addition to keeping paper copies, consider storing your tax documents on a Web-based storage server, or “cloud.” H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, and TaxAct sponsor similar free services for clients and nonclients. The companies say they use bank-level security encryption.

    H&R Block, TaxAct and TurboTax customers can photograph and upload their W-2s from their Android and iOS smart phones to a company server via free mobile apps. The apps will automatically populate your tax form. The three companies offer varying versions of this service. TurboTax, for example also offers its TurboTax Mobile App; supported devices include Android 4.1 and up, iOS8 or later on iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. H&R Block's Mobile App requires Android 4.0.3 and up, or iOS 8.0 or later. It's compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. The TaxAct Express app addresses a number of tax forms and situations. It requires iOS 6.0 and up; it's compatible with the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, as well as with Android 4.3 and greater.

    See our Income Tax Guide for more advice and tips on preparing, filing and saving on your income tax return.

    Save work when itemizing

    Unless you had a very large unreimbursed medical bill or very expensive long-term-care insurance premiums, don’t bother toting up medical expenses. Your expenses aren’t deductible until they exceed 10 percent of your adjusted gross income. (An exception, for people aged 65 and older, allows for deductions that exceed 7.5 percent; it's applicable through 2016.)

    It's also generally not worth it to figure miscellaneous deductions, including tax preparation fees; dues to professional societies; job-search costs in your current profession; business travel; and work supplies. Only the amount that exceeds 2 percent of your AGI is tax-deductible. Check IRS Publication 529, "Miscellaneous Deductions" [PDF].

    Consider other deductions

    Keep in mind that life changes—yours and those of your family—often yield generous deductions. For example, if you now cover more than half of your mother’s living expenses, you can name her as a dependent even if she doesn’t live with you. Each dependent reduces your taxable income by $4,000 for 2015. Inform your preparer of such changes.  

    Finally, e-file your tax return early to help prevent fraud or theft of your tax refund. But filing early only works if  you have all your W-2s, 1099s, and other forms. Otherwise, you’ll have to prepare an amended return. “You may think you’re doing yourself a favor and you’re not,” says Eric Smith, an IRS spokesman.

    —Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Valentine's Day ETFs Aren't so Sweet

    Cocoa, the essential ingredient for all that chocolate Americans will be buying for Valentine's Day, was one of the few commodities to appreciate in price in 2015. According to World Bank data, the price of the bean increased 14 percent, while most other commodities fell in price, when measured in U.S. dollars.

    Currently, there are not just one, but two cocoa-based exchange-traded funds available to investors, iPath Pure Beta Cocoa (ticker: CHOC) and iPath Bloomberg Cocoa Subindex Total Return (ticker: NIB). But investors hoping to generate returns by investing in these Valentine's Day ETFs may find investing in chocolate more bitter than sweet.

    These two Valentine's Day ETFs have similarities that go beyond their cutesy tickers:

    They're expensive. Both ETFs have expense ratios of 0.75 percent annually, or $7.50 for every $1,000 invested, significantly more expensive than most other ETFs—the average ETF expense ratio is 0.43 percent.

    Even among other commodity ETFs, the cocoa investments are more costly. For example, the SPDR Gold Shares ETF (ticker: GLD) costs 0.40 percent annually, and the iShares Silver Trust (ticker: SLV) has an expense ratio of 0.50 percent. 

    They're small. Collectively the two cocoa Valentine's Day ETFs own about $30 million in cocoa futures contracts and other related investments. In other words, less than 1,000th the size of a typical core stock holding, like the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (ticker: VTI).

    This presents two problems. First, larger ETFs can take advantage of economies of scale, and pass on some of those efficiencies to shareholders in the form of lower costs. Smaller ETFs, with no such advantage, may need to charge more to pay for operating and administrative costs.

    Secondly, smaller ETFs—as these Valentine's Day ETFs are—have a propensity to shut down: More than 100 ETFs closed last year, and most had less than $100 million in assets. When ETFs close, they can present challenges to investors. Liquidating the fund can take time, and potentially result in tax consequences.

    It may seem a bit black-hearted to pick on these Valentine's Day ETFs, but keep in mind that these and most other commodity ETFs aren't designed for individual investors. If you do want a bite of chocolate in your portfolio, you might consider one that pays a dividend: The Hershey Company (ticker: HSH) pays one that yields 2.6 percent.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Beware of These Valentine's Day Scams

    Scammers want to get close to you on Valentine’s Day—close enough, that is, to swipe your credit card number, steal your personal information, and infect your computer with a virus that lets them plunder your address book for future victims. 

    How do they do this? One of the most common Valentine's Day scams is through impostors in which con artists trick you into believing they are a legitimate business—an online florist, for example, or an e-card website. Others are phishing scams, which use fraudulent websites and fake emails to attempt to steal your personal data, especially passwords and credit card information. 

    Three of the most common Valentine's Day scams include:

    Bogus e-cards. Scammers count on your curiosity to open an electronic greeting card when you see an innocuous subject line such as, “Someone you know just sent you an e-card.” Or they circumvent your suspicion by directing you to a website that mimics one of the popular greeting card sites, such as Hallmark, American Greetings, or PaperlessPost. When you click on the link to open the card, however, you’ll load malware onto your computer that opens the door to endless spam for you and your address book contacts. 

    Protect yourself by looking for the confirmation code that proves that the card is legitimate. Use your browser to open the website; don’t just click on the email link.

    Phony package delivery. Scammers piggyback on gifts or flowers that were ordered online by creating phony delivery emails. If you receive an email about a package you didn’t send or a delivery you don’t expect, don’t open it—especially if it asks you to download a form or click to a separate website. Otherwise, the package you receive could be a nasty virus.

    If you receive an email delivery confirmation, be sure to verify the delivery with the shipping company on the phone before opening the email. It could be one of many Valentine's Day scams.

    Phishing through flowers. Phishing emails try to fool you into revealing credit card and other personal information. Especially effective among Valentine’s Day scams are claims to be from a florist: It warns you that the bouquet you ordered for can’t be delivered unless you log in and re-enter your credit card information. This scam works because it reaches enough people who actually have ordered flowers and are worried that their nosegay might not show up on time. However, what shows up on your next credit card statement won’t smell sweet.

    Protect yourself by not clicking on the link and certainly don’t enter your credit card information. If you have questions about the delivery, call the florist directly.

    Share the love on Valentine’s Day—just don’t share Valentine's Day scams. 

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Need Valentine's Day Ideas? These Apps Can Help.

    With Valentine's Day fast approaching, it's MVP time. Not the Most Valuable Player kind. More like Most Valuable Partner. You don’t need a bag full of rose petals or a dozen tea lights to whip up a romantic evening for two. With these apps, you can take care of everything—presents, dinner reservations, and thoughtful gestures—with a smartphone. And if you need a way to bail on a bad date, we’ve got that covered, too.

    Sesame Gifts
    Price: Free
    Platform: iOS, Android, Web
    If you're reluctant to buy jewelry or spa treatments, Sesame is your go-to service. With a gift box for seemingly every valentine, the app lets you swiftly pick a present, select a contact, and get on with making plans.

    OpenTable
    Price: Free
    Platform: iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Web
    Nothing says afterthought like a 40-minute wait on Cupid’s favorite evening. Want to avoid a queue? OpenTable, one of the most popular reservation apps available, lets you reserve a table with any participating restaurant and earn points you can redeem for dining rewards and Amazon gift cards. The more reservations you make, the more points you get, making a follow-up date with your valentine even more attractive. 

    Couple
    Price: Free
    App: iOS, Android
    So the two of you have already made it “Facebook official,” but would rather keep your mushy selfies out of the public eye? Try Couple, an app for, well, couples. With the social network for two, you can send text and voice messages, videos, and photos that disappear Snapchat-style after your partner—and only your partner—has seen them. Sharing your location, to-do lists, and calendars with your significant other has never been easier.

    Blue Apron
    Price: Free
    Platform: iOS, Web
    A homemade dinner for two is not only romantic, but also daunting. Assuming you’re not a five-star chef and you don't own a Wolfgang Puck-designed pressure oven, check out Blue Apron, a subscription service that mails you all the ingredients you need to prepare a delicious meal. It’s like Seamless, but you get the credit for doing the cooking! The service costs $60 and up per week. All meals come packaged in refrigerated boxes with step-by-step instructions for preparation. You can even tailor the chef-made menu options to your valentine's dietary preferences. No meat in the bibimbap? Not a problem.

    Hello Vino
    Price: Free
    Platform: iOS, Android
    If your knowledge of wine doesn’t extend past “red” or “white,” then you might run into an issue picking the right bottle for a romantic evening. Avoid the Two-Buck Chuck and let Hello Vino assist you in making the call. When you tell the app what you’re looking for, it presents a list, including award-winning wines and choices under $10 (in case you’re feeling thrifty). 

    1-800-Flowers
    Price: Free
    Platform: iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Web
    If you want those roses to arrive on time, you better order them right now. The 1-800-Flowers app integrates with your contact list so you can quickly choose a recipient and arrange for delivery. If you want bonus points, find out what her favorite flower is and send a big bouquet of them instead. Just beware: The arrangement that shows up at the door is not always as dazzling as the one in the pictures.

    Fingle
    Price: $1.99
    Platform: iOS
    Think of Fingle as Twister for your fingers. You use your digits to drag squares to various targets in this intimate iPad-only puzzler. We're talking all ten fingers, which makes for some serious and complex hand-on-hand contact. Better yet, there are over 90 puzzles to solve together, so you’ll run out of things to talk about long before you run out of levels. 

    Gotta Go!
    Price: Free
    Platform: iOS
    Of course, even the best laid plans will fail you. If you need to escape an awkward date, comedian Chelsea Handler is here to help. With her Gotta Go! app, you can choose an excuse from her list or create one of your own and have the app text or call you at an appointed time. It can even use your contact list to make it look like your friend’s cat is really stuck up a tree. Seriously! I wish I could tell you more about it, but I really gotta go. 

    Gravy
    Price: Free
    Platform: iOS, Android
    Don’t have a date yet? Well, don’t celebrate your loneliness alone. Get out and meet someone! Gravy can help by telling you which events in your area are “trending.” It even sorts those events based on your interests. The one thing it doesn't have? Pickup lines. You'll have to come up with those yourself.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    4 Signs Your Spouse Is Committing Financial Infidelity

    Valentine’s Day is a time to celebrate relationships, but consider putting a little time aside this month to discuss money.

    "Financial honesty and communication are paramount to a healthy, harmonious, long-lasting relationship," says Leslie Tayne, a New York City financial attorney and author of "Life & Debt: A fresh approach to achieving financial wellness" (Gateway Bridge Press, 2015).  

    On the other hand, Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist and managing partner at Occidental Asset Management in Burlingame, Calif., says he has seen financial deception wreck relationships. Secret bank accounts, hidden big-ticket purchases, money lost on undisclosed bad bets or investments—all are forms of financial infidelity, when one partner believes there is open and honest communication about money, and the other is lying about it.

    And it's on the rise. Two-thirds of adults in relationships combine finances with their partner, according to a January 2016 Harris Poll from the National Endowment for Financial Education. Of those, 42 percent admitted they're committing financial infidelity, compared to 31 percent in 2011.  

    Warning Signs

    Sometimes you don’t know there’s a problem until you face a financial crisis, says Douglas Eaton, a financial adviser in Coral Springs, Fla. But red flags that should make you suspicious your partner is committing financial infidelity include:

    • Your spouse consistently changes the subject or becomes argumentative when you bring up money concerns.
    • He or she wants sole control of your finances or insists on keeping financial-account passwords secret.
    • You uncover hidden cash either in your home or in a bank account that you didn’t know about, or you discover new credit cards or lines of credit opened in your partner’s name.
    • You spot unexpected suspicious withdrawals from investment or other accounts.

    Start the Healing Process

    If you’re dealing with a serious problem, such as a gambling addiction or stealing from household funds, it might be time for professional help. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy has a member locator on its home page. Or you might find a member of the newly formed Financial Therapy Association, a small but growing group of therapists who specialize in helping people with money problems.

    If you think you can work things out on your own, the following tips might help.

    Come clean. Set up time to talk. “You can limit it to, say, 30 minutes to help reduce some of the stress it will cause,” says Bonnie Eaker Weil, Ph.D., a New York City family therapist and the author of “Financial Infidelity: Seven Steps to Conquering the #1 Relationship Wrecker” (Plume, 2009). A full disclosure of any financial infidelity that has taken place and an apology are in order. It’s also a good idea to talk about how money was handled in each of your homes growing up, as well as your money goals, dreams, and biggest fears. “Airing our associations with money helps each spouse understand why they react to it the way they do,” Klontz says.

    Give and get equal access. Set up joint accounts if you haven’t already to pay your bills and to save for mutual goals, such as vacations, car purchases, and retirement, Eaton says. Online access is best so that both spouses can monitor account information. “Also consider imposing spending limits you both agree to,” Eaton says. “For example, my wife and I have a pact that we won’t spend over $500 without a discussion.”

    Then you can each open individual accounts with any remaining household funds that you can use to buy or save whatever you like—with no input from your spouse, which could reduce marital money stress. “I call this the guilt-free account, even if you’re just adding $50 or $100 a month,” Weil says.

    Keep your word. That might sound easy, Klontz says, but sticking with a plan can be the biggest challenge. Try to follow it for 30 days, then talk again and see whether it’s working for both of you. You can make adjustments, or renegotiate your plan if necessary.

    What if you can't come to an agreement? Identify a neutral third party—a financial planner, pastor, or therapist—who can help you work it out and begin to rebuild trust. “I’ve done this with my wife, and I find it has made me a much better listener,” Klontz says.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 02/10/16--14:14: Best New Car Deals
  • Best New Car Deals

    A great price isn't necessarily a good deal if the vehicle doesn't measure up, so we help you choose a good car at a good price with monthly list of best new car deals. The featured vehicle highlighted below has an attractive incentive that can save you extra money, and it is recommended by Consumer Reports, as are all models detailed below.

    Other trims on the vehicles listed may also present good deals. Although incentives all eventually expire, they are often renewed. Research ratings, reliability, owner satisfaction, and the latest dealer pricing on our car model pages

    See our full list of this month's best new car deals below. 

    Click here to receive an RSS feed with the latest car news and deals.

    2016 Ford F-150

    Ford's big-selling pickup truck uses an all-aluminum body, which saves about 700 pounds over steel. Powertrain choices include a 3.5-liter V6, 2.7- or 3.5-liter turbo V6s, and a 5.0-liter V8, each paired with a six-speed automatic. We tested the 2.7- and 3.5-liter turbo engines, and each delivered abundant power. In our tests the 2.7 got 17 mpg overall, 1 mpg better than the turbo 3.5. The 2.7 is also surprisingly quicker from 0 to 60 mph. The cabin is very quiet, but the ride is jittery and handling is rather ponderous. New safety offerings include lane-departure warning and blind-spot detection. Other notable features include a 360-degree-view camera and integrated loading ramps.  

    Model MSRP Invoice price Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2016 Ford F-150 4WD Regular Cab 6-1/2 Ft Box XLT $36,410 $34,162 4/4/2016 10%+

    Get dealer pricing information on more than 1,100 models.

    Small cars

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model name MSRP Invoice Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2016 Chevrolet Sonic Sedan LT $18,420 $18,069 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Hyundai Elantra SE $19,085 $18,764 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Kia Forte LX $18,550 $18,011 2/29/2016 15%+
    2016 Kia Soul + $20,150 $19,330 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Toyota Corolla LE Plus $19,900 $19,153 2/29/2016 5%+

    Sedans

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model name MSRP Invoice Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP (+)
    2016 Audi A3 Sedan quattro 2.0T Premium $35,125 $33,097 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 BMW 3 Series 328d xDrive $42,845 $40,595 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Buick LaCrosse Leather $36,825 $36,107 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Buick Verano Leather $27,430 $26,900 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Cadillac CTS Sedan 3.6L AWD Luxury $56,280 $54,069 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Chevrolet Impala 2LTZ $36,415 $35,171 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Chevrolet Malibu Limited 1LT $24,710 $24,114 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Ford Fusion Hybrid SE $26,865 $25,551 4/4/2016 10%+
    2016 Honda Accord Sedan EX-L V6 $31,580 $29,234 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Hyundai Azera Limited $40,195 $37,882 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Hyundai Equus Signature $62,450 $59,029 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Hyundai Sonata 2.4L SE $22,585 $21,994 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Infiniti QX70 AWD $48,295 $45,284 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Toyota Avalon Limited $41,285 $38,470 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Toyota Camry XLE $27,145 $25,632 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Volkswagen CC DSG Sport $35,340 $34,077 2/8/2016 5%+
    2016 Volkswagen Passat 1.8T SEL Premium $35,090 $33,835 2/8/2016 5%+
    2016 Volvo S60 T5 Drive-E $35,090 $33,541 2/29/2016 5%+

    SUVs

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model name MSRP Invoice Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2016 BMW X3 xDrive28i $41,945 $39,770 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Buick Enclave Leather AWD $46,585 $45,215 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Chevrolet Traverse AWD 1LT $36,900 $35,820 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Dodge Durango AWD Limited $40,590 $39,234 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Ford Flex SEL AWD $35,145 $33,815 4/4/2016 5%+
    2016 GMC Acadia AWD SLT1 $43,945 $42,654 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport AWD 2.0T $33,895 $32,501 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Kia Sorento EX V6 AWD $34,795 $33,381 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Nissan Murano AWD SL $39,550 $37,723 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Nissan Rogue AWD SV $26,990 $25,967 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Toyota RAV4 AWD XLE $28,570 $27,684 2/29/2016 5%+

     

    Minivans

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model MSRP Invoice price Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2016 Honda Odyssey EX-L $36,950 $34,186 2/29/2016 10%+
    2016 Toyota Sienna XLE Premium, 8-Passenger $39,505 $37,483 2/29/2016 5%+

    Sports Cars

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model MSRP Invoice price Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2016 BMW 2 Series Coupe M235i $45,145 $42,715 2/29/2016 5%+
    2016 Hyundai Veloster $19,935 $19,541 2/29/2016 15%+
    2016 MINI Cooper Hardtop S $24,950 $23,162 2/29/2016 5%+

    Wagons

    Get dealer pricing information on the vehicles listed below.

    Model MSRP Invoice price Incentive expiration date Potential savings below MSRP
    2016 Toyota Prius v Three $28,895 $27,876 2/29/2016 5%+

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Drone Privacy: Is Anyone in Charge?

    In 1942 a chicken farmer outside of Greensboro, North Carolina, sued the U.S. government. He said the frequent, low overflight of military aircraft on the adjacent runway was scaring his birds and damaging his livelihood, and he wanted compensation. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1946. And one result of United States v. Causby was that the Court set the limits of private airspace: If you own a house, your property rights extend 83 feet up into the air.

    That’s a quaint—and thankfully irrelevant—limit when it comes to manned aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration keeps planes much higher than that, save on approach and take-off, and even then most airports require a decent buffer around them. But the 70-year-old ruling has new importance in the age of drones. It remains the only clear federal statement of law on how far above the ground your property ends. And that has raised concerns among some privacy advocates, who question whether anyone from a pesky neighbor to a police department to Amazon’s planned delivery service should be allowed to fly above private property, potentially shooting video from the level of the treetops.

    Now a federal lawsuit, which was argued today in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, is trying to force the Federal Aviation Administration to set rules protecting citizens from such privacy intrusions. The action was brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC); among other points, EPIC wants the FAA to make it easy for citizens to find out whether drones flying overhead have surveillance capabilities. The group also wants to protect the privacy rights of drone pilots, who have been required to register with the FAA since December.

    This isn’t the first time that EPIC has tried to compel the FAA to focus on drones and privacy, but the agency argues that its authority is limited to making sure that drones are safe. For now, the question remains: If the FAA isn’t protecting your right to privacy from drone spying, who is?

    Paparazzi Laws

    Privacy concerns can lead to hot tempers. Last year, a Kentucky man use a shotgun to blast a drone out of the air above his home. A New Jersey man did the same thing in 2014, and a woman in Seattle called the police when she feared a drone was peeping into her apartment. (The drone belonged to a company conducting an architectural survey.) And in November, repeated night-time overflights by a drone prompted calls to Albuquerque police complaining of trespassing—the police concluded that the flyer wasn’t breaking any laws.

    State laws already on the books offer some privacy protections, especially if a drone is shooting photos or video. Erin E. Rhinehart, an attorney in Dayton, Ohio, who studies the issue, says that existing nuisance and invasion-of-privacy statutes would apply to drone owners. If you could prove you were being harassed by a drone flying over your house, or even that one was spying on you from afar, you might have a case against the drone operator. But proof is difficult to obtain, she says, and not everyone agrees on how to define harassment.

    Some states are trying to strengthen their protections. In California, nervous celebrities may benefit from a law signed by Governor Jerry Brown this past fall. The meat of the legislation reads, “A person is liable for physical invasion of privacy when the person knowingly enters onto the land or into the airspace above the land of another person without permission…in order to capture any type of visual image, sound recording, or other physical impression of the plaintiff.” And a similar privacy law in Wisconsin makes it illegal to photograph a “nude or partially nude person” using a drone. (Dozens of states have passed or are considering drone-related laws.)

    Most of these statutes are carefully worded to focus on capturing images, because the states can’t control where drones are allowed to fly—that’s up to the FAA. Robert Kirk, an attorney who advocates on the part of companies that want to use drones for surveying, thinks that privacy laws that single out drones could be challenged in court. “The FAA has taken the position that any regs that deal with air safety reside solely with the FAA,” he says. “The trouble is going to be whenever someone comes after a drone operator and we’re moving into privacy and trespass, areas that are more traditionally in the realm of state and local authority.” The upshot: Authority is split between the federal government and the states. And no one currently has the authority to broadly protect privacy by preventing drones from flying over people’s homes.
     

    What's Next for Drone Privacy?

    Someday soon, Amazon promises, drones will zip around neighborhoods, quickly and efficiently delivering small packages. If they do, they are very likely to have the legal right to fly over your house—and the same goes for commercial land surveyors using cameras to prepare maps. “If the drone is simply traveling over your property, but didn’t do any harm, then there are no damages and, therefore, you would not have a trespass claim under most states’ laws,” Rhinehart, the Ohio lawyer, says.

    When it comes to the use of drones by law enforcement, the situation is less clear-cut. The Supreme Court has ruled that aerial surveillance by police forces is legal, whether the subject is on private or public property. This came up in two cases in the 1980s, when the Court decided that the police hadn’t needed a warrant to take aerial photos of marijuana plants growing in residential backyards. However, the advent of drone technology has made it much easier and cheaper for police departments to conduct such surveillance. And states have been grappling with the implications. Both Nevada and Virginia have passed legislation requiring the police to obtain a warrant before using a drone for surveillance. However, Texas has gone in the opposite direction, saying that law enforcement agencies need only probable cause. This is an issue that could end up being decided in federal court.

    The EPIC lawsuit is not the only effort to expand the FAA’s role into the privacy realm. A law proposed by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act, would require the agency to ensure baseline privacy and transparency safeguards, which would apply to both private drone operators and law enforcement. 

    The ACLU, which supports the Markey bill, argued as far back as 2011 that a lack of oversight could lead to excessive surveillance by law enforcement using drones. Yet some legal analysts warn that the opposite situation also poses dangers: If regulations were poorly written, they could end up protecting government and commercial operators of drones, while restricting everyone else. For instance, some states are considering laws that would prevent journalists from using drones to photograph conditions on big industrial farms, according to Margot Kaminski, a law professor at Ohio State. Kaminski urges patience on the federal level. “Clarity comes at the cost of experimentation, and early law is likely to be over-reaching,” she says. Some restrictive laws could end up being struck down in the courts. But by letting states, counties, and towns try to get this right, Kaminski argues, we may end up with a reasonable understanding of when and how drones fit into our daily lives.

    And that includes how drones can be used for good, not just as intrusions. These aircraft are already being used for everything from stunning film-making to search-and-rescue operations to water conservation work on farms. Drones can also enhance safety by taking over both such mundane applications as inspections of leaky roofs, and high-profile tasks such as monitoring natural disaster sites. The challenge is to find the right balance between the right to the skies and the right to privacy.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Dos and Don'ts of Itemized Deductions

    Itemized deductions can come and go like the weather: Each year Congress changes something, the Internal Revenue Service issues opinions, and tax courts make new rulings. If you like a challenge, learning this year's itemized deduction options is like playing an invigorating game of chess. If you don't, it's a tedious round of hide-and-seek. But either way, it's worth knowing the rules among more-common itemized deductions, as outlined in our dos and don'ts below.

    Charitable donations

    Do pay attention to donation rules. The IRS requires receipts for all deductible donations. All charitable deductions, no matter how small, must be substantiated either by a canceled check; bank record containing the charity’s name, donation amount, and date; or a detailed receipt from the charity. Otherwise the contribution cannot be an itemized deduction.

    Do collect your charitable acknowledgements, receipts, and cancelled checks in one place. If you make cash donations, you'll need either a bank statement or a written communication from the charity noting the charity name, your donation amount, and the date. For more, check IRS Publication 526, "Charitable Contributions."

    Don't claim donations of furniture, clothing, and other household goods that weren't in at least good condition when you gave them. While the IRS rule aims to weed out junk donations, taxpayers may claim an itemized deduction of more than $500 for any single item in any condition as long as a qualified appraisal is included with their return.

    Medical expenses

    Do deduct premiums for the Medicare Part D prescription drug insurance program, as well as other health-insurance premiums you pay yourself. The premiums for long-term-care insurance are deductible on a sliding scale according to your age.

    Do deduct gas mileage expenses for your car when used for medical reasons. The 2015 rate for such deductions was 23 cents per mile for medical travel.

    Do read the IRS list of deductible medical and dental expenses in IRS Publication 502, "Medical and Dental Expenses." The following costs, for example, are deductible to the extent that they address a health issue: wigs recommended by a doctor for the mental health of a patient suffering hair loss due to disease, special mattresses and bed boards, back supports, elastic hosiery, childbirth classes (fees for the mother only), and remedial reading instruction for dyslexic children.

    Don't expect much. You can only deduct unreimbursed medical and dental expenses that exceed 10 percent of your adjusted gross income (for those age 65 and older, the threshold is 7.5 percent though 2016). But if you're self-employed, your health-insurance premiums may be 100 percent deductible. See Publication 502 for eligibility criteria.

    Retirement accounts

    Do contribute to an IRA if you're eligible. Taxpayers younger than 50 can still put in up to $5,500 for 2015; those 50 and older can sock away $6,500. For 2015, if you're single and covered by a retirement plan at work, your deduction for contributions to a traditional IRA will be phased out if your adjusted gross income is more than $61,000 but less than $71,000; the limits are $98,000 but less than $118,000 for joint filers. (After those upper limits, you get no deduction.) You have until the filing deadline to make a contribution. See IRS Publication 590, “Individual Retirement Arrangements,” for more information.

    Do fund a SEP IRA if you made money from self-employment last year. 

    —Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

    See our Tax Guide for more advice and tips on preparing, filing and saving on your income tax return.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    2017 Nissan Armada Gets a Full-Size Update

    Nissan continues to freshen its U.S. product lineup with the unveiling of the second-generation Armada at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show. Essentially a mainstream version of the Infiniti QX80, the long-awaited 2017 Nissan Armada will be offered in both two-wheel and four-wheel drive.

    Beyond the well-dressed Infiniti version, this body-on-frame hulk of an SUV is currently offered in other markets, where it is known the Nissan Patrol. This time around, the Armada will be assembled in Japan with the Patrol, and it no longer shares mechanicals with the Titan pickup truck.

    If there is one thing that can be said about the Armada’s styling, it is that it looks sturdy. It’s boxy, yet has a more modern flair now with body-colored bumpers and blacked out grille surrounded by chrome accents flanked by LED and halogen combination headlights.

    Inside the 2017 Nissan Armada, the focus is on creating a premium feeling in the spacious interior. Heated front buckets seats will be standard, and a variety of seating configurations will be available for rows two and three. Standard seating in the back are 60/40-split bench seats, but row two can be had with bucket seats, reducing the seating total to seven. 

    The family-oriented Armada includes traditional safety elements, such as roof-mounted curtain airbags with rollover sensor for side-impact and rollover head protection for outboard positions in all three rows. Unfortunately, advanced safety systems we recommend—like forward-collision warning, auto emergency braking, and blind-spot warning—are packaged as an optional technology package that is available on only the two upper trims. That package also includes adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warning with braking, and rear cross-traffic alert.

    One of the biggest needs with the outgoing Armada was an improvement over the mere 13 mpg combined fuel economy we recorded. The updated 5.6-liter V8 gains both horsepower and torque, with 390 hp and 401 lb.-ft., respectively. Fitted with a new direct-injection system and other tweaks, Nissan is aiming at increasing fuel economy and performance. The Infiniti QX80 returned 15 mpg overall in Consumer Reports tests, and we would expect that the Armada would perform similarly. Both the 2WD and the 4WD will have towing capacity rated to 8,500 lbs.

    Three trim levels, SV, SL, and Platinum, will be available when the 2017 Nissan Armada hits dealerships later this year. Pricing will be announced shortly before arrival.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    NHTSA expands Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep Shifter Investigation

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expanding its investigation of the automatic transmission shift lever in 2014-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees, and 2012-2014 Chrysler 300s and Dodge Chargers with the V6 engine.

    Investigations like this are often precursors for recalls.

    The problem stems from the unique shifter layout used for Chrysler's eight-speed automatic. Traditional shifters use a lever that physically moves into a gear position, providing visual and tactile confirmation for the driver. In contrast, the Chrysler shifter pops back to a central position after the gear is chosen rather than staying in a set detent.

    Consumer Reports pointed out in our road tests of these cars that this design is unintuitive and that finding the various shifter positions can be vague. NHTSA agrees, having conducted its own human factors evaluation of the shifter. Chrysler says it's cooperating with the investigation.

    NHTSA's announcement shows that consequences from bad control design go far beyond being mere inconveniences. Consumers report 306 incidences of Grand Cherokees rolling away when parked with the engine running, causing 117 crashes and 28 injuries. Another four crashes and two injuries are attributed to the 300 and Charger.

    Much of this risk can be avoided simply by programming the transmission to automatically select Park once the engine is shut off or the driver's door opens, whichever comes first. Indeed, other car companies with similar complicated shifter designs use this logic. Instead, the Chrysler stays in Neutral and doesn't even let you shut off the engine if the car isn't in gear. Possibly intended as a failsafe, this design quirk doesn't seem to protect drivers from the error. 

    But electronic programming logic is no substitute for designing a shifter that's intuitive to use in the first place.

    Chrysler has better shifter designs on other products; the Dodge Durango and Ram pickup use the same transmission, but with a more intuitive dial shifter. Indeed, the shifter in question is being phased out; 300 and Charger incorporated a more traditional shifter design after their 2015 update, and the Grand Cherokee gains one for 2016.

    Chrysler is far from the only manufacturer making confusing shifters. For instance, the Lincoln MKC was recalled to redesign its unique push-button shifter after drivers accidentally shut off the ignition while bracing against the buttons to control the car's touch-screen infotainment system.

    Unique shifter designs let car companies create a distinctive brand image, one that the driver interacts with every day. Shifting a Mercedes into gear is different from a BMW, which is different from an Audi. But when the stakes are as high as making sure the car is properly in Park, Consumer Reports believes foolproof simplicity is paramount. 

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The Latest in Low-Maintenance Living

    Creating a beautiful home is always goal number one among remodelers. But making the place more functional is a close second. These days, the home that works the best is the one that requires the least amount of upkeep. That’s especially true among millennials, who are looking for move-in ready properties that promote “stress-free living.”

    Manufacturers are taking note with a slew of products and materials that lower maintenance without sacrificing style. Here are seven tips from Consumer Reports’ latest tests and surveys that will help you drive the low-maintenance living trend home.

    Interior Features That Count

    Choose a countertop that resists stains
    Natural stone, including marble and granite, makes for a beautiful countertop, but staining is an issue unless you regularly apply a protective sealant. A more low-maintenance option is quartz, an engineered material made from stone chips, resins, and pigments, that stood up stains in our tough countertop tests, as well as scratches, cuts, and high heat.

    Go for the least fussy finishes
    Stainless steel has dominated appliances for decades. The only knock against the material is that it can be prone to smudges and fingerprints. That’s creating a lot of interest in black stainless steel, which has a darker, matte finish than traditional stainless, and fends off smudges and prints. In a recent survey by Houzz, the home design website, nearly two thirds of respondents said they would consider black stainless steel.

    As for kitchen fixtures, our tests have found that faucets with a physical vapor deposition, or PVD, finish are best at resisting scratches; the protective coating comes in nickel, copper, pewter, bronze, gold, and polished brass. Undermount sinks provide easier cleanup, with stainless steel offering the best protection against stains, scratches, and impact from sharp objects.

    Trade in the carpet for hard flooring
    For all its softness underfoot, wall-to-wall carpet requires regular vacuuming, not to mention constant fretting over spilled wine and other would-be stains. That’s driving more interest in low-maintenance hardwood flooring. Budget permitting, it’s worth paying more for solid wood flooring with a factory finish. Besides adding extra protection, factory finishes are typically covered by a manufacturer’s warranty, though you’ll still want to put felt pads under heavy furniture to prevent scratching.


    Home Buying and Selling Advice


    Upkeep You Can't Ignore

    Maintain the mechanical systems
    Your home’s heating, cooling, and ventilation equipment is the engine that keeps things running. When replacing this equipment, use our survey data to find the most reliable manufacturer. For example, we have found American Standard and Trane to be among the least repair-prone manufacturer of gas furnaces.

    Installing central air conditioning is another upgrade that’s become more popular, since it eliminates the need to install and remove window AC units during the year. Finding a trustworthy contractor to install and service the system is essential. We recommend using a technician who is certified by a trade organization, such as North American Technician Excellence or HVAC Excellence.

    Don’t skimp on exterior coatings
    Our tests find wide variation in the performance of paints and stains that cover wood surfaces on a home’s exterior, including siding, fences, and decks. As a general rule, the economy grades of exterior paints don't weather as well as top-of-the-line products from the same brand. When it comes to stains, solid formulas typically hold up the longest, while clear stains provide the least protection. Semitransparent wood treatments are a good compromise if you want to see some of the wood grain but don’t want to have to refinish every year.

    Maintain the roof
    There’s a reason prospective buyers always ask about the condition of the roof. It’s the first line of defense against water damage, ice dams, pest infestations, and other potential disasters. Be on the lookout for cracked, curled, or missing shingles, which are signs that the roof is near the end of its life. The flashing around chimneys, skylights, and roof valleys is another common failure point, so periodically have that area inspected.

    Keep the plumbing lines flowing
    Clogs and leaks can be enormously costly, and a good home inspector will be sure to spot them when you go to sell your home. A few simple precautions can really pay off. For example, using a toilet paper that scored well in our disintegration test will be easier on plumbing lines, especially in older homes. Similarly, some of the models in our toilet Ratings had trouble resisting drainline clogs in our simulated solid waste removal test.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Whirlpool Settles Dishwasher Fire Lawsuit With Offer of Rebates and Repairs

    It took six years but Steve Chambers finally got justice for a dishwasher fire that destroyed his KitchenAid model. When Whirlpool, which made the dishwasher, refused to investigate or to refund the cost of his ruined appliance, Chambers, of Frederick, Md., became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the company. This year Whirlpool agreed to a settlement that could benefit hundreds, if not thousands, of owners of KitchenAid, Whirlpool, and Kenmore dishwashers.  

    According to plaintiffs in the litigation, the electronic control boards of certain Whirlpool, KitchenAid, and Kenmore dishwashers manufactured between October 2000 and January 2006 overheated, ignited, or emitted smoke, sparks, or fumes—and stopped working. They further charged that the defendants breached warranties, were negligent, and violated various state consumer-protection statutes.

    As part of the dishwasher fire settlement, the defendants deny that the dishwashers in question have any defect or pose any unreasonable safety or fire hazard. They also deny having violated any law or engaged in any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, any current or former owner of one of the dishwashers listed in the settlement website can receive a cash rebate from Whirlpool of 10 to 30 percent, depending on circumstances, when purchasing a new KitchenAid, Kenmore, or Whirlpool dishwasher.

    To find our whether a dishwasher you own or owned qualifies, you’ll need to match your model and serial number to the list included in the settlement website’s Court Documents section. Any overheating problem must occur no later than February 4, 2018, and a prospective claimant has 120 days from the date the dishwasher fire or related problem occurred to report it to the settlement administrator.

    Appliance fires are not uncommon, as we detailed in our 2012 report, “Appliance Fires Pose a Safety Concern,” which included mention of Steve Chambers and other homeowners who experienced dishwasher and other appliance fires.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Why Chronic Insomnia and Other Sleep Problems Get Ignored

    Up to 70 million Americans have a sleep disorder such as chronic insomnia—and this condition and others can bring persistent difficulty sleeping and subsequent trouble functioning during the day. More than 40 million don’t get properly diagnosed or treated, according to research published in the journal Sleep Medicine.

    Some people may be unaware of sleep interruptions, and often, “patients don’t bring their sleep to the attention of doctors because they don’t think it’s ‘medical’ or think they should tough it out,” says Matt T. Bianchi, M.D., Ph.D., director of the sleep division at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

    Past surveys have shown that medical schools have formally devoted, on average, less than 2 hours to sleep medicine, and doctors might not routinely discuss sleep problems at office visits. A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that only 25 percent of primary care providers asked new patients about insomnia or other sleep issues, although many had signs of problems. Doctors might also find it hard to pinpoint which of the 60 sleep disorders is the culprit because symptoms may be unclear, and other illnesses and habits may affect rest.

    If you often have trouble falling or staying asleep, or can’t function normally, your primary care provider can help rule out illnesses that can affect sleep, such as depression and overactive thyroid, and might be able to zero in on the cause of your sleep problem. If not, a board-certified sleep specialist can conduct a detailed evaluation. Here we cover how three common sleep disorders are evaluated.



    Read our special report on why Americans can't sleep, which includes information on how to fall asleep the natural way, details on the problem with sleeping pills, and much more.
     


    Chronic Insomnia

    Affecting about 10 to 15 percent of adults, chronic insomnia is defined as trouble falling or staying asleep at least three times per week for three months or longer (Typical insomnia occurs less often or for a shorter period of time). If you are experiencing these sleep problems, your doctor will ask about symptoms and their effects—whether, for example, your partner says that you snore. He will also ask lifestyle questions and try to identify whether habits such as heavy caffeine or alcohol consumption, use of electronic devices close to bedtime, or medications could be contributing.

    If your doctor can’t get to the root of your insomnia, see a sleep medicine physician. This specialist might have you keep a sleep, exercise, and food and alcohol diary, and might order actigraphy testing, which helps track your sleep schedule with a wristwatchlike device. If the sleep medicine physician suspects another sleep-disrupting problem, he can order an overnight sleep lab polysomnogram. Here, as you sleep, electrodes record your brain waves, heartbeat, breathing, eye movements and blood oxygen levels. Sensors measure chest movement and the strength and duration of your breaths.

    Obstructive Sleep Apnea

    Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, characterized by numerous brief pauses in breathing during sleep, can cause significant daytime sleepiness. Sufferers may also fall asleep at inappropriate times.

    An estimated 25 million Americans have OSA, with 12 million to 18 million undiagnosed. And research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggests that OSA may often be misdiagnosed as depression.

    To properly diagnose OSA, you’ll need a sleep lab polysomnogram or an overnight home sleep apnea test, where electrodes record breathing and heart rate, blood ­oxygen levels, and chest movements but usually not brain waves. This may not detect mild apnea and is prone to false negatives, so if results are negative but your doctor strongly suspects apnea, you’ll need a polysomnogram.

    Restless Legs Syndrome

    Restless legs syndrome, or RLS, which affects about 10 percent of American adults, causes leg sensations such as burning, a creepy-crawly feeling, throbbing, and an uncontrollable urge to move your lower limbs. That can make it hard to fall asleep and can wake you up.

    Doctors might mistake RLS for conditions such as anxiety, arthritis, back injury, and poor circulation. It can also mimic diabetic neuropathy. In one study, 81 percent of people with RLS reported symptoms to their doctor, but just 6 percent received proper diagnoses.

    You don’t need a polysomnogram to diagnose RLS unless your doctor can’t pinpoint which sleep disorder you have. A symptom history and exam should be enough, says the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2016 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

     

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Android Wear Smartwatches Have a 'Me Too' Problem

    Is Android's open-source operating system saddling us with boring smartwatches? It sure seems that way.

    Given that companies such as LG, Motorola, and Huawei all use Android Wear, you'd think we'd have plenty of interesting options. Instead, we're confronted time and again with the same apps, same display tech, even the same buttons—all wrapped up in a roundish case designed to appeal to your mom and dad.

    That’s not all bad. The Android Wear OS does provide easy access to the great things smartwatches can do on their relatively small displays. But manufacturers need to try harder to differentiate their offerings—if not from the competition, at least from other Android Wear makers. According to Jupiter Research, many consumers don’t yet see a need for a smartwatch. And with all those “me too” offerings, why should they?

    Case in Point: Fossil Q Founder

    It's an attractive watch with a large, round, 1.5-inch touch-screen display, a shimmering stainless steel case, and linked-bracelet watchband. Like many smartwatches we’ve tested, it’s designed to meet IP67 standards for dust and water resistance, which means it could survive a three-foot dunk in water for about 30 minutes.

    But none of that makes it unique. As with Android Wear watches from Motorola, LG, and Huawei, you access most of the core features on the Q Founder with a tap and a swipe. The crown-style button on the right side—another Android Wear staple—can be used to wake up the watch, make a selection, or back out of an activity.

    Even the apps Fossil created for the Q Founder are too ho-hum to generate excitement. A Fossil fitness app? No, thanks. The Q Curiosity app, on the other hand, is supposed to present you with a series of weekly challenges designed to make you interact with others, so I gave it a try. But those “challenges,” which include sharing pictures with friends, soon seemed pointless. I have much more fun frittering my time on Facebook.

    In the few instances where this $275 smartwatch does stand out, it's not in good ways. It’s bulky and heavy, measuring 2.5 inches wide by 0.5 inches thick and weighing a whopping 6 ounces. The band requires special tools if you want to adjust it to accommodate a thinner wrist. What’s more, the Q Founder is missing something other Android Wear watches in this price range do have: a heart-rate monitor. And Fossil says the Q Founder's battery has a 24-hour lifespan. On my wrist, however, the watch quit just after supper. Preliminary battery-life tests by our lab technicians also confirm this underwhelming performance.

    Motorola Moto 360 Sport: A More Tempting Choice

    By contrast, the Moto 360 Sport has all the app access and functionality of an Android Wear smartwatch, plus a few fitness-focused features.

    The modified interface lets you get started on your workout with just a few taps on the display. The default watch face and app readouts provide excellent summaries of your progress. And the built-in GPS lets you more accurately track the distances you’ve traveled without having to lug a smartphone.

    The $300 device looks and feels sporty, too, with a waterproof silicone band that snugly encases the watch. I’m not a fan of elastic watch bands, especially the ones that come in garish colors—they feel fake to me. But I did find the Flame Orange band on my 360 Sport test sample easy to put on and comfortable to wear.

    The watch also has about 4GB of internal storage for music, ample for your favorite workout tunes.  

    Notably smaller and lighter than the Fossil Q Founder, the Moto 360 Sport measures 1.8 inches wide by 0.5 inches thick and weighs just under 2 ounces. As a result, it felt much less awkward on my wrist. The 1.37-inch display is slightly narrower than the one on the Fossil, though it’s more than adequate for reading the data—including my Walking Dead fitness stats. Battery life seemed better, too. On a full charge, my 360 Sport stayed with me way past bedtime.

    Bottom line: Android Wear is a top-notch operating system. But if Fossil and other newbie smartwatch makers intend to earn high marks with consumers—and Consumer Reports engineers—they can't just stop there. They need to add uniquely useful features and top-performing hardware, much like Motorola did.  

    Look for test results for both watches in our smartwatch Ratings in the coming weeks.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Slide-in and Built-in Appliances Give Your Kitchen a Sleek Look

    Slide-in and built-in appliances are hot in kitchen design—these models sleekly integrate into their surroundings. Consumer Reports just tested the Sharp SM-D3070AS built-in microwave drawer (shown above) and the Kenmore Pro 34913 slide-in gas cooktop (shown below), which join our growing list of tested slide-in ranges boasting stylish design. Here’s what we found.

    Sharp SM-D3070AS Microwave

    The 30-inch-wide Sharp SM-D3070AS microwave drawer ($1,100) can be installed under a countertop with a cabinet below, including in an island or peninsula, removing it from sight lines. You can also place it below a wall oven. The stainless finish and the concealed control panel add to its sleek look, and the drawer glides in and out with a push of a button or a gentle tug. 

    Beyond form, there’s function. This 1,000-watt microwave, which has a sensor to help determine when food is done, was mediocre at defrosting a pound of frozen ground beef and even worse at evenly heating a bowl of mashed potatoes. It wasn’t that fast at heating, either. However, it is relatively quiet and easy to use.

    By the numbers
    There’s no turntable, so usable capacity is 1.1 cubic feet, bigger than most of the over-the-range microwaves we tested, and it fits a 9x15-inch baking dish. Warranty is one year on parts and labor, but five years on the magnetron tube (which creates heat).


    Kenmore Pro 34913 Cooktop

    At 36 inches wide, the Kenmore Pro 34913 slide-in gas cooktop ($2,400) is the first slide-in cooktop we’ve tested. The frame and front are stainless, with beefy knobs up front. Continuous grates make it easy to slide a pot from one burner to another. There are six burners and a ceramic glass cooktop, which adds a modern touch. A griddle pan is part of the deal.

    This Kenmore Pro model did deliver fast heat when we used the highest-powered burner, but unlike most gas cooktops we tested, it scored a poor in in our simmering tests. The temperature of the highest-powered burner, when set to low, was too high and couldn’t simmer a pot of tomato sauce. Instead, it boiled the sauce. 

    By the numbers
    There are six burners—three high-power, two medium-power, and one low-power. Warranty is one year for parts and labor. Note that this gas cooktop cannot be installed over an oven.


    Samsung NX58H9500WS Range

    Slide-in ranges create a built-in look, but easily slide in between surrounding cabinets. The knobs are up front and there’s no back panel. Our tests found that the 30-inch wide Samsung NX58H9500WS gas slide-in range ($2,250) was the best of the gas single-oven slide-in ranges. It delivered fast cooktop heat, superb simmering, and impressive baking, broiling, and self-cleaning. The oven is large and has convection and a temperature probe. It’s big on style, has a stainless finish, and a warming drawer.

    Click the Features & Specs tab on our range Ratings to find out whether a model is a slide-in type. Many slide-ins are among the priciest ranges in our tests. We'll be testing more slide-in models soon.

    By the numbers
    There are five burners, including two high power, two medium power, and one low power. There are seven oven-rack positions. Warranty is one year for parts and labor.

    More choices
    See our microwave, range and cooktop Ratings for more choices. We test gas and electric ranges and cooktops, including smoothtops, coil tops, and induction models.

    Any questions? Send them to kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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