Brick-and-Mortar Stores Fight Online Shopping By Going Digital In-Store

Posted on: December 20th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — Some brick-and-mortar stores are doing all they can to offer high-tech in-store shopping and mimic an online shopping experience to draw more customers in.

Saturday kicks off the last weekend before Christmas and may actually be the biggest shopping day of the year. Roughly 93 percent of Americans haven’t finished their Christmas shopping by this point, and shopping online may be risky if you hope to get it in time.

“There are so many variables,” said Mark Ellwood, author of Bargain Fever. “Last year, presents arrived late after Christmas and all you got was an apology.”

But those procrastinators will take heart in the brick-and-mortar stores that are taking inspiration from the ease of online shopping and bringing it to their customers who walk through the door.

For example, Rebecca Minkoff’s new boutique in New York City offers interactive walls equipped with giant touchscreens where shoppers can browse items they want to try on, see complete outfits, look at what people are posting on Instagram about the brand, send items to a dressing room to try on later – even order a drink.

Minkoff and her brother Uri founded the company together, and decided to make their new NYC store state-of-the-art. Even the dressing rooms are equipped with touchscreens where customers can request new sizes, instead of asking a sales associate directly, and even adjust the lighting.

“You’re probably looking for a holiday cocktail dress or something like that but this lighting is not the best for it so we want to give you lighting options,” Uri Minkoff said.

Rebecca Minkoff is just one of dozens of stores incorporating the latest technology. Hointer Demin store and Lab in Seattle allows customers to scan what they see on the floor and have it automatically delivered to a dressing room. Lowes Home Improvement stores are experimenting with robot salespeople.

“The retail landscape is so competitive and the way to stand out is to use technology like everywhere else,” Ellwood said. “Brick-and-mortar retail stores are really taking inspiration from online stores, which know a lot about our shopping habits and the brick-and-mortar guys say hang on a second, we can know that too.”

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FTC Announces Cramming Settlement with T-Mobile

Posted on: December 19th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Terroa/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — The Federal Trade Commission announced on Friday a settlement with T-Mobile for charges that it engaged in “cramming,” or the practice of placing unwanted third-party charges on its customers’ bills.

T-Mobile will pay at least $90 million in the settlement, plus $18 million in fines and penalties to the attorneys general of all 40 states and the District of Columbia and $4.5 million to the Federal Communications Commission. “Mobile cramming is an issue that has affected millions of American consumers,” FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said Friday, “and I’m pleased that this settlement will put money back in the hands of affected T-Mobile customers.”

“Consumers should be able to trust that their mobile phone bills reflect the charges they authorized and nothing more,” Ramirez added.

The FTC filed a lawsuit against T-Mobile accusing the company of placing millions of dollars of unwanted third-party charges — such a horoscopes, love tips and celebrity gossip — on customers’ bills. The company, the FTC said, received 35 to 40 percent of every charge placed.

In recent months, the FTC has brought multiple cramming cases in recent months, including a settlement with AT&T and a recently filed case against Sprint.

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Wall Street Continues Climb, Labor Department Notes Positive State Unemployment Data

Posted on: December 19th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

tarabird/iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — Coming off of the strongest two-day trading in over a year, Wall Street closed the week on a positive note Friday.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 44.02 to 17822.17.

The Nasdaq climbed 20.91 to 4769.31, while the S&P 500 closed at 2072.05, up 10.82 from its opening price.

On Friday, the Labor Department released data on state unemployment rates for November, noting that 41 states and the District of Columbia saw their unemployment rates decrease from October, while just three states saw increases in unemployment. The largest improvement came in Illinois where the unemployment rate dropped 2.6 points.

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Amazon Fire Phone Gets Major Updates

Posted on: December 19th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Amazon(NEW YORK) — Amazon is refusing to give up on its Fire phone and the users who snapped up the device, despite its lackluster debut over the summer.

Six months after its release, Amazon has rolled out a software update for the phone that brings with it a number of new and smarter features.

Among those are text translation in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. The upgrade also enables the phone’s much-hyped Firefly feature to be able to recognize 2,000 famous paintings.

Another new feature is “best shot,” which takes three versions of a photo, allowing the user to choose their favorite.

In September, the Fire phone, which featured what Amazon called “breakthrough” technology, was being sold for 99 cents with a contract.

Amazon revealed in its quarterly earnings call in October that it took a charge of $170 million for “inventory evaluation and supplier commitment costs” for the Fire, after it failed to create a spark in the smartphone market.

Critics have said the Fire is less a phone and more a “shopping machine” designed to capture more Amazon customers.

If you’re still intrigued by the Fire phone, it’s not too late to order one in time for Christmas.

Amazon announced on Friday it will give free two-day shipping on most Amazon devices, including the Fire phone, through Dec. 22 at 7 p.m. ET.

After that, the retailer will provide free one-day shipping on those devices until Dec. 23 at 3 p.m. ET.

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Verizon Lets Users Text Message the Gift of Coffee

Posted on: December 19th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Verizon(NEW YORK) — There’s nothing worse than being crunched for time while holiday shopping or realizing you forgot someone on your list.

Verizon is aiming to solve its subscribers’ gift-giving nightmares by allowing them to give anyone a Starbucks gift card by sending a quick text message. The gift will be added to the subscriber’s Verizon bill.

Here’s how it works:

Download the Verizon messages app and compose a text message. Next, click the + sign and choose the gift icon. From there, users are prompted to choose whether they’d like to send $5, $10 or $25. Choose a background image, enter a festive message and press send.

The recipient will immediately get a text message letting them know they’ve received a Starbucks credit, along with a bar code that can be used to pay at the store.

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Top Year-End Money Tips for 2014

Posted on: December 19th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — With less than two weeks to go before the end of the year, both Santa and the “tax man” will be checking their “naughty or nice” lists.

To start, remember that you’ll get a better sense of where your money is heading if you know where it’s been.

“If you’ve gone a little overboard on holiday gifts or eating out, it might be time to revisit your budget,” said Holly Perez, Mint.com spokeswoman and consumer spending expert.

Here’s how to enter 2015 without a holiday hangover:

1. Develop a debt payoff strategy.

“If you have extra cash in the bank, it’s worth making a large payment toward cutting down you debt. If you can’t pay down a debt you accumulated this year, create a debt payoff plan that will get it down next year,” Perez said.

If you discover you can’t pay off your unsecured debt in five years or less, you may need to talk with a credit counselor or even a bankruptcy attorney, said Gerri Detweiler, a credit expert with Credit.com.

2. Automate everything.

“The more you can automate, the easier your finances will be in 2015,” Perez said. “This is also a good time to review and cancel any automatic subscriptions you aren’t using, such as music streaming services, magazines, newspapers, premium subscriptions, etc.”

3. Spend your FSA.

Flexible spending accounts allow employees to set aside a portion of earnings tax-free to pay for qualified expenses, most commonly medical expenses and dependent care.

“So if you have a FSA for qualifying expenses, now is the time to submit any outstanding claims,” Perez said. “You can carry over only $500 into 2015, so get those claims in now. This is the perfect excuse to make those doctor appointments you’ve been putting off all year.”

4. Review your insurance plans and rates.

Look over your health, life, homeowners, renters and car insurance plans.

“It’s easy to ‘set it and forget it,’ then end up with the same insurance carrier for years,” Perez said.

If you have any changes coming in 2015 that you need to plan for, including getting married, having a baby or buying a home, shop around for some new insurance plans and rates.

5. Tidy your tax tasks.

First, pull out your credit card for tax deductions. Whether it’s a charitable purchase you want to make sure gets counted in 2014, or a business purchase you want made by year end, go online and use your credit card for the transaction, according to Detweiler.

“You’ll have a receipt for this year, but the bill won’t be officially due until next year. And if you get credit card rewards for the purchase, all the better,” Detweiler said.

Offset any capital gains by taking losses on positions that are in the red, suggested Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com. In addition to the ability to offset capital gains completely, you can also offset up to $3,000 in income with capital losses.

6. Make charitable contributions by Dec. 31.

And be sure to get a receipt, notes McBride.

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Atlantic City’s Taj Mahal Casino Safe — For Now

Posted on: December 19th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — Atlantic City, New Jersey will not witness the shutdown of another of its famed casinos — at least for now.

Despite failing to negotiate on a $100 million settlement deal to save the floundering boardwalk fixture, billionaire investor Carl Icahn assured Taj Mahal employees on Thursday that they could keep the lights on, as he committed a $20 million investment to keep the casino operational throughout its bankruptcy proceedings.

The Taj Mahal casino was slated to shut down at 6 a.m. EST on Saturday.

In an open letter to Trump Entertainment Resorts CEO Bob Griffin, Icahn proclaimed that he took “great pride in [his] ability to successfully rebuild failing businesses,” while subsequently calling the casino operator “one of the most distressed companies I have ever come across in my 50+ years of investing.”

Ultimately, while a wider deal could not be reached to save the casino, Icahn committed in his letter to work with the union and the state-local government on a new deal, but made no assertions that such a deal was formally in the works.

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Atlantic City’s Taj Mahal Safe … for Now

Posted on: December 19th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Morning Money Memo …

Atlantic City will not witness the shutdown of another of its famed casinos … for now. Despite failing to negotiate on a $100 million settlement deal to save the floundering boardwalk fixture, billionaire investor Carl Icahn assured Taj Mahal employees that they could keep the lights on, as he committed a $20 million investment to keep the casino operational throughout its bankruptcy proceedings. The casino was slated to shut down at 6 a.m EST on Saturday. In an open letter to Trump Entertainment Resorts CEO Bob Griffin, Icahn proclaimed that he took “great pride in [his] ability to successfully rebuild failing businesses,” while subsequently calling the casino operator “one of the most distressed companies I have ever come across in my 50+ years of investing.” Ultimately, while a wider deal could not be reached to save the casino, Icahn committed in his letter to work with the union and the state-local government on a new deal,  but made no assertions that such a deal was formally in the works.

Will the rally continue? U.S. markets opened this morning just 180 points from an all-time high for the Dow, after Thursday’s 421-point surge marked the best day for U.S. equities in three years and pushed the two-day gain for the index to more than 700 points. Futures were up only slightly this morning, with Asian markets overwhelmingly positive for the day. Markets in Europe, meanwhile, were largely in the red after strong gains Thursday. Worldwide markets reacted strongly to Fed chair Janet Yellen’s announcement of “patience” on an interest rate increase. Crude oil rebounded slightly from its five-year lows to just less than $55 per barrel this morning.

Ford expanded its nationwide recall, adding nearly 500,000 vehicles to the list for issues related to Japanese airbag maker Takata. Included in the recall were model year 2005 to 2008 Ford Mustangs and 2005-2006 Ford GTs built at various assembly plants in Michigan. At least 10 automakers have now recalled close to 12 million vehicles with Takata airbags, which have been linked to at least five deaths.

As theaters enter their final holiday film push for 2014, a slew of new movies will debut at the box office in the next week, with one now-familiar name noticeably absent. Big budget sequels to “Night at the Museum” and “The Hobbit,” along with the Jamie Foxx comedy re-make of “Annie,” will compete with blockbuster holdover “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” for the pre-Christmas audiences, with “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies” expected to nab the top spot. On Thursday, they’ll be joined by Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” musical “Into the Woods,” Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” and Mark Wahlberg in “The Gambler,” in a crowded set of showings all debuting Christmas Day. Meanwhile, theaters and distributors will surely be assessing the impact Sony’s canceled premiere of “The Interview” will have on holiday film audiences, following anonymous threats made by hackers linked to North Korea. Analysts had expected the film to bring in upwards of $20 million at the box office.

A Look at the Best Apps of 2014

Posted on: December 19th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — What makes an app great? Something that makes our lives easier or allows us to stay connected in innovative new ways.

The year 2014 was a great year for apps. Here are a few that stood out from the pack:

Hyperlapse

Instagram’s spin-off app allows users to take amazing time-lapse videos that look worthy of being on the big screen. What would have required expensive equipment can now be achieved with an app.

Swarm

Splitting the atom paid off for Foursquare, which spun off its social component into a separate app called Swarm, which allows users to share their location with friends and make plans.

Foursquare was transformed into a turbocharged app for discovering and exploring new places, whether by name, location, a friend’s recommendation or a user’s tastes.

Microsoft Goes Mobile

Productivity got even easier in 2014 when Microsoft released its suite of Office apps for free to users on iOS and Android, making it easier to create and edit documents and presentations while on the go.

Facebook Groups

It’s been a year full of spin-off apps for Facebook, but Groups is the one that stood out above the rest.

Groups is designed to be a complementary experience for the most frequent users of the service and people who want another avenue for engagement.

In a matter of just a few taps, users can create new groups, post to existing ones and discover new communities to join.

“The Tinder of”

Forget a match made in heaven. How about a match made with a mutual right swipe?

Following on the success of Tinder, swipe right/left apps are having quite a year. Among them are Strut, which is like Tinder for shopping, and Jobr, which matches job seekers and recruiters.

Google Inbox

Goodbye, clutter!

“Inbox,” a super-powered app for Gmail users that provides organization and context to existing emails, began rolling out in October on an invitation-only basis.

Inbox is so smart that it will even add real-time information from the Internet to your emails, such as letting you know if your flight is delayed.

Dumb Ways to Die 2

What started in 2012 public service announcement for Metro Trains in Melbourne, Australia, has turned into two wickedly successful games.

A follow-up to last year’s “Dumb Ways to Die” game was released this year — and users can’t get enough of the simple and addictive game that effortlessly fills the void left by Flappy Bird.

RIP Flappy Bird

Let’s take a moment of silence for “Flappy Bird.”

The enormously addictive game that has been downloaded millions of times was pulled from app stores in February after creator Dong Nguyen said the game’s stunning success had upended his “simple” life.

Nguyen returned in August with a follow-up, Swing Copters, that left many gamers still missing their Flappy Bird fix.

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Sony Suspends Studio Tours

Posted on: December 19th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

AFP/Getty Images(LOS ANGELES) — Thanks to the Sony hack attack, tours of the studio have been suspended.

In the wake of the hack, Sony says tours are suspended indefinitely, meaning tourists in Southern California this holiday season are out of luck.

Sony won’t officially say the hack is the reason for the decision, but last year at this time you could check out the lot. After the holidays, the studio will re-evaluate when to start up the tours again.

The hack attack resulted in the leak of Sony films, personal emails and other information.

Sony on Wednesday cancelled the Christmas Day release date of its Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview — which depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — in light of threats made by hackers against theaters planning to show the film. A number of theater chains pulled the film from its holiday schedule before Sony made its announcement.

Oddly, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s YouTube page on Thursday posted an Interview promotional clip that still touts a Christmas Day release. It’s titled, “In Franco & Rogen We Trust.” Still, the studio has removed billboards of the movie in various cities.

A White House spokesperson says there is an ongoing investigation into the hack, but he stopped short of pointing the finger at North Korea.

Spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday, “There is evidence to indicate that we have seen destructive activity with malicious intent that was initiated by a sophisticated actor.”

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Consumer Study Reveals Gift-Giving Gaffes

Posted on: December 19th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Photodisc/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — Since this is the season of giving, Consumer Reports recently conducted a survey and discovered that the most often committed blunder when it comes to the exchanging of gifts is leaving the price tag on an item. Eighteen percent of respondents admitted doing so.

Five percent regifted an item to the person who gave it to them, and another five percent put the wrong name on a package. Three percent committed the seasonal faux pas of giving too many people who know one another the same present.

Some respondents admitted they have been caught giving people defective or discontinued products, expired foods, and luxury-brand knockoffs.

The survey also found that three-quarters of respondents said they would rather receive a practical present than a luxury splurge. And if they had the choice of getting cash or a gift card, 60 percent said they would take the cold cash.

According to the survey, the number-one worry among people shopping this holiday season is not having enough money to cover expenses. Not enough time to buy gifts was a distant second.

When it comes to gifts this season, 57 percent say they’re buying clothes, shoes, and fashion accessories for people.  Fifty-one percent are planning to give a gift card.

Here’s a ranking of the items Americans plan to give this holiday season:

  • Clothing, shoes, fashion accessories – 57 percent
  • Gift cards – 51 percent
  • Toys – 44 percent
  • Cash or check – 30 percent
  • Books – 27 percent
  • Food or wine – 25 percent
  • Jewelry – 20 percent
  • Electronics accessories (headphones, cases) – 19 percent
  • DVDs or Blu-ray discs – 19 percent
  • Video games – 18 percent
  • Personal electronics (smartphone, tablet, ebook) – 16 percent
  • Pet toys – 15 percent
  • Major electronics (TV, computer, video game system) – 12 percent
  • Home furnishings/décor items – 12 percent
  • Small appliances (coffeemaker, toaster) – 10 percent

The online survey of 1,500 adults was conducted in early December 2014 by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

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Uber to Implement New Policies with Eye on Safety

Posted on: December 18th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

QUIQUE GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — In a blog post on Thursday, ride-sharing company Uber announced that it would implement new policies in an attempt to increase safety.

In the post, titled “Our Commitment to Safety,” Uber says it will implement technology in ways that will “ensure the safety of riders and drivers.” The company mentions plants to research and develop “biometrics and voice verification” to enhance driver screening. They also hope to give riders the ability to communicate both with Uber and with their loved ones in the case of an emergency.

Uber also says it will explore new methods of screening drivers, including the use of scientific analysis and technology. Similar methods, the company says, are being undertaken in India, where earlier this month a woman was allegedly raped by an Uber driver.

Tim Collins, a former executive at Amazon, will join the company to lead their Global Support department, the company announced. The goal of that department will be to continue to evolve customer service and build Safety Incident Response teams around the world.

Finally, the company “will be working with partners that have deep expertise in issues like women’s safety, conflict resolution, and road safety” and incorporate their recommendations into the Uber plan.

In addition to the India case, in November a New York woman claimed she was harassed by a driver for canceling a ride.

Uber also faces a lawsuit filed by prosecutors in San Francisco and Los Angeles alleging the company is breaking rules and made false and misleading statements about background checks conducted on drivers.

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Takata Takes Out Open Letter, Won’t Expand Recall

Posted on: December 18th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

bizoo_n/iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — Takata Corporation placed an open letter in U.S. and German newspapers on Thursday, defending its products and explaining the steps it will take to replace the faulty air bags while declining to expand some recalls nationwide.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had urged the company to expand its recall from only high-humidity regions to a full nationwide recall. The company, however, did not say that it would do so.

Instead, Takata says it is working to “increase the production capacity for replacement airbags to support all safety campaigns or further recalls announced by the automakers.” Additionally, it will continue “working with our customers and other airbag producers to produce more replacement units” and “exploring whether other producers’ current airbags can be used in replacement kits.”

Finally, Takata said, it will work with the NHTSA and automakers to solve the problem expediently.

That letter was published in papers including The Detroit News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Detroit Free Press, among others.

NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman on Thursday announced that Ford has sent notice that they will comply with the request for an expanded recall of all vehicles in the U.S. containing the problematic front driver’s side air bags. Ford joins Mazda and Honda as the three automakers to comply with NHTSA’s request thus far. Chrysler and BMW, as well as Takata, “have failed to take the same action and, if necessary, we are prepared to force them to do so in the interest of public safety.”

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Thursday Close Marks Strongest Two-Day Run Since 2013 for Wall Street

Posted on: December 18th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

tarabird/iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — Wall Street recorded back-to-back days of gains, with the major indices rebounding somewhat after a rough beginning of the month.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed 421.28 to a close of 17,778.15.

The Nasdaq jumped 104.09 to 4,748.40, while the S&P 500 closed at 2,061.23, up 48.34.

After Wednesday’s strong gains, Thursday’s finish marked the strongest two-day run for the markets since January 2013. The Dow posted consecutive sessions with 200-point gains or better for the ninth time ever, and the first time since December 2008.

Initial unemployment claims last week were down 4,000 from the previous week, the Department of Labor said Thursday. The four-week moving average was down 750.

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Amazon Launches New One-Hour Delivery Service

Posted on: December 18th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — Amazon is now offering one- and two-hour deliveries on “tens of thousands of daily essentials,” which begs the question, when would you possibly need something that quickly?

The new service Prime Now is available starting Thursday from 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week in certain parts of Manhattan, New York. Amazon is rolling out Prime Now in additional cities in 2015. Prime members can download the Prime Now app to be notified when the service is available in their area.

“There are times when you can’t make it to the store and other times when you simply don’t want to go,” Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations, said in a statement. “There are so many reasons to skip the trip and now Prime members in Manhattan can get the items they need delivered in an hour or less.”

Two-hour delivery is free and one-hour delivery costs $7.99, in addition to the $99 a year that Prime members pay for things like two-day delivery and streaming video.

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Starbucks Expects Record Gift Card Purchases on Christmas Eve

Posted on: December 18th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(SEATTLE) — Starbucks is anticipating a very Merry Christmas this year.

The Seattle-based coffee chain announced Wednesday it expects to sell upwards of two million gift cards on Christmas Eve alone, based on last year’s sales.

“One in every 8 American adults received a Starbucks Card last holiday season, and we’re well on track for another record performance in Starbucks Card sales, as we celebrate our 14th year of offering Starbucks Cards,” Ryan Records, vice president of Starbucks Card, said in a statement Wednesday.

Starbucks forecasts the last minute buyer frenzy, which reached 1,500 gift cards per minute in 2013, to drive part of the $4 billion consumers spent on gift card purchases in the last year.

The Starbucks Card debuted 13 years ago, with customers spending over $20 billion gifting their favorite brews in that time.

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Top 10 New Year’s Destinations for Budget Travelers

Posted on: December 18th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — New Year’s can be expensive, especially if you want to skip town and take a little vacation to ring in the new year.

And with the ball drop just under two weeks away, those without plans might think a getaway is out of the budget. But it may not be: travel giant Kayak said people booking two weeks out for New Year’s travel might actually score a deal. They’ve crunched the numbers to find the destination with the average lowest airfare to guide would-be travelers.

And here’s one more tip: Try flying on New Year’s Eve or returning on New Year’s Day to score the best prices. Airlines for America predicts those two days will be among the least-traveled of the holiday season. More empty seats equals lower fares.

To go along with cheap airfare — or perhaps to skip the airfare all together and drive to your New Year’s Eve destination — HotelTonight, the last-minute hotel booking app, will launch a 7 Days of New Years sale on Dec. 26 at 9 a.m. with $99 hotel rooms in the following cities: Atlanta, Austin (Texas), Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Napa (California), New York, Orlando (Florida), Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco or Seattle. Select a check-in date of Dec. 31 to find the special $99 rooms.

These rooms are limited and will go quickly.

Here are Kayak’s 10 cheapest New Year’s Eve destinations (and about how much it will cost to fly there):

  1. Chicago ($290)
  2. Atlanta ($325)
  3. Washington, D.C. ($327)
  4. Dallas ($341)
  5. Boston ($356)
  6. Denver ($376)
  7. Austin ($378)
  8. New Orleans ($391)
  9. Houston ($393)
  10. Las Vegas ($401)

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Inside Donald Trump’s New Digs on Pennsylvania Avenue

Posted on: December 18th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Donald Trump is coming to Pennsylvania Avenue, and he’s set to arrive in 2016.

Washington’s iconic Old Post Office building, located just five blocks away from the White House, is the latest addition to Trump’s expansive real estate empire.

“We’re looking to do something really special,” Trump told Politics Confidential during an exclusive sneak peek as the building undergoes a $200 million transformation from a largely vacant old post office to a luxury Trump International Hotel. When complete, it will boast a 5,000-square-foot presidential suite and a luxury ballroom that can seat up to 1,000 people.

“Washington has nothing like what we’re going to build; it’ll be open in July 2016, if not sooner, so in time for your wonderful ride down Pennsylvania Avenue,” he said in reference to the next presidential inaugural parade set for January of 2017.

It may not be the White House, but in terms of “pure real estate,” Trump said, his new address at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue may be even better than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, because it’s located halfway between the White House and the Capitol building.

“This may be better, because it’s between the both,” Trump said. “This is where everyone should meet, you know, they should come from the White House and from Congress, they should meet right here and make their deals, because that’s what has to happen.”

But don’t think that means Trump is taking his sights off the White House down the road. He said he’s seriously considering mounting a presidential bid in 2016.

“Look, I have great popularity, the polls all show great, great numbers,” Trump said. “I am looking at it very, very seriously. And If I decide to do it, I will do it.”

To get a sneak peek at what Trump’s new hotel will look like, check out this episode of Politics Confidential.

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‘Classic’ Smartphone Maker Wants Its Customers Back

Posted on: December 18th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Ethan Miller/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — Blackberry, formerly a staple of businesses worldwide, is looking to make a comeback with the release of the BlackBerry Classic next Wednesday.

The traditional keypad and rollerball smartphone once dominated 50 percent of the market, but has since fallen below 1 percent of worldwide smartphone sales amidst lagging innovation and the rise of Android and iOS devices.

The Classic is aimed at “loyal customers,” according to BlackBerry CEO John Chen, and will retail for $449 in the U.S.

The company’s stock rose 5 percent to just under $10 per share Wednesday, after trading as high as $230 a share in 2007.

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New Cuban Diplomacy a Potential Boon for US Companies

Posted on: December 18th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Morning Money Memo:

President Obama’s decision to pursue normal relations with Cuba has many U.S. companies scrambling to consider opportunities in a brand new market that has been off limits for more than 50 years. Banks, airlines, cruise lines, hotel operators and telecom firms are among the many that could benefit. “U.S. companies from General Motors, to agribusiness giant Cargill to furniture retailer Ethan Allen Interiors applauded the White House move,” reports The Wall Street Journal.

A pledge from the Federal Reserve to remain “patient” when deciding when to lift interest rates gave the stock market its biggest gain in more than a year Wednesday. Stock futures rose this morning. The first move by the Fed to raise rates may not come until the middle of next year.

Alarm bells are ringing in Hollywood after the hacking attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment forced the studio to cancel all release plans for “The Interview,”  a comedy about an assassination of North Korea’s leader. Published reports say the production company New Regency has canceled plans for a thriller set in North Korea that would have starred Steve Carell.

Avon Cosmetics will pay $135 million to settle criminal and civil charges. Its China unit pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by bribing officials there. Avon is the world’s largest direct to consumer seller of cosmetics

New York’s attorney general wants retailers to stop selling toy guns that are nearly indistinguishable from real firearms.  Eric Schneiderman’s office says letters were sent to Walmart, Amazon, Kmart and Sears telling them to follow a state law intended to ensure that toy guns aren’t mistaken for the real thing. The law says toy guns cannot be sold in realistic colors unless they bear an orange stripe on the barrel.  Schneiderman’s office says the toys were sold online and, in one case, at a Rochester-area Kmart. A Walmart spokesman says the company will work with Schneiderman to ensure compliance. The move comes after a 12-year-old Ohio boy with a pellet gun was fatally shot by police.

Jobless Claims Drop to 289K

Posted on: December 18th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — Jobless claims dropped lower last week, decreasing by 6,000, according to the latest figures released Thursday by the Labor Department.

For the week ending Dec. 13, the number of people filing for unemployment benefits fell to 289,000. The previous week claims stood at 295,000, revised up from 294,000.

The Labor Department said there were no “special factors” impacting that week’s figures.

The four-week moving average fell to 298,750 from last week’s revised average of 299,500.

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Six Indicted in Connection with January Chemical Spill in West Virginia

Posted on: December 17th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Photo by Tom Hindman/Getty Image(WASHINGTON) — The Department of Justice announced on Wednesday that Freedom Industries and six former executives of the company have been charged with federal crimes linked to the January 2014 Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia.

“Just a mile upstream from Charleston’s primary source of drinking water, the conditions at the Freedom Industries facility were not only grievously unacceptable, but unlawful,” Attorney General Eric Holder said. “They put an entire population needlessly at risk.”

Former Freedom President Gary Southern, owners and officers including Dennis Farrell, William Tis, Charles Herzing, consultant Robert Reynolds and tank farm plant manager Michael Burdette were charged on Wednesday.

According to the DOJ, those charged engaged in misconduct that included the failure to maintain a containment area around the facility’s tanks; failure to make necessary repairs to ensure the effectiveness of the containment area; failure to properly inspect a tank containing the chemical MCHM; failure to develop and implement a spill prevention, control, and countermeasures plan; and failure to develop and implement a stormwater pollution prevention plan and groundwater protection plan.

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Sprint Faces Lawsuit for Alleged ‘Cramming’

Posted on: December 17th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Joe Raedle/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against Sprint Corporation for alleged illegal billing of wireless customers for unauthorized third-party charges.

“Today…we are suing Sprint for allowing illegal charges to be crammed onto consumers’ wireless bills,” CPFB Director Richard Cordray said Wednesday. “Consumers ended up paying tens of millions of dollars in [unauthorized] charges…many of these consumers had no idea that third parties could even place charges on their bills.”

The CPFD says that third-party billing involved products such as “premium text messages” or “premium short messaging services.” These products involve ringtones or text messages containing love tips, horoscopes or “fun facts.” Consumers would be charged either a one-time fee between $0.99 and $4.99 or monthly subscriptions costing as much as $9.99 per month. Sprint received a 30- to 40-percent cut of the revenue from those charges, the CPFB says.

According to the CPFB, some of the third-party merchants even tricked consumers into providing their cell phone numbers to receive “free” digital content, and then charged for that content. Others, the CPFB says, simply placed fabricated charges on bills without delivering any goods.

The bureau is accusing Sprint of allowing third parties to illegally charge consumers, automatically billing consumers for illegitimate charges without their consent, disregarding red flags about third parties and ignoring consumer complaints about unauthorized charges.

The bureau says that consumers incurred millions of dollars in illegitimate charges, while Sprint collected hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Earlier this year, AT&T agreed to pay $105 million in a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission for cramming.

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Wall Street Gains Back Most of Early-Week Losses, Fed to Keep Interest Rates Low for Now

Posted on: December 17th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — Wall Street posted gains on Wednesday, largely making up for early-week losses.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed 288.00 to 17,356.87.

The Nasdaq jumped 96.48, closing at 4,644.31, while the S&P 500 rose 40.15, finishing the session at 2,012.89.

Both the Dow and the S&P closed Wednesday higher than they did last Friday, while the Nasdaq was down just slightly.

The Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee reaffirmed on Wednesday its decision to keep interest rates low for the near future. That echoes a decision made in October. In announcing the reaffirmation, the committee said that labor conditions continue to improve, citing “solid job gains and a lower unemployment rate.” Still, the Fed believes it can “be patient in beginning to normalize the stance of monetary policy.”

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List Ranks America’s Worst Charities

Posted on: December 17th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

iStock/Thinkstock(TAMPA BAY, Fla.) — A Florida newspaper is out with a list of which charities are naughty and which are nice when it comes to giving money to the people they claim to help.

Number one on the Tampa Bay Times list of the worst charities is Kids Wish Network — just 2.5 percent of the nearly $138 million it collects is spent on kids wishes.

In a video, Times reporter Kris Hundley says the money is too often siphoned off by a third party.

“These are charities that let their professional fundraisers keep up to 90 percent of all contributions,” she says.

Ideally, according to Watchdog groups, fundraisers shouldn’t keep more than 35 percent of what they raise.

Getting good grades was Wounded Warrior Project, which funnels 58 percent of its donations directly to veterans.

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Hotel Industry Sues to Block Minimum Wage Increase for LA Workers

Posted on: December 17th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Stockbyte/Thinkstock(LOS ANGELES) — The hotel industry is suing to block a new, higher minimum wage for hotel workers — like housekeepers in Los Angeles.

The lawsuit challenges an ordinance the Los Angeles City Council passed in October raising the minimum wage to over $15 an hour for workers at many hotels with 300 or more rooms.

The suit was filed by two industry groups claiming the ordinance oversteps federal law by influencing the relationship between labor unions and employers.

But the city argues the ordinance is lawful and valid.

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FedEx’s Second Quarter Earnings Fall Short of Expectations

Posted on: December 17th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images(MEMPHIS, Tenn.) — FedEx released its latest earnings report on Wednesday, showing a 23 percent jump in earnings in the second quarter. The figure falls short of Wall Street estimates.

As Mike Santoli with Yahoo Finance points out, several factors contributed to the disappointing earnings.

“The revenue per package was down. And here’s, for an interesting reason, the wrinkle of lower gas and oil prices actually reduced their revenue on some levels because they add fuel surcharges,” he says.

Another factor: the growth of gift cards.

“It’s gonna be another gift card-heavy holiday season. Obviously you don’t ship those; that doesn’t help FedEx and UPS,” he says.

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Cuba: What You Can Now Bring Back with You

Posted on: December 17th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — The new deal strengthening U.S.-Cuba relations now means you can bring back long-forbidden cigars with you — but there’s a catch.

Americans who gain official approval to travel to Cuba will be the only ones able to bring back up to $400 in goods from their trip and no more than a quarter of that can be made up of alcohol or tobacco products combined.

If the protocols are adhered to, the hand-rolled Havanas won’t be making an appearance in American smoke shops any time soon.

Americans’ love of cigars runs decades back, as historical lore claims that President John F. Kennedy ordered an aide to get as many Cuban cigars as they could in the hours before he announced the embargo in 1962.

The potential influx of Cuban cigars are just one of the ways that President Obama’s announced plans change the way Americans will be able to interact with the long-banned country.

The changes come as a result of Cuba releasing Alan Gross Wednesday morning, a deal that had been in the works for some time.

There are 12 different types of licenses that will be available for individuals to travel to Cuba, ranging from diplomatic missions to trips on behalf of charities, education groups and public art performers, according to the White House.

The White House explained the expansion as a way to improve the economic conditions of the Cuban people.

“The policy changes make it easier for Americans to provide business training for private Cuban businesses and small farmers and provide other support for the growth of Cuba’s nascent private sector,” Obama said.

Obama also said that it is “clear that decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba. At times, longstanding U.S. policy towards Cuba has isolated the United States from regional and international partners, constrained our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western Hemisphere, and impaired the use of the full range of tools available to the United States to promote positive change in Cuba. Though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, it has had little effect — today, as in 1961, Cuba is governed by the Castros and the Communist party.”

He concluded, “Today, we are renewing our leadership in the Americas. We are choosing to cut loose the anchor of the past, because it is entirely necessary to reach a better future — for our national interests, for the American people, and for the Cuban people.”

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How to Keep Your Connected Devices Safe from Hackers

Posted on: December 17th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Getty Images(NEW YORK) — The “Internet of Things” — the name for the ecosystem of smart devices that can communicate with owners — are hot holiday gifts this year, but they’re also prime targets for hackers.

There’s a lot to love about a light bulb that can warn you when it needs to be changed, a thermostat that can be controlled from anywhere or a speaker that can listen to your commands.

Here’s the bad news: An estimated 70 percent of “Internet of Things” items contain major vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers, according to a report released in July by Hewlett Packard’s Fortify on Demand.

Before plugging in any connected item, Robert Siciliano, a McAfee identity theft expert, said users need to make sure their main devices are secure.

That means updated anti-virus and anti-phishing software, running a sweep using spyware and making sure the device has all of the latest patches and updates.

It’s key the main device has a clean bill of health before a new peripheral device is plugged in, according to Siciliano.

“These devices could all be infected already out of the box,” he said.

Once the devices are plugged in, Siciliano recommends conducting an anti-virus scan to see if there are any issues.

Another pro tip: When using a wireless connection, make sure it’s secure.

“If you’re functioning in a wireless environment that isn’t properly protected then bad guys can get in through the actual device you just connected,” Siciliano said.

Perhaps one of the most alarming examples of this from 2014 was a Russian website that posted live streams of unsecured web cams in more than 100 countries online for anyone to watch.

The site showed everything from babies sleeping and people relaxing in their living rooms to home exteriors and closed circuit cameras in businesses.

The biggest lesson here: Never use the default user name and password for a device.

“Any external peripheral that you have the ability to change the default password, do so,” Siciliano said.

He also advises consumers to register their devices with the manufacturer and to hold onto the box for at least three to six months in case their are any issues.

It’s expected the “Internet of Things” will swell to as many as 26 billion devices by 2020, according to a forecast by Gartner, a technology research firm, making it more important than ever for users to be smart about their security.

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As Ruble Struggles, Apple (AAPL) Suspends Online Sales in Russia

Posted on: December 17th, 2014 by ABC News No Comments

Russia’s economic and financial crisis is getting even worse and threatens to spiral out of control as the value of its currency falls.

Now, Apple has halted online sales of its products in Russia.

“Due to extreme fluctuations in the value of the [ruble], our online store in Russia is currently unavailable while we review pricing,” Apple said in a statement sent to ABC News Tuesday. “We apologize to customers for any inconvenience.”

Russia’s Apple store continued to display a “We’ll be back” message on Wednesday.

The ruble has fallen sharply in recent weeks and is down more than 50 percent since January because of sinking oil prices and the impact of Western sanctions imposed over Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s crisis.

The selloff in Moscow has spread as nervous investors have pulled money from other developing nations.

“Concerns are mounting that bond troubles of big energy companies in emerging markets will unleash a new wave of market contagion,” reported The New York Times.

The White House said President Obama plans to sign a fresh round of sanctions against Russia. Reuters reported that The European Union is getting ready to tighten sanctions on Russia by widening its ban on investments in Crimea.

Plummeting Gas Prices

With tumbling oil prices comes even cheaper gas. Average U.S. pump prices have fallen for 82 days in a row. The national average is now more than 70 cents cheaper than it was this time last year. Analysts say gasoline prices may drop another 20 cents a gallon by Christmas Day.

Markets Await Fed Statement

Global stocks are mostly lower today as oil prices tumble again and investors wait for a U.S. Federal Reserve statement on monetary policy. With the recent rise in economic growth, policymakers may drop language promising to keep interest rates low for a “considerable time,” but no immediate change is expected.

American Apparel Truce

American Apparel has agreed to a temporary truce with its ousted founder Dov Charney, including re-hiring him as a “strategic consultant.” Soon after Charney was fired last month for alleged misconduct, Charney and his attorney accused the retail company’s board of directors of illegally firing him. The board cited him for alleged improper use of company funds and helping leak nude photographs of a former worker who was suing him.