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Target Encourages Store-Wide Mayhem With Mario Kart Shopping Carts

In what seems like a great cross-promotion for the Nintendo Switch, but which stands a decent chance of ending in utter bedlam at hundreds of Target stores nationwide, the retailer has decided to dress up shopping carts as Mario Karts.

Maybe not a good idea with an entire store full of boxes waiting to be turned into power-ups and a produce section full of banana peels waiting to be thrown.

The promotion, for better or worse, will reach more than 650 of Target’s stores, and involves multiple parts of the store. You can tell which stores are part of the promotion if you see that the giant red balls (Target calls them “bollards”) out front have covers that make them look like Mario and Luigi.

If you haven’t taken that as a warning to stay away, you’ll find that the store entrance looks like a starting line, which surely won’t encourage mayhem from children of all ages, some of whom have been fantasizing about a real-world Mario Kart for decades.

“As you walk through, motion sensors fire up flashing lights and play Mario’s catchy theme song,” Target explains.

If that has you ready to take off, you can grab one of the decorated carts that will be in the chosen stores and zoom around the store looking for a Nintendo Switch, which you probably won’t find, since they’re still in short supply.

We already know that adults love to zoom around Tokyo in costumes while pretending to be in a Mario Kart game. Children found the wide aisles of Target irresistible when the chain experimented with child-sized shopping carts, and they terrorized parents and strangers alike.

The promotion started yesterday, though the game won’t be released until Tuesday, April 28.

Target tells Consumerist it is not providing a specific list of which stores will be involved in the promotion, so you’ll just have to drive your real car around until you find a Target with Mario and Luigi outside.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Dentist Accused Of Medicaid Fraud, Pulling Teeth While On Hoverboard

Going to the dentist is often unpleasant enough without worrying that your doctor will perform a procedure while riding a hoverboard, but prosecutors in Alaska say one dentist not only defrauded the state out of millions, but he apparently did so while moving around on motorized wheels.

The state of Alaska Department of Law announced this week that it charged an Anchorage dentist with 17 counts of Medicaid fraud after he allegedly billed Medicaid $1.9 million last year for unneeded sedation.

According to the indictment, the doctor began offering intravenous sedation to Medicaid patients as an alternative to more common (and less costly) anesthetics for dental procedures.

At times, the doctor offered sedation for patient procedures that didn’t require any kind of anesthesia.

In one instance, the Associated Press reports, the doctor allegedly put a patient under sedation when it wasn’t required, and then proceeded to pull her tooth while riding a hoverboard.

The dentist allegedly sent the video to his office manager. The patient told investigators that she was unaware of the incident.

Following procedures where the doctor used IV sedation he would allegedly bill Medicaid for the medication under a different provider ID in the amount of up to $2,049 for the service and sent the money directly to his home.

The indictment claims that the doctor’s practice alone was responsible for 31% of the total Medicaid payments for IV sedation in 2016.

In cases where a patient had private insurance that wouldn’t cover the IV sedation, the doctor allegedly offered to provide the medication for a $450 flat fee.

Medicaid regulations specifically prohibit providers from billing Medicaid more than the general public is charged for the same service.

In all, the state claims that since obtaining his IV sedation license in 2015, the has billed Medicaid $2.5 million, of which he was then paid $1.9 million.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

NutriMost ‘Ultimate Fat Loss’ System Slammed With $32 Million Judgment For Overblown Weight Loss Claims

The marketing for the NutriMost Ultimate Fat Loss system claimed that users could drop 40 pounds, or more, in just 40 days, and without having to fret about calories. However, the Federal Trade Commission says that this $1,900 program is not backed by any science, actually requires a starvation-level diet, uses before-and-after examples from people related to the company, and forces customers to sign agreements that prevent them from saying anything bad about the program.

The FTC brought a complaint against Pennsylvania-based NutriMost, and the company’s owner, chiropractor Raymond Wisniewski, alleging deceptive business practices in violation of federal law.

In ads, the program guarantees that customers can “Lose 20 – 45+ Pounds in 40 Days,” and claims that you can target belly fat, reset your metabolism, and eliminate cravings, and includes before-and-after testimonials from users:

Yet, according to the FTC’s lawsuit [PDF], “Defendants have conducted no scientific studies to support the claims they have made regarding the NutriMost System, including the claims Defendants have made about the NutriMost System’s technology, embedding NutriMost Resonant Frequencies, scans, supplements, and weight loss and health-related results.”

As for those testimonials with the before-and-after photos? Renee seen in the picture above worked for the company, says the FTC, others were related to employees or were NutriMost franchisees, while the complaint claims that other testimonials — like the ones below from Gene and Carla — were from people who did not actually go through the NutriMost system as it was advertised:

The FTC contends that NutriMost failed to disclose that the connections and other relevant facts about these testimonials.

Calories, Shmalories

“Most weight loss programs will tell you that you have to count calories to lose weight,” read a statement on the NutriMost website. “Calories are not the key to losing weight. The most effective way to lose fat is balancing hormones and neurotransmitters, detoxifying the body and balancing vitamins and minerals in a way that gets you into an incredible fat burning zone.”

The FTC says this all seems to imply that NutriMost will not be just another calorie-deprivation weight loss program, but according to the complaint “after consumers purchase the NutriMost System, Defendants provide them with a Manual and a Journal that explain that the NutriMost System requires users to follow a very low-calorie diet of about 500 calories a day for more than 40 days.”

Oh, if you have anything bad to say about NutriMost, shut your hungry mouth. According to the complaint, in 2014 the company began including a non-disparagement agreement in its contract — the kind that was just outlawed by the recently passed Consumer Review Fairness Act — that tried to slap a $35,999 penalty for any statement that “disparages, criticizes or otherwise casts in a negative light,” the “effectiveness, results or credibility” of the NutriMost System, any of its services or products, its business practices, or any aspect of services received from NutriMost or any employee, officer, or manager.

A settlement order [PDF] in this case includes a $32 million judgment against NutriMost, though the company is currently only on the hook for $2 million of that. If it’s found that NutriMost isn’t being truthful about its finances, or doesn’t live up to its obligations under the deal, the FTC can go back for more.

As for those obligations, NutriMost must stop making misleading weight-loss and health claims that aren’t supported with competent and reliable scientific evidence. It must disclose to customers that this program requires a diet of less than 800 calories a day.


by Chris Morran via Consumerist

‘Financial Choice Act 2.0’ Would Eliminate Government’s Ability To Go After Shady Payday Loan Operations

Even though recent surveys indicate that the overwhelming majority of Americans want more regulation of payday lending, federal lawmakers are attempting to strip the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau of any authority over these short-term, high-cost loans.

The draft legislation — dubbed the Financial Choice Act 2.0 — is a revision of the previous Financial Choice Act introduced by bank-backed Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling last year.

The 593-page draft [PDF] aims to roll back several provisions under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and limit the CFBP’s ability to oversee the entire financial industry.

Among the bill’s provisions are sections that would require the agency to get congressional approval before taking enforcement action against financial institutions, restrict the Bureau’s ability to write rules regulating financial companies, and revoke the agency’s authority to restrict arbitration.

While each of these provisions aim to deregulate financial institutions, another measure would essentially move to prevent the CFPB from having any oversight over the payday lending industry.

Section 733 of the Act calls for the “removal of authority to regulate small-dollar credit.”

“NO AUTHORITY TO REGULATE SMALL-DOLLAR CREDIT — The Agency may not exercise any rulemaking, enforcement, or other authority with respect to payday loans, vehicle title loans, or other similar loans,” the Act states.

This, of course, would prevent the agency from finalizing it nearly year-old proposed payday lending reforms aimed at reducing the likelihood of borrowers needing to take out new loans to cover old ones.

The CFPB offers four protections to end debt traps: a test that companies must perform before extending credit; restrictions on rollovers; a payoff option for some products; and offering less-risky lending options.

The measure would also prevent the agency from taking enforcement action against payday, auto title, or similar lenders.

In the past, the CFPB has brought action against several payday lending companies for allegedly pushing borrowers into a cycle of debt.

For example, in July 2014, the CFPB sought enforcement action against ACE Cash Express, one of the largest payday lenders in the United States, for allegedly engaging in illegal debt collection practices in order to push consumers into taking out additional loans they could not afford.

Under the action, Texas-based ACE was required to provide $5 million in refunds to consumers on top of paying a $5 million penalty for the alleged violations.

Before that, the CFPB accused a debt collection subsidiary of Cash America of robo-signing court documents related to debt-collection lawsuits, illegally overcharging military servicemembers and their families, and trying to cover these actions up by destroying documents before the Bureau could investigate.

As a result of the investigation, Cash America was ordered to pay $14 million in refunds to consumers affected by the alleged violations.

The Washington Post reports that the Financial Choice Act is expected to be discussed in Financial Services Committee hearing next week.

Consumer advocates were quick to point out the damage the payday lending provision could do.

“I for one think that such a provision is an inexcusable giveaway to the high-cost lending industry, which has wreaked havoc on the lives of consumers living on chronically thin margins,” Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney for our colleagues at Consumers Union, tells Consumerist.

Martindale notes that the problems with payday, auto title, and other high-cost installments loans are well-documented and the CFPB has been doing important work to set better national standards for those loans.

“Taking away any authority for the CFPB to oversee these lenders is reckless, shortsighted and ultimately harmful to working families,” she said.

Other consumer advocates echoed Martindale’s sentiments, saying that Congress appears to be doing the payday loan industry’s bidding.

“It’s a shocking provision,” Diane Standaert, director of state policy for the Center for Responsible Lending, tells Consumerist. “Payday lenders charge triple-digit interest rates and Congress is proposing to give them a free pass.”

Standaert also notes that the provision is in direct contrast to consumer groups and borrowers’ desire for more protections, adding that more than 425,000 people have submitted comments in support of the CFPB’s proposed rules.

“This is provision is the exact opposite direction of what people in the country are asking for,” she tells Consumerist. “We hope that congress does not block efforts to rein in the practices.”

As previously reported, Hensarling’s revisions and original legislation targeting the CFPB aren’t entirely a surprise, as he — and the Financial Services Committee he leads — has strong ties to Wall Street and big banks.

For example, Allied Progress noted in a February report that more than a dozen current and former House Financial Services Committee staffers either worked in the financial industry before joining the committee or have left the committee to work in the industry.

The report also found that Hensarling has personally accepted at least $7.38 million from companies regulated by the CFPB.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top 20 contributors to Hensarling’s committee and PAC from 2015 to 2016 includes a number of major banks. In the top four alone, JPMorgan Chase contributed $25,200, Bank of America provided $25,000, Goldman Sachs contributed $22,700, and the American Bankers Association contributed $22,000.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Twitch Wants To Let More People Make Some Money From Livestreaming Video Games

Video, video, video. That’s basically all any and every platform wants to talk about, here in 2017: how much video it can stream, and how many people are watching it. But one step in getting people to watch live video on your platform is making sure the folks making those videos have an incentive to keep making them. There’s only so much people will do for their own amusement. So what better enticement than more money?

The latest video streaming platform to offer creators more cash is Amazon-owned Twitch, the livestreaming platform for gamers.

Until now, only the top 1% of Twitch streamers (roughly 20,000 of the 2.2 million folks broadcasting on Twitch) have been eligible to get paid for their time — or, in Twitch’s parlance, participate in the “partner program.”

So now, <a href="http://ift.tt/2p0oDyS to the Wall Street Journal, Twitch is going to be adding an “affiliate program” that’s open to a wider swath of folks. Starting next week, more broadcasters will be able to, basically, accept tips from viewers who drop “bits” into their channels for a penny apiece.

For a popular streamer who can reach a broad audience, the seemingly small change is no joke. Twitch tells the WSJ that its top earners clear $100,000 per year in revenue, and you can see why: the potential audience is huge.

In 2016, roughly 622,000 viewers were simultaneously watching streams at any given time. The current record for an individual well-known exports figure is about 245,000 concurrent viewers, and a major event can bring the site more than 2 million simultaneous watchers. And the top

As the WSJ points out, Twitch is making itself more attractive to potential streamers while other platforms continue to face challenges trying to rely on live-streamed content.

Last year, Twitter opened its video advertising program to all comers and offered content creators a 70%/30% split, better than the 45% of ad revenue YouTube offered. And YouTube, meanwhile, is still trying to reduce the money that stolen or copycat videos make and facing blowback from advertisers over the way ads have appeared with offensive videos and hate speech.


by Kate Cox via Consumerist

Plastc Smart Cards Raise $9M In Pre-Orders, Won’t Ever Ship

A few years ago, universal payment cards were a mini-fad online. The idea was that you carried one “smart” card which stored the numbers of all of your other credit cards. The most popular was Coin, which was ultimately acquired by Fitbit and shut down. Another card was Plastc, which has brought in $9 million through pre-orders since 2014, but has yet to ship — and is now out of business

This is not another cautionary tale about crowdfunding, exactly, because Plastc didn’t use a platform like Kickstarter or Indiegogo to gather publicity and pre-orders. Like another still-unshipped gadget from 2014, the Mellow sous vide device, the company spread the word through social media, posts on technology blogs, and probably some online advertising.

The company uses the language of crowdfunding to talk about itself, its project, and its customers, though, calling the people who placed pre-orders “backers.”

In its shutdown announcement, which was also emailed to pre-order customers, the company explained that it was ending its operations on April 20, considering Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and that the pre-orders would not ship.

“It’s been a long road with a lot of obstacles,” they wrote. “The support of our amazing backers has been incredible, which makes this announcement even harder. We were so incredibly ready for production in order to hit our deadlines but without capital it is impossible for us to move forward and we will not be able to fulfill any pre-orders.”

“Capital? What about that $9 million?” the pre-order customers asked. That’s not quite clear, but the company claims to be broke. It was counting on money from outside investors to actually produce and ship the cards, but claims to have had a working prototype. Both investment deals fell through, and the company is shutting down. Its patents and prototypes will presumably be sold as part of its bankruptcy proceedings.

The universal credit card idea is still around, but it’s a troubled industry. There was Coin, and Engadget reminds us of Swyp, which appears to have shipped some cards and says that more will ship this summer. Stratos also managed to ship cards, and was bought out by another company that may not keep the service going.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Samsung To Make Google Play Default Music App On All Devices

If you’re planing to order one of Samsung’s new Galaxy S8 devices today, you’ll also be getting a little bit more — or at least Google hopes you do: Google Play Music streaming service will now be the default music app on Samsung devices. 

Google announced Friday that in a bid to increase subscribers of its streaming service it struck a deal with Samsung to make Google Play Music the default player and service on all Samsung devices from now on.

Through the partnership, Google says it will offer new Samsung owners a three-free month trial of Google Play Music and YouTube Red, the company’s ad-free video subscription service.

While Google no doubt hopes that making Google Play Music the default system for Samsung devices will translate in more subscribers, that doesn’t have to be the case.

Instead, after the trial Google Play Music will allow users to upload 100,000 tracks of their own music to stream. That figure is double the 50,000 tracks Google typically allows customers to upload.

In addition to adding Google Play Music front and center on its devices, Samsung says that its virtual assistant Bixby will work with the streaming service.

This means subscribers will be able to ask Bixby to play their favorite song or music for dancing and it’ll start playing on Google Play Music instantly.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Crack In The Subway Bubble? Number Of Locations Shrinks For First Time Ever

After years of growth, Subway is beginning to shrink. Sure, the chain remains the most popular eatery in the world (at least in terms of stores), with more locations than McDonald’s. However, the 100% franchised chain reported a net decrease in its number of stores in the United States this year for the first time ever.

Subway announced this week that at the end of 2016, it had 26,744 restaurants in the United States. That’s a net decrease of 359 stores since the end of 2015, while total domestic sales in the company’s restaurants decreased 1.7%.

International sales are up, though, perhaps because the rest of the world hasn’t been over-saturated with Subways yet, and the chain is adding more restaurants in those markets.

The typical Subway store is smaller than most fast food locations, and often requires less equipment and fewer employees. This helped the chain to attract franchisees, who were opening new stores at a rate of nearly three per day in 2012.

The company reached its current level of stores about three years ago. At the time, founder Fred DeLuca claimed there was still room in the U.S. for another 7,000 or 8,000 Subway locations.

Subway has more than 40,000 locations around the world, while McDonald’s has around 36,000. However, Subway has the lowest income per store in the fast food industry. What matters to its corporate overlords are franchise fees, though, and not pure sales numbers.

“We will continue to relocate some shops to better locations and look for new sites — both traditional and non-traditional,” the company told Reuters in a statement this week.

While the chain has pushed relentless growth for decades, there are multiple issues that could be affecting its franchisees now. It faces competition from other fast-food restaurants that consumers perceive as more healthy.

The company has also dealt with the dealt with the death of DeLuca, and the high-profile arrest and imprisonment of its longtime spokesman on child pornography charges, not to mention the end of its deeply memorable $5 footlong promotion.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Should Comcast Merge With Charter Or Verizon? Analyst Says Yes

In much the way that fans of celebrities enjoy chatting about how great two stars would be together, financial analysts daydream about multibillion-dollar corporate weddings. The current pro-business, anti-regulation mindset in D.C. is only fueling those romantic merger fantasies, with one high-profile analyst claiming that now is the perfect time for Comcast to gets its acquisition on.

Financial services and analysis company BTIG has released a new report pondering a few reasons why it thinks Comcast is primed to go on a buying spree.

First, there’s personality: Comcast CEO Brian Roberts is fairly young, likely to stay in charge for at least a decade or two, and is much more likely to want to make Comcast bigger than to sell it, BTIG concludes.

Second, there’s technological reality: We are nowhere near an all-wireless, all-mobile environment now, but give it 20 years and… well, we still might not be there, but we’ll be pretty close. Comcast has a lot of valuable wires, but not exactly a robust wireless business (small steps into mobile aside). For long-term survival in the increasingly air-based future, it’s going to need either to spend a ton of money shifting gears, or simply to buy up someone else.

And third, there’s timing: While nothing is set in stone, it’s incredibly likely that the current leadership at both the FCC and the Justice Department will be much more mega-merger friendly than either was during the Obama administration, or than either would be during a hypothetical future Democratic administration years down the line. On top of that, the new FCC chair is deregulation-happy, pulling back on potential speed bumps for corporations — like ISP privacy and possibly even et neutrality — wherever he can.

That answers the “why,” then… but what about the “who?” BTIG has six suggestions, spanning the gamut from new and scrappy to ancient and entrenched. Their suggestions are: Snapchat, T-Mobile, Netflix, Disney, Verizon, and Charter.

Snapchat probably won’t be interested in a sale, BTIG notes, putting pretty long odds on that idea.

Netflix, too, has long odds on it. Comcast can afford it, and desperately needs a brand people like, rather than hate, in its portfolio. Regulatorily speaking, there’s no clear reason to block it as long as Comcast first sells off its 30% share in Hulu. But Netflix, the analysts note, is probably disinterested at best in a stock transaction, which probably makes that a no-go, too.

On the other end of content, Disney’s a little tricker. Comcast tried and failed to buy out the House of Mouse once before, and the media landscape world has changed since then. Since Comcast already includes NBCUniversal, getting a Disney purchase through regulators could involve a lot of slicing, dicing, divestment, and conditions Comcast might not want or be able to make.

T-Mobile, on the other hand, seems like such a likely acquisition target to BTIG (and others) that they’re a little surprised it hasn’t happened before. This, too, would be unlikely to be stalled by regulators, BTIG notes.

That leaves us with two real biggies: Verizon and Charter.

Verizon has already expressed interest in potential talks with Comcast. “Imagine a Comcast merfer of equals essentially with Verizon to create the largest broadband provider in the US spanning wired and wireless,” BTIG suggests. Regulatory approval could probably actually be arranged, the analysts speculate, but “imagine the outrage” from all the same folks who fought Comcast/Time Warner Cable (like us).

That leaves Charter, an “opportunity that simply feels too compelling for Comcast to ignore,” BTIG speculates. Would even the current FCC and DOJ really be willing to let the no. 1 and no. 2 cable/broadband providers in the whole nation merge into one 55-million-customer, coast-to-coast, unbeatable juggernaut?

As BTIG dryly notes, “While the regulatory hurdles are clearly lower under President Trump, we suspect Comcast would still face a massive backlash from consumers, broadcast/cable network programmers and technology companies who would fear Comcast’s notably increased broadband power and associated monopsony risk.” Even so, though, analysts think that the rewards could be big enough to make the attempt worth the risk.

The Insatiable Roberts Family Act 3: Should Brian Attempt a Hail Mary Acquisition? [BTIG Research]


by Kate Cox via Consumerist

Visa Under Investigation In Ohio For Debit Card Verification Practices

Visa has revealed that at least one state attorney general’s office is looking into several aspects of the company’s debit card practices.

In a note in its latest quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission [PDF], Visa disclosed that the office of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine recently made investigative demands of the company with regard to its debit card business.

Visa says DeWine’s office sought “documents and information focusing on Visa’s rules related to the acceptance of Visa debit cards, as well as cardholder verification methods and the routing of Visa debit transactions.”

While it’s unclear exactly what the Ohio AG is investigating, merchants have accused Visa — and, in some cases, MasterCard — of forcing them to use their verification networks for debit cards, instead of less-expensive verification services that confirm the cardholder via a PIN. The retailers also say that PIN verification is more secure than the pricier system they allege they are being strong-armed into using.

Walmart, Kroger, and Home Depot have each filed lawsuits against Visa over its debit card verification practices.

We’ve reached out to the Ohio AG’s office for comment on this investigation and will update if we receive a response.

Visa says it is cooperating with the AG DeWine’s requests.


by Chris Morran via Consumerist

American Airlines Workers Targeted In $16.7M Hearing Aid Scheme

Eastern Mountain Sports, Bob’s Purchased By UK Retailer Sports Direct

After their parent company went bankrupt twice in one year, sporting goods chains Bob’s and Eastern Mountain Sports have a new owner: Sports Direct, which already operates hundreds of stores in Europe and has had its eye on U.S. expansion for a while.

If the company manages to not become insolvent within ten months, it will be an improvement over the company’s past leadership and financial position.

The UK-based retailer, which is paying $101 million to acquire the remaining Eastern Mountain and Bob’s locations, also owns a number of apparel and sporting goods brands, including Everlast, Slazenger, and Kangol.

However, Reuters reports that analysts are critical of this acquisition, noting that Sports Direct’s stock price has been falling in recent months.

“What is not required, in our view, is a major, and not inexpensive, distraction, 3,000 miles away,” argued analysts at Peel Hunt.

Sports Direct has been eager to get into the United States market for a while, considering teaming up with the New York-based chain Modell’s to take over a number of Sports authority stores when that chain closed, keeping them running under the Sports authority brand name. That transaction didn’t work out, but Sports Direct clearly still dreamed of coming to America. Now has been anointed the auction winner in this bankruptcy case, and will run its new 50 stores without an American co-owner.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Banquet Chicken Nugget Meals Recalled For Possible Salmonella-Tainted Dessert

If your lunch plans included throwing a Banquet meal in the microwave, you might want to make sure the chicken nugget tray doesn’t include a brownie, as the sweet treat may contain Salmonella bacteria.

Conagra Foods posted a notice with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Services Thursday recalling 110,817 pounds of frozen chicken nugget meals.

Conagra says it recalled the products out of an abundance of caution after being notified by an unnamed supplier that an ingredient used in the brownie mix may be contaminated with Salmonella.

It’s unclear what ingredient in the brownie mix could be contaminated or where the material came from.

The affected Banquet Chicken Nuggets with Mac & Cheese products come in 7.4-ounce trays with code 3100080921 and a Best If Used By date of July 20, 2018. The products also have the establishment number “P-9” printed on the side of the box.

To date, Conagra is unaware of any reports of adverse reactions in anyone who has eaten one of these meals.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Wells Fargo Adds Another $32 Million To Fake Account Settlement; Will Cover Customers Going Back To 2002

Wells Fargo recently reached a $110 million deal that it hoped would close the books on a variety of class action lawsuits related to millions of fake accounts opened by Wells employees trying to game the bank’s system of sales quotas and incentives. That settlement was intended to cover affected Wells customers going back through 2009, but it’s now been expanded by $32 million to add compensation for bank accounts as far back as 2002.

This is according to the law firm representing the plaintiffs in one class action, who say the settlement offer is now valued at $142 million.

If the settlement is approved, it would compensate Wells customers who had unauthorized accounts opened in their name starting in May 2002.

“Wells Fargo abused the trust of its customers, and the proposed $142 million settlement aims to reimburse Wells Fargo customers for the damage caused by the bank’s conduct,” says Derek Loeser, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

The deal, which still requires court approval, technically only settles one class action — a lawsuit brought by a California man in 2015, more than a year before the bank admitted to the fake account fiasco. However, Wells said last month that it believes this settlement will effectively close the books on the dozen or so other pending class actions.

The bank has already paid $185 to state and federal regulators as a penalty for the debacle, which saw thousands of Wells employees dismissed, along with the “retirement” of Wells CEO John Stumpf and the exit of Carrie Tolstedt, who headed up the bank’s retail business. In addition to being pushed out the door, both execs have had significant chunks of compensation clawed back by the Wells Fargo board.

Earlier this week, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency — one of the federal regulators with oversight of Wells Fargo — released a report on its handling of the bogus accounts, revealing that OCC investigators knew of fraud-related complaints at Wells Fargo for years but did nothing.

According to that report, by 2010 the OCC had compiled more than 700 whistleblower complaints about the bank’s bad practices, but after meeting with Tolstedt, failed to pursue the matter further.

In addition to lawsuits from customers, Wells faces allegations from employees that the bank retaliated against staffers who tried to blow the whistle on potential fraud.


by Chris Morran via Consumerist

Bebe To Close All 180 Stores; Future Plans Uncertain

The rumors that women’s clothing retailer bebe might exit the mall and go online-only were apparently true, as the company has announced plans to shutter all 180 of its stores this spring.

Bebe announced in a regulatory filing Friday that it had made the decision to close all 180 of its locations by the end May.

The company has hired a firm to hold a liquidation sale of all current merchandise and fixtures located in the stores. By closing the stores, bebe says it expects to take a $20 million loss, likely from lease negotiations.

The California-based retailer, which was created in 1976 and caters to “the confident, sexy, modern woman,” announced in late March that it was exploring strategic alternatives.

While bebe didn’t provide details on its future plans in its filing, the store closures don’t necessarily mean the end of the bebe brand. As Bloomberg reported last month, one of the chain’s strategic alternatives included the possibility of moving its business online only.

If that happens, bebe wouldn’t be the first.

In November, Kenneth Cole announced it would close all of its outlet stores, leaving just two retail locations and its online store open.

Teen retailer dEliA*s rebounded from its 2014 bankruptcy in April 2015 by announcing it would launch an online-only store. In Sept. 2015, Macy’s revived Filene’s Basement as an online only store.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Consumerist Friday Flickr Finds

Here are four of the best photos that readers added to the Consumerist Flickr Pool in the last week, picked for usability in a Consumerist post or for just plain neatness.

Want to see your pictures on our site? Our Flickr pool is the place where Consumerist readers upload photos for possible use in future Consumerist posts. Just be a registered Flickr user, go here, and click “Join Group?” up on the top right. Choose your best photos, then click “send to group” on the individual images you want to add to the pool.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Suave Pours Some Shampoo In A Different Bottle, Tries To Trick ‘Beauty Influencers’

Unilever has apparently noticed that some young women are more concerned about what ingredients aren’t in their beauty products and sneer at the items sold in drug stores and big-box stores. It has responded with a campaign where it tricks a diverse cast of online “beauty influencers” into trying a new product with sleek packaging for two weeks. That product? Rebottled Suave.

Suave was repackaged as “evaus,” spelled without capital letters on a super-minimalist white and peach label. The bottles look awfully similar to shampoo and styling product bottles from Bumble and bumble, a brand that costs more than ten times as much as Suave. Or evaus.

The packaging is an important part of how we perceive things as consumers, and Unilever seems to be targeting Millennial women who have substantial student loan payments, yet who also won’t be caught using personal care products that are available at Walmart.

Unilever took the subterfuge as far as using the idea of a new premium brand to draw in reporters. A writer for Racked went to check out an event in New York City that promised to introduce “the newest brand in prestige hair care to launch from Unilever,” evaus.

“I asked what the price point was and [a Unilever publicist] told me I’d learn more in the presentation, but that it was ‘definitely luxury,'” she wrote.

The presentation was a video that showed Instagram-famous “beauty influencers,” including a professional hairstylist, who had tried the product and were shocked at how nicely their hair turned out.

The lesson here? Cheryl Wischhover over at Racked thinks that the lesson Unilever should have taken home that it should redesign its packaging to stand out on the shelf of other $3 shampoos.

We all know that what’s inside and how it affects your hair counts, but our brains have been conditioned by years of marketing propaganda to believe that packaging signals which products are or aren’t for us.

You can get a $1 off coupon for Suave products at the bottom of the Evaus campaign page if you want to give Unilever your contact information, though.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

Tesla Will Recall 53,000 Model S, X Vehicles Over Parking Brake Issue

If you purchased a Tesla Model S or Model X last year, you might want to check to ensure it’s not part of a newly announced recall for parking brake issues.

TechCrunch reports that Tesla notified owners of 53,000 Model S and Model X that it would voluntarily recall the vehicles after discovering a potential manufacturing issue that could leave the parking brake permanently engaged.

The recall affects certain Tesla Model S and Model X vehicles built between Feb. 2016 and Oct. 2016.

According to the carmaker’s notice to owners, the vehicles may contain a small gear that could have been manufactured improperly by a third‑party supplier. If this gear were to break, the parking brake would continue to keep the car from moving, but the parking brake would then be stuck in place, the carmaker says.

Tesla tells TechCrunch that it discovered the issue after owners began receiving alerts that their parking brake needs service, or that the brake could not be disengaged. While the company does not believe the issue could lead to a safety concern for customer, it is being proactive in replacing the parts to ensure no issues arise.

So far, Tesla is unaware of any reports of the parking brake system failing to hold a parked vehicle or failing to stop a vehicle in an emergency situation.

“We have also determined that only a very small percentage of gears in vehicles built during this period were manufactured improperly,” the carmaker says, noting that the issue does not affect the car’s regular braking system.

TechCrunch reports that Tesla believes it will have all parts required for the repair by October.


by Ashlee Kieler via Consumerist

Department Store Departures Will Be Good For Malls In The Long Run

While the nationwide retail apocalypse has led to lost jobs and terrible liquidation sales, there’s one piece of good news for consumers and for the companies that own malls. As old-fashioned anchors like Sears and JCPenney move out, more diverse stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues are moving in, and they’re paying much higher rents.

The old business model for malls meant having large retailers, usually department stores, as a theoretical draw for customers. Building a mall meant signing up anchors at much lower rents per square foot than other retailers, then filling in the rest of the mall from there.

“Without a department store, there would not have been a shopping center to be built,” a longtime mall developer told CNBC in a recent interview.

Now, the large spaces that used to belong to department stores are being divided up for smaller stores or converted into supermarkets, and that has an advantage that isn’t obvious to consumers. The new tenants pay a lot more rent than their departed predecessors.

CNBC uses the example of former Sears stores that are now being rented out by an affiliated real estate trust, Seritage. According to a new report from commercial real estate firm JLL that CNBC was able to see, Sears pays an average $4.40 per square foot for its stores.

When Sears leaves and other tenants like Whole Foods, Dave & Buster’s, Outback Steakhouse, or Primark divide up the space and move in, that old-school special price for department store anchors goes away.

Retailers that rent the old Sears spaces through Seritage are paying rent at an average of $12.74 per square foot — nearly three times what the former department store paid. And rents are going up, with newly signed leases averaging $18.55 per square foot.

For a moderately sized anchor department store space of 20,000 square feet, that’s $371,000 a month, compared to $88,000 a month in rent from older stores.

Malls are still giving some of their tenants breaks. Today, it’s relatively small Apple Stores that get breaks on rent from developers, because they attract shoppers to the mall while department stores are at least a useful place to park sometimes.

Diversifying away from just retail also means that malls still attract crowds even as retail sales fall.


by Laura Northrup via Consumerist

In One Day FCC Votes To Both Streamline Competition And Disregard Competition

It was a busy, if confusing, morning for the FCC. The Commission held its monthly open meeting, where it considered more than a half-dozen items, resulting in everything from harmoniously unanimous votes to contentious disputes among the three sitting members. Oh yeah, and Chairman Ajit Pai also got “rickrolled” in person.

Among the many issues the commissioners discussed today were proposals to streamline certain kinds of broadband deployment, plans to stop caring about other types of broadband, and reversing a rule that could have big ramifications when it comes to media consolidation.

Making Competition Easier

The Commission voted unanimously today to kick off the consideration period for a proposed rule [PDF] that suggests many changes to speed up and streamline fixed (wired) broadband deployment nationwide.

Among the many proposals in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) are changes to pole attachment and one-touch make ready rules. These are the completely boring, utterly unglamorous, crucially important regulations that can make or break the chance for a broadband competitor to, well, exist. After all, you can’t connect someone’s house to your new service if you can’t run the wires to their town and their home.

The FCC has guidelines for pole attachment and permitting that about 30 states use instead of their own state-level rules, but those come with long notice, waiting, and compliance periods built in such that actually getting anything done can take months or years.

The NPRM asks if the FCC should try adopting one-touch make-ready guidelines like the ones some localities already use in order to make their cities more appealing to newcomers. For example, Nashville adopted such a rule to pave the way for Google Fiber to build infrastructure in town. Incumbents file lawsuits against cities that pass OTMR rules to block them and therefore slow down or halt newcomers’ attempts to compete, but if the rule were at the federal level suing one city at a time would become a much less viable strategy.

However, the NPRM includes a few other “streamlining” measures that concerned Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, although she still voted in favor of considering the proposal.

Her concerns have to do with legacy — copper wire — phone networks, and how carriers are transitioning them to modern, internet-based, fiber-using (VoIP) service instead.

Back in 2015, the FCC adopted a rule saying that a company ripping out legacy copper wire lines and replacing them with fiber doesn’t need to seek permission from the Commission to do so, but it does need to prove that the new service is equally sufficient to the old service, and it also needs to provide at least three months of advanced notice to the consumer… and those take time that the NPRM asks about reducing.

“The Commission seems to view paying customers who subscribe to legacy services as a barrier to infrastructure deployment, and this is problematic for me,” Clyburn said.

“A study from last year found that approximately 20% of Americans view landline telephone services as the most important communication service … this group may include the most vulnerable members of our society. … This item, as it was originally drafted, primarily ensures that large carriers, not consumers, got what they want.”

“It is no secret that it would indeed be more efficient for carriers to migrate all of their customers off legacy services as quickly as possible,” she concluded, “but as regulators, we are charged with protecting the public interest and the public interest standard goes beyond operating fees. Rather than properly wrestling with these difficult issues, the commission implies that efficient technology transitions override consumers’ desires and consumer protections.”

The NPRM now kicks off a comment and response period that will last for a few months before the Commission makes any final decisions.

Eliminating Competition

You may (or may not) recall that about a year ago, under the leadership of former chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC started to consider an overhaul to the business data services (BDS, formerly known as “special access”) market.

More: This overpriced telecom market you never heard of costs you an extra $20 billion a year

The BDS market is for all those uses of phone lines that are critical to making the non-residential world run, but that you don’t necessarily think about. For example, the lines that let your credit card payment data travel from a store’s cash register, or the “middle mile” of wire that connects cell phone towers to the fiber networks that power them.

The market kind of ossified into a bunch of very entrenched carriers over the last 30 or 40 years, leaving some areas without much or any competition — which, in that way it always does, leads to higher prices.

“If we want to maximize the benefits of business data services for U.S. consumers and businesses, we need a fresh start,” Wheeler said about it at the time. “The marketplace is changing. Cable companies are entering the market, and Internet Protocol (IP)-based technologies can now deliver services traditionally satisfied by legacy, circuit-based products. Yet, competition remains uneven, with competitive carriers reaching less than 45 percent of locations where there is demand.”

The final rule on which the Commission voted today, however, had a very different view of competition than what Wheeler first discussed in 2016. Instead, the FCC now officially views BDS competition as “robust and vigorous” rather than lacking.

So how does it now define competition? The new Order determies that market is deemed competitive if 50% of the buildings in a given county are within a half mile of a location served by a competitive provider.

This means that if there’s competition across the county line from you, but not in your county, your location is still considered competitive if you live within a half-mile of that border — even if carriers refuse to serve your location.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly called the order a “positive and welcomed step to eliminate unnecessary regulation.”

Chairman Pai, teasing out a winding metaphor about Alice in Wonderland, spoke at length about why reducing regulation would benefit everyone, saying, “We have collected the data, analyzed the data, and compiled plenty of public input and now is the time to act.”

Commissioner Clyburn, however, did not mince words over her extreme frustration and disappointment with the measure, delivering an uncommonly scathing dissent.

Describing how time and time again the Commission and D.C. at large talk about protecting and promoting small businesses as “the backbone of the American economy,” Clyburn accused the FCC of turning its back on them.

“Instead of looking out for those millions of little guys, the Commission has once again chosen to side with the interests of a handful of multibillion-dollar providers,” she said.

“This order puts a hefty nail in the coffin of wireline competition. … I am not alone in expressing concern about this order. Members of Congress, industry, the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, and even the European Union have substantial concerns about the direction of this item, but when the goal is deregulation at all costs, we should not be surprised that those concerned calls fall upon deaf ears,” she continued.

“Make no mistake, these are highly complex issues,” she finished, “and yet the conclusion that I am forced to reach today is that this order is one of the worst I have seen in my nearly eight years at this Commission.”

She added that she found the order “abhorrent,” “dizzying,” and “arbitrary and capricious” — the last being the language that gets used in lawsuits to overturn regulation.

Media Consolidation

In another contentious move, the Commission granted an Order for Reconsideration having to do with the UHF discount.

If you haven’t been able to remember the difference between UHF and VHF since TVs still shipped with two dials (or if you were born after that, and have no memory of it at all), you’re not alone. UHF was the bottom knob back then, channels 14 and up.

The UHF discount has to do with determining how big is too big for a TV station — what percentage of the airwaves in the country it can own.

There’s a cap for nationwide broadcast reach: 39%. If you broadcast in the UHF spectrum, you need to stay at or under that limit to be in compliance with the law.

In 2016, the FCC changed how it calculates a station’s reach towards that limit. UHF stations had previously been given a “discount” that made their potential audience “count” as only 50% of the households they could reach.

So, for example, if you could reach 1 million people in a given metro area, for calculation purposes that would count as 500,000 people. On the national scale, that could very quickly add up to reaching more than 39% of households while still, on paper, reaching not even half that.

Today’s FCC action reversed that, and re-established the discount, making those stations once again permitted to calculate they reach half of the households they can for regulatory purposes.

While this is all fairly arcane regulatory stuff from the consumer perspective, it can have huge effects down the line, permitting media groups like Hearst, Sinclair, and others to continue growing their empires.

O’Rielly was in favor of reverting the rule, as he disapproved of altering it in the first place last year.

Pai, too, spoke in favor — not just of reverting the rule, but in fact of finding a chance to revisit the concept of a national cap altogether. “Today,” he concluded, “the FCC is wiping the slate clean and later this year we will begin a new proceeding to review comprehensively the fguture of the national cap, including the UHF discount.”

Clyburn, however, once again stood staunchly against the Commission’s action, saying that “I am not a betting woman, but mark my word: this Order will have an immediate impact on the purchase and sale of television stations.”

“This order will enable the largest broadcast station owners to grow even larger and those aspiring owners that we meet and try to give up to at conferences .. your dream of owning and competing as a new entrant or a smaller broadcast owner will become a nightmare, because no justification exists for this order.”

“Consumers benefit from competition,” she concluded, “and as regulators we are supposed to be the public interest’s torchbearers for this nation. Today, I’m sad to report, we failed miserably.”

Privacy and Net Neutrality

While the Commission did not formally discuss or vote on any measures related to consumer privacy or net neutrality today, at the traditional post-meeting press conference, reporters hammered Pai with questions about both.

One reporter asked Pai about what he and the FTC have planned to do, now that matters of privacy related to ISPs can no longer be handled by the FCC.

The answer? Nothing. Not yet, at least.

“We haven’t yet sat down with the chairman and her team,” Pai admitted. “But the sentiment remains the same … and so in due course, we’re going to make sure that we work cooperatively with the FTC to figure out a way to do that.”

Nor have he and his counterpart at the FTC sat down to hammer out a privacy framework, he added in response to follow-up questions.

As for net neutrality, another reporter asked about Pai’s meeting earlier this month with telecom trade associations — the groups that represent the Comcasts and Verizons of the world — in which, sources say, he outlined a way to kill off the Open Internet Rule.

He confirmed that he’s been meeting with many companies, “and the goal here is pretty simple,” he added.

“I’ve been consistent in my view that I favor a free, open internet, and that I oppose Title II. I’ve simply been soliciting thoughts on how to secure the online consumer protections that people have talked about, and that’s how we proceeded.”

In response to follow-up questioning, he said he was looking for a “diversity of views among a diversity of stakeholders,” and added, “I think everybody, certainly in this Commission, favors a free and open internet. It’s what we had prior to 2015 when these regulations were adopted on a party-line vote, and I think everybody needs to recognize that there’s common ground here.”

But, he continued, “In my view, Title II has had harmful effects on the marketplace. It has depressed investment in this country in terms of capital expenditures by broadband providers, big and small.”

(The numbers for the big guys do not appear to back that up.)

“I think going forward,” he concluded, “we want to make sure we have the light touch regulatory framework that induces investment and competition. Those are things that consumers benefit from at the end of the day … I’m focused on trying to find the common ground here, so that we can move forward in a way that benefits everybody.”


by Kate Cox via Consumerist

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