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The Consumerist

First Amazon Customer Spent $27.95 And Got A Building Named After Him

Wed, 2015-04-22 20:10
Not the first customer, but a satisfied one, nonetheless. (tehchix0r)

Not the first customer, but a satisfied one, nonetheless. (tehchix0r)

Being the first to try something new cost one guy just $27.95 and got him not only the book he ordered but his name on a building. The first non-company customer spent less than $30 on April 3, 1995 on Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought by Douglas Hofstadter, and now his moniker is splashed on the edifice of one of the company’s buildings in Seattle.

MarketWatch has an extensive interview with John Wainwright, an Australian software engineer based in Sunnyvale, CA, who made the first purchase on the site that wasn’t placed by one of the company employees.

As it turns out, he was friends with the founding engineers of Amazon, who’d left his day job to work on this “crazy idea” of an online bookstore.

“He sent me an email and said, ‘Create an account and order some books.’ I thought I was going to get some free books out of it,” he told MarketWatch, saying he used a T1 link at his office to order it. “But they took my credit card and charged it!”

He says he still has the book — “a work on artificial intelligence and human cognition modeling” — on his bookshelf, and is waiting for Jeff Bezos to offer him “a large amount of money for it.”

Big payout or no, not everyone can say they’ve got building with their name on it. Not too shabby for that price, not too shabby at all.

Meet Amazon’s first customer [MarketWatch]

Google’s “Project Fi” Wireless Smartphone Service Offers Data At $10/GB, Will Credit You For Unused Data

Wed, 2015-04-22 20:05

As expected, Google has finally announced the details of its wireless smartphone service that will, at least at first, piggyback on the networks of Sprint and T-Mobile. It’s called Project Fi and plans with unlimited talk/text, unlimited international texting, and WiFi tethering will start at $30/month, with each gigabyte of data you use costing an additional $10. And if you don’t use your full allotment, your account gets credited accordingly.

Google has details of the plans available here.

figrabIn terms of pricing, there is currently only one base tier for phone/text, and that’s $20/month. Each gigabyte of data costs $10/month. So the lowest cost plan is $30/month (phone/texting + 1GB of data). A 2GB/month plan would cost you $40, and so on in increments of $10. But if you don’t use the full amount of data for a month, your account gets credited.

“Let’s say you go with 3GB for $30 and only use 1.4GB one month,” writes Google. “You’ll get $16 back, so you only pay for what you use.”

While Google is using existing wireless networks from Sprint and T-Mobile for Fi, it says the system will constantly be searching for the optimal connection, which may sometimes be a WiFi hotspot. So the idea is that Fi will switch between the two to minimize the amount of data being used over the cellular networks and to provide you the fastest available connection at any given time.

“As you go about your day, Project Fi automatically connects you to more than a million free, open Wi-Fi hotspots we’ve verified as fast and reliable,” writes the company. “Once you’re connected, we help secure your data through encryption. When you’re not on Wi-Fi, we move you between whichever of our partner networks is delivering the fastest speed, so you get 4G LTE in more places. Learn more about our network of networks.”

Of course, until we see it in action, we have no idea how seamlessly these transitions will work or if the use of WiFi will result in significant changes to wireless data use.

Right now, Fi is an invite-only service and you’ll need to have a Google Nexus 6 device. To request an invite, first go to this site to see if your area is covered, and then go here to actually request the invite.

Many Consumers Still In The Dark About Overdraft Fees & Other Bank Practices

Wed, 2015-04-22 19:45

While millions of consumers contribute to the $32 billion in overdraft fees collected each year, a new video shows that many checking account holders don’t fully understand the way overdrafts work or how much they spend on the fees each year.

Today, Pew Charitable Trusts unveiled the above video that sheds a bit of light on just how little the average consumer knows about their financial product of choice.

While previous reports and surveys have shown that overdraft fees and unfair practices are of great concern to consumer advocates, Pew officials hope the video propels the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to take action regarding overdraft policies.

The video begins by offering viewers a few facts about checking accounts – nine out of 10 households use the financial product – and their associated overdraft fees – banks often charge excessive fees to cover small transactions.

From there, the video take a man-on-the-street approach to interviewing consumers about their knowledge of overdraft practices.

Of the consumers who were asked how much the typical bank charges for an overdraft fee, only one was able to answer correctly. According to Pew’s research, the average fee is $35, but most consumers interviewed believed the fee was $25.

When it came to bank’s overdraft protection programs, many of the chosen consumers said they were covered by the plans. However, their understanding of how such programs work was a bit skewed.

One consumers said she was automatically enrolled in the plan, but, Pew Trusts reports that consumers must specifically opt-in to the program.

The video goes on to address concerns many advocates have raised about banks’ overdraft practices, including charging consumers high fees for transactions of less than $50 and the tendency to rearrange transactions in a way that makes consumers incur additional overdraft fees.

“I think it’s ridiculous based on the amount of the overdraft,” one man says. “If it’s that minimal the fee should be a percentage of what the transaction is.”

As for rearranged transactions, all of the consumers questioned about the practice said they were unaware of its use.

“That’s upsetting,” one woman says. “I’ll have to pay more attention, I guess.”

If given the option to improve overdraft practices, many consumers told Pew Trusts that they would prefer to have a transaction declined rather than be hit with an expensive fee.

In conclusion of the video, most consumers voiced their opinion that banks should face more oversight when it comes to overdraft practices. Pew says those feelings are in line with a 2014 Pew survey that found three out of four consumers believe that overdrafts should be more closely regulated.

“The video shows people could use more information and feel overdraft fees should be more in line with banks’ actual costs,” Susan Weinstock, director of Pew’s consumer banking project, tells Consumerist. “Both conclusions are consistent with our research. We hope the CFPB will watch and take note.”

Have You Ever Overdrafted? [Pew Charitable Trusts]

Popeyes Manager Says She Was Fired For Refusing To Pay Back Money Stolen By Armed Robber

Wed, 2015-04-22 19:42

popeyesgaWhen a fast food eatery is held up, should the manager on duty be responsible for reimbursing the owner? Common sense might tell you “no,” but a former Popeyes employee claims that she was fired after she refused to pay her employer for the money stolen during her shift by an armed robber.

According to KHOU-TV, on March 31 the Popeyes restaurant in Channelview, TX, just outside of Houston, was held up by a man with a gun who ordered all employees to the floor.

He then grabbed the shift manager and ordered her to get all the money from the restaurant’s safe. She didn’t have access to that, so the only thing she could give the robber was the nearly $400 from the cash registers.

Afterward, she says her boss gave her an ultimatum: Reimburse the store for the amount stolen or she was fired.

“I told them I’m not paying nothing,” she tells KHOU. “I just had a gun to me. I’m not paying the money.”

Later that week, the restaurant terminated her employment.

A human resources rep for the franchisee tells KHOU that the reason the shift manager was fired was because she had too much money in the registers. The rep also claimed to know nothing of a reimbursement demand.

The dismissed manager contends that it was a busy day and that she did her best to minimize the amount of money in the registers at any given time.

“They got what they got because that’s what we made within one hour,” she tells KHOU.

IRS Hung Up On 8.1 Million Taxpayers Without Answering Phone

Wed, 2015-04-22 19:19

(Joachim Rayos)

(Joachim Rayos)

We knew going into this tax season that budget cuts to the Internal Revenue Service would result in less help for taxpayers and a likely increase in taxpayer fraud and errors, but today IRS Commissioner John Koskinen detailed exactly how badly things went this year.

In prepared testimony [PDF] before the House Ways & Means Committee this morning, Koskinen said that budget cuts left the IRS “unable to provide adequate levels of taxpayer service,” and that “taxpayers did not get the customer service experience they deserve.”

One of the more egregious examples are so-called “courtesy disconnects,” where someone trying to contact the IRS via phone is hung-up on before they even speak to someone. This occurs when the IRS phone system is unable to deal with the flood of incoming calls and people on hold.

Koskinen said the number of disconnects so far in 2015 has already reached 8.1 million. Compare that to only 360,000 during the same time in 2014. That’s an increase of more than 22 times the number of disconnects.

And for those who weren’t cut off, the waiting times were outrageously long — upwards of 30 minutes or more.

Koskinen said these stats are “unacceptable to all of us.”

Lines at Taxpayer Assistance Centers are getting longer, and people are queuing up for help hours before these centers open for the day, said Koskinen. It’s not a new phenomenon, he testified, “but it has gotten worse over time, and we are working to find a better approach for taxpayers.”

In an effort to trim government spending — and in apparent retaliation for alleged partisan bad behavior by some IRS officials — the agency’s budget has been slashed in recent years; down $1.2 billion since 2010.

“Customer service, both on the phone and in person has been much far worse than anyone would want,” Koskinen testified. “It’s simply a matter of not having enough people to answer the phones and provide service at our walk-in sites as a result of cuts to our budget.”

Some members of Congress have accused the IRS of deliberately diverting funds from customer service to implementation and enforcement of the Affordable Care Act, but Koskinen contends that the agency is required by law to implement the law and that this costs money. Without additional funding, and with additional budget cuts, the IRS had to take money from somewhere.

“In both years the Congress gave us zero dollars so we had no choice but to look elsewhere,” he testified.

Once again, we conclude by bringing you Sir Michael Bolton’s serenade to the under-funded IRS:

New Orleans Ban Against Smoking In Bars Goes Into Effect

Wed, 2015-04-22 18:56

(Mike Matney Photography)

(Mike Matney Photography)

Bars never close in New Orleans, but now those late night hot spots and cozy dives won’t be filled with smoke: Following the lead of many of the country’s major cities, New Orleans put a ban against smoking inside bars into effect as of today.

Though New Orleans is a latecomer to smoke-free bars, it isn’t the last one to take an all-encompassing approach to banning smoke, notes the New York Times: Fellow popular travel destinations like Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Memphis, St. Louis, among others, still have yet to completely ban smoking in all bars, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation [PDF]

This wasn’t a sudden move, however, as Louisiana state law had already banned smoking in restaurants and many bars and clubs had enacted their own smoking bans voluntarily.

Cut to last fall, when City Council member LaToya Cantrell, introduced an anti-smoking proposal. After some revising, the council approved a smoking ban ordinance a few months later.

While some will surely be glad to inhale lungfuls of smoke-free air — including many performers and musicians, bartenders and servers who’ve had to work in venues filled with smoking, other people who enjoy a smoke and a drink after finishing work at 2 a.m. aren’t so pleased.

Then there are those who mostly seem fine with the whole thing, especially given the plethora of smoking bans across the U.S.

“This is one of the smokiest bars in town,” the owner of a jazz venue told the NYT. “I know a bunch of people who don’t come in here because of the smoke,” he said, listing names. “Maybe they’ll come back.”

New Orleans Bars Issue Last Call for Smoking [New York Times]

Blue Bell Creameries Beefs Up Investigation Into Cause Of Listeria Contamination, Two More Illnesses Reported

Wed, 2015-04-22 18:11


Two days after Blue Bell Creameries voluntarily recalled all of its products, the 100-year-old business says it’s making progress in pinpointing the cause of a massive listeria contamination that has led to three deaths and at least 10 illnesses.

The Texas-based ice cream company announced Tuesday that it is stepping up efforts – including the hiring of a team of microbiologists – to quickly identify the cause of the listeria contamination, the Chicago Tribune reports.

The microbiologists are currently working with federal investigators at Blue Bell’s four production facilities located in Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama.

“As each day passes, we are getting closer and closer to figuring out how this listeria was introduced into our facilities. … It’s a matter of doing the work and not making excuses,” a representative for Blue Bell tells the Tribune.

In addition to hiring the microbiologists, Blue Bell says it will expand its cleaning and sanitation system, increase employee training and expand a swabbing system to include more surfaces. The company is also sending daily samples to labs for testing.

At the same time that Blue Bell announced its beefed up efforts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the number of consumers sickened by the listeria contamination grew to include 10 people in four states.

In all, the contamination has sickened five people – three of whom later died – have become ill in Kansas, three in Texas and one each in Arizona and Oklahoma.

According to the CDC, the illnesses began anywhere from January 2010 through January 2015. One additional patient with listeriosis is undergoing further testing to determine if that illness is related to the Blue Bell contamination.

“CDC and state and local public health partners are continuing laboratory surveillance through PulseNet to identify any other ill persons that may be part of this outbreak,” the agency said in an update to the case.

On Monday, Blue Bell added to three earlier recalls by pulling all products off the shelves after two more ice cream samples tested positive for listeria.

The massive voluntary recall was initiated after two chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream samples tested positive for the potentially deadly bacteria.

The final recall includes frozen yogurt, sherbet and frozen snacks distributed in 23 states as well as internationally, because those items “have the potential to be contaminated,” the company said.

CEO Paul Kruse said in a video statement posted on Blue Bell’s website Monday, that the company couldn’t say how the listeria was introduced to its facilities.

For several weeks, the contamination was thought to only be present in the company’s temporarily closed Broken Arrow facility.

After that contamination was confirmed a number of retailers, including Sam’s Club, Walmart, H-E-B, and Kroger, began remove Blue Bell products.

Blue Bell products being recalled are distributed to retail outlets, including food service accounts, convenience stores and supermarkets in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Wyoming and international locations.

Consumers should not eat any Blue Bell products — if you have them in your freezer, throw them out or return them to the store where you purchased them for a full refund, even if no one has gotten ill from eating them.

Blue Bell says it’s still trying to pinpoint listeria cause [The Chicago Tribune]

John Deere Wants To Be Able To File Copyright Claims Against The Way You Use Your Tractor

Wed, 2015-04-22 18:07

(Matt McGee)

(Matt McGee)

In the modern, digital economy, there are a whole lot of things you buy but still technically don’t own. Nearly all entertainment, for example: digital books, video games, music, and so on. Other software, too. But as basically everything continues to become some kind of computer in a specialized body, plenty of other goods are starting to be subject to licensing, copyright law, and non-ownership problems, too. Like tractors.

Famous farming machinery company John Deere is making the case that you don’t own your vehicles, Wired reports this week. In filings with the copyright office (PDF), the maker of the ubiquitous green and yellow tractor argues that because your tractor has a chip and some code in it, you don’t actually own it. You’ve just got an “implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”

We’ve been through this song and dance before — really, we’re still going through it right now — with specifically high-tech items. You might own the plastic, glass, and aluminum casing of your iPad but everything that runs on it, every single line of code that makes it go, is just something you have paid for the right to access until someone else takes it away or changes it. That affects your ability to unlock your phone, resell your used tablet, or in fact act in any way like you actually own the thing you went and bought and paid for.

Software is more like an event than like a thing, in many ways: You pay for a ticket that gets you into the rock concert, and you get to watch and participate and enjoy it, but you don’t own the musician, the concert, or any recordings made of it. You paid for the time-limited experience of using it, basically.

So it goes with your digital book, or your video game, or that song or movie you downloaded. You’re paying for access to the experience, on the company’s terms. And with digital goods, culturally speaking, we’ve pretty much gotten used to that. They’re not tangible, and they’ve been subject to strict licensing for a long time. Overall we’ve more or less accepted that you can’t sell a used Steam game or Kindle book or iTunes song.

But we still have an expectation of ownership for physical, tangible goods. I can resell this paperback, or this CD, or this DVD, or this car. We still have a (rapidly fading) second-hand market for disc-based video games. There’s an expectation that an actual object I can hold in my hands or park in my driveway is mine to do with as I please after I’ve legally paid for it with my money.

Except, well, maybe you can’t.

Copyright law controls basically everything, thanks to the pervasiveness of software. Everything has a chip and some code telling it how to act, from your coffeemaker to your TV to your car. And as John Deere so unsubtly points out, for farmers, that includes tractors and other farm equipment.

Lest you think it’s just the agriculturally-employed who need to worry, it’s not. GM is right there with John Deere explaining to the Copyright Office that drivers might own the frames and windows and trunks of their cars, but that because everything under the hood and in the dash is driven by a computer chip, General Motors retains a claim on every car they sell. If you decide to go get some aftermarket mods done on your Chevy, you might be a software pirate.

Congress has gotten involved with the YODA proposal (yes, really) to protect the consumer’s right to resell goods they own even if they have software in them, but that seems unlikely even to limp through committee and even less likely ever to see the light of day as law.

The Copyright Office will be holding hearings on the matter in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. in May, and they are expected to issue a ruling in July saying just what you can and can’t do with the things you thought you paid for.

We Can’t Let John Deere Destroy the Very Idea of Ownership [Wired]

McDonald’s CEO Says He Has Turnaround Ideas Up His Sleeve

Wed, 2015-04-22 18:04



Facing sagging sales, increasing criticism of its labor practices, and growing disenfranchisement from its franchisees, McDonald’s recently installed CEO Steve Easterbrook is at the head of a flagging company that was once viewed as an unstoppable fast food force. But Steve-E claims that he’s got some ideas on how to reverse the course before this burger Titanic strikes the iceberg.

“We are developing a turnaround plan to improve our performance and deliver enduring profitable growth,” Easterbrook said in a statement, according to Bloomberg.

Of course, he’s not sharing those plans just yet. We’ll all have to wait until May 4 for that.

McDonald’s same-store sales were down 2.6% in the first quarter, even as the company made a massive media push with its “lovin'” campaign, which briefly allowed random customers to pay with non-currency like hugs. The marketing, which included prominent Super Bowl advertising, increased brand awareness of McDonald’s but failed to improve sales or consumers’ feelings toward the company.

McDonald’s also recently announced pay hikes for employees at company-owned stores in an apparent effort to steer away some of the negative publicity arising from protests and walk-outs from workers demanding higher wages. However, since 90% of U.S. McDonald’s are owned by franchisees who make their own decisions about wage levels, the overwhelming majority of employees are unaffected by this raise.

The fast food giant recently held a Turnaround summit with franchisees, but some said the event was a “farce… The ideas presented — such as Create Your Taste — DO NOT fit our business model. McDonald’s Corp. has panicked and jumped the shark. The problem is an unwieldy menu—too big—and trying to be all things to all people.”

In San Diego, McDonald’s has just begun testing an all-day breakfast menu (no biscuits included). If successful, it might appease disgruntled franchisees who have been complaining about too many high-cost, limited-time menu offerings that don’t pay off. By serving breakfast all day, it could give franchisees additional revenue without having to add anything new to the menu.

One unquestionably positive move made by Easterbrook was to start sourcing meat from chickens raised without controversial antibiotics. This may not have an immediate impact on the company’s sales, but when one of the largest chicken-buying entities in the U.S. demands drug-free birds, it should lead more poultry producers to curb their medically unnecessary use of these antibiotics.

Police: Man Sick Of Fighting His Computer Took It Into The Alley And Shot It

Wed, 2015-04-22 17:49

(Colorado Springs Police Department)

(Colorado Springs Police Department)

Listen, everyone has their issues with computers, and we all know they’re going to be our overlords in the future, but taking out your frustrations by firing a few shots into the offending technology won’t go over well with law enforcement.

According to Colorado Springs police (scroll down) , a 37-year-old man was cited for discharging a weapon within city limits after he took his computer into a back alley and shot it for being insubordinate.

“Investigation revealed a resident was fed up with fighting his computer for the last several months,” the report on the police blotter reads. “He took the computer into the back alley and fired 8 shots into the computer with a handgun, effectively disabling it.”

Police tell the Colorado Springs Gazette that the man didn’t realize he was breaking the law when exacting his revenge. A judge will now decide a penalty for the citation.

Man shoots computer in Colorado Springs alley, gets revenge he wanted – and a citation [Colorado Springs Gazette]

Don’t Panic, But Chipotle Is Still Experiencing Rolling Pork Blackouts

Wed, 2015-04-22 17:28



For a few months now, Chipotle restaurants have been running low on carnitas, the slow-cooked pork shoulder that you can get as a meat filling in burritos. They pulled the meat from about a third of their restaurants after a supplier didn’t meet Chipotle’s “responsibility standards” for meat. Now the pork shortage has turned into a rolling blackout, with the meat rotating in and out of different restaurants according to supply levels.

Unlike when the company can’t source enough beef or chicken raised according to its standards, Chipotle has been known to substitute conventionally raised versions of those meats. That isn’t an option for carnitas for a reason that the company hasn’t quite explained. Instead, they’ve been taking it off the menu entirely in some areas for about six weeks at a time, then rotating it back on.

That’s a fair way to deal with supply issues, but confusing for customers, who want to know when and where they will have access to their favorite pork products. Reporting on their first-quarter sales, Chipotle’s chief financial officer explained the issue is affecting sales, as customers don’t particularly want to call in to check on pork supply levels, even if they do know about the issue before a burrito craving hits them.

What Chipotle has learned is that carnitas fans are very loyal, and aren’t especially interested in trying other meats while the shortage continues. “We had hoped that the shortage would encourage our carnitas customers to try another menu option, and some did,” CFO Jack Hartung explained during that quarterly conference call. “But many have decided to hold out until carnitas returns to their market.”

There are two pieces of good news: the company has found a new pork vendor, and the shortages will resolve later this year. For burrito fans who don’t want to leave the house, Chipotle is also working on delivery options in partnership with an outside company, Postmates Inc. Delivery is available in 67 cities now, and will grow if consumers like it.

Chipotle Supply Woes Threaten to Hamper Growth for Rest of Year [Bloomberg News]

Consumer Advocates Say There Are No Conditions That Would Make Comcast, Time Warner Cable Merger Acceptable

Wed, 2015-04-22 17:28

Comcast-TWCLogoComcast representatives are reportedly meeting with regulators today to discuss the status of the cable colossus’s pending $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable. While some reports claim that antitrust lawyers at the Dept. of Justice are leaning toward suing to block the merger, others believe that the DOJ and FCC will attempt to put conditions on the deal in order to approve it. But consumer advocacy groups say that there are no conditions that would make this merger palatable.

“You can’t fix this merger with conditions,” says Delara Derakhshani, our colleague and policy counsel for Consumers Union. “The size and influence of Comcast would be so huge that no amount of promises or commitments could outweigh the harm to consumers. This merger would give Comcast more control than ever before over what we see on TV and online, and how much we pay for it.”

Consumers Union points out what most Consumerist readers already know — that Comcast and Time Warner Cable have consistently demonstrated some of the worst customer service around, not just for cable/Internet providers, but for all retail-facing U.S. companies.

“You have two companies with notoriously bad reputations for customer service, looking to become one company that will have even less incentive to address these deep, long-standing problems,” says Derakhshani. “Even if Comcast comes to the table with more promises to do better, we know millions of consumers would be hit with higher prices, fewer choices, and even worse service.”

Other advocates criticize Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which gets the company lots of good press and great photos of company execs shaking hands with mayors and other civic leaders, but which may not be living up to its promise to deliver affordable Internet access to low-income Americans.

“According to Comcast’s own reports, in the four years since its rollout, the Internet Essentials program has only enrolled 13.4% of the estimated 2.6 million households that are eligible for the program nationally,” said John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge. “This remarkably low enrollment rate suggests that Internet Essentials is far from the success story Comcast touts in the press and on Capitol Hill.”

The Stop Mega Comcast Coalition — whose members include both Consumers Union and Public Knowledge — points to a number of Comcast’s shortcomings in the wake of its heavily conditioned 2010 acquisition of NBC Universal.

It notes that Comcast still won’t allow its customers to access HBO Go service on Playstation devices while all other major pay-TV providers have done so.

In spite of a condition requiring that Comcast keep similarly themed channels in the same “neighborhoods” rather than scatter new competitors to far-flung areas of the channel listings, the company waged a 3-year legal battle to keep Bloomberg away from news stations (like Comcast-owned MSNBC and CNBC).

Comcast also publicly claims to be a supporter of net neutrality but passive-aggressively allowed Netflix traffic to bottleneck until the company had to pay for better access to Comcast end-users. At the same time, it doesn’t want any of its streamed content to count against customers’ data caps.

“While Comcast has defied numerous conditions of its merger with NBCUniversal, Internet Essentials represents a marquee failure on the part of the cable giant to live up to its commitment to the FCC and the general public,” said Bergmayer. “Conditions haven’t worked in the past and they won’t work here.”

Kentucky Authorities Say They’ve Busted A Criminal Whiskey Syndicate

Wed, 2015-04-22 16:52



Officials in the bourbon basin* say they’ve put all the pieces of a puzzling disappearing whiskey caper together, announcing the arrest of a group accused of orchestrating liquor thefts at two famous Kentucky distilleries.

A Franklin County grand jury indicted nine people Tuesday accused of being part of a veritable organized crime group that officials say pulled off a series of thefts that could go back to 2008, perhaps including the theft of 65 cases of Pappy Van Winkle Reserve from Buffalo Trace in 2013 and five barrels of Wild Turkey bourbon that went missing from its eponymous facility this year, reports The Courier Journal.

The Pappy Van Winkle heist had remained unsolved, or so it seemed. Authorities said earlier this month they were putting the grand jury indictment in the Wild Turkey case on hold while they reviewed new leads and evidence.

Which brings us up to Tuesday, when the grand jury issued charges of engaging in organized crime against a Buffalo Trace Distillery worker possibly linked to “Pappygate,” his wife and father-in law, two other Kentucky distillery workers and others.

The group is accused of stealing bourbon worth at least $100,000 — both bottles and barrels — from both the distilleries to sell it in a scheme going on since 2008, as well as trafficking in anabolic steroids.

One of the workers was the main member, said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Zachary Becker, and that everyone knew each other socially or through softball.

Becker said that the Buffalo Trace-made Pappy Van Winkle bourbon stolen might possibly have been a part of the Pappygate hullabaloo from 2013 but that “is more for Buffalo Trace to figure out and their inventory issues.”

“When it comes to us, we were able to determine that there was a certain, very large amount of Pappy Van Winkle stolen by members of this syndicate, by [the worker] and then thereafter sold to various individuals.”

Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey released a joint statement thanking the sheriff’s office for their work, saying they’re cooperating and supporting the prosecution of crimes related to their businesses.

The investigation is ongoing.

Check out the rest of the Courier-Journal’s great reporting on this. Heck, we wouldn’t be surprised to see this turned into a movie directed-by-and-starring some It actor with the perfect five o’clock shadow.

Pappy Van Winkle theft poss. tied to syndicate [The Courier-Journal]

FBI, TSA Issue Warning To Airlines Over Possible Flight Hackings

Wed, 2015-04-22 16:31



A week after a government report identified security weaknesses within the airline industry including the possibility that newer airplanes with interconnected WiFi systems could be hacked, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Transportation Security Administration issued an alert warning airlines to be vigilant about monitoring for such threats.

Wired reports that the alert, which was posed as a private industry notification, urges airline staff to be on the lookout for signs that any passengers might be trying to connect to the network ports located beneath their seats.

While the FBI and TSA say in the joint alert that there currently isn’t information to support claims that an attacker could override a plane’s navigation system through WiFi networks, they are further investigating whether such threats can be credible.

“Although the media claims remain theoretical and unproven, the media publicity associated with these statements may encourage actors to use the described intrusion methods,” the alert notes. “Attempting to gain unauthorized access to the onboard networks of a commercial aircraft violates federal law.”

The alert also advises flight crews to be on the lookout for activity involving travelers connecting unknown cables or wires to the IFE system or unusual parts of the airplane seat and evidence of suspicious behavior following a flight, such as IFE systems that show evidence of tampering or the forced removal of covers to network connection ports.

Additionally, airlines should be attentive to suspicious behavior concerning aviation wireless signals, including social media messages with threatening references to Onboard Network Systems, ADS-B, ACARS, and Air Traffic Control networks should be reported.

Crews should also review network logs from aircraft to ensure any suspicious activity, such as network scanning or intrusion attempts, is captured for further analysis.

According to Wired, the alert appears to be a direct response to an admission from a security researcher last week that he had connected to the network ports beneath his seat on more than a dozen flights to uncover vulnerabilities.

Feds warn airlines to look out for passengers hacking jets [Wired]

Google Could Announce New Wireless Service Today; May Only Charge For Data You Use

Wed, 2015-04-22 16:01

(Bill Binns)

(Bill Binns)

In March, Google confirmed its plan to launch some sort of wireless service for consumers in the U.S., and a new report claims that the Internet biggie could pull back the curtain on this new product as early as today.

This is according to the Wall Street Journal, which reports that a major difference between existing wireless providers and what Google intends to provide is that customers would only pay for the data they use each month.

So rather than wasting money on unused data each month, your bill would reflect your actual usage. Whether that ultimately saves you money will depend on how much Google charges.

As mentioned in earlier reports, it’s expected that Google’s service will run on existing Sprint and T-Mobile networks. It may also use WiFi hotspots to carry phone and data signals, reducing the burden on the wireless system.

The biggest drawback, according to the Journal report, is that the Google service will only work — at first — for users with Google Nexus 6 devices. So consumers with the most popular smartphones — like Apple’s iPhones and Samsung’s Galaxy devices — would have to switch or wait until Google supports their phones.

Trek Recalls 998,000 Bikes Over Brake Issue That Left One Rider Paralyzed

Wed, 2015-04-22 15:46

trekbikesTrek is recalling almost one million bikes in the United States and Canada after an issue with a quick-release lever on the bike’s front wheel hub left one rider permanently paralyzed.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the quick-release lever can come into contact with the front disc brake assembly, resulting in either complete wheel separation, or the wheel coming to an instant stop. The problem occurs when the lever opens beyond the 180 degrees it’s supposed to, bringing it into contact with the disc brake.

Any bikes with front quick release levers that don’t open past that 180-degree mark from the closed position are not included in the recall.

Quick release lever caught in front disc; Quick release lever open more than 180°

Quick release lever caught in front disc; Quick release lever open more than 180°

The bikes include any model years between 2000 and 2015 that include front disc brakes and a sliver or black quick release lever on the front wheel hub, for a total of about 900,000 bikes in the U.S. and 98,000 sold in Canada. Bikes were sold anywhere from September 1999 through April 2015, priced between $480 and $1,640.

Three reported accidents all included injuries, according to Trek: One accident resulted in the rider being permanently paralyzed in quadriplegia, another in facial injuries and the third in a fractured wrist.

Trek is advising consumers to immediately stop using the bike and contact an authorized Trek retailer for a free installation of a new quick release lever on the front wheel, as well as receive a $20 coupon from Trek towards any Bontrager brand merchandise.

Consumers can call Trek toll-free at 800-373-4594 8AM – 6PM Central, Monday through Friday with any questions, or visit and click on Safety & Recalls at the bottom of the page.

Trek Recalls Bicycles Equipped with Front Disc Brakes to Replace Quick Release Lever Due to Crash Hazard []

Mortgage Servicer Must Refund Consumers $48M For Array Of Deceptive Practices

Wed, 2015-04-22 15:31


Every once in a while government agencies team up to take down unscrupulous operations that prey on financially vulnerable consumers. Such was the case this week when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission took action against a mortgage servicer that engaged in a assortment of deceptive practices often resulting in consumers losing their homes.

The CFPB and FTC announced Tuesday that Minnesota-based Green Tree Servicing agreed to pay $48 million in restitution to victims and a $15 million civil penalty to resolve allegations the company mistreated borrowers.

According to the CFPB complaint [PDF], Green Tree – a national mortgage servicing company specializing in servicing delinquent loans purchased from other lenders – failed to honor modifications for loans transferred from other servicers, demanded payments before providing loss mitigation options, delayed decisions on short sales and harassed and threatened overdue borrowers.

On a number of occasions, the FTC and CFPB allege that Green Tree – which markets itself as a “high touch” servicer making frequent collection calls –  failed to honor loan modifications that consumers had entered into with their prior servicers and insisted that the consumer pay their original, higher monthly payment.

The company also purportedly failed to obtain the information and documentation from the prior servicer that was needed to accurately collect payments from consumers, the complaint states.

Additionally, the servicer allegedly demanded payments before providing loss mitigation options, delayed decisions on short sales, and resorted to illegal practices to collect mortgage payments from consumers who fell behind on their loans, including the use of false threats, repeated calls, and revealing debts to third parties, like employers.

The Bureau and FTC also allege that Green Tree engaged in deceptive tactics to charge consumers convenience fees, such as $12 for a pay-by-phone service called Speedpay.

Green Tree representatives would pressure consumers to use the service by telling consumers that Speedpay was the only available payment method to ensure the payment would be received on time, the complaint states. However, in reality, Green Tree accepted other payment methods that did not involve a fee, such as checks and ACH payments, which consumers could have used to make a timely payment.

In many cases, Green Tree’s failures ultimately led consumers to lose the ability to save or sell their homes.

In addition to providing consumers with $48 million in redress and paying a $15 million civil fine, Green Tree must engage in other efforts to help consumers affected by its illegal practices.

For certain borrowers affected by Green Tree’s unlawful practices who were not foreclosed on, Green Tree must convert in-process loan modifications into permanent modifications and engage in outreach, including telephone and mail campaigns and translation services, to contact borrowers and offer them loss mitigation options. Green Tree must halt the foreclosure process, if one is happening, during the outreach and qualification process for these borrowers.

Under the proposed settlement the company must also create a detailed data integrity program that tests, identifies, and corrects errors in loans transferred to Green Tree to ensure that Green Tree has accurate information about consumers’ loans.

CFPB and Federal Trade Commission Take Action Against Green Tree Servicing for Mistreating Borrowers Trying to Save Their Homes [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau]

California Bureau Of Consumer Affairs Orders CCI To Stop Enrollment At WyoTech, Everest Campuses

Wed, 2015-04-22 14:05

everestThe collapse of for-profit education chain Corinthian Colleges – operator of Everest University, Heald College and WyoTech – continued today after a California regulator issued an order requiring the company to cease enrolling new students at its Everest and WyoTech campuses in the state.

The California Department of Consumer Affairs announced it issued an Emergency Decision [PDF] demanding that CCI stop new enrollments at several California campuses starting Thursday.

The Bureau issued the order after determining that the CCI schools did not meet the minimum state standards for financial resources. Among the findings was the confirmation that Everest and WyoTech failed to provide the Bureau with current financial statements as part of their annual reports.

Additionally, inspections of the two schools found they were unable to produce the required financial statements after repeated requests by the Bureau.

“While this Emergency Decision does not require Everest and WyoTech to cease operating, it is clear that Corinthian’s financial problems mean it is not financially stable enough to enroll new students at Everest or WyoTech,” said Bureau Chief Joanne Wenzel. “We issued the Emergency Decision to protect individuals who may have been thinking about enrolling at these schools.”

As part of the order, CCI has the right to ask for a hearing before the director of the Department of Consumer Affairs before the decision becomes effective. It was unclear if CCI would ask for such a hearing.

The Bureau’s order comes just a week after the Department of Education imposed a $30 million fine against CCI over the use of misstated and inaccurate job placement rates to recruit students at its Heald College campuses. As part of that order, the company was required to stop enrollment at Heald campuses nationwide.

California-based CCI – which is at the center of numerous federal and state investigations and lawsuits – has been facing a prolonged downfall since agreeing last summer to sell or close a majority of its campuses in a deal with the Department of Education.

The company completed the sale of some 56 campuses to Education Credit Management Corporation in early February. In order to close that deal, ECMC agreed to provide $480 million in forgiveness for current and former students who took out CCI’s high-cost private student loans.

Since then CCI has faced several other issues including being delisted from Nasdaq and notice from the California Student Aid Commission that it would halt grants to CCI students. Both of those moves came after the company failed to submit required financial statements to both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the student aid commission.

CCI’s obstacles haven’t just been relegated to the U.S.: the company’s Canadian operations closed with little warning to students and filed for bankruptcy in February.

Emergency decision halts new student enrollment at Corinthian Colleges’ WyoTech and Everest College locations [State of California Office of Public Affairs]

FICO Expands Program To Give Millions Of Consumers Free Access To Credit Scores & Reports

Tue, 2015-04-21 20:17
(Chris Blakeley)

(Chris Blakeley)

Millions of financially struggling consumers who work with qualified nonprofit counseling agencies now have access to free credit scores and credit reports with the expansion of the FICO Score Open Access program.

FICO announced today that it reached an agreement with Experian – one of the three major credit reporting agencies (CRAs) along with Equifax and TransUnion – to allow millions of consumers who receive nonprofit credit counseling, housing counseling, and other services to obtain a copy of the FICO score that these organizations have purchased.

Under the current program, counseling organizations have been generally prohibited by contracts with CRAs to give their consumers the credit report or score that was purchased on the client’s behalf.

According to the CFPB, the no-sharing policy is common practice by business users of credit reports and scores, but when applied to consumer counseling it limits a consumer’s ability to manager or improve their credit standing.

The expanded program – now known as FICO Score Open Access for Credit & Financial Counseling – aims to aid consumers who have credit management problems by providing their credit scores along with credit education materials designed to help consumers understand credit scoring and learn about responsible financial health management.

FICO says it began exploring the expansion of the program after being approached by the CFPB about concerns regarding restrictions on consumers’ access to credit information and urged the company and CRAs remove restrictions.

“Because of FICO’s longstanding commitment to consumer financial education, when the CFPB approached us about enabling credit and financial counselors to share FICO Scores they purchase with their clients, we recognized the importance of working with our data partners to make it happen,” the company says in a statement.

While the CFPB says in a statement that it is “encouraged by this positive step,” the policy change has no affect on individual contracts between CRAs and counseling organizations that still prohibit the sharing of credit reports with clients.

“Ending restrictions on sharing credit scores and reports by consumer financial counseling organizations will empower consumers to take more control of managing their credit and help counselors to do their jobs more effectively,” the CFPB says.

Millions of consumers will now have access to credit scores and reports through nonprofit counselors [CFPB]
FICO Makes FICO® Scores Available to Financially Struggling Consumers Through Non-Profit Credit and Financial Counselors [FICO]

Senators Urge Regulators To Block Comcast Acquisition of Time Warner Cable

Tue, 2015-04-21 20:10



As we head into the final stretch of regulatory review for the pending $45 billion of Comcast and Time Warner Cable — and with the Dept. of Justice possibly prepping to block the deal — a group of U.S. Senators has written to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FCC Chair Tom Wheeler urging them to prevent these two companies from getting hitched.

The letter [PDF] — signed by Senators Al Franken (Minnesota), Ed Markey (Massachusetts), Bernie Sanders (Vermont), Ron Wyden (Oregon), Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut), and Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) — raises numerous concerns that have been repeatedly brought up by opponents of the merger.

“Since the proposal was announced last year, we have from consumers across the nation,” states the letter, “all of whom fear that the deal would harm competition across several different markets and would not serve the public interest.”

The senators say these concerns “center on the undeniable reality that the combined Comcast-TWC would be the overwhelmingly dominant cable and broadband Internet provider in the nation and control much of the programming that Americans watch.”

With a merged Comcast/TWC controlling 57% of broadband and 30% of cable, the combined company would, according to the letter, “have an ability to defeat competing TV and Internet companies and stifle American innovation across the industry.”

Given that Comcast owns a major broadcaster and content provider in NBC Universal, the senators say an even bigger Comcast would “have incentives and means by which to extract higher prices from other multichannel video programming distributors and prioritize its own programming over that of competitors.”

The lawmakers say they have also heard from constituents “who are rightfully frustrated about their increasingly high cable and Internet providers dominating the market, consumers are often left with little choice but to pay the price a given provider demands and have little say over what content is made available to them.”

The merger will “only make things worse for consumers,” claims the letter.

“As the FCC and DOJ finalize their reviews of Comcast’s proposed acquisition of TWC, we urge you to defend American competition and innovation and ensure that Americans have affordable access to high-quality telecommunications services,” it concludes. “We hope you’ll take a stand for U.S. consumers and businesses and reject Comcast’s proposed acquisition of TWC.”