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The Many Ways In Which Your Kids’ Smartwatch Can Be Hacked

Amazon Sells Big Landlords On Package Hubs For Apartment-Dwellers

Online retail is very attractive to apartment-dwelling urbanites who may not have a car and whose nearby stores probably charge higher prices than the malls out in the suburbs. But this customer base has always posed a problem for Amazon and its ilk: Where do you leave the packages?

Amazon has previously put communal lockers in retail stores, but unless you live a block or two away from a locker location, there’s no real convenience.

So why not take the same approach that Amazon has taken on some college campuses and put lockers right where its customers actually live? The retail giant is reportedly hard at work installing lockers in large apartment complexes with the hope of having them working by this holiday season.

So far, sources tell The Wall Street Journal, landlords have signed deals that put lockers in buildings that have a total of 850,000 units, meaning that well over a million Americans could be covered by this holiday season. The lockers cost $10,000 to $20,000 to purchase, which is about half the cost of similar systems from companies that aren’t Amazon.

For the companies that manage these properties, the advantages are obvious. Instead of paying workers to deal with and sort packages for hours every day, they delegate that to Amazon, which places other carriers’ packages inside locker spaces too. The lockers are an amenity that some residents will use a lot more often than a pool, which can be used to sell new residents on signing up.

The chief executive of one property management company in Maryland that has around 68,000 units likes the idea, and is starting with lockers in four buildings.

“I think about how much money I spend on my amenity spaces and all of a sudden we were in a situation pre-Amazon hub where we had boxes stacking up,” he told the WSJ.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

States Accuse Betsy DeVos Of Failing To Protect Students From Sketchy For-Profit Schools

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made no effort to hide her support for the for-profit education industry, going so far as to hit “reset” on rules intended to protect students from schools that provide minimal education at a maximum cost. Now, a coalition of 18 state attorneys general are suing DeVos and the Dept. of Education, alleging they failed to hold these schools accountable.

In June, DeVos indefinitely delayed enforcement of the “Gainful Employment” rule, which requires that for-profit educators demonstrate their former students are making a living wage after they graduate.

The states, in a lawsuit [PDF] filed in the D.C. federal court, accuses DeVos and the Ed. Dept. of violating the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) by deciding she wouldn’t enforce the Gainful Employment rule without first going through all the steps required in changing a federal rule, like soliciting and responding to public comment.

Rule Changes

Since DeVos’ confirmation as Secretary of Education, she has taken a number of steps to either reset or amend rules aimed at protecting students from shady for-profit colleges.

A “Reset”
DeVos announced in June that the rules would be indefinitely delayed as she revealed her intention to establish rulemaking committees starting a process to “reset” the rules, claiming the previous rulemaking process “missed an opportunity to get it right,” resulting in a “muddled process that’s unfair to students and schools, and puts taxpayers on the hook for significant costs.”

The Gainful Employment rule [PDF], which took effect in July 2015, requires that for-profit educators demonstrate their former students are making a living wage after they graduate.

For-profit colleges are at risk of losing their federal aid should a typical graduate’s annual loan repayments exceed 20% of their discretionary income, or 8% of their total earnings. Discretionary income is defined as above 150% of the poverty line and applies to what can be put towards non-necessities.

So for example, say the typical recent graduate of a career education program earns $25,000. That student would need to average annual student loan payments less than $2,000, or the school would be at risk for losing federal financial aid.

While DeVos claimed the rule was created through a flawed process, her announcement calling for the rules to be reset didn’t mention that the regulation went through multiple rounds of rulemaking to address the objections raised by the for-profit industry, which has also repeatedly attempted — without success — to challenge this rule through the legal system.

Gainful employment was proposed in June 2011 and spent years being written, lobbied against, scuttled and rewritten. They were finalized in Oct. 2014, and then repeatedly battled over in court before finally going into effect in July 2015.

A Delay
DeVos announced additional changes to the rule in August, revising the appeals process for schools that were found to offer programs in violation of the Gainful Employment rule.

The Department’s proposed changes — published in a notice [PDF] in the Federal Register — appeared to tip the appeals process in the college’s favor.

Currently, a school has 60 days to appeal findings that their programs are in violation of the Gainful Employment rule. In the case of this year, schools had until March 1 to file; however, that date was pushed back to July 1. Under today’s announcement, schools found to be in violation of the rule now have until Feb. 1, 2018 to appeal.

In appealing these findings, a school must base their arguments on surveys that include at least 50% of program graduates or state data that uses at least 30 graduates of the program. Additionally, appeals based on surveys with few than 80% of a program’s graduates must demonstrate the respondents are representative of all grads.

Now when appealing, the schools would no longer have to meet a minimum percentage or number of represented students in their findings. Instead, DeVos would determine what is reliable on her own.

The Objections

As with a previously filed lawsuit by a coalition of AGs related to the Department’s action in delaying the Borrower Defense rules, today’s complaint asks the court to declare the agency’s actions unlawful.

The states claim that the Department’s action to delay and not enforce the rule is “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law,” and “in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority, or limitations, or short of statutory right.”

According to the lawsuit, the Dept. violated the APA — the federal law which dictates the process for creating and revising regulations — when it issued notice of intent to reset or delay the rule and to issue a new regulation to replace the current rule.

While the APA allows an agency to engage in a negotiated rulemaking process to revise regulations, an agency may not change a regulation without engaging in a public, deliberative process and soliciting, receiving, and responding to comments from stakeholders and members of the public.

Yet, the AGs claim the Dept. and DeVos did just this in June by revoking “a duly promulgated and implemented regulation.”

The states contend that the Department’s notice operates as an amendment to or recision of the rule.

“The APA does not permit the Department to delay a duly promulgated and implemented regulation in order to draft a replacement, and it similarly does not permit the Department to delay or refuse to enforce a duly implemented rule without complying with the requirements of that statute,” the lawsuit states.

The suit also alleges that the Dept. essentially delayed portions of the Gainful Employment rule when it change the appeals process and pushed back the deadline to comply with the disclosure requirements.

Again, the states argue that the Department’s actions were in violation of the APA, as it did not ask for feedback or comments before making the change.

“By illegally delaying these disclosure deadlines and extending alternative appeal deadlines to all institutions affected by the Rule, the Department upended the Gainful Employment administrative scheme in its totality,” the lawsuit states.

The AGs seek to have the court order the Department and DeVos to implement the rule.

“From delaying student loan forgiveness to exposing students to misconduct by abusive schools, Secretary DeVos and the Department of Education have put special interests before students’ best interests,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement. “Failing to implement the Gainful Employment Rule leaves students vulnerable to exploitation and fraud. If Washington won’t defend students against predatory for-profit schools, we will.”

The states involved in the lawsuit against DeVos and the Department are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia.

A rep for the Dept. of Education essentially likened the lawsuit to a political stunt.

“This is just the latest in a string of frivolous lawsuits filed by Democratic Attorneys General who are only seeking to score quick political points,” press secretary Liz Hill told Consumerist in a statement. “While this Administration, and Secretary DeVos in particular, continue work to replace this broken rule with one that actually protects students, these legal stunts do nothing more than divert time and resources away from that effort.”


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Senators Propose Bipartisan Compromise To Restore Insurance Subsidies

President Trump recently announced that he was pulling the plug on $7 billion a year in federal cost-sharing subsidies to insurance companies selling individual policies to lower-income Americans, but today a pair of influential senators announced a bipartisan compromise that, if approved, would restore those payments for two years, while also giving states more flexibility with rules under the current law.

These subsidies, which are paid out monthly by the federal government, are part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act and are intended to keep out-of-pocket expenses — like co-pays and deductibles — low, particularly for Americans making between 100% and 250% of the federal poverty line.

Trump had ridiculed these payments as “bailouts” for the insurance industry, and had repeatedly threatened to cut them off, which insurers and other critics said would have the immediate effect of destabilizing the individual insurance market.

On Oct. 12, only hours after he signed an executive order undermining other key aspects of the Affordable Care Act, the President released a one-paragraph statement directing that the payments come to a halt.

If the payments were to end, it’s expected that many insurance companies would flee the individual marketplace in 2018 and that premiums would continue to soar. Rates for 2018, which were recently locked in, had already been increased in expectation of the White House ending these subsidies.

But this afternoon, Sen. Lamar Alexander (TN) and Sen. Patty Murray (WA) — the Republican and Democratic heads, respectively, of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions Committee — announced they had ironed out a deal that would preserve the payments for two more years.

The compromise also reportedly includes additional flexibility in what’s known as the Section 1332 waiver program, which allows states to apply for innovation wavers. Under a 1332 waiver, any tweaks a state makes to its insurance requirements must result in insurance that is just as comprehensive and as affordable as what would be available without the waiver; in other words, it can’t be used to make insurance worse in a state.

Alexander told reporters this afternoon that the proposed change to the 1332 waivers would both speed up the review process for each waiver request and loosen the threshold to “comparable affordability,” meaning a waiver could open the door to insurance that is more expensive than what would be purchased without the waiver.

The senators claim that the change to the waiver program will not — as was proposed by GOP lawmakers multiple times during the failed repeal and replace legislative efforts — allow states to opt of requiring that insurance carriers cover the ACA’s list of mandatory Essential Health Benefits.

In an apparent effort to make insurance more affordable for some, the bill proposes letting Americans over the age of 30 buy catastrophic insurance plans — aka “copper” plans — that cost less but also provide less coverage for general health maintenance.

Politico reports that the bill adds $106 million back into support for ACA enrollment. The Trump administration recently gutted funding for the upcoming enrollment period, which has also been cut in half.

The Alexander-Murray legislation has not been finalized, but Murray told reporters this afternoon that the final details are being ironed out and that she’s “very optimistic” that it will move forward.

If the compromise does make it to the Senate floor, it would be first bipartisan piece of health insurance reform to do so. Unlike the unsuccessful repeal bills, this legislation could pass without full support from either party.

Right now, some GOP lawmakers are being cautiously supportive of the proposed compromise. Sen. John Thune (SD) said today that, from what he’s seen of the bill, it “is something I think will attract a good number of votes for people who want to see a near-term solution that ensures stability in the markets and enables and sets up a debate down the road.”

While some more hardline conservatives are already opposing the proposal, claiming that they won’t stand for anything other than full repeal of the ACA.

“The GOP should focus on repealing & replacing Obamacare, not trying to save it,” Tweeted Rep. Mark Walker (NC), head of the conservative Republican Study caucus. “This bailout is unacceptable.”

One big question that remains to be answered is whether Senate leadership will make time for this bill to be considered in the coming weeks, or if it will be delayed until after Congress has dealt with other matters, like tax reform.

While legislators move forward with this possible compromise, several states are currently suing the Trump administration in the hope of restoring the subsidies. They argue that the President doesn’t have the authority to cut off these payments on a whim, and that he is violating the Take Care clause of the Constitution by not faithfully executing the laws of the country.


by Chris Morran via Consumerist

McDonald’s Franchisees: New McCafé Beverages Take Too Long To Make

For a few years now, McDonald’s franchisees have been vocal about their dislike of the McCafé line of espresso beverages. The company has responded by adding more beverages to the line and requiring restaurants to spend thousands on new machines. Franchisees are not fans of this change.

Last month, McDonald’s added more beverages to the McCafé lineup, making the espresso project even more complicated. These included caramel macchiatos, vanilla cappuccinos, and americanos.

Business Insider reports that in a recent survey performed by a restaurant analyst at finance firm Nomura,franchisees said that these beverages are mostly selling in line with expectations, but that they’re too time-consuming for McDonald’s.

One franchisee complained about the “forced equipment purchases,” potentially referring to new machines that make a wider variety of beverages and cost $12,000 each.

Other franchisees complained that the beverages slow down service for everyone, and aren’t worth the wait. “Slow ordering time, slow make time, and therefore slow service time. Very labor intensive,” one wrote.

Back in early 2015, another survey of franchisees showed that McCafé beverages were the item that the restaurant owners most wanted to dump. They were happy to keep brewed and iced coffee, which are quick to serve, but they wanted the more complicated and slower-selling espresso-based beverages off the menu.

With these beverages, McDonald’s is trying to take on competitor Starbucks. It could learn a few things from its rival, perhaps, as Starbucks has it own service speed problems now.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Baltimore Getting Aggressive In Fight Against Fatberg Clogging City Sewer

When it comes to “fatbergs” — large globs made from wet wipes, cooking oil, and other stuff we flush — clogging the sewers, sometimes extreme measures are necessary. To wit: In an effort to finally dislodge a fatberg that caused a sewer overflow in Baltimore recently, city officials are now resorting to more aggressive approach.

Baltimore City Department of Public Works workers have already tried scraping off parts of it, but this week they’ve been aiming a high-pressure nozzle at the gross mass to blast it apart, reports The Baltimore Sun.

A giant vacuum will then suck up the remaining pieces. Though it’s unclear how this fatberg stacks up agains tother massive clogs — like the 820-foot bane of London’s sewer system — the department estimates that it’ll take about a week to dispose of the fatberg entirely.

“It may not be all that quick because once they get the gunk out of there, there might be spots where the pipes have to be replaced,” a spokesperson for the Department told the Sun. “You never know what problems we could run into.”

(Indeed, we can only imagine what kind of fatberg goblins may be inhabiting the inner recesses of this thing. Shudder.)

As city officials have warned residents in other fatberg-prone locales, the Department is once again asking folks not to send things like wet wipes, cooking oils and greases, and other stuff down the drain.

“We can’t treat our toilets like our trash cans,” an administrator with the city’s pollution control program told the Sun.

If watching a fatberg at rest is your thing, here’s a video:


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

Company That Sold Fake Payday Loan Debts To Collectors Must Pay $4.1M

We’ve heard it before: A debt collection company engaged in a “phantom” debt scheme in which they try to entice unsuspecting individuals into paying debts they don’t actually owe. While federal regulators have cracked down on these unscrupulous organizations in the past, they are now turning their attention to the companies providing information on these supposed debts. To that end, the Federal Trade Commission today ordered one such data company to pay $4.1 million. 

The FTC announced today that it had obtained a $4.1 million judgment [PDF] against an operation that sold — for millions of dollars — lists of fake payday loan debts to debt collectors, who then used the information to collect unowed debts.

While it’s not uncommon for debt collectors to purchase portfolios of consumer debts for pennies on the dollar from third-party debt sellers, the information sold by SQ Capital, JT Holdings, and HPD LLC did not actually contain accurate information.

According to the FTC’s complaint [PDF] filed last year, beginning in July 2014, the companies — along with operator Joel Jerome Tucker — began marketing and selling counterfeit debt portfolios that purported to identify customers who had defaulted on payday loans.

In order to give the lists an air of legitimacy, the portfolios claimed that some of the loans were issued by fictitious lender “Castle Peak” or online lender 500FastCash.

In some cases, Tucker even allegedly used the name of his brother, payday loan vendor Scott Tucker, to give credibility to the debts.

You might remember Scott Tucker; he was recently found guilty on 14 charges including racketeering related to running a $3.6 million online payday lending operation that exploited more than 4.5 million people.

Additionally, the FTC claims that in some cases, the loans listed in the portfolio were real, but that the SQ Capital, JT Holdings, and HPD did not engage in any transaction that authorizes them to collect, sell, distribute, or transfer any valid loans.

Despite this, the complaint claims that debt collectors who purchased the portfolios were able to induce individuals to pay the fictitious debts.

Under today’s order, Tucker and his companies must pay a $4.1 million judgment that will be deposited to the U.S. Treasury.

The companies are also banned from handling sensitive debt information, including bank account numbers, credit or debit card numbers, or social security numbers.

Finally, the companies must destroy the personal information they provided and stop misrepresenting material facts about debts and any product or service.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

FCC Chair Confirms He Can’t & Won’t Take Away Broadcast Licenses Because President Doesn’t Like A News Story

FCC Chair, and self-proclaimed supporter of the First Amendment, Ajit Pai has been noticeably silent in the wake of President Trump’s recent suggestion that the FCC look into revoking the broadcast licenses of NBC and others that air news stories that are unfavorable to the White House. Pai is finally speaking up, and confirming what we already knew: That the FCC doesn’t have the legal authority to take NBC off the air over a news story.

Putting aside for the fact that networks like NBC don’t generally have their own broadcast licenses — those are owned by the local affiliates (some of them subsidiaries of the same parent company as the network) that actually do the over-the-air broadcasting — so there’s nothing to really revoke, the FCC has minimal authority to regulate content-related matters, generally limiting it to matters of obscene and profane content.

Speaking on a panel at a George Mason University event earlier today, Pai broke his silence on this matter, telling the moderator, “I believe in the First Amendment. The FCC under my leadership will stand for the First Amendment, and under the law the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.”

While the Commission does receive — and can investigate — claims of hoaxes or intentionally false and harmful news, the mere declaration by a President that a news story is untrue does not suffice as evidence. Otherwise, the White House would be able to shut down any TV station it chooses by simply claiming a news item is fake.

Besides, noted Pai today, getting into disputes about political news has traditionally “not been within the FCC’s jurisdiction.”

“I’m a lawyer by training,” notes the Chair. “I tend to hew as close as I can to the terms of the Communications Act and of course to other applicable legal principles. That’s the standard that we adopt, at least going forward.”

The President’s complaints about unfair treatment in the press have led him to publicly reference FCC equality requirements, though it’s unclear whether he’s been referring to the Equal Time rule or the Fairness Doctrine, which are two very different things.

The Equal Time rule involves the amount of airtime — through things like advertising and interviews — that a broadcast station provides to political candidates. It doesn’t really apply to regular news coverage, and certainly doesn’t regulate the content of any news stories.

The Fairness Doctrine, which was killed off in 1987, required broadcasters to give equal consideration to matters of political importance. While reinstating such a rule might benefit the White House, President Trump should not expect his FCC Chair to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine.

“It was an affront to the First Amendment to have the government micromanaging how much time a particular broadcast outlet decided to devote to a particular topic,” said Pai this morning. “The other thing — and this is often unremarked-upon in discussions about the Fairness Doctrine — it was an administrative nightmare. You had the FCC employees literally spending hours upon hours listening to broadcasts, watching them, and logging, to the second, how much time a broadcaster spent on one side of the issue versus the other.”

Pai and his fellow FCC commissioners are expected to testify before the House Energy & Commerce Committee next week, where you can be sure these issues will once again be raised.

Members of Congress who have been critical of the Chair offered him guarded praise following this morning’s panel discussion.

“This statement is better than nothing, but it is merely a reiteration of the FCC’s authorities under the law,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, (HI), Ranking Member of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet. “What we needed is a full-throated defense of the independence of the FCC against political interference. When the President announced his intent to retaliate against a broadcaster based on content, the FCC should have rejected it.”


by Chris Morran via Consumerist

Sears’ Second-Largest Shareholder Resigns From Board

When you own more than 25% of Sears, it gets you a seat on the retailers’ board of directors and gives you the opportunity to help steer the company in the right direction. So what does it say about Sears Holdings that its second-largest investor has decided to vacate its seat at the table?

“Not the result of any disagreement”

That shareholder is Fairholme Capital Management, which in the past has owned up to 27% of Sears Holdings, the parent company of Sears and Kmart.

Early last year, the firm’s chief investment officer, Bruce Berkowitz, joined the Sears Holdings board. The company announced his departure this week, and everyone claims that it’s amicable, and it happened because he accomplished everything that he wanted to while serving on the board.

Fairholme Capital explained in a statement that this was why Berkowitz was moving on:

“Mr. Berkowitz believed that his board service would enable him to better communicate Fairholme’s perspective in substantially greater depth and detail than would otherwise have been the case,” the firm said in an email to the Chiacgo Tribune. “Mr. Berkowitz believes that he has achieved that objective and was pleased to have the opportunity to provide input during the formulation of the company’s strategic restructuring program, which was announced earlier this year.”

A Sears Holdings spokesman told the Tribune that the departure was “not the result of any disagreement with the company on matters related to the company’s operations, policies or practices.”

Blame Canada?

For now, Berkowitz still personally owns 1% of Sears Holdings’ stock, and his firm owns around 25% of it. Yet it may not be a coincidence that Fairholme Capital is leaving the Sears Holdings board just as one of its investments in the extended Sears family has failed.

Fairholme Capital also happens to be one of the largest investors in Sears Canada, which is a separate, publicly traded company. Well, it was: The company is closing all of its stores and liquidating, which it announced just in time for Canadian Thanksgiving.

Sears Holdings chairman and CEO Lampert and the investment funds that he controls are also major investors in Sears Canada, and Sears Holdings itself still owns part of the Canadian company.

Fairholme and ESL Investments, Lampert’s fund, tried to put together a financing deal to save Sears Canada and keep it going in some form, but were unable to work out a deal.

Maybe it’s a coincidence that the firm’s chief investment officer is quitting the Sears Holdings board just a few weeks later.

The previous departure from the Sears Holdings board was noted LEGO Movie enthusiast Steven Mnuchin, who stepped down before his appointment as Secretary of the Treasury in the Trump administration. His seat has not yet been re-filled.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

United Passenger Blames Airline For Drunk Man Who Urinated On Him During Flight

Airline passengers have to deal with all manner of human menace — whether it’s that inconsiderate person in the aisle seat eating a tuna sandwich, the charming child repeatedly kicking the back of your seat while his parents pretend not to notice, or the dude next to you voiding his bladder on your leg. At what point does another passenger’s transgression become the fault of the airline?

A United passenger who says another traveler used his leg as a urinal during a June flight from Los Angeles to Newark is now blaming the airline in a lawsuit [PDF] filed in a New Jersey court accusing United of allowing a visibly drunk passenger to board the plane in the first place.

The plaintiff says that when he boarded the aircraft, he noticed the stranger in the next seat was “heavily intoxicated prior to entering the flight, and had fallen into a drunken stupor.” According to the complaint, “a powerful odor of alcohol was emanating from the passenger’s breath and body.”

The lawsuit states that just as the flight was preparing to take off, the man seated next to him took out his penis, aimed it at the plaintiff, and “proceeded to urinate all over [the man’s] leg” while he was confined to his seat due to the “imminent departure of the flight.”

Not only did his seatmate smell of booze, but “upon being soaked in the passenger’s urine,” the plaintiff says he noticed the stuff “also emitted a powerful scent of alcohol.”

“Shaken and disturbed by these events,” the man claims he tried to wake the other passenger up, but couldn’t because he was too drunk.

He says that no flight crew members had done anything to intervene throughout the experience. He notified a flight attendant and asked to be moved, “to avoid the continued humiliation, assault, and inhumane experience of sitting in urine-soaked clothes on a urine-soaked seat.”

The lawsuit claims United refused that request at first, but eventually relocated him to another seat. However, he was then “forced to endure the remainder of the flight” to New Jersey while remaining in his urine-soaked clothing.

The man says he got in touch with his father during the flight to let him know what happened, and that he then notified law enforcement. The lawsuit claims that if he and his father hadn’t contacted police, no one would have intervened.

Upon arrival, both men were removed from the plane and interviewed. The complaint claims that during an FBI interview, the allegedly intoxicated passenger said he didn’t remember anything from the flight, and only recalled being at a bar inside LAX.

He believed he’d consumed at least four rum cocktails while at the airport bar prior to the flight, the lawsuit says.

The passenger’s “unresponsive state upon being seated should have been a clear indication to United of the passenger’s heavy intoxication,” the passenger’s lawsuit claims.

“United failed and refused to change the flight itinerary as a result of the assault and thus risked the health and safety of not only” the passenger who’s suing, but the man accused of peeing on him and other people on the flight.

The complaint points to United’s own contract of carriage, which requires that members of the crew remove passengers who “appear to be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs to a degree that the passenger may endanger the passenger or another passenger or members of the crew.

The lawsuit alleges negligence and assault, as well as breach of contract and emotional distress.

We’ve reached out to United for comment on the lawsuit and will update this post if we receive a response.

The anonymous passenger accused of urinating on the man’s leg is also named as a “John Doe” defendant in the case. He’s accused of assault and battery, negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

GM Wants To Be The First Company To Test Driverless Cars On NYC Streets

With its maze of one-way streets, congestion, aggressive taxi drivers, double-parked cars, occasional motorcades, parades, and exploding manhole covers, New York City can be a challenge for even the more skilled drivers. And if General Motors gets its wish, you could soon add driverless to this mix.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this morning that GM and its partner Cruise Automation have applied to start testing self-driving vehicles in Manhattan, as soon as early 2018.

Recent legislation [PDF] that allows the testing of autonomous technology will require engineers in the driver’s seat to keep an eye on things, as well as a second in the passenger seat.

Cruise says that testing in NYC will speed up the deployment of self-driving cars at scale.

The city is “one of the most densely populated places in the world and provides new opportunities to expose our software to unusual situations, which means we can improve our software at a much faster rate,” explains Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt.

Citing the potential for such vehicles to “save time and save lives,” Cuomo says the city is proud to be working with the two companies on driverless tech.

“The spirit of innovation is what defines New York, and we are positioned on the forefront of this emerging industry that has the potential to be the next great technological advance that moves our economy and moves us forward,” he said in a statement.

This will be the first time Level 4 autonomous vehicles — the point at which a human doesn’t have to do anything, or even pay attention — will be tested in the state, Cuomo’s office notes. If successful, this pilot program could lead to more opportunities for future autonomous vehicle ventures in New York.


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

Mercedes-Benz Recalls Nearly 500K Vehicles Over Inadvertent Airbag Deployment

Airbags can save lives, but they can also hurt people if they deploy at the wrong time. To that end, Mercedes Benz has recalled nearly 500,000 vehicles in the U.S. that contain airbags that could deploy without warning. 

Mercedes Benz issued the recall of 495,000 model year 2012 to 2018 A, B, C, and E-class vehicles, as well as CLA, GLA, and GLC vehicles. In all, the recall covers nearly one million cars worldwide.

While the recall has not yet been posted with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a rep with Mercedes confirmed the recall with Consumerist, noting the issue was the result of insufficient electrical grounding in certain steering components.

Mercedes says that, in rare instances, if the insufficiently grounded components are exposed to an electrostatic discharge, and the steering column module clock spring is broken (due to wear), it could lead to an inadvertent deployment of the driver airbag.

So far, the company says it is aware of a “handful” of instances in which “drivers suffered minor abrasions or bruises” as a result of the issue.

The company says it expects to notify customers of the recall in the next few weeks as soon as replacement parts are available in the U.S. Dealers will then add new grounding to the steering components.

In the meantime, customers can continue driving the vehicles. However, if an SRS light comes on, the carmaker urges owners to take the car to a dealer for diagnosis.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Why Did This Store Falsely Claim There Was A $10 Fee For Apple Pay Or Samsung Pay?

In spite of what this sign at an Indiana retailer said, there is no $10 surcharge for using mobile payment apps like Apple Pay or Samsung Pay to make a purchase. But the fact that someone at this store believed this to be the case is a good example of how myths and misinformation can affect consumers.

Consumerist reader Tim spotted the following sign at the checkout counter of his local Five Below, a discount store targeted at kids and teens with an inventory of products priced $5 or less — like an inflation-updated dollar store.

“When I went to pay with my iPhone using Apple Pay the cashier pointed out the attached sign taped to the counter that indicated there was a $10 surcharge to use your phone to pay,” Tim told us. “When I asked why she said, ‘We don’t know.'”

The cashier suggested that maybe the store’s manager might know why, but rather than try to play retail detective, Tim brought this mystery to Consumerist. He even had his own hypothesis about why the sign existed: To discourage customers from paying with newfangled methods, even though the store has the equipment to accept them.

We’d never heard of stores adding on surcharges for using Apple Pay or anything similar, and a $10 surcharge for purchases at a store where literally nothing even costs $10 seemed particularly circumspect.

Did the store mean there was a $10 minimum on these purchases? That wouldn’t be so uncommon, though such minimum requirements are usually applied to all credit card purchases and not just those made through Apple/Samsung Pay.

After checking with Five Below, we learned that the explanation for the sign was odder than we’d expected; it wasn’t merely a misstatement of policy, it was apparently the result of an old-fashioned game of “telephone,” where facts get lost as people try to communicate something they heard to others.

A Five Below corporate representative explained to Consumerist that the sign came about after a customer told an employee at this particular store that using Apple and Samsung Pay somehow triggers a $10 surcharge on any purchase.

“Five Below does not charge any fees related to credit card or Apple Pay and Samsung Pay transactions,” explains the company rep, saying that the employee “erroneously believed that Samsung and Apple charged an additional fee directly to the consumer for purchases made via Samsung and Apple Pay, and the associate created a sign to alert customers.”

It’s not clear where this customer got that information. It’s also possible the customer told the worker something different and less inaccurate, but was misunderstood.

Regardless of the source, a Five Below employee took it upon themselves to craft the handwritten sign, thinking they were helping customers by giving them a heads-up.

That meshes with Tim’s version of events, telling us that, “The cashier did seem to genuinely be looking out for me as she stopped me before I could make the payment.”

The company rep says the sign was removed as soon as Five Below HQ learned about it.

“We are not aware that any additional fees were charged to customers by Apple or Samsung, and we apologize for any confusion the sign may have caused,” the company tells Consumerist.

The sign is now down, no longer spreading the myth of the $10 Apple Pay surcharge, but we’re still left trying to figure out exactly where the original customer got the idea that this surcharge exists.

Have you heard tales about Apple Pay or Samsung Pay that you either know or false or aren’t sure if they’re true? Have you heard another retail myth that you’d like Consumerist to clear up? Let us know at tips@consumerist.com.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

McDonald’s Suggests Putting Your Phone In A Locker Rather Than Talking Through Meal

Walk into just about any restaurant — it doesn’t matter the price or quality of food — and you’ll see many diners constantly fidgeting with their phones, if not ignoring their table mates altogether while they tap away on their screens. McDonald’s may be the last place on Earth you’d expect to care about this decrease in human interaction, but some Golden Arches franchises are trying to get customers talking to each other again.

McDonald’s Singapore recently launched a “Phone Off. Fun On” campaign that allows customers to stash their phones in a locker while they eat.

Customers visiting the restaurant can place their device in one of 100 lockable drawers in the large transparent cabinet.

McDonald’s promoted the new locker in several Facebook videos over the last several weeks, showing a bunch of kids taking their parents’ phones and locking them in the cabinet.

One parent notes that it’s a “good idea,” allowing people to have “family playtime.”

“Give your mobile a time-out this weekend with a family playdate at McDonald’s,” the company said in another post. “There’s no better way to enjoy a few hours of fun with the ones you love most.”

Linda Ming, director of McDonald’s Singapore brand communications and cusomter care, tells CNN the initiative is part of the company’s efforts to “advocate family togetherness and encourage families to spend quality time together.”

The program follows a survey conducted by McDonald’s in Singapore that found 98% of adults use their mobile phones when with family, including some during meals.

The fast food giant says it will gather feedback on the Singapore test before deciding if the program should expand to other areas.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Dog-Walking Apps Want Customers To Entrust Their Pups To Strangers

Ride-hailing apps ask us to get in strangers’ cars, something that our parents specifically warned us against. Now a new generation of gig economy apps asks us to let strangers into our homes and take our pets on walks. While most walks and boarding stays using services like Wag and Rover end well, enough have resulted in lost or killed pets that investors are becoming skittish, and maybe customers should be.

The business model is simple: Customers order an on-demand dog-walker through the app, who is insured and on whom the companies have run background checks. Other options include drop-in visits to play with dogs, and in-home boarding when you’re out of town.

The companies handle bookings, background checks, and insurance, and take a substantial cut of the fees: Rover takes around 20% for pet-sitting, and both services take around 40% of the fee customers pay for dog-walking.

Uber for puppers

Yet these services have a publicity problem, which Bloomberg Technology compares to the safety problems with some drivers for ride-hailing apps. No, walkers haven’t abused or attacked dogs, but there have been a few high-profile cases where dogs went missing during walks.

A couple whose terrier went missing in Brooklyn during a walk with a Wag contractor earlier this year told Bloomberg that the company was “concerned” when the couple went after local surveillance footage that might provide clues about what happened to their dog. The dog was eventually hit by a car, and Wag paid for its cremation.

“They seemed more interested in keeping things quiet than helping us find our dog,” one of the dog’s owners said. The company disputes this, saying that it has a dedicated team for finding lost dogs, and it pays for professional searchers and pet AMBER alerts.

One expensive lost dog

One Wag user whose dog, Buddy, was found unharmed told Bloomberg that the company tried to silence her, sending her a cease and desist notice to take down her complaints against the company and apologize. She still claims that the company offered her money to stay quiet after she went to a local news station to get her dog’s story out to more people.

“People familiar with the situation” told Bloomberg that multiple investors backed out amid the publicity around Buddy’s case, when the company was trying to raise another $100 million in to expand. One venture capitalist said that his firm was no longer interested after hearing stories about lost dogs.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Couple Caught On Camera Copulating At Domino’s Counter May Face Jail Time

If your fantasy is to engage in all manner of sexual relations while waiting for your pizza order, just be aware that there may be repercussions for your public display of intimacy.

Last February, CCTV cameras at a UK Domino’s captured 18 minutes of one couple’s in-store erotic escapades. The two recently pleaded guilty to outraging public decency, but The Sun reports that they could still end up behind bars.

The magistrates at their trial last month watched the entire 18 minutes of footage, which shows them cavorting, romping, and otherwise getting it on while they wait for their order. Delivery personnel arrive and leave in the video, while kitchen workers appear to remain clueless as well.

Their attorney told the court that the incident happened after a night of drinking, and that while yes, they had sex in public, the acts weren’t all that “brazen.”

The couple will be sentenced today, with the chairwoman of the bench noting that a jail time won’t be ruled out.


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

Small Cable Companies Blame Comcast For Their High Prices

Smaller cable companies say they want to save you money, but they can’t. Why not? Comcast won’t let them.

At least that’s what the American Cable Association — an industry group representing all the little pay-TV companies that haven’t been bought by Comcast…yet — said in an Oct. 10 filing [PDF] with the Federal Communication Commission.

The ACA claims that Comcast forces smaller providers to carry a slew of NBCUniversal channels, effectively preventing these companies from offering their customers so-called “skinny” bundles that cost less and include fewer channels you don’t watch anyway.

The comments, submitted as part of the FCC’s annual review of competition in the pay-TV industry, highlight how Comcast’s wide array of assets can negatively affect competition among cable providers.

Putting Up Restrictions

ACA argues that many smaller cable companies are trying to offer customers inexpensive bundles that allow users to break up with large, more expensive cable companies, like Comcast.

But those big companies — described as multichannel video programming distributor networks or MVPD — aren’t having it. Instead, they’ve found ways to force the smaller companies to include their owned networks, effectively increasing the costs of skinny bundles, defeating the entire purpose.

“Many consumers that want to opt out of the big cable bundle in favor of a less expensive alternative are gravitating to a bundle that includes just the basic cable tier (essentially local TV stations) plus broadband Internet access and then relying on over-the-top video services to gain access to a more limited amount of cable programming more narrowly tailored to their specific interests,” ACA President and CEO Matthew M. Polka, said in a statement.

For instance, according to the filing, Comcast’s ownership of NBC Universal means the company controls “access to significant programming that its rivals must have access to in order to compete with it.”

Comcast’s must-have programming includes local television stations, cable channels, and regional sports networks.

The ACA claims that Comcast doesn’t want one of these elements to feel left out, so when a smaller company wants to offer customers local television stations or NBC-owned cable channels, the larger provider will require the company to offer sports, pushing up the price of the bundle.

“Denying a rival access to even one of these three categories of programming would threaten an [company’s] ability to compete, as the Commission has recognized,” ACA writes. “Thus, without a doubt, program access protections administered by the Commission continue to be necessary and important to protect competition and consumers.”

The group claims that Comcast, through its licensing agreements with regional sports networks, has unilaterally decided that ACA members should no longer be able to sell the basic broadcast service tier with broadband internet.

As a result, ACA claims that an MVPD must either raise the price of a broadcast basic tier or stop offering a true basic tier/broadband bundle that doesn’t induce a large number of costly cable networks.

Polka notes in a statement that this scenario shows that Comcast is standing in the way of ACA members that want to help customers “escape the burdens of the big and expensive expanded basic bundle of channels.”

Only Gonna Get Worse

ACA warns that unless the FCC steps in, things will only get worse in the near term, pointing to the impending merger between AT&T and Time Warner, which will result in another must-have block of programing under the control of a MVPD.

Additionally, the upcoming Jan. 2018 expiration of program access conditions placed on the Comcast-NBCU merger could make it even more difficult and expensive for smaller companies to offer Comcast’s networks.

“At an absolute minimum, the Commission must continue to vigorously enforce program access rules to provide at least some minimum level of protection to competition between MVPDs,” ACA writes.

The Commission should also immediately open a proceeding to determine if there is a need to extend or renew the Comcast-NBCU merger program access conditions.

As for Comcast, the company tells DSLReports that it’s just doing business.

“NBCUniversal negotiates in good faith with all of its distribution partners with the goal of making programming available to as many viewers as possible on fair market terms that are consistent with what other programmers offer,” a rep said.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Most Philadelphia Stores Claim Double-Digit Sales Declines Due To Soda Tax

With the Chicago-area soda tax falling apart after only a few months, could the same soon happen to a similar sweetened beverage tax in Philadelphia? A new survey from the city’s Controller claims that the majority of retail businesses in the city have been harmed by the tax.

For those unfamiliar, the Philadelphia tax adds $.015 per ounce to just about all sweetened beverages sold in the city, regardless of whether the sweetener is sugar or a low/no-calorie option like aspartame. So that means a 20-oz. Diet Coke is now $.30 more expensive. The tax went into effect at the beginning of 2017.

What’s more, this tax is charged at the distributor level, so the additional markup by retailers may be even higher. For example, while the tax should be adding about $1 to the cost of a 2-liter of soda, shoppers in Philadelphia now frequently see this 2-liter bottles going for $4 or more, about double what they’d previously cost at convenience stores.

The survey [PDF] from Controller Alan Butkovitz, used responses from 741 different businesses affected by the tax — grocery stores, corner shops, restaurants, and various other retailers.

Nearly 9-in-10 of these businesses claimed that their sales revenue was down year-over-year, with nearly 6-in-10 saying that these declines were in excess of 10%. And the majority of owners (62%) say that most or all of the drop in sales is directly related to the soda tax.

Grocery stores say they’ve been hit the hardest, with more than 70% of respondents claiming double-digit revenue drops. Why grocery stores? Probably because those are the retailers where shoppers expect to see the best prices in the area, and where the most cost-conscious consumer is likely to shop. It’s also where people tend to buy a full week, or more, of food at a time.

In a city like Philadelphia, where many residents — particularly those in the areas abutting suburban counties — have cars and can drive an extra few minutes to buy their soda. And if customers are stocking up on Pepsi in Jenkintown or Bensalem, they might as well do the rest of their weekly shopping while they’re at it.

“We have found consumers leave the area to shop in local suburbs so they can avoid the sugar tax,” said one survey respondent who operates a grocery store in the city’s Northeast section, not far from the suburbs. “This has impacted sales of fresh meats, groceries, sandwiches and luncheon meats.”

About 59% of corner stores complained of double-digit declines. These sorts of stores have long had to charge higher prices anyway because of having less buying power than the bigger supermarkets and grocery stores. They’ve also generally been able to get away with charging that premium because many of them serve customers with fewer, if any, more affordable options. But there’s a limit to how much you can charge for convenience before customers stop shopping — or get angry.

“Customers are complaining and arguing with my employees which has cost me to call the police for assistance,” one store owner in the city’s Frankford section says.

While the report cautions that the survey only provides anecdotal evidence — the actual toll on area businesses won’t be tallied up until after the 2018 tax season — Butkovitz nevertheless concludes that “it is clear the tax is viewed
negatively by this constituency… many business owners seem apprehensive about the viability of their enterprises in the near and medium term.”

In a response to the Philadelphia Inquirer, a spokesman for Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney says that the “tax has had many positive economic impacts, which this survey doesn’t take into account,” and that those positives would be thrown away if the tax were repealed.

When proposed, the tax was positioned as a way for the cash-strapped city to fund early childhood education programs, while simultaneously curbing obesity by making soda less attractive to purchase. But some have questioned the logic of relying on “sin” taxes like this as a long-term revenue stream. After all, if one of your goals is to make these beverages so expensive that it drastically reduces the amount of soda people consume, then that would seem to undercut the viability of the tax as a durable solution.

In fact, a recent report claimed that the city was already about 15% behind its revenue target, perhaps indicating that more Philadelphians than expected had cut back on their soda purchases (or simply gone to the Costco in Warminster to get them).


by Chris Morran via Consumerist

Verizon FiOS Customers Lose Univision In Midst Of Contract Dispute

Univision has gone dark in the homes of Verizon FiOS customers amid a contract dispute between the two sides that just couldn’t be worked out.

The Spanish-language broadcaster says that at 5 p.m. EST on Monday, Verizon yanked Univision’s signal from both its FiOS and mobile platforms, “entirely without warning.”

“Verizon chose to take this unprecedented action despite Univision’s offer of an extension of the current agreement,” the company says, noting that it’s surprised and “deeply concerned” that Verizon would black out the channel especially in light of “recent natural disasters and current events impacting the Hispanic community.”

The broadcaster urges Verizon to put Univision back on, and get back to the negotiating table.

The two sides had agreed to extend a current contract while they were discussing a new one, a Univision spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal.

But Verizon FiOS said Univision is trying to get an increase of “of more than double what they charge for access to their channels today.”

This price increase is unwarranted, a spokesperson for Verizon told the WSJ, saying that “we believe the appeal for Univision programming is waning given their reported declining viewership.”

We’ve reached out to Verizon for more information and will update this post if we receive a response.


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

Bank-Backed Congressman Praises Betsy DeVos For Cutting Ties With Consumer Protection Agency

Congressman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, whose campaign has received more than $8 million from the financial sector since 2010, has long endeavored to undercut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency that regulates many of the businesses that keep Hensarling’s election campaigns flush with contributions. So it’s of little surprise that the lawmaker is thrilled at Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ recent decision to stop working with the CFPB on student loans — even though the Bureau has returned hundreds of millions of dollars to screwed-over student borrowers.

Hensarling sent a letter to DeVos last week, The Hill reports, praising DeVos for her decision last month to end years of formal cooperation between the Education Dept. and CFPB in combating student loan fraud.

DeVos told the CFPB in September that her department would end agreements established in 2011 and 2013, claiming the Bureau was not living up to its end of the deals, by doing too much to hold loan servicers accountable.

The Secretary claimed the Bureau overstepped its authority by taking enforcement actions against student loan servicers and collectors, rather than simply passing those matters on to the Education Dept. to handle. She also accused the CFPB of failing to abide by its agreement to provide the Department with all complaints related to federal student loans within 10 days of receiving the grievance.

The CFPB fired back the following week, with director Richard Cordray noting in a letter [PDF] that he believes the Department’s decision to end years of formal cooperation combating student loan fraud is based on DeVos’ misunderstanding about the Bureau’s responsibilities and the actions it has taken related to student loans.

Pouring On The Praise

While Hensarling’s office did not return Consumerist’s request for a copy of the letter, The Hill reports the lawmaker called DeVos’s decision “necessary and appropriate” in the face of the CFPB’s “overreach into the education field.”

“Congress never authorized or intended the CFPB to be the regulator of educational services, yet the CFPB entered the field regardless,” Hensarling wrote, as reported by The Hill. “Sadly, it is no surprise that that this unconstitutional agency routinely exceeds the limits of its jurisdiction.”

Hensarling noted the end of the agreements was “most welcome” and that other agencies should take note.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Hensarling has regularly been a favorite recipient of contributions from banks since becoming Chair of the House Financial Services Committee after being reelected in 2012.

During the 2016 election cycle alone, his campaign took in nearly $1 million from commercial banks, securities firms, and credit companies. He’s already approaching the $500,000 mark from just these few sectors for the 2018 election.

A Differing Report

Hensarling’s letter of praise for DeVos is in direct contradiction to a recently released report that found the CFPB’s handling of consumer complaints related to student loan servicing resulted in $750 million in relief to borrowers.

According to the CFPB report [PDF] released today, since the agency began accepting student loan servicing complaints in 2012, it has received more than 50,700 private and federal student loan complaints, as well as 9,800 debt collection complaints.

“These complaints have served as the critical link in a process through which government agencies and market participants have repeatedly taken action to improve the student loan system for millions of Americans,” the report states.

The Bureau addressed these complaints with 360 companies, including student loan servicers, debt collectors, private student lenders, and companies marketing student loan “debt relief.”

The report found that relief for student loan borrowers included those harmed by illegal lending practices from for-profit colleges, restitution for military borrowers illegally denied benefits, and refunds and redress to student loan borrowers harmed by servicing failures.

An analysis of the complaints and Bureau action found that these complaints, and subsequent enforcement action, not only returned funds to borrowers, but strengthened key aspects of the student loan repayment process for others.

For instance, the CFPB notes that it received a number of complaints from borrowers that related to processing delays, surprise application denials, and lost paperwork when applying for affordable payment plans.

These complaints, the report notes, resulted in the agency working with the Dept. of Education to add stronger rogueries to ensure student loan borrowers timely, actionable information from their servicer about their application status and how to get an affordable monthly payment.

Likewise, the Bureau’s received complaints from military borrowers who were prevented from accessing their right to an interest-rate reduction under the Servicemember Civil Relief Act.

The CFPB worked with the Dept. of Education to automatically extend the interest-rate reduction to more than 100,000 servicemembers on active duty with student loans.

As a result of the policy change, the report estimates that military borrowers have saved more than an estimated $20 million in interest charges starting in 2016.

Consumerist has reached out to Hensarling’s office for comment on the CFPB’s report. We’ll update this post if we hear back.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

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