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The Consumerist

Track How Customers Move Around Real-Life Malls With The ‘Physical Cookie’

Wed, 2015-02-25 18:53

keychainCookies are small files that websites store on your computer so they can identify and remember you. They can do useful things, like keep you signed in to a site, or annoying things, like make what seems like every ad bar across the entire Internet show you ankle boots after just one Zappos search. What if that technology could follow you into real life?

That’s the dream of one property company in Finland, which has a vested interest in keeping real-life malls healthy and solvent. They conducted a real-life test of the physical cookie, which they’re now marketing as a keychain called Sponda. Their pitch to mall owners? Malls can stay ahead of e-commerce by tracking and advertising to shoppers just like websites do. Once everyone is disappointed that “physical cookie” doesn’t mean that it’s snack time,

The transponders aren’t registered to the person’s identity and address, but instead sit there and gather data while the person browses and makes purchases. Mall billboards and store displays can then customize displays to shoppers as they walk around. This is what phone-based services like iBeacon would like to do, but they’re limited to zapping offers to users on their phones.

‘Physical cookie’ could help malls fight back against Amazon [Mashable]
Physical Cookie [Sponda]

American Express Raises Interest Rates In Effort To Be Just Like Other Credit Cards

Wed, 2015-02-25 18:49
(The.Comedian)

(The.Comedian)

The bad news continues to mount for American Express customers, as the company announced plans Wednesday to raise the annual interest rates on a number of consumer credit cards.

Bloomberg reports that more than a million cardholders will be affected by the rate increase to variable-rate products, including some proprietary and co-branded credit cards.

Under the plan, AmEx will increase interest rates by an average of 2.5 percentage points, bringing rates for new customers up to at least 12.99%. However, some longtime customers may continue to have lower rates.

The company says the hike – which applies to balance transfers and new purchases – is the result of a year-long review that purportedly found AmEx rates were well below competitor cards.

“We analyzed our credit-card portfolio last year and found customers that had APRs considerably lower than market rates, sometimes as low at 3.25%,” Elizabeth Crosta, a spokeswoman for the company says.

According to Bloomberg, the average rate on a variable credit card is currently 15.76%.

The company says the changes are a normal part of business, despite the fact that it hasn’t increased rates in nearly five years.

Crosta says the new rates are no different from what consumers would get if they applied for a comparable AmEx card today.

AmEx has suffered several substantial losses already in 2015.

In early February, the company confirmed a months-long rumor that it would end its exclusive relationship with Costco. The agreement between the two companies is slated to end in March 2016.

Shortly after that announcement, rumors began swirling that AmEx and JetBlue would end their decade-long relationship. At the time, sources claimed that JetBlue had reached a deal with Barclays Plc and MasterCard Inc. to take over its co-branded card business.

On top of the severed partnerships, AmEx was dealt a blow last week when a federal court ruled the company’s merchant agreements violate antitrust laws, resulting in higher costs for customers.

AmEx Said to Increase Rates for More Than 1 Million Cardholders [Bloomberg]

Tobacco Giants To Pay $100 Million To Settle Hundreds Of Lawsuits In Florida

Wed, 2015-02-25 18:35

(Ryan McFarland)

(Ryan McFarland)

After more than two decades of a legal roller-coaster that at one point had the tobacco industry hit with $145 billion in damages, hundreds of federal lawsuits in Florida are close to being settled after three tobacco giants reached a deal to pay a total of $100 million.

In May 1994, a Florida man named Howard Engle filed a class-action suit against the country’s largest tobacco companies on behalf of smokers in the state who alleged that cigarette makers had misled consumers about the dangers of their products.

And they did mislead people for decades, which is why in May 2000 a Florida jury slapped the defendants with $145 billion in damages, one of the largest jury awards ever in the U.S.

But the tobacco companies argued that the class of plaintiffs was too general and that the penalty too excessive, and the state’s Supreme Court ultimately agreed.

The court decertified the class in 2006. Decertification can be a lawsuit-killer in that members of the former plaintiff class must now file as individuals or regroup into smaller plaintiff groups; having to reprove the case all over again but for a smaller payout.

However, the Florida Supremes allowed the so-called “Engle progeny” to use the jury’s factual findings in any lawsuits they subsequently filed. So these plaintiffs would not have to prove that the tobacco companies misled consumers; just that they were affected by these misleading representations.

That resulted in thousands of lawsuits filed in Florida state courts and in U.S. District Courts in the state. Since plaintiffs didn’t have to go through the hassle of trying to re-prove the lies told by tobacco companies, most Engle verdicts have gone against the tobacco industry.

One company, Liggett Group, settled in 2013 for $110 million, which is more than double what any of the three companies involved in today’s announcement will pay.

Reynolds American Inc. and Altria Group Inc. will each pay $42.5 million, while Lorillard Inc. will pay $15 million.

These settlements, if approved, will only close the books on unresolved lawsuits in Florida federal courts. The announcement does not impact cases filed against the tobacco companies in state court.

[via WSJ.com]

SCOTUS: Dentists Can’t Bar Other Businesses From Offering Teeth-Whitening Services

Wed, 2015-02-25 18:20

(evil robot 6)

(evil robot 6)

When you want to get your pearly whites professionally polished to their pearliest and whitest, going to the dentist doesn’t have to be the only option, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled today. The justices had looked at a case brought by the Federal Trade Commission against a North Carolina state board dominated by dentists that the agency said had unlawfully excluded non-dentists from teeth-whitening services.

The justices ruled 6-3 that the board acted illegally be excluding competing businesses from offering teeth-whitening services, reports USA Today, the kind you might see in shopping malls, spas and other stores.

The FTC charged the state Board of Dental Examiners with antitrust activities, saying it was acting in the interest of dentists and not customers by doing things like issuing cease and desist letters to non-dentists who were whitening teeth.

Back in 2006, the dental board had warned operators of teeth-whitening kiosks away, saying they were practicing dentistry without a license, the Associated Press reports. Those businesses were pressured into closing, pushing customers to go to higher-priced dentists.

A federal appeals court had agreed that the board had been acting like a group of private practitioners, and not as a state agency. The Supreme Court sided with that court and the FTC, ruling that dentists shouldn’t be keeping customers from finding cheaper ways of whitening their teeth just to make a buck.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion that the FTC was right to conclude that the state regulators also had a financial interest in the market for teeth-whitening, despite that fact that state entitities are usually exempt from federal antitrust laws.

The exemption doesn’t apply here because the board wasn’t actively supervised by the state, notes Reuters, and was instead made up of self-interested private businesses.

He wrote that the exemption “does not authorize the states to abandon markets to the unsupervised control of active market participants.”

Justices: Dentists can’t decide who whitens your teeth [USA Today]
Supreme Court drills dentists in teeth-bleaching dispute [Associated Press]
Supreme Court says state dental board can’t regulate teeth whitening [Reuters]

Nearly A Year After Recall, Alli Weight-Loss Pills Return To Stores

Wed, 2015-02-25 17:50

After 11 months in recall limbo, alli is heading back to store shelves.

After 11 months in recall limbo, alli is heading back to store shelves.

In March 2014, drug giant GlaxoSmithKline issued a voluntary recall of the popular alli weight-loss pill over concerns about possible package tampering. Nearly a year later, the over-the-counter drug is finally coming back to stores.

Alli (orlistat) had been on sale as an over-the-counter drug in the U.S. since June 2007 when it was recalled last year.

The recall occurred after some alli users claimed to have discovered non-alli pills inside of bottles that had been sealed. This led to concerns of tampering, resulting in GSK working to create a more tamper-resistant container for the drug.

The AP reports that Amazon recently began taking pre-orders for alli in anticipation of its re-release and that the drug officially hit the market again via drugstore.com this month. GSK says alli should be back in most stores by this point.

Hero Sets Record By Eating 182 Slices Of Bacon In Five Minutes

Wed, 2015-02-25 17:09

(Carbon Arc)

(Carbon Arc)

Listen, not everyone can throw arterial caution to the wind, so when someone does go above and beyond the usual bacon intake to prove themselves a hero in the pork-eating world, it must be noted. I salute you, guy who ate 182 slices of bacon in five minutes, because there is no way I will ever be you.

Of course, competitive eating is not for everyone, even those who really, really, really like eating delicious foods such as bacon.

But it was all in a day’s greasy work for competitive eating champion Matt “Megatoad” Stonie, who crammed a world record amount of bacon into his stomach in just five minutes during a contest sponsored by Smithfield Foods in Dayton, FL recently, reports WXIA.

The event kicked off the Smithfield Pig Out Chase, which is an amateur eating competition with various events leading up to an “ultimate eating showdown” that will take place in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The previous bacon record was set in 2010 with just 54 pieces of bacon in five minutes.

“I’m a huge bacon fan, so I jumped at the chance to team up with Smithfield to set the bacon-eating world record,” our brave hero says. “As one of the youngest competitive eaters on the circuit, I’m always looking to push myself so I aimed to eat 150 slices, but when I passed that and got to 182 slices, I knew it must be because I’m fueled by bacon!”

His stomach has been tested before and won accolades for making room for other foods, as well. According to Major League Eating, Megatoad is ranked second overall and has the record for eating the most gyros, birthday cake, frozen yogurt and pumpkin pie.

Man eats 182 slices of bacon in one sitting [WXIA]

Can A Website Get You Out Of A Traffic Ticket?

Wed, 2015-02-25 16:52

(Rich Renomeron)

(Rich Renomeron)

It’s scary to get a traffic ticket, especially if you drive for a living or there’s a hike to your insurance on the line that you can’t afford, not to mention paying the fine. It makes sense to pay a service advertising that it can help get you out of a ticket for a modest fee that’s less than your fine. Or does it?

Instead of going to traffic court, California lets people make their plea in writing: it’s called a trial by written declaration. However, this isn’t the equivalent of hiring a lawyer. When you pay a site like TicketBust.com, you’re effectively paying for some expensive form letters.

That’s what CBS Sacramento learned when a truck driver who used the site to get a red light camera ticket dismissed worried that he was paying $250 for something that couldn’t possibly help. The site promises a partial refund of $100 if a customer’s ticket isn’t dismissed, but keeps the $150 “document processing fee.” That fee goes toward…hitting “print” on a computer, apparently, since the site admits that what they do is choose from a “library of stock defense templates” and send the appropriate one to the court. They aren’t lawyers, but also claim that they don’t represent themselves as one.

The problem, consumer reporter Kurtis Ming points out, is that the company brags that it has helped more than 50,000 drivers on its website. Yet they don’t actually keep track, and have no way to know how many customers they’ve really helped.

Call Kurtis Investigation: Can Websites Fight Traffic Tickets? [CBS Sacramento]

T.J. Maxx, Marshalls & HomeGoods To Increase Minimum Wage To $9/Hour

Wed, 2015-02-25 16:43
(Mark Clifton)

(Mark Clifton)

In another sign that retail companies are re-evaluating the way they pay employees, TJX Cos. – the parent company of stores like T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods – announced it intends to increase hourly wages for worker starting this year.

Bloomberg reports that the company, which also own Sierra Trading Post, unveiled plans Wednesday to boost pay to $9 per hour for nearly 200,000 employees beginning in June.

By 2016 the company aims to pay all hourly workers at least $10 per hour, as long as they have been employed by the retailer for at least six months.

“This pay initiative is an important part of our strategies to continue attracting and retaining the best talent in order to deliver a great shopping experience for our customers, remain competitive on wages in our U.S. markets and stay focused on our value mission,” CEO Carol Meyrowitz said in a statement.

TJX’s proposal to increase employee pay comes just a week after Walmart announced it would provide raises for nearly 40% of its hourly workers over the next year.

Retail wages have been the center of much discussion in the past few years, with workers and labor advocates scrutinizing companies for underpaying employees and the legislature contemplating an across the board increase to minimum wage standards.

As a result, more and more retailers have indicated they would bump up compensation in recent months.

Employees at Gap, Inc. stores received an increase to $9 per hour in 20014, with that wage set to climb to $10 per hour this year.

IKEA also vowed to give hourly workers a raise from $91.7 to $10.76 starting this past January.

TJ Maxx Follows Wal-Mart in Raising Employee Wages to $9 an Hour [Bloomberg]

Warby Parker Is Sorry About Your Stolen Car, Buys You A Beer

Wed, 2015-02-25 16:35

(reddit)

(reddit)

When you have a bad day and make a comment about to someone at the store, you probably don’t expect anyone to do anything other than nod their head and feign sympathy. But one Warby Parker customer says her visit to the eyewear store resulted in a little more than a “there there.”

An Atlanta-area woman named Tess says she recently had her car stolen and smashed into a tree as the thieves made off with it.

That same day she went into a Warby Parker store to pick up her new glasses and mentioned the theft of her vehicle.

Then, according to Tess, she got the above note and gift card to use at a popular bar in Atlanta.

“We were so sorry to hear about your car,” reads the note. “Since you probably won’t be the designated driver any time soon, here’s a round on us!”

Of course, since this is reddit, there are a number of people claiming that this is a plant from Warby Parker intended to go viral; in spite of the fact that Tess has been posting on reddit for two years, including the above-referenced post about her stolen Jeep. And while a number of these eagle-eyed cynics pointed out things like the clean photography, the inclusion of the logos for Warby Parker, the bar, and the name of a particular type of eyeglass frame — some of them managed to miss the fact that Tess is not a “him.”

Obviously Warby Parker and every other retailer that does something like this is hoping that the customer will share their story. That’s the whole point of making generous gestures to customers — that they will be so happy they feel compelled to tell others. Before the Internet, that was called “going above and beyond,” now it’s automatically labeled as viral marketing.

Back in 2013, multiple reddit threads accused an Olive Garden customer of being a corporate shill for posting a photo of a receipt for a meal that had been comped by the restaurant after learning of a family tragedy. In the end, it was all much ado about nothing, as the receipt turned out to be the real deal.

“I posted the receipt on the Internet, and the Internet is a highly skeptical place,” the customer told us at the time, “so I can’t really blame anyone for thinking the receipt was fake.”

Jury Orders Apple To Pay $532.9M After Finding That iTunes Software Infringes On 3 Patents

Wed, 2015-02-25 16:28

(afagen)

(afagen)

Apple is on the hook for a hefty wad of cash after a Texas jury found its iTunes software infringes on three patents held by a company called Smartflash LLC. It’s been ordered to hand over $532.9 million, and has pledged to appeal the verdict.

At the center of the case are three patents owned by Smartflash that deal with data storage and payment management, reports the Wall Street Journal. The company alleged that a patent co-inventor shared his ideas back in 2000 with a man who is now a senior director at Apple.

Smartflash doesn’t make its own products, but claimed that Apple infringed on the patents by using the technology to manage apps sold through the iTunes store, like “Coin Dozer Pro” and “Grub Guardian,” all developed by outside companies. Two of those companies were also defendants before being dismissed from the case.

The jury said that Apple had willfully infringed on all three patents, and that it hadn’t proved the patents were no longer valid. Though $532.9 million is a hefty sum, Smartflash had been seeking even more in damages — $852 million.

“Smartflash makes no products, has no employees, creates no jobs, has no U.S. presence, and is exploiting our patent system to seek royalties for technology Apple invented,” said an Apple spokesperson, adding that Apple would be appealing the decision.

“I would expect Apple to say they will appeal as part of Apple’s standard operating procedure,” said Brad Caldwell, lead counsel for SmartFlash. “However, Smartflash believes the facts and the law support the jury’s verdict.”

Apple isn’t the only target Smartflash had in its sights — it also filed similar lawsuits against Google and Samsung Electronics.

Apple Is Ordered to Pay $532.9 Million in Patent Case [Wall Street Journal]

What You Need To Know About Tomorrow’s Votes On Net Neutrality And Municipal Broadband

Wed, 2015-02-25 16:00

On Thursday morning, the Federal Communications Commission will sit down to discuss and vote on two big issues — net neutrality and municipal broadband — that the cable and telecom industries have campaigned heavily to defeat and obscure. Because of these industry-backed efforts and the legalese involved, many consumers are having difficulty separating myth from reality. In an effort to cut through that haze, we’ve attempted to answer the most pressing questions about these two topics before tomorrow’s vote.

Tomorrow’s FCC session involves two separate but often conflated proceedings. The first is officially dubbed “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet,” but the rest of us know it as Net Neutrality.

The second issue looks at state-level regulations that ban or severely limit municipal broadband, i.e. networks owned by local governments. In particular, the discussion revolves around two FCC petitions, filed by the cities of Wilson, NC, and Chattannooga, TN, asking to be allowed expand their existing public broadband networks in defiance of industry-supported state laws.

The measures are likely to pass in contentious 3-2 votes. Here’s what you need to know about both.

What is going on with net neutrality?Image courtesy of consumerist Section Permalink Bookmark Section Share on Facebook Share on Twitter
After over a year of going back and forth with various proposals, the FCC is planning to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service — a common carrier — under Title II of the Communications Act.

Once they have done that, the FCC can put in place strong regulations mandating that ISPs not discriminate among the traffic they carry. Companies like Comcast, Verizon, and so on will not be allowed to block or throttle lawful internet traffic, nor will they be permitted to take cash to speed up or clear the way for other internet traffic (paid prioritization).

In sum: you pay your ISP for your internet access, so you get to pick which content you access. All (lawful) content you request should be delivered to you properly on request, without extra barriers. Neither you nor the people who made the content you’re requesting should have to pay extra to get that content delivered just as well as anything else.

Wait, but network management is a real and vital thing. Will ISPs still be able to do that?
“Reasonable network management” will be explicitly permitted under the new regulations. So ISPs can still manage the flow of data as needed for optimum network performance. But, as the FCC fact sheet points out, there’s a critical caveat: “The network practice must be primarily used for and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management — and not commercial — purpose.”

So: traffic shaping in order to keep the network working smoothly for as many people as possible? A-ok. Traffic shaping in order to give Streaming Service A better access to customers than Streaming Service B? No way.

Who will the new rule apply to?
The rules apply to retail internet providers — companies that sell internet access to consumers. That means your basic home and business ISPs, from AT&T to Verizon and every carrier large and small in between. That does not include back-end, middleman bandwidth delivery companies like Level 3 or Cogent.

However, in a change from previous regulation, it does include wireless broadband. So going forward, net neutrality will apply on your phone’s 4G just as it does on your home wifi.

Does this have any effect on my data caps?
Not right now, or at least nothing affecting data caps — on either mobile or wired service — has been announced at this time.

So how new or groundbreaking is this?
The concept of net neutrality isn’t new at all. It’s the status quo. The regulatory framework is pre-emptively meant to protect it going forward, so ISPs can’t start charging consumers more to access some sites or types of data than others (or start charging businesses to be accessed by some consumers).

Doesn’t that make net neutrality “a solution in search of a problem?”
Nope. Despite nondiscrimination being the overall rule of the road, there are always some folks who don’t play along.

Comcast got in trouble for throttling subscribers’ legitimate content a few years ago, for example. Others have been accused of blocking different legitimate traffic. And AT&T, Verizon, and others have said that they would love to charge for fast-lane access if it were permissible. The problem is there.

Why is Title II reclassification needed to make this happen?
Because the old rules were able to be thrown out in court based on the technical legal arguments. One of the few paths left available to the FCC for future regulation, in that case, was reclassification.

I keep reading that these regulations are old and outdated — they were developed for railroads and for the Bell System! Should they really apply to the internet?
Title II is a section of law with many different provisions in it. The FCC, when using Title II authority, can choose to forbear from (skip) some provisions that don’t or shouldn’t apply while enforcing others that do and should. And that is exactly what they’re doing.

The FCC is explicitly forbearing from any provisions having to do with rate regulation or tariffs, the segments of the law that ISPs considered the most potentially harmful to future investment. The commission is enforcing provisions having to do with consumer protections and access to infrastructure like utility poles.

Some of the specific sections of the law the FCC does and doesn’t plan to apply are listed in their net neutrality fact sheet (PDF), and the full, detailed list will be available to the public after Thursday’s meeting.

I’m worried this will make my internet bill go up because of the $15 billion in new taxes and fees.
Your internet bill probably will go up this year (sorry), but it has absolutely nothing to do with net neutrality. That’s just because there’s no competition in most markets and ISPs will soak you for every penny they can.

Your ISP could absolutely start charging you more after the FCC rule change. But — and this is really important — they already do exactly that anyway and have done so for many years. The main driver of internet price increases is not government policy, but rather the near-complete lack of competition. Prices go up because they can, and they go down when multiple businesses actually have to compete for subscribers.

The claim that reclassifying broadband services will generate $15 billion in new taxes and fees comes from a single report that has since been thoroughly debunked. States may be able to add certain narrow surcharges and fees, but there is a a federal law blocking taxation of the internet, period. And the author of that law has literally called the $15b claim “baloney.”

Additionally, the commission has explicitly stated that the new order “will not impose, suggest or authorize any new taxes or fees” on internet services.

Will this fix or change Comcast in any way, or have an impact on the merger?
Nope. Comcast is against both measures, as are the other major ISPs (Verizon and AT&T especially), but neither rule has any direct bearing on the Comcast/TWC merger plan. That’s a separate proceeding that the FCC and Justice Department are expected to deal with in March or April.

Will net neutrality make my Netflix better (or worse)?
In theory, end users (all of us at home) shouldn’t see any real differences at all. That’s the point: that all of the internet traffic we request, including Netflix, should be delivered to us equally.

The conflicts Netflix has had with Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T take place farther down the chain, before the internet traffic ever gets to the “last mile” and becomes the purview of retail operators.

The new net neutrality proposal will not directly regulate these interconnection, or peering, agreements. However, it will grant the FCC the authority to hear complaints and potentially take enforcement action (usually that’s fines) if a company is abusing interconnection agreements or otherwise behaving badly.

Will net neutrality make competition better?
Sadly, no. Net neutrality regulation is in many ways actually a response to the lack of competition in the marketplace: since consumers can’t usually or easily go elsewhere, monopoly providers need to be regulated in such a way that they can’t harm customers who would otherwise walk away from them.

However, the municipal broadband petitions might make competition better. Which leads us to…
What is going on with municipal broadband?Image courtesy of frankieleon Section Permalink Bookmark Section Share on Facebook Share on Twitter
Currently, 19 states have rules on the books prohibiting or restricting the ability of municipalities — city or county level governments — to build their own broadband networks.

Those laws are heavily lobbied for and sponsored by the incumbent ISPs, who really like not having to compete at all and don’t think they should have to start.

However, the FCC has the authority to pre-empt — override — the state laws that block municipal broadband projects if those laws are against the public interest. Wilson and Chattanooga, both of which already have robust public networks, have asked the FCC to give them permission to expand those networks despite the laws in their states, and the FCC is likely to agree.

Will this override all those laws in all 19 states?
No. Only these two cities (in those states) would be able to move forward with their projects at this time. However, the ruling would set a precedent for other municipalities who want to move forward with their own projects in the future.

Congress is mulling over a bill that would prevent all states from blocking community broadband projects in the future, but one should generally never hold one’s breath waiting for Congress.

I have heard this is a federal takeover of my internet, and that taxpayers are going to be forced into it!
Despite repeated ISP lobbyist claims that this pre-emption is tantamount to a federal takeover of the internet, that is not actually the case. The networks in question are neither mandated nor implemented by state or federal governments, nor will cities be required to act. The pre-emption will only give cities — and for now, only two cities — the right to undertake their own broadband projects if they see fit.

Anthem Hack Included Personal Information For 78.8 Million Customers & Employees

Wed, 2015-02-25 15:51
(Anthem)

(Anthem)

Nearly three weeks removed from the detection of a massive data breach, health insurer Anthem Inc. is releasing more details about the scope of the hack, including the fact that personal information for about 78.8 million was compromised.

The Wall Street Journal reports of the 78.8 million people affected by the breach, 60 million to 70 million are current and former employees and customers going back as far as 2004.

Anthem, the owner of Blue Cross and Blue Shield in 14 states and Medicare and Medicaid plans, says some of the breached data belongs to consumers who were enrolled with Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurers outside of Anthem’s coverage area, but had used their coverage in one of the states where Anthem is the BCBS provider.

The Indianapolis-based insurer says that compromised records for around 14 million people are incomplete, So far, the company has been unable to identify where those consumers were enrolled, but believe it is unlikely they were active customers.

While compromised information includes names, birthdays and Social Security numbers, there is no evidence showing medical information or financial details such as credit-card or bank-account numbers were involved in the hack.

Previously, the company announced it would offer all current – and anyone who has been an Anthem customer since 2004 – two years of free identity-theft protection services.

Anthem faces multiple investigations by the FBI, federal healthcare agencies and state insurance commissioners, the Times reports.

“We appreciate the identity-protection services being put into place by Anthem, but reviewing the scope and implications of this event will be a long process,” Monica J. Lindeen, Montana’s commissioner of securities and insurance and president of the National Assn. of Insurance Commissioners, said following the breach.

As part of state and federal investigations, commissioners are looking into whether Anthem took sufficient security measures to safe-guard that information.

Industry analysts said last week that the outcome of those inquiries could lead to government sanctions like fines or suspension from key programs like Medicare Advantage or bidding for state Medicaid contracts.

Anthem first spotted the breach internally. They then brought it to the attention of the FBI and hired a specialist cybersecurity firm to help investigate. In a statement at the time, Swedish called it a “very sophisticated external cyber attack.”

The company, formerly known as Wellpoint, is the second largest health insurer in the country and currently covers 37.5 million Americans. They operate a wide variety of plans and brands, particularly Blue Cross Blue Shield.

The company has launched a dedicated website for sharing information about the breach, though at the moment it only contains the statement from Swedish and a brief FAQ.

Anthem: Hacked Database Included 78.8 Million People [The Wall Street Journal]

KFC Bringing Edible Coffee Cups To UK

Wed, 2015-02-25 15:48

kfcediblecup1_3211389bHave you ever looked at your empty cup of coffee and just wished you could devour it? You’d probably survive eating your standard paper cup, but it wouldn’t be the most tasty of experiences. Thank god there’s KFC, which is introducing an edible coffee cup in the UK.

The “Scoffee” Cup is intended to promote the chicken chain’s launch of Seattle’s Best Coffee at KFC eateries in the UK. It was developed by food scientists at a company called The Robin Collective, creators of things like edible terrariums and a margarita that changes colors.

The cups consist of a cookie (or “biscuit,” as they inexplicably say in England) wrapped in sugar paper that is lined with heat-resistant white chocolate.

“We’ve infused different cups with a variety of ambient aromas including ‘coconut sun cream’, ‘freshly cut grass’ and ‘wild flowers’,” says a member of the Robin Collective to the Telegraph. “These scents were used in our recipes as they have a natural ability to evoke the positive memories we associate with warm weather, sunshine and summer holidays. Things that make everyone smile.”

A KFC UK brand manager says the company has been experimenting with edible packaging “to see if it could be a feasible product to bring to market in limited quantities.”

The Scoffee Cup is still in development, but KFC plans to bring them to a limited number of stores later this year.

While the cup might look yummy in the above photo, this image posted to Instagram by the model in the photoshoot shows that the reality may be less appetizing:

Instagram Photo

Uber Passengers Can Now Earn Starwood Hotels Points With Each Trip

Wed, 2015-02-25 15:41

(James Callan)

(James Callan)

Uber and Starwood Hotels are teaming up in an effort to get more passengers to choose Uber over regular taxis, with a new partnership that gives riders Starwood rewards points every time they take a ride using the car-hailing mobile app.

Passengers will get one rewards point for each dollar they spend on Uber rides, reports the Associated Press, while guests staying the night at a Starwood hotel will earn two to four points per dollar spent, depending on the level of their status with the hotel chain.

But it’s not like everyone who takes a ride with Uber will automatically start bringing in the Starwood points — passengers won’t be eligible to rack up points on rides until they’ve spent at least one night in the calendar year at a Starwood hotel.

It takes at least 3,000 points to get a free night in a Starwood hotel at the lowest tier of hotels, and as high as 35,000 points a night for upscale properties. That’s a whole lot of Uber rides.

This is the first such global deal that rewards ground transportation passengers with hotel points, and could give Uber a boost in cities where it’s competing fiercely with established taxi companies and other car services.

Neither company revealed the terms of the deal.

“Our guests get to us in many different ways,” says Mark Vondrasek, Starwood’s senior vice president of loyalty and partnership marketing. Through these partnerships, “we’re trying to get members to concentrate their stays with us.”

Uber partners with Starwood, giving hotel points for rides [Associated Press]

Man Returns $10,000 Walmart Debit Card To Store, Now It’s Gone Missing

Wed, 2015-02-25 15:16

Walmart claims that there is no way this card, found by a man working at an Alabama fast food restaurant, could have more than $1,000 on it.

Walmart claims that there is no way this card, found by a man working at an Alabama fast food restaurant, could have more than $1,000 on it.

A young man in Alabama who says he found a Walmart-branded Visa debit card with more than $10,000 on it is in the odd position of having to defend himself after the nation’s largest retailer has effectively called him a liar.

The man, a college student at the University of South Alabama, says he was recently sweeping the parking lot while working at a Captain D’s eatery when he came across the card. Checking the balance on the register inside the restaurant, he claims it showed a balance of $10,446.88 on the card.

He initially was overjoyed, especially since he needed a new car, but he ultimately decided that the right thing to do was turn the card over to Walmart and hope someone there could identify the rightful owner.

And so the man took the card to a nearby Walmart and turned it over to a customer service rep.

Here’s where things get strange.

When the man went back to inquire if the owner of the card had been found, the store pleaded ignorance.

When AL.com asked the Walmart manager, he said the store didn’t have the card and directed questions to Walmart HQ.

The corporate office gave a response that was even more baffling, claiming that not only was no one able to locate the card but that it’s not possible for the card to have more than $1,000 on it.

“So it is basically my word against a big company like Walmart,” says the man who found the card.

We think some of the confusion with Walmart HQ might lie in local media reports’ reference to the card as a “gift” card. The actual Walmart store reloadable gift card does have a maximum allowable balance of $1,000, but the card shown in photos shared by the man who found it does not appear to be a standard gift card.

It looks like the card is a Walmart MoneyCard, the store’s co-branded reloadable Visa debit card. These cards can have significantly more than $1,000 on them. The only limit stated in the terms of the MoneyCard [PDF] is a maximum daily reload limit of $2,999.

We’ve contacted Walmart HQ to ask for clarification regarding its claims of a $1,000 maximum balance. This post will be updated if we hear back.

Southwest Gets OK To Continue Flying 128 Planes That Missed Inspections

Wed, 2015-02-25 14:05

(Douglas Muth)

(Douglas Muth)

Yesterday afternoon, Southwest Airlines had to cancel dozens of flights after learning that one-fifth of its entire fleet was overdue for a necessary maintenance check. The airline was to have grounded 128 planes pending inspection, but has reached a deal with the Federal Aviation Administration that will allow those jets to continue flying.

The airline notified the FAA on Tuesday that the planes had missed a required maintenance check on their standby hydraulic systems, and voluntarily moved to ground the Boeing 737-700 jets.

Southwest then conferred with Boeing and the FAA to work out a plan, announced in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, that allows these planes to keep flying for up to five days while the inspections are completed.

Tuesday’s halt resulted in about 80 Southwest flights being canceled and grounding all 128 planes for even a day or two would have wreaked havoc on one of the nation’s busiest carriers. Because of the FAA’s green light to continue flying, the airline hopes that there will be minimal impact over the next few days as it pushes through these overdue maintenance checks.

Southwest is already in the hotseat with the FAA regarding repairs. Last summer, the regulator said the airline could face upwards of $12 million in fines over years of allegedly improper repairs to its fleet. A few months later, the agency sued Southwest for failing to pay those fines.

H&R Block Will E-Mail Your Tax Info To Just Anyone

Wed, 2015-02-25 00:08

(bradhoc)

(bradhoc)

Tax returns contain some pretty sensitive information. You would think that when a tax preparer collects your e-mail address, they might verify to make sure that it is your correct e-mail address. If that’s your assumption, clearly you are not H&R Block, which doesn’t particularly care whether they’re sending your personal information to you or not.

This will be familiar territory for anyone whose e-mail address happens to be [first initial][last name]@emailprovider.com, or [first name][last name]@emailprovider.com. There’s even an xkcd cartoon about the phenomenon, which is not limited to older people: I’ve run across it with L. Northrups young enough to be my children. However, one Ars Technica reader was not thrilled to receive the name, address, and security questions for the H&R Block account of someone he doesn’t know.

While the other man is a stranger, they have something in common: the same relatively common first and last names. While one Aaron reports that he does often get e-mail meant for the other Aaron, he was surprised to receive so much personal information.

Take this as a warning: if you use H&R Block, be sure to triple-check the e-mail address that you type in. Otherwise you might end up perpetuating identity theft against yourself.

Tax firm H&R Block doesn’t verify client’s e-mail, leaks personal info [Ars Technica]

Pebble Promises They’ll Ship Kickstarter Watches Before Stocking At Best Buy This Time

Tue, 2015-02-24 22:44

pebblewatchesThe original Pebble smartwatch campaign in 2012 was a fabulous success, collecting $10.3 million dollars in Kickstarter pledges. It produced a real product that shipped, but not after some backers were disappointed when the company stocked Best Buy’s shelves before sending out watches to Kickstarter backers that had been paid for up to a year earlier. In its new campaign to launch a color watch, Pebble promises: that will not happen again.

The Kickstarter backer/Best Buy wholesale order controversy wasn’t as bad as it initially appeared on the surface: the company claimed to have 93% of the Kickstarter rewards shipped, but problems with the white version of the watch meant delays for people who chose that color. People who hadn’t received their watches while new ones sat on the shelves at Best Buy were understandably unhappy.

This morning, Pebble launched its second Kickstarter campaign for a color version of the watch, the Pebble Time. The $500,000 goal was met within half an hour, and as of this writing the pledge total stands at $5,804,324. That’s great. More importantly, though, far down the page where the company lists the rewards, they promise that this time all Kickstarter reward watches will ship before watches go out to retailers.

pebbletime

We understand that it was an exceptionally difficult choice when the company received an offer from Best Buy to carry the watch, but it’s nice that they’ve explicitly promised to ship orders of the Pebble Time to Kickstarter backers first. Let’s hope that they’re able to stick to it.

California’s Plastic Bag Ban Delayed, Must Now Face November 2016 Referendum Vote

Tue, 2015-02-24 22:36
(Renee Rendler-Kaplan)

(Renee Rendler-Kaplan)

With just five months until California’s statewide plastic bag ban was set to take effect, opponents of the law have successfully petitioned for a ballot referendum, delaying the law until voters have their say next year.

The Los Angeles Times reports that opponents of the plan to phase out the use of plastic bags qualified for the referendum after they collected the 504,760 signatures needed to place the measure on the November 2016 ballot.

“California voters will now have the chance to vote down a terrible law that, if implemented, would kill 2,000 local manufacturing jobs and funnel obscene profits to big grocers without any money going to a public purpose or environmental initiative,” Lee Califf, executive director of the trade group American Progressive Bag Alliance, tells the Times.

Under the law – which was set to go into effect on July 1 – consumers would have had to bring their own reusable bag, purchase a reusable bag from the retailer or pay at least ten cents for a paper bag or a multi-use plastic carrier that meets state durability standards.

Mark Murray, a spokesperson for the campaign Californians vs. Big Plastic, tells the Times that supporters of the ban expected the referendum to be granted after opponents announced in December that they had collected more than 800,000 signatures.

“It’s not surprising that after spending more than $3.2 million, 98% of which is from out of state, the plastic bag industry has bought its way onto the California ballot to protect its profits,” he said in a statement.

Still, groups backing the discontinuation of plastic bag use in the state are confident that voters will uphold the ban.

“Every poll shows that Californians strongly support the law, and the $30 million to $50 million it will cost the plastics industry to launch a full-fledged campaign in 2016 will be proven to be an act of political malpractice, particularly since nearly half the state will no longer have plastic bags by election day,” Murray said.

Murray noted that city and county plastic bag bans will not be altered by the ballot vote.

The referendum qualification comes five months after the measure to phase out plastic bag at grocery stores and other retailers was approved by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

California’s plastic-bag ban put on hold by ballot referendum [The Los Angeles Times]

WD-40 Should Read Its Own Label Before Suggesting Bartenders Use A Toxic Substance On Beer Tap Handles

Tue, 2015-02-24 22:13

(@OriginalWD40)

(@OriginalWD40)

We’ve got to imagine whoever handles the social media at WD-40 hasn’t read the product’s own label recently, because if so, that person would know that WD-40 is toxic and harmful to humans when ingested, making it a bad idea to use the stuff on anything that dispenses food or beverages. But heck, it’s World Bartender Day and no one wants squeaky tap handles, right?

The Twitter page for WD-40 Tweeted a recommendation suggesting that loyal customers might want to give the gift of the multi-purpose lubricant at their favorite watering hole:

#WD40Uses: On World Bartender Day, give your favorite bartender a can of #WD40 to lubricate beer tap handles. pic.twitter.com/hMYHWBjlH1

— WD-40® Brand (@OriginalWD40) February 24, 2015

The thing is, according to WD-40’s own site, the product is “harmful or fatal if swallowed” [PDF]. And on the can’s label? A giant skull and crossbones, indicating a toxic substance.

What’s an easy way to swallow WD-40? If it’s on the beer tap used to pour a beer. WD-40 goes into beer, beer goes into mouth, and voila! You’ve got a dose of toxic lubricant.

And while WD-40 lists 2,000 supposed uses [PDF] for the stuff, “lubricate beer taps” is not included.

The Twitterverse does not approve, with a slew of comments replying to the Tweet pointing out the bad advice:

You might wanna read your own label @OriginalWD40. pic.twitter.com/BMNGkZMCJu

— Joe Sixpack (@beer_radar) February 24, 2015

.@OriginalWD40 We sometimes use it on engine parts. NEVER on beer faucets. This is ridiculous.

— The Beerliner (@TheBeerliner) February 24, 2015

.@billjusino @OriginalWD40 Tap handles don't require lubrication with WD40, or anything else!

— Ray Daniels (@Cicerone_org) February 24, 2015

@OriginalWD40 Stop sniffing the stuff. And while you are at it fire the PR team. #WD40 #WD40Uses

— stevesoto (@stevesoto) February 24, 2015

We’ve reached out to WD-40 to see why the company would apparently suggest bartenders would like to poison their customers, and will update this post if we hear back.

*Thanks to Consumerist reader Mitch for the tip.

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