Monthly Archives: April 2015
Intuit, the company behind TurboTax, is facing a class-action lawsuit in the wake of multiple instances of identity theft during this year’s tax season.
The lawsuit was filed by two victims of identity theft, Christine Diaz and Michelle Fugatt, on Monday, April 20 in the Northern District of California.
According to the Washington Post, Diaz hasn’t used TurboTax to file her taxes since 2011, but she received a $242 bill from the software service this past March. According to the bill, her identity was used to file federal taxes and state taxes in Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Oklahoma.
Fugatt also stated that she received a similar bill this past March from TurboTax, despite never having used the person tax return service before.
According to reports from the Post and Forbes, both plaintiffs filed the lawsuit claiming that Intuit didn’t do enough to prevent identity theft via TurboTax, nor did it attempt to inform the victims of these security breaches that their personal information and tax returns had been compromised.
Many Americans use TurboTax for filing personal taxes, while businesses typically seek help from professional accountants and finance management teams. (Nearly half of all small businesses reportedly spend at least 80 hours on federal taxes alone, so it’s not hard to see why most businesses would opt out of doing their own taxes.)
Granted, independent tax return services tend to offer more in terms of personal security, and consumers who are especially concerned about identity theft are often in better hands when they seek tax return help from a professional firm rather than an online software program. Nevertheless, as this case proves, it’s possible for taxpayers to be harmed by Intuit’s negligence even if they refuse to use TurboTax.
The lawsuit is still in its initial stages and nothing has been confirmed yet, but the Post states that Richard McCune, a lawyer involved in the case, is seeking to make this a class-action lawsuit so that any other victims of identity theft (via TurboTax) will be able to collect damages.
TurboTax reportedly found that 60% of all suspicious tax return forms were submitted by hackers who obtained someone’s personal information elsewhere, while 40% of suspicious claims came from hackers who broke into customers’ existing TurboTax accounts. Furthermore, the service was shut down temporarily for 24 hours this past February due to a “spike in suspicious tax returns.”
Intuit has argued that it cannot be held responsible for 100% of preventative tax fraud strategies, but it will be up to the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the U.S. Legislature to determine if the company is responsible for protecting taxpayers more than it has.
A new study has found that people with low back pain are more likely to have spine similarities to chimpanzees, in particular a small lesion between vertebrae in the lower back that changes the shape of the spine.
The research team, comprised of scientists from Canada, Iceland and Scotland, compared vertebrae from chimps, orangutans and ancient humans to clarify the relationships between spinal shape, upright movement and spine health.
“Our findings show that the vertebrae of humans with disc problems are closer in shape to those of our closest ape relatives, the chimpanzee, than are the vertebrae of humans without disc problems,” Mark Collard, of the University of Aberdeen and Simon Fraser University in Canada, said.
The team says this provides insight on evolution; over time, some people may have evolved better than others to an upright posture. “Our study suggests that the pathological vertebrae of some people may be less well adapted for walking upright,” Collard explained.
The researchers also believe their study demonstrates the relevance of evolutionary biology to medical treatment.
“Our study’s support for the ancestral shape hypothesis not only has clinical implications, but also provides another illustration of the benefits of bringing the conceptual and analytical tools of evolutionary biology to bear on problems in medicine and public health,” the report’s authors concluded.
Low back pain is a serious concern both in the U.S. and abroad. Approximately a quarter of American adults report having low back pain lasting at least one day in the last three months, with 7.6% reporting at least one episode of severe and acute low back pain in the last year. Low back pain is also the leading cause of disability around the world.
The researchers suggest that their findings could be used as a predictive tool to determine who is most likely to suffer from serious back problems later in life.
The study was published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology April 27, and is available for free online.
|Currently, there are more than 85,000 different heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) businesses in operation across the U.S. However, not all of them are as reputable or as honest as they ought to be — and a growing number of Americans are finding themselves the victims of HVAC scams as a result.
According to the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration News, HVAC scams become more common throughout the spring months, a time when many people are looking to repair their air conditioners before summer begins.
The tactics used by HVAC scammers to cheat homeowners out of their money are wide-ranging and diverse, making it tough to know whether or not you’re being scammed. However, there are a few tell-tale signs that can indicate whether or not an HVAC company is as reputable as it says it is.
Many scams start with telemarketing or door-to-door solicitations, says Dave Hutchins, owner and president of Bay Area Air Conditioning, an HVAC company based in Crystal River, FL. Scammers will frequently inform homeowners they need air conditioning repairs that they might not actually need, claiming “some component is bad, or it needs more refrigerant than the system holds, or you have toxic mold,” Hutchins said.
Another trademark trait of HVAC scammers: offers that sound too good to be true. Scammers will offer air conditioning repairs at appealingly low prices, ask for payment on the spot, and then perform sub-par repair work — or no work at all.
“The current scam seems to be calling people and saying they are with XYZ Heating and Air, and it’s time for your free inspection,” Martin Hoover, president and owner of Empire Heating and Air Conditioning in Decatur, GA, says. “Then they go in and try to con people out of money.”
To avoid being scammed, it is recommended that homeowners take the time to research local heating and cooling companies, using consumer review sites like Angie’s List and the Better Business Bureau’s website to seek out contractors with a good reputation.
Additionally, one should never wait until his or her air conditioning system dies to seek out an HVAC company’s help. Ideally, air conditioning systems require an annual tune-up to stay in good working condition.
Lastly, a surefire way to keep HVAC scams at bay is to seek out a second opinion. By bringing in a second HVAC company to inspect your air conditioner, you can verify the first company’s assessment of the damage that needs a repair. Once you find a trustworthy HVAC contractor in your area, there should be no reason to seek out services from another company.
Staying safe from heating and cooling scams doesn’t have to be difficult. All it requires is a little extra vigilance and skepticism of telemarketing and door-to-door solicitors.
|Most people are of the opinion that drapes belong inside, gracing our windows and also helping to block out light from the sun when necessary. However, multiple designers and decorators have announced that drapes can go outdoors and, in fact, should.
Outdoor rooms are more and more common these days (and there are numerous inexpensive ways to create them, according to This Old House). Though it might seem odd to install curtains and drapes outdoors, doing so is a growing trend, mostly due to the fact that custom made drapes and curtains now come in attractive fabrics that are also sturdy. Since technology allows manufacturers to produce interior-looking fabrics that can endure the elements, we can now bring the decorative indoors, outdoors.
New York designer Shawn Henderson and decorator Celerie Kemble told the Wall Street Journal that you can’t install any set of drapes outside — they should be durable enough to wash and should be resistant to mildew.
“You must be able to throw them in the washing machine or scrub them,” said Henderson. “And they should be mildew resistant.” Kemble added. “From weeping trees, red wine, candle wax and bird poop, there is a whole arsenal of hazards to be wary of.”
“Outdoor Drapery is something as an interior workshop we have been doing more and more often ever summer. As Shawn Henderson, a designer we have worked with in the past mentioned – it has to be done with the right fabric,” explained Albert Nakash of BetterTex. “Another good tip is to make the drapery slightly shorter than usual so it doesn’t get dirty from the outside floors. Another note to take is to place tie backs on the drapery sides; that way when the drapery is not in use you can secure the drapes on the sides so there the damage is minimized and the wind won’t blow them down!”
Adding curtains or drapes outdoors does pose one problem: wind. Part of the appeal of drapes is the fabric flowing gently in the breeze, but depending on the type of fabric you choose and the weather, the wind could displace your curtains, causing them to knock things over or become tangled.
It has been about 15 years since the first hybrid cars hit the market in the United States, and sales numbers have seen a steady increase over the years as hybrids become more accessible and affordable. In the first three months of 2015, however, hybrid sales are down and trade-ins are up — likely due to plummeting gas prices.
The average price of gas nationally was $2.49 on Thursday, compared with $3.67 a year ago, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report.
CNN Money Reports that in the first quarter of 2015, new hybrid car sales only comprised 2.7% of the market, which is down 3.3% from this time last year.
One of the biggest draws of buying a hybrid vehicle is that they’re so fuel-efficient. Hybrids can be as much as 35% more fuel-efficient than traditional gas-powered internal combustion engine vehicles. Additionally, the general perception is that hybrid owners also want their driving habits to benefit the environment.
Yet people are buying fewer hybrid cars as gas prices go down, and the people who are trading in hybrids are more often choosing a traditional gas-powered SUV over another hybrid. Time reports that the number of people who are trading in hybrids for SUVs is up 10% from just three years ago. This could indicate that many hybrid owners are really only doing it for the money.
Hybrids do generally cost more to buy at the original purchase price, but this is usually more than made up for by the money a driver could potentially save on gas. This, however, is dependent on the actual price of gas.
When gas cost an average of $4.67 a gallon in 2012, it would only take the owner of a Toyota Camry Hybrid five years to make up the $3,770 price gap between the hybrid and non-hybrid models of the same car. At current gas prices, it would take 11 years.
Though there are still advantages of buying a hybrid, it seems like money is more of a concern for drivers than the environment — at least for now.
According to a study done by market research service Tire Intelligence and published April 20 by Tire Review, tire dealerships are making only slow progress toward providing a better online experience for consumers.
Tire Intelligence collected the data during the first quarter of 2015 through a survey of 150 U.S. tire sellers (most of which were independent dealerships with more than one location). Two main areas were targeted for the report: overall web visibility and web-to-store conversions.
The study ranked 73% of dealerships as being either “basic” or “below basic” in terms of online visibility, measured in search engine optimization and social media engagement. “Having a website is just the beginning,” the report states. “In order to attract consumers to your website, you will need to invest time and money to increase your visibility across search engines, social media platforms, etc.”
A majority of the tire sellers surveyed ranked highly in local Google searches for “tire dealers,” with a full 64% appearing in the coveted top three spots on search engine results pages.
But the stats on social media usage were far less encouraging. More than half (53%) of the survey participants either didn’t have a Facebook account or didn’t update it, and 70% either didn’t have or didn’t update Twitter accounts.
Online Customer Interactions
This limited web presence presents problems both when it comes to educating customers and when it comes to closing online leads.
Like much of the car maintenance industry, the tire industry relies on reminding consumers how often to get new car tires (when the tread depth is less than 2/32 of an inch), how often to rotate their tires (every 7,500 miles or so according to manufacturer recommendations), and which tires to buy.
And while some industry or consumer organizations have been successful in bringing attention to this information — especially during certain times of year, such as spring — a lack of engagement and online service options can seriously impact individual dealers.
“Very often, companies invest in the creation of a website, hundreds of dollars in Google AdWords and Facebook Ads, however, they do not spend enough time and investment in the actual mechanisms to closing sales,” the report reads.
Of the websites surveyed, 88% allowed consumers to check inventory based on vehicle or tire type, but only 20% showed prices online; less than half allowed customers to schedule appointments through an online platform, and only a small percentage — 6% — allowed customers to actually pay for their tires and installation on the web.
|The latest figures released by the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University suggest that the residential remodeling market will see slowing year-over-year gains throughout much of 2015, with a modest recovery in the fourth quarter.
The program regularly updates the Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity, a metric designed to estimate homeowner spending on residential improvements for four quarters at a time.
“Moving forward, signs of higher growth in remodeling activity include strengthening retail sales of building materials,” Abbe Will, a research analyst in the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center, said in an April 16 news release. “Also, rising home equity and still favorable interest rates continue to encourage owners to reinvest in their homes.”
Part of the reason for the currently sluggish remodeling market is that sales of existing homes are weak at the moment, Chris Hebert, managing director of the Joint Center, explained. “Housing turnover typically sparks significant improvement spending as new owners customize their recent purchases to fit their needs and, with sales down last year, remodeling will feel the effects this year,” he said.
Homeowners also frequently remodel because they plan to put their homes on the market soon and hope to get their investments back — or even make some cash — by updating first.
But as the Fiscal Times pointed out on April 15th, homeowners need to take a look at the latest data before assuming that even renovations of bathrooms and kitchens will be profitable.
These are costly projects to start with. A major kitchen remodel costs, on average, $56,768, and gets a return of only 67% at resale. A minor kitchen remodel is a bit more promising, with an 80% return on investment.
Of course, none of these figures take into account the enjoyment homeowners can get out of remodeling their spaces. In 2013, an overwhelming majority of survey participants, 79%, said they were remodeling their kitchens to “improve their look and feel” — and it’s difficult to put an accurate price tag on that.
|Errors in medical billing are becoming more common around the United States, and mistakes can cost patients some serious cash.An analysis by NerdWallet found that 49% of medical bills contained errors and some medical centers made mistakes on more than 80% of claims to Medicare, according to Medicare’s hospital audits for 2013.
And as most people know, medical care in the United States can be costly: NerdWallet also found that 63% of adults have received a medical bill that cost more than they thought it would. In 2014, around 20% of patients were contacted by debt collectors for their unpaid medical bills — and would be overcharged an average of 26% more.
The study is in line with another report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is a government agency. The CFPB found that 52% of all debt on Americans’ credit reports is due to medical bills.
This is bad news for the Americans with healthcare plans that require them to share the cost of their care with insurers.
“If you’re responsible for the first $5,000 or $10,000 of your care, you’re going to want to be more attentive,” says Stephen Parente, a professor from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
Hospitals and doctor’s offices without a dedicated or qualified billing staff may struggle to keep up with patient demands, and as a result, they may look into outsourcing medical billing instead.
Because hospitals see so many patients on a daily basis, it’s easy for errors to occur with billing. For one hospital in Oklahoma, the problems turned out to be intentional, resulting in the firing of its entire billing staff.
Employees and management at Axis Practice Solutions LLC and related company Axis Practice Management Inc., which worked for the Norman Regional Hospital Authority, were fired on March 9 for a number of violations, from double-billing patients to embezzlement and fraud.
The hospital claims that Axis over-billed them by more than $1.37 million from November 2009 to December 2014.
For patients, Time cautions them to know about their bills. They should make sure to question any charges that they don’t understand.
Discrepancies can take months to sort out, but this is preferable to having medical debt listed on a credit report and being stuck overpaying for healthcare.
|Hummus may be a staple in the refrigerators of most vegetarians, but one chef’s recipe is taking this traditional dish to a whole new level.
Chef Alon Shaya, who owns the restaurant Shaya in New Orleans, likes to put a fresh spin on classic Israeli, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes. This year’s Passover menu at his restaurant was evidence of this culinary innovation.
For example, Shaya used a wood-fired oven to make the matzo, and his karpas were served with zhoug, a green chili paste, and grilled asparagus — far from what his ancestors may have eaten.
“We’re calling it Israeli cuisine, but even people in Israel don’t know what that is,” Shaya explained to Today.com. “Israeli cuisine is Bulgarian food, Polish food, Moroccan, Yemenite.
“There’s this country that’s very small but represents so many different cultures. The food being cooked there today is unlike anywhere else in the world.”
Shaya credits some of his creations to his grandmother, whose salad recipe ended up on his menu, and the growing trend toward including Jewish holiday dishes on gourmet menus and in cookbooks.
Yet one place where Shaya’s creativity is most evident is in his roasted duck hummus, which is served with buttered leeks and olives.
What is hummus? Hummus is a Middle Eastern dip that has found its way into as many as 20% of American households and is typically made from chickpeas, tahini, and various spices — but roasted duck is a fairly uncommon additive.
Hummus is also one of the healthiest dishes available on the market. Those who regularly eat hummus were found to have significant higher HEI-2005 scores, also known as the Healthy Eating Index; they also had lower Body Mass Index and a smaller waist circumference on average.
Hummus is also fairly nutritious, with adequate amounts of protein, fiber, iron, vitamin K, folate and antioxidants.
But Shaya’s recipe goes beyond what most people can make at home and adds a touch of gourmet to a dish that mostly gets used in wraps and sandwiches in the U.S.
Shaya adds pan-seared duck breast to the top of his hummus, which he recommends eating with pita bread.
Other topping recommendations from the chef include pan seared Brussels sprouts with toasted almond and lemon, curried heirloom carrots and onions, fried eggplant and oven roasted tomatoes with za’atar and charred romanesco with pomegranate, dates and cilantro.