GE Capital Ordered to Pay Consumers $225 Million

US consumer watchdog The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has ordered GE Capital Retail Bank to pay a total of $225 million in relief to consumers harmed by GE credit card practices that were deemed to be illegal, deceptive and/or discriminatory.

GE Capital Retail Bank is General Electric’s retail credit card business.

According to the feds, this is the largest credit card discrimination settlement in U.S. history.

Under the order, GE Capital Retail Bank — which changed its name to Synchrony Bank in early June — must refund $56 million to 638,000 consumers whom CFPB said were mislead about add-on products, such as debt cancellation services.

Card-holders were encouraged to add these products to their credit card accounts without first being fully informed that they would cost money, according to CFPB.

GE Capital telemarketers were found by the Bureau to have misrepresented these products to consumers in several ways, such as failing to disclose to consumers that they were making a purchase when taking advantage of certain offers.

In a related – and much larger – fine, GE Capital was ordered to pay another $169 million for denying debt relief to around 108,000 consumers on a discriminatory basis. According to CFPB, these customers were denied these services because they asked to receive communications in Spanish.

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Road Ahead Looks Good for U.S. Economy

A new forward-looking report on the U.S. economy predicts that growth and hiring should increase in the months ahead.

The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) for the U.S. was up o.5% in May, after rising 0.3% in April and 1.0% in March. After a slow start to the year, the U.S. economy has showed increased strength for the last three months.

According to Board economist Ataman Ozyildirim, the May increase in the LEI was very broad-based. “Housing permits held the index back slightly but the LEI still points to an expanding economy and its pace may even pick up in the second half of the year,” he said, in a statement.

The LEI looks at such things as initial unemployment claims, manufacturing hours worked, building permits issued, manufacturing orders, stock prices and interest rates.

These are measures that add up to the economic conditions we can expect in the near future. It’s not a perfect “crystal ball” but it’s been pretty reliable over the years. Right now, what the LEI is saying is that the U.S. economy is poised to accelerate into the second half of the year.


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In a Happy Place…with Auto Insurance

Satisfaction with auto insurance has increased despite increases in premium prices, says J.D. Power.

In its just-released 2014 U.S. Auto Insurance Study, J.D. Power reported that overall satisfaction with auto insurance companies increased by 16 points (on a 1,000-point scale), to 810 in 2014. This is the highest level seen since 2000, when the study began.

According to J.D. Power, the study measures customer satisfaction in areas including interaction, price, policy offerings, billing and payment, and claims.

Around 19% of customers surveyed experienced an insurer-initiated premium this year, compared with 20% last year. However, the increases for 2014 have been much lower on average, (at $86 in 2014 vs. $153 in 2013).

J.D. Power also found a growing percentage of customers who experienced no price increase from over the past 12 months (55% this year vs. 52%, last year). Not surprisingly, it is among these customers that the increase in price satisfaction was greatest.

The study also revealed that auto insurance providers are doing a better job of communicating with customers these days – particularly when there is a change in premium.

But, as the study found, those changes in premium are becoming a bit less frequent, and have been a bit easier on the wallet. It therefore makes sense that people are a bit happier with their auto insurance these days.


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Fed, European Central Bank Keep Mortgage Rates in Check

It looks like mortgage rates will stay reasonable for the time being, as Fed caution and European stimulus help to keep a lid on big moves.

Bankrate, in its weekly survey, found that average mortgage rates largely unchanged last week, versus the week before. The benchmark 30-year fixed mortgage rate dropped from 4.34% to 4.33%, while the 15 year fixed inched up to 3.44%, from 3.43%.

Most experts were looking for higher rates this year, as the Fed continued its “tapering” of bond purchases. Bankrate points out, however, that the slow economy of early 2014 helped put the brakes on mortgage rate rises, despite the taper.

And while the Fed is tapering, the European Central Bank has moved into stimulus mode. Bankrate said that ECB policy has kept interest rates down in Europe, which has helped to make U.S. Treasuries more attractive to overseas investors.

With mortgage rates tied closely to government bonds, the overall effect of these moves is to keep mortgages affordable for U.S. customers.

So, between the Fed’s cautious approach to raising rates, and the effects of the ECB’s stimulus, we have some powerful forces working to keep mortgage rates pretty much where they are.

This doesn’t mean that rates will never rise above 5%, (as experts were predicting they would during 2014), it just means that things are calm for now.

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Early Retirement is a Fading Dream

Americans are getting downright pessimistic about their chances of retiring at age 65. A new comparison of current and future retirees exposes some big differences in expectations between the two groups.

According to a new study from Northwestern Mutual, the average age at which current workers surveyed expect to retire is 68. Among current retirees polled, the average age they retired was just 59.

Northwestern Mutual found that, while many current workers plan to put off retirement by choice, an alarming number of them simply don’t feel they will have the finances to retire at a “traditional” retirement age.

In the survey, 45% of current workers said they planned to continue to work in retirement — not because they have to but because they want to. However, 13% said they don’t think they’ll never be able to retire.

Of those workers polled who were aged 60 or more, 38% said they would have to work until age 75 or older before they could retire.

Among those already retired, 72% say they are completely retired from working.

These findings underscore the generational shift that is taking place in retirement preparedness. Those who are nearing traditional retirement age today are simply not as well prepared financially as those who came before them.  

Whether this is due to changes in retirement savings options (pensions to 401(k)), economic changes and a declining savings rate is debatable. What is clear is that many in this country will face some tough choices as they age.


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Scam Alert: Beware of Summer Vacation Fraudsters

Fraudsters are getting ready to ruin your summer vacation, warns money transfer company MoneyGram. Learn how you can spot them coming, and thwart their plans.

According to MoneyGram, two popular scams that involve money transfer are the ‘person in need scam’ and the ‘vacation rental scam.’

With the first, a scammer impersonating a friend or family member claims to need money due to an emergency, and needs for you to “wire” it to some distant locale. These scammers can often fool you using personal information they’ve found on social media sites.

Here’s how it works: a close friend or family member is off on vacation, and not easy to contact. Someone who claims to be helping your loved one contacts a bunch of email or social media contacts, claims your loved one is in need of help, and asks that you send money immediately.

As we said, the scammers often have a lot of details and information about your friend or family member, and are very good at convincing you that they actually know this person. So watch out!

In the ‘vacation rental scam,’ a fraudster posing as a property owner offers a vacation rental that seems perfect for your summer vacation. When you express a serious interest in the property, the “owner” insists that you pay for the rental up front, using money transfer.

When you arrive at the property for your dream vacation, you find out that the property was never actually for rent. The “owner,” it turns out, was nothing but a scammer who used a photo and description of someone else’s property to steal your money.

The company asks that you call their toll free number (1-800-MONEYGRAM) if you think that the MoneyGram system was used in a crime. But you should do more than that: protect your friends and family by alerting everyone you know whenever you believe you’ve come across one of these scams. You should also alert your state consumer protection authorities.

Try to shut down these scammers before they put a dismal end to anyone else’s summer vacation plans.


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Job Satisfaction Inches Up, But Is Still Under 50%

A new report finds that, while Americans have higher job satisfaction than they have in years, most are still unhappy with their jobs.

The report, by The Conference Board, is based on a Fall 2013 survey of 5,000 U.S. households. In it, 47.7% of respondents said are satisfied with their jobs — which was up from 47.3 in 2012 and 42.6% in 2010.

In fact, this new survey found the highest levels of job satisfaction shown since the Great Recession, the Board said.

However, the majority of Americans surveyed said they were not satisfied at work. Contrast that with the 1980s and 1990s, when these surveys often found job satisfaction levels in the high-50s.

According to the Board, the last time a majority of Americans surveyed said they were satisfied at work was 2005.

Hopefully, an accelerating economy will push those numbers higher before next year’s survey. It would be nice if we didn’t have to see a full decade of job malaise in the land.


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The Power of Generation S

Companies that focus too hard on the Generation Y youth market may be missing out on a big opportunity: the enormous buying power of America’s growing legion of seniors.

According to senior consumer agency Zillner, the over 50 market has long been seen as a “niche” market by companies, who focus their efforts on reaching those aged 18-34.

Zillner points out, however, that the senior consumer market – -which is comprised of more than 23 million seniors and another 81 million baby boomers – stands at more than 100 million strong, and is growing fast.

Spending in the age 50+ consumer market is estimated at $3.1 trillion across all industries, except health care. With healthcare, 50+ spending is estimated at an additional $1.6 trillion, Zillner said. That adds up to a whopping $4.7 trillion.

So, why is this cash cow overlooked? Zillner points out that marketers have long followed the conventional wisdom that young people go through a lot of life changes, while older folk tend to be more “set in their ways.”

While this may have been true in the past, today’s over-50 crowd is about the most dynamic in history – with a “change is the only constant” set of work and lifestyle interests.

After all, it is the Baby Boomers who defined the term “counter-culture” back in their youth. Many of these people are eager to follow their own unique paths in later life.

In another sense, today’s seniors are being forced to accept change, as depleted savings and rising expenses, force many of them to work until a later age.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with being focused on youth, and the future. But many marketers are discovering, (or need to discover), that the older crowd aren’t what they used to be.


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Credit Defaults at Lowest Rate Since 2006

Consumer credit defaults are running at an eight-year low, according to some new data from S&P Dow Jones Indices and Experian.

According to the data, American’s are keeping up with their credit payments at a rate not seen since May 2006 – which is a good sign that the economy is doing better than it has in years.

The companies said that the national composite posted 1.04% in May, with both auto and bank card default rates up a bit while mortgage default rates were down.

Auto loan defaults saw historic lows in March and April, and were up a tiny bit in May, to 0.93%. Bank card defaults stood at 2.97% in May, up 13 basis points from April.

Defaults on first mortgages, however, were down to 0.92% in May 2014. They were running at 1.30% in October 2013.

These numbers are all quite good, and signal that people are having an easier time managing their debt than at any time since before the recession.


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Will Anti-Bacterial Soaps Be Pulled from Store Shelves?

A coalition of industry groups is fighting a proposal by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that they say could result in antibacterial soaps and body washes being removed from store shelves.

The groups — the American Cleaning Institute (ACI) and the Personal Care Products Council – say that the proposed FDA rules could lead to 7.5 million new cases of food borne illness and more than $38 billion in health care costs annually.

For its part, the FDA asserts that manufacturers who use the antibacterial chemical triclosan – which is a key ingredient in most consumer products claiming to be “antibacterial” – should have to prove that products with triclosan are really more effective than using regular soap.

Triclosan has become controversial for both health and environmental reasons. Some public health advocates claim that the compound poses a health risk – and cite as evidence a 2010 study linking high exposure to triclosan with increased incidence of hay fever in children. 

Health experts are also concerned that heavy use of antibacterial consumer products may be cause a rising occurrence of drug-resistant bacteria.

Many environmentalists, meanwhile, claim that triclosan is toxic to certain naturally-occurring bacteria, and thus can upset nature’s balance when it is washed into the environment.

While the FDA has triclosan under review, the Administration admits that there is no current proof that the compound poses an elevated health risk. Instead, the FDA seems to be simply questioning its effectiveness in protecting human health.

So, does the use of “anti-bacterial” soaps really do a better job of protecting your health than washing with plain soap and water? The aforementioned industry groups claim it does, some consumer groups claim it doesn’t, and the FDA is saying “put up or shut up” to manufacturers of consumer products containing triclosan.

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