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Tom's Blog

8 Tips toward Unplugging on Vacation

August 4, 2011 6:59 pm

You have your iPhone, your BlackBerry, your Android. You have your laptop or netbook with wifi. It's hard enough to unplug for the weekend...let alone an entire vacation. But for your own sanity and even that of your coworkers, you need to. 

There's no reason to take a vacation only to spend it working. The beach might be great, but think about how much better it would be if your phone was left in your hotel room.

Vacations are meant to help employees recharge so they can return to work re-energized and refocused. But if you're constantly checking in with the office, you won't get a real break.

To help you unplug and look forward to your vacation, here are eight tips from
1. Plan ahead. Coordinate your vacation time with your co-workers, team and other executive staff to ensure that things run smoothly while you're out.
2. Designate your main point of contact and give them a detailed account of all your projects and work commitments along with your emergency contact information.
3. Try to leave the majority of your work-related hardware at home.
4. Inform your key accounts, vendors and clients when and how long you'll be out of the office.
5. If you have a lot of projects that will need attention while you're out, consider distributing your projects among your co-workers or team.
6. If you can't resist the temptation to check in, try to set up specific times or days you will be checking messages.
7. Leave your mobile devices in your room so you can concentrate on family and friends and not be tempted to check in during the day.
8. If you receive urgent voicemails or emails while you're out, ask your main point of contact troubleshoot the issue.

Remember, your health is important, and taking a vacation may be all the help you need.

Word of the Day

August 4, 2011 6:59 pm

Deed restrictions. Provisions placed in deeds to control how future landowners may or may not use the property. Also called deed covenants.

Noisy Neighbors? How to Handle Neighbor Disputes

August 3, 2011 6:59 pm

There’s no good way to put this: noisy neighbors are difficult. 

They play loud music at all hours of the night; they shout and throw tantrums; they have an odd affinity for power tools and revving their car engine; they bang around in their apartment at 3 a.m.
Besides taking the passive aggressive route and making your own noise, what can you do about it? Is there legal recourse for noisy neighbors? 

Before you attempt to fight your noisy neighbors with the law, you should try to cut the noise with kindness.
Your first bet is always to ask your neighbors to keep it down. Go over, introduce yourself, and explain your problem. Be polite. 

If they rebuff your request or require a second reminder, let your noisy neighbors know that, if it’s a continued problem, you will have to speak to your landlord (if in an apartment) or with the police. 

If the noise doesn’t stop after the second warning, go ahead and complain, but first determine whether your neighbors are breaking building rules or local noise ordinances. 

Unfortunately, local noise ordinances only prohibit certain types of unreasonable noise and only during certain hours. 

They may limit construction and lawnmowers until after 7 a.m., or restrict loud music after midnight. These rules are usually promulgated by your city or county, so do a search for your local code. 

If a police citation or a landlord complaint don’t do the trick, you can also try to sue your noisy neighbors for creating a private nuisance. This is a tough one, so you’ll likely need a lawyer.

For more information, visit


Word of the Day

August 3, 2011 6:59 pm

Deed of trust. Document resembling a mortgage that conveys legal title to a neutral third party as security for a debt. Also called a trust deed or deed in trust.

Question of the Day

August 3, 2011 6:59 pm

Q: How does refinancing work?

A: With a refinancing, you pay off an old loan on your home and take out a new one, usually at a lower mortgage interest rate. To refinance, you will generally need to have equity in your home, a good credit rating, and steady income. You can borrow a percentage of the equity to cover remodeling costs, debt consolidate, and college tuition. 

When you refinance, you will incur all the closing costs that go along with getting a new mortgage. So unless you are doing extensive renovations and can get a mortgage interest rate at least two points below your current loan rate, you may want to select another financing option.

The Value of Homes Increase with a Simple Paint Job

August 3, 2011 4:59 pm

Any homeowner who is looking to increase the value of their home should consider a simple paint job. Min Zar Ni, owner of Singapore House Painting Services, offers these tips for those who are thinking about adding a fresh coat of paint to their home: 

1. Use high quality paint. Nippon Odor-less paint is top of the line, so homeowners should look for contractors that use this brand. In some cases, residents may want to opt for antibacterial or washable paint. A quality contractor will help decide which kind of paint will work best for the type of use.
2. Apply at least two coats of paint. Some homeowners think they can save money by applying just one coat of paint, but the cost of a single coat of paint is much higher in the long run. Two coats is usually what will be needed for optimum coverage, except in the case of extremely rich colors like deep reds or blacks. Any fewer than two coats will not end up looking like a professional paint job.
3. Get the whole house painted at the same time, if possible. Professional paint contractors work in teams and can get a larger job done much faster than a single painter working in one room alone. It is much more convenient to get it all finished at the same time because there may not be enough elbow room for more than one contractor to work in a single room at once. A team can help move furniture, while a single contractor is left to do it all on his own.
4. Make sure the painting contractor will come give a free viewing to ensure a precise quote. Painting contractors can give a general idea of how much a painting job will cost, but that price should not be considered set in stone until they have seen the property with their own eyes. This will ensure a more exact quote and no awful surprises on the bill afterward. 

For more information, visit

Healthcare Consumer Confidence Dips in July

August 3, 2011 4:59 pm

Americans' confidence in their ability to access and pay for healthcare declined in July after two straight months of improvement, according to a consumer sentiment index produced by Thomson Reuters.
The Thomson Reuters Consumer Healthcare Sentiment Index dropped from 99 in June to 96 in July, surrendering gains made since hitting a low of 95 in April. 

U.S. healthcare consumers polled in July predicted they will be more likely to delay, postpone or cancel office visits, elective surgeries, and therapies in the next three months. They also said they have had, and expect to continue having, difficulty paying for healthcare services and insurance. This is a significant reversal from June, when consumers generally expressed optimism for the future. 

"The index hit historic lows in April, rebounded in May and June, and recorded across-the-board declines in July," said Gary Pickens, chief research officer at the Thomson Reuters Center for Healthcare Analytics. "It is clear that consumer attitudes remain extremely volatile." 

The index, which is based on the Thomson Reuters PULSE™ Healthcare Survey, has two parts:
• A retrospective component gauges respondents' experiences during the past three months. It tracks whether they postponed, delayed or cancelled healthcare services and whether they had difficulty paying for medical care or health insurance. In July, retrospective consumer sentiment dropped from 98 to 96.
• A prospective component gauges respondents' expectations for the next three months. In July, prospective consumer sentiment fell from 100 to 97.

For more information, go to

Consumer Reports Finds Hidden Costs in Cell Phone and Digital-Wallet Payment Services

August 3, 2011 4:59 pm

While Americans are still using plenty of cash, checks, credit and debit cards to pay their bills, new electronic methods such as paying by cell phone or digital wallets are emerging. But before jumping in, consumers should be aware of disparities in loss liability and consumer protections, according to Consumer Reports.
CR's latest investigation into these new payment options finds that banks and technology companies are jostling for a greater share of the $50 billion a year in fees generated by everyday transactions. Some services by PayPal, Obopay, Square, Zong, and FaceCash already allow you to pay for purchases with your cell phone, but so-called digital wallet services are scheduled to hit the market soon. 

Google said in May that it planned to launch its version this summer. At least three competing digital wallets are planned for launch later this year and in 2012: from Visa in partnership with more than a dozen banks; Isis, a joint venture of AT&T Mobility, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless; and PayPal Mobile's point-of-sale technology. 

"As these new forms of payment grow more popular, consumers must be careful to understand the costs, and disparities in protections associated with the promise of new convenience," says Jeff Blyskal, Senior Editor of Consumer Reports. 

Despite all the hype, consumers don't seem to be clamoring to pay with their phones yet. According to a recent nationally representative survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, only 5 percent of survey respondents have used their cell phone to pay for day-to-day purchases in the previous month. Somewhat more use other fairly new forms of payment, including billing to their home or cell phone account (10 percent). 

Most of the new electronic payment options are tied to credit and debit cards, so whatever costs consumers incur in using their plastic will transfer to the new methods. Paying by mobile phone won't save them money. Google Wallet merchant transaction fees are the same as those charged on plastic payments, and the same is expected to be true for Visa's digital wallet. Square and PayPal Mobile charge merchants even more than the average big bank fee, 2.75 and 2.9 percent of the transaction amount, respectively. 

Among payment processors Consumer Reports looked at, only Obopay charges consumers (not merchants) an explicit flat 50-cent fee for payments over $10. You can transfer funds to your Obopay account from a bank account at no cost, but if you link a transaction to a debit or credit card, you'll pay a 1.5 percent fee. So on a $100 payment, fees can run from 50 cents to $2. 

Prepaid debit cards can be especially costly, whether you use them by themselves or link them to an alternative payment method. Many prepaid debit cards charge fees for activating and maintaining the accounts, and for transactions, balance inquiries, and reloading. 

Things often go wrong during the processing of 300 million noncash payments each day. In Consumer Reports survey, one in four Americans said they had an unauthorized charge, billing error, non-credited payment, or other problem in the last year when paying for purchases or paying bills. 

A consumer's right to get their money back when something goes wrong—errors, goods not delivered as promised, fraud— varies by the payment option used. Again, the underlying method of payment tied to your mobile device will govern their rights in such instances. Cell phone and digital wallet payment services linked to a credit card offer consumers the most protection. However, there is a large disparity in protection for services that link to prepaid debit cards and direct billing to consumers' phone bill. 

Prepaid cards offer consumers no guaranteed protections against unauthorized transactions. The cards may have some protections in their contracts, but they're essentially voluntary and can be rescinded at any time. Visa and MasterCard prepaid-card holders may get assurances from those brands' zero-liability policies, which protect against unauthorized use and require issuing banks to give provisional credit for losses from unauthorized use within five business days of notification. But those policies have loopholes. Visa's doesn't cover ATM or PIN transactions not processed by the Visa network. MasterCard's policy offers no protection if a consumer reported two or more unauthorized events in the past 12 months, and it doesn't cover ATM or PIN transactions. 

For consumers who opt for direct-to-phone-bill charges, their rights in this area are unclear. Any protections are based on the wireless carrier's contract, and they vary widely. Consumers Union reviewed the contracts of 18 wireless carriers to find out what kind of baseline protections they contained; none provided protections for mobile payment transactions that are as strong as those guaranteed by law when consumers use a credit card or debit card.
Consumers may have some rights under state laws or public utility agency rules, but those also vary from state to state. So far, only the California Public Utilities Commission provides its state's residents the right to reverse unauthorized charges. California consumers can also bar third parties from putting charges on their phone bill. 

The bottom line—Consumer Reports offers the following advice for those considering the jump to any new form of digital payment service:
• Before signing up for a new payment method, read the fine print and check the transaction costs.
• Pay by credit card to get the best protections whenever you buy online or pay via cell phone, make a major purchase in a store, or worry that a seller might not deliver as promised. Avoid prepaid debit cards and billing to your telephone account. Ask your carrier to block third-party charges to your landline and cell phone.
• Take convenience claims with a grain of salt. Consider new payment choices, but separate true benefits from marketing hype. Keep your mobile shopping tools independent from any branded digital wallet you might choose. 
• You can control the risk of loss by knowing the threats with each form of payment and taking steps to protect yourself. Don't share your personal identification and account information, use security software and procedures for your e-commerce, and always keep cash and payment cards in a safe place.

For more information, visit

7 in 10 Smartphone and Tablet Users Pay Attention to Mobile Ads When Surfing Web, but Not when Gaming or Watching TV

August 2, 2011 4:59 pm

A recent mobile survey conducted by Prosper Mobile Insights™ included 203 smartphone and tablet users from the SSI Panel who completed the survey on their devices. The survey was collected from 7/20 - 7/22/11. Of the sample, 48% were male while 52% were female, and the average age of the sample was 40.

The data reveals that mobile users’ attention spans for advertisements viewed on their devices differ depending on where the ads are placed. Mobile users were most likely to pay full attention to ads when surfing the web on their devices and least likely when watching full TV episodes.

Over half of smartphone and tablet users said they never fully pay attention to ads on their devices when watching full TV episodes and playing games, according to a recent mobile survey conducted by Prosper Mobile Insights™ among smartphone and tablet users on their devices. 13.3% say they regularly pay full attention to advertising while watching TV on their device and 19.2% do the same while playing games. Ads found while surfing the web on a mobile device appear to get the most attention from mobile users: 

Paying Full Attention to Advertisements on a Smartphone or Tablet 

While Playing Games
Regularly: 19.2%
Occasionally: 30.5%
Never: 50.2% 

While Watching Video Clips
Regularly: 15.3%
Occasionally: 42.9%
Never: 41.9% 

While Watching Full TV Episodes
Regularly: 13.3%
Occasionally: 34.0%
Never: 52.7% 

While Downloading Apps/Music/Etc
Regularly: 19.7%
Occasionally: 39.9%
Never: 40.4% 

While Surfing the Web
Regularly: 35.0%
Occasionally: 37.4%
Never: 27.6% 

Source: Prosper Mobile Insights™ Smartphone Survey, July-11

A Glimpse at 'Gluten-Free' Food Labeling

August 2, 2011 4:59 pm

Whether in muffins, rolls, or loaves, wheat bread is found in most households. But few consumers may appreciate the substance that helps the dough rise, keeps the bread from falling apart, makes it chewy, and adds to its flavor. 

That substance is gluten. Breads, cakes, cereals, pastas, and many other foods are made with wheat or added wheat gluten to improve their baking quality and texture. 

Technically, gluten represents specific proteins that occur naturally in wheat. However, the term “gluten” is commonly used to refer to certain proteins that occur naturally not only in wheat, but also in rye, barley, and crossbreeds of these grains and that can harm people who have celiac disease. The only treatment for this disorder is a life-long gluten-free diet. 

Eating gluten doesn’t bother most consumers, but some people with celiac disease have health-threatening reactions, says Stefano Luccioli, M.D., a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allergist and immunologist. They need to know whether a food contains gluten. 

FDA has been working to define “gluten-free” to:
• eliminate uncertainty about how food producers may label their products.
• assure consumers who must avoid gluten that foods labeled “gluten-free” meet a clear standard established and enforced by FDA. 

FDA’s actions on Aug. 2 bring the agency one step closer to a standard definition of “gluten-free.” On this date:
• FDA reopens the public comment period on its proposed gluten-free labeling rule published on Jan. 23, 2007.
• FDA makes available, and seeks comments on, a report on the health effects of gluten in people with celiac disease. The report includes a safety assessment on levels of gluten sensitivity in people with the disease. 

Celiac Disease
According to the National Institutes of Health, celiac disease affects as many as 1 percent of the U.S. population. 

The disease occurs when the body’s natural defense system reacts to gluten by attacking the lining of the small intestine. Without a healthy intestinal lining, the body cannot absorb the nutrients it needs. Delayed growth and nutrient deficiencies can result and may lead to conditions such as anemia and osteoporosis. Other serious health problems may include diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and intestinal cancers.
“Some people don’t get immediate symptoms, but when they do, they are typically gastrointestinal-related, such as abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea,” says Luccioli. “In infants, there may be a lot of vomiting, and they don’t grow and thrive.” And some people do not have any symptoms at all, adds Luccioli, but still may have intestinal damage and risk for long-term complications. It is important for individuals with celiac disease, who may vary in their sensitivity to gluten, to discuss their dietary needs with their health care professional. 

Grocery shopping is challenging for people with this disease, says Andrea Levario, J.D., executive director of the American Celiac Disease Alliance. “When they find a product labeled ‘gluten-free,’ they don’t necessarily know what that means because today there is no federal standard for the use of this term.” 

Having a federal definition of “gluten-free” is critically important, says Levario. “If we have one national standard, the individual will know that all products labeled ‘gluten-free’ will have no more than a minimal amount of gluten.” 

Is Gluten-Free for Me?
“Eating gluten-free is not meant to be a diet craze,” says Rhonda Kane, a registered dietitian and consumer safety officer at FDA. “It’s a medical necessity for those who have celiac disease.”
“There are no nutritional advantages for a person not sensitive to gluten to be on a gluten-free diet,” she adds. “Those who are not sensitive to gluten have more flexibility and can choose from a greater variety of foods to achieve a balanced diet.” 

Gluten-free is not synonymous with low fat, low sugar, or low sodium. For people who must be on a gluten-free diet, Kane says it's important to check the ingredients list and Nutrition Facts information on food labels to find the most nutritious options. 

How Is FDA Proposing to Define ‘Gluten-Free’?
In 2007, FDA proposed to allow manufacturers to label a food “gluten-free” if the food does not contain any of the following: 

1. an ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains
2. an ingredient derived from these grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten
3. an ingredient derived from these grains and that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more parts per million (ppm) gluten
4. 20 ppm or more gluten 

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