Leasing your pet? Really? (And a little about the FTC…)

Via Leasing your pet? Really?

PDF: Pet leasing and FTC

Today, I got an email from the Federal Trade Commission with the header, “Are you buying or leasing your pet? (Not joking).”

As it would be physically impossible for me not to read on (could you resist?) I dived in. It seems that, with the skyrocketing prices of pets (especially exotic ones), some pet retailers are setting up installment plans that allow pet owners to purchase their pets on credit. Some are even setting up lease agreements under which the creature is still owned by the pet store until the lease is paid in full, which can result in paying much more than the price of the pet itself.

Now, while leasing a car might or might not be a good idea (depending on the circumstances), the notion of leasing a pet is lost on me at my current stage of development. While I’m personally a big proponent of just adopting a lovable furry friend from the local rescue shelter, retail pets are a big business. Unfortunately, though, many pet owners have evidently found themselves on the hook for thousands after their pet dies or is stolen, or have even faced the trauma of having Rover or Fluffy repossessed if they can’t make the payments.

FTC blogger Lisa Lake noted in her blog post, “…whether it’s pooches or parrots, understand what you’re actually paying for before you sign anything.” It’s good advice all around.

As you know if you read this column regularly, I often bring you information from the FTC. This agency creates a lot of consumer news as it goes about its work. Consumer reporters, bloggers and columnists rely on the agency (as do I) to tell us what they’re doing to protect consumers, and we pass that on to you.

Often, a news release from the FTC is a starting point for a similar or related topic. It’s one of dozens of federal and state-level agencies, along with independent “watchdog” organizations, consumer columnists and blogs I follow to help keep you apprised of consumer news you need to know.

Since its inception 103 years ago, the FTC has become a large agency with a lot of important tasks. When it started, the FTC’s job was to combat “unfair methods of competition.” In 1938, the agency’s mission grew to include watching out for “unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” and in the years since, Congress has given the FTC many other tasks. A few weeks ago, President Trump nominated Joseph J. Simons, a veteran antitrust lawyer, to head the FTC. If approved by Congress, Simons will head an agency with broad powers.

Specifically, the FTC is “empowered, among other things, to prevent unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce; seek monetary redress and other relief for conduct injurious to consumers; prescribe rules defining with specificity acts or practices that are unfair or deceptive, and establishing requirements designed to prevent such acts or practices; gather and compile information and conduct investigations relating to the organization, business, practices, and management of entities engaged in commerce; and make reports and legislative recommendations to Congress and the public.”

The FTC also enforces the National Do-Not-Call registry, has broadened its efforts to halt identity theft and promote data security, and has taken a lead role in things like product packaging, warranties, “Made in the USA” claims and other issues affecting consumers.

The agency is generally regarded as doing good work, but it’s not without its critics. Some have criticized it, for example, for not doing enough to challenge powerful tech companies. And, no matter which political party is in the White House, the FTC’s actions are often viewed through the lenses of politics. (The FTC’s five commissioners are nominated by the president to their seven-year terms, but the law says that no more than three may be from the same political party.)

But no matter who’s in charge, it’s likely that the FTC will be a formidable force well into the future, and no matter how you feel about leasing your furry friend or buying that questionable product, will keep an eye on that situation for you.


‘No-call’ reporting app blocks unwanted telemarketers

via ‘No-call’ reporting app blocks unwanted telemarketers

PDF: New PSC No Call App

We’ve all had those calls that are trying to sell us something, or that appear to be scams. In the past few years, we’ve gotten some help in the form of Caller ID and call blocking, but these remain only marginally effective at stopping unwanted telemarketing and scam calls. “Do-not-call” lists have been somewhat effective as well, but are challenged by the explosion in automated calling (“robocalls”).

Now, the Mississippi Public Service Commission has unveiled a new smartphone app that makes it easier and quicker to report an unwanted call. The free “MS No-Call App” is available from the Apple Store and Google Play, and it allows users to register numbers with the statewide list, and file complaints immediately from their smartphones.

“We want to empower people by placing a tool literally in their hands to help us get at these predatory telemarketers,” noted PSC Chairman Brandon Presley in a news release. “This free app was a long time coming, and I know it will revolutionize the way we track down the lawbreakers and shut their call operations down.”

Since the rollout of “no-call” legislation both at the national and state levels in 2003, Mississippians have been able to place their numbers on “do-not-call” lists. And last year, the PSC began allowing cellphone numbers to be added to the list.

Last December, the Federal Trade Commission reported that more than 226 million numbers had been placed on the national list since the do-not-call lists became active in 2003. And in 2015, that number increased about 3 percent. Some industry experts attribute that rise to increasing use of robocalling technology. It’s a big problem; billions of robocalls are placed every month, and CNBC reported 2.6 billion robocalls last May alone.

For companies or individuals who violate the state and/or federal do-not-call laws, there can be stiff penalties, and many companies have found themselves on the wrong end of judgments and lawsuits from regulators, costing them millions. Around 20,000 companies and organizations have applied for access to the national list, according to the FTC report. But the list has not stopped criminals from violating the law on a regular basis, a lot of them using robocall technology. Many robocalls originate from overseas, making it difficult to stop them.

When I heard about the new app, I decided to give it a try. After downloading and installing the app, I was asked to enter my name, address, and email, as well as the telephone number I wanted to add to the list. Once registered, the user can add additional numbers to the list, file a complaint about a call they received and sign up for additional information. There was a disclaimer that your number will be added to the do-not-call list, and you may be asked to file an affidavit to support your complaint, should it be needed.

Usage is simple and straightforward, and should allow you to immediately report numbers that come to your cellphone or landline. When reporting a questionable call or text, you’ll be asked for specific information about the number the caller used, the time and date of the call, what the call was about, whether you have an existing business relationship with the caller and whether you answered the call.

There are numerous apps that use the national registry, and others that block calls from known scammers, spammers and robocallers. A list of some of these is available at https://www.ctia.org/consumer-tips/robocalls.

For more information about Mississippi’s No Call Law, visit www.psc.state.ms.us or call 1-800-637-7722.

What if your sunroof exploded?

Source: What if your sunroof exploded?, clarionledger.com

It’s a cool, sunny day, and you and your family are taking a nice leisurely drive up the Natchez Trace to see the spectacle of the changing leaves. You’ve retracted your car’s sunroof shade to let the sunshine fill the car with its warming rays, when suddenly you hear loud popping sounds, like gunshots, and you and your kids are covered in a shower of glass fragments.

Sound far-fetched? It’s not.

Since 1995, nearly 900 reports of exploding sunroofs have been filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about three-quarters of those since 2011 and peaking in 2015. No deaths have been reported, but there have been at least 36 reports of injuries, according to an extensive report released Oct. 12 by consumer watchdog Consumer Reports. And, the authors discovered, the number of incidents reported to the NHTSA is likely a small fraction of the actual incidents.

“These incidents have happened in every month of the year in every part of the country, in vehicles from all over the world,” Consumer Reports noted in its report. “They have occurred on interstates, on country roads, and even while parked in driveways.”

Consumer Reports listed Hyundai and Ford as the brands from which sunroof failures were most reported, and covered the spectrum of car brands, but some specific models such as the Scion tC and Hyundai Veloster had the highest rates of reports. The magazine reported that the government is investigating only the Kia Sorento for sunroof issues. It must be stated (as Consumer Reports acknowledged) that the odds of an exploding sunroof are pretty low, but it becomes a big deal when it happens to you.

Vehicle owners report that automakers have in some cases been reluctant to acknowledge the failures of the sunroofs as a design flaw, leaving vehicle owners to pay for the damage themselves in many cases.

As to what causes the sunroofs to shatter, Consumers’ Union scientists quoted in the article say it’s still an open question, but they suspect it has to do with the ever-increasing demands for larger sunroofs, leading automakers to use under-engineered sunroof designs. Many of the newer designs use tempered glass (the same as those in car windows), but also require glass to be more curved, which places stress on the glass that standard tempered glass may be unable to withstand. As heat causes the materials surrounding the glass (and the glass itself) to expand at different rates, it can stress the sunroof to the breaking point.

As for a remedy, Consumer Reports suggests that — if the curving and large areas of newer sunroofs are to blame — the solution could be to use laminated glass to make sunroofs stronger, or a hybrid glass that blends the best characteristics of both.

So, if you’re in the market for a vehicle with a sunroof, Consumer Reports recommends you ask the dealer if the sunroof is made of laminated glass. (It should be stamped in an inconspicuous place on the glass.) Ask about whether the warranty covers sunroof failures, and contact your insurance agent to see if your policy covers such an incident. If you hear unexplained popping sounds, which often precede a sunroof failure, ask your dealer to take a look at it.

And if you experience a sunroof failure, don’t panic; stop as safely as possible and make sure you’re not injured by falling glass. Document the damage by taking photos, and file a report immediately. More details are in Consumer Reports’ report at http://www.consumerreports.org/car-safety/exploding-sunroofs-danger-overhead/.

Credit freeze over data breach should be free, AG Hood says

Source: Credit freeze over data breach should be free, AG Hood says, clarionledger.com

Mississippi’s attorney general is calling on two of the nation’s “Big 3” credit reporting agencies to immediately end the practice of charging fees for consumers to freeze their credit accounts in the wake of the massive data breach that affected their counterpart Equifax.

Following the news that more than 145 million Americans (including about 1.3 million Mississippians) were at risk after hackers broke into Equifax’s database over several weeks this summer, consumer advocates urged consumers to “freeze” their credit reports. A credit freeze effectively keeps anyone from using credit bureau files to open new accounts, and stays in place until removed by the consumer.

But when people tried to freeze their credit files with Equifax, they were told they’d have to pay a fee. The resulting outrage made Equifax reconsider its decision, and it agreed to waive its fees to freeze accounts. The company’s response to the crisis cost CEO Richard Smith his job and cast doubt on the company’s future.

But despite pressure, TransUnion and Experian didn’t waive their own fees to freeze consumers’ accounts. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and 35 of his counterparts want to change that. Hood sent out a news release last week, saying the group had sent letters to TransUnion and Experian urging them to waive their fees immediately or they’d send the bill for all the agencies’ fees to Equifax.
“If these agencies do not waive their fees, I intend to make Equifax pay for the fees that victims have incurred due to their hack,” Hood said in the release. “For customers who have already paid fees to place a freeze on their account, Equifax must reimburse them.”
Immediately after that breach, Hood and his counterparts forced Equifax to extend their free credit monitoring through the end of January. Still, he argues, it’s not enough. “Although Equifax also agreed to waive fees for its security freezes, people are still having to pay fees at other agencies,” Hood’s release noted.
“While it is legal in Mississippi to charge up to $10 to place a freeze on credit reports, General Hood believes a measure to waive that fee in extreme situations such as this breach should be seriously considered.” He noted that credit reporting agencies profit by selling consumers’ information, “and they have a responsibility to protect that same information.”
A credit freeze protects consumers by prohibiting third-party access to a consumer’s credit file; it’s considered one of the most effective ways to protect yourself should someone try to open credit accounts in your name. A freeze stays in place until the consumer removes it by using a unique passcode provided by the agency. Since it will also keep you from getting new credit — such as a mortgage or auto loan — while it’s in place, you’ll need to lift it if you are applying for credit.
Unless and until the fees are waived at TransUnion and Experian, a credit freeze will cost Mississippians $10 at Experian and TransUnion, but you won’t have to pay a fee at either if you’ve been a victim of identity theft.
Hood also reiterated his advice for protecting yourself against identity theft:
  • Regularly request your free credit reports, inspect them closely, and promptly dispute any unauthorized accounts.
  • Inspect all financial account statements closely and promptly dispute any unauthorized charges.
  • Consider placing alerts on your financial accounts so your financial institution alerts you when money above a pre-designated amount is withdrawn.
  • Beware of potential phishing emails; don’t open any email messages or attachments from unknown senders, and do not click on any unknown links.
  • Watch out for “spoofed” email addresses. Spoofed email addresses are those that make minor changes in the domain name, frequently changing the letter “O” to the number zero, or the lowercase letter “l” to the number one. Scrutinize all incoming email addresses to ensure that the sender is legitimate.

For info on how to freeze your credit at all three bureaus, visit http://clark.com/personal-finance-credit/credit-freeze-and-thaw-guide/.

Road rage? Blame those stress hormones … and chill

Source: Road rage? Blame those stress hormones … and chill, clarionledger.com

Something happens to us when we get behind the wheel. Even mild-mannered people seem to turn into vengeful agents of doom when we close the drivers-side door and crank our engines. This Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation occurs without warning but can lead to serious — even deadly — consequences in the form of road rage.

According to an American Automobile Association study released in 2016, nearly 80 percent of drivers admitted to aggressive behavior behind the wheel at least once during the previous year. Such behaviors included purposefully tailgating (104 million drivers, or more than half of all drivers); yelling at another driver (95 million); honking to show annoyance or anger (91 million) and making angry gestures (67 million). Others have tried to prevent other drivers from passing or changing lanes or cutting off another vehicle on purpose. And a few have resorted to more extreme measures, including getting out to confront another driver, ramming another vehicle or even brandishing or using a weapon.

While psychologists list a number of reasons why we turn loose our inner Hulk while driving, the most likely is something called “amygdala hijacking”, in which our bodies are taken over by stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol when we feel threatened. We’ve all experienced this during times of extreme stress when our bodies are poised to defend against real or perceived enemies. Unfortunately, for many of us, being cut off in traffic or having another driver drive aggressively around us can trigger us, prompting us to make decisions we may regret later.

Recently, the website InsuranceQuotes.com published a study about the phenomenon. They took an interesting approach by looking at more than 65,000 Instagram posts with the hashtag #RoadRage and compiled the posts by time, date and location. When they analyzed the data, they found that the highest number of road rage-related posts occurred on Friday afternoons, and in August.
“Inconsiderate driving, bad traffic and the daily stresses of life can transform minor frustrations into dangerous road rage,” says Jurek Grabowski, former director of research for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Far too many drivers are losing themselves in the heat of the moment and lashing out in ways that could turn deadly.”
As to why incidents seem to peak in summer, we can only guess, but (at least here in the South, with our sweltering summers) we know that tempers flare with the rising heat. (Incidents are lowest in April and May). Other possibilities, the study authors suggest, could be that summer is a time for family vacations, with families stressed after traveling together on crowded highways.

And it’s not hard to imagine that, on Fridays, people are ready to get home and relax from their busy work weeks, making them impatient to get home. It appears that the number of incidents rises steadily during the week, with the least activity on Sunday. And, although you’d think that road-rage incidents would swell during the morning commute, then taper off until the afternoon, incidents steadily rise during the day.

 Finally, the study looked at which states had the most road-rage incidents, and — perhaps surprisingly — found that drivers in Hawaii appeared the angriest. Contrary to the popular relaxed image of Hawaiians, their highways are notoriously congested and full of tourists who are unfamiliar with the island and cause frustration for the locals.

Road rage incidents can cause your insurance premium to rise, notes Insurance.com’s Laura Adams. “Auto insurers charge drivers with a history of moving violations or at-fault accidents higher rates than those with clean records,” Adams notes. “So, getting a ticket due to a road rage incident typically causes your auto premium to rise. Also, drivers who live in urban areas with heavy traffic typically pay higher rates because accidents happen more frequently.”

As to how to prevent and deal with road rage, Psychology Today’s Steve Albrecht suggests a few strategies. I’ll summarize a few of his excellent points here:

Drive carefully. This means putting down (or turning off) your phone or not letting your attention be distracted. Driving carefully will make you less likely to trigger another driver into road rage.

Don’t engage. “This means no eye contact, no retaliatory finger-flipping, lane change swerves, mutual tailgating, or slamming on your brakes to ‘teach him a lesson,’” Albrecht advises. “Tint your surrounding rear and passenger windows to give yourself some privacy. Many road ragers seem to go after people they think they can fight and win. Don’t allow them to target you.”

Report them. Call 911 if a driver is behaving dangerously, taking care to get their tag number. If you have a passenger, ask them to video the behavior.

Save your life. If you’re targeted by a “rager,” get off the road as soon as safely possible and go to an occupied police or fire station in the area. Call 911, and don’t get out of your car until help arrives. If the other driver gets out and approaches, don’t open the windows or doors. Be prepared to drive away if necessary if you feel you may be attacked.

Student debt: Scams hit students struggling to pay back loans

Source: Student debt: Scams hit students struggling to pay back loans

Student loan debt has ballooned in the past few years. The Federal Reserve reported recently that Americans owe more than $1.45 trillion in student loans, making it the second-largest segment of U.S. debt (second only to mortgages).

While many students are financing their college education through a mixture of scholarships, grants, loans, personal savings and help from their families, there can be a lot of confusion about the student loan process.

That confusion can make borrowers prone to being victimized by predatory companies, who make false promises of relief and assistance. That’s why federal and state regulators and private watchdog organizations are taking a team approach to battle a variety of frauds and scams directed at students and their families.

The Federal Trade Commission recently announced “Operation Game of Loans,” which included 36 separate actions, including seven FTC cases and other casesbrought by chief law enforcement officers in 11 states and the District of Columbia. In total, the FTC reports, the scams collected about $95 million in illegal fees from consumers.

“Winter is coming for debt relief scams that prey on hardworking Americans struggling to pay back their student loans,” said Maureen K. Ohlhausen, FTC acting chairman. “The FTC is proud to work with state partners to protect consumers from these scams, help them learn how to spot a scam, and let them know where to go for legitimate help.”
Federal actions included cases brought against five companies, including California-based A-1DocPrep Inc., Alliance Document Preparation and Student Debt Relief Group; as well as Florida-based American Student Loan Consolidators and Student Debt Doctor. The companies have been charged with a variety of offenses.
For example, the FTC charged A1DocPrep with contacting consumers while claiming to represent the U.S. Department of Education, while “targeting distressed homeowners” and making false claims they could prevent foreclosure.
Others are charged with making false promises of loan forgiveness; charging illegal upfront fees to assist with reducing student loan balances; and collecting Social Security numbers and other sensitive information to be used to “hijack consumers’ accounts while cutting them off from their loan servicers or the U.S. Department of Education.”

In addition, the FTC announced they had sued two Florida-based operations that allegedly targeted borrowers with fraudulent or ineffective services, while collecting millions in fees.

While Mississippi was not among the states listed in the recent announcement, it’s likely that Mississippians have been victimized by these scams. To help consumers avoid becoming a victim of fraud, the FTC advises us to beware of promises that a company or organization can promise fast loan forgiveness, which often comes from a telemarketer, email or direct-mail piece that claims to be affiliated with the U.S. Government. Scammers can duplicate an official seal, so don’t be fooled.

“Consumers should never pay an upfront fee for help,” continues the agency, “and should not share their FSA ID — a username and password used to log in to U.S. Department of Education websites — with anyone.”

Borrowers can find out about — and apply for — deferment, forebearance or discharge programs for free directly from the U.S. Department of Education or their loan servicer.

For more information about repaying your student loans, visit https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans.

Bedbugs love your dirty laundry


U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

Source: Bedbugs love your dirty laundry, clarionledger.com

Warning: Reading this may lead to an irresistible urge to scratch.

“Sleep tight; don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

That little poem has helped send children to bed for generations, and despite the ominous warning embedded in the rhyme, we scarcely take note of it anymore. But recent research seems to indicate we might need to consider adding a phrase about dirty laundry if we really want to make our kids feel safe from bedbugs.

Bedbugs are an ancient companion to mankind, and wherever people have settled, they’ve taken these little bloodsuckers with them. Bedbugs are tiny, reddish-brown insects that quietly feed on the blood of humans and animals while they sleep. Stories about bedbug infestations can be found throughout history. From a survival standpoint, they’re actually quite a success story. Unfortunately, it’s humans who’ve provided their meal ticket.

Although bedbugs were very much a part of the life of pre-20th-century Americans, from the 1930s until the 1980s you didn’t hear much about them in the U.S. and other developed countries. Opinions vary, but most experts attribute the decline to the widespread use of the insecticide DDT and other chemicals, as well as increased use of vacuum cleaners. In the 1990s, we began to hear about embarrassing outbreaks of bedbugs in swanky hotels and apartments; soon, bedbugs were on everybody’s mind again.

Bedbugs have been associated with unsanitary conditions, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that’s largely a myth. “They’ve been found in five-star hotels and resorts and their presence is not determined by the cleanliness of the living conditions where they are found,” the CDC says on its website. Once established, the pests are notoriously hard to eradicate. The agency is quick to point out that bedbugs aren’t likely to carry diseases, but that’s cold comfort if you’ve been their midnight buffet.

How bedbugs spread and travel have been the subject of many scientific studies; common sense suggests they hitch a ride on our clothes, or crawl into suitcases. But recently, the University of Sheffield in England published a study that suggested bedbugs really love your dirty laundry. A pile of dirty clothes on the floor (say, in a hotel room) is apparently a powerful lure for bedbugs looking for a blood meal.
“There are a lot of good studies out there focused on trying to understand how bed bugs are attracted to humans and how they get around apartment blocks, but no one has really talked about how they get into the house in the first place,” study author Dr. William Hentley told the website Gizmodo. “Stopping people from bringing bed bugs home can be a big step in preventing them spreading throughout the world.”
In looking for a host, Hentley found, bedbugs are attracted to human odors. What better place to go hunting for a human being than a pile of sweaty clothes, full of smells from a day of sightseeing?

Hentley and his colleagues tested their theory by placing four tote bags of clothes — two full of clean clothes and two full of recently worn items — in two separate, temperature-controlled rooms. No humans were in either room, but carbon dioxide was released into the room to simulate human presence. The researchers found that bedbugs were twice as likely to be found on the dirty clothes as on the clean ones. The implication is a pile of worn clothes on the floor or in an open suitcase is like a flashing “welcome” sign.

“Our study suggests that keeping dirty laundry in a sealed bag, particularly when staying in a hotel, could reduce the chances of people taking bedbugs home with them, which may reduce the spread of infestations,” the study authors wrote.

So, the next time you travel, experts suggest putting your luggage up high on a metal rack, or even get some of those huge plastic zipper bags and place the entire suitcase inside. And if you’re really worried about this, visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s guide on how to do a really thorough search to make sure you can really sleep tight.

It’s FAFSA time again

Source: It’s FAFSA time again, clarionledger.com

By now, you’d think we’d have gotten used to the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid, known more simply as FAFSA. The FAFSA is required for college students who are seeking any type of federal financial aid, and — on the surface, at least — seems like a straightforward process. But this annual ritual still gives heartburn to parents across the nation; my wife and I have been through it four years running.

Every October, FAFSA opens its online application process for the coming school year, and parents and students go online to claim their share of an estimated $150 billion in financial aid. Families must reapply every year, using information from tax returns and submitting information about their households, income and the student’s financial situation. All this information is used to determine the family’s Expected Financial Contribution to the student’s education.

For several years, the FAFSA allowed applicants to electronically “link” their FAFSA to their tax returns using something called the “IRS Data Retrieval Tool,” which cut down significantly on the amount of paper that families needed to submit. But IRS took down the tool in March, citing security concerns. The action took almost everybody by surprise, prompting angry emails and letters from parents and Congressmen. (The concerns were not unfounded; three people were arrested in 2016 for trying to use a similar service to file fraudulent tax returns.)

But the office of Federal Student Aid, which administers the FAFSA process, reports that the data retrieval tool is up and running and is available for the 2018-2019 school year application process, which opened Oct. 1. It’s still unavailable for parents or students trying to complete or amend a 2017-2018 form.

“Verification” is another hurdle which many parents will face. Edvisors.com reports that about a third of FAFSA filers are selected for verification each year. Being selected for verification is a pain and can delay your application, but it’s not a reason to panic. Edvisors.com notes that the U.S. Department of Education uses a “risk model” looking at 14 factors to determine which applications are selected. In addition, some colleges and universities select additional applications to verify some portion of the applications. Some people skate through their entire college experience without ever having to face verification, while others deal with it multiple times.

If you’re selected for verification, Nerdwallet lists five areas in which you may have to submit additional information: tax information, the number of people (including the student) in your household; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits; and child support and high school completion status. If you’re required to verify tax information for 2017-2018, you will have to submit a paper copy of your tax forms; for the upcoming year, you should be able to use the “Data Retrieval Tool.” You’ll need to complete a verification form the school will supply. Check carefully to make sure everything is complete and accurate.

 And it’s important to stay on top of the process. Most sources I consulted for this column suggest that you check in frequently with the FAFSA site, even after you’ve completed your application, and don’t assume that everything is fine just because you haven’t heard anything. The verification process this year caused a significant backlog at my son’s school, with the university’s financial aid office reporting a six-week delay in disbursing aid to students selected for verification.

And if you’re the parents of a high school senior with college plans, it would be a good idea to go ahead and start the process now. For some advice, visit https://get2college.org/fafsa-2/.

Infant deaths linked to sleep positioner products

Source: Infant deaths linked to sleep positioner products, clarionledger.com

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning to parents of infants and very young children to avoid the use of “sleep positioners” — pillowlike devices also referred to as “nests” or “anti-roll” products. The FDA warned parents on Tuesday that sleep positioners can cause potentially lethal suffocation of babies.

Parents and caregivers purchase the positioners to keep infants (usually younger than 6 months old) from moving around during sleep. The devices consist of a thin mat and wedges designed to elevate the baby’s head or keep the baby from rolling, and come in a variety of designs and colors. A search on Amazon.com found several sleep positioners for sale from $20 to $50.

The FDA reported 12 cases in the past 13 years of babies who have died from suffocation with the devices, most after rolling to their sides and stomach. The agency has also received dozens of reports of babies who were placed on their back or side in the positioners, only to be found later in hazardous positions within or next to the product.

The Mississippi SIDS & Infant Safety Alliance works to educate Mississippians about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Sudden Unexplained Infant Death. Alliance president Cathy Files said the best environment for babies is a flat surface, unaccompanied by anything else. “We want families to know that there is nothing that they can buy to put in the crib with their baby that is safe,” Files noted. “Sleep positioners are very dangerous for infants to sleep in because they can roll and get the product against their face and they do not have the neck strength or ability to move away, thus posing a danger of suffocation.”

She added that, although some products say they are safe, that claim isn’t supported by the evidence. The FDA agrees. “The FDA has never cleared an infant sleep positioner that claims to prevent or reduce the risk of SIDS,” notes the agency’s website. “And, there is no scientifically sound evidence to support medical claims about sleep positioners.” The agency noted, however, that it had tested and previously approved products designed to alleviate “flat head syndrome” and gastroesophageal reflux disease, but later withdrew its approval after the data from manufacturers failed to show the “benefits outweighed the risks.”

 Each year, about 4,000 infants die unexpectedly during sleep time from accidental suffocation, SIDS or unknown causes, according to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

To reduce the risk of sleep-related infant deaths, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended for years that parents put infants to sleep on their backs, positioned on a “firm, empty surface” such as fitted sheets. Instead of using blankets or extra sheets, clothing should be chosen carefully to ensure it keeps the baby warm, but without overheating.

 Besides the warning against using sleep positioners, Files recommended these practices to ensure a safe sleep environment:
  • Keep cribs and sleeping areas bare. That means you should also never put soft objects or toys in sleeping areas.
  • Always place a baby on his or her back at night and during nap time. An easy way to remember this is to follow the ABCs of safe sleep: “Alone on the Back in a bare Crib.”
  • Share a room with your baby, but not your bed. “Keep baby close to your bed but in a separate safe sleep environment,” Files advised.
  • Consider breastfeeding your baby.According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, breastfed babies have a significantly lower risk of SIDS than those who are not, and breastfeeding has been proven to carry a number of health advantages for both mother and baby.
  • Don’t smoke around your baby. Secondhand smoke has been linked to increased SIDS risk.

For more information about reducing SIDS/SUID risk, call the Mississippi SIDS Alliance at 601-957-7437.

Deer crashes costly and potentially life threatening

Source: Deer crashes costly and potentially life threatening, clarionledger.com

If you drive in Mississippi, it’s likely that you’ve hit a deer, witnessed a deer-vehicle collision or had a near-miss with one of these hoofed highway hazards. A drive down any country lane or highway at night in the fall will reveal whole herds of deer grazing near the roadway, their eyes reflecting in your headlights. If you’re lucky, they will just ignore you and keep on munching; if not, you could find yourself in a potentially life-threatening situation.

Mississippi’s deer population has exploded in recent years, and while that’s great news for hunters or those of us who like deer sausage, it’s not so good if you hit one with your vehicle. The MSU Extension Service estimates there are about 1.75 million whitetail deer in the state, the highest population density in the nation. Therefore, the possibility of hitting a deer is pretty high. Often, deer are hit while they’re trying to cross the road or highway, with little ones trailing closely behind. As a vehicle approaches, they’ll often panic and dart in front of oncoming traffic.

Nationally, the statistics are grim. The Insurance Industry Institute estimates there are about 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions each year, resulting in about 150 occupant deaths, thousands of injuries and more than a billion dollars in damage. (And it doesn’t usually work out too well for the deer, either.)

“Mississippi averages over 3,000 deer-related crashes per year,” MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath said in a news release. “Hitting a deer can be a very costly expense and sometimes it can be a life-threatening accident.”

McGrath notes the increase in vehicle-deer crashes in the fall and winter months is partially a result of higher traffic volumes, higher vehicle speed and shorter daylight hours, coupled with the fact deer move around a lot more during the fall. Insurance claims for deer collisions increase dramatically from October through November each year, note industry experts. According to a 2014 Insurance Industry Institute study, most damage claims (87 percent) submitted to insurance companies are for damage to the front of the vehicle, followed by the driver’s side, passenger side and rear.

 While there is little you can do to avoid a collision, technology may have some answers in the future. For example, Swedish automaker Volvo is testing a Large Animal Detection System that will scan the scene in front of the vehicle and hit the brakes if a deer (or horse, cow, or other large critter) is in the roadway. Similar systems have been available for years in other brands, but they work mainly at night, since they use infrared technology.

So, until your car is smart enough to figure out if you’re about to hit a deer and make you safe, the job is up to you and me. MDOT has these tips for avoiding crashes:

  • Don’t swerve. “Swerving can cause drivers to lose control of their vehicle, causing an even more serious accident,” MDOT notes.
  • Remember that deer are herd animals that live in families, so if you see one, watch for others.
  • Pay attention when driving at dawn and dusk. About 20 percent of crashes occur in early morning, while more than half occur between 5 p.m. and midnight, MDOT advises.
  • Wear your seat belts and drive at a safe, sensible speed.
  • If possible, use high beams at night when no traffic is approaching. This will illuminate deer eyes better.

“No matter if a driver is traveling rural roads or busy highways, the threat of hitting a deer while driving is very real,” McGrath noted. “All motorists should take extra precautions during deer season to ensure their safety while traveling.”

 For tips, visit GoMDOT.com/drivesmartms or follow @MississippiDOT on Twitter.