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More Than A Third Of Americans Have Been Unknowingly Enrolled In Auto-Pay Plans

If you’ve ever been surprised to find you’ve been automatically charged for a subscription or a service you don’t remember signing up for, you’re not alone: A new survey says that more than a third of Americanshave been enrolled in autopay programs — for anything from a gym membership to a streaming service — without realizing it.

Survey says

According to a telephone survey of 1,002 U.S. adults conducted by CreditCards.com, 35% of respondents have set up an account that enrolled them in automatic payments, with only 11% choosing to keep the autopay turned on.

Younger folks seem to be a bit easier to take in: Gen-Xers (44%) and millennials (37%) were most likely to get stuck with automatic payments.

And of the 42% of respondents who find canceling an automatic payment tricky, Gen-Xers were also the most likely to say it’s “very difficult” to turn off automatic payments, followed by baby boomers.

However, older people are better at avoiding autopay traps, with those 72 and older significantly more likely than all the other age groups to say they’ve never signed up automatic payments without realizing it.

Negative option billing rears its ugly head

As we’ve seen before, many of these accounts start out as a free trial that is automatically renewed unless the customer cancels it — a method known as “negative option billing.” Almost half of respondents said they were unknowingly charged for some kind of subscription after that trial period ended. Only 9% of those people kept the subscriptions after the trial period ended.

Although the Federal Trade Commission has a rule designed to protect consumers from such negative option offers, it’s a bit behind the times.

“The negative option rule … has to do with old ‘book-of-the-month club’ issues and a very specific type of negative option that we normally don’t see anymore,” said James Kohm, director of the FTC’s enforcement division.

However, the Restore Online Shopper’s Confidence Act does protect consumers from getting charged for services online without their consent, and requires merchants to fully disclose their terms of billing. Services like Netflix or other streaming companies aren’t likely to

There’s also a bill titled the Unsubscribe Act that was recently introduced, which would add more consumer safeguards against deceptive online negative options, as well as make it easier to cancel them.

How to avoid unexpected auto charges

• Check out the service or company online or get in touch with your state attorney general’s office — if others have complained about a negative option or a free trial, it might be best to stay away.

• Be wary of free trial offers, and be especially wary of any site that pressures you into providing your credit card or bank account information, making a purchase, or committing to a subscription right away.

“You need to decide whether you want to participate in negative options and free offers,” Kohm said. “You can also decide whether you’re dealing with a company that you know and trust.”

• If you do get hooked by a free trial that’s anything but, you can dispute payments with your credit card issuer.


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

3 Things We Learned About How Netflix Recommends Shows

You just finished watching (or re-watching) Breaking Bad on Netflix, what do you watch next? Perhaps, Switched At Birth? Wait, what? While you might not see the connection between a show about a high school chemistry teacher dabbling in the drug trade and a family drama about two teens switched at birth, the streaming service’s recommendation algorithm does — at least in the case of my viewing habits. 

For years, Netflix has been rather mum on how it determines which shows to recommend to viewers on their home screens. Now, the company is peeling back the curtain — albeit in a very, very small manner — shedding a little light on why it might recommend a Freeform drama to die-hard fans of Walter White’s shenanigans on the AMC show.

The Associated Press reports that there are several layers to Netflix’s recommendation process — here are three things we found interesting:

1. More Than Meets The Eye

While you don’t see the connection between a John Mulaney comedy special and Netflix’s documentary Making A Murderer, that doesn’t mean there aren’t similarities.

To find this common ground, Netflix employs “taggers” who screen shows and assign descriptions to the programs. This information is then entered into the streaming service’s top-secret algorithm.

Once the shows are tagged, the algorithm assess viewers’ habits and determines which tags would be suited for that customer.

2. It’s Different For Everyone

You likely don’t have the same taste in shows as your grandma, so it makes sense that your Netflix homepage, and recommendations, would differ from dear ol’ gran.

To this end, Todd Yellin, Netflix vice president of product innovation, tells the AP that each customers’ homepage displays categories and shows in a different order than other viewers.

For instance, after the requisite “New Releases,” “Netflix Orginals,” and “Continue Watching” sections, my homepage shows: Because You Watched: Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later; Comedies; Top Picks, TV Shows.

Co-worker Mary Beth sees something entirely different on her screen: Comedies, Because you watched Glow; Because you watched The Keepers; Top Picks for Mary Beth.

It should be noted that both my and Mary Beth’s recommendations based on past viewing listed only original content or shows unique to Netflix.

3. It Apparently Works

The oddball connections Netflix makes might seem, well, odd and out-of-place for many viewers, but it seems to work for the service.

Netflix claims that four out of five shows watched were discovered by viewers through recommendations, the AP reports.

“It’s not like we could have guessed this ahead of time,” Yellin said. “We just track which shows tend to cluster together.”


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

CDC: Backyard Chickens Mean Salmonella Outbreaks, So Wash Your Hands

In the last decade or so, raising backyard chickens has become a popular hobby. Maybe it’s due to a receession-era homesteading impulse, or people prioritizing really local food. However, live chickens and ducks have been linked to almost 1,000 known cases of Salmonella, which have sent hundreds of people to the hospital and killed one person. About one-third of those cases were in children under age 5.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been able to trace most of these cases of backyard bird bacteria to their sources, and found that 75% of people interviewed had some kind of contact with live poultry before getting sick.

The problem is that chickens can carry Salmonella strains that make humans ill, but the birds don’t get sick at all.

Among the CDC’s recommendations are that people with pet chickens not let their flocks hang out in the house, especially in the kitchen, dining areas, or the bathroom. Yes, even if your hens are really cool pets. It also recommends that flock owners and people visiting with chickens:

Wash your hands after handling poultry, or after handling clothes that you wore when working with poultry. Hand sanitizer is a good temporary option if you can’t get to a place with soap and water right away.
Avoid snuggling and smooching any birds, no matter how cute those fuzzy freshly hatched chicks might be.
Collect eggs as often as possible, discarding any that are cracked. Don’t wash eggs, but be sure to refrigerate them.
When possible, keep children under age 5, adults over age 65, and people with weakened or compromised immune systems due to illness or medical treatment (like chemotherapy or anti-rejection drugs) from handling any birds due to the risk of Salmonella.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Same-Sex Couple Claims Server Told Them Sharing A Dessert “Wouldn’t Look Right”

Sharing a dessert with your dining companion is nothing new, but a same-sex couple in D.C. claims that when they asked their server for two spoons so they could split a sundae, they were told such a thing wouldn’t be possible, and doesn’t go with the “ambiance” of the restaurant.

A couple who recently had dinner at an eatery touting its reputation as a romantic restaurant says their experience was anything but after they requested two spoons for one dessert, reports The Washington Post.

They claim their server told them that they’d get their sundae in separate dishes.

“He said ‘It wouldn’t look right with two gentlemen eating out of the same sundae,’” one of the men recalled to the Post. “‘It doesn’t go with the ambiance of the restaurant.’ ”

They were rendered speechless, the men said, because they weren’t expecting it: Until that point, their meal had been great, the men noted.

The couple says they left their server a 15% tip instead of the usual 20% they usually add to restaurant tabs, and left without bringing the issue to a manager because they were feeling “kind of embarrassed.”

After a night’s rest, however, they decided to post about the incident on Facebook and Yelp.

The restaurant’s manager tells the Post that he’s piecing together what happened and hasn’t yet spoken to the server about the encounter in detail. He says the server is Bulgarian, and his first language is not English. While he speaks four different languages, the manager said that perhaps the waiter “got confused as to what he was saying, or how he was saying it.”

“I cannot believe that a waiter would have ever said anything like that,” the manager said, noting that he plans to reach out to the couple. “There’s no way we would condone anything remotely like this.”


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

Great Wall Motors Not Actually That Interested In Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep After All

A day after Chinese carmaker Great Wall Motors revealed its desire to buy Jeep from Fiat Chrysler, the manufacturer is backing away from the plan, noting that it hasn’t yet entered talks with the company. 

Bloomberg, citing a filing with the Shanghai stock exchange, reports that officials with Great Wall say they may not pursue the Jeep brand after all, noting there are “big uncertainties” related to the possible deal.

For starters, the company says that it hasn’t begun to contact Fiat’s board, and that no “concrete progress” has been made on the possible deal.

The diminished interest in buying Jeep is an about-face for Great Wall, after a rep for the company confirmed Monday it planned to pursue the SUV brand.

At the time, the rep couldn’t confirm if the company had put in an offer for the brand, or if it just was preparing to do so. Additionally, FCA said Monday that it had not yet been approached by Great Wall.

To Sell Or Not To Sell

FCA, which has long been in the market for a partner, has been the center of merger or sale speculation in recent weeks after rumors began swirling that Chinese carmakers were eyeing the manufacturer.

Reports surfaced last week that FCA had rejected an offer from a well-known, but unidentified, Chinese automaker, because it believed the financial terms of the deal weren’t enough.

While it was unclear which Chinese company offered to merge with FCA, sources noted that several carmakers have shown interest in the company, including its current joint venture partner, Guangzhou.

Interested automakers have reportedly traveled to FCA’s Michigan headquarters, while FCA executives have traveled to China, where the government has pushed its manufacturers to expand into foreign markets.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

FDA Sprout Study Finds Bacterial Contamination, But You Can Still Eat Sprouts

How do you keep contaminated food from reaching consumers? The Food and Drug Administration recently set out on a project to test fresh foods that are often the subject of recalls, hoping to learn how common bacterial contamination is and how to prevent these foods from making people sick. This week, it released its report on sprouts, a fresh salad topping that makes people sick surprisingly often.

Literally, killer sprouts

If the FDA could prevent illnesses from sprouts, it would save a lot of suffering. In its report from the 2014-2016 sampling project [PDF], the FDA explains that in the last two decades, from 1996 to 2006, outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to sprouts have caused 2,474 illnesses, 187 hospitalizations, and three deaths, the agency says in the report that it produced from its sampling project from 2014 to 2016. .

The number of people who really become sick in an outbreak is typically much higher, but most people don’t visit a doctor during their illness to have stool or blood samples taken so they can officially be counted as part of a given outbreak.

Sprouts are especially likely to spread illness because they’re grown in warm water where bacteria thrives, and are typically eaten raw without a “kill step” before they reach homes or restaurants. They also typically don’t have a kill step before being eaten, either, typically being served on a salad or a sandwich without being cooked.

Sampling the sprouts

The agency began a program of random sampling, ultimately collecting and testing samples of seeds, the water used for sprouting, and finished sprouts. It found that the rate of contamination in finished sprouts differed from that of the seeds before they were placed in drums of warm water to sprout.

While 2.35% of seeds were contaminated with Salmonella, only .21% of finished sprouts had the pathogen.

Listeria also turned up in samples, but it was found in more finished product than in seeds, with the bacteria turning up in .59% of seeds, but 1.28% of finished sprouts.

No samples tested positive for E. coli because of limitations of the test method.

What did they learn?

The FDA concluded that it doesn’t need to routinely test sprouts across the country, since growers are implementing guidelines from the agency about how to grow sprouts safely, and performing their own tests.

It may, however, keep up monitoring and sampling operations for facilities that have experienced outbreaks. One unnamed sprouting facility in the Midwest was linked to a large 2014 outbreak, and is now rented to a different company. The FDA performs occasional environmental sampling.

If you’re concerned about illness, or making a salad for a person who is young, old, or has a compromised immune system, maybe skip the sprouts. When you do eat sprouts, maybe consider using them only in a stir-fry, or be sure to wash them thoroughly before use.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Panera’s Cups Will Now Tell You How Much Sugar Is In That Fountain Drink

Panera Bread’s health crusade continues apace this week: After launching a new “clean” beverage line and posting calorie and added sugars information for its drinks in its stores, Panera will be rolling out new cups that list nutritional information for every beverage it sells.

It’s not that Panera thinks it’s the food police, CEO Ron Shaich told The Street in k, but the company does want customers to know what’s in their food. He says that since the company introduced its new line of lower-calorie beverages, 10% of customers moved from “heavily sugared” drinks to choosing those with less sweetener.

Shaich also says that recent company research found that 99% of people don’t know how much sugar is in their beverages.

“We said, ‘Listen, if we’re going to serve people, let’s put that out there,” Shaich said of the decision to add nutritional information to cups.

While he acknowledges that yes, Panera serves soda, the chain just wants customers to know what they’re getting.

“What people really want is to be informed so they can make good decisions for themselves,” he said, adding, “Indulge when you want, but on the other hand, take care of yourself.”


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

IRS Warns Of Increase In W-2 Theft Scams

Tax time might still be months away, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be on the lookout for possible scams: The Internal Revenue Service and FBI are warning consumers and businesses about an email scam targeting employee W-2 forms after seeing a 150% increase in incidents last year. 

According to the IRS, during the 2017 tax season, 200 businesses, public schools, universes, tribal governments, and nonprofits became victims of the W-2 scam, an increase from 50 such cases in 2016.

The Scheme

The W-2 Scam — known as a business email compromise  — works similarly to the equally as dangerous CEO Scam.

For instance, both schemes begin when a ne’er-do-well spoofs or impersonates a company or organization executive’s email address and sends a message to human resources or payroll employees.

In the W-2 scam, the message attempts to trick the employee into transferring a list of all employees and their W-2 forms. The IRS notes that after the scammer gets their hands on the employees’ W-2 forms, they immediately file fraudulent tax returns.

With the CEO scam, the email often asks the targeted worker to either transfer funds or provide personal information on employees; this can occasionally include W-2 or other tax forms.

“These are incredibly tricky schemes that can be devastating to a tax professional or business,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in a warning. “Cybercriminals target people with access to sensitive information, and they cleverly disguise their effort through an official-looking email request.”

Preventing Fraud

Businesses can take several steps to ensure their employees do not fall victim to the W-2 scam.

According to the IRS, employees should always confirm requests for W-2 forms, wire transfers, or the transmission of any sensitive personal information verbally. They should only use contact numbers that were previously established, not phone numbers listed on the possibly fraudulent email, the IRS notes.

Businesses should also work with IT professionals to create intrusion detection systems and create email rules that flag potentially dangerous messages.

What To Do If You’re Affected

Any business or organization that believes it has been targeted or fallen victim to the W-2 scam should immediately contact the IRS and file a complaint with the FBI.

By doing so, the IRS says it can take steps to prevent employees from being victims of tax-related identity theft.

Additionally, the IRS has created an email notification address specifically for businesses and organizations to report W-2 thefts: dataloss@irs.gov. Companies should include “W-2 Scam” in the subject line and information about a point of contact in the body of the message.

Businesses and organizations that receive a suspect email but do not fall victim to the scam can forward it to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov, again with “W-2 scam” in the subject line.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Verizon Changing Up Unlimited Data Plans Again, Begins Throttling Video For All Users

Verizon hopped (back) on the unlimited data train in February, joining all of its national competition in doing so. But six months later, as the dust has settled, those plans are getting some tweaks — and every Verizon Wireless customer is getting their video throttled as a result.

What’s changing?

Verizon announced today that its unlimited plans are changing this week.

Starting Aug. 23, the beginning cost for Verizon’s single-line unlimited data plan will drop from $80 to $75 per month for new customers. But there’s a catch: For $5 less a month in price, you get severely throttled video, with streaming being limited to the “DVD-quality” 480p on phones and 720p on tablets.

(Regular HD in wide use is 1080p; XBox 360-level games are in 720p HD.)

Subscribers who actually want to see high-definition video can get bumped to 720p on phones and 1080po on tablets in an $85 plan — the same video quality you currently get for $5 more than you’re currently paying.

These changes in video quality also apply to existing customers — not just those on this year’s new unlimited plans, but all Verizon Wireless customers. After Wednesday Aug. 23, whatever plan you’re currently paying for will drop 1080p access and also match the “Beyond Unlimited” HD quality — 720p on a phone.

Verizon tells Ars Technica that it’s not doing the video conversions itself, but rather setting a bandwidth limit that all streaming video applications will have to go through, capping those connections at no more than 10Mbps tops.

The “Beyond Unlimited” $85 plan also includes “unlimited” tethering, but after using 15 GB of data your connection is throttled from 4G LTE speeds down to 600 Kbps (that’s somewhere in the 2G to very early 3G connection speed range). And tethering is subject to the same video quality caps as regular data use, so if you’re using your phone as a hotspot to connect your laptop to the internet, your laptop’s video is capped at 1080p.

And, as before, if you don’t use electronic billing and auto-pay, these plans all run you $5 more per month.

The real effect

This is a significant change from what Verizon offered in February, particularly with regards to HD video. At the time, Verizon’s offering was more generous with HD video than AT&T or T-Mobile, permitting it by default; now it’s the worst, behind Sprint, not even allowing phone video to reach 1080p.

Verizon tells Ars Technica that the change is all about network management. It seems that you are using your connection to watch too much video: “We’re really managing our network in a way to be able to expand unlimited data to more people,” an executive for the company told Ars.

But in the same way that “Basic Economy” fares now exist basically to drive up the costs of air travel, Verizon’s new “Unlimited” plans are likely to drive up the cost of your wireless bill. For new customers tomorrow to get the same level of service as new customers today will cost $5 more per month, and everyone else is suddenly finding the video they thought they were paying to access throttled down.

Verizon tells Ars that customers will neither know nor care what they’re missing, really. “More than 96% of customers have not used 4K video,” a representative for the company told the site.

But there’s a missing, “yet” on the end of that sentence. Because most video is not yet offered in 4K, and most devices cannot yet support 4K — conditions that are both changing rapidly, with new phones and new shows hitting the market every year.

Now, for Verizon customers, it won’t matter if your phone can support it; you still can’t get 1080p or 4K video if you’re using LTE data.

It’s probably not a net neutrality issue

While the advocacy group Free Press called shenanigans on Verizon’s test of this program and asked the FCC to investigate, odds are it’s not actually going to be considered a net neutrality violation.

For one thing, Verizon’s not picking and choosing among providers; Netflix and YouTube, say, are subject to the same limitations, as are any other current or future video providers.

But even if Verizon were making different deals with different content providers, the FCC officially no longer cares. One of the first things new commission chair Ajit Pai did when he got promoted to the big seat in January was to end and nullify the FCC’s investigations into zero-rating plans.

And of course, that all provides that the Open Internet Order of 2015 (net neutrality) survives past the end of this year — a situation that looks increasingly grim.


by Kate Cox via Consumerist

Trump Administration Halts Study On Health Risks Associated With Coal Mining

A federal study examining the potential health risks of living near surface coal mining sites in Appalachia has been put on hold by the White House as it reviews its grant and agreements.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine announced Monday that it had halted the study — which aimed to review the public health risks associated with living near mountaintop removal coal-mining sites — after the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement sent a letter to the organization asking it to “cease all work” on the project.

The letter states that the organization should halt the study as the Department has begun an agency-wide review of its grants and cooperative agreements in excess of $100,000. The agency had earmarked more than $1 million for the coal mining study.

Mountaintop-removal coal mining is a technique used to extract underlying coal from mountains. While digging for the coal, companies have long been found to dump the resulting rubble and debris onto surrounding land or into nearby streams.

The Research

Officials with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the state Bureau for Public Health, and several citizen groups in the area had pushed OSM to join the study about coal removal health risks last year, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reports.

In Aug. 2016, OSM announced it had committed more than $1 million to fund the study intended to better understanding previous research that had found an increased risk of birth defects, cancer, and other illnesses among resident living near such removal sites in Kentucky and West Virginia.

OSM cited growing research that had pointed to possible correlations between mountaintop-removal coal mining and public health risks when it announced the funding for the study last year. The Gazette-Mail notes that the agency said at that time there was a need to examine existing studies, find research gaps, and explore new approaches to protect the health of residents living near the sites.

As a result, the Academies commenced the two-year study, which included interviewing residents of Appalachia and the creation of an expert panel to examine residents’ health.

In fact, the Academies announced the study’s halt just hours before it was set to meet with residents in Kentucky for open meetings to discuss the coal-mining removal sites on Monday. The organization noted that those meetings, set to take place through Wednesday, would continue as scheduled.

“The National Academies believes this is an important study and we stand ready to resume it as soon as the Department of the Interior review is completed,” the organization said in a statement.

Is It Needed?

Still, some in the coal industry don’t believe the research is needed.

Officials with the National Mining Association tell the Gazette-Mail that the study might be “unnecessary” as mountaintop-removal is small industry and that a recent report from the National Toxicology Program “didn’t see any evidence justifying a health hazard.”

However, a scientist with knowledge of that report tells the Gazette-Mail that researchers cautioned that there was not enough evidence to say if there were health risks associated with the mountaintop-removal process, noting that officials with the National Toxicology Program found more research was needed.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Ex-Lottery Worker Who Admitted To Rigging The System Now Facing 25 Years In Prison

Well, ping pong balls and rotating cages it ain’t: The former lottery security official convicted of trying to rig the system to pick winning numbers is now facing up to 25 years in prison for the scheme.

The $14 million downfall

The Iowa man — who was employed by the Des Moines-based Multi Lottery State Association, which provides computers for lotteries in 33 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — was first found guilty in July 2015 of rigging a computerized Hot Lotto game by installing a program into the computer in 2010, so it would choose the numbers he wanted.

He then bought those same numbers and gave the ticket to a friend in Texas so he could try to cash it out for the $14 million prize, but because Iowa law requires jackpot winners to be identified, he never got the money.

He appealed his conviction in Iowa last year, but that conviction was ultimately upheld.

More legal trouble

His legal problems were far from over at that point, however. In Oct. 2015, according to a helpful timeline [PDF]provided by the Iowa lottery, state officials filed an additional charge. This time, he was accused of violating Iowa’s Ongoing Criminal Conduct statute, stemming from lottery jackpot prizes he won in Colorado in 2005 and Wisconsin in 2007.

That complaint claimed that he helped build random number generators used in jackpot drawings in those states.

Wisconsin officials also filed charges against him in Dec. 2016, and he ultimately pled guilty in June as part of an agreement with prosecutors. That deal also required him to plead guilty in Iowa on charges of ongoing criminal conduct. He also agreed to explain to authorities how he’d managed to fix computers and reveal all the games he’d rigged, and name his accomplices.

All told, he’s admitted to rigging a Colorado Lotto drawing in Nov. 2006, Megabucks in Wisconsin in Dec. 2007, 2by2 in Kansas and Hot Lotto in Iowa in Dec. 2010, and Hot Lotto in Oklahoma in Nov. 2011, reports the Associated Press.

Prosecutors in Iowa now want him to serve 25 years in prison when he’s sentenced today in Des Moines, as a warning to anyone else who may be tempted to rig the lottery.

“The depth of his deceit is dumbfounding,” Assistant Iowa Attorney General Rob Sand said in court filings. “Such crimes cannot be answered without a prison sentence.”


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

Verizon Suspends Customer’s Service On Her 84th Birthday

It might be hard to remember, but before Facebook existed, people would call each other on the phone to wish them a happy birthday. A woman who lives near Boston and was turning 84 waited for friends and family to call her, but the calls never came.

Verizon turned off the woman’s phone due to non-payment, reports the Boston Globe, despite rules that protect elderly people from having that happen.

The shutoff wasn’t due to a lack of funds on her part, or because she forgot to pay her bill. She was in the middle of a dispute with Verizon and refused to pay the bill until the telecom fixed problems with her line, like calls that went straight to voice mail and weird noises on the line.

On her birthday, she only learned that her phone was turned off and not just malfunctioning as usual because a relative came over and told her so.

The Elder Protection Form

Normally, people over 65 and living alone have special protection from having their phone service turned off. In Massachusetts, both sides submit their side of what happened to the Department of Telecommunications and Cable before the line is turned off.

This protection isn’t automatic. You have to sign up for it after turning 65, using a form that’s mailed along with phone bills once every year. (Again, the system may be different in your state: This is how it works in Massachusetts.) The 84-year-old whose line was cut off didn’t know this, and most other people probably don’t.

No one at Verizon knows how old you are

That became relevant because even when she mentioned her age and the importance of the LifeLine device that she carries and that uses her home phone line, this didn’t raise any flags to the phone company.

No matter how many complaint letters about the technical problems she began by mentioning her age and that she had been a customer of Verizon and its predecessor companies for more than 50 years, Verizon didn’t “know” that she was over 65 until she filed that form.

What she didn’t know is that she wasn’t completely stuck in an emergency. “The service was put into suspension, meaning the customer could still dial out to 911, or to Verizon to discuss the account,” Verizon said in a statement, taking issue with the Globe’s consumer affairs columnist saying that the service was disconnected.

In a happy ending for the 84-year-old woman near Boston, Verizon ultimately ultimately resolved the technical problem and granted her a bill credit once the line was turned back on.

You can still take home two useful lessons from this story: Don’t ignore shutoff notices even if you’re in a standoff with your phone company, and be sure that anyone you care about who is over 65 and lives alone files this form or a similar one.

Here’s the document [PDF] for Massachusetts residents who use Verizon that the Boston Globe distributed. For everyone else, contact your or your loved one’s phone carrier and request an “elder protection form.”


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Feds Investigating Wells Fargo Sudden Account Closures

Last year, federal regulators fined Wells Fargo $185 million for its fake account fiasco in which employees were found to have opened more than two million accounts without customers’ authorization. Now, the bank says it’s under investigation for wrongly closing some accounts. 

Wells Fargo informed investors in an Aug. 4 Securities and Exchange Commission filing [PDF] that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has opened an investigation into whether the bank harmed consumers by freezing or closing accounts.

The company notes in the filing that it took action on the accounts after detecting suspected fraudulent activity by third parties or account holders.

“The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has commenced an investigation into whether customers were unduly harmed by the Company’s procedures regarding the freezing (and, in many cases, closing) of consumer deposit accounts after the Company detected suspected fraudulent activity (by third parties or account holders) that affected those accounts,” the filing reads.

A rep for Wells Fargo tells Reuters that the company continues to work with the regulator.

“As always, our goal is to protect our customers and the bank from fraud, and we want to do so in ways that minimize the risk and impact on our customers,” the rep said.

The Complaints

A review of the CFPB’s consumer complaint database shows several customers raising concerns about the way in which the bank closed their accounts.

In one case, a customer says that after 23 years banking with the company he recevied a letter advising him that after reviewing their relationship, the bank had decided to close the account.

“This unilateral and arbitrary decision has harmed me and turned my life upside down,” the man wrote. “I’ve had to stop automatic payments, deposits, etc.”

Another Wells Fargo customer tells the CFPB that the bank closed their account without warning or providing an explanation.

To make matters worse, the customer says that Wells Fargo did not return the $500 left in the count promptly. Instead, the funds were frozen for nearly two weeks.

In March, a Florida customer reported that Wells Fargo had closed his account — one that he was persuaded to open by a teller and never used — after someone had fraudulently used the account.

The customer said he only learned of the issue when he went to deposit a check in the account. A manager at the local branch said the account was closed because it had been overdrawn and that the man would receive a letter in the mail.

When the letter arrived, it showed that someone had cashed checks at the bank using a similar name to this customers, but instead of being from Florida, the check writer was from Alabama.

“Wells Fargo has completely stone-walled me, my name has been added to the fraud warning site, I can’t open any bank accounts, it has damaged my reputation and has caused me much grief,” the customer wrote.

 


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Report: FBI Asks Private Sector Companies To Stop Using Kaspersky Products

Obviously, it’s best practice to use antivirus and malware protection on anything you have that can connect to a network — and that goes double for businesses. But a new report says that the FBI is now asking several companies in the private sector to phase out use of products from Kaspersky Labs over concerns about the founder’s Russian background and ties.

The Feds already stopped

The company, as we explained in July, has been offering its generally well-regarded antivirus and security products in the U.S. for nearly 20 years. But “Russian interference” is one of the big buzzwords of 2017, and the company’s founder and products have recently come under scrutiny as a result.

Since 2015, several reports have surfaced that founder Eugene Kaspersky has ties to Russian military intelligence. Any potential vulnerabilities stemming from those ties were by and large downplayed or ignored… until this year.

The Trump administration removed Kaspersky Lab from the list of approved vendors for government contracts back in July. Federal agencies, as well as state and local government agencies, considered if or how to phase out their own usage.

Is the private sector next?

Those concerns are now being pushed to the private sector, it seems.

CyberScoop reports that FBI officials have been meeting with private-sector companies to brief them on the potential threat of continuing to use Kaspersky Labs software.

Officials “familiar with the matter” tell CyberScoop that the FBI’s goal is to get U.S. companies to stop using Kaspersky tools as soon as possible, or at least to stop buying or using new ones in the future.

The FBI started with companies in the energy sector earlier this year, sources tell CyberScoop, and have moved on to “large U.S. tech companies” that have existing partnerships or business arrangements with Kaspersky.

Results have reportedly been mixed, with companies in the energy sector seeming more willing to act on the push than the “traditional tech giants.”

“If these briefings are actually occurring, it’s extremely disappointing that a government agency would take such actions against a law-abiding and ethical company like Kaspersky Lab,” a spokesperson for the company told CyberScoop. “The only conclusion seems to be that Kaspersky Lab, a private company, is caught in the middle of a geopolitical fight, and it’s being treated unfairly, even though the company has never helped, nor will help, any government in the world with its cyber-espionage or offensive cyber efforts.”


by Kate Cox via Consumerist

Jury Awards Woman $417M In Johnson & Johnson Talcum Powder Lawsuit

Three months after a Missouri jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay a record-setting $110.5 million to a Virginia woman who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer linked to the company’s talcum-based products, another jury in California has dwarfed that judgment, handing down a $417 million verdict in a similar suit.

Monday’s ruling is the first in California related to allegations that Johnson & Johnson ignored a possible link between cancer and its talcum-based products.

Reuters reports that the verdict, reached after two days of deliberation, marks the largest against Johnson & Johnson.

The case involves a California woman who was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer in 2007. According to lawyers for the woman, she began using Johnson & Johnson’s talcum-powder products when she was 11.

The jury found that the company failed to warn the woman about the increased risk of ovarian cancer caused by talcum-based powders, Reuters reports.

A spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson confirmed the verdict to Reuters, noting that it plans to appeal the decision.

Other Cases

Johnson & Johnson has faced several lawsuits related to its talcum-based products and a possible link to cancer.

Back in May, a Missouri jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $110.5 million to a Virginia woman who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012. According to the lawsuit, the woman claimed her illness was caused by more than 40 years of using Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder products, including baby powder.

The woman’s lawyers cited much of the same research used in previous cases, including a 2016 verdict that awarded $72 million to the family of a woman who died from ovarian cancer.

In those studies, women who used the products had a greater risk of being diagnosed with cancer than a control group that did not use the products.

Studies going back to 1971 have suggested this link exists. In fact, at least one lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson cites a 1982 study on the issue that found a 92% increased risk in ovarian cancer with women who used talc-based products around their genitals. The researcher behind that study directly advised a J&J doctor to place a warning label on their products.

Johnson & Johnson and other companies have continued to defend the use of talcum powder in feminine hygiene products; however, the condom industry halted the mineral’s use in the mid-1990s amid the growing concerns about its link to ovarian cancer risk.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

British Airways Passenger Claims He Had To Sit In Urine-Soaked Seat For 11 Hours

There are uncomfortable flying situations, and then there’s sitting in a urine-soaked seat for 11 hours.

A British Airways passenger who paid more than $1,500 for a flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa tells The Daily Mirror that he spotted a wet patch on his seat upon boarding. Initially, he assumed it was an innocent water stain, but the smell was so distinct it could only have been urine,” he recalls.

He claims he told a flight attendant, who smelled the wet patch, agreed that “it was wee,” and apologized. After that, however, he said she brought him some wet wipes and told him to clean it up himself.

When he asked to be moved from his economy seat to business class he says the flight attendant told him she’d see what she could do — but he remained stuck in his seat.

“So I was left to sit in a urine-soaked seat for over 11 hours,” he said. “It was awful. By the end of the flight, I could feel it seeping into my jeans.”

He says that when he complained to the airline about the urine-soaked seat, they offered him 5,000 frequent flyer points, and eventually added a flight voucher worth about $700 giving him a flight voucher worth about $560, or a free upgrade on his next flight to Cape Town.

“I just do not think that is a good enough compensation for sitting in someone else’s wee for over 11 hours,” he noted.

In a statement, British Airways said it was “very concerned” over the incident, and that the company has been in touch with the passenger to apologize and “make amends.”

“The cleanliness of our aircraft is of the utmost importance to us and our planes are cleaned thoroughly after every flight,” the airline said. “We also perform frequent spot checks to make sure our cleaners are maintaining our high standards.”

More gross nightmares

Unfortunately, we’ve heard similarly gross tales in the past: In Feb. 2016, an American Airlines passenger said his first-class seat was soaked with urine.

And back in 2015, United Airlines had to apologize to a couple who found a full barf back in a seat-back pocket.


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

The NASA Channel App On Roku Doesn’t Work And It Isn’t From NASA

Your best bet to see today’s total eclipse if you live in an area where it isn’t visible is to stream NASA’s cross-country broadcast. It’s available from some cable providers and to stream on your computer, but what if you want it on your TV screen and you’re a cord-cutter? Roku users might download a NASA channel available in their channel store, but they’re in for a bad experience if they do.

There are two reasons for that.

The channel doesn’t work: Consumerist’s tests and reports on Twitter and elsewhere online indicate that the channel doesn’t actually work. It shows six advertisements, then it stalls after loading 13%. We’ve found Twitter posts indicating that this has been a problem at least since April 2017.

The channel doesn’t come from NASA: After all, the space agency probably would have made sure its official channel was working before an event like an eclipse, which it expects 1 billion people worldwide to watch on its stream.

The agency does make its video feed available as an app for various mobile platforms, as well as Amazon’s FireTV and the AppleTV. However, the Roku app is from an independent developer selling ads against NASA’s content. When it loads.

NASA confirmed that it is not behind the Roku channel:

If you’re a Roku user and desperate to watch today’s awesome sky event, download the channel Pluto TV, where NASA TV is available as one of many options.

We checked with Roku to find out why this app exists, and whether it’s okay with developers selling ads against public domain government content (or no content at all) and will update this post if we hear back.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Elon Musk, AI Experts From Around The World Call For Ban On Killer Robots

While there are many benefits to artificial intelligence and robots that can do just about anything humans can do, technology leaders from around the globe are urging the United Nations to ban lethal autonomous weapon systems, which “threaten to become the third revolution in warfare.”

The UN will start formal discussions on autonomous weapons like drones, tanks, and automated machine guns this November, that will establish a “Group of Governmental Experts,” or GGE from various countries.

Beware autonomous weapons

Before those talks, Tesla’s Elon Musk, Mustafa Suleyman of Alphabet’s DeepMind, and more than 100 other big names in the fields of artificial intelligence end robotics have written an open letter to the UN’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons asking that world leaders figure out how to keep killer robots from becoming a reality.

The group writes that once developed, robotic killing machines “will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend.”

For example, weapons of terror could be used against innocent people, or hacked to behave in “undesirable ways,” the group writes.

“We do not have long to act,” the letter urges. “Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close. We therefore implore the High Contracting Parties to find a way to protect us all from these dangers.”

The robots are coming

The idea of artificial intelligence threatening humans isn’t a new one. In recent years, Musk has weighed in on the idea of a possible robot revolution. In 2015, he announced he’d be giving $10 million to help fund non-profit research on artificial intelligence safety.

And more recently, Musk said he thinks we’ll probably need to merge with machines somehow if we want to stay relevant.


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

Volkswagen Resurrecting The Microbus With New Electric Version

Our love affair with things of the past has spurred the resurgence of several products in recent years — Crystal Pepsi, Zima, Clearly Canadian to name a few. Volkswagen is hoping to parlay this affection for the throwback into big sales by redesigning one of its most emblematic models, the microbus, with a modern twist. 

VW announced today that it would hop in a time machine, travel to the 1960s, and bring back the microbus in a new, electric version, dubbed the I.D. Buzz.

VW first unveiled the new van as a concept vehicle early this year, but it was unclear at the time if the company had its sights on reviving the model.

“After the presentations at the global motor shows in Detroit and Geneva, we received a large number of letters and emails from customers who said, ‘please build this car’,” Volkswagen CEO Dr Herbert Diess said in a statement.

The van — expected to be available in North America, Europe, and China starting in 2022 — is designed as a “perfect balance” between usability and the past, appealing to “Hippies and families in the Sixties or Surfer Dudes and Van Lifers today.”

Still, the company isn’t counting on just nostalgia to sell the vans, it’s also hoping technology will spur sells. The new van will incorporate multi-variable seating, interactive connectivity, and highly automated driving.

It is also designed to haul both people and freight. With batteries mounted in the vehicle floor, the I.D. Buzz comes with a spacious interior and great proportions, the company says.

Additionally, VW says it will offer a commercial version of the van, dubbed the I.D. Buzz Cargo, to complete zero-emission deliveries.

A Microbus History

VW first introduced the world to the van — known as the Type 2, Transporter, Kombi, or Microbus — in 1950.

Over the years, VW launched different versions of the van, many taking on drastically different looks than the traditional Type 2 that calls back to the 60s.

These vehicles were discontinued over time. Autocar reported in 2012 that the Type 2 series T2 ceased production in 2013. The decision came after changes to safety regulations in Brazil, the last place the car was manufactured. The T6, which has less of a resemblance to the original microbus, is still in production.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Uber Driver Accused Of Locking Passenger In Car, Demanding Sex

A Chicago Uber driver has been charged with unlawful restraint after he was accused of locking a passenger in his car and demanding that she have sex with him.

The incident happened on July 4 after the driver allegedly picked up a 19-year-old woman who’d booked a ride through the ride-sharing app, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Somehow her request was deleted, however, so she volunteered to pay cash for the trip. Instead, the man allegedly told her she’d have to have sex with him in payment.

She refused, and prosecutors say the driver then locked the car’s doors and wouldn’t let her out of the vehicle.

The passenger was able to jump out of the car when it slowed in traffic.

Police stopped the suspect’s car last week for a traffic violation, and connected his name to the July 4 incident. He has since been removed as a driver from the Uber app, the ride-sharing company said, calling the woman’s story “troubling.”


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

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