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This is our last post on Consumerist.com.

We’re deeply proud of all the work we’ve done on behalf of consumers, from exposing shady practices by secretive cable companies to pushing for action against dodgy payday lenders.

We’ve had a tremendous run as a standalone site. Now you’ll be able to get the same great coverage of consumer issues as part of Consumer Reports, our parent organization.

Come check it out at CR.org.


by petedirenzo via Consumerist

How Much Black Licorice Does It Take To Overdose?

The trinity of divisive Halloween candies is made up of candy corn, marshmallow peanuts, and of course black licorice — perhaps the treat most likely to elicit either only joy or rage when it’s put into one’s candy sack. But there’s one thing that even those who stand firmly on the “love” side of this unbridgeable, anise-flavored chasm should know: When it comes to black licorice, there is such a thing as too much.

The Food and Drug Administration is reminding everyone this Halloween that while safe in small amounts, black licorice does in fact have things in it that can make you sick or kill you.

The candy contains the compound glycyrrhizin, FDA experts say, which is the sweet flavoring that comes from the licorice root.

But glycyrrhizin (go on, say it five times fast) can alter the potassium levels in your body. If those drop too far, you might experience symptoms like increased blood pressure, swelling, lethargy, or even abnormal heart rhythms or congestive heart failure.

Obviously, those are bad. But the good news is, it takes a fair amount of candy to cause a problem. For consumers who are over 40, the FDA says that eating 2 ounces of black licorice a day for at least two weeks could land you in the hospital with heart trouble.

In general, the agency recommends, no matter what your age, you should keep servings of black licorice small, and don’t eat large amounts in one go. If you have been eating large amounts of the candy, and you start to feel like your heart is beating weirdly or your muscles are going week, stop immediately and call your doctor. That goes double if you take any drugs or dietary supplements that might be affected by the extra glycyrrhizin.

Additionally, if you really love that taste for some reason and want to binge, many modern “black licorice” candies do not in fact contain any actual licorice, instead using various anise-based flavorings, and won’t have the same negative effects.


by Kate Cox via Consumerist

United Plane Makes Emergency Landing Due To Smoke In The Galley

Smoke in the cabin of a passenger airplane is a scary prospect. That’s why a plane heading from Munich, Germany to Washington Dulles International Airport made an emergency landing at Boston’s Logan Airport instead: There was smoke pouring from the plane’s galley… which may or may not have actually been caused by a fire.

The plane was diverted to land at Logan, where emergency crews arrived to look for the source of the smoke. What they didn’t do was deplane passengers, who waited until after airport firefighters had checked out the galley before departing the plane.

Boston’s fire department reported to the scene, but their services weren’t needed, and firefighters were “turned back.”

A spokesman for United Airlines told NBC4 Washington that no passengers were injured, but the airline wasn’t sure at that time whether the smoke was caused by an actual fire in the galley. An FAA spokeswoman told the Boston Globe that the problem was a “possible fire.”

Passengers on the ground made the best of the situation, taking pictures, since if you don’t tell your Facebook friends about something, it never happened.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Operators Of Phony Rental Credit Check Scheme Must Pay $762K To Feds

In January, federal regulators announced they had put a stop to an apartment rental scam in which homes (that may not exist) are listed online with the sole purpose of tricking prospective renters into paying for “credit checks” that will never be done. Now, the operators of the scheme must pay $762,000 to put an end to the Federal Trade Commission’s allegations. 

The FTC announced today that it received a court order [PDF] against Danny Pierce and Andrew Lloyd for their part in operating an alleged scheme run by Credit Bureau Center LLC that targeted consumers looking to rent property.

The Alleged Scheme

According to the Commission’s complaint [PDF], since Jan. 2014 Credit Bureau Center — previously known as MyScore LLC, and doing business as eFreeScore.com, CreditUpdates.com, and FreeCreditNation.com — deceptively advertised, marketed, promoted, and sold credit monitoring services to consumers.

When prospective customers responded to the ads, the companies would allegedly impersonate property owners and send emails offering tours if the consumers would first obtain their credit reports and scores.

To do so, the FTC claims, the companies sent the potential renters to websites operated by the defendants. The sites claimed to provide “free” credit reports and scores.

As an extra incentive, the email often stated that, if the consumer’s credit score exceeded a certain level, such as 650, the landlord would waive the security deposit.

However, the complaint alleged that the sites deceived consumers into signing up for a negative option seven-day trial of a credit monitoring service.

The FTC claimed that nowhere on the webpage was it disclosed that consumers were enrolling in an unrelated credit monitoring program. Once the free trial was over the consumers were charged $29.94 each month for the service.

In many cases, people did not realize they had been enrolled until they noticed unexpected charges on their bank or credit card statements, sometimes after several billing cycles.

The complaint also alleged that consumers who obtained their credit reports and scores never got the promised property tours, and that their emails to the purported property owner to arrange the tours went unanswered.

In all, the FTC alleged that the defendants violated the FTC Act, the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and the Free Reports Rule, which requires that consumers be informed of their right to obtain free credit reports.

Paying Up

Under the order, the duo was ordered to pay a $6.8 million judgment. However, that all but $762,000 of that amount will be suspended. Instead, Pierce will pay $117,000, while Lloyd will pay $645,000.

In addition to the monetary judgment, Pierce and Lloyd are prohibited from misrepresenting material facts about any product or service, and must monitor their affiliate marketers in the future.

Additionally, they are prohibited from profiting from consumers’ personal information obtained as part of the scheme and failing to dispose of it properly.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Where Does The Cheese Belong In A Cheeseburger?

When you think of the ideal cheeseburger, where is the cheese in the sandwich equation — is it beneath the patty, or on top of it? That is the question Google’s CEO has now promised to address, after someone questioned the company’s cheese placement in its cheeseburger emoji.

Media consultant Thomas Baekdal pointed out on Twitter over the weekend that while Apple’s hamburger/cheeseburger emoji has cheese resting atop a beef patty, Google’s version sticks the slice underneath the meat.

RELATED: 5 Tips From A Pro Fro Cooking Up An Awesome Hamburger

Of course, Twitter users immediately started taking sides:

A glance at Emojipedia shows Google’s cheese is really standing alone on this one:

RELATED: We Tried It – 4 Ways To Cook A Burger That’s Safe To Eat But Doesn’t Taste Like Leather

Google is pledging to take swift action to resolve the controversy.

What do you think?


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

Tesla Ends $1,000 Referral Credit Program

Sure, saving $1,000 on a car that may cost you far in excess of $70,000 might seem like a minor victory, but it’s still better than nothing. But now that Tesla is becoming more of a household name and hoping to reach a more mass-market car-buying audience, it’s getting rid of even this relatively small savings program.

Tesla recently announced it will end its referral credit program that provided prospective buyers with a $1,000 toward their purchase Tuesday evening.

Through the program, current Tesla owners could provide five friends with a $1,000 credit to be used on any new Model S or Model X vehicle. These new customers would also receive free unlimited supercharging for their vehicles.

Individuals who don’t make their purchase by end-of-the-day Tuesday won’t exactly be left empty-handed. Instead, the carmaker notes that purchases made after Oct. 31 will still receive free, unlimited supercharging.

If you’ve got a friend with a Tesla, they might just be hounding you over the next two days to finally buy one of the electric cars. That’s because they’re also getting a prize for referring you to the company.

Current owners receive an array of “thank you” awards, including a free Black Wall Connector, a miniature Model S for kids, a new set of (literal) wheels, and Powerwall 2 home batteries.

Tesla first unveiled its incentive program in July 2015, offering both the current Tesla owner and the new customer $1,000 off the list price of a new vehicle, accessories, or service.

It should be noted that Tesla does not appear to offer any kind of referral program for customers who already own or are looking to buy the new, more modestly priced Model 3.

The Model 3, which officially launched this summer, is intended to be Tesla’s first mass-produced electric vehicle with a price tag starting around $36,000.

However, the car’s debut has been marred with complications, as Tesla deals with “manufacturing bottlenecks.”

Earlier this month, the company said it had fallen short of its goal of producing 1,500 vehicles between late July and the end of September, only producing 260 Model 3 cars and delivering 220 of them.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

The Beer & Booze Company Behind Corona, Svedka & Mondavi Is Now Investing In Marijuana

Instead of shrinking in fear from the rising green tide of legal marijuana, the parent company behind booze brands like Corona, Svedka, and Robert Mondavi is jumping right in with a big investment in the legal marijuana business.

Constellation Brands Inc. is shelling out $191 million for a 9.9% stake in Canopy Growth Corp, a Canadian company — known as WEED on the Toronto Stock Exchange — that sells medicinal cannabis products in that country and other markets where it’s legal.

Constellation doesn’t have plans to start selling weed products in the U.S. — or anywhere else, for that matter — until it’s legal “at all government levels.”

In the mean time, Constellation can get a jumpstart on figuring out what will the next big thing in legal marijuana, which is “predicted to become a significant consumer category in the future.”

“Our company’s success is the result of our focus on identifying early stage consumer trends, and this is another step in that direction,” Constellation CEO Rob Sands said in a statement.

While you won’t be able to crack open a cold can of weed-infused Corona any time soon, there could be some kind of cannabis beverage down the road — again, wherever it’s federally legal — as the two companies will be exchanging “knowledge and expertise.”


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

Maryland To Try Sending Recall Notices With Car Registration Renewals

Your state’s department of motor vehicles already knows what make and model of car you own, and sends you registration documents every few years that you have to open. Safety advocates have suggested including information about important vehicle recalls in vehicle registrations to make sure more people know about recalls and comply. In an experimental program, Maryland will start sending these notices to vehicle owners.

Recalls can endanger the lives of drivers and passengers, like the notable recent recalls of shrapnel-spewing Takata airbags, or the General Motors ignition lock defect. Yet only around 70% of recalled vehicles get repaired, a figure that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants to improve.

While the Repairing Every Car to Avoid Lost Lives (RECALL) Act, a U.S. Senate bill with an excellent name, would have required every state to implement such a program, that specific bill was not passed.

Instead, funding for a pilot program for up to six states was part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, a transportation infrastructure bill signed into law by President Obama in late 2015. Only one state applied, the Baltimore Sun notes, and that was Maryland, which recieved a $222,300 grant to test whether such a notification program will work.

“Recalls are serious. Recall repairs are completely free to the consumer. This first-in-the-nation grant will serve as an example to the rest of the country as we continue to work across government to reach consumers in new and creative ways with potentially life-saving information about their vehicles,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement.

Recall notices sent with registrations will not be a substitute for notifications from manufacturers, which are still obligated to contact customers. They’re just a supplement, since customers tend to mistake the letters for junk mail.

However, vehicles with open recalls won’t be prevented from registering with the state. The MVA, which is what Maryland calls its motor vehicle agency, would obtain recall information from a database that includes whether a particular vehicle has been repaired or not, so it wouldn’t pester car owners who have already had the repairs performed.

The pilot program will run for two years, after which it could expand to more states. Or not.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Everything You Need To Know To Get Started With Obamacare Open Enrollment

Despite repeated Congressional and Executive branch efforts, the full Affordable Care Act is still in place. That means insurance-shopping season is nearly upon us: Open Enrollment begins Nov. 1 (and ends Dec. 15). But there’s less money being spent on advertising and outreach this year, which means even the basics can be hard to get solid information about. So here’s our when-and-where of getting yourself covered for 2018.

When does Open Enrollment start?

You can begin enrolling in plans for 2018 on November 1, 2017.

When does Open Enrollment end?

If you’re using the federal exchange at healthcare.gov, the deadline to get enrolled in a plan is December 15, 2017.

This is several weeks earlier than in previous years, when the open enrollment period ran to the end of January, so anyone planning to shop for coverage should plan to move quickly. You have 45 days, tops.

Deadlines in the dozen or so states that have their own state exchanges vary, however, and some carry through into 2018 — scroll down and keep reading for details on those.

Do I use healthcare.gov, or what?

That depends on where you live.

Residents of 39 states looking for individual coverage use the federal exchange to buy marketplace health plans. However, 11 states and D.C. have their own exchanges and their own open enrollment deadlines. Those are:

A heads-up about the states’ open enrollment deadlines: Some states have different (earlier, December) deadlines to obtain coverage starting Jan. 1, but have open enrollment periods that extend through the middle or end of that month, with coverage then beginning in February or March. If you live in one of the states that maintains its own exchange, and it has an open enrollment deadline in 2018, you’ll want to check the terms carefully.

If your state isn’t on the list above, then go to healthcare.gov. (For those who prefer, the Spanish language version is at CuidadoDeSalud.gov.)

Can I enroll whenever I want during the period?

No, at least not if you’re one of the 39 states using Healthcare.gov.

This federally operated insurance exchange will be shut down from midnight until noon on most Sundays during the enrollment period.

The only Sunday where Healthcare.gov will be operating for the full 24 hours is Dec. 10. You will not be able to access the federal exchange for several hours on any of these Sundays: Nov. 5, Nov. 12, Nov. 19, Nov. 26, or Dec. 5.

State exchanges keep their own hours and maintenance schedules, so if you’re in one of the 12 jurisdictions that has its own site you’ll need to check it for more information.

If I miss open enrollment, am I stuck for the whole year?

Yes, but…

There are certain qualifying life events that can allow you to buy a policy outside of the regular enrollment cycle.

Changes that affect your income, your current coverage, or your household composition are those that are most likely to qualify you to change your coverage outside of the open enrollment window. Those include things like gaining or losing a job that provides insurance, having a child, getting married, divorcing the partner under whose policy you were covered, a death in the family that affects your coverage status, or other significant life events.

On the federal exchange, these changes can qualify you for what’s called a Special Enrollment Period. The full list of events is available on healthcare.gov, along with a questionnaire to help you determine if you qualify.

If you live in one of the states that maintains its own site, you’ll need to check your state’s site for more information about special enrollment periods.

What information will I need handy to apply?

First, the basics: Name; Date of Birth; Gender; Street Address; Social Security Number. You’ll need this information for each member of your household.

After that, it starts to get more complicated. You’ll need to provide employment and income information for anyone seeking coverage — so yourself, plus potentially also a spouse or children.

Healthcare.gov has a full checklist [PDF] available to help you make sure you’re gathering all the information you need to; it’s a good idea to check that over before you sit down to apply. State exchanges will require pretty much the same information, so you’ll need to gather it regardless of where you live.

What are all these plans?

Available plans are loosely grouped into four tiers: Bronze, silver, gold, and platinum.

All plans must cover the essential health benefits, and none may discriminate against buyers based on medical history (pre-existing conditions).

Beyond that, however, they do provide different levels of coverage at different price points. A bronze plan will be cheaper than a platinum one, but have significantly higher deductibles, co-insurance payments, and out-of-pocket costs. Some plans may also include other benefits, like vision or dental care.

As a general rule of thumb, the fancier the “metal,” the better the plan — but that coverage comes with a financial cost.

What’s the deal with subsidies? Credits? Financial help? These are expensive!

The majority of Americans who purchase coverage through the marketplace are eligible for some kind of subsidy or credit to offset the costs.

There are two kinds of financial help available: the premium tax credit, and subsidies.

The amount of the tax credit varies widely and depends on your household income level and what kind of plan you want to buy. The Kaiser Family Foundation has a full breakdown of the credit, using 2017 numbers, but it can still be overwhelming; to better understand if or how the credit specifically applies to your situation, you may want to consult expert help.

The cost-sharing subsidies, meanwhile, apply to a narrower range of cases. In order to be eligible for one, your household income must be between 100% and 250% of the federal poverty level, and you must be buying a “silver” plan.

Prices have gone up this year, largely in response to the White House’s decision to stop reimbursing insurers for those subsidies. However, that is already taken into account in the 2018 pricing, and won’t change.

If you are eligible for a subsidy, you will still get one. It’s automatically applied at the time you enroll, and so your initial costs already account for it.

This is super confusing. Help!

It can indeed be really, really confusing — luckily, help is available.

The federal exchange, healthcare.gov, has a call center you can call for help 24/7, with the exception of Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.

You can also use the search for local help page on healthcare.gov to find in-person assistance near you. That page will ask for your city or ZIP code, and then return a list of assisters and agents/brokers nearby.

Assisters are specifically trained, certified individuals and organizations that help you work your way through your needs and select a plan. Agents and brokers may be required in your area to serve your best interest first, but they are fundamentally there to sell you something — so choose your help accordingly.

When you run a search, the returns will indicate whether someone is an assister or a broker up in the top left-hand corner, like this:

If you live in one of the states that maintains its own marketplace, entering your ZIP code into the local help search field at healthcare.gov will return a link to your state’s marketplace page, or you can just go there directly and head for pages that say, “get help” or “find help.”

Several non-profit organizations also provide open enrollment guidance, sometimes broadly and sometimes to specific populations:

The Get Covered Connector tool, originally launched by Enroll America and now maintained by Young Invincibles, can also help you find resources near you. It also lets you sort and filter results by more languages than the federal tool does, which can be very helpful if you’re looking for assistance in a language other than English.

You may also be able to find other help in your local community: Public libraries are a great resource. Many have landing pages with local tips, and there may be classes, drop-in sessions, or experts available at yours. A search for [your city, state] library open enrollment can get you started, or you call your library, or go to it, and ask if they have any educational resources available.

I already have a plan for 2017. Do I need to do anything for 2018?

If you’re already enrolled in a marketplace plan this year, you should receive communication from your current insurer and from healthcare.gov before Nov. 1.

Those letters should include details about what will happen in 2018 if you take no action. You may be automatically enrolled in some plan, or you may not; circumstances will vary from person to person.

Basically, if you already have a plan, you need to carefully read communication your insurer and the marketplace send to you, personally, to learn what will happen to you, personally, if you don’t do anything.

However, both healthcare.gov and experts strongly recommend that even if you already have a plan, you should hit the exchange during open enrollment in order to update your personal and household information and to comparison shop: Just because something was the best plan available for you a year ago doesn’t mean that’s still true now.


by Kate Cox via Consumerist

5 Things Experts Say You Should Know About Obamacare Open Enrollment

If anything is true of 2017, it is this: Confusion reigns. And nowhere do we see that more than in healthcare, where failed repeal attempts, executive orders, sudden, out-of-the-blue policy changes, and general unpredictable chaos have dominated the news.

But the fact remains that Americans still need access to medical care, and for those who don’t have insurance through their employer or the government, the 2018 Open Enrollment period for individual insurance plans officially begins on Nov. 1. So what are the things everyone should know, but which may have been overlooked amid the maelstrom?

We chatted with a half-dozen advocates, policy experts, industry professionals, and navigators about this year’s open enrollment period. Some spoke with us on the condition of anonymity, and some were happy to talk on the record, but all of them agreed overwhelmingly on a huge point: There’s massive confusion in the marketplace this year that they desperately want cleared up.

With budgets for advertising, outreach, and navigators dramatically slashed this year, getting vital messages to reach folks who need to know has been incredibly challenging, all said.

So we asked them: What do you wish you could just get a giant megaphone and shout from every mountaintop about open enrollment this year?

Across the board, answers were surprisingly consistent; here’s what they said.

1. The law still exists!

This was the number one point that every single person we spoke to hit: Despite efforts from the White House and Congress, the ACA has not been repealed, nor has it been amended, and what was the law in 2016 is still the law today.

“OBAMACARE IS STILL ALIVE,” one medical biller told us, enthusiastically. “All of it! If you qualify for a subsidy or Medicaid, you can still get it! You still don’t have to answer medical questions on your application!”

That was echoed by Claire McAndrew, the director of campaign strategy at Families USA.

“Despite all of the efforts going on by the Administration to challenge the Affordable Care Act, despite all the news about changes to the law, number one: The law still does exist,” McAndrew told Consumerist.

“We really don’t want people to be confused by news that’s out there,” McAndrew added, “Because none of that changes the fact that Open Enrollment starts November 1st and that plans are available for consumers.”

Erin Hemlin, director of training and consumer education for Young Invincibles, said the same.

“The marketplaces are stable, and the marketplaces are open,” Hemlin said. “The law is still the law, and the comprehensive plans are still available.”

Hemlin added, “All plans are comprehensive, all plans must cover a certain set of medical services, so you know you’re getting comprehensive coverage that’s actually going to be there when you need it — and they cannot discriminate against you because of a preexisting condition. That’s still against the law.”

2. Enrollment starts Nov. 1, and ends Dec. 15 — don’t procrastinate!

Anyone who wants to enroll for a plan in 2018 has literally half the time that was available in previous years. The deadline used to be Jan. 31; the administration quietly cut that back to Dec. 15.

“It is a shorter open enrollment period this year, so I’d really urge people not to wait to enroll,” McAndrew said. “Maybe get online right at the beginning of open enrollment, Nov. 1.”

“Young people, especially, are really busy during this time of year,” Hemlin said. “That Dec. 15 deadline can be a hectic time,” at the end of school terms, with everyone’s holiday plans ramping up and schedules getting crowded, “and this might not be the first thing that they’re thinking about.”

Usually, Hemlin added, there’s a spike of enrollees in late January, just before the deadline, once New Year’s has passed and everything’s calmed down a bit. But this year, if you wait that long, you’ll be out of luck.

Experts’ advice: Don’t procrastinate! “Even if you live in a state that has more time to enroll, it’s not going to hurt you to get enrolled before [Dec.] 15th,” Hemlin said.

3. You can still get financial help, and plans may be more affordable than you think.

Yes, the White House is blocking billions of dollars of reimbursement to insurers to cover the subsidies they have to give lower-income consumers. That has made some premiums go up — some, but not all. And the tax credits that millions of other marketplace shoppers receive are still in place, too.

“If you look at a typical marketplace shopper, 8 in 10 have incomes that qualify for premium subsidies,” Hemlin said. “So if you are one of these 8 in 10 people, you are essentially insulated from any premium increases, because your tax credits go up as premiums do.”

“Although there have been policy changes to the cost-sharing subsidies,” McAndrew added, “The fact remains true that if you are eligible for premium subsidies, or lower-cost deductibles or out-of-pocket costs, that is still the law.”

“Don’t give up if you have problems getting approved for a subsidy,” one navigator stressed. “Get help. Document all your phone calls.”

All the experts we talked to also suggested making sure you don’t just blindly stick with your old plan or re-enroll without making sure you look carefully and shop around.

“You might even be able to get a plan that’s a little bit cheaper this year, which is why we are really encouraging people to actively renew, or to go on and update their information and shop around,” Hemlin said.

4. You may be eligible for coverage even if you think you’re not.

There are a lot of reasons you might be hesitant to shop for a plan: income level, immigration status, cost of coverage, or even the fact that you have a job that offers coverage. However, it still may be worth popping over to the website and at least window-shopping for a plan.

“You can buy an ACA plan even if you work full-time or even if you have employer insurance,” the medical biller reminded us. “It’s not just for low-income people! You probably won’t qualify for a subsidy, but any human being can buy an insurance plan on the exchange,” and depending on your situation, it may suit your needs better than you thought.

A navigator added, “If you’re working and have employer insurance, but have a low income, you might still be eligible to have Medicaid as a secondary insurance. If you don’t qualify, your kids or your pregnant spouse might.”

“If you have high income,” they continued, “you might still want to put your kids on CHiP because it’s great coverage — and you might like shopping for a plan on the marketplace, because there are tools there that make it easy to compare plans between the different insurers in your area.”

“You don’t necessarily have to be a citizen to get an ACA plan, but options for various categories of immigrants vary by state,” the navigator told Consumerist.

That sentiment was echoed by McAndrew: “It’s just really important to shop around, because until you go to that marketplace and actually shop around, you don’t know what you’ll qualify for.”

5. You can still get help.

The marketing budget may have been trashed, but navigators and non-profits are still right there, ready to help you sort this out.

“The resources that were available before still are available,” McAndrew stressed. “In terms of going to healthcare.gov, or taking advantage of the call centers — we still have plan options and there is still a call center to get help.”

“There are a number of different groups that are providing information. In your local community there will be navigators and assisters you can get information on. Look into your local community: Look into health centers, and look into the resources that were there last year for in-person assistance,” she added. “Resources that were there last year for in-person assistance will be right there this year; resources that folks relied on for in-person assistance should not be forgotten this year.”


by Kate Cox via Consumerist

GameStop Launching Video Game Rental Program With Unlimited Access To Pre-Owned Titles

In what sounds like the lovechild of a Blockbuster video store and Netflix’s DVD rental service, GameStop is launching a new video game rental program called PowerPass that gives customers unlimited access to used games.

PowerPass launches Nov. 19 and will cost $60 for six months of access to game rentals, GameStop confirmed to Consumerist.

Customers can chose from any pre-owned title in the store’s catalog, with no limits on how often they can swap games. After six months, they can choose one game to keep. It’s unclear whether the program will end entirely after six months or if will continue on; we’ve asked GameStop and will update this post if we receive an answer.

Whether you give PowerPass as a gift or buy it for yourself, whoever uses the service has to be a member of GameStop’s PowerUp Rewards program, which will be used to keep records of the games they check in and out. You can sign up for either a free or paid membership by creating an account on the retailer’s website.

(h/t GameRant)


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

Betsy DeVos May Only Offer Partial Loan Refunds To Defrauded College Students

Education Secretary and champion of for-profit colleges Betsy DeVos is once again siding with this controversial industry and against students who were defrauded by schools that tricked them into paying top dollar for a bottom-dollar education.

Amid the collapse of scandalized for-profit school chains like Corinthian Colleges and ITT, the Education Department had sought to simplify the process of allowing defrauded students to get their federal loans refunded.

But that was before DeVos became our nation’s top education regulator. Now, the Associated Press reports that the Secretary is considering a measure that would provide defrauded students with only half of a refund of their student loans.

Sources note that under DeVos’ plan refunds provided to students would be dependent on the average earnings of students in similar programs and schools.

Consumerist has reached out to the Dept. of Education for additional information on the possible change. We’ll update this post when we hear back.

Consumer advocates raised concerns about DeVos’ plan to half loan forgiveness, noting that many students have already received full forgiveness.

“It would be totally different from what was happening under the last administration,” Jennifer Wang, an expert with the Institute of College Access and Success, tells the AP. “It’s not equitable; it’s not fair for students. If she provides partial relief, it’s that she only cares what’s fair for schools and not students.”

The New Borrower Defense?

The change would likely be part of the administration’s revamp of the Borrower Defense rule.

Under the rule — which as been around for decades, but seldom used until recent years — borrowers could have their federal loans forgiven if they attended schools that were found to defraud students.

Following the closure of ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges, the Obama Administration began the process of revising and redrafting the rules.

The Department had decided to overhaul the rule in Jan. 2016 following an influx of claims from students shortly after Corinthian Colleges Inc — the operator of Heald College, Everest University, and WyoTech – closed in 2014.

Under the revised Borrower Defense rules — unveiled in Oct. 2016 — a student’s federal education loans can be forgiven if they can prove their college used deceptive practices to convince them to enroll.

The rule was also revised so that schools receiving federal aid can no longer put forced arbitration clauses in their student enrollment agreements. This is important because these clauses prevent students from suing the school in court and from joining their complaints together in class actions. While arbitration is now commonly used in consumer goods and services, in the education field it is almost exclusively used by for-profit schools.

While that rule was expected to go into effect in July 2017, DeVos instead called for a “regulatory reset,” claiming the previous rulemaking process “missed an opportunity to get it right,” resulting in a “muddled process that’s unfair to students and schools, and puts taxpayers on the hook for significant costs.”

The AP reports that the new consideration comes just three months after DeVos extended a contract to speed up the processing of student loan forgiveness claims.

However, in extending the contract, the Dept. noted that “policy changes may necessitate certain claims already processed be revisited to assess other attributes.”

That could mean that students who had already been approved for — but not yet received — loan forgiveness could find themselves still on the hook for thousands of dollars.

Where’s The Forgiveness?

The DeVos Dept. of Education has come under increased scrutiny for its treatment of students seeking loan forgiveness claiming they were defrauded by their schools.

While DeVos noted when she “reset” the Borrower Defense rules that applications for relief would continue to be processed under the current version of the rule, that hasn’t happened.

As noted by lawmakers and states attorneys general, refunds stemming from the Borrower Defense process have been delayed.

In July, acting undersecretary of education James Manning told Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin in a letter [PDF] that the Dept. of Education had not approved a loan forgiveness claim in six months.

At the time, the letter revealed that more than 65,100 borrower defense applications — 14,949 of which were submitted since Jan. 20 — were currently pending.

Of these applications, 45,092 were associated with students who attended defunct Corinthian College schools and 7,186 belong to those who attended the also-closed ITT Technical schools.

Many students who submitted claims for borrower defense have actually been approved. Despite this, their loans have yet to been discharged, according to lawmakers.

Back in May, lawmakers claimed that while the 23,000 students were notified in January that their Borrower Defense claims had been approved and they would receive discharges and refunds within 60 days and 120 days.

Despite this, the senators contended that they had received reports that many previously approved students had not obtained the relief they were promised within 120 days.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Raiders Of The Lost Walmart Uncover Ancient And Mysterious 12-Year-Old GPS

Back in 2005, you needed a standalone GPS device if you wanted a disembodied voice to yell at you when you made a wrong turn. Before smartphones existed, a pocket-size GPS device that was small enough to be convenient for motorcycle and bike use was novel and useful. However, such a device available on the shelf at Walmart in 2017 isn’t so impressive. It’s also not much of a deal.

Reader Patrick is one of the Raiders of the Lost Walmart, a brave team of retail archaeologists who comb through the electronics sections of big-box stores to find gadgets that aren’t just obsolete or just plain old, but are also comically overpriced.

Reader Patrick noticed the Garmin Quest 2, a device first released in 2005, for sale at Walmart. He looked back at the price stickers, noting the rich history. It had been marked $578.76 in May 2009 and in July 2016, and finally discounted a little bit to $350.00 in June of 2017, a few days before he unearthed this artifact.

If you don’t mind having a used unit and downloading the manual online, you can buy this same GPS on eBay for $84.

Or you could spend more than four times that much in the bizarro electronics universe of Walmart.

“Hey, that could just be a photo from 2008!” you might be saying — so here’s a close-up of the dated shelf tag.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Dunkin’ Donuts Ramping Up Discounts To Bring In Customers

Dunkin’ Donuts, faced with slipping sales, has undergone a bit of a revamp in recent months, such as dropping the “Donuts” portion of its name at a California store to paring down its menu. Now, the company is focusing on deals, as in, giving customers more of them.

The chain announced its third quarter financials Thursday, noting that for the sixth straight quarter traffic to locations had fallen.

In all, traffic at U.S.-based restaurants declined 2% for the third quarter.

While same store sales increased by 0.6%, overall income for Dunkin’ Brands — which also counts Baskin Robins in its portfolio — fell slightly by about $500,000.

In the face of falling sales, and fewer customers walking through the doors, Dunkin’ CEO Nigel Travis tells Reuters the chain will increase the number of promotions it runs.

“Our franchisees are now seeing the value of value and you will see a lot more in the future,” said Travis.

The company plans to focus the deals on its mobile app, providing loyalty members with personalized ads and perks, Reuters notes.

In the past, the company has run promotions such as “2 for $2” egg and cheese wraps and prize promotions on drinks.

Nigel pointed to the company’s recent “Sip. Peel. Win” promotion as an example of a successful deal, noting it had driven hot coffee sales.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Borrowers In Student Loan Forgiveness Program Shocked To Learn Loans Won’t Be Forgiven

This month is the first in which student loan borrowers enrolled in the Department of Education’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness program were expecting to see their student loan tab cleared. But that’s not happening for some borrowers after learning they were never actually enrolled in the programs, despite assurances from the companies servicing their debts. 

The situation is a culmination of problems within the servicing industry and the complicated forgiveness program.

It also further bolsters recent findings from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that highlighted borrower complaints about student loan servicers mishandling the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

For those unfamiliar, in 2007 the government began offering a public service loan-forgiveness program that will forgive certain federal student loans for borrowers who work for government organizations and non-profit groups for 10 years and make 120 on-time monthly payments on their loans.

An Unwelcome Surprise

The New York Times spoke with one such borrower who expected to have his debt wiped away via the program this month.

However, that didn’t happen, despite the fact the man had followed the rules; making 120 on-time payments and working full-time as a teacher.

Instead, just two years before his debt was supposed to be forgiven, the man was informed that he hadn’t made a single eligible payment. That’s because he wasn’t enrolled in the correct program.

The man’s story begins back in 2002, when he entered a graduated repayment plan that allowed him to start with smaller monthly payments that grew over time as his income did.

In 2007, he signed up for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program through his loan servicer ACS Education Services, The Times reports. The company told him that as long as he made the 120 months of payments, his debt would be forgiven. ACS left the federal student loan business, and the man’s loans were sold to Mohela in 2012.

He continued making payments, The Times reports. However, the following year, a co-worker told him that just one servicer could forgive the loans, FedLoan. So the man worked to transfer his debts to that company.

FedLoan is the company contracted by the Dept. of Education to handle the forgiveness program and determine borrower’s eligibility. It’s also party to a lawsuit by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, accused of putting borrowers at risk of losing their eligibility for forgiveness.

Nearly two years after his loan was transferred, the man found out that the repayment plan he entered in 2002 wasn’t eligible for the forgiveness program. That meant that none of the payments the man had made counted toward forgiveness. He’d have to start all over.

The news was in contradiction to what servicers had been telling him. He tells The Times that he was told his loan was in “good status” by each company.

A rep for the owner of his first servicer ACS told The Times they could not comment on the man’s loans, while a rep for Mohela (the second servicer) didn’t have specific records noting what the man was told.

A rep for FedLoan tells The Times that the company informed the man of issues with his loan several times.

The Times, in reviewing the man’s documents, did find a notice in 2014 that stated the borrower hadn’t made any eligible payments.

The only problem was that the notice was on the back of a statement and not clearly visible to the borrower.

It’s a missed sign that several borrower likely made, The Times reports.

“There is going to be an enormous crush of borrowers who think they are eligible only to find that they are not,” Seth Frotman, the student loan ombudsman at the CFPB, said a statement. “We need to get ready for it.”

Just Another Issue

In fact, some borrowers have already accused the government of failing to keep its promise to forgive loans. As cited in a lawsuit against the Dept. of Education, some borrowers reported they believed they were fulfilling the program’s requirements when they weren’t.

According to a lawsuit [PDF], filed by four previously qualified participants and the American Bar Association, the Department of Education acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when it changed its interpretation eligibility requirements without explanation.

While it’s fairly simple to determine what a government agency is, finding a qualified non-profit is more difficult. For that reason, the Dept. allowed prospective program participants to fill out an Employment Certification for Public Service Loan Forgiveness form.

The forms, which the Department encourages participants to fill out each year, are reviewed by FedLoan Servicing.

But at some point in the last several years, FedLoan began telling people who had previously been qualified for the forgiveness program that they were no longer eligible to have their loans forgiven. What’s more, the decision was retroactive, meaning none of the time they’d spent working toward the forgiveness goal would be counted.

After receiving such letters, the borrowers sued the Department of Education to find out why the changes were being made.

The Dept. of Education replied to the lawsuit, noting in a filing that the FedLoan approval letter was never a reflection of a “final agency action on the borrower’s qualifications” for the program.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Starbucks Baristas Probably Aren’t Sad That The Zombie Frappuccino Is Already Running Out

After giving employees more than six months to recover from this spring’s Unicorn Frappuccino, Starbucks has another limited-time novelty beverage that’s made more for Instagram than for human consumption. Yet the good news (perhaps?) for many of the chain’s employees is that supplies for the drink have already run out in many locations. Darn.

The zombeverage consists of a caramel-apple sweet blended base with mocha “blood,” topped with whipped cream that’s supposed to look like brains.

Like the Unicorn frap, the drink is designed more for looks than for flavor, and many employees report that the beverages are going straight in the trash after one sip. Or, at least, after customers snap a photo.

“I think the drink tastes pretty bad so I get it,” one worker observed on Reddit. “But not a single empty zombie frapp at my store yet, figure someone would suck it down.”

What Starbucks wisely did this time, though, was make sure that the drink is only in circulation for as long as supplies last. Business Insider noticed that this means a lot of stores have already sold out, with their staff presumably sighing with relief.

The sparkly color-changing unicorn beverage became an object of nationwide derision back in April, creating a brief and peaceful moment when all Americans agreed on something.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Even If You’re Locked In A Store’s Beer Cooler, It’s Not Okay To Drink Whatever You Want

As the saying goes, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. However, if life locks you in the beer cooler, don’t crack open a few cold ones — tempting though that may be — or you may find yourself charged with retail theft.

According to Marshfield, WI, police, a 38-year-old man entered a walk-in beer cooler at a Kwik Trip convenience store before midnight on Tuesday night, reports WAOW.com.

Although the store is open 24/7, the beer cooler automatically locks at 12. a.m. Thus, at the stroke of midnight, the man was stuck… and it sounds like he was fine with that situation.

“The subject found himself locked in the beer cooler, knew that Kwik Trip would not sell him any beer, so he decided to remain in the beer cooler,” the chief of police told the news station, adding that there were actions he could’ve taken to let someone know he was in there.

Instead, he allegedly drank an 18-ounce bottle of Icehouse Beer and three cans of Four Loko (which yes, still exists), and tumbled over a stack of Busch Light 30-packs.

He was only discovered at about 6 a.m. when another customer spotted him in the cooler. Though he fled the scene, he was later arrested and charged with stealing the beer. He’s in county jail on a probation hold from another case that required him to remain sober.

Kwik-Trip says it will review its security.

“I’ve heard of people being locked inside of buildings, never inside of a beer cooler or a beer cave,” the chief said, calling the situation a “unique” one in his 20-year career.


by Mary Beth Quirk via Consumerist

Amazon’s Bookstores Apparently Aren’t Bringing In Many Sales

Are Amazon’s bookstores headed for the same future as struggling chains like Barnes & Noble? It’s possible, according to the company’s latest financials, which suggest the company’s physical bookstores aren’t doing so hot. 

Amazon announced its third-quarter earnings on Thursday. For the first time, it also broke out performance for its physical stores, noting that these entities accounted for $1.276 billion during the quarter.

Physical stores — which Amazon helpfully describes as places where a customer “can physically select items in a store” — include both Amazon’s bookstores and its newly acquired Whole Foods grocery chain.

While $1.276 billion in sales is pretty impressive for a company just jumping into the physical retail world, Amazon notes that a majority of those sales are from Whole Foods.

In fact, the company estimates that net sales from Whole Foods — since it was acquired in August — totaled $1.3 billion, which likely includes online sales of the brand’s products.

Additionally, Amazon doesn’t note exactly how much the bookstores contributed in sales for the third quarter, which means the figure could be so minuscule it doesn’t make a dent in the $1.27 billion in sales. We’ve reached out to Amazon for more information.

So what’s that mean? Mainly, that Amazon physical bookstores don’t ring up much in the way of sales.

Business Insider surmises that there are a few reason for this: There are only 12 Amazon bookstores, and the locations often function as a benefit to Prime members, not everyday customers.

For instance, as we’ve previously reported, Amazon has been charging different prices for Prime and non-Prime customers visiting the store.

Under the company’s pricing structure, customers who pay $99/year (or $10.99/month) for Prime membership can buy books and other products at the store for the same price they are listed on Amazon.com.

Customers who aren’t Prime members will be charged the product’s “list price.” As a result, many non-Prime members are better off purchasing books online.

In the end, the stores often function as a place for customers to simply browse books and test out Amazon’s devices, like the Kindle or Echo speaker.

Still, the lack of sales doesn’t mean Amazon is ready to give up on its bookstore concept. In fact, the company is doing just the opposite with three more stores slated to open in the future.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Southwest Airlines Thinks In-Air Concerts Are A Good Idea

Would you consider an in-air concert on your next flight an amenity, or something that would make you switch airlines? Southwest Airlines is continuing its series of concerts for captive audiences, partnering with Warner Music to have the label’s artists perform mini-concerts for Southwest’s passengers.

You may not be familiar with the series, but Southwest calls its in-air concerts “Live at 35,” as in 35,000 feet of altitude. They’ve been happening since 2011, and Southwest and Warner Music Nashville recently made a deal to make their midair concert series official.

A recent show on a flight from Nashville to Philadelphia, for example, featured country artist Devin Dawson. Billboard referred to the concert as having a “capacity crowd,” which one could also frame as a “fully booked flight of people forced to attend a concert.”

The audience mostly seems happy about the surprise, if a bit confused at first. You can watch a longer clip on Southwest’s site.

“You know, some people don’t really enjoy flying; some people get very nervous and don’t like it,” Dawson told Billboard. “I hope that something like this [concert] is just a cool surprise for some [passengers] that helps them forget about their everyday woes, and I’ll just play a couple of songs to make them smile.”


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

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