Friday, 3 August 2012

Tesco Bank will offer mortgages

                               Points will accrue on the Tesco Clubcard as the mortgage is paid off

The supermarket group Tesco is to start offering mortgages via its Tesco Bank.
Its main gimmick is that holders of the supermarket's loyalty card, the Tesco Clubcard, can earn points as they pay off their mortgage each month.
All the deals on offer require at least a 20% deposit and the mainly fixed-rate deals have interest rates ranging from 3.19% to 5.09%.
Recently several big lenders have started offering long-term fixed-rate mortgages at less than 3% interest.
Ray Boulger of mortgage brokers John Charcol said: "Any hopes that the entry of Tesco would produce a significant increase in competition have been dashed, at least initially, by its opening rates, which seem to be designed more to avoid getting too much business than to ruffle the feathers of existing lenders.
"Its opening rates would have been competitive a month ago but not now, unless Tesco has re-defined the word competitive," he added of the bank, which has its headquarters in Edinburgh.
Andrew Montlake, of mortgage brokers Coreco said: "The products themselves are priced sensibly, with the opportunity to repay 20% of the loan amount off each year without penalty a nice extra."
"Whether a supermarket brand, even one as strong as Tesco's, can become a serious player in the mortgage market remains to be seen.
"The prospect of mixing groceries, Clubcard points and the largest loan you are ever likely to take out will not appeal to all," he added.

Friday, 27 July 2012

How to complain about your energy supplier

Complaints about energy companies are up again so is there any way to sort the problem out yourself? And if not how can you get the best results if you need to complain?

Energy companies are not in favour at the moment, along with putting up prices steeply during the past year, their customer service records aren't great.

Add to this the fact Centrica, which owns British Gas, has reported a 15% profit for the first six months of the year thanks to the colder weather we had between April and June.

So it's not a huge surprise that complaints about energy companies to the Energy Ombudsman were up over the past year to 74,505 from 54,794 in 2010/11.

Of those people getting in contact with the Ombudsman, the number one reason was to do with billing issues including; disputed charges, customer service, inaccurate invoices, back-billing and meter readings.

A separate set of results from Consumer Focus this week, shows slightly more positive results with complaints about energy companies down between January and March of this year.

However, although overall they fell by 7% in this period, it's not all good news as some companies, such as EDF saw complaints rise.

Complaining to your energy company is something most people avoid at all costs as it typically involves spending hours on hold and talking to lots of different people who really aren't interested. However, there are a few things you can do to avoid having to complain.

Estimated readings
Energy companies love estimated readings, whereby they guess the amount of energy you've used and send you the bill. Instead check the actual readings yourself and send these to your energy company. It's simple enough to do and will mean you're actually paying for what you're using rather than an estimated amount.

You can also use the Meter Readings app (69p) which will keep an eye on how much gas, electricity and water you're using for you and predict how much your quarterly bill will be.

Get your money back
If you've been over-paying your energy bills, the company is not legally allowed to hold onto the extra money and you can claim it back if you're in credit. If for some reason this doesn't happen, your supplier needs to let you know if it has reasons for withholding the cash and if you disagree with its reasoning – you can challenge it.

Keep your supplier informed
If your situation changes and you start struggling to pay your bills, call your provider and let it know as soon as possible. It should be able to give you advice on different tariffs and information on eligibility benefits such as the Warm Home Discount scheme.

Don't be afraid to switch
There is little benefit in being loyal to an energy company so don't be afraid to switch if another provider is offering a cheaper deal. This will save you on average £256 a year so there's no point putting it off. However, before you do anything check your current contract, as there may be a penalty fee if you leave early.

When you've exhausted all else, what's the best way to complain?
Unfortunately complaining is never a fun task, however there are some simple tips which will make the process easier.

Be organised
Before you begin make sure you have copies of all the relevant documents, including any correspondence with the company, and take the full names of anyone you speak to. Try and also get a direct dial for them, or ask them to call you back if it's not a freephone number. Email is even better as you've got a paper trail of all the communications between you and the company which will be useful if the situation escalates.

Write a letter
A letter, or an email, is a direct way of addressing your complaint. The letter (or email) needs to include all the facts in a concise way, including any reference numbers and names of people you've dealt with. Keep it polite and include all your contact details and make sure you keep a copy of it for your own records.

When you come to send it, go for recorded delivery so you have proof of when it arrived.

Template letter:
Your address
phone number
Name of person you're contacting (if you have it)
Their title
Company address
RE: Your reference or account number

Dear <name>,
  • Apologies for writing, but you feel this is a problem they should know about
  • Clear statement of the case including dates and times
  • What you would like from them to fix the problem
  • A reasonable deadline for them to respond by
  • Your positive previous experiences of the company
Thanks for their time, if you don't hear back from them with a resolution you will seek help from a relevant party (eg: government agency, consumer group)

Yours sincerely,
(sign here)

Your printed name and email address

CC: If you have copied the letter to anyone, give their name and title here

Enclosures: If you've included photocopies of any relevant documents state them here

What next?
You need to wait eight weeks until you move things forward and in this time the company should respond. If it hasn't, or you're not happy with the response, go to the Energy Ombudsman.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Cybercriminals in developing nations targeted

The ICSPA says it has already started advising Ghana's government how to tackle cybercrime

Cybercriminals in developing nations are being targeted in a new effort to combat the illegal activity.
The International Cyber Security Protection Alliance has launched a research project to identify how attacks are likely to evolve over the next eight years.
It said that faster links to the net in parts of Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe were likely to create problems.
The ICSPA will advise governments and local authorities on how best to react.
The organisation is a coalition of law agencies, security companies and businesses, including Visa Europe and the defence firm EADS.
"It's not just about putting a black mark against a particular nation because many of these countries are the unwilling hosts to cybercriminal networks," John Lyons, the organisation's chief executive, told the BBC.
"We know the countries that provide 'organised cybercrime' with the ability and the hosting capability to attack the West in terms of its business and customers.
"So, what the ICSPA is looking to do is to work with those nations to provide support to help them improve the cyber-resilience of their national infrastructure, to aid their own economies, and to help their law enforcement groups tackle cybercriminals who work out of their country."
Advising Africa
Although the research project has only just got underway, the group has already started to co-ordinate action.
Members of the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) began work with the Ghanaian government in February to help it take technical steps to prevent cybercrime, and ensure offenders are prosecuted.
Mr Lyons said Nigeria, Botswana, Uganda and Rwanda were among nations likely to be targeted by the campaign.
The countries were starting to benefit from improved internet access, but would struggle to "suppress the criminality that will come with that connectivity," he said.
Other countries on his group's watch list included Bulgaria, Romania, India, the Philippines and parts of Latin America.
October report
The ICSPA wants companies based in developing nations to contribute to the costs of its efforts.
However, Mr Lyons acknowledged that the richer nations also needed to do more to combat internet crime.
"Something like 67% of malware which is used to attack Western businesses is hosted in the US on servers," he said. "The US needs to take steps to tackle that particular issue."
The ICSPA plans to issue a report covering its initial findings before the end of October.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

10 top ways to add value to your home

Most home improvements will help to increase the overall value of your house or flat. But which changes add the most, and which can even cost more than they add to the potential sale price?

Here is our list of the 10 top ways to add value to your property, often without having to put a strain on your own finances. 

1. A new bathroom 
Bathrooms can quickly look shabby and dated. The good news, though, is that you can get a new one for as little as £1,500.

Better still, a new bathroom should add in the region of £3,351 to the value of your home.

2. De-cluttering 
It may be difficult, but getting your property ready for sale means depersonalising it.

Clutter can distract viewers and more than half (60%) of the property valuers who took part in the 2012 HSBC Home Improvement Survey said that the number one way to increase a property's chance of selling quickly, and for a good price, was to de-clutter.

3. A conservatory 
Recent figures from HSBC indicate that adding an extension or conservatory adds an average of £12,151 on to the value of your home.

The bad news, however, is that most extensions cost between £20,000 and £30,000. Conservatories, on the other hand, typically cost about £10,000.

4. Painting and decorating 
A quick splash of paint can work wonders on tired-looking walls, and sticking to neutral tones is the safest bet.

Keeping the colour scheme simple, fresh and inviting will help potential buyers to see themselves living in your home.

5. A loft conversion 
According to Halifax valuers, loft conversions - which require lofts with a roof height of at least 2.4 metres - are a good way to increase the potential sale price of your home.

Be sure to stick to your budget, though. The average loft conversion will cost between £10,000 and £30,000, while HSBC's figures show that they typically add £20,876 to the value of a property.

6. A new kitchen 
Kitchens suffer serious wear and tear during their lifetime, and a new one can add real wow factor to a property.

Again, however, it's important to weigh up the cost of the work against the overall value of your home.

You can easily spend tens of thousands on a top-of-the-range kitchen, but according to HSBC, a new kitchen adds an average of £5,267 to the asking price.

7. New windows 
Putting in new windows adds around £5,265 to the value of the average property and can reap big rewards when it comes to energy efficiency.

It is, however, sensible to ensure that your new windows are in line with the style of your property to maximise the added value - particularly as putting them in can set you back about £5,000.

8. A garage 
Off road parking or a garage can be especially advantageous in areas where parked cars line both sides on the street.

Nationwide's figures show that adding a garage, which can cost anything between £8,000 and £25,000, can increase the value of your property by 11%.

9. Outside space 
Outside space is just as important as inside - especially when people are seeing your home for the first time.

While 63% of the HSBC survey expert respondents said that repainting or varnishing a front door would make a difference, only 23% of homeowners recognised this.

Peter Dockar at HSBC said: "It is often the smaller jobs like painting the front door that can make all the difference when looking for a sale."

10. Energy efficiency 
With all properties for sale now coming with an energy efficiency report, it is sensible to do what you can to reduce the energy consumption of your house or flat.

Investing in a high-efficiency boiler, for example, may cost a bit more. However, it will attract ecologically-minded buyers, as well as those keen to avoid all their money going on heating bills.

Mark Hayward, president of the National Associaton of Estate Agents, said: "The challenging market conditions mean that house-hunters are even more aware of a property's pros and cons.

"So while it's important to maximise any summer features in your home, remember that house-hunters will also be thinking about how it fairs during the winter months."

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Global economy: Who can drive the recovery?

The global economy is faltering.
In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, countries like Germany, China and Brazil were the engines that kept the global economy expanding, but recent evidence suggests that they are losing steam.
The World Bank expects a soft recovery, with global growth of 2.5%. But within that there appears to be a clear divide between developing economies, which are forecast to grow by 5.3%, and advanced economies by just 1.4%.
Here is a round-up of the conditions and prospects for the key economies around the world. Who can be relied upon to drive the much-needed recovery?


  • Second-quarter GDP growth has slowed to 7.6%
  • Annual Growth target has now fallen below 8% for the first time in almost a decade
High-rise buildings in ShanghaiChina is now trying to shore up the economy after years of uncontrolled growth
China's second-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) figure has pointed to a continued slowdown in the Asian powerhouse.
Growth fell to 7.6% in April-June period, its worst pace since the depth of the financial crisis and below the 8% target that China aspires too.
Considered to be the biggest export market for many companies from the likes of Burberry, Carrefour to BMW; a slow-down would hurt their earnings.
Burberry, which banked on China's love of bling (it enjoyed a 30% revenue growth in the country) reported weaker-than-expected first quarter growth, disappointing investors.
Cooling growth in China and neighbouring India means the wider Asian region is likely to follow suit (aside from an exception or two like Thailand and the Philippines, which benefit from cheaper labour costs that have lured foreign companies).
Beijing in March downgraded its annual growth target to 7.5%, the first time that's dipped below 8% since 2004. The central bank recently slashed interest rates twice in less than a month in a bid to shore up growth.
China had until recently been grappling with an overheating economy driven by a property bubble and by the central government's post-crisis spending binge - much of which went into local infrastructure projects. The economy is now burdened with excess capacity and rising debt as unsold goods pile up in warehouses.
Caterpillar, the US construction giant, had a drubbing from investors in April when it said sales of construction equipment in China was expected to fall this year.
But analysts are hopeful that this marks the bottom for the world's second-largest economy, and that growth will pick up in the third quarter as Beijing loosens monetary policy and deregulates the financial system.


  • Unemployment rate: 11.1%
  • Over 3m people aged 15-24 are unemployed
  • Eurozone economy set to shrink 0.3% this year
  • German GDP expected to grow 0.7% this year
An unemployed person takes a number at the employment office in BerlinYoung people have been the hardest hit from the recession
The euro-sharing region has been a tale of two halves, between the relatively wealthier northerners (Germany, Netherlands, Finland and arguably, France) and struggling southerners (Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain) that are bogged down by a range of crises (debt, property, banking).
It is also a tale of much wrangling, as each camp differs on how to solve the eurozone crisis.
The euro has plunged to its lowest level in two years against the dollar as investors fret over weak data and recent rescue plans for the region, including bailing out Spain's banks directly and forming a fiscal and banking union.
And the ECB slashed rates for the first time below 1% recently, in efforts to encourage corporate and household borrowing.
In order to reassure investors, Spain announced a fresh round of austerity measures including tax hikes and spending cuts, which is squeezing an already squeezed out economy, but they remain unconvinced.
But even Germany, which has enjoyed record low levels of unemployment thanks to its manufacturing prowess, has been unable to insulate itself from the sovereign debt crisis plaguing the region.
Now, even the labour market is showing slower development. The jobless rate has risen for three consecutive months, reaching 6.8% in June. Meanwhile its double-digit exports to China have shrunk to a mere 6% (although automakers have bucked the trend, thanks to Chinese officials' love of BMWs and Mercedes-Benz cars).
Commerzbank, Germany's second biggest lenders,recently announced it was closing its real estate and ship finance units.
Carsten Brzeski, senior European economist at ING Group said of Germany: "The most solid ship can capsize in a rough thunderstorm."

United States

  • US facing a "fiscal cliff" as tax cuts end
  • Unemployment rate of 8.2%: fears of jobless recovery
  • GDP expected to grow 2% this year
President Barack Obama addresses Indiana residents during a town halll style meetingThe US is divided over how to pursue recovery
The US economy added just 80,000 jobs in June, a sign of persistent weakness in the labour market, a critical issue which could make or break President Barack Obama's re-election chances later this year.
The jobless rate has been stuck at 8.2%, although black workers suffer more, with a 14.4% figure.
Like its European peers, the US is struggling under piles of debt, which makes up around 70% of GDP.
It is also staring at a so-called fiscal cliff, which refers to a combination of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to start at the beginning of next year.
The inevitable result would be an austerity-driven recession - a prospect that prompted the Senate's top tax legislator Max Baucus to warn that the economy was on a "dangerous path" that could lead to a European-style fiscal crisis.
And, like much of the disagreements that have thwarted a coherent, concerted plan in Europe, both Republicans and Democrats have been unable to agree on a plan that would avoid that dismal outcome.
Despite gloomy headline figures, the US economy is forecast to grow 2% this year, the best of the advanced economies - and even more than Brazil.
The billionaire entrepreneur Warren Buffet said the US was still doing bettter than "virtually any other big economy" around the world.
The US has undertaken a series of unorthodox measures to shore up the economy, its latest being Operation Twist, a bond-buying programme designed to bring down mortgage and loan rates.
Investors want more, but they might be disappointed, if recent noises from the US central bank are anything to go by.
"There is not much to expect from economic data, there is not much to expect from earnings, so the only thing markets hope for is more quantitative easing, more stimulus from Europe - more stimulus from everywhere," said Philippe Gijsels, head of research at BNP Paribas Fortis Global Markets.


  • Economists forecast GDP to grow by 2% this year
  • Loan delinquencies rose to 6% in May
Embraer aircraftPlanemaker Embraer has symbolised Brazil's growing fortunes
Government spending and exports of commodities like soy beans and metals to fast-growing countries in Asia, have propelled Brazil's economy to sixth place in the world.
But red-hot growth when Latin America's largest economy clocked in a 7.5% growth rate in 2010 appears to have fizzled out.
The economy stalled in May following an unexpected drop in retail sales. That heightened fears for what was one of the few bright spots of the world economy, making it the worst performer among Brics nations.
GDP grew just 0.2% in the first quarter year-on-year, marking the third straight quarter of near-zero growth.
There seems to be few signs that GDP growth will head back up above the 2.6% posted last year. The Bank of Brazil expects growth to be lower than 2.5%.
The drop in retail sales raised worries over Brazil's consumer-led growth model, which was fuelled by rising incomes and easy credit. In fact, the amount of loans that could not be paid back hit an all-time high in May, underlining how Brazilians are increasingly struggling to keep debt under control.
That prompted banks to tighten lending, and the central bank cut interest rates for the eighth straight time in July to 8%.


  • GDP grew 5.3% in the first quarter, slowest for nine years
  • Inflation highest of Bric nations
  • Industrial production up 2.4% in May
Indian notes and coinsIndian's chronically high inflation is tough to handle
India's economy grew at an annual rate of 5.3% between January and March, its slowest pace in nine years.
Rising consumer prices have been one of the biggest concerns for India's policymakers over the past two years.
The central bank took various measures in a bid to control the rising prices, including raising interest rates 13 times since March 2010.
While the inflation rate has come down slightly in recent months, it still remains higher than many of the other emerging economies.
According to data released last week, India's wholesale price index, the key measure of consumer prices in the country, rose by 7.55% in May from a year earlier, among the highest of the Bric nations.
Analysts say the combination of slowing growth and high inflation has made it difficult for the central bank to formulate its policies. Cutting rates would stimulate growth, but could end up making inflation worse.
GDP is expected to grow by 6.5% this year, according to the Asian Development Bank. Its government has vowed to attract more foreign investment and speed up infrastructure and power projects.


  • Recovering from last year's major disasters
  • Exporter worried about eurozone woes and US slowdown
  • Growth expected to be 2.2% this year
Female workers of Japanese electronics giant Sony assembling partsJapan has struggled in the aftermath of last year's disaster
Once the world's number two economy, Japan is still recovering from last year's devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis.
Recent data has showed that Japan, one of the world's top exporters, was not exporting as much as it used to. In fact it has been massively importing - including energy, which has pushed the country's energy bills sky high after Tokyo stopped nuclear reactors.
The strong yen has also hurt exporters, making their products more expensive to foreign buyers.
However, sentiment is improving. The Tankan survey showed manufacturers were less pessimistic about business conditions.
The Bank of Japan forecast the economy would grow 2.2% in the current fiscal year and 1.7% the following year. The rosy growth projections were enough for the central bank to hold off on further easing to boost the economy.
"Japan's economic activity has started picking up moderately as domestic demand remains firm mainly supported by reconstruction-related demand" following last year's natural disasters, the Bank of Japan has said.
"[But] there remains a high degree of uncertainty about the global economy, including the prospects for the European debt problem... [and] the momentum toward a recovery for the US economy."

Monday, 2 July 2012

Food Experts Invent ‘The First Nutritionally Balanced Pizza'

A cheesy slice of pizza doesn't tend to come top of dieter's list, but it soon could be if Scottish food experts have their way, as they’ve invented (what they claim to be) the first nutritionally sound pizza.

Nutritionist and professor Mike Lean from Glasgow University believes his team has created a pizza that contains 30% of an adult’s recommended daily amount (RDA) of vitamins and minerals.
Just as this starts to sound too good to be true - researchers also claim that the ‘healthy’ pizza also has a third of the RDA of calories, carbohydrates and protein, as well.
Lead researcher Lean claims that they managed to create the nutritious pizza by incorporating nutrients in less obvious forms – such as seaweed, fruit and unusual vegetable combinations.
Quite simple really.
"I researched the market and found that seaweed was an interesting new ingredient being used in artisan bread,” says Lean, reports the Metro.
Scroll down to discover the psychology behind junk food cravings...
"So we used that as a way of reducing the salt level. The sodium content of seaweed is about 3.5% compared to 40% in salt. There's iodine in there, vitamin B12, all sorts of things. And the flavour is excellent as well."
Professor Lean claims clever (and simple) tricks such as mixing red pepper with the tomato base to top up vitamin C levels also helps to boost the pizza’s nutritional value.
The researchers claim they were inspired by the lack of nutrition in popular staple meals.
"For a good number of years I have been trying to help people find easy ways to get a balanced diet,” adds co-study author professor Donnie Maclean.
“The easiest way to do that is to eat nutritionally balanced meals. Three of those a day and you've done it, but at the moment commercially prepared meals are not nutritionally balanced.”
Professor Lean’s ideas have caught the attention of one leading British supermarket, which has hinted it may stock Lean’s pizza’s soon

Saturday, 30 June 2012

New brain scanner helps paralysed people spell words

                            fMRI is usually used to track brain activity by measuring blood flow

A new brain scanner has been developed to help people who are completely paralysed speak by enabling them to spell words using their thoughts.
It uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to help patients choose between 27 characters - the alphabet and a blank space.
Each character produces a different pattern of blood flow in the brain, and the device interprets these patterns.
The British Neurological Association called the research "exciting".
The study appears in Current Biology journal of Cell Press.
fMRI is normally used to track brain activity by measuring blood flow.
Earlier research
The new technology is based on earlier applications of the technique, which used free-letter spelling to allow people to answer the equivalent of multiple-choice questions with just a few possible answers.
British neuroscientist Adrian Owen, for instance, used fMRI to help a man believed to have been in a vegetative state for five years to answer "yes" and "no" questions by interpreting his brain activity.
But the new scanner uses the entire English alphabet and the blank space.
"This novel spelling device constitutes an alterative approach to motor-independent communication," Bettina Sorger of Maastricht University in The Netherlands, one of the researchers working on the current study, told the BBC.
"The work of Adrian Owen and colleagues led me to wonder whether it might even become possible to use fMRI, mental tasks, and appropriate experimental designs to freely encode thoughts, letter-by-letter, and therewith enable back-and-forth communication in the absence of motor behavior."
The team writes in the paper that because the noninvasive device requires "only little effort and pretraining, it is immediately operational and possesses high potential for clinical applications, both in terms of diagnostics and establishing short-term communication with nonresponsive and severely motor-impaired patients".
Results of the brain scanner studyThe new scanner uses the entire English alphabet and the blank space
Exciting results
Elaine Snell of the British Neuroscience Association told the BBC that the technology could become "a lifeline" for patients in a persistent vegetative state, or suffering from other neurological disorders.
"This means of communication will make a huge difference to the quality of their life and to that of their families.
"This kind of technology can only get better, it's very exciting."
Dr Guy Williams from the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre in Cambridge agreed.
"The technique may need some adaptation to be widely applicable to patients who might have impaired awareness or ability to concentrate on the required task, but it is nonetheless an important demonstration of what these scans can in principle tell us about the functioning of an individual's brain," he told the BBC.