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Service firms grew in March

U.S. service firms expanded more quickly last month as new orders rose and hiring increased, a sign the economy is rebounding after an unusually cold winter.

The Institute for Supply Management said Thursday that its service-sector index rose to 53.1 in March from 51.6 in February. Any reading above 50 indicates expansion.

The increase was driven by a big jump in a measure of hiring, which rose 6.1 points to 53.4. That reversed most of a nine-point plunge in February that was mostly blamed on the weather.

The increase is a hopeful sign just before the government’s employment report for March, to be released Friday. A gauge of new orders increased 2.1 points to 53.4.

STAR Bank warns against phone scam

STAR Bank is warning consumers about a recent rash of scams trying to obtain customer account information.

Automated calls and text messages were sent to cell phones Wednesday claiming to be from STAR Bank and requesting debit card information, bank officials said Thursday.

“Immediately upon notification of the scam, using layered security and detection resources, STAR was able to track down the source and block future messages to the targeted customers,” officials said in a news release.

Kristin Marcuccilli, chief operating officer, reminded STAR customers that the bank will never email, call or text message account holders to seek personal information. Anyone receiving such a message should immediately contact the bank at 888-395-2447.

Local building permits down slightly in March

The Home Builders Association of Fort Wayne said there were 60 Allen County residential construction requests in March, compared with 65 permits the same month a year ago.

The average construction price was $249,876 in March, compared with $226,186 in March 2013.

Year-to-date figures show 116 permits sought so far, compared to 158 during the same period in 2013, which saw a spike in construction in Perry Township.

US trade deficit hits $42.3 billion

The U.S. trade deficit climbed to the highest level in five months in February as demand for American exports fell while imports increased slightly.

The deficit increased to $42.3 billion, which was 7.7 percent above the January imbalance of $39.3 billion, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

U.S. exports slipped 1.1 percent to $190.4 billion as sales of commercial aircraft, computers and farm goods fell. Imports edged up 0.4 percent to $232.7 billion, reflecting gains in imports of autos and clothing which offset a drop in crude oil to the lowest level in more than three years.

Jobless applications increase to 326,000

The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits rose 16,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 326,000. Despite the increase, the number remains close to pre-recession levels and points to stable hiring.

The Labor Department said Thursday that the four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, inched up 250 to 319,500.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. They have fallen back to roughly pre-recession levels, an indication that companies expect solid economic growth ahead.