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Mar 26, 6:06 PM EDT

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How gov't aims to protect low-income users of `payday' loans

WASHINGTON (AP) - Each month, more than 200,000 needy U.S. households take out what's advertised as a brief loan.

Many have run out of money between paychecks. So they obtain a "payday" loan to tide them over. Problem is, such loans can often bury them in fees and debts. Their bank accounts can be closed, their cars repossessed.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau proposed rules Thursday to protect Americans from stumbling into what it calls a "debt trap." At the heart of the plan is a requirement that payday lenders verify borrowers' incomes before approving a loan.

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Co-pilot was `very happy' with Germanwings job

MONTABAUR, Germany (AP) - Andreas Lubitz never appeared anything but thrilled to have landed a pilot's job with Germanwings, according to those who helped him learn to fly as a teenager in this town in the forested hills of western Germany.

On Thursday, French prosecutors said Lubitz, the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525, "intentionally" crashed the jet into the side of a mountain Tuesday in the French Alps.

Members of his hometown flight club in Montabaur, where he renewed his glider license last fall, told The Associated Press that the 27-year-old Lubitz appeared to be happy with the job he had at the airline, a low-cost carrier in the Lufthansa Group.

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Perfection doesn't last: Muni bond returns to be more muted

NEW YORK (AP) - Conditions were nearly perfect for municipal bonds last year, leading to sizeable returns. Perfection never lasts, though, and managers of municipal-bond funds are forecasting more modest returns in upcoming years.

The backdrop for municipal bonds last year was as pleasant as the first warm, spring breeze: Interest rates were falling, the economy was strengthening, demand was high for bonds that pay tax-free income and supply was relatively low. Add it up, and the Barclays Municipal Bond index returned 9.1 percent in 2014. Just don't expect a repeat.

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Puerto Rico prepares for luxury shopping amid recession

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - A pair of nearly 5-inch black satin heels with a large gold alligator that serves as the front strap retails for almost $1,600 at the first Saks Fifth Avenue store to open in Puerto Rico, more than what the average person here earns in a month and where nearly half the population lives in poverty.

While a nearly decade-long recession has forced many Puerto Ricans to seek a more affordable life on the U.S. mainland, some of the world's priciest retailers have stores at The Mall of San Juan, a $475 million shopping center opening Thursday alongside one of the island's most crime-ridden public housing projects.

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Fewer Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week

WASHINGTON (AP) - Fewer people sought U.S. unemployment benefits last week, evidence that strong hiring should continue despite signs of slower economic growth at the start of 2015.

The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications for jobless aid fell 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 282,000. The decrease suggests that a recent slowdown in manufacturing, housing starts and retail sales have not trickled into the job market, a possible indication that economic growth will rebound after a harsh winter.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, tumbled 7,750 to 297,000. Over the past 12 months, the average has dipped roughly 7 percent.

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Average US rate on 30-year mortgage falls to 3.69 percent

WASHINGTON (AP) - Average long-term U.S. mortgage rates fell this week for a second straight week, edging closer to historically low levels at the start of the spring home-buying season.

Mortgage giant Freddie Mac said Thursday the national average for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage declined to 3.69 percent from 3.78 percent last week.

The average rate for a 15-year mortgage, popular with homeowners who refinance, eased to 2.97 percent from 3.06 percent last week.

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Oil council: Shale won't last, Arctic drilling needed now

WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. should immediately begin a push to exploit its enormous trove of oil in the Arctic waters off of Alaska, or risk a renewed reliance on imported oil in the future, an Energy Department advisory council says in a study to be released Friday.

The U.S. has drastically cut imports and transformed itself into the world's biggest producer of oil and natural gas by tapping huge reserves in shale rock formations. But the government predicts that the shale boom won't last much beyond the next decade.

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Toyota: Both hands back on the wheel after recall spinout

TOYOTA, Japan (AP) - After extended introspection at the world's biggest automaker, Toyota says it has put its massive recalls behind it and is preparing to re-engage its growth engine once again.

The Japanese company outlined a new "architecture" Thursday centered on product development and manufacturing initiatives it hopes will be more fail-proof against quality problems, and allow it to keep growing in a sustainable way.

The first cars under the system, medium-sized front-wheel drive cars, will roll out later this year, and will be expanded to half its lineup by 2020, Toyota Motor Corp. said.

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Thai lawmakers move against human trafficking

BANGKOK (AP) - Lawmakers in Thailand have approved a measure creating tougher penalties for violating the country's laws against human trafficking.

The legislation had been under debate for several weeks. But its passage comes in the wake of an Associated Press investigation published this week. It found that fish caught by slaves has entered the supply chains of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States. Seafood that was caught by hundreds of men trapped on a remote Indonesian island was tracked to exporters in Thailand who sell to America.

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FINRA fines Oppenheimer $3.75M in employee fraud case

NEW YORK (AP) - The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority is ordering Oppenheimer & Co. to pay $3.75 million for failing to supervise an employee who defrauded clients and the producers of a canceled Broadway musical.

FINRA ordered Oppenheimer to pay a $2.5 million fine and $1.25 million in restitution for failing to investigate Mark Hotton before hiring him, failing to supervise him after he was hired, and overlooking "red flags" like transfers of large sums out of his clients' accounts.

Hotton is now serving a 34-month prison term for two different frauds, one of which involved the producers of a musical version of the psychological thriller "Rebecca."

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FDA to scrutinize unproven alternative remedies

WASHINGTON (AP) - Federal officials plan to review the safety and evidence behind alternative remedies like Zicam and Cold-Eeze, products that are protected by federal law, but not accepted by mainstream medicine.

The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it will hold a two-day meeting next month on regulations for homeopathic medicines, which have long occupied a place on the fringes of U.S. health care. Similar to dietary supplements, homeopathic products are not required to prove they are safe or effective before being sold on the market. But unlike supplements, homeopathic medicines state that they are designed to treat specific medical conditions.

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Diet sodas fall in US; Pepsi takes back No. 2 spot

NEW YORK (AP) - Americans bought less soda for the 10th straight year in 2014, with diet sodas shrinking more than their sugary counterparts, according to a report released Thursday.

An annual report by the industry tracker Beverage Digest found that overall soda volume slipped 0.9 percent last year, moderating from the decline of 3 percent the previous year.

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Authorities go after crooked car deals in national crackdown

WASHINGTON (AP) - A nationwide crackdown on auto dealers has turned up widespread evidence of false ads, deceptive loans and fake odometer readings, the government said Thursday.

The investigation led by the Federal Trade Commission and law enforcement resulted in 252 enforcement actions and $2.6 million in consumer refunds and fees.

It was the second time that the FTC has gone after the car industry. Last year, the agency announced 10 cases of deceptive advertising and loans. Officials say the more recent investigation in U.S. and Canada involved the Justice Department and state prosecutors.

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By The Associated Press(equals)

The Dow Jones industrial average lost 40.31 points, or 0.2 percent, to 17,678.23. The Standard & Poor's 500 index declined 4.90 points, or 0.2 percent, to 2,056.15 and the Nasdaq composite fell 13.16 points, or 0.3 percent, to 4,863.36.

U.S. crude rose $2.22, or 4.5 percent, to close at $51.43 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, rose $2.71, or 4.8 percent, to close at $59.19 a barrel in London. Wholesale gasoline rose 4.5 cents to close at $1.882 a gallon. Heating oil rose 5.9 cents to close at $1.788 a gallon. Natural gas fell 5.1 cents to close at $2.672 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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