Making Healthy Food Choices

For two decades there have been nutrition facts labels on packaged foods at the super market. Making healthy food choices was made easier when shoppers had more information about the foods that they were purchasing. And now making healthy food choices is going to get even easier again due to new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements. The U.S. Food &Drug Administration web site explains the new requirements that will make healthy food choices easier.

For more than 20 years, the familiar Nutrition Facts label on packages at the grocery store has guided many consumers in making food choices for their families. To make the label even more useful, FDA has made changes in both format and content. Updated Nutrition Facts labels may be displayed on packages now but must be on packages by July 26, 2018 (or July 26, 2019 for manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales).

Here are the things that the changes in the nutrition labels on your foods will involve.

Calorie and serving size info will be highlighted.

Added sugars will be included on the label in grams and % daily value which is how much is in a serving.

Vitamin D and Potassium will be listed on all labels.

There will be an adjustment in serving size information so that what is listed is more in line with the serving sizes that people really eat. Also the serving size and number of servings in the package will be more prominently listed.

Calorie Counts

It has been too easy to consume too many calories without knowing. Therefore the new FDA rules require that calorie counts alcoholic beverages in food establishments be listed on the menu. Also on menus and menu boards the following reminder will be posted.

2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.

A similar footnote will be posted on the new nutrition facts label. And vending machines will be required to post calorie counts for their foods.

Sodium

Too much sodium (salt) in your diet can drive up your blood pressure and contribute to heart failure. Sodium has already been listed on the nutrition label. And the FDA is working with the food industry to help provide consumers with more choices of food with less sodium content.

Can American Consumers Make Healthy Food Choices?

Years ago a well-known medical expert on treating high blood pressure talked about practical measures to reduce sodium in one’s diet. He noted that when they built the university hospital where he worked they cut corners and did not have enough cafeteria space for staff and visitors. Thus about 30% of staff routinely ate out of vending machines. He also noted that foods in vending machines in order to last until someone buys them typically do not include fresh fruits and vegetables but rather processed foods high in nitrates, sodium, sugars and fats. Here, he said, we work at an institution that preaches a healthy diet, low in sodium, fats, etc. And it is very difficult for people as a practical matter to follow our advice. Making healthy food choices can be difficult.

AT&T Warner Merger Will Not Help You

AT&T in announcing its plan to acquire Time Warner says that it’s all about helping you, the consumer. It is our opinion that the AT&T Warner merger will not help you. In a similar merger Comcast took over NBC Universal with the same sorts of promises. Five years later your broadband and cable service costs just as much. You do not have a lot more choices of what you want to watch. And you are still stuck with broadband when the next great thing is internet television. The only thing that has made the big media and cable companies offer more for less is competition from Google Fiber. Wired comments on the AT&T Time Warner merger.

With Time Warner under its umbrella, AT&T can certainly create new synergies between Time Warner content and its own TV and Internet services. But ultimately, that’s not what consumers need. What they need is the ability to watch any content anywhere. And Time AT&T isn’t going to help make that happen. It may even slow it down.

The reason that the original AT&T was broken up was because it was a monopoly and monopolies stifle competition and drive up prices. Now, thirty years after the demise of “ma bell” one of the AT&T offshoots is creating another monopoly and claiming that they are doing it to help you. But by in large monopolies are not helpful.

Monopolies and Consumers

How will a monopoly affect business and consumers ask the Houston Chronicle?

As the sole providers of a product or service, monopolies have no competition and no price restrictions. Monopolies use patents, mergers, and acquisitions to obtain industry dominance and prevent market entry. If left unmonitored and unregulated, monopolies can adversely affect businesses, consumers and even the economy.

To the extent that an AT&T Warner merger results in their control of media content and the means of delivery to consumers they can drive competition out of business and become the only choice for consumers.

A monopoly’s potential to raise prices indefinitely is its most critical detriment to consumers. Because it has no industry competition, a monopoly’s price is the market price and demand is market demand. Even at high prices, customers will not be able to substitute the good or service with a more affordable alternative. As the sole supplier, a monopoly can also refuse to serve customers. If a monopoly refuses to sell an important good to a company, it has the potential to indirectly shut down that business. If the supplier sells to consumers, it can refuse to serve areas that have lower profit potential, which could further impoverish a region.

If you want the price of your cable TV to go up let the media and communication giants merge. That is why the AT&T Warner merger will not help you the consumer. Another issue is one of consumer privacy which suffers when the big media companies record your viewing choices and then sell the data to advertisers and whomever will profit from knowing what you watch for entertainment.

New FCC Rules Protect Privacy

The Federal Communications Commission just protected your privacy with new rules to keep broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and selling information about which websites you visit or which apps you use. The New York Times reports how these companies will need permission to collect private data.

By a 3-to-2 vote, the Federal Communications Commission clearly took the side of consumers. The new rules require broadband providers to obtain permission from subscribers to gather and give out data on their web browsing, app use, location and financial information. Currently, broadband providers can track users unless those individuals tell them to stop.

It was the first time the F.C.C. has passed such online protections. The agency made privacy rules for phones and cable television in the past, but high-speed internet providers, including AT&T and Verizon Communications, were not held to any privacy restrictions, even though those behemoth companies have arguably one of the most expansive views of the habits of web users.

This set of rules is a setback for the likes of Comcast and AT&T because they use the big data from their users to help target sophisticated advertising. Now they will need your approval to make money off of your user information. How can you protect yourself in this regard?

When You Get a Product or Service Online

There are lots of free products and services online. Unfortunately many come with hidden conditions. For example, you obtain a photo editing program but in order to use it you need to allow the company to have access to what you are doing with the program and are giving access to other aspects of how you use your computer or surf the internet. Or sometimes the service really is free except that when you download it you are also downloading malware. And what will happen now that Comcast, AT&T and other need to ask your permission to collect and sell your user data? This is like reading the small print on a paper contract. There is typically a small check box were you can click NO I do not want this product or service or no I do not want you to collect my data. Ideally the new regulations will make this choice clear and easy to identify.

A Source of Information

Your information will no longer be a source of revenue for internet service providers after the FCC ruling. According to the Washington Post’s article about the sweeping new rules

Under the Federal Communications Commission’s new rules, consumers may forbid Internet providers from sharing sensitive personal information, such as app and browsing histories, mobile location data and other information generated while using the Internet.

The fresh regulations come as Internet providers race to turn their customers’ behavioral data into opportunities to sell targeted advertising. No longer satisfied with being mere conduits to the Web, these companies increasingly view the information they collect as a source of revenue.

Your information is valuable and it should remain private, given out only with your permission. Be careful what you say yes to on the internet.

Are You Dead or Not? The World of Big Data Does Not Care

You may continue to receive offers for loans, health insurance or vacations long after your death and the world of big data does not care. Last year we wrote about how credit agencies were to reduce errors. We mentioned the quandary of a man declared dead by big data.

A friend of mine recently found out about his premature death. He was looking to get a loan and found out the one the big three credit agencies had declared him dead. It took a fair amount of work to get their attention, get them admit fault, get them to correct the error and get them to transmit the correct information throughout the credit system. My friend and many other consumers will be pleased to know that credit agencies have agreed to work to reduce errors of all kinds that have plagued consumers. Bloomberg Business reports a pact to cut errors agreed to by Equifax Information Services LLC, Experian Information Solutions Inc. and TransUnion LLC with the New York Attorney General.

A lot of good things were in the agreement including the big three credit reporting services hiring staff trained specifically to deal with errors, fraud and identify theft. This has to do with fixing errors after they have happened and not with preventing them in the first place. That is the problem with big data.

Dead and Still Getting Health Insurance Offers

Unlike the guy who was wrongly reported to be deceased there was a man who passed away more than a decade ago and his wife was still getting offers for health insurance according to the Los Angeles Times. Why companies may solicit you even after you are dead has to do with big data.

Being dead hasn’t stopped Martin Siegel from being a solid insurance prospect.

Siegel, who died in 2002, would have turned 65 this year. As such, he’s received solicitations from UnitedHealthcare, Kaiser Permanente and other insurers trying to sign him up for Medicare Advantage plans.

“It’s just about every insurance company you can think of,” said Geri Siegel, his widow.

Somewhere the appropriate information about this man’s passing was messed up in a data base, a long list of information that marketers use to promote their products and services. Unfortunately data is repeatedly bought and sold so that even if you complain to one company and have the erroneous information corrected that misinformation has passed on to numerous other data bases purchased by numerous other marketers. What can you do about this if you are receiving solicitations for a deceased loved one or otherwise inappropriate offers?

Whac-a-mole and More

The LA Times article mentions three options along with the “whac-a-mole” approach of contacting the company every time you get an inappropriate or unwanted solicitation.

OptOutPrescreen.com for unwanted credit card and insurance offers

DMAchoice.org to stop credit card offers, catalogs and magazine subscription mailers

The FTC’s do not call registry at www.donotcall.gov/ for unwanted phone calls

To the extent that an error has caused you serious economic damage you can probably sue and get damages. But the problem of big data is still there because the low-lifers in this business keep churning and reselling your information.

This U.S. Banking System Change Will Help You

If you would like to get paid quicker or avoid last minute bill paying fees you might like this information. There is a change in the U.S. banking system that will help you. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports on the change to the U.S. banking system.

The change goes by the less-than-sexy name Same Day ACH, but it could save a nice amount of cash for consumers living on a tight month-to-month budget. ACH stands for Automated Clearing House, which is the name of the network banks use to move money between one another. It’s in need of an update.

Banks tend to batch process such transactions once per day, which is one reason bill payments can be frustratingly slow. That’s also one reason some bill collectors charge a $10 to $20 fee to take an immediate bill payment over the phone when a consumer is about to pay late.

NACHA, the nonprofit which oversees the ACH Network, and the Federal Reserve are out to eliminate these consumer-unfriendly pay-to-pay arrangements. Same Day ACH – and the same-day bill pay it promises – should help a lot.

Banks, it turns out, are slowly catching up with the computer age and being forced to share some of the benefits. Here is how same day ACH works.

  • Payment orders received by 10:30am eastern time must be settled by 1pm
  • Payment orders received by 2:45pm eastern time must be settled by 5 pm
  • Banks will immediately begin receiving same day payments
  • Banks will be required to originate such payments no later than March of 2018

It turns out that many banks are already in compliance across the board.

How This Banking System Change Can Help You

Banks typically process payments in bulk. This has usually means once a day. Get in the door to late and your deposit is not credited until the next day. Have your paycheck deposited directly into your bank account and you may not have access to funds until the next day. This changes with same day ACH. If you are living paycheck to paycheck and paying bills in the nick of time this change in the U.S. banking system will be good for you.

Are There Any Problems?

Complaints from the banking industry are that this speed up may cost them more money and may make the system more prone to fraud attacks as bankers will have less time to make sure that transactions are proper. However, forward looking bankers are saying that new products and services may results from the speeded up same day ACH system. In the end, however, it is your money that they are dealing with and that money should be available to you and not sitting in the bank system gaining overnight interest for the bank! According to the NACHA which administers the ACH network the same day ACH rules will affect how 80 percent of the nation’s 28 million businesses move $40 Trillion in funds each year.

Cross Selling Can Hurt You

The banking giant, Wells Fargo, has been in the news due to its cross selling scandal. Apparently more than 5,000 of their employees signed up clients for various services from the bank but did not tell the clients. This may have appeared to be cross selling but was really fraud. What is cross selling when it is not done illegally? Is it a good thing or can cross selling hurt you? The Wall Street Journal looks a bank cross selling.

Cross-selling is a widely used sales technique in which companies pitch consumers of one product on complementary products or extra features, such as a warranty, for an added fee.

On one hand, banks and others engaged in cross-selling may offer savings for customers who show brand loyalty. These savings opportunities include deals on mortgages, savings and checking accounts, as well as fee waivers and similar perks.

On the other hand, cross-selling can pressure consumers into buying products they don’t need or cause them to pay more for something they could have bought for cheaper elsewhere.

To the degree that cross selling allows you to buy products or services all from the same supplier, at a regular or reduced cost this practice allows you to take advantage of economy of scale and save you time. Amazon Prime is a good example of a service that gives customers free shipping and other savings in return from shopping exclusively via Amazon. When cross selling like this can hurt you is when you are missing out on better products, services or deals. What can really hurt is when bank employees are incentivized to fraudulently set up services and bill you without your knowledge.

How Did the Cross Selling Scandal Happen?

Bloomberg writes about how Wells Fargo cross sells its reputation as well.

Let’s skip straight to the punch line: You know those two million fake deposit and credit-card accounts ginned up by Wells Fargo employees to meet sales quotes?

The ones that sent the bank’s reputation from first to worst in record time?

The ones that are calling into question the firm’s entire aggressive cross-selling business model?

And making people wonder if even Chairman and CEO John Stumpf’s well-compensated head should roll?

Well, the bank had determined that the whole investigation into the practice was “not material” enough to disclose to investors in regulatory filings. Sure, at $185 million the legal slap is less than 2 percent of last quarter’s net income and thus arguably not a “material” hit to the company’s bottom line. But it sure is a material hit to the notion that Wells, Warren Buffett’s favorite bank, is a choirboy compared with the rest of the big banks.

The problem started with draconian demands on Wells Fargo employees. Cross sell or work overtime without pay. Cross sell or get no advancement or even get fired. Then management was apparently not watching because more than 5,000 employees acted illegally in setting up unwanted accounts and services without talking to employees. Can cross selling hurt you? It sure can when you knew nothing about it and maybe it will if you don’t pay attention along the way.

What Can I Do to Avoid Foreclosure?

What do you do when the bank is going to foreclose on your home? The 2008 financial crisis is gone but in its aftermath there are still many home owners in precarious positions. If this is happening to you what can you do to avoid foreclosure? First of all your lender is required to help you. You have the right to ask and they have the obligation to help determine if you have options such as refinancing or modifying your loan. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)  has just issued a new set of rules in this regard. This can be a complicated matter and if you need help check out the CFBP website for finding a housing counselor.

Housing counselors throughout the country can provide advice on buying a home, renting, defaults, foreclosures, and credit issues. Using the search box below, you can find one near you. The counseling agencies on this list are approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and they can offer independent advice about whether a particular set of mortgage loan terms is a good fit based on your objectives and circumstances, often at little or no cost to you. This list will show you several approved agencies in your area. There is also a list of nationwide HUD-approved counseling intermediaries.

And if you have not yet purchased a home but want to make sure that you can make payments and not end up in foreclosure check out the CFBP Know before You Owe page.

The Know before You Owe mortgage disclosure rule replaces four disclosure forms with two new ones, the Loan Estimate and the Closing Disclosure. The new forms are easier to understand and easier to use. The rule also requires that you get three business days to review your Closing Disclosure and ask questions before you close on a mortgage.

Staying out of trouble is a lot easier than getting out of trouble in the mortgage market. But what if none of this is working? Does it help to get a lawyer? Bankrate offers tips for choosing a foreclosure attorney. These are the tips and our comments:

Call a HUD certified counselor first. This may be all you need and it will save you money.

Organize your paperwork first. A HUD counselor can help and again you will be saving money.

Start with a legal aid office for recommendations. Trust is a big issue in dealing with an attorney.

An attorney appointment is a business meeting. The attorney is not your friend or therapist or life coach.  Be prepared and dress accordingly. Know what you want and remember that you may be in for a fight and you want someone who will win for you.

Evidence of Predatory Lending is reason to help you avoid foreclosure so make sure that you have everything in order including notes about what was said and when to present to the attorney.

The hard truth is that if you do not have sufficient income to support even a written down mortgage you will likely lose. Don’t pay money to an attorney who immediately says he can help you without reviewing your case.

You Need a Plan and it is the lawyer’s job to devise one. If he or she is not doing this don’t waste your time and money.

You can get help and avoid a foreclosure but you need to get organized, get help and pay attention as you go.

Can You Be Scammed by an Internet Bot?

Computer programs are getting smarter and smarter and that can be a problem. A software application that automatically runs repetitive tasks is commonly known as a web robot or bot for short. Technopedia defines internet bot.

An Internet bot, in its most generic sense, is software that performs an automated task over the Internet. More specifically, a bot is an automated application used to perform simple and repetitive tasks that would be time-consuming, mundane or impossible for a human to perform.

Bots can be used for productive tasks, but they are also frequently used for malicious purposes.

The term “bot” comes from robot. An Internet bot may also be known as a Web robot or WWW robot.

As bot programming gets more advanced these programs can interact with real people on the internet, engage in conversation and all too often engage in monetary scams or identity theft. How can you be scammed by an internet bot?

The “Person” You Met on Tinder Might Be a Bot!

Bot scamming is like other scamming in that when something seems too good to be true it probably is just that, too good to be true. Consumer Affairs describes how bots roam the internet.

The latest wrinkle is the deployment of bots – web robots – to seek out and engage victims, meaning one scammer can become a million times more effective.

A recent report found humans account for about 51% of traffic. The rest is driven by bots.

And these bots have added a whole new dimension to the online dating scam. A decade ago, this scam consisted of an individual scammer seeking out and engaging a potential victim, building trust, then swindling him or her out of thousands of dollars. It was a labor-intensive and time-consuming enterprise.

Today, bots do the work, engaging males on Tinder, pretending to be females.

The bots are programmed to engage in dialog. They have no problem remembering personal details like name, location or whatever they once learn as it is in a computer data base.

How Can You Know?

If you are engaging with a bot on the internet they “type” faster than you and typically not make mistakes in spelling or grammar. But responses are generic, the image of the “person” is gorgeous and they move very quickly to ask for personal information or money.

What Can You Do?

These scams are not limited to dating sites. When you get an official sounding email saying there is a problem with a recent order (of which you know nothing) do not open it. Do not click anything. Put it in your junk file and then block that address from sending further emails to your account. If you thought you were talking to a real live person and they immediately ask for money or personal information insist on a face to face meeting and if that does not happen cut them off. We have written before about scams, dating and otherwise.

There may be things about a developing relationship that should sound alarm bells. One is that when things are way too good to be true they probably are too good to be true. A friend of this author lost in wife in his 50’s and a year or so later ran into a 30ish good looking woman who proceeded to take him for all of his savings, in the form of gifts. When he sued the woman and her partner he lost, as did many others before him. This was because he freely gave away his life savings to buy this too good to be true woman a brand new corvette. Getting scammed by the love of your life can be devastating. A little consume research and little common sense can be helpful when you enter the online dating arena.

As the Romans said, let the buyer beware.

Why Do I Need to Read a QR Code to Know if My Food Is OK?

The United States is the last major nation to require that food packaging contain information about genetically modified ingredients. The problem is that the labeling can be in a QR code which requires a smart phone and software to read the code. Why do I need to read a QR code to know if my food is OK? The pieces of the puzzle here are QR codes, genetically modified organisms and the new law.

GMOs

What are GMOs or genetically modified organisms? The University of California in San Diego comes to the rescue.

When a gene from one organism is purposely moved to improve or change another organism in a laboratory, the result is a genetically modified organism (GMO). It is also sometimes called “transgenic” for transfer of genes.

There are different ways of moving genes to produce desirable traits. For both plants and animals, one of the more traditional ways is through selective breeding. For example, a plant with a desired trait is chosen and bred to produce more plants with the desirable trait. More recently with the advancement of technology is another technique. This technique is applied in the laboratory where a gene that express the desired trait is physically moved or added to a new plant to enhance the trait in that plant. Plants produced with this technology are transgenic. Often, this process is performed on crops to produce insect or herbicide resistant plants, they are referred to as Genetically Modified Crops (GM crops).

Humans have been modifying plants by selective breeding for thousands of years. The results have been better foods, prettier flowers and the loss of biologic diversity as single varieties that produce well crowd out the rest. An example in history is the Irish Potato Famine. Farmers grew just a couple of varieties of high producing potatoes which turned out to be easily infected by a fungus that destroyed potato crops on the entire island. The same concern is valid with GMOs when they come to replace the use of diverse plant species.

But Are GMOs Bad for You?

The primary concern about GMOs is that their extensive use will decrease genetic diversity and that by pollination their doctored genes will spread throughout adjacent plant communities. Additionally if you happen to have an allergy to something in the new genetically modified food you may have a real problem when everything you want to eat contains that set of genes.

How Do You Know?

A first rational step in this situation is to provide consumers with information. Does the food you are about to purchase contain GMOs? One of options in the new law is that the producer can put the appropriate information on the contain in the form of a QR code, a two dimensional bar code. But you need a smart phone and the appropriate software in order read these codes. Most consumers will think, why do I need to read a QR code to know if my food is OK and they will not bother.

How Has the Internet Changed News Reporting?

Once upon a time people who wanted the news subscribed to the morning or evening news paper or both. They listened to the news on the radio and later they tuned into the local and national news on the television. Those news sources still exist but the internet has changed news reporting. The Pew Research Center looks at what they call the modern news consumer.

Wave after wave of digital innovation has introduced a new set of influences on the public’s news habits. Social media, messaging apps, texts and email provide a constant stream of news from people we’re close to as well as total strangers. News stories can now come piecemeal, as links or shares, putting less emphasis on the publisher. And, hyper levels of immediacy and mobility can create an expectation that the news will come to us whether we look for it or not. How have these influences shaped Americans’ appetite for and attitudes toward the news? What, in other words, are the defining traits of the modern news consumer?

Today 70% of Americans follow the local and national news and 65% follow international news. 81% of Americans get some of their news if not all of it from websites, apps or social networking sites. The immediacy of internet news reporting has changed expectations of the modern news consumer and how the news is reported.

Television news is still the most common source of news. As print media have lost ground their readers have gone to online apps. The most people watch the news on television and those who read the news now are twice as likely to get their news online.

Has Technology Disrupted the Truth?

The Guardian says that technology disrupted the truth.

Social media has swallowed the news – threatening the funding of public-interest reporting and ushering in an era when everyone has their own facts. But the consequences go far beyond journalism.

The newspaper discusses at length the lies used by those who promoted the exit of Britain from the EU and how any comment by anyone was presented as news without any vetting of the facts. This is reminiscent of Rupert Murdock saying that the news is basically entertainment. When asked why he had purchased both the London Times and the daily with the nude woman on the second page he replied that both periodicals provided entertainment for different sorts of readers and many, in fact, purchased both. The difference with the internet is that news arrives faster, often with no attempt at fact checking. It can be the electronic equivalent of gossip in the town square.

Google quotes Bill Gates:

“Paper is no longer a big part of my day. I get 90% of my news online, and when I go to a meeting and want to jot things down, I bring my Tablet PC. It’s fully synchronized with my office machine so I have all the files I need. Bill Gates, Microsoft CEO”

And they note the results of the speeded up version of the news via the internet.

However, as the methods of providing news have changed, so have the providers. While in the past, journalists and reporters would present stories to the public that were extensively researched and fact-checked to ensure accuracy and maintain accountability, now there is an increasing pressure to distribute news stories as quickly as possible to avoid being pre-empted by the blogs. Unfortunately, the quality of the news is suffering.

How the internet has changed news reporting is by speeding it up at the expense of quality.


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