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Business Highlights

Associated Press Updated: December 18, 2014 at 6:46 pm

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Sony hacking fallout puts all companies on alert

ATLANTA (AP) — Companies across the globe are on high alert to tighten up network security to avoid being a target of an attack like that on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The hack, which a U.S. official has said investigators believe is linked to North Korea, culminated in the cancellation of a Sony film and ultimately could cost the movie studio hundreds of millions of dollars.

The fact that the attack included terrorist threats and was focused on causing major corporate damage, rather than on stealing customer information for fraud, indicates a whole new frontier has emerged in cybersecurity. Suddenly every major company could be the target of cyberextortion.

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2 more former Sony workers sue over data breach

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Two more former employees of Sony Pictures Entertainment are suing the company over the massive data breach in which their personal and financial information was stolen and posted online.

The lawsuit filed in a Los Angeles federal court on Wednesday seeks class-action status for current and former Sony employees who information was hacked from the company's servers. The breach resulted in the release of Social Security numbers, financial, medical and other personal info for about 50,000 Sony workers.

It is the third such lawsuit filed against Sony this week.

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Questions and answers about traveling to Cuba

NEW YORK (AP) — Don't rush to book that flight to Cuba just yet.

While the U.S. plans to restore diplomatic ties with the Caribbean island nation, globe-trotting tourists won't be able to hop on a plane to Havana anytime soon. It remains illegal for most U.S. citizens to travel to — and spend money in — Cuba. Congress would first have to lift its half-century old trade embargo.

Still, travel companies are salivating at the chance to set up shop in Cuba. Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Hilton Worldwide, Marriott International and the Carnival Corp. all expressed interest this week.

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Constantly changing online prices stump shoppers

NEW YORK (AP) — Online shopping has become as volatile as stock market trading. Wild, minute-by-minute price swings on everything from clothes to TVs have made it difficult for holiday shoppers to "buy low."

A growing number of retailers are using software that changes online prices based on demand, competition, inventory and other factors. The main goal is to undercut rivals when necessary, and raise prices when demand is high and there's no competitive pressure.

But the new online tools can change the price on a single item — say, a sweater — dozens of times throughout the day. And that can leave shoppers confused about when they can get the best deal.

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US jobless aid applications decline to 289,000

WASHINGTON (AP) — Fewer Americans sought unemployment benefits last week, a sign of solid job security and growing confidence among employers.

Weekly unemployment benefit applications dropped 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 289,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That is the lowest level since late October. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, declined 750 to 298,750.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. The average has fallen nearly 13 percent in the past year, evidence the job market is improving.

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Gauge of US economy rises 0.6 percent in November

WASHINGTON (AP) — An index designed to predict the future health of the economy posted a third straight solid gain in November.

The Conference Board said Thursday that its index of leading indicators increased 0.6 percent last month, matching the revised October gain. The October reading had originally been reported as a 0.9 percent increase. The index rose 0.8 percent in September after being unchanged in August.

Conference Board economists say the widespread gains in the leading index are pointing to strong underlying conditions in the U.S. economy that should propel growth through the winter.

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Ford expands drivers air bag recall nationwide

DETROIT (AP) — Ford Motor Co. has agreed to government demands to expand a driver's side air bag inflator recall to the entire U.S.

The move announced Thursday adds 447,000 Ford vehicles to the list of those recalled due to driver's inflators made by Japan's Takata Corp. The inflators can explode with too much force, spewing shrapnel into drivers and passengers.

Ford's action puts pressure on BMW and Chrysler, the only two automakers that haven't agreed to national recalls. Honda and Mazda already took their recalls national. Previously the recalls were limited to high-humidity states mainly along the Gulf Coast.

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IRS head says budget cuts could delay tax refunds

WASHINGTON (AP) — Budget cuts at the IRS could delay tax refunds, reduce taxpayer services and hurt enforcement efforts, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said Thursday.

About half the people who call the IRS for assistance this filing season won't be able to get through to a person, Koskinen said. And once returns are filed, there will be fewer agents to audit them.

In recent years, the IRS was able to issue most tax refunds within 21 days if the returns were filed electronically. Koskinen wouldn't estimate how long they might be delayed in the upcoming filing season, which is just a few weeks away.

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Putin: West wants to defang, declaw Russian bear

MOSCOW (AP) — Sternly warning the West it cannot defang the metaphorical Russian bear, President Vladimir Putin promised Thursday to shore up the plummeting ruble and revive the economy within two years.

Putin accepted responsibility for the economic crisis in his first public appearance since the crash of the ruble's value this week. He said Western sanctions accounted for at least 25 percent of the ruble's fall, but said the main reason was Russia's failure to ease its overwhelming dependence on oil and gas exports.

Putin also appeared eager to negotiate a face-saving solution to the Ukrainian crisis, but showed no intention of conceding defeat in his standoff with the West.

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European court rules obesity can be a disability

LONDON (AP) — Obesity can be a disability, the European Court of Justice ruled Thursday — a decision that could have widespread consequences across the 28-nation bloc for the way in which employers deal with severely overweight staff.

The ruling, which is binding across the EU, has such profound implications for employment law that experts expect EU nations to challenge it.

The court ruled in the case of a Danish childcare worker Karsten Kaltoft, who weighed 159 kilograms (350 pounds) and said he was unfairly fired for being fat. The ruling said if obesity hinders a "full and effective participation in professional life," it could count as a disability.

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By The Associated Press=

The Dow Jones industrial average gained 421.28 points, also 2.4 percent, to 17,778.15. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 48.34 points, or 2.4 percent, to 2,061.23. The Nasdaq Composite gained 104.08 points, or 2.2 percent, to 4,748.40.

The price of oil fell $2.36 to close at $54.11 a barrel. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oil, fell $1.91 to close at $59.27 in London. In other futures trading, wholesale gasoline fell 3.9 cents to close at $1.527 a gallon. Heating oil fell 7 cents to close at $1.939 a gallon. Natural gas fell 6 cents to close at $3.642 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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