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    One of the nation's largest student loan servicing companies may have driven tens of thousands of borrowers struggling with their debts into higher-cost repayment plans. That's the finding of a Department of Education audit of practices at Navient Corp., the nation's third-largest student loan servicing company. The conclusions of the 2017 audit, which until now have been kept from the public and were obtained by The Associated Press, appear to support federal and state lawsuits that accuse Navient of boosting its profits by steering some borrowers into the high-cost plans without discussing options that would have been less costly in the long run. The education department has not shared the audit's findings with the plaintiffs in the lawsuits. In fact, even while knowing of its conclusions, the department repeatedly argued that state and other federal authorities do not have jurisdiction over Navient's business practices. 'The existence of this audit makes the Department of Education's position (on the Navient lawsuits) all the more disturbing,' said Aaron Ament, president of the National Student Legal Defense Network, who worked for the Department of Education under President Barack Obama. The AP received a copy of the audit and other documents from the office of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who has been a vocal critic of Navient and has publicly supported the lawsuits against the company as well as questioning the policies of the Department of Education, currently run by President Trump's Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Warren is considered a potential presidential candidate in 2020. Navient disputed the audit's conclusions in its response to the Department of Education and has denied the allegations in the lawsuits. One point the company makes in its defense is that its contract with the education department doesn't require its customer service representatives to mention all options available to the borrower. However, the five states suing Navient — Illinois, Pennsylvania, Washington, California and Mississippi — say the behavior breaks their laws regarding consumer protection. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says in its own lawsuit the practices are unfair, deceptive and abusive and break federal consumer protection laws. Of the five states that filed lawsuits against Navient, only Illinois and Pennsylvania were even aware of the audit, and they said they did not receive their copies from the Department of Education. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau declined to comment on whether it had a copy of the report. The Department of Education said withholding the report was intentional, repeating the argument it has made in court and in public that only it has jurisdiction over student loan servicing issues, through its Federal Student Aid division, or FSA, which oversees student loans. 'FSA performed the review as part of its own contract oversight, not for the benefit of other agencies,' said Liz Hill, a Department of Education spokeswoman. When student borrowers run into difficulties making payments, they can be offered forbearance, which allows them to delay payments for a set period of time. But under a forbearance plan, in most instances, the loan continues to accumulate interest and becomes a more expensive option in the long run. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau alleges in its lawsuit against Navient that between 2010 and 2015 Navient's behavior added nearly $4 billion in interest to student borrowers' loans through the overuse of forbearance. It is a figure that Navient disputes. A 2017 study by the Government Accountability Office estimates that a typical borrower of a $30,000 student loan who places their loan into forbearance for three years — the maximum allowed for economic-hardship forbearance — would pay an additional $6,742 in interest on that loan. 'This finding is both tragic and infuriating, and the findings appear to validate the allegations that Navient boosted its profits by unfairly steering student borrowers into forbearance when that was often the worst financial option for them,' Warren said in a letter to Navient last week. As part of their inquiry, DoE auditors listened in on about 2,400 randomly selected calls to borrowers from 2014 to 2017 out of a batch of 219,000. On nearly one out of 10 of the calls examined, the Navient representative did not mention other options, including one type of plan that estimates the size of a monthly payment the borrower can afford based on their income. Auditors wrote that many customer service representatives failed to ask questions to determine if such a plan, known as an income-driven repayment plan, might be more beneficial to the borrower. There is no public record of how many struggling borrowers serviced by Navient may have been impacted by these practices. In its most recent annual report, Navient says it services 6 million student loan borrowers, of which 12.7 percent are more than 30 days past due. That would be roughly 762,000 customers who are struggling in some fashion to pay their student loans. If one out of every 10 of those customers were pushed into forbearance instead of an income-driven repayment plan, as the department's audit found, that would be 76,200 of Navient's borrowers. The DoE report contains recommendations for how Navient could fix its practices but makes no mention of firm requirements or sanctions. The education department's Federal Student Aid division decided to do a review of Navient's forbearance practices after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed its lawsuit against the company in January 2017, department spokeswoman Hill said, to see if there were any compliance issues. She said DoE officials came to the conclusion that Navient was not improperly steering borrowers. 'Nothing in the report indicates forbearances were applied inappropriately — the observations noted focused on suggested improvements regarding how to best counsel' a small minority of borrowers, she said. In response to questions over the 2017 audit, Navient pointed to the fact that nine out of every 10 borrowers on the calls were offered all their options and that this audit is just one piece of a broader story. 'This (audit), when viewed as a whole, as well as dozens of other audits and reviews, show that Navient overwhelmingly performs in accordance with program rules while consistently helping borrowers choose the right options for their circumstances,' said Paul Hartwick, a company spokesman. Navient, formerly known as Sallie Mae, is a publicly traded company. In calls and presentations with investors, Navient has said a company priority is to lower the its operational costs. As a student loan servicing company, Navient has one primary operating cost: its employees, including the hundreds of customer-service agents who man Navient's telephones every day. The fewer customer-service agents Navient employs, the more money Navient puts in its pocket. Doing calls to determine whether a borrower should be in an income-driven repayment plan takes longer, student loan industry experts say. In fact, that is exactly what Navient said in its response to the Department of Education's audit. 'We (are not) aware of any requirement that borrowers receive all of their repayment options ... on each and every call,' the company said, adding that if the Department of Education chose to require all servicers to discuss income-driven repayment plans with all borrowers, the Department of Education needs to redo its contract with Navient. Seth Frotman, who was the highest-ranking government official in charge of student loans until he quit in August in protest over how the Trump-controlled Department of Education and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau were handling the issue of student loans, said Navient's response was outrageous. 'In short, Navient, when confronted with evidence of its bad practices, is telling the government, 'Pay us more money or take a hike.' And It looks like the Department of Education took a hike,' Frotman said. ___ Ken Sweet covers banks and consumer financial issues for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @kensweet.
  • Shoppers are spending freely heading into the holidays, but heavy investments and incentives like free shipping by retailers are giving Wall Street pause. Target Inc., Kohl's Corp., Best Buy Co. and TJX Cos. all reported strong sales at stores opened at least a year. That's a key measure of health for a retailer. Online sales also surged. Target reported a 49 percent increase in online sales, which was better than expected. But shares of Target and the parent of TJ Maxx took a hit after reporting that their third-quarter profit results were squeezed by higher e-commerce costs. Kohl's delivered strong third-quarter results, but it issued a cautious annual profit forecast. Best Buy, which has been on a winning streak, couldn't win over investors even as it boosted its annual earnings guidance. 'There are clearly a bit of two worlds. Everything we're seeing about the consumer is very positive,' Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. 'Consumer confidence is at an all-time high...unemployment is incredibly low, wages are going up.' But, he cautioned, 'The financial market can be a different picture and we'll see how it evolves.' The National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group, is expecting holiday retail sales in November and December — excluding automobiles, gasoline and restaurants — to increase as much as 4.8 percent over 2017 for a total of $720.89 billion. The sales growth marks a slowdown from last year's 5.3 percent, which was the largest gain since 2010. But the figure is still healthy and is the latest indication that the retail industry is far from an apocalypse that some feared only a year ago and a half ago. The growth forecast, which includes online sales, is slower than the average annual increase of 3.9 percent over the past five years. Adobe Analytics, which analyzes visits to retail websites, predicts a 15 percent increase in online sales to $124.1 billion in online sales for November and December. Still, retailers are facing a host of challenges. They're grappling with an even stronger Amazon from a year ago, higher labor costs and surging online sales that are putting more pressure on their profit margins. Retailers are also monitoring the impact on tariffs that have been slapped on a variety of different goods imported from China, although holiday merchandise will likely not be affected because they're already in U.S. warehouses. Any price increases could come starting early 2019. But so far, there seems to be no warning signs that the strong economic times will end anytime soon. 'We continue to see a healthy consumer environment as we enter the fourth quarter,' Target CEO Brian Cornell said on a call with reporters. He noted there's no indication that the consumer environment is slowing down. Retailers have been plowing money into their businesses, remodeling stores while trying to speed up online deliveries. Early last year, Target began a three-year plan to invest $7 billion in its stores and online operations. Kohl's has been sprucing up its merchandise and is now allowing shoppers to return goods purchased through Amazon at 100 stores. Best Buy has shown resilience in the face of increasing online competition by allowing shoppers to test new technology, and offering speedier delivery options. It's also been expanding its tech support services, including a free service in a couple hundred markets where salespeople visit customers at home to make recommendations on TVs, setup and more. Meanwhile, TJX, which operates T.J. Maxx and HomeGoods, has been bolstering its fashion business, resulting in a hefty 7 percent increase in consolidated same-store sales in the quarter compared to a year ago. But higher freight costs took a bite out of profits. Despite the snag, 'TJX's overall success underlines the fact that even in a strong economy where disposable incomes are rising, consumers still enjoy getting a bargain,' wrote Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, a retail research firm. ____ Follow Anne D'Innocenzio: http://twitter.com/ADInnocenzio
  • The U.S. says it has placed a network of Russian and Iranian companies on an international blacklist for shipping oil to Syria in violation of U.S. sanctions. Officials say the network helps fuel the Syrian war effort of President Bashar al-Assad while providing revenue for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah. Placement on the list blocks any U.S. assets and prohibits American entities or citizens from dealing with the companies. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (mih-NOO'-shin) said in announcing the names Tuesday that the nine firms and people being added to the list are 'critical actors' in a scheme to support Assad. Those added to the list include a Syrian national and his Russia-based company along with a subsidiary of the Russian Energy Ministry.
  • Israel said Tuesday it would slap high taxes on vacation rental company Airbnb and encourage legal steps against the site over its decision to ban listings from West Bank settlements. The threats of sanctions ramp up Israel's fight against a global movement advocating for boycotts over the country's treatment of the Palestinians. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign, also known as BDS, has claimed a number of successes in recent years, leading Israel to identify it as a major threat. Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin called on Airbnb to reverse what he called a 'discriminatory decision' and 'disgraceful surrender' to the boycott movement, vowing that Israel would retaliate. 'If you have a policy of discrimination against Israelis you cannot earn money in Israel,' he told The Associated Press. He also said the government would encourage hosts in West Bank settlements to sue the company to make it 'pay' for its decision. Levin added that Israel would impose other restrictions on Airbnb's operations in the country, without elaborating. Airbnb announced on Monday that it would delist some 200 properties in the coming days and cease its operations in Israeli settlements 'that are at the core of the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians.' The company declined to comment on the Israeli threats. Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war. Today over 400,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, in addition to some 200,000 Israelis in east Jerusalem. Most of the international community considers settlements illegal and an impediment to the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Israel sees the territory as disputed and says the fate of the settlements must be resolved in peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The boycott movement, which calls for sanctions against settlement products and companies doing business in the West Bank, has made inroads in recent years, helping to tarnish Israel's international image and prompting it to take retaliatory measures. Israel has enacted a law banning any foreigner who 'knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel' from entering the country. It has identified activist groups from around the world whose members can be denied entry upon arrival. BDS supporters say that in urging businesses, artists and universities to sever ties with Israel, they are using nonviolent means to resist unjust policies toward Palestinians. Israel says the movement masks its motives to delegitimize or destroy the Jewish state. The Palestinian-led movement claims responsibility for pressuring some large companies to stop or alter operations in Israel or the West Bank, including carbonated drink maker SodaStream, French construction company Veolia and international mobile phone giant Orange. Airbnb's decision coincided with the publication of a Human Rights Watch report Tuesday investigating tourist rental listings in settlements by Airbnb and Booking.com. Entitled 'Bed-and-Breakfast on Stolen Land,' the report says that Israeli settlements' discrimination against Palestinians uniquely violates humanitarian law and Airbnb's nondiscrimination policy. Most Palestinians must obtain a permit to enter the settlements or Israel proper and typically do so as laborers. Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch's Israel-Palestine director, said that with its threatened sanctions, Israel was prioritizing its support for settlements over a thriving tourism industry in Israel proper that relies on services like Airbnb. If applied, the sanctions could affect lodging costs for thousands of tourists expected to arrive in Tel Aviv next year for the Eurovision song contest. Shakir said the government's response 'reflects the degree to which the government is willing to go, putting the whole country's interests at stake over its illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.' Human Rights Watch, along with Palestinian officials and other rights groups, have for years pressured Airbnb to pull out of Israeli-occupied territory. Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat called Airbnb's decision an 'initial positive step,' and urged the company to extend its decision to Israeli listings in east Jerusalem. The BDS movement echoed that sentiment in a statement on its website. For settler hosts, who see their homes as an integral part of Israel, the decision triggered outrage and confusion. Tsofiya Jacob has rented out her apartment in the Kfar Adumim settlement using Airbnb for the past year and a half to a regular rotation of European and American tourists. She advertises her rental on Airbnb as an 'escape from daily tumult' in Israel, and doesn't mention that the property, complete with a Jacuzzi and desert views, is located in the West Bank. 'I see this (community) as part of home, part of Israel,' Jacob said. 'I understand the sensitivities but despite that, in my opinion, we are here.
  • Favorable weather is helping get the Thanksgiving travel rush off to a smooth start. By midday Tuesday, just a few dozen flights had been canceled around the U.S. That's fewer cancelations than many regular travel days. The AAA auto club predicts that 54.3 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home between Wednesday and Sunday, the highest number since 2005 and about a 5 percent increase over last year. AA says 48 million will drive and 4.7 million will fly. Looking at a longer, 12-day period, the airline industry trade group Airlines for America predicts that a record 30.6 million people will fly on U.S. carriers, up from 29 million last year. That's more than 2.5 million per day.
  • The biggest day in retail — Black Friday — is upon us once again. That means there’s going to be a number of stores looking to get the jump on sales by opening their doors on Thanksgiving Day. The practice has been lambasted by traditionalists who believe the holiday should be reserved for family get-togethers and giving thanks. But the power of commerce — and those good deals — has been too much to resist for many. These stores will be open on Thanksgiving Day 2018 Thus, Early Black Friday is a thing. Stores have stocked their shelves and adjusted staff accordingly. As a result, many of your favorite retailers are flinging open the doors on Turkey Day. Some are closing early, others are staying open later, but you may need to check with your local store since their hours may vary. Sign up for our Clark Deals newsletter to get our picks for the very best Black Friday deals sent straight to your inbox! Email Address: Here are the holiday hours for major stores open on Thanksgiving Day this year: Bass Pro Shops Thanksgiving Day 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. Black Friday 5 a.m. – 11 a.m. Belk Thanksgiving Day: 4 p.m. – 1 a.m. Friday Black Friday: 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. Best Buy Thanksgiving Day: 5 p.m. – 1 a.m. Friday Black Friday: 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. Big Lots Thanksgiving Day: 7 a.m. – midnight Black Friday: 6 a.m. – 11 p.m. Dick’s Sporting Goods Thanksgiving Day: 6 p.m. – 2 a.m. Black Friday: 5 a.m. – 10 p.m. Designer Shoe Warehouse Thanksgiving Day: 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. Black Friday 7 a.m. – 9 p.m. Gamestop Thanksgiving Day: 3 p.m. – 10 p.m. Black Friday: Store hours may vary by location Gap Thanksgiving Day: 6 p.m. – midnight Black Friday: 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. JCPenney Thanksgiving Day: 2 p.m. and won’t close until 10 p.m. on Black Friday Kohl’s Thanksgiving Day 5 p.m. and won’t close until 1 p.m. on Black Friday Kmart Thanksgiving Day: 6 a.m. – midnight Black Friday: 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day: 5 p.m. – 2 a.m. Black Friday: 6 a.m. – 1 p.m. Old Navy Thanksgiving Day 3 p.m. and won’t close until 10 p.m.  Black Friday Sears Thanksgiving Day: 6 p.m. – midnight Black Friday: 5 a.m. – 2 p.m. Target Thanksgiving Day 5 p.m. – 1 a.m. Black Friday 7 a.m. – 11 p.m. Ulta Thanksgiving Day: 6 p.m. – 2 a.m. Black Friday: 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. Walmart Thanksgiving Day: 6 a.m. to midnight Black Friday: 6 a.m. to midnight (sales begin at 6 p.m.) Victoria’s Secret Thanksgiving Day: 5 p.m. and won’t close until 10 p.m. Black Friday Keep up to date with the latest money-saving tips and more at Clark.com. Subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter and  Facebook! Here are some more Black Friday-related articles from Clark.com: Key shipping deadlines for the holidays 25 secret Black Friday deals revealed Clark’s Black Friday price point predictions 4 things retailers don’t want you to know about Black Friday
  • A Utah-based beef company is recalling 99,260 pounds of raw non-intact ground beef product after a sample tested positive for E. coli O157:H7. RELATED: Recall alert: Popular Duncan Hines cake mixes for possible Salmonella risk Beef recall impacts 5 states According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Swift Beef Company of Hyrum, Utah, has recalled the following products that were shipped to California, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. 2,000 lb. – bulk pallets of Swift Ground Beef 81/19 (81% lean) Fine Grind Combo bearing product code 42982. 8-10 lb. – plastic wrapped chubs of “blue ribbon BEEF” Ground Beef 81/19 (81% lean) Coarse Grind bearing product code 42410. 8-10 lb. – plastic wrapped chubs of “blue ribbon BEEF” Ground Beef 93/07 (93% lean) Coarse Grind bearing product code 42413. 8-10 lb. – plastic wrapped chubs of “blue ribbon BEEF” Ground Beef 85/15 (85% lean) Coarse Grind bearing product code 42415. 8-10 lb. – plastic wrapped chubs of “blue ribbon BEEF” Ground Beef 73/27 (73% lean) Coarse Grind bearing product code 42510. All products were produced on October 24, though the E. coli contamination was not discovered until last week. Fortunately, no one has reported falling ill after eating the potentially tainted meat. Here are samples of the product labels provided by the USDA:
  • Stocks are skidding Tuesday as weak results from retailers and mounting losses for big technology companies push the market back into the red for the year. Energy companies are slumping because of a 7 percent plunge in the price of oil. Crude is on track for its biggest loss in three years. Industrial companies are also dropping as the downward momentum in stocks builds after steep losses Monday. The S&P 500 index lost 38 points, or 1.4 percent, to 2,652 as of 1:15 p.m. Eastern time. The benchmark index has fallen 9.5 percent from its record high two months ago. The Dow Jones Industrial Average sank 505 points, or 2 percent, to 24,513. It was down as much as 596 earlier. Investors lately have been quick to bail out of companies that show rising costs are eating into profits, and that was the case with retailers Tuesday. Target plunged after reporting earnings that missed Wall Street's estimates due to higher expenses. Ross Stores, TJX and Kohl's also fell on disappointing forecasts. Technology companies slid after the Trump administration proposed new national security regulations that could limit exports of high-tech products in fields such as quantum computing, machine learning, object recognition and artificial intelligence. Katie Nixon, the chief investment officer for Northern Trust Wealth Management, said investors have been selling tech stocks because of signs that trade tensions between the U.S. and China are getting worse instead of improving. 'A resolution doesn't seem to be coming in the short term,' she said. 'A lot of the companies that are front and center (like) Alphabet, Apple, IBM ... could be significantly limited in the way they export their technology.' Investors continued to flee the technology giants that have led the stock market higher in years past. Apple fell 3.7 percent to $178.97 and is down 22.3 percent from the peak it reached October 3, though it's still up for the year. Microsoft lost 2.5 percent to $102.07. Tech stocks were among the biggest losers in Europe, too. Nokia and Ericsson, two top suppliers of telecom networks, each fell about 3 percent. SAP, which provides business software and cloud computing services, was down over 1 percent, as was chip maker Infineon Technologies. The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite lost 87 points, or 1.2 percent, to 6,941. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks shed 21 points, or 1.5 percent, to 1,474. Target skidded 10.2 percent to $69.27 after it said its growing investments in its online business and in stores are bringing in shoppers, but are affecting its profits. Department store Kohl's gave up 9.4 percent to $69.36 and TJX, the parent of TJ Maxx, fell 3.8 percent to $47.12. Discount chain Ross Stores slid 7.5 percent to $84.38. Benchmark U.S. crude lost 7 percent to $53.23 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, fell 6 percent to $62.80 per barrel in London. Oil prices were little changed Monday, but they've nosedived since early October. Nixon said Saudi Arabia and other countries started producing more oil after the Trump administration announced renewed sanctions on Iran. But after that increase in production, the administration granted waivers to several countries that allowed them to keep importing more oil from Iran. That crated a supply glut that pushed prices dramatically lower. Nixon said OPEC countries will probably cut back on oil production, but some investors are worried that the buildup in crude stockpiles is a sign the global economy isn't doing as well as expected. Investors looked for safer options. Utility companies took only modest losses and bond prices were steady. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note remained at 3.06 percent. In Europe, Germany's DAX index lost 1.6 percent and France's CAC 40 shed 1.2 percent. London's FTSE 100 retreated 0.8 percent. Tokyo's Nikkei 225 lost 1.1 percent and Hong Kong's Hang Seng shed 2 percent while Seoul's Kospi retreated 0.9 percent. Nissan fell over 5 percent in Asia as traders there got their first chance to react to the news that its chairman, Carlos Ghosn, who engineered a turnaround at the automaker, was arrested on charges he underreported his income and misused company funds and will be fired. Nissan said Ghosn and another senior executive, Greg Kelly, were accused of offenses discovered during an investigation set off by a whistleblower. Kelly also was arrested. The Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance sold 10.6 million cars last year, more than any other manufacturer. Renault shares dropped 8.4 percent on Monday and another 2.5 percent Tuesday. Stocks sank Monday as investors focused on simmering trade tension between Washington and Beijing after the two governments clashed at a weekend conference. The two countries have raised tariffs on billions of dollars of each other's goods in a fight over China's technology policy. Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are due to meet this month at a gathering of the Group of 20 major economies. Investors didn't react much as the trade dispute ramped up, but more recently they've gotten concerned it will drag on and hinder global economic growth. The dollar rose to 112.80 yen from 112.54 yen. The euro fell to $1.1370 from $1.1453. ____ AP Markets Writer Marley Jay can be reached at http://twitter.com/MarleyJayAP
  • Vanguard is expanding access to lower investments fees from Wall Street to Main Street with its latest move. RELATED: These investment companies offer you the best bang for your buck Vanguard’s latest salvo in an ongoing fee battle Effective immediately, the Malvern, Pennsylvania-based investment giant is lowering the investment minimum from $10,000 to $3,000 for its so-called “Admiral Shares” on 38 index funds. That move, which will give smaller investors access to lower costs, is expected to save customers some $71 million vs. existing fees. In addition, Vanguard has petitioned the Securities and Exchange Commission to launch Admiral Shares of another five index funds, including the Vanguard High Dividend Yield Index Fund and Vanguard Total World Stock Index Fund. If approved, such a move would broaden the range of Vanguard products with new, lower fees, creating an additional $10 million in savings. All in all, these latest moves will give retail investors (aka mom and pop investors) access to the same kinds of low fees long enjoyed by large institutional investors like hedge funds, endowments and pensions. Vanguard’s low-fee offensive is being widely seen as a response to what’s going on at investment arch rival Fidelity Investments. In August 2018, Fidelity introduced an industry first — a suite of groundbreaking no-fee index funds including: Fidelity ZERO Total Market Index Fund (FZROX) Fidelity ZERO International Index Fund (FZILX) Fidelity ZERO Large Cap Index Fund (FNILX) Fidelity ZERO Extended Market Index Fund (FZIPX) It’s hard to be zero minimums for account opening, zero investment minimums, zero account fees and zero domestic money movement fees! More Investing & Retirement stories you might like from Clark.com: How happy retirees can spend $82,770 a year without having millions in the bank How to create an online will for FREE in just 5 minutes The 4% rule: Why it still makes sense for retirement
  • U.S. home construction improved a slight 1.5 percent in October, but in a troubling sign, ground breakings for single-family houses fell. The Commerce Department said Tuesday housing starts rose to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.23 million, up from 1.21 million in September. The gains came entirely from apartments. Starts for single-family houses slipped 1.8 percent last month. Housing has stumbled in recent months as mortgage rates have climbed, putting the ability to buy a home or move up to a nicer property out of reach for more Americans. A sharp increase in mortgage rates has led to a marked decline in home construction since May, such that ground breakings have fallen 2.6 percent over the past 12 months. 'The housing construction cycle has peaked, but we're not expecting a meltdown,' said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. Some construction in the South might have been disrupted by Hurricane Florence striking the Carolinas in September and Hurricane Michael then hitting Florida and Georgia in October. But ground breakings recovered somewhat in the South last month, increasing 4.7 percent. Homebuilders are feeling slightly less confident, even if they expect to keep building. The National Association of Home Builders and Wells Fargo housing market index was released Monday and fell 8 points — the biggest monthly drop since 2014 — to 60 points in November. Any reading above 50 points to continued growth. The average 30-year fixed rate mortgage has shot up a full percentage point in the past year to 4.94 percent, according to mortgage buyer Freddie Mac. This benchmark rate is at its highest average since February 2011. Permits, an indicator of future activity, declined 0.6 percent to an annual rate of 1.26 million. This pullback in construction has occurred as sales of new homes have begun to stall. New-home purchases have plummeted for the past four months, including a steep 5.5 percent drop in September, according to a Commerce Department report last month. The annual rate of home sales has declined 15.3 percent since May, a striking reversal from the growth seen during the first five months of 2018.

News

  • One of the nation's largest student loan servicing companies may have driven tens of thousands of borrowers struggling with their debts into higher-cost repayment plans. That's the finding of a Department of Education audit of practices at Navient Corp., the nation's third-largest student loan servicing company. The conclusions of the 2017 audit, which until now have been kept from the public and were obtained by The Associated Press, appear to support federal and state lawsuits that accuse Navient of boosting its profits by steering some borrowers into the high-cost plans without discussing options that would have been less costly in the long run. The education department has not shared the audit's findings with the plaintiffs in the lawsuits. In fact, even while knowing of its conclusions, the department repeatedly argued that state and other federal authorities do not have jurisdiction over Navient's business practices. 'The existence of this audit makes the Department of Education's position (on the Navient lawsuits) all the more disturbing,' said Aaron Ament, president of the National Student Legal Defense Network, who worked for the Department of Education under President Barack Obama. The AP received a copy of the audit and other documents from the office of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who has been a vocal critic of Navient and has publicly supported the lawsuits against the company as well as questioning the policies of the Department of Education, currently run by President Trump's Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Warren is considered a potential presidential candidate in 2020. Navient disputed the audit's conclusions in its response to the Department of Education and has denied the allegations in the lawsuits. One point the company makes in its defense is that its contract with the education department doesn't require its customer service representatives to mention all options available to the borrower. However, the five states suing Navient — Illinois, Pennsylvania, Washington, California and Mississippi — say the behavior breaks their laws regarding consumer protection. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says in its own lawsuit the practices are unfair, deceptive and abusive and break federal consumer protection laws. Of the five states that filed lawsuits against Navient, only Illinois and Pennsylvania were even aware of the audit, and they said they did not receive their copies from the Department of Education. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau declined to comment on whether it had a copy of the report. The Department of Education said withholding the report was intentional, repeating the argument it has made in court and in public that only it has jurisdiction over student loan servicing issues, through its Federal Student Aid division, or FSA, which oversees student loans. 'FSA performed the review as part of its own contract oversight, not for the benefit of other agencies,' said Liz Hill, a Department of Education spokeswoman. When student borrowers run into difficulties making payments, they can be offered forbearance, which allows them to delay payments for a set period of time. But under a forbearance plan, in most instances, the loan continues to accumulate interest and becomes a more expensive option in the long run. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau alleges in its lawsuit against Navient that between 2010 and 2015 Navient's behavior added nearly $4 billion in interest to student borrowers' loans through the overuse of forbearance. It is a figure that Navient disputes. A 2017 study by the Government Accountability Office estimates that a typical borrower of a $30,000 student loan who places their loan into forbearance for three years — the maximum allowed for economic-hardship forbearance — would pay an additional $6,742 in interest on that loan. 'This finding is both tragic and infuriating, and the findings appear to validate the allegations that Navient boosted its profits by unfairly steering student borrowers into forbearance when that was often the worst financial option for them,' Warren said in a letter to Navient last week. As part of their inquiry, DoE auditors listened in on about 2,400 randomly selected calls to borrowers from 2014 to 2017 out of a batch of 219,000. On nearly one out of 10 of the calls examined, the Navient representative did not mention other options, including one type of plan that estimates the size of a monthly payment the borrower can afford based on their income. Auditors wrote that many customer service representatives failed to ask questions to determine if such a plan, known as an income-driven repayment plan, might be more beneficial to the borrower. There is no public record of how many struggling borrowers serviced by Navient may have been impacted by these practices. In its most recent annual report, Navient says it services 6 million student loan borrowers, of which 12.7 percent are more than 30 days past due. That would be roughly 762,000 customers who are struggling in some fashion to pay their student loans. If one out of every 10 of those customers were pushed into forbearance instead of an income-driven repayment plan, as the department's audit found, that would be 76,200 of Navient's borrowers. The DoE report contains recommendations for how Navient could fix its practices but makes no mention of firm requirements or sanctions. The education department's Federal Student Aid division decided to do a review of Navient's forbearance practices after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed its lawsuit against the company in January 2017, department spokeswoman Hill said, to see if there were any compliance issues. She said DoE officials came to the conclusion that Navient was not improperly steering borrowers. 'Nothing in the report indicates forbearances were applied inappropriately — the observations noted focused on suggested improvements regarding how to best counsel' a small minority of borrowers, she said. In response to questions over the 2017 audit, Navient pointed to the fact that nine out of every 10 borrowers on the calls were offered all their options and that this audit is just one piece of a broader story. 'This (audit), when viewed as a whole, as well as dozens of other audits and reviews, show that Navient overwhelmingly performs in accordance with program rules while consistently helping borrowers choose the right options for their circumstances,' said Paul Hartwick, a company spokesman. Navient, formerly known as Sallie Mae, is a publicly traded company. In calls and presentations with investors, Navient has said a company priority is to lower the its operational costs. As a student loan servicing company, Navient has one primary operating cost: its employees, including the hundreds of customer-service agents who man Navient's telephones every day. The fewer customer-service agents Navient employs, the more money Navient puts in its pocket. Doing calls to determine whether a borrower should be in an income-driven repayment plan takes longer, student loan industry experts say. In fact, that is exactly what Navient said in its response to the Department of Education's audit. 'We (are not) aware of any requirement that borrowers receive all of their repayment options ... on each and every call,' the company said, adding that if the Department of Education chose to require all servicers to discuss income-driven repayment plans with all borrowers, the Department of Education needs to redo its contract with Navient. Seth Frotman, who was the highest-ranking government official in charge of student loans until he quit in August in protest over how the Trump-controlled Department of Education and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau were handling the issue of student loans, said Navient's response was outrageous. 'In short, Navient, when confronted with evidence of its bad practices, is telling the government, 'Pay us more money or take a hike.' And It looks like the Department of Education took a hike,' Frotman said. ___ Ken Sweet covers banks and consumer financial issues for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @kensweet.
  • If you're planning on purchasing gift cards this holiday season, then there are some important policy changes that you'll need to know about.  Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced nationwide gift card policy changes at a news conference Tuesday.  Three major retailers Walmart, Target and Best Buy have all agreed to new restrictions. There will be reductions in gift card limits, as well as restrictions on using gift cards to buy other gift cards. There also will be more employee training for people who work in the stores to help recognize scams when they are happening. >> Read more trending news  Shapiro said gift card scams have quadrupled in recent years.  Check back for more on this developing story, or click here.
  • With Black Friday just hours away, here is a look at some of the best deals of the 2018 holiday shopping season. Computers Apple iPad 2018 with 32GB for $249 – Jet  Apple iPad 2018, 128GB: $329 – Best Buy Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch 2018 for $1,150 – Best Buy Acer Aspire with the latest Core i5-8400 processor for $399.99 – BJ’s Acer 24-inch FHD FreeSync gaming monitor for $100 – Newegg  Dell Inspiron Chromebook 11 for $199.99 - Dell Dell G3 15.6-inch gaming laptop for $899 - Office Depot  Dell Inspiron 15.6-inch laptop for $319 – Dell  Dell Inspiron Small Desktop for $249.99 – Dell Dell Inspiron tower with Core i5 for $399.99 – Dell Dell XPS 13 for $1,500 – Costco Google Pixelbook laptop for $699 – Google Store HP 15.6-inch laptop for $349 – Office Depot  HP 1.6-inch Chromebook for $119.99  - Target HP Pavilion x360 14-inch with Intel Core i5 for $549 – Best Buy HP Pavilion 15 for $499 - Staples Lenovo Ideapad 330 Core i5 1TB HDD for $450 – Costco Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8-inch model for $129.99 – BJ’s Samsung Chromebook 3 for $99 – Walmart Surface Go base model for $399 – Microsoft Store Home technology Amazon Echo for $69 - Kohl’s Beats Powerbeats3 Wireless Earphones for $90 - Target Bose SoundSport wireless headphones for $99 - Walmart Canon imageClass MF244DW laser printer for $99 – Staples Fire HD 10 for $99.99 - Amazon Fire TV Cube 4K for $59.99 - Amazon Google Home Hub for $99 – Jet  Nest Hello Smart Doorbell for $129 – Google Store Ring Doorbell 2 +amazon Echo Dot 3rd gen for $140 – Best Buy Home goods 60 percent off select office chairs – Office Depot Keurig K-Mini single-serve coffee maker for $49.99 - Target KitchenAid Artisan 5-quart stand mixer for $279.99 - J.C. Penney Twin sheet sets for $5.99 - Macy’s Bath towels for $2.99 each - J.C. Penney Kenmore French door 26.1 cubic foot refrigerator for $889.99 – Sears  Nest Learning Thermostat 3rd Gen (matching Target) for $119 (was $199) iRobot Roomba 670 robot vacuum for $194.99 – Jet Televisions Element 55-inch smart UHD TV for $199.99 - Target 65-inch TCL 65S4 4K Roku TV for $398 - Walmart Samsung 32-inch Smart LED HD TV for $175 – eBay Samsung 75-inch 4K UHD TV and Xbox One S for $1,279 – Sam’s Club LG 70-inch 4K UHD Smart TV for $869 plus a $100 gift card – Sam’s Club LG 65-inch 4K UHD Smart TV for $599  - Sam’s Club Watches Apple Watch Series 3 (32mm) for $229 – Best Buy Fitbit Versa smartwatch for $149 - Target Samsung Galaxy Watch for $254.99 – eBay Miscellaneous Canon T6 DSLR Camera Bundle for $399 – Sam’s Club Potensic GPS FPV RC Drone, D80 with 1080P Camera Live Video and GPS Return Home for $199.99 – Amazon  Get select doorbusters free after mail-in rebate - Macy’s Want to check out the Black Friday ads? Here are some links: Amazon Bass Pro Shop Best Buy Belk BJ's Wholesale Costco Dell Dick’s Sporting Goods eBay GameStop Google Store Groupon JCPenney’s Jet Kmart Kohl’s Lenovo Macy’s Microsoft Store Meijer’s Nintendo Newegg Office Depot/OfficeMax Overstock Sam’s Club Samsung Sears Sony Staples Target T-Mobile Verizon Walmart Also see: >> Which restaurants are open on Thanksgiving? Here’s a list >> Which grocery stores are open on Thanksgiving Day 2018? >> Black Friday 2018: Walmart ad features deals on iPhones, TVs, laptops and more >> Oprah announces her 2018 favorite things; here’s what made the cut, where to buy  >> Black Friday 2018: Target, Kohl’s, Costco leak ads promising deals for the day after Thanksgiving
  • “Friendship and money: oil and water.” >> Read more trending news  Michael Corleone told that to a priest in the 1990 movie “The Godfather: Part III” when the prelate confessed that he trusted friends with the Vatican Bank’s money, and it had a disturbing ring of familiarity to a South Dakota woman who was victimized in a lottery scam by a friend that cost her more than $600,000 over a 16-year period. A California woman who won $5.2 million in a 1989 lottery pleaded guilty in a South Dakota federal court last week for scamming six people -- including her friend, Kelly Lhotak -- out of more than $1 million, the Rapid City Journal reported. Judy Carroll, 59, of El Cajon, and her husband won the California lottery in 1989. According to court documents, Carroll scammed Lhotak and five other people out of money in part by telling them the IRS had frozen her assets. Carroll pleaded guilty at the federal courthouse in Rapid City on four counts of wire fraud and one count of tax evasion, the Journal reported. Carroll was originally charged with 35 counts of wire fraud, but that indictment was dropped as part of her plea deal, the newspaper reported.  Each of Carroll's wire-fraud counts carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, while the tax-evasion charge has a maximum of five years in prison. As part of the plea deal, Carroll must pay $1.55 million in restitution. Of that total, $622,236.01 must be paid back to Lhotak, who loaned her the money over a 16-year period, the Journal reported.  It was the classic case  “It’s been a long time coming, and she deserves punishment for what she did for several victims,” Lhotak, who was Carroll’s neighbor in California during the mid-1990s and moved to South Dakota in 2002, told the newspaper. “My heart is broken. I have had the worst betrayal of a friendship that anyone can ever experience.”Lhotak loaned Carroll money beginning in November 2000 through October 2016, according to court documents obtained by the Journal.  Carroll told Lhotak the IRS froze all her assets and she owed the agency money, according to court documents. However, the IRS only froze assets and levied Carroll’s accounts once during that time, in 2007-2008, the Journal reported. She also told Lhotak she needed money, falsely claiming he was a victim of identity theft. Lhotak said she didn't doubt Carroll's stories until she called the IRS in October 2016 to ask if her friend owed tax liens, the Journal reported. When the IRS said it had not, the agency launched an investigation. 'I did it because I loved her with all my heart,' Lhotak told the newspaper.
  • Ohio police officials have released the chilling 911 call made by the sister of a disgraced former Cuyahoga County judge Saturday, in which she reported her brother stabbed his ex-wife to death in his driveway. Lance Mason, 51, of Shaker Heights, was removed from the bench in 2014 after he viciously beat his then-estranged wife, elementary schoolteacher Aisha Fraser, in front of the couple’s two children.  Fraser, 44, died in a pool of blood Saturday morning as her children, Audrey, 11, and Ava, 8, screamed and sobbed inside their father’s Chagrin Boulevard home. The older girl has Down syndrome. As of Tuesday morning, Mason had been charged with felonious assault on suspicion of striking a police officer with his vehicle as he tried to flee the scene. Charges had not been filed in Fraser’s death.  The former state legislator and common pleas court judge, who allegedly tried to kill himself after the fatal stabbing, remains in the hospital. He is being held without bond.  Related story: Ohio judge removed from bench for beating wife in 2014 accused of stabbing her to death The audio released by Shaker Heights authorities begins with Mason’s distraught sister, Lynn Mason, telling her nieces to “come here.” The 911 dispatcher asks about her emergency. “I need the police immediately,” Lynn Mason says. “My brother is attacking his ex-wife.” She gives the dispatcher her brother’s address on Chagrin Boulevard before tearfully telling her they will also need an ambulance.  The dispatcher asks if both Lance Mason and Fraser are still there. “They’re outside. I… I… I don’t know. I heard her screaming,” Lynn Mason says.  “OK, are there any guns or knives involved?” the dispatcher asks.  “I don’t know. I think there might be,” Lynn Mason says. “Please hurry.” Listen to Lynn Mason’s 911 call below, courtesy of WKYC in Cleveland. Warning: The call may be too disturbing for some listeners. The dispatcher asks the caller to stay on the phone and relay to her what is happening. Lynn Mason says she can’t tell what is going on because she is inside the house with the couple’s children.  “I’m inside with the daughter. I don’t want her to see anything,” she says.  The dispatcher tells her to keep the girl inside and try to stay calm so the girl doesn’t get upset. “I’m going to get my guys started out that way, OK, so just stay on the phone with me,” the dispatcher says.  After a few moments, Lynn Mason can be heard telling her niece to stay where she is while she goes and checks outside to see what’s going on. The dispatcher can be heard relaying information to responding officers while Mason’s sister checks on Fraser and her brother.  “Ma’am? Ma’am,” Lynn Mason says upon her return. “Yes ma’am?” the dispatcher says. “He stabbed her and he said she’s dead,” Lynn Mason says.  “Oh my gosh,” the dispatcher responds.  The dispatcher relays information of a “possible stabbing and DOA” to responding Shaker Heights police officers. There are several moments in which the dispatcher and officers talk back and forth about the logistics of the police response. After a while, Lance Mason is heard coming back into the house. The dispatcher gets a description of his clothes from his sister and asks if he still has the knife or if he left it outside.  “I don’t know. He walked in and there’s blood everywhere,” Lynn Mason says as at least one of her nieces wails in the background. Lance Mason walks out again and the audio consists for a while of the dispatcher talking to officers, the back and forth punctuated by the shriek of sirens.  “Oh my God,” Lynn Mason whispers to herself at one point.  Lance Mason comes back inside the house as officers start to pull up to the scene. The dispatcher relays that information to the officers.  “Ten-four, we know,” an officer says.  “OK, are my officers there?” the dispatcher asks him.  An officer comes on and says there is a female down at the scene.  “She does look like she’s been stabbed,” the officer says.  A little while later, another officer comes on the audio. “Radio, send a squad to my location. The guy rammed me from behind,” says the officer, who was later identified by Shaker Heights police officials as Officer Adam Flynt. News 5 in Cleveland reported Monday that the officer suffered serious injuries to his legs and ribs. Court records obtained by Fox 8 in Cleveland indicated Mason was driving “fast enough to cause multiple airbag deployments and disabling damage to both vehicles.” Flynt and Lance Mason were both hospitalized.  The dispatcher asks Lynn Mason if she knows where her brother is. “He’s walking around,” she responds. “He’s walking around. I think he wants to die to, so…” The dispatcher asks Lynn Mason where she and the girls are in the house because three officers, plus a detective, are about to enter. She tells the woman they are in the living room, facing the street out front.  Lance Mason paces around the kitchen for a while before going into the living room with his sister and daughters. An officer comes over the radio and says Fraser is down and not breathing. The dispatcher tells him paramedics are on the way.  A few seconds later, officers can be heard yelling as they get inside the house.  The children can be heard crying. One girl is talking to her aunt, though WKYC edited the audio to remove things the children said during the call. News 5 reported that the girl, sobbing, said, “He killed her.”  “I know, baby. I’m so sorry,” Lynn Mason responds.  A former babysitter for Fraser and her ex-husband told Cleveland.com Monday that the little girls were Frazer’s life. She also loved her job at Woodbury Elementary School, where a candlelight vigil was held Monday evening to remember the longtime teacher.  The Shaker Heights Teachers’ Association organized the vigil and established a GoFundMe page for Fraser’s children. As of Tuesday morning, the fundraising page had raised nearly $110,000.  “We are in deep mourning,” read a post on the association’s Facebook page. “Aisha exemplified the best of Shaker Heights teachers: smart, amazingly caring of her students and her colleagues, active in her profession and in our association. She is loved by many.” Hundreds of people gathered Monday night to remember Fraser, whose photo was displayed at the school’s entrance as family members, colleagues, students and friends recalled her spirit. Cleveland.com reported that Woodbury Principal Danny Young remembered her kindness, compassion and love, as well as her sense of humor. “We have lost an angel, as well as a phenomenal educator,” Young said.  Fraser’s pastor, Chip Freed, of Garfield Memorial Church, told the crowd they have all been left with questions about why her life was ended.  “Aisha’s light is now shining on another shore,” Freed said. “As for the rest of us, we can either curse the darkness, or we can light candles.” WKYC reported that Mason was removed from the bench about a month after an Aug. 2, 2014, assault on Fraser, in which he punched Fraser about 20 times and slammed her head repeatedly against the dashboard of his SUV. He also bit her and choked her as he drove, Cleveland.com reported.  The estranged couple were driving back from a family member’s funeral with their daughters. According to a 911 call Fraser made, which was obtained in 2014 by Cleveland.com, Mason kicked her out of the SUV and, after beating her some more outside of the vehicle, drove away with the children.  Fraser, who feared for the safety of her daughters, begged dispatchers to find her children.  “I’m afraid he’s going to hurt my daughters,” a frantic-sounding Fraser said. “Please find my kids!” Click here to listen to Aisha Fraser’s 2014 911 call, courtesy of Cleveland.com. It may be too graphic for some listeners.  Mason was arrested at his home, where officers found smoke grenades, semi-automatic rifles, more than 2,500 rounds of ammunition, a bulletproof vest and a sword, Cleveland.com reported.  After serving nine months of a two-year prison sentence for the beating, which left Fraser needing surgery to repair a fractured eye socket, Mason was hired last year by Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson, who named Mason the city’s minority business development administrator.  Jackson issued a statement Saturday in which he said city officials were aware of Mason’s arrest and that the former judge had been terminated, effective immediately. City officials were cooperating with Shaker Heights investigators in the homicide case.  “I extend my deepest condolences to the family of Ms. Aisha Fraser, especially to her children,” Jackson said.  Fox 8 reported Monday that Jackson stood by his hiring of Mason following his prison stint, saying he had no way to predict the future. He also stood by his policy of giving people second chances.  “We’re gonna look at it as a policy. Our policy is second chances unless there is something that would prevent us from doing it,” Jackson told the news station. “For example, you wouldn’t hire a convicted felon and put them around children. You wouldn’t hire an embezzler and put them in the finance department.”
  • At the end of every fiscal year, a spending spree of billions of federal tax dollars occurs in a matter of days. But not all of that money goes to essential items. We found examples of federal purchases for wine, snowboards, pianos, guitars and fancy gym equipment. We dug through thousands of federal contracts for September, the last month of the fiscal year. In just one month, the U.S. government spent more than $6.2 million dollars on gym equipment. That includes millions spent on CrossFit equipment, one of the country’s hottest fitness trends. The State Department specified in a contract for jump ropes that they specifically needed the brand endorsed by CrossFit star Rich Froning. We also found orders for music equipment, like a $20,000 grand piano, Fender guitars and saxophones. Other contracts included $10,000 for snowboards and dozens of iPads. >> Read more trending news  The end-of-year spending is part of a practice called “Use it or Lose it” budgeting. Federal agencies worry they will not receive as much money in the next year’s budget if they don’t spend every penny they currently have. One out of every nine dollars spent by the federal government occurs in just the last seven days of the fiscal year, according to Adam Andrzejewski of Openthebooks.com, a government watchdog group. “When the bureaucrats cannot even spend all the money that Congress is sending them, there's a problem,” Andrzejewski said. We looked at spending in the nearly two months since the fiscal year ended. So far in October and November, only two contracts were issued for gym equipment, totaling $20,000. That is compared to the more than $6.2 million dollars spent the month before. Openthebooks.com has been tracking government purchases as well. They placed an ad in USA Today and the Wall Street Journal listing more than one hundred examples of wasteful federal spending. Last year, they found thousands of dollars in year-end spending specifically on fidget spinners, liquor and wine. “We identified in the last fiscal year that $50 billion dollars of contract spending went out the door in the last 7 days of the fiscal year,” Andrzejewski said. Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, introduced a bill that would award bonuses to federal employees who cut budgets. We first reported on that legislation two years ago, and so far it has gone nowhere. We asked the Defense Department why they needed these purchases in a short period of time, and they referred us to individual branches of service. The Army, the largest spender among the military, has not yet responded to our questions.