Digital Prescriptions Could Save Lives, But Most States Say No

Digital prescriptions could save lives, but most states say no
Provided by MarketWatch

Paper prescriptions will soon go the way of subway tokens in New York.

All prescriptions in the state, including prescription pain medications, must be legally issued electronically after late March. It’s part of a new mandate aiming to curb the decades-long opioid crisis that’s ravaged America for years, in which prescription painkillers can sometimes be a gateway to heroin.

Moving paper prescriptions online is supposed to cut down on forged prescriptions, and reinforce online prescription drug monitoring databases, which let doctors see if a patient has been given drugs for pain by other doctors, said Jim Owen, vice president of practice and science at the American Pharmacists Association.

The law has helped move New York doctors’ ability to e-prescribe painkillers leaps and bounds ahead of other states, or five times the national average, according to data from electronic prescription network Surescripts LLC.

But most states in the country barely have the ability to e-prescribe substances such as prescription painkillers.

While doctors’ ability to e-prescribe has swelled in the U.S. over the last decade, controlled substances are a different story: states topped out at about 7% of such transactions in 2014, with the bulk of states at 1% or even less, according to Surescripts, which handles a majority of such business in the U.S.

Why such dismal numbers?

For one, controlled substances are involved so the standards for electronic software and requirements for physician authentication are high per Drug Enforcement Administration rules.

Nearly three-quarters of pharmacies have met those standards. The discrepancy is on the white coat end: Only 1.40% of providers were equipped to e-prescribe controlled substances in 2014, according to Surescripts.

Why are doctors lagging behind? Doctors say it’s not that they don’t want to e-prescribe but that implementation is more extensive and expensive a prospect.

“E-prescribing in the right circumstances is fast, efficient and liked by patients and pharmacists and physicians. But there are many circumstances where there are challenges,” said Dr. Steven Stack, president of the American Medical Association.Stack said he and others oppose a mandate, such as New York’s, because the newness of the technology means there are still kinks in the system and challenges to access. For example, the software can be challenging for small doctors’ offices to obtain, he said, and there are problems of doctor-pharmacy coordination.

Surescripts acknowledges that there’s no easy way to get an e-prescription transferred to another pharmacy if a patient’s choice of store is closed.

“With any technology, things improve the longer it’s used,” said Surescripts senior vice president Ken Whittemore, Jr. “There are some things we’ll have to work through.”

For controlled substances, where intense pain must be treated, that issue turns urgent, Stack said, which is why he believes e-prescribing currently works best for non-emergency medications, such as blood pressure or diabetes pills.

Some experts believe that the opioid epidemic was fueled by wider cultural acceptance of pain medications, so a change requires targeting those societal factors alongside improved treatment options and supporting prescription drug monitoring programs, Stack said.

“Electronic prescribing is just one piece of a much more complicated issue of the opioid epidemic,” he said.

New York and Minnesota both require e-prescribing, but it’s a voluntary process in most other states. (Minnesota’s mandate went into effect in 2011).

But with Massachusetts and Maine legislatures considering their own state requirements, New York’s move will be one worth watching.

“We obviously won’t know the true impact until we see what happens in New York,” said Owen.

Written by Emma Court of MarketWatch

(Source: MSN)

Chipotle is Giving Away Millions of Free Burritos to Lure Back Wary Customers

Chipotle bosses will now see pay linked to share-price performance
Provided by MarketWatch

In an effort to accelerate a recovery from E. coli outbreaks that pushed share prices to low points in recent months, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. has given away millions of burritos and says it will offer millions more.

Chipotle   received 5.3 million requests for free burritos over about five hours when every restaurant was closed on February 8, a “rain check” to customers who couldn’t purchase food, Chief Creative and Development Officer Mark Crumpacker told attendees at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Consumer and Retail Tech Conference.

“[T]hat was about 14,000 per minute at peak,” said Crumpacker, who said the company had anticipated 2.5 million participants. The company saw a 67% redemption rate, he said.

Of course, giving out free burritos isn’t free. In an after-hours regulatory filing posted on Tuesday, Chipotle said it will incur higher-than-expected expenses during the quarter, in part due to marketing and promotions.

Executives noted that there weren’t any new costs incurred, and “everything that we’re seeing in the first quarter is largely confined to the first quarter.” More importantly, they’re having the desired effect.

“[W]e bring customers into the restaurant via a free burrito offer, our restaurants will be full, we would remind people about what an authentic Chipotle experience really feels like, what a full restaurant feels like, again, and then they would return and pay for their burrito and that’s happening,” said Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung.

Another free burrito promotion is already underway, with six million to 10 million direct mail offers already in the market and a total of 21 million planned. The company expects redemptions to be lower for the promotion, which ends May 15.

Though the company did provide a weak outlook in the filing, and suffered a setback with the most recent news of ill workers in Boston, executives expressed confidence that all signs are pointing in a positive direction. With customers coming back, even if it’s for a free burrito, executives believe that trust is slowly being restored.

“We recognize that this will take some time, however, but we we’ve always taking the long approach, and we’re pleased the recovery is off to a good start, said Chief Executive Steve Ells. “We’re also confident that our strategy for the full year including our use of aggressive marketing and promotions activities will help welcome customers back.”

Though wary, analysts were largely in agreement, mostly maintaining their stock ratings and price targets.

“While still volatile week to week, the directional trend is net positive,” said Barclays analysts in a Tuesday note. They rate the stock equal weight with a $450 price target.

“Chipotle’s announcements contain several negative data points and read-throughs; however, we come away from the announcements feeling cautiously optimistic about the outlook for an intermediate-term same-store sales recovery,” BMO Capital Markets analysts wrote in a Wednesday note. Analysts rate the stock at outperform with a $550 price target.

SunTrust Robinson Humphrey maintained its buy rating, but raised its price target to $550 from $520.

“Although February same-store sales and first-quarter 2016 earnings per share guidance are lower than estimated, we expect investors to take a longer-term view on valuation given recovering (albeit slowly) sales,” analysts wrote.

Chipotle shares are trading at nearly $502 Wednesday afternoon. Shares are down 26.2% for the past 12 months, but up 4.4% for the year so far. The S&P 500 is down 1.5% for the year to date.

Written by Tonya Garcia of MarketWatch

(Source: MSN)

McDonald’s May Be About to Supersize its All-Day Breakfast Menu

Provided by The Street

McDonald’s successful all-day breakfast menu may be about to become supersized.

McDonald’s is currently testing an expanded all-day breakfast menu at 72 restaurants in the greater Tulsa area, a McDonald’s spokeswoman toldTheStreet. The new menu called “All Day Breakfast: Bigger Menu” features McGriddles, McMuffins, biscuits, pancakes and other breakfast items.

In addition, 84 restaurants in and around Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point, North Carolina will also soon start testing the expanded breakfast menu.

When McDonald’s originally launched all-day breakfast back in October, it only consisted of Egg McMuffins and pancakes as the fast food giant sought to ease franchisees into handling the new menu.McDonald’s CFO Kevin Ozan said at an investor conference on Wednesday that some items would have to be pulled from the menu to accommodate more all-day breakfast items. But the McDonald’s spokesman did not disclose what items, if any, have been pulled from the menu in its test markets.

“We’re still in a testing phase, gathering feedback from the restaurants,” said the spokeswoman.

So far, the all-day breakfast platform has energized McDonald’s once sagging sales. The Golden Arches reported that fourth-quarter same-store sales in the U.S. surged 5.7%, the second consecutive quarterly increase. It was the best performance by McDonald’s since it reported an 8.9% same-store sales gain in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2012.

The expansion of the breakfast menu to include more items, potentially nationwide this year, may add a further jolt to sales.

“People are re-trying McDonald’s, and it’s adding a layer of sales to some meals,” Ozan said at the investor presentation. Ozan pointed out that people are adding Egg McMuffins to their lunch orders, which is boosting the average check value. Moreover, the availability of breakfast around the clock has led to people trading up from cheaper fare on the menu, according to Ozan.

Written by Brian Sozzi of The Street

(Source: The Street)

Here’s Some Good News…


Healthcare spending is expected to increase more slowly during 2016! It’s projected to grow by 6.5 percent this year, according to a report from PWC. That’s still a lot faster than inflation. The Economist projects overall consumer prices in the United States will increase by 1.2 percent this year.

The report suggested several factors are contributing to lower healthcare spending, including:

  • The Affordable Care Act’s Cadillac Tax. PWC reported the tax “…is motivating businesses to enact high cost-sharing. Their workers are already responding to the higher deductibles by scrutinizing what services are necessary and which are not…cost sharing can backfire if the employee foregoes preventative care and faces years of chronic illness.” Twenty-five percent of employers offer only high-deductible healthcare plans for employees.
  • Virtual healthcare. Telemedicine appears to be the next big thing in medicine. Doctors making house calls using real-time audio and video is the gold standard for service, according to the Modern Medicine Network. Remote patient monitoring, pre-recorded videos, and computer-assisted or message-based communications also are being offered.
  • New health advisors. A new variety of healthcare company is making information about facilities, providers, services, and pricing more accessible. In some cases, financial incentives encourage employees to seek treatment at a preferred facility.

These gains are more than offset by factors that are pushing healthcare spending higher, including:

  • High-cost specialty drugs. PWC reported specialty drugs are becoming a focus for the pharmaceutical industry. “With 700 specialty products currently in development, these investments will soon surpass traditional drug investments…According to a recent Express Scripts report, total national prescription spending increased 13.1 percent last year to about $980 per person.”
  • Cyber security investments. Healthcare organizations are spending heavily on cyber security to protect patients from data breaches. The cost of a breach is about $200 per patient record. The cost of security is about $8 per patient record.

It’s critical to factor healthcare spending into retirement plans. In 2015, the Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI) found a 65-year-old man needs $124,000 in savings and a 65-year-old woman needs $140,000 if each wants a 90 percent chance of having enough money saved to cover healthcare expenses in retirement. EBRI’s analysis did not include the savings needed to cover long-term care expenses.

Alba’s Honest Co. Lashes Out Over Ingredients Report

© AP Photo/Thibault Camus

NEW YORK — Honest Co., co-founded by movie star Jessica Alba, is denying a news report that said its laundry detergent contains an ingredient that it promised its customers that it would never use.

Alba helped found Honest Co. about five years ago. It has grown rapidly, selling diapers, soap, lotion and cleaning products that it says are free of “harsh chemicals.” Late last year it started selling lip gloss, blush and mascara under the brand Honest Beauty.

The Wall Street Journal, in a report posted to its website Thursday, said it tested Honest Co.’s detergent at two laboratories and found it had sodium lauryl sulfate.

On its website, Honest Co. promises that it doesn’t use SLS — a common ingredient in other brands — because it can cause skin irritation.

It said Friday that its detergent contains sodium coco sulfate instead, an ingredient it says is a “gentler alternative.” The company said it conducted “rigorous testing” and said the Journal’s article is wrong and “reckless.”

“I am extremely disappointed by the recent Wall Street Journal article full of misrepresentations,” Alba said in a blog post .

The Journal said Friday that its report “is accurate, fair and meets” its standards.

Honest Co., based in Los Angeles, sells its products online and at discount retailer Target, grocery chain Whole Foods and other major stores around the country.

Target Corp. said Friday that it had no plans to remove the detergent from its store shelves. Whole Foods Market Inc. said it is working with Honest Co. to “understand the results of the test.”

Privately held Honest Co. is also facing a class action lawsuit from customers who say the company’s sunscreen failed to protect them, causing sun burns, according to court documents. That case is still pending and Honest Co. has said its products are safe.

Written by Associated Press

(Source: MSN)

Airbnb Pits Neighbor Against Neighbor in Tourist-Friendly New Orleans

An anti-Airbnb sign at a house near the French Quarter and Marigny Triangle, popular areas for vacation rentals.
William Widmer of The New York Times

Talk to the locals in certain New Orleans neighborhoods — from the historic and genteel Garden District uptown to the dense and increasingly trendy Bywater downriver — and you can be pretty sure that one topic will come up eventually: Airbnb.

Jenny Johnson loads a car after staying at a rental property owned and operated by Christian Galvin in the Garden District of New Orleans.
William Widmer of The New York Times

With crime, potholes and the Saints, the home-sharing economy has become one of the city’s default topics, bickered about in countless informal conversations, through snarky signs (“Won’t You B&B My Neighbor?”) and increasingly in public forums where city officials, and the citizenry, argue over what to do about it.

Amber King and Ella, her daughter, at another Garden District vacation rental property owned by Mr. Galvin.
William Widmer of The New York Times

Everybody has an opinion. Some are distraught at revelers leaving “floors covered with vomit” in residential buildings and “short-term strangers” squeezing out long-term residents. But just as passionate are people who say renting rooms on Airbnb has brought them enough cash to rehabilitate properties or cover the mortgage after a layoff or after Hurricane Katrina. All of those arguments were made in September at a planning commission hearing on the subject — a meeting that lasted more than two hours despite a time limit on comments.

Shotgun houses, narrow dwellings with rooms arranged one behind another and a door at each end, in the Bywater neighborhood, a popular vacation rental destination in New Orleans.
William Widmer of The New York Times

That hearing began a process that is supposed to resolve how to handle short-term rentals in New Orleans. Blurring the lines between residential and commercial land use, home-sharing platforms have created a unique and thorny regulatory problem — a “hybrid” that “doesn’t really fit into the typical boxes,” as Robert D. Rivers, the executive director of the New Orleans planning commission, puts it. The technology design that has disrupted the hospitality industry has also disrupted civic life and public policy making.

Mr. Galvin, who owns and operates several rental properties on Airbnb, where positive ratings from guests have earned him the title “superhost.”
Willaim Widmer of The New York Times

Similar efforts to regulate home sharing are underway in Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; Austin, Tex.; and other municipalities where short-term rental sites like Airbnb (said to be worth $24 billion) and HomeAway (which was bought by Expedia last year for about $4 billion) have spurred disagreement. But the issue is amplified in New Orleans, where tourism (which contributed anestimated $6.8 billion to the local economy in 2014) butts against the pride residents take in the authenticity of their neighborhoods.

Trash piled outside a residence near the French Quarter that neighbors say is a full-time Airbnb rental.
William Widmer of The New York Times

Like some other cities, New Orleans has laws that make a lot of short-term rentals illegal. In most circumstances, renting property for less than 30 days is prohibited without a special permit that few individuals have obtained, and it is punishable by fine or possibly jail time. But city officials acknowledge that New Orleans simply does not have the resources to enforce this rule — given the 2,400 to 4,000 short-term rental listings on various services. Whether short-term rentals will be permitted in some form is not in question; the numbers have already settled that. It is up to the city to adjust accordingly, and figure out how they will be allowed.

Representatives of the larger home-sharing companies have met with New Orleans officials, but they are seldom heard from in more public forums. Officials of Airbnb and VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner, a HomeAway brand that is popular in New Orleans) point out that they operate in so many places they cannot possibly get into the specifics of local policy; they are merely private businesses offering services to consumers. So it is up to New Orleans and other cities to devise their own regulations, and up to users to follow them. The upshot is a curious mix of ubiquity and absence: a public debate that seems to involve everyone except the parties who started it.

For the time being, the platforms operate in “a regulatory Wild West,” wrote Jeffrey Goodman, a New Orleans design consultant and self-described “planning nerd,” in the February issue of the American Planning Association magazine Planning. And while cities scramble to adjust, Mr. Goodman wrote, these companies “make money without proper oversight and without proper accountability.”

The surprise is that, despite the bickering and contention, the various constituencies in New Orleans have a lot of common ground. Even the most ardent proponents of short-term rentals agree that the practice should be regulated: There ought to be mechanisms to collect taxes, restrict the density of short-term rentals in certain areas, and deal with absentee owners who offer property for rent and allow rowdy guests to become neighborhood nuisances.

The trick is that the most efficient way of achieving those ends might require the services to change how they operate. A technological fix that would permit only licensed owners to list their properties online, for example, could satisfy many complaints. But the services have been unwilling to pursue those possibilities. So New Orleans will have to find another answer.

‘A Rogue Hotel’

Rob White lives in the French Quarter. Thick with 18th-century structures, the dense grid is the oldest neighborhood in New Orleans and its biggest tourist magnet. New hotels or bed-and-breakfasts have been tightly restricted or banned for many years, to preserve some degree of the residential character that is part of the attraction. Regulations for short-term rentals are even tighter here (nothing under 60 days, in theory), but the online services have provided an easy workaround to that rule, in Mr. White’s view. He says it seems that he is the only full-time resident on his block. “You know who comes in and out of there?” he said at a community meeting about a condominium building nearby. “People with their luggage.” The tourists roll in on Thursday or Friday and roll out a few days later. “It’s a rogue hotel,” he complained.

Mr. White is a member of the Short-Term Rental Committee, not an official city entity, but a vocal coalition of preservationists, neighborhood activists, owners of traditional bed-and-breakfasts and residents of various historic New Orleans neighborhoods. Its criticism of short-term rentals predates the rise of home-sharing services, but it has become steadily louder since Airbnb’s arrival in the city in 2009, and it has included bitter complaints about the city’s failure to enforce the relevant code, which dates from the 1950s.

Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni concedes that enforcement of the short-term rental law has been “lax and difficult.” Listings on home-sharing platforms do not reveal specific names and addresses, and identifying and building cases against violators would involve considerable time and money, city officials say. In fairness, New Orleans, like most cities, has more urgent priorities — including an understaffed police force and road and infrastructure problems that would cost billions to fix. “We just didn’t feel like we had the tools to do it,” Mr. Berni said.

Stopping scofflaws would be easier if the services identified those using their tools to break the law, an argument made by critics of short-term rentals. Representatives of Airbnb and VRBO counter that turning over such information would violate their users’ privacy. A VRBO spokesman says that its users essentially pay to advertise a property, and the platform is not directly involved in resulting transactions. Mr. Rivers, of the planning commission, and a former lawyer for the city, says it is not even clear that the city has the legal standing to demand such information, and that ultimately it needs a solution involving its own data.

In recent months, Airbnb has released limited information about use of its site. For instance, it says that 92 percent of New Orleans’s hosts booked property for fewer than 180 days in the previous year, a statistic that suggests users are regular people occasionally supplementing their income. But this data release left out other important numbers — such as listings per host, which might have illuminated the multiple-property power users who may account for significant booking volume.

Mr. Goodman, the New Orleans consultant, has followed the wrangling over short-term rentals in New Orleans for a couple of years, meeting with a number of city officials — and, briefly, working as a contractor for Airbnb. He has gradually become more frustrated with the dearth of official information. In New York City, similar frustration led the state attorney general to apply legal pressure to obtain more detailed data on Airbnb hosts as part of an effort to crack down on illegal home sharing. Mr. Goodman notes that Airbnbpromotes itself as an enabler of human connection and community, but leaves compliance with local laws to the users and regulators.

Airbnb declined to comment in detail about specifics of the debate in New Orleans. But Max Pomeranc, an Airbnb public policy manager whose focus includes New Orleans, responded to criticism about compliance with local laws by saying that its service is available in 34,000 municipalities around the world, making deep local involvement everywhere impractical. Mr. Pomeranc also noted that anyone signing up to be a host in New Orleans encounters a “Responsible Hosting” page encouraging compliance with local laws and various links to official city sources.

For a study intended to guide local policy makers, the New Orleans City Planning Commission ultimately relied in part on data from Inside Airbnb and the New Orleans Short Term Rental Report — third parties that have “scraped” Airbnb’s site to approximate the geographic distribution, use rate and other more detailed data. Inside Airbnb asserts, for instance, that more than 44.7 percent of New Orleans listings involve hosts promoting more than one listing; some offer 10 or more. It also concluded that 210 out of 2,646 listings are in the French Quarter. The sharing services invariably criticize such sources as unreliable. But they have yet to release parallel data of their own.

The License Debate

People have been taking in lodgers in New Orleans “for 300 years,” Christian Galvin points out. Mr. Galvin rents out a house in leafy uptown New Orleans year-round. In fact, he is a “superhost” on Airbnb, meaning he has many positive ratings from guests, and he is a member of the board of Alliance for Neighborhood Progress, a local group that promotes short-term rentals.

Even the alliance, a relatively sophisticated operation that is financed by dues and has its own lawyers, favors regulation. Mr. Galvin said the group expected that developing rules to legalize short-term rentals would take seven or eight months. “Just tax it, and let’s go about our day,” he said. “Why is it dragging on?”

The answer to that might be apparent in the 118-page draft study the planning commission released on Jan. 19. The document painstakingly breaks down the varieties of short-term rentals and suggests solutions like restrictions by neighborhood density (preservationists favor a total ban in the French Quarter) or other factors (restricting year-round, non-owner-occupied rentals, of the sort that Mr. Galvin operates, in residential areas). It will take months to sort out the details. The latest twist is the consideration of a state bill to require short-term rental services to collect the same taxes as hotels and motels. But if the third-party data on short-term rentals is remotely accurate, and something like the planning commission’s preliminary recommendations became enforceable laws, listings and bookings for these sharing platforms would probably decline.

Despite the polarization around the issue, many, including lawyers for the Alliance for Neighborhood Progress, have endorsed a simple-sounding idea: require short-term rentals to obtain some sort of official license or permit number (for a fee) and enter it in a field on the web. Enter your license number, or you are not permitted to list. Mr. Goodman, the planning activist, agreed that the platform databases were “the choke point in the system,” and tweaking them to function only with a municipal license would amount to a genuine partnership with cities. “It requires the city to keep a good database, and these listing companies to honor that database,” he said.

For the home-sharing services, however, this appears to be a nonstarter. According to Mr. Rivers, Airbnb and VRBO told his staff that it would be too onerous to adjust their software to accommodate every regulatory arrangement for thousands of municipalities around the world. Spokesmen for Airbnb and VRBO confirm that rewriting their platforms in this way is not practical.

The planning commission seems to have accepted that argument, and its study recommends instead that license information, with the address of an advertised property, should be included in the “narrative” section of a listing. To critics, that means people without licenses could still rent, and it would still be up to the city to ferret out those who do not follow the rules. In the few cities that have enacted analogous policies, compliance has been estimated at less than 15 percent.

Mr. Berni, the deputy mayor, while emphasizing that the planning commission report is merely a starting point, says this recommended strategy has potential. Compliant users paying for licenses could generate revenue to begin funding enforcement. Going after a “bad operator” is a complaint-driven process, he says, and a listing that lacks a license number could give the city cleaner legal leverage.

Perhaps that will work. Even Mr. Goodman expresses optimism. He notes thatAirbnb in particular seems to be moving toward accepting that it is not just a responsibility-free enabler — adding more robust insurance options and, increasingly, tax-collection tools. So maybe all the local contention will lead to a productive resolution after all. “I just want to have New Orleans win on this,” Mr. Goodman says.

Written by Rob Walker of The New York Times

(Source: The New York Times)

5 Essential Products That Will Be Cheaper This Year

Pre-Packaged Bread/Peanut-Butter Department
Anthony Albright/Flickr

What better way to ring in the New Year than with savings at the checkout counter, especially when those potential savings are expected to continue throughout the year?

According to price predictions for this year, there are a handful of essential household items that will cost less in 2016 than they did in 2015.

“As the dollar continues to gain ground against other currencies and the price of oil maintains at low levels, companies from many sectors are able to keep their costs affordable for their customers,” according to the website Wise Bread.

Here are five common consumer buys that should be cheaper in 2016:

  1. Milk: It’s likely that you’ll continue to drink in some savings in the dairy aisle in 2016. After paying record-high prices for milk in 2014, Americans saw prices dip in 2015 and the “current trend of low milk prices is likely to continue until at least mid-2016,” according to Wise Bread.
  2. Gas: Americans enjoyed lower prices at the pump in 2015, as the average national gas price fell below $2 a gallon for the first time in seven years — a result of a drop in crude oil prices. The cheap gas trend is expected to continue this year. “The average annual price for gasoline in 2016 could stay the same as 2015 or possibly even drop 5 to 15 cents a gallon lower,” Christine Delise with AAA tells CBS Baltimore.
  3. Pork: This may be a good year to feast on bacon and pork chops. “According to an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri, a slight uptick in hog production combined with a low price for corn (the main feed used in raising hogs) will keep the prices of pork products affordable throughout 2016,” Wise Bread says.
  4. Bread: An abundance of wheat will likely keep bread prices down this year, which is great news for households like mine, where loaves of bread seemingly disappear overnight, used for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the kids, morning toast with jelly and my husband’s sandwiches at lunch. “Unless wheat farmers experience an absolute loss in crops due to some freak event, you can expect more savings in your weekly bread purchases,” Wise Bread says.
  5. Heating oil: If you use heating oil to keep your home warm and toasty in the winter, this will make you happy. The price of heating oil is expected to dip to $2.52 per gallon this year, compared with $2.67 in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. “In the last four years, we have gone through an absolute revolution when it comes to energy,” Peter Kenny, independent market strategist, told CBS. “Those years of exorbitant prices paid by U.S. consumers have effectively come to an end.” Families that use heating oil are expected to spend about $570 less this winter than last to heat their homes.

Which predicted price drops will have the greatest impact on your budget?

Written by Krystal Steinmetz of MoneyTalksNews

(Source: MoneyTalksNews)

Want a Back Rub? Tech Doles Out Perks for Talent

Provided by CNBC

Pity Silicon Valley job recruits.

In the battle for top talent in the technology sector, the allure of perks such as free massages and unlimited vacation has lost some of its luster, by some accounts.

Job sweeteners have become almost a necessity, even in an uncertain economy, as top talent is no longer seeing the value of switching jobs.

“They’ve seen too many of their friends take jobs at companies that fail, or sign on with entrepreneurs who don’t know how to manage,” Ryan Armbrust, managing director at ff Venture Capital, told CNBC recently. That means job seekers are looking for benefits that are both quantitative and qualitative, he said.

“When options don’t seem to have present value and every company looks the same at face value, companies are forced to resort to incentives, like offering SoulCycle classes and Warby Parker sunglasses,” Ambrust added.

According to Silicon Valley watchers, the list of possible perks are virtually endless. Future tech pioneers can expect activities like ping pong, personal trainers, afternoon meditation sessions, group fitness, and beverages on tap. For veterans, trips to Puerto Rico are no foreign concept, and some of the more adventurous firms let employees bring their pets to work — or even let you sleep on the job.

Still, some argue that on-the-job bonuses don’t necessarily move the pendulum for many workers.

“The perks typically play a marginal influence on the decision making process because most companies are offering the same benefits,” said David Saad, co-founder of SpringSprout, a New York-based recruiting firm. “The main factors that engineers consider now include depth of technical challenge, caliber of the team, personal interest in product, compensation, and more recently, if the company offers a social good element.”

Firms are also more open to accepting engineers from “bootcamp” programs, instead of candidates with years of industry experience. “The cost of lost productivity from not having enough engineers heavily outweighs the cost of any barriers to getting engineers on-board,” Saad said.

According to the firm, more influential factors are a company’s willingness to relocate potential recruits, or sponsor them for foreign visas. According to data from SingleSprout, they’ve seen a 30 percent increase in relocation offers to bring people to New York City.

Back rubs, out-of-town trips and other things “are nice to haves, but they are not swaying people anymore,” Natan Fisher, SpringSprout’s other co-founder added.

Yet in the war for talent, tech companies like Google  (GOOGL), Apple  (AAPL)and Facebook  (FB), have a separate battle to wage. Silicon Valley giants have repeatedly come under fire for the anemic ranks of women and people of color among their work force. In 2015, female engineers made up an average of just 7 percent of tech teams they’ve worked with, a small increase from 5 percent in the previous year.

SingleSprout’s founders told CNBC they are more frequently asked to dedicate more resources for targeting programs and companies that employ minority engineers, as the tech industry scrambles to improve its diversity.

Armbrust, of ff Venture Capital, noted more coding schools are attracting more and more women, who will now be entering the work force.

While he expects to see this growth continue, he cautioned it will take time.

“Educators are doing a better and better job supporting women within these fields, but we will need continued focus here in the future to create a balanced workforce,” Armbrust said.

Written by Uptin Saiidi of CNBC

(Source: MSN)

300,000 American Homes at Risk for ‘Unfixable’ Alarm Hack

Simplisafe security alarm vulnerabilities

“There is something terribly wrong with the alarm industry.” Thus reads marketing material on the site of SimpliSafe, a Boston-based “smart” alarm provider with more than 300,000 customers in the US. It’s been on a mission to improve home security since it formed in 2006 by using cellular technology to warn customers via their smartphone if someone has broken in, whilst allowing them to control alarms from afar.

SimpliSafe, which received a $57 million investment from Sequoia in 2014, not wrong about the industry. But like a growing number of alarm companies claiming their Internet-connected system provides better security than traditional services, SimpliSafe is actually leaving houses open to burglars with rudimentary hacking skills, researchers have told FORBES.

Anyone who can locate a SimpliSafe owner can use basic hardware and software, bought for between $50 and $250, to harvest customer PINs and turn alarms off at a distance of up to 200 yards away, said Dr Andrew Zonenberg, senior security consultant at IOActive. SimpliSafe has also installed a one-time programmable chip in its alarm, meaning there’s no chance of an over-the-air update. It means there’s no patch coming, leaving all owners without a remedy other than to stop using the equipment, Zonenberg said.

Such weaknesses, and more severe ones, have been found across the home and business alarm industry. In a separate FORBES story released today, your reporter found it was easy to hack into an alarm system in San Francisco, all via a browser and armed with easily-guessable passwords. The access, which was attained with permission from the owner, allowed your reporter to unlock doors, turn off alarms and access the CCTV controls of the affected building from more than 5,000 miles away in London, though he didn’t go that far.

The SimpliSafe flaw

With the well-reviewed SimpliSafe alarm system, attacks need to be carried out in the vicinity of a device, as explained in a technical blog from IOActive shown to FORBES ahead of publication. The hack, as demonstrated in a video by Zonenberg, starts by intercepting the signals that turn alarms on and off. Those signals pass between the portable keypad and the base station within the house.

Zonenberg used a separate SimpliSafe system, disconnecting the main processors and hooking up his own microcontroller to the device radios. His code, written in the C language, would listen to incoming 433 MHz radio traffic and pick out a SimpliSafe “PIN entered” data packet. An LED would light up every time a PIN had been recorded. All he had to do then was press a button to replay the PIN signal and the alarm could be disarmed.

An attacker would have to pay at least $250 for their own SimpliSafe system to carry out this attack. But Zonenburg and IOActive head of research Cesar Cerrudo told FORBES an attack of this calibre could be carried out using a software defined radio and related hardware that could be bought for under $50. Just a few hours’ work would be required.

The attacks are not dissimilar to those demonstrated in 2014 against devices from bigger beasts than SimpliSafe. ADT, this week bought for $7 billion, and Vivint were also caught out using unencrypted signals between the sensors and devices used to manage alarms.

SimpliSafe spokesperson Melina Engel told FORBES that it was planning on releasing hardware with over-the-air firmware updates and that customers would be given a discount on those once they were available. She also pointed out that customers are notified every time someone disarms an alarm, so customers should notice when something was amiss even if not checking logs, whilst PINs could be changed from the SimpliSafe smartphone app.

“The security of our systems is our top priority. We’re working to resolve this concern, which also affects other major home security providers. It’s theoretically possible but highly unlikely, and we’re not aware of it being exploited.

“Our system provides customers notifications of their disarm events, so they could catch the criminal in the act. Also customers can change their passcodes anytime locally or remotely via our webapp; so if this ever did happen, any passcode data collected useless in a matter of minutes.

“Unlike with many alarm systems, SimpliSafe customers are protected from many of the more common, low-tech, and easy methods to bypass home security systems, such as cutting the phone line or power to the home.”

It’s unclear just how far away a hacker would have to be to hoover up PIN codes. The SimpliSafe keypad works up to 100 feet, but Zonenberg believes the attack could work up to 100 yards away, even taking into account the disturbances of obstacles and humidity in the transmission of radio waves.

Smart alarm ‘fraud’

Despite the irony of SimpliSafe’s marketing, it’s right: the alarm industry is doing plenty wrong. Alongside the problems identified in Bay Alarm’s products, FORBES is also reporting on unfixed vulnerabilities in Samsung’s SmartThings home security devices and Comcast’s Xfinity service, which was determined vulnerable in January by Boston-based security consultancy Rapid7.

Cerrudo believes the collective failures of the alarm industry amount to a “fraud”. “They are promoting something to secure your home but they’re making your home more vulnerable. That should have repercussions, regulation or something. That’s kind of fraud,” Cerrudo said.

“The impression that I’ve got is that the home security product industry isn’t really actually putting any effort into security, whether it’s because they don’t realise the problem, or they don’t care, is not something I’m going to be able to tell you. It’s not just the SimpliSafe system that’s insecure,” Zonenberg added.

“These people are advertising security products that provide little to no actual security.”

Troubles with disclosure

What also became apparent to IOActive and your reporter during our respective research was that disclosing these vulnerabilities to the companies responsible for them was not simple.

SimpliSafe did not have a direct security contact; IOActive decided to disclose its findings via LinkedIn messages, the contact form on SimpliSafe’s website and the email listed on its website domain records. SimpliSafe’s spokesperson Engel said the company only saw the emails after FORBES reached out. Bay Alarm was difficult to contact too, with no security or press contacts, which had to be found from an external site by guessing email addresses. And according to the researcher who discovered the Samsung flaws, the firm promised patches that it didn’t deliver.

The myriad weaknesses across smart home devices is only exacerbated by the difficulties associated with warning the companies responsible. And yet it’s the end users who ultimately carry the risk.

Written by Thomas Fox-Brewster of Forbes


The Best Shopping Deals of Presidents Day 2016

President Day
Provided by U.S. News & World Report

Often somewhat overlooked as a holiday, Presidents Day may not evoke the same kind of excitement and anticipation as Valentine’s Day and the big game.

But the day observing George Washington’s birthday does have one leg up its fellow winter holidays. The first major shopping holiday of the year, Presidents Day boasts some of the best shopping deals of the season.

During Presidents Day sales, you can score deals on appliances, mattresses and a variety of products from major retailers. Many sales begin as early as Feb. 4, and run for days after the official holiday on Feb. 15. That means that even if you don’t get Presidents Day off from work, you’ll have plenty of time to shop the weeks-long sales.

To help you navigate the countless sales that are already beginning to pop up, we’ve included a guide to some of the best Presidents Day sales of 2016 below.

Target Presidents Day Sale

Target’s Presidents’ Day sale kicks off on Feb. 7, and will feature discounts on a wide array of home goods and furniture. Highlights include:

  • 25 percent off mattresses and bed frames
  • Up to 25 percent off home items
  • Up to 25 percent off dining and entertaining products
  • Up to 25 percent off furniture
  • Up to 25 percent off lighting
  • Up to 25 percent off décor

Best Buy Presidents Day Sale

If it’s a microwave you’re after, you’re in luck. Presidents Day is one of the best times of the year to find deals on appliances, and Best Buy’s Presidents’ Day sale is one of the best opportunities to buy them.

The Best Buy sale will run until Feb. 24, and feature up to 30 percent off major appliances. You can score great deals on everything from microwaves and stovetops, to refrigerators from top brands like LG and Samsung. In addition, if you shop with a Best Buy credit card, you’ll get 5 percent of your purchase back in the form of loyalty points.

Macy’s Presidents Day Sale

In honor of George Washington’s Birthday, Macy’s will offer 20 percent off storewide and online, as well as free shipping on orders over $75. Macy’s will also offer 40 to 50 percent off women’s clothing, including blouses, jumpsuits, jeans, sweaters and more from top designers.

Sears Presidents Day Sale

One of the most diverse sales, the Sears Presidents Day event will feature discounts on a wide variety of products, including brand-name appliances, mattresses, jewelry and fitness equipment. Some of the highlights from the Sears sale include:

  • Up to 40 percent off Kenmore and top brand appliances with free delivery
  • 20 percent off fine jewelry over $100
  • Up to 50 percent off select tools
  • 10 percent off patio furniture with free delivery on orders over $499
  • 30 percent off or more on featured fitness equipment
  • 15 percent off footwear

Kmart Presidents Day Sale

Kmart will release Presidents deals throughout the month, though the bulk of its best sales are to occur on Presidents Day weekend. Head to Kmart during the holiday weekend to take advantage of special offers on toys, appliances and more. Top deals from the Kmart Presidents Day sale include:

  • Up to 30 percent off major home appliances
  • 15 percent off fine jewelry
  • Buy one, get one pair of shoes at 50 percent off
  • Up to 25 percent off swing sets, trampolines and outdoor playsets
  • Up to 25 percent off baby gear, furniture and bedding

Overstock Presidents Day Sale

Shop online at, and you can find deals on a huge array of items. The online retailer is celebrating Presidents Day by discounting everything from watches to mattresses to apparel. Highlights include:

  • Up to 60 percent off mattresses and memory foam
  • Up to 30 percent off clothing shoes and accessories, with an extra 20 percent off
  • Up to 55 percent off bedding and bath items
  • Up to 30 percent off lighting
  • Up to 25 percent off kitchen and dining
  • Up to 55 percent of Palm Beach jewelry, plus an extra 10 percent off

Presidents Day Shopping Tips to Remember

When it comes to navigating any major shopping event, preparation and research are key if you want to land the best deals and avoid overspending. Before you head out to begin your Presidents Day shopping, review these tips to ensure you get the most out of the experience:

Make a list. Surrounded by so many great deals, it can be easy to spend more that you intended to. To avoid impulse buys, make sure you create a list of the things you need – and stick to it!

Do your research. Before making a major purchase, be sure to research reviews and product information. It’s a good rule of thumb to stick to trusted brands, rather than purchasing off-brand appliances and electronics.

Shop online. Many retailers offer exclusive discounts to their online shoppers, in addition to free shipping or in-store pickup. When shopping online, you also have to ability to search coupon sites to find coupons and codes that could multiply your savings.

Written by Maria Lalonde of U.S. News & World Report

(Source: U.S. News & World Report)

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