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The Consumerist

Now That Netflix Is Paying Comcast, Users Finally Get Decent Speeds… But At What Cost?

Mon, 2014-04-14 23:27

Comcast's speed has rebounded to its fastest ever since bottoming out in January.

Comcast’s speed has rebounded to its fastest ever since bottoming out in January.

The good news: Netflix’s deal to pay Comcast for better access to its network is working. The bad news: This will now set a precedent that Internet service providers can hold content companies hostage with complete disregard to net neutrality.

Netflix has released its latest Speed Index numbers, and in the two months since their paid-peering deal was announced, Comcast has jumped from the worst cable Internet provider in the group (only performing slightly better than standard DSL services) to the fifth-fastest provider in the U.S., with an improvement of 65% in downstream speeds.

While this is undoubtedly good news for Comcast subscribers who had been watching their Netflix signal degrade since last summer, as Comcast allowed the traffic to bottleneck, the precedent being set by this arrangement gives rise to some bigger-picture concerns, especially if Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable is approved.

1. ENCOURAGING THE OTHER GUYS
Comcast has shown the other ISPs that its strategy of refusing to open up peering connections worked to bring the country’s largest bandwidth user to the bargaining table. While Comcast is larger than any of the other ISPs currently trying this tactic (we’re looking at you AT&T U-Verse and Verizon FiOS), its success at getting Netflix to fork over the cash will only embolden the other providers to stick to their guns, even as FiOS and U-Verse continue to provide substandard speeds.

Remember, Comcast had an incentive to look good for the regulators investigating its merger with TWC. Verizon and AT&T have no such pressure and can continue playing this game of chicken until they get paid.

And when they do get paid, you can rest assured that Netflix will have to get that money from subscribers, which means higher rates, fewer selections, less investment in technology.

2. AN UNCLEAR FUTURE
It’s not known what, if any, considerations the Comcast/Netflix deal has for the 10 million or so customers Comcast could acquire if the TWC merger is approved. TWC has not acted to let Netflix service bottleneck and has instead maintained middle-of-the-pack status for quite some time.

Will be forced to pay even more money just because Comcast buys TWC? If not, will Comcast allow Netflix service to inherited TWC customers to degrade in order to justify getting more money from Netflix?

3. BARRIERS TO ENTRY
Netflix, with its large, established international customer base, is currently able to afford paid-peering deals. But what about its competitors that are just trying to crack the market, or the ones that are making their case right now to some venture capitalists? Streaming video content is already an incredibly complicated and expensive proposition without having to worry about being punished by the cable companies who often control the last mile of data to the home, and many of whom have competing services of their own.

Alas, while FCC Chair Tom Wheeler has said that peering and interconnectivity are indeed within his agency’s purview, his office recently confirmed that these issues will not be part of the updated net neutrality issues the FCC is currently drafting.

Comcast, when compared to other large ISPs.

Comcast, when compared to other large ISPs.

Ask Tax Dad: Doula Deductions, Pension Distributions, And The Sandwich Generation

Mon, 2014-04-14 23:15

TAXDADSEZHistorically, our staff Certified Tax Cat has handled readers’ questions about taxes, but he took feline early retirement and hung up his oversized eyeglasses. Filling in for him is Laura’s dad, a retired accountant and real live independent tax preparer. Exclusively on Consumerist, Tax Dad answers your questions.

Will writes:

My son was born last year. My wife used a birth doula [a trained person who provides non-medical care and emotional support to a mother during labor and birth.] Can I claim that as a medical expense? It wasn’t prescribed per se, but my wife’s doctor agreed that he wouldn’t have an issue with it and it could be beneficial for her.

Health insurance wouldn’t cover it so I had to pay it for out of pocket. As for hitting the 10% of AGI [adjusted gross income] in order to claim medical expenses at all, we’re there with this birth, so that’s not an issue. Now I just want to know if I can! I’ve Googled it and find conflicting answers online. Can you help?

In case you are unfamiliar with a birth doula as my health insurance was, here is a good FAQ.

Will,

I cannot find anything from IRS that specifically covers this, but Publication 17 Table 21-1 on medical and dental expenses includes some nursing and support services, but doesn’t include doulas specifically. IRS Publication 502 goes into even more detail on this–but, again, doesn’t include doulas specifically.

Pamala writes:

Would you please explain RMD (required minimum distribution) as it relates to pensions, and how do we know whether we’re meeting the requirements?

Hi Pamala:

Here are the basics. The required minimum distribution rule applies to those who are part of a qualified employee retirement plan, qualified annuity plan, 457 deferred compensation plan, or tax-sheltered annuity plan. If you have not yet started receiving benefits from your plan by April 1 of the year following the year when you reach the age of 70 years and 6 months, you could be penalized for not taking your RMD.

You need to take the entire distribution, or a periodic distribution based on amount and your life expectancy. Your plan administrator should be able to guide you on this.

Greetings Tax Dad! – There’s a provision in the [tax code] that allows penalty free (early) IRA withdrawals if they are done annually over the balance of a lifetime in the form of an annuity. I have not been able to find details on (1) which table to calculate the annuity and (2) how to let the IRS know what I am doing. Do you have any background?

IRS Publication 590 sheds a bit of light on this, but probably you should consult a financial advisor, such as the administrator of your IRA. IRS states that there are 3 approved methods for calculating distributions as an annuity, and you must use one of these approved methods. You also must take at least one distribution annually.

My 84 year old father who has Alzheimer’s and is diabetic moved in with me about a year ago due to his finances being in such turmoil. My other two siblings have pretty much abandoned us in this situation so I am his sole caregiver at the moment.

After some time, I managed to straighten out his fiances and address his health care issues, and I contributed my own cash to help him out of this terrible mess. All that is behind us now and financially he’s able to use his Social Security and pension to cover his basic expenses, bills and health care.

But I still spend a considerable amount of my time addressing his unending needs from a financial such as managing the house he still owns, maintenance, his monthly bills etc. I also manage his health care such as doctor visits, dealing with wicked insurance companies, and private health care workers who help out 2x per week. And I am not rich — I have my own financial responsibilities e.g., a house, kids, & education bills + I can only work part time (for now) until I am able to move him to a special care facility.

My question is, are there ANY tax deductions I can claim or any other tax incentives that could be available for my father for all of my personal time that is spent on him?

Thanks!
Signed, Sandwich Generation
(kids on one side & sick parents on the other & I’m in the middle)

Hi Sandwich: Just know that you are one of a very large under-appreciated group who have the responsibility of caring for elderly parents, just as they once cared for and nurtured you.

You are appreciated. It sounds as if your father is paying for his own support, so you cannot claim him as a dependent. I have heard of care-giver children making arrangements to bill a parent for his/her care services, but you should check with your own accountant or even a lawyer to find out whether that’s an option. It would make you an employee of your father.

The federal and some state governments have proposed stipends or tax deductions for caregivers in your situation. There are none on the federal level, but a New York Congressman proposed yet another earlier this year. Check with an expert on your state’s tax code, if you live in a state with income tax. If you or your accountant find a way, please let Consumerist know.

Disclaimer: The nature of free advice is that you often pretty much get what you pay for. Questions answered in the “Ask Tax Dad” column should not serve as a substitute for consulting a tax preparer, accountant, tax attorney, or certified tax cat of your very own. Tax Dad regrets that he cannot offer advice privately over e-mail.

Scam Alert: No One From Netflix Will Ever Ask For Remote Access To Your Computer

Mon, 2014-04-14 23:00

An example of the Netflix scam in action. (CBS News)

An example of the Netflix scam in action. (CBS News)

Whenever someone you don’t know asks for remote access to your computer, a huge, noisy and very insistent alarm bell should immediately start clanging in your head. Because it’s probably a scam to get access to your personal files, credit card information and other information.

That’s the crux of a recent scam preying on victims’ who think they’re corresponding with a customer service person at Netflix, reports CBS News, one that the Better Business Bureau says cropped up recently.

“It combines a phishing scam with a tech support scam,” explains a computer expert with Malwarebytes.

He investigated the scam by setting up a computer with no personal information and recording the interaction on his screen.

Victims will get an email or a pop-up directing them to a fake Netflix log-in page that looks real but is just a front to get at the good stuff. From there, a notice informs the viewer that “We have temporarily suspended this account,” followed by a 1-800 number to call for support.

Once you call that number, a scammer vows to fix the problem under the guise of working for Netflix, and instructs people to grant remote access to their computer. From there, it’s a veritable smorgasbord.

“I had set up fake banking sheets on the desktop and they were taken as we were speaking,” the expert pointed out. He cut the demonstration short as soon as the scammer asked for credit card information, something you should do as well, if you get that far.

The site appears to be down now, and Netflix said it’s aware of the scam and believes it’s no longer active. But that’s no guarantee that it won’t rise again in similar form, or that another scammer could employ the same tactics.

So again, if anyone wants remote access to your computer, always make sure you know and trust that person. Because no one at Netflix, your bank or any other service should ever need to do so.

Netflix scam put users’ credit cards, personal information at risk [CBS News]

Someone At US Airways Is Probably Getting Fired After Posting Photo Of Plane-As-Sex-Toy

Mon, 2014-04-14 22:32

 jayRaz)

Not the toy plane in question (photo: jayRaz)

Among the many insulting, insensitive, rude, crude, and accidental Tweets that companies have sent out over the years, the incredibly NSFW photo (unless you happen to work in the porn industry) that got posted today by the US Airways Twitter account will probably go down as one of the most embarrassing.

In a simple response to a complaining customer earlier today, the airline’s Twitter account responded, “We welcome feedback… If your travel is complete, you can detail here for review and follow up” with what we presume was supposed to be a link to a page on the US Airways website, but was instead a link to a Twitter photo of a naked woman inserting a toy plane into a place where it was not intended to be inserted.

By linking to that photo, it not only went into the US Airways’ Twitter feed, but received prominent placement on the feed’s page as the most recently shared photo.

And there it stayed for at least an hour, before the airline got wise to its gaffe and deleted it, along with issuing this apology:

We apologize for an inappropriate image recently shared as a link in one of our responses. We’ve removed the tweet and are investigating.—
US Airways (@USAirways) April 14, 2014

If you came here looking for the photo, we’re sorry. We won’t be posting the pic — not even a blurred version — but there are plenty of sites that have posted screengrabs so that this moment in Twitter-oops history will be preserved forever.

Fewer IRS Agents Mean Less Chance You’ll Get Audited This Year

Mon, 2014-04-14 22:10

(Adam Fagen)

(Adam Fagen)

Consumers with a perpetual worry of being audited each year can breathe a sigh of relief. Okay, maybe not totally, some people are still going to be audited after tomorrow’s tax deadline comes and goes, but the chances of such an audit are unusually slim this year.

In fact, budget cuts and fewer agents mean the chances of being audited by the Internal Revenue Service are lower than they have been in years, the Associated Press reports.

Last year, the IRS audited only 0.9% of people making less than $200,000; the lowest rate since the agency started publishing the statistic in 2006. For consumers who made more than $1 million last year, only 10.9% were audited; the lowest rate for that group since 2010. Officials with the agency expect both numbers to be even lower this year.

“We keep going after the people who look like the worst of the bad guys,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen tells the AP. “But there are going to be some people that we should catch, either in terms of collecting the revenue from them or prosecuting them, that we’re not going to catch.”

Still, the chances of pulling a fast one on the government aren’t too great, either. Officials say, improved technology will help to pick up the slack where agents may have once worked.

The agency’s computers are likely to catch errors or discrepancies on tax returns. For example, if you report making $40,000 in wages and your employer tells the IRS you made $50,000, the computers will catch that.

While the likelihood of getting audited is lower this year, so is the chance of actually reaching someone at the IRS to answer your tax questions. Last year only 61% of callers to the IRS received help. Officials say this year won’t be any different.

Although you probably won’t face an audit this year, it’s always nice to know the five mistakes that most often lead to correspondence with the IRS.

And, as always, remember that Consumerist’s very own Tax Dad has been answering consumer tax questions this year.

Chances of getting audited by IRS lowest in years [The Washington Post]

Retailers Put Aside Differences, Band Together To Fight Future Massive Hacks

Mon, 2014-04-14 22:07

(Steve)

(Steve)

You know that scene in superhero and/or spy movies (and especially in sequels) where the hero and his/her longtime nemesis must begrudgingly band together, if only for one kick-butt scene, to take down a larger foe that could hurt them both? That’s probably the most interesting way to think about today’s announcement from the National Retail Federation.

The NRF announced today that — in the wake of the egg-on-face hack that turned thousands of Target can-scanners into remote ID-theft devices — it is moving forward with a plan to create a platform that would allow retailers to share and stay informed of the latest information related to cybersecurity threats.

The platform is being developed in consultation with the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center (FS-ISAC), which has been sharing and monitoring threats to banks and other institutions for more than a decade. The NRF hopes to establish its own Information Sharing and Analysis Center this coming June.

“We believe a heightened and well coordinated information sharing platform such as a retail ISAC is a vital component for helping retailers in their fight against cyber attacks,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement. “Establishing a new program takes time, but time is not our friend when it comes to stopping these sophisticated and unpredictable criminals. The willingness of the FS-ISAC to work with retailers provides our industry with a new and important tool as we explore all of the options available for merchants to protect their customers and their businesses.”

The Target breach resulted in criminals accessing information for more than 100 million Target shoppers during the busy holiday shopping season. It is just one of a number of recent incidents that have consumers, lawmakers, and advocates all asking for higher security standards at the nation’s retail establishments.

Consumers obviously hate these breaches because it means their personal information is being stolen and can be used to make fraudulent purchases. Banks and credit card issuers may hate them even more, as consumers’ liability for fraudulent purchases is very limited (and in many cases, nonexistent), meaning these institutions have to go through the costly process of crediting victims, investigating fraud and issuing new cards and account numbers.

Life Lessons: Curb Your Love Of Neil Diamond While Your Phone Is Roaming Or Pay $4,300

Mon, 2014-04-14 22:00

Define "essential."

Define “essential.”

On the one hand, satiating a burning desire to hear the sweet, sweet vocal stylings of Neil Diamond piped directly into your ear at the exact moment you want to hear them could make anyone act crazy. But one woman didn’t realize that getting Diamond-on-demand isn’t so great for the old wallet if you’re downloading an entire album while your phone is roaming.

A 43-year-old British woman visiting her boyfriend’s family in South Africa had an inexplicable itch to listen to Neil after having “a bit of wine but not too much,” reports The Telegraph.

“People were playing music through their iPads or on phones through an iPod dock. Someone had put on the Traveling Wilburys but I just fancied hearing some Neil Diamond. I don’t know why,” she admits. “He’s more my boyfriend’s musical taste and I’m more of a James Blunt fan.”

So she downloaded The Essential Neil Diamond — an album she had at home in her car, she adds — to her iPhone for £8.99 (or about $15) and submerged herself in aural bliss… until she returned home and found that her bank account was overdrawn by thousands of pounds as the result of a debit to her phone company for £2,609.31, around $4,300.

The download had taken 20 minutes and used 326 MB of data, with a fee of £8 per megabyte once her 10MB monthly foreign allowance had been used up.

After some back and forth with the phone company, Orange, she was allowed to buy a backdated bundle offer to take £2,209.31 off her bill. But she’s still ticked that the purchase went through in the first place.

“There is no way this huge bill relates to the actual cost to Orange,” she says, while admitting that she feels foolish, as should’ve known better. “But I also feel it is morally wrong to be expected to pay this sort of money for a Neil Diamond album.”

I don’t like your tone, lady. And neither does Neil, frankly, after the conversation I just had with him in my head.

Maths teacher’s £2,600 phone bill for downloading Neil Diamond album [The Telegraph]

Comcast-TWC Merger Could Bring Broadband Data Caps To Pretty Much Everyone

Mon, 2014-04-14 21:40

(frankieleon)

(frankieleon)

Mobile data caps might be almost universal, but home broadband data caps are much less so. Some providers have them, but many don’t. At the moment, Time Warner Cable is in that “doesn’t” category — but Comcast keeps trying to expand theirs. If the FCC grants the corporate union of the two its blessing, a whopping 78% of Americans could find themselves living under the new normal of limited home broadband.

The math comes from the crew over at GigaOm, who keep up to date on the state of broadband caps in general. They find that among cable broadband providers, TWC and Cablevision are the only ones who don’t currently impose data caps on consumers. (Fiber and DSL companies are a more mixed bag.) Post-merger, Cablevision could easily be the last one.

Comcast’s current data cap — sorry, “data threshold” — is 300 GB. Consumers who exceed that 300 GB data point automatically see a $10 charge on their bill for each extra 50 GB of data used. The plan is not yet nationwide, but the program has been expanding over the past few years and seems to be one Comcast wants to stick with.

TWC, meanwhile, doesn’t keep their data unlimited because they particularly want to. They tried to implement “metered bandwidth” back in 2009 but had to drop the plan in the face of enormous opposition. They have since created an opt-in plan where customers can choose to accept a very restrictive cap in exchange for a tiny monthly discount on their bills. As even TWC’s CEO has admitted, that has been a total flop.

Of course, we don’t know what terms the FCC and Justice department might impose on Comcast in order to let their purchase of TWC go through. It is theoretically possible that regulators could require Comcast to ditch data caps as a condition of the sale. Possible… but unlikely at best.

The cable industry very much wants to implement usage-based pricing for everyone, everywhere — just like we used to have back in the AOL dial-up days twenty years ago. And while it might sound like their reasoning has to do with apportioning a limited resource, so high-volume users don’t prevent low-volume grandmothers from checking their e-mail once a week, that’s not what it’s about at all.

As ever, it’s really all about the money — and the simple fact that the industry would like to make even more of it. And as the future requires ever more data, data caps could be the next big way the broadband industry can make sure to nickel and dime consumers.

If Comcast gets TWC, three out of four Americans could get a broadband cap [GigaOm]

Raiders Of The Lost Walmart Find Great Deal On AC/DC Rock Band Tunes For PS2

Mon, 2014-04-14 21:37

2009 doesn’t seem that long ago, but it’s a very long time when counted in game console years, which are much shorter than dog years. That’s how long this copy of AC/DC’s songs for the game Rock Band has waited for its forever home. If you still have a PlayStation 2 and don’t mind wasting $25 or so, could you make room for it?

rockband_acdc

“According to Amazon.com, the release date of this title was 6/8/09,” notes tipster Jason. Yes, and that advanced age means that you can now find copies on Amazon for less than $4 (eligible for Prime) or only a penny (plus shipping.)

Google Also Seeking To Hasten Robot Apocalypse With Acquisition Of Drone Company

Mon, 2014-04-14 21:33

googledroneIn a move that can only logically result in a flying army of sentient, autonomous machines intent on harvesting humans, Google announced today that it is buying startup drone-maker Titan Aerospace.

Other than hastening the final days of humankind, why would Google be interested in drones? It’s not like Amazon or UPS, where the doom-copters could be used (prior to their inevitable uprising) to deliver parcels directly to consumers.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Google believes there are multiple ways in which the drones could be used in addition to blackening the daylight sky and raining down hellfire on civilization.

They could be integrated in to Google’s existing Project Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons to provide Internet service to parts of the world lacking standard Internet connectivity. Titan claims its drones can help deliver speeds of up to 1Gbps, the same speed that the best fiber-to-the-home currently aims to deliver, and many times faster than most people receive through standard cable broadband.

Then there’s Google’s Makani thingamajig, which is trying to develop an airborne wind turbine that can efficiently generate energy (which can then, one presumes, be used to power the ungodly army of drones that will destroy all but the few humans willing to do the drones’ bidding).

The drones can also be used for real-time, hi-res aerial photography and mapping; all the better to inform the soon-to-be self-aware flying bringers of doom.

Google joins Facebook in welcoming our new drone overlords. Facebook had previously courted Titan but recently announced the acquisition of a different drone company. Like Google, the mammoth social networking operation hopes to use drones bring Internet connectivity to currently underserved areas.

Norovirus, Not Brawl, Breaks Out At Chuck E. Cheese’s

Mon, 2014-04-14 21:25

(**bc**)

(**bc**)

Something terrible broke out at a Minnesota Chuck E. Cheese’s last week, and for once it wasn’t an adult brawl requiring police intervention. No, this time it was something even more frightening: norovirus. Authorities believe that the illness didn’t spread through food, but across other surfaces.

Norovirus is a gastrointestinal illness that is a hardy, fast-spreading, quickly-mutating pathogen. It’s that hardiness that makes the virus such a scourge in hospitals, nursing homes, and on cruise ships.

Based on interviews with employees and customers, the local health department believes that a customer in the restaurant was contagious last weekend, contaminating surfaces simply by touching them. In an ordinary restaurant, they might touch a chair, a doorknob, and maybe the communal crayons for children, but this was Chuck E. Cheese’s, filled with arcade games and play equipment and a wide variety of terrifying disease vectors.

“As we are always concerned about the health and safety of the families who visit our stores and we are aware that the norovirus has plagued many residents this spring,” a spokesperson for the chain told Twin Cities Business Journals we will continue to be hyper vigilant in maintaining our rigorous sanitation standards.”

The health department asked staff to wipe down every possible surface with a bleach solution, which is the best way to kill norovirus. That said, it’s also a good idea to wash your hands before you eat. Or touch your face.

Hennepin Co. Investigates Norovirus Outbreak at Chuck E. Cheese’s [Twin Cities Business Journals]

Pot Vending Machine Is Like That Awesome Idea You Had Once In College, Except It’s Real

Mon, 2014-04-14 21:00

(KUSA TV)

(KUSA TV)

It was around two in the morning one winter morning back in 1996 — or wait, was it three a.m. in 2001? You can’t remember. All you know is the brilliant idea you had that one time after watching Half Baked and smoking you know, “the reefer,” is now a reality. A new company has debuted its pot vending machine in the only place that can welcome it right now, Colorado.

I know, I know, you totally thought of this first (“So like, what if instead of chips? We could put in money? And get out weeeeed?”). I believe you, friend.

But time and tide wait for no man, and the tide has already come in for American Green’s new ZaZZZ, the first machine that verifies a person’s age before dispensing pot and pot products, reports KUSA-TV (link has video that autoplays).

“They would swipe their driver’s license at which point multiple cameras would allow us to use some advanced biometrics to make absolutely certain that the person who swiped the card is the owner of that card,” the owner of the company behind the new machine explains.

The machines won’t just be sitting out in the open for anyone to take advantage of and possibly try to plunder, but are instead designed to remain inside legal dispensaries. Sort of like an automated express kiosk at a grocery store.

The owner of the first store to host the machine will help make sure no products grow legs and walk out the door without being paid for, as each item will have a radio frequency identification chips on them.

“This takes a little pressure off of the people monitoring the medicine area so they don’t have to look over shoulders. You can fit a lot more choices in a small area,” he says. “There’s no theft issue, There’s no product disappearing.”

Until it gets back to your apartment and the five roommates you live with. Then it’s up to you to lock down your stuff. And hide your Cheetos, while you’re at it.

Company unveils first age-verifying, pot vending machine [KUSA TV]

Pizza Hut New Zealand Redeems Itself With Crusts Stuffed With Chili Dogs

Mon, 2014-04-14 20:44

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 2.12.27 PMPeople all over the world were horrified but also intrigued to learn that in New Zealand, Pizza Hut offers a crust stuffed with cheese (good) and Marmite, a yeast-based paste (ew). Fortunately, the chain’s Kiwi outposts have redeemed themselves with a new offering: the Chilli Dog Stuffed Crust Pizza. Better yet: those hot dogs are actually cheese dogs.

The crust stuffed with hot dogs is nothing new, having already hit the U.K. and Australia. Yes, inside the crust are hot dogs with flecks of cheese mixed in, then covered with chili sauce (spelled “chilli” there for some reason). No, not sriracha: the sauce is like the tomato-based broth of chili the stew. In a pizza crust. Yeah, we don’t know.

You can also add your own ketchup and mustard to the crust to go along with the hot dogs.

Around the World: Pizza Hut New Zealand – New Chili Dog Stuffed Crust Pizza [Brand Eating]

Intuit/TurboTax Using Non-Profits, Religious Leaders In Push Against Pre-Filled Tax Forms

Mon, 2014-04-14 20:22

ttaxWe can understand why some people might have concerns about receiving tax forms that are already filled in by the IRS. We could understand why some would voice those concerns in a public forum. But is a line crossed when the people telling you to voice your concerns are the very ones who stand to benefit financially from your opposition?

The folks at Intuit, best known as the makers of TurboTax, have been trying for the last several years to preempt any attempt by the IRS to launch a “return-free” system that would provide taxpayers with pre-filled tax forms that could then be more quickly and efficiently filed.

The 2002 law that created Free File — the ability to file the simplest of tax returns electronically without having to pay a fee — also established a 10-year period during which the IRS could not set up its own “free, online tax return preparation and filing services.”

That decade is now in the rearview mirror and Intuit is terribly afraid of what it could mean to the company’s bottom line. It has already pumped millions of dollars into lawmakers’ coffers, resulting in multiple (but stalled) bills that would crush return-free filing by permanently extending the ban against the IRS instituting its own free-filing system.

Since its legislative efforts have not yet succeeded, Intuit has been taking a new approach, attempting to spur a grassroots movement by convincing non-profits, along with community and religious leaders, that return-free filing is bad for the average taxpayer.

ProPublica’s Liz Day has looked into a recent spate of op-ed pieces written in opposition to return-free filings, many of which seem to echo the same misinformed messages, but which come from unexpected sources.

For instance, there’s this piece from a rabbi and professor who claims that pre-filled tax forms will hurt “those who need the most support,” because they will have to hire accountants and attorneys to revise these forms.

This op-ed piece omits the fact that the program would be voluntary and that any pre-filled information can be corrected or changed by the taxpayer. It also glosses over the reality that the lowest-income Americans currently either need to sort out their taxes on their own, use an accountant, or pay for services like TurboTax.

Of course, the rabbi’s source for his information might explain these omissions. He tells ProPublica that he wrote the op-ed piece at the behest of a former student, who wrote to him and asked him to present the issue to the Jewish community. What that student didn’t tell the rabbi is that she’s a PR flack for a firm that is tied to Intuit.

“I wish she would have told me that,” said the rabbi after learning this fact.

That same PR firm had recently listed Intuit as a client on its website, but delisted the company after being approached by ProPublica. However, the firm does represent the Computer & Communications Industry Association, of which Intuit is a member — and its only member company that is involved in tax-preparation.

The director of an Oregon non-profit tells ProPublica she was approached by a PR flack who provided her with a template letter for her to send to one of her state’s senators.

When she pressed the flack on who he was representing, he admitted that he was working for the CCIA and that Intuit was indeed a member of the organization.

She says the rep used “a lot of words that advocates would be sympathetic to, like ‘oh, it’ll hurt people with English as a second language.’” But after doing her own research on the topic, she opted to not send the letter and now says she supports return-free filing.

But there are others who didn’t do their research and fired off letters after being contacted by groups with an interest in putting an end to return-free filing before it starts.

The president of the NAACP Delaware State Conference says he sent a letter to lawmakers after being approached by a longtime acquaintance, who just happens to be a lobbyist with a firm that may not be tied directly to CCIA or Intuit, but which specializes in so-called grasstop campaigns, which use advocacy and community groups to spread the desired message.

After being approached by ProPublica, the letter-writer admitted, “We may have to retract so far based on my research.”

Another community leader, the executive director of the L.A.-based Asian Business Association, confesses that he didn’t really look into the information he was given by an unidentified lobbyist that resulted in an op-ed piece against return-free filing.

“There’s some homework needed,” he admitted to ProPublica.

TurboTax Maker Linked to ‘Grassroots’ Campaign Against Free, Simple Tax Filing [ProPublica]

Graduates Get Help Paying Student Loan Debt By Volunteering

Mon, 2014-04-14 20:02

(Phil Jones)

(Phil Jones)

Graduates facing thousands of dollars in student loan debt often feel there is no relief in sight. However, a number of organizations and programs are popping up and aiming to take some of the burden in repaying massive student debt loans off young professional’s plates.

Such is the case in Chicago where a new organization pairs college graduates with non-profits looking for volunteers with specific skills. In exchange for their work, the volunteers get money to put toward the repayment of their student loans, DNAinfo Chicago reports.

SponsorChange.org, which also operates in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., assists busy young professionals in meeting their staggering monthly student loan bills, while also providing them with an opportunity to expand their job skills and networking.

“People are getting crushed with debt as higher education costs are skyrocketing,” Shawn Agyemen, chief marketing officer for SponsorChange, tells DNAinfo. “We just want people who have skills and are very interested in helping the overall community.”

Graduates who volunteer with SponsorChange often have full-time positions elsewhere, but still lack enough funds to pay off their student debts. Instead of working part-time to make ends meet, SponsorChange gives them another option.

The program averages about $20/hour for its skill-based volunteering. The funds come from sponsors, individuals and corporations that choose to donate to a specific cause, a specific postgrad volunteer, or to SponsorChange in general.

One SponsorChange volunteer, who is working to pay $35,000 she owes from earning her 2007 bachelor’s degree, is using her public relations skills to help a non-profit tech hub. By the time her SponsorChange project ends in June, she will have made $2,000 to pay toward her loans.

“SponsorChange has connections with all type of organizations that you might not be able to tap into,” she said. “My goal is to really get more tech-based experience that I need.”

SponsorChange is just one student loan forgiveness program available to graduates facing piles of student loan debt. Last year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported that about a quarter of the U.S. workforce could qualify under federal rules for favorable loan repayment options, but most don’t know such programs exist.

One option is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, in which, individuals who work in public service jobs can qualify for forgiveness of their federal student loans after meeting certain qualifications such as making a number of loan payments or working in a job for a number of years.

For private loan borrowers who don’t have time to volunteer there are other options. Some banks are now offering the graduates the ability to refinance. In January, Charter One announced its new Education Refinance Loan that provides borrowers with rates as low as 5.24%.

Student Loan Debt Relief Available in Exchange For Volunteer Work [DNAinfo Chicago]

Another Thing For Airbnb Renters To Worry About? Your Home Turning Into A Brothel

Mon, 2014-04-14 20:00

"She did what in my bed?!?" (poopoorama)

“She did what in my bed?!?” (poopoorama)

Much like the time your parents got an unexpected phone call that their car now resided upside down in the neighbor’s swimming pool, some Airbnb renters are none too pleased to find their homes have been used for ah, sexual recreation purposes that require police attention. In essence, beware the brothelization of your home.

When you think about it, what’s not to keep the sex trade from treating homes like hotels, well, besides the law and all that. There are beds, four walls and a door that locks.

All amenities that proved too tempting for one alleged prostitute in New York City, who the New York Post says rented a 29-year-old publicist’s apartment as her hourly love nest from March 21 to March 23.

“She told me that she was in the Army and needed a place to hang out before she got shipped out,” the woman said of her Airbnb renter. “She said she was being deployed that week. She was asking for places to go out with her friends.”

She was shocked to get a phone call from the police then, after the alleged prostitute was slashed by a client over the price of his “massage.” She says she returned home to find paraphernalia like baby wipes, the woman’s “calling card” and “at least 10 condoms.” Aaaaand cue shudder.

Airbnb put her up in a swanky hotel for two night with free room-service meals and paid to change her locks, clean the apartment and replace pillows and other belongings.

“The entire hospitality industry deals with issues like this, and we have zero tolerance for this activity,” Airbnb said of the incident.

It’s not just this one isolated incident — of course there was that sex party situation as well — one escort tells the NYP that her service will rent out apartments for an entire week for the sole purpose of hosting clients.

“It’s more discreet and much cheaper than The Waldorf,” said the sex worker adding that escort services and the like can save a few hundred bucks a night by not getting a hotel. “Hotels have doormen and cameras. They ask questions. Apartments are usually buzz-in.”

Now I’m feeling pretty good about the fact that no one would ever pay to stay in my falling down, slanty-floored apartment, not even prostitutes. Silver linings, y’all. Silver linings.

Hookers turning Airbnb apartments into brothels
[New York Post]

Are You OK With A Restaurant Googling You If It Improves Customer Service?

Mon, 2014-04-14 19:05

(Michelle Rick)

(Michelle Rick)

If you apply for a job, you can rest assured that someone will Google your name or look you up on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and elsewhere before hiring you. If you meet someone via an online dating service, he or she has probably (and wisely) made repeated efforts to look you up on publicly available social media sources in order to make sure you’re not a suspected serial killer. But when you make a reservation at a restaurant, you probably don’t expect anyone there to do any research about you.

But the maitre d’ at Manhattan’s swanky Eleven Madison Park tells Grub Street he does his due diligence about every guest who makes a reservation. But he says this research isn’t about e-stalking or scoping out good-looking/wealthy customers. Instead, he claims he’s trying to learn about the guests in order to improve customer service.

For instance, if he sees that it’s a particular visitor’s birthday, he’ll greet them with a “Happy Birthday” when they arrive. The same goes for anniversaries.

He also will pair diners with servers and sommeliers who may have similar or shared interests and backgrounds.

“If I find out a guest is from Montana, and I know we have a server from there, we’ll put them together,” he explains.

At the same time, the maitre d’ says that if his research determines that the customer would rather keep a low profile while visiting the restaurant, he’ll respect that.

This is the kind of service that some may expect when visiting a restaurant like Eleven Madison Park, which has three Michelin stars, and where you could spend a good chunk of your annual salary over dinner. But it may be off-putting to some people.

That’s why we wanted to ask y’all your opinion:

Take Our Poll (function(d,c,j){if(!d.getElementById(j)){var pd=d.createElement(c),s;pd.id=j;pd.src='http://s1.wp.com/wp-content/mu-plugins/shortcodes/js/polldaddy-shortcode.js';s=d.getElementsByTagName(c)[0];s.parentNode.insertBefore(pd,s);} else if(typeof jQuery !=='undefined')jQuery(d.body).trigger('pd-script-load');}(document,'script','pd-polldaddy-loader'));

Yes, Tweeting “Jokes” To An Airline About “Doing Something Big” Can Get You Arrested

Mon, 2014-04-14 19:00

Although sometimes it can feel like engaging in social media is akin to shouting into a bottomless pit and no one is really listening, you better be sure that if you claim to be part of a terrorist group planning “something” big and tweet that to a major airline, well, someone’s going to hear you. And maybe put you in jail.

A Dutch teenager reportedly tweeted at American Airlines yesterday, saying her name was Ibrahim from Afghanistan, that she was a member of of Al Qaida and something “big” was going to go down June 1, reports Business Insider.

teentweettoam

American Airlines took notice right away of the 14-year-old’s tweet and replied that this was no laughing matter.

amtweettoteen

She soon realized the error of her tweeting ways, reportedly replying to the airline that she was just a teenager and was totally kidding. She also said she wasn’t going to tell her parents because then they’d take away her account and that would be “the end of my life.”

But Dutch police figured it’s better to be safe than sorry and have arrested her and have arrested her at her Rotterdam, Netherlands home. It’s safe to say her parents are now aware of what she’s been up to.

A police spokesman confirmed the arrest, telling Business Insider:

We’re not in a state that we can communicate any state of charges at this point. We just thought it was necessary to bring this out mostly because of the fact that it caused a great deal of interest on the Internet.

Will she most likely end up free soon enough, severely chastened and with a new respect for authority figures and the power of social media? Let’s hope so. Her account has since been deleted so she probably won’t be tweeting anytime soon, regardless.

Dutch Police Make Arrest In Teen Twitter Terror Threat [Business Insider]

Date Set For “E.T.” Atari Cartridges Landfill Dig: April 26

Mon, 2014-04-14 18:47

Do millions of game cartridges want to be found?

Do millions of game cartridges want to be found?

The world still doesn’t know for sure whether there really are millions of unsold copies of the game “E.T.” for the Atari 2500 buried in a landfill in New Mexico. Maybe that secret would have stayed buried if not for the team who thought that it might be fun and worthwhile to search for them and make a documentary film about the process.

In 1982, the company released a tie-in game for the mega-successful Spielberg flick. If it’s based on a popular enough movie, a game doesn’t have to make sense, right? The game was a hastily-done, confusing adventure game a few years before the technology to make a non-crappy adventure game really existed.

Here’s a walkthrough of the game filmed in 1982. Even for that era, it looks dull and unrewarding.

There is now more interest in the game’s legend than there ever was in the game itself, mostly because of its role in hurrying along the demise of Atari and leading to the early-’80s video game crash.

If you find yourself near Almogordo, New Mexico, on the 26th, you can even join the festivities. The filmmakers welcome members of the public, but haven’t specified whether they want observers to bring a shovel and join in the search. The game’s designer is among the luminaries who will join archaeologists and trash contractors at the landfill as the search begins.

Buried ’80s Atari ‘E.T.’ Games to Be Unearthed [ABC News Radio]

Burger King China’s PooPoo Smoothie Is Apparently Better Than Its Name Would Imply

Mon, 2014-04-14 18:01

(Eric Jou)

(Eric Jou)

Here’s another to add to the list of product names that don’t travel well: Burger King China’s PooPoo Smoothie, which may conjure up images of… well, I’d rather not say, but your inner grossed-out 8-year-old knows what I mean, but which has nothing to do with excrement and is apparently not awful.

Kotaku writer Eric Jou went to a BK in China to try out a PooPoo Smoothie for himself and declared it “delicious.”

“Keep in mind that this unfortunate name is only the English name of the beverage,” he writes. “In Chinese the beverage is called something along the lines of ‘mango ice smoothie with blow up pearls cold beverage.’”

The beverage also contains mysterious “pearls,” which are supposed to explode as you drink the smoothie.

“I’m not exactly sure what the pearls are made out of,” writes Jou. “It feels like eating a piece of pulp. The staff at hand in Burger King didn’t know. They also didn’t know that their newest smoothie’s name is related to poop.”

[via Time.com]

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