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Cancer Faker Who Raked In $130K In Donations Gets 6-Month Sentence

After lying about having terminal breast cancer and collecting almost $130,000 in donations for her treatment, a woman pleaded no contest to grand theft and has been sentenced to six months in county jail, 30 days of community labor, and five years of felony probation. She also has to repay the fraudulently obtained donations.

At the time the scheme began, the woman was around 30 years old and claimed to have stage 4 breast cancer, or cancer that had spread from the original tumor in her breast to other areas of her body.

There was no cancer, though, a prosecutor in Los Angeles told reporters. “There was nothing to indicate she ever actually had the disease,” Deputy District Attorney David Richman told NBC Los Angeles outside of the court.

Some victims say that instead of claiming that she had cancer, she also claimed that she needed money to pay for experimental treatments for her father, who had colon cancer, or that her father had died of colon cancer in 2012. Victims later learned that her father died in 2016 of a heart attack.

Her victims included friends, former boyfriends, and people from her religious community, and the scheme ran from 2010 to 2013. She promised to pay some victims back, and solicited donations for others.

“She said, ‘Can I have money to get better? I’m dying. I need this money to get better.’ No good person is going to say no to that,” one of her victims recounted to NBC Los Angeles back when the scam was first being uncovered.

“I don’t think she is remorseful in the least bit,” an ex-boyfriend who gave her $1,200 for her father’s imaginary colon cancer treatment told the Los Angeles Times.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

PayPal Mocks Pandora For “Blatantly Pirating” Logo

It apparently isn’t enough for PayPal to accuse Pandora of copying its logo, the online payment platform is attempting to humiliate the streaming music service and its business model.

PayPal recently sued Pandora for trademark infringement, claiming that Pandora’s Oct. 2016 logo redesign is just too similar to it’s own double blue “P” logo.

According to the lawsuit [PDF], filed last week in a Manhattan federal court, Pandora’s new logo interferes with PayPal’s distinct branding and obstructs users ability to easily use the app.

“The frictionless user experience for PayPal customers starts with PayPal’s famous ‘P’ logo,” the suit states. “One critically important function of the PayPal logo is to stand out on the crowded screens of customers’ smartphones and tablets, where the logo guides customers quickly and surely to the PayPal payments platform.”

This all changed in Oct. 2016 when Pandora “interfered dramatically” with PayPal users’ experience by rolling out a new logo of its own.

“Element by element and in overall impression, the similarities between the logos are striking, obvious, and patently unlawful,” PayPal claims in the complaint, noting that the new logo not only resembles, but openly mimics the PayPal logo.

As you can see below, both logos contain a block-style “P” with no “counter” or hole in the top part of the letter and a blue-color range. However, they do have some subtle differences: While PayPal’s logo contains two slightly italicized letters, Pandora’s logo is a single block letter.

Previously, Pandora’s logo was a large blue “P” with a traditional hole at the top — surrounded by a similar blue border against a while background. PayPal claims this logo looked nothing like its own.

When looking to revamp its logo, PayPal says Pandora considered more than 1,000 options, but deliberately chose one that was “obviously too similar to PayPal’s” and “blatantly pirates the goodwill developed by PayPal in the PayPal logo.”

PayPal appears to go out of its way to abase Pandora, claiming that the music service changed its logo “as part of an effort to overcome serious commercial challenges that threaten its very survival.”

Twisting the knife, PayPal mentions that, since most Pandora users aren’t paying for the service, it “has no obvious path to profitability.”

PayPal contends that since the new logo’s launch, customers have become confused, frustrated, and delayed in being able to locate the PayPal payment platform from their phones.

“Without any prompting from PayPal, consumers themselves have publicly complained about the impact on their user experience since the launch of the Pandora logo last fall,” the complaint states, adding that the new logo had blurred the uniqueness of PayPal’s brand.

The lawsuit includes several examples of users expressing confusion over social media after the logo was introduced.

Several customers claimed to have tried to send money through the Pandora app, while others questioned whether PayPal had purchased Pandora.

 

PayPal says that when it first began receiving complaints from customers, the company contacted Pandora. However, Pandora did nothing to revise the logo, leaving PayPal with no choice but to file a lawsuit.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Passengers Say Commuter Rail App Illegally Collects Personal User Data

Many cities’ commuter rail systems now have apps for users to do things like buy tickets, check schedules, and receive alerts. However, users of one system’s mobile app claim it is illegally collecting sensitive information about users’ devices and location.

This is all according to a lawsuit [PDF] filed this week in federal court against San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and Elerts, the developer of BART Watch, a mobile app for reporting suspicious people and activity to the BART Police.

The plaintiffs contend that BART Watch collects “unique mobile device identification numbers, including International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers,” even though Google’s best practices explicitly advise Android app developers to “Avoid using hardware identifiers” like IMEI.

“[B]y collecting the device identification numbers, locations, and other personal information… Defendants have amassed a trove of data through the App,” alleges the lawsuit. “BART, or any of the agencies it shares resources with, now have the ability to match previous non-descript numerical identifiers with personally identifying information.”

According to Google, the Android version of BART Watch has been installed between 10,000 and 50,000 times.

In a statement to San Francisco’s ABC7, a BART rep claims that the BART Watch app does not “randomly track users. An app’s user location information is available only if the user selects the option to share their location information… And then, BART only receives the user’s location when the user is reporting an incident.”


by Chris Morran via Consumerist

One Victim Dead In Gas Station Cheese Botulism Outbreak, Case Still Under Investigation

One of the people who contracted botulism from nacho cheese sauce served in a California gas station has died. The state health department is still trying to figure out how the store’s cheese became contaminated with a very rare and incredibly deadly pathogen.

The cheese in question is from Gehl Foods in Wisconsin, the Sacramento Bee reports, and comes in large, shelf-stable pouches. In the food service industry, it’s served to customers from a vat on a steam table or from a cheese dispenser.

The dispenser from the gas station was tested, and was confirmed as the source of botulism that has now made at least 10 people sick, killing one of them. The remaining patients are still hospitalized and on ventilators, since one of the effects of botulism poisoning is paralysis, including of the muscles needed to breathe.

Gehl Foods has tested other pouches of cheese from the same batch that made people sick in California, and they were not contaminated. An outside lab confirmed these findings.

The county has cited the gas station for failure to protect food from contamination, but the key question to protect other nacho eaters is how and when the cheese became contaminated. State officials removed the cheese from the gas station, and don’t believe that anyone else in the state is in danger.

Botulism is a rare type of food poisoning, and usually linked to home-canned food gone wrong. It is not associated with giant aseptic pouches of delicious bright orange cheese-like substances that are served hot.

The last massive outbreak of the disease occurred at an Ohio church potluck, where at least people became sick from potato salad made from potatoes that had been improperly canned at home. Early symptoms of botulism include vomiting, double vision, difficulty swallowing, and paralysis that comes on gradually.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Google Following Your Offline Credit Card Spending To Tell Advertisers If Their Ads Work

Google’s holding its annual conference for marketers today in San Francisco, and to kick it off they’re announcing some new tools advertisers can use. One of them promises to tie your offline credit card data together with all your online viewing to tell advertisers exactly what’s working as they try to target you and your wallet.

Attribution is important to businesses, because marketing costs money. Businesses are willing to spend some money on advertising and outreach — but only if they see it translate into a return.

That return, for decades, was hard to measure in all but the most vaguely correlative of ways. Did people buy your product after seeing your TV ad? After seeing your billboard? On a whim after seeing neither? Who knows!

But in the age of highly targeted, algorithmic advertising, the landscape is completely different. The apps on your phone know what you looked at and when, and can tie that in to what you see on other devices you’re also logged into their services on (like your work computer).

Meanwhile, you’re leaving tracks out in the physical world — not only the location history of your phone, but also the trail of payments you leave behind you if you pay with a credit card, debit card, or app (as millions of us do).

Put A and B together, and suddenly you have a much clearer picture to share with advertisers: Why yes, John Smith did see four ads for your coffee drink online yesterday, before spending exactly what one of those drinks costs at a location of yours near his office. Congratulations, your ads work; spend more money advertising with us now, please.

Coordinating all those different online and offline data points into one single person’s profile has basically been the holy grail of advertising for years now. Facebook, the world’s second-biggest advertising company (Google’s largest, and everyone else is a distant third), got there first when it launched Facebook Atlas in 2014. That service let Facebook generate universal cross-platform profiles: Any activity on any device you’ve logged into Facebook on counts as “you,” and can be collated into one profile for measuring advertising efficacy.

Google also introduced some offline measurements to its online tool suite back in 2014, when it started using phone location data to try to match store visit location data to digital ad views. But a store doesn’t make any money when you simply walk into it; you need to buy something. So Google’s tracking that very granularly now, too.

“In the coming months, we’ll be rolling out store sales measurement at the device and campaign levels. This will allow you to measure in-store revenue in addition to the store visits delivered by your Search and Shopping ads,” Google explains to advertisers. That’s very literally a collection of spending data matched to the people who spent it, matched in turn to people who saw ads.

Businesses that collect your email address to track your purchases and send you coupons can import their loyalty program data directly into their Google advertiser account, making it even easier to follow you around everywhere you go. For everyone else, Google says its third-party partnerships capture roughly 70% of all credit and debit card transactions in the U.S.

The data won’t have your name attached, Google makes sure to point out. It’s anonymized and then hashed over, so what advertisers see is that user 08a862b091c379fe9767615d10873 saw these ten ads in the morning, and spent $27.73 at a certain grocery store that afternoon.

That said, “anonymity” is pretty much anything but.If anyone’s looking at your digital breadcrumbs, they can be reasonably sure you are you from shockingly little data. Studies have shown that it it only takes three pieces of data to identify you by credit card spending alone, or two to identify you from a social media app.

On top of that, the larger picture of big data is, frankly, kind of overwhelming. FTC research has found that has found that cross-device tracking is everywhere and poorly disclosed. And finely granular ad targeting can have real harms, from small scale price discrimination to unintentional racial discrimination or even completely illegal racial discrimination that perpetuates housing segregation.

You have a little more control over how Google uses your data (for now) than over Facebook does, at least. You can visit Google’s advertising and privacy settings to opt out of having some of your activity logged, and to opt out of being shown some ads. But your history of ad viewing is still going to be out there, tied to your credit card spending, without a whole lot you can actually do about it.


by Kate Cox via Consumerist

Will NFL Fans Be Able To Gamble At Las Vegas Raiders’ Games?

You can bet on just about anything in Las Vegas casinos and sportsbooks, but could you soon be making wagers inside the future home of the NFL’s Oakland Las Vegas Raiders? 

It’s possible, ESPN reports, as the Las Vegas Stadium Authority voted last week to approve a lease for the NFL team’s new home — which they won’t actually occupy until 2020 — that contains a bit of a betting loophole.

While the lease, which must still be approved by NFL owners, prohibits “any gaming or gambling, maintaining or operating of a Gaming Establishment and/or sports wagering or any wagering on racing or other non-sports events,” it doesn’t mention anything about virtual gambling.

This loophole could allow visitors of the stadium to use mobile sports betting apps offered by sportsbooks in the state, officials with the Nevada Gaming Commission and Stadium Authority tell ESPN.

Many of the sportsbooks in Nevada allow gamblers to place bets on sporting events via a specific mobile app, as long as they are inside state lines, ESPN notes.

With the Raiders planning to move to the Silver state in 2020, it seems that when someone goes to the stadium to watch a game they can use their always present smartphone to make a little wager.

A spokesperson for the NFL tells ESPN that the Raiders are required to abide by League gambling rules, but didn’t specify which rules he was referencing.

Of course, the NFL has two years to take action on the loophole; either by negotiating a new lease or asking the Nevada Gaming Commission to use geolocation technology to cut off access to sportsbook’s apps in the stadium. So far, however, a rep for the Commission tells ESPN it hasn’t been approached by the NFL.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

You Still Hate Your Cable Company As Much As Ever, But Think Your Mobile Carrier’s All Right

Every year, a major customer satisfaction survey comes out with an updated look at how the country’s cable, phone, and pay-TV companies are doing. And every year, it turns out the answer is still: really badly. But while many cable companies continue to suck, one trend is clear — the more competition there is, the higher the satisfaction scores tend to be.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) ranks how happy consumers are or aren’t with a wide swath of American industries, including fast food, retail, and travel. But if you want to find the really unhappy customers — the ones who are angriest and most dissatisfied with what they’re getting for their money — you need to have a look at the annual telecom survey.

This year’s survey is the latest installment in a sad trend: By and large, Americans are really, really unhappy with their cable companies.

The top performing cable company in the pay-TV survey is Optimum (Altice), which ties its score from last year with a 66% satisfaction rating. Just behind it is Charter (not including TWC), which lands exactly at the overall average of 63%. Altice’s other company, Suddenlink, also comes in at 63%.

At the bottom of the heap is Mediacom, which managed to rise two points from its bottom-of-the-barrel terrible 2016 score (54%) to a frankly still pretty terrible 56%.

Mediacom at least prevents Comcast from coming in last; the nation’s largest company dropped several points from the 62% it eked out last year to scrape out a 58% this year. Coming in just above are Time Warner Cable (Charter) and Frontier, both tied at 60%.

Cox managed to best those scores with a 61%, also a modest increase from its 2016 score.

However, while cable companies all scrape the bottom of the satisfaction index, all is not completely grim in the world of pay-TV. The satellite and fiber companies — which unlike cable, are not generally geographic monopolies and actually have to compete a little bit — receive much more favorable ratings. In pay-TV overall, Verizon’s FiOS comes in at the top, actually managing to score a 71%, with AT&T’s Uverse and DirecTV right behind. Even Dish Network, the lowest scorer among the satellite and fiber companies, still manages to beat out the cable giants.

As you might guess, overall it’s the availability and quality of customer service, more than the actual product on offer, torpedoing the cable companies’ scores. Satisfaction with features like HD picture quality, signal reliability, and range of channels available tends to hover between 75% and 80% — but “call center satisfaction” languishes at the bottom, with only 65% of customers happy with how their phone calls go.

The internet side of the cable business varies a little bit from the TV side. FiOS and Uverse are still the most popular providers, scoring 71% and 69% respectively, but thanks to the abysmal scores of Windstream (57%) and Frontier (56%), Mediacom’s sad 58% manages to come in third from the bottom instead of dead last.

Comcast manages to eke out 60% satisfaction on the internet side, which is better than its pay-TV score, and Time Warner and Cox tie just below the overall average at 62%. However, Charter and Altice’s two companies all manage to beat the average, fractionally, coming in from 65% to 68%.

Once again, failing grades in customer service tank what otherwise might have been decent scores for the ISPs. Overall, more than 70% of customers say that their service is reliable and their bills are understandable — but only 61% report call center satisfaction, and only 66% are happy with the variety of plans available to choose from.

Americans’ overall dissatisfaction with their cable providers is, at this point, an entirely predictable trend. We saw the same in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016. But there’s an interesting parallel: customers’ satisfaction with their mobile phone companies is, mostly, going up.

Every single one of the prepaid and postpaid wireless companies included in the ACSI survey this year had scores higher than 72%. Only one company declined since last year — T-Mobile — and even it only dropped by one point, from 74% to 73%.

The lowest scoring cell phone company — AT&T with a 72% — still manages to rank better than the highest scoring pay-TV company (Verizon FiOS with a 71%):

As to why, the ACSI does indeed seem to think competition is the culprit.

Customer satisfaction is up in mobile “as carriers engage in increasingly competitive price wars,” the report notes. “Compared with other telecom categories where customers have little choice, the wireless industry is a good example of how competition impacts customer satisfaction. When companies fight for customers, prices are competitive, service improves, and customer satisfaction is higher.”

“The threat of competition does not appear to be encouraging improvement fast enough for pay TV,” Claes Fornell, ACSI’s chairman and founder, said in a statement. “Customer service remains abysmal, and viewers are continuing to switch over to streaming services with much higher satisfaction.”


by Kate Cox via Consumerist

Verizon Could Launch New Streaming Video This Summer

Verizon’s rumored over-the-top streaming TV service — not to be confused with its nearly universally panned two-year-old Go90 product — could be available as soon as next month, executives for the company reportedly revealed Monday.

Variety reports that Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam dropped a few new hints about the company’s eventual streaming TV product during the J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference in Boston Monday.

Lowell reportedly suggested that the service would become available once Verizon completes its purchase of Yahoo’s internet business.

Once the deal is done — that’s expected in mid-June, according to Lowell — Verizon will move Yahoo and AOL’s media operations under a new media division dubbed Oath. The company would then use Yahoo and AOL’s base of more than one billion users to test the service, Variety reports.

While Lowell didn’t provide additional details on what exactly the service would offer, previous reports — citing people familiar with the matter — suggested the service would be independent of any other service that Verizon offers, referencing the Go90 streaming product.

The unnamed streaming live-TV service would offer dozens of changes and would work on computers, mobile devices, and through connected TV platforms.

While Verizon seems intent on trying to make a go of a streaming video service, Comcast appears to be more skeptical about whether these new services make financial sense.

While details of the company’s rumored “Xfinity Instant TV” over-the-top option have trickled out, Chief Financial Officer Mike Cavanagh made the case during the J.P. Morgan conference that most services aren’t a money maker for programming distributors, Fierce Cable reports.

Cavanagh warned that as more services are added and losses pile up, prices are going to increase, potentially driving away customers.

This is especially true, according to Cavanagh, for a streaming service offered outside a cable company’s existing footprint.

Instead of going after customers outside of its comfort zone, Cavanagh said his company would aim to create a complimentary OTT service for customers.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Kinder Eggs Are Coming To The U.S., But Not Those Kinder Eggs

The Kinder Surprise is a chocolate egg with a plastic capsule in the middle containing a small toy. It’s a common candy all over the world, but has a cult appeal to Americans because it’s illegal here. It’s so illegal that you can be fined thousands of dollars for smuggling them into the country. Now, though, the company has a product that is American-proof and totally legal, and will introduce it next year.

The new product is a little different from the Kinder Surprise, and from the Choco Treasure, a similar treat designed around American laws. The Kinder Surprise puts a toy inside a hollow egg, which was based on an Italian Easter tradition but became available year-round. The new product, Kinder Joy, is an egg where one half is all candy, and the other half is all toy.

The candy half is a pudding-like cream, which kids scoop out of the shell with a little plastic spoon. It has two “wafer balls” to add crunchiness. You can see how it’s supposed to be eaten in this commercial from India.

The product was designed for markets with hotter climates than Europe, but it also happens to conform to our weird laws in this country.

What makes the Kinder Surprise illegal is a 79-year-old law that bans items that aren’t food from being completely encased inside something that is food. This law isn’t completely unjustified: Last year, a 3-year-old girl in France died after she reportedly ate a toy from a Kinder Surprise egg, which obstructed her airway.

It is a little insulting that even adults aren’t allowed to open and enjoy the candies here, though. Instead, we have to enjoy them when traveling abroad, or when we find a store selling smuggled eggs and other gray-market Kinder products.

While Kinder is an unfamiliar brand to most Americans, its parent company, Ferrero, makes other familiar products. It also sells the choco-hazelnut spread Nutella, Ferrero Rocher candies, and Tic-Tacs.

An executive at Ferrero told Fortune that Kinder is the second largest “confectionery brand” behind Cadbury, and the company hopes that expanding across the Atlantic will help it to take the #1 spot.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

As Heroin Takes Hold, Some Librarians Learn How To Treat Overdoses

Public libraries aren’t merely book repositories; they also provide access to information and resources for the entire community. And in some neighborhoods, librarians are training themselves to revive heroin users who have overdosed.

As we’ve discussed before, it’s a boom time for heroin in the U.S. The drug is frequently less expensive and more potent — sometimes lethally so — than prescription opioids.

These powerful strains of heroin also mean more overdoses and related deaths. And since users can’t always inject heroin in the privacy of home or in the safety of a clinic, some members of the public have learned how to treat the overdoses they encounter on a too-frequent basis.

Librarians at the McPherson Square Branch library in the Kensington neighborhood of Philly, for example, have been learning how to administer overdose antidote Narcan, reports The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Though the branch’s manager has worked for almost 30 years at the library, she says she remembers only one overdose there until this year, when they’ve had to save people from overdosing four times in the building.

McPherson Square — the Philly public park of which the library is the centerpiece — is known as “Needle Park” to some of the locals.

When the Inquirer reporter visited McPherson for this story, he encountered a young woman who had just overdosed outside the library. A librarian who has administered Narcan in the past rushed to help while the reporter called 9-1-1.

Things have gotten so bad, management has taken steps like instituting overdose drills for staff, and posting a bathroom monitor and rules designed to keep drug tourists from using the facilities to get high: Adults have to leave a library card at the front desk, and bathroom use is limited to three to five minutes, before a guard will knock.

Has the opioid epidemic affected your job or workplace? Tell us your story at Tips@consumerist.com

Of particular concern are the many children who use the library’s resources and computers. One volunteer who searches the grass for needles tells the Inquirer he finds twice the amount of needles he used to a few years ago — even some on the jungle gym in the park nearby.

Others in the library system are joining McPherson in learning how to administer Narcan, including the supervisor of about six libraries in the city who spearheaded a Narcan training session in March attended by more than two dozen librarians, including some from McPherson.

“They had been wanting the training for a long time,” the supervisor said of those librarians. “It’s a very, very helpless feeling when someone is gasping for breath and you can’t do anything. At least now they can know they tried.”

It’s not just libraries, of course: Public restrooms and hospital bathrooms have also become a safe haven for drug users, NPR noted earlier this month.

The owner of one coffee shop has had to remodel his bathrooms to make them safer, after customers kept using it as a place to get high: He installed a metal box in the wall next to the toilet for needles and other paraphernalia that could clog pipes, and removed the dropped ceilings after he found things hidden above the tiles.

“It’s very scary,” he told NPR. “In an ideal world, users would have safe places to go [where] it didn’t become the job of a business to manage that and to look after them and make sure that they were OK.”


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

Former Bank Of America VP Accused Of Making $2.7M In Bogus Donations

A former Bank of America executive, along with her husband and another person, have been accused of bank fraud for their alleged involvement in an embezzlement scheme that involved making millions of dollars of fake donations in the bank’s name.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Massachusetts announced that the three individuals had been charged with several counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud related to a scheme that attempted to embezzle more than $2.7 million from Bank of America from Oct. 2010 to April 2015.

According to the indictment, from Oct. 2010 to April 2015, Palestine “Pam” Ace, a former senior vice president of Bank of America’s Global Wealth & Investment Management Division, used her position to misappropriate funds from a marketing budget and transfer the money to non-profit organizations.

The woman allegedly authorized 75 transactions, each under $50,000, to non-profit organizations in Atlanta and Boston.

After the transfers were complete, Ace — along with her husband Jonathan Ace and Brianna Forde — would either directly or indirectly inform the non-profit organization that a substantial portion of the donated funds needed to be returned in order to ensure that Bank of America would continue funding the organization.

The non-profit organizations either wrote a check to Jonathan Ace or Forde, or they returned funds to a Bank of America account, to which the defendants had access.

In some cases, Jonathan Ace pressured the organizations to return a higher percentage of the funds to him, by using intimidation and threats of public humiliation, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The complaint alleges that the defendants used the money pilfered through the scheme to fund their lifestyle, including hosting lavish birthday parties and purchasing a motorcycle.

In all, Palestine Ace was also indicted on 12 counts of bank fraud and four counts of wire fraud; Jonathan Ace was also charged with two counts of wire fraud and one engaging in an unlawful monetary transaction; and Forde was indicted on two counts of wire fraud.

Each charge of wire fraud and bank fraud could come with a sentence of no more than 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine. The charge of unlawful monetary transaction provides for a sentence of no greater than 10 years in prison, two years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

White House Trying To Delay Ethics Inquiry Into Ex-Lobbyists Hired By Trump Administration

The executive branch’s Office of Government Ethics is trying to find out which of the many former lobbyists hired by the Trump administration may currently be working on issues on which they previously lobbied. However, the White House is delaying that inquiry, claiming the head of OGE may not have legal authority to make this request.

One of President Trump’s first executive orders states that if the administration hires a former lobbyist, that person can’t work on anything directly related to their lobbying until at least two years have passed.

The administration can issue waivers to this prohibition, allowing the former lobbyists to jump right into working directly on issues they’d been involved with in their previous job. The Obama administration granted such waivers, but made them available to both OGE and the public. The Trump White House has not yet disclosed which of its ex-lobbyist staffers were granted waivers.

On April 28, OGE Director Walter Shaub sent a letter [PDF] requesting copies of these waivers from the White House and from all federal agencies. Shaub requested this information be turned over to OGE by June 1.

Today, the New York Times points to a response [PDF] sent late last week by Mick Mulvaney, Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

In that letter, Mulvaney calls for Shaub to stay his request while the White House researches whether or not OGE has the authority to make this inquiry.

As the Times points out, the Mulvaney memo is not just questioning Shaub’s ability to request these documents from the White House, but from the entire executive branch, even though federal regulations give OGE the authority to conduct “reviews of agency ethics programs in order to ensure their compliance with program requirements and to ensure their effectiveness in advancing the mission of the executive branch-wide ethics program.”

However, the law does not give OGE any real ability to enforce non-compliance with this request, at least not without the assistance of the White House, which does not seem eager to comply.

In a statement to the Times, the White House labeled Shaub’s request as a political maneuver that was overreaching. However, former White House officials from the previous two administrations both tell the Times that they have never heard of a President attempting to block this sort of OGE request.

“It challenges the very authority of the director of the agency and his ability to carry out the functions of the office,” former White House counsel and one-time acting director at OGE tells the Times.


by Chris Morran via Consumerist

Pediatricians: Give Your Kids Fruit, Not Fruit Juice

Juice is a delicious source of carbohydrates and vitamins, and can be part of a healthy diet, but a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics clarifies infants (under one year old) should not drink fruit juice, and children of all ages should be consuming a lot less of the sweet stuff.

In a new policy statement from the Committee on Nutrition of the American Academy of Pediatrics details how little juice children of different ages should drink and why.

Infants under 1 year old can eat fruit, but shouldn’t have juice. If a doctor recommends it for constipation or other reasons, the child should drink it from a cup and not a bottle or sippy cup.

Toddlers ages 1 to 6 can have 4 fluid ounces of juice per day at most, but should get the rest of their fruit intake from actual fruit. They should not take juice to bed or carry it around with them.

Children ages 5 to 18 can have up to 8 ounces of juice per day, but should also be eating fruit more than drinking fruit juices. (That goes for adults over 18, too.)

One problem is that the “juice” products sold at the supermarket usually contain between 10% and 99% juice, with added vitamins. Even when kids are served 100% juice, what pediatricians are concerned about is what isn’t in a glass of juice. That includes the fiber and protein that a child would get from eating a whole piece of fruit.

When toddlers (ages 1 to 4) drink too much juice from certain fruits, they aren’t able to absorb all of the carbohydrates, and that can lead to diarrhea. Caregivers may employ this fact on purpose when toddlers are constipated, and pediatricians recommend it, but it’s also something to keep in mind when serving juices like prune, pear, or apple to kids.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Feds Open Investigation Into Recall Of 1.6M Hyundai, Kia Vehicles

Federal regulators want to know why it took Hyundai and Kia 18 months to recall nearly 1.2 million vehicles that may have the same engine defect that resulted in an earlier recall of 470,000 sedans.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation into Hyundai and Kia’s handling of the recalls affecting a total of 1.6 million vehicles that could experience engine failure while on the road.

According to the NHTSA investigation notices for Hyundai [PDF] and Kia [PDF], the agency is looking to address the timeliness and scope of the carmakers’ “Theta II” engine recalls, and their compliance with reporting such issues.

Hyundai first recalled 470,000 model year 2011 and 2012 Hyundai Sonata vehicles equipped with a 2.0 liter or 2.4 liter gasoline direct injection engine in Sept. 2015, determining that cars may contain metallic debris that was not fully removed during manufacturing of the engine crankshaft.

The carmaker said that if debris remains, oil flow may be restricted through the connecting rod bearings, causing connecting rod damage and possible engine failure.

At the time, the company said the recall was limited to vehicles produced on or prior to April 12, 2012, stating that a process change in April 2012 resolved the issue of manufacturing debris.

Despite this, Hyundai and Kia revised the recall in April 2017 adding nearly 1.2 million additional vehicles.

In all the recall now covers:
• 2011-2014 Hyundai Sonata
• 2013-2014 Santa Fe Sport
• 2011-2014 Kia Optima
• 2012-2014 Kia Sorento
• 2011-2013 Sportage

According to a chronology [PDF] submitted along with the March 2017 recall, the carmakers note that they began investigating the issue after Hyundai’s initial recall.

Kia said that after learning of Hyundai’s initial recall it checked its Theta engine manufacturing process for the Optima, determining there were different procedures and no issues. After finding that warranty and field claims were “extremely low” the decision was made to take no action.

However, in early 2016, Kia learned of recently returned engines and of Hyundai’s warranty extension program for the Sonata. In May 2016, the carmaker analyzed field data finding a slight increase in warranty claims, leaving it to extend warranty programs.

Two months later, the company found an increase in Theta engine claims for some vehicles, once again leading it to expanded warranty programs.

Between Dec. 2016 and March 2017, the carmaker continued analyzing data related to the vehicles, noticing a slight increase in warranty claims. It then eventually determined a recall was necessary.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Amazon’s Free Banana Stands Disrupting Local Fruit Economy

Although there is no money in Amazon’s community banana stands — where the company has been offering free fruit to both workers and locals in Seattle since 2015 — the tech giant’s largesse is changing the banana landscape for some nearby businesses.

The brainchild of CEO Jeff Bezos, there are now two stands on its corporate campus staffed with “banistas” led by “bananagers” who give out bananas to anyone and everyone nearby, whether that’s one banana for breakfast or a dozen.

Thus far, the company says it’s handed out more than 1.7 million free banana, reports The Wall Street Journal. But while many folks are fans of of the free bananas, others say it’s changing banana consumption in the community: Some workers say it’s harder to find bananas at local grocery stores, while nearby eateries have also stopped selling as many banana as they used to.

For example, the manager of one cafe says he believes people are grabbing a free Amazon banana to put on their morning yogurt, instead of paying the eatery $1 for a sliced banana. Instead, the cafe is now offering banana-flavored items to tempt fruit lovers.

“People have bananas on the brain,” she told the WSJ.

At another restaurant nearby, a manager says people often walk in for a meal with free bananas in hand, eat them at the table along with whatever else they order, and then often leave their peels behind when they go.

Banistas say they move about 8,000 banana per day through the two stands, Monday through Friday. The flood of free bananas shows no signs of stopping, either: Despite requests for other kinds of fruit at the stand, bananas are cheap, and don’t require permits to hand them out.

“As far as the health codes go, you can hand out bananas and oranges, because they come in their own packaging,” says John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities.


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

How Facebook Decides What Needs To Be Deleted

Everything is on Facebook — but some things shouldn’t be. The job of determining what needs to go, and why, is a high-stakes one with a lot of confusion. And now, dozens of leaked documents from inside Facebook show just how hard those calls can be for the moderators who have to make them.

The Guardian obtained several different internal training documents showing how Facebook teaches its moderating staff what is and isn’t acceptable on the site. It’s hosting and explaining several of them on its site in a series it’s calling the Facebook Files.

The Facebook Files that the paper has amassed include manuals on how to handle revenge porn, sex and nudity in art, sexual activity in general, bullying, cruelty to animals, graphic violence, threats of violence, and child abuse, among other upsetting issues. (The links lead to articles about or galleries of manuals about the content that include language and descriptions that may be upsetting, but do not include graphic images.)

At its last investor presentation earlier in May, Facebook said it now has approximately 1.94 billion monthly active users worldwide. That is approximately 25% of the entire human population of Earth, all using Facebook.

To handle the flow of information that comes from two billion users, Facebook has 4,500 (soon to be 7,500 total) content moderators. That means, even after all the new hires, that users will still outnumber moderators by more than 250,000 to 1 — so mods need to have a system for how to move quickly through everything flagged for their attention.

Content moderators told The Guardian that they get two weeks of training, plus a big handful of manuals.

“We aim to allow as much speech as possible but draw the line at content that could credibly cause real harm,” one of the training manuals says. “We aim to disrupt potential real world harm caused from people inciting or coordinating harm to other people or property by requiring certain details be present in order to consider the threat credible.”

In other words, Facebook determines whether or not it’s a problem when you say, “burn it all down and salt the ashes” by looking at context to see whether you’re “calling for violence in generally facetious and unserious ways” to “express disdain or disagreement,” or whether you’re actually outlining a plan to literally go burn something down.

For Facebook, the big differentiator seems to be intent. If a horrific image of violence or abuse appears to be educational or can increase “awareness,” it gets to stay. If it appears to be “celebratory” or deliberately sadistic, it goes.

A whole range of disturbing content in between can be “marked as disturbing,” meaning it won’t auto play and may be age-gated to only users over 18, but can otherwise stay. Photos may also be left alone, while a live action video of the same action may be marked as disturbing.

For example, under the “child abuse” section of the “graphic violence” handbook, Facebook says in bullet points, “We do not action photos of child abuse. we ‘mark as disturbing’ videos of child abuse. We remove imagery of child abuse if shared with sadism and celebration.”

Facebook’s rationale? The handbook says, “We allow ‘evidence’ of child abuse to be shared on the site to allow for the child to be identified and rescued, but we add protections to shield the audience.” The document does not mention protections to shield the child.

Meanwhile, the “credibility” of death threats seems to have as much to do with the target as it does with the statement. Much of the manual shown about violent statements has to deal with threats against vulnerable persons or groups.

Vulnerable persons are those likely to be targets: heads of states, their successors, and candidates for the role; law enforcement officers, witnesses, and informants; activists and journalists; and anyone who’s on a known hit list or a previous target of assassination attempts.

Some groups of people are also considered to be vulnerable, as a group — but which groups are considered vulnerable has both global and local variations.

For example, one training slide shows “Homeless people,” “Foreigners,” and “Zionists” to be considered globally vulnerable, but “drug dealers, drug users and drug addicts” as vulnerable specifically in the Philippines.

In sample statements, Facebook considers, “We should put all foreigners into gas chambers” to be a credible threat of violence, but “Kick a person with red hair,” “Let’s beat up fat kids,” and other statements that you might think sound pretty specific into the bucket of statements to be left alone.

If threats of violence are considered credible, Facebook mods are supposed to delete or escalate them. Otherwise, they just hang out there.

The guidelines seem to have a lot of contradictory information and room for error in them, overall. In short, it’s confusing at best. And moderators don’t act proactively; they only step in when someone actually takes the time to submit a report on a post, saying what they find objectionable and why.

Moderators, however, tell the Guardian that their work is overwhelming. In a statement to the Guardian, Facebook confirmed that reviewing the worst humanity has to offer can easily lead to burnout from their “challenging and difficult job.”

“A lot of the content is upsetting. We want to make sure the reviewers are able to gain enough confidence to make the right decision, but also have the mental and emotional resources to stay healthy. This is another big challenge for us,” the company told The Guardian.


by Kate Cox via Consumerist

Apple Fights Bill That Could Make Fixing iPhone Easier, Cheaper

When iPhones first came on the market, customers could only get their devices fixed at an actual Apple store. Now that the phones have become ubiquitous, phone repair store have popped up on nearly every block and in every mall, providing owners with a plethora of options and prices when it comes to seeking repairs for their devices. But a new report shows that Apple and other tech manufacturers and organizations are fighting against these choices, pushing to eliminate state legislation that aims to make it easier for anyone to repair electronics. 

Motherboard reports that a number of tech giants including Apple, Verizon, medical device company Medtronic, machinery company Caterpillar, and others, have begun lobbying against a proposed New York state bill that would require manufacturers to provide parts and guides for the independent repair of devices.

According to New York State’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the companies have spent more than $366,000 lobbying against the Fair Repair Act [PDF] in the five months since it was introduced.

A lobbying report from Roffe Group, the company contracted by Apple to conduct lobbying on the tech giant’s behalf, shows it spent $18,000 in March and April on lobbying efforts related to three New York measures including the so-called “right to repair” bill (S618A).

Conversely, the lobbying filings cited by Motherboard show that just one group – the Digital Right to Repair Coalition, composed of independent repair shops – has lobbied for the legislation, spending about $5,000.

The New York bill, which was introduced in January, would require electronic manufacturers to provide diagnostic and repair information — such as tools, replacement parts, and repair guides — to outside companies or individuals who want to carry out their own device repairs.

Additionally, the Fair Repair Act would ban manufacturers from creating software locks, or otherwise restricting companies or individuals from fixing devices.

Apple was accused of such an incident earlier this year by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. The agency claimed that Apple used the infamous “Error 53” issue in software updates that rendered devices useless after owners had common repair work done by an unauthorized service provide.

According to the agency’s allegations, once the repair work was completed and a service provider tried to update or restore the software to the device, the error message appeared, locking down the phone.

Motherboard notes that Apple and other tech companies have previously been rumored to have lobbied against similar right to repair legislation in other states.

Although the companies haven’t admitted to lobbying against such legislation, they have previously expressed concern that allowing just anyone to repair devices puts customers at risk. In one instance, Motherboard reports an Apple lobbyist told a Nebraska state legislator that if a right to repair bill was passed, residents would be the target of bad actors.

Consumerist has reached out to Apple for comment on the reported lobbying. We’ll update this post when we hear back.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Is The Honeymoon Over For Pittsburgh & Uber’s Driverless Car Program?

Compared to Uber’s ugly, contentious one-week test of self-driving cars in San Francisco , the ridesharing company’s nine-month-old self-driving program in Pittsburgh has been rather peaceful. But after a number of broken promises, some city leaders are reportedly regretting this arrangement.

While Mayor Bill Peduto used to have a texting relationship with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, that’s not happening anymore, reports The New York Times.

Peduto claims Uber has fallen short on promises the company made, like bringing new jobs to the neighborhood near its test track, and pulling support of the city’s proposal for a $50 million federal grant to improve transportation. He’s also upset that Uber has started charging passengers for rides in the driverless cars.

“Travis Kalanick had told me the rides would be free and a service for the public,” Peduto said.

The city’s controller Michael Lamb also says Uber is holding back: He’s asked for traffic data gathered by the vehicles to no avail, calling the situation “an opportunity missed.”

And after Uber told the community living in the area near its test track in 2016 that it would hire locals, a pastor at a neighborhood church said he gave the company a list of job candidates. But since then, he says no one who’s applied for a job with the company has been hired.

Uber’s recent controversies have also sparked concerns in the city government as well as among residents including an investigation by the Justice Department into the company’s use of a software tool to elude law enforcement.

A nonprofit organization representing public transit drivers and riders organized a #DeleteUber campaign in January as well, to protest the company’s decision to continue airport service when taxi drivers went on strike to protest President Trump’s travel ban.

Part of the problem is that Mayor Peduto didn’t get anything in writing from Uber, the Times notes. However, the company says it’s open to making a deal with Pittsburgh, it just hasn’t seen a draft of proposed commitments the city wants from it.

In addition, Uber says it’s planning to share data its cars have gathered in the city this year, but Pittsburgh says the kind of information it shares with other cities isn’t enough.

The company claims it has created 675 jobs in the greater Pittsburgh area, and has pitched in at local organizations like a women’s shelter.

“Uber is proud to have put Pittsburgh on the self-driving map, an effort that included creating hundreds of tech jobs and investing hundreds of millions of dollars,” the company said in a statement. “We hope to continue to have a positive presence in Pittsburgh by supporting the local economy and community.”

And while Mayor Peduto is upset that Uber has started charging for its driverless rides, the company notes that it was always the plan to eventually end the free program.

This could be a lesson for other cities, including Tempe, AZ, which has already welcomed Uber’s testing efforts.

Uber “is a business, and they want to make money,” Linda Bailey, the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, told the Times. “With Pittsburgh, we learned we need to present the city’s needs upfront.”


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

Education Secretary DeVos To Give All Student Loan Accounts To One Company; Strip Away More Protections

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made another sweeping change to the student loan system that consumer advocates claim favors student loan collectors over the American people repaying those loans.

The latest move from DeVos — who only weeks ago rescinded a number of student loan servicing protections put in place by the previous administration — will put all federal student loan servicing under the control of just one company starting in 2019.

There are currently nine student loan servicers handling these accounts for the federal government.

Late Friday afternoon, DeVos announced the upcoming changes via an amendment [PDF] to the contracting process, which will see the student loan servicing contract awarded to just one of the following: Navient (the servicer spun off from Sallie Mae), GreatNet, or the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA).

Whichever company ultimately receives the contract will be required to build a platform to collect on and service an estimated 32 million federal direct student loans.

DeVos claimed Friday that the changes were necessary in order to provide superior customer service and protections to borrowers.

“The federal student loan servicing solicitation we inherited was cumbersome and confusing — with shifting deadlines, changing requirements and defacto regulations that at times contradicted themselves,” she wrote in a statement. “Internal and external stakeholders both agreed it was destined for a massive and unsustainable budget overrun.”

While education officials tell the Washington Post that by contracting with one company it can better monitor the programs and ensure borrowers are being treated fairly, consumer advocates caution that putting of its student loan-collecting eggs in once basket could create a servicer that is “too big to fail.”

“The changes may increase profits for the industry, but may do little to tame the high levels of default in the program,” explains Rohit Chopra of the Consumer Federation of America and also the former student loan ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Less Competition; Fewer Protections

In addition to creating a single student loan servicer program, this latest change removes several other requirements previously outlined by the Obama administration when creating the contract process.

For instance, the servicer who ultimately receives the contract would not be required to provide “high-touch” (personalized, proactive) customer service for in-trouble and delinquent borrowers. This means no requirement for preemptive outreach when a borrower is late, or when they need to re-enroll in income-driven repayment plans.

Additionally, the sole loan servicer will be able to remove online options for borrowers with multiple loans to direct their payments to certain loans over others. The amendment also appears to remove requirements that certain information be provided in Spanish.

While servicers say such rules are burdensome, supporters of these requirements say they are needed to help curb student loan delinquency. An estimated $137 billion in federal student loans are currently in default, meaning borrowers have made no payments on them in at least nine months.

Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney for our colleague Consumers Union, said the changes “drastically alter” the functions of the servicer program, noting that in practice it won’t be all that helpful to borrowers.

Changes to the future student loan servicing contract come as federal regulators have attempted to hold servicers accountable for their questionable conduct.

So far this year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has released two reports that found complaints of student loan servicing increase by three digits.

The CFPB’s March snapshot showed a 429% increase in complaints related to student loan servicing. That report was followed by a second in April that found complaints about student loan servicing increased in nearly every state.

The Bureau noted that many of these complaints came after it took “major enforcement action” against a student loan servicer: Navient. In January, Navient, which is in the running for the new Dept. of Education contract, was sued by the the CFPB and two states claiming the company cheated borrowers out of repayment rights.

The company responded to the complaint two months later, noting in a filing to dismiss the lawsuit that it was under no obligation to help student loan borrowers.

“There is no expectation that the servicer will act in the interest of the consumers,” Navient said in the March 24 filing, adding that courts routinely agree that servicers and lenders “do not owe borrowers any specific fiduciary duties based upon their servicer/borrower relationship.”

It’s perhaps this sentiment that borrowers have experienced in recent months. According to the CFPB’s April complaint snapshot, Navient was the most complained about student loan servicer, receiving an average of 1,400 complaints from Nov. 2016 to Jan. 2017, a 1,073% increase from the same three-month period the year before.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Piece Of ‘Costume Jewelry’ From Flea Market Was Really Diamond Now Worth $454K

Have you ever wondered whether there’s something very valuable sitting around your house, and you don’t even know it? A woman in England bought what she thought was a costume jewelry ring 30 years ago, and wore it all the time. It turned out to be a 26-carat diamond, which is expected to sell for up to $454,000 at auction this summer.

The ring’s mistaken identity was because diamond cutters’ priorities have changed over the centuries. The head of the jewelry department at Sotheby’s London, Jessica Wyndham, explained to the BBC that in the 19th century, when this ring was created, diamonds were cut to keep the stone as large as possible, and not to emphasize sparkle and reflect more light.

“With an old style of cutting, an antique cushion shape, the light doesn’t reflect back as much as it would from a modern stone cutting,” she said.

At some point between its original sale and the fateful church “car-boot sale” in the ’80s, the ring’s real identity was forgotten, and the diamond and its setting became dirty. The new owner liked her costume jewelry ring so much that she wore it everywhere, including out shopping and while doing housework.

As the family tells it, a jeweler happened to see the ring and recommended that they take it to Sotheby’s to find out whether it might be worth something. They weren’t even sure it was a real diamond, and were shocked to learn its real value.

The ring is part of a jewelry sale at Sotheby’s in June, and is expected to sell for between $321,550 and $448,770 in US dollars.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

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