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The Consumerist

The Apartment Rental Credit Check Scam Is Alive And Well

Wed, 2015-06-24 17:42

(DCvision2006)

(DCvision2006)

Six years ago, we alerted the world to the apartment rental credit check scam. That’s a scheme where apartments or houses that may or may not exist are advertised on Craigslist or other classified ad sites to sell not-so-free credit checks to prospective renters. Unfortunately, in spite of our campaign and warnings right on Craigslist ads, these schemes are alive and well.

Reader Shelby writes that she wasn’t thinking critically: “I was desperate for a house, and didn’t think it through,” she writes. She filled out the credit check to pre-screen, as instructed. Yet the landlord didn’t write back even though she responded right away. The ad disappeared, she says, and an almost identical one appeared for a different apartment.

Craigslist tries to keep people away from these schemes, but they can’t do everything.

avoidingscams

Here are some warning signs that you can see from the listing itself, even before you e-mail:

  • Photos stolen from another listing: scammers in my region like to steal their fake listing photos from the real estate multi-listing service, or MLS: these photos are very low-resolution or watermarked, making them very easy to spot.
  • Listings that are unusual for your area: if rentals of “condos” or “cottages” are unusual in the local market, that can be a flag.
  • If the listing gives neighborhood or area names that don’t actually exist in your city, like “lakefront” if you don’t have a lake or “east side” if people in your area simply don’t say that, it may be an indication that the people putting up listings are faraway scammers.
  • No information about the location at all–this isn’t always a sign of a scam, but it can be one sign among many others.

Here’s the e-mail that Shelby received. Keep it in mind when hunting for a new home: most of these scams follow similar scripts,

Good to talk to you. Here’s some good news: the unit’s still available! We thought we had the unit rented to someone that we gave a personal walk-through to, but now it seems that they are no longer needing to move, so we need to keep searching. You were the 2nd one to contact me.

I am sure you want the exact address of the place, but my husband doesn’t want me to advertise the address as a standard precaution. Last time we did that without being diligent, it was broken into and ripped up. We don’t want that to happen again! That is why we require you to confirm you recieved your most current credit report before we setup a tour.You will be responsible for cable, internet, and phone, if you decide to have these services. For the FIRST time, we are allowing pets at this property. The rental term is one year, but can be switched into a half year term if preferred. We require one month notice before moving out, as a courtesy.

If you want us to schedule you for a tour, then please visit the link below and get your report. We use this site since it’s it gives you 3 scores. All you need to do is fill out the form and you get your report We are not concerned with any negative scores, it’s more of a formality to ensure you have rental history. Simply get your report by CLICKING HERE

Keep in mind that you only have to bring your report to the tour. We’ll also waive your security deposit if we see that your rating is above 620+.

Once you let me know that you have your report ready, then I can personally schedule a showing of the place.

See you soon,
[name]

Pennsylvania Man Charged With Racketeering Related To Massive Payday Loan Scheme

Wed, 2015-06-24 17:30

paydayA life of stealing started with the snatching of a candy bar and transformed into an illegal multi-million dollar online payday lending scheme that allegedly defrauded thousands of people. At least that’s what federal prosecutors say led to charges against a Pennsylvania man recently.

Philly.com reports that the 58-year-old man was charged with racketeering, conspiracy, and mail fraud for his part as the alleged mastermind of a payday lending operation that made short-term loans in all 50 states, many times in violation of usury laws in Pennsylvania and other states.

Many states, including Pennsylvania, have laws that limit interest rates – generally to 36% – on loans so much that payday lending and other predatory financial products are effectively banned.

According to recently unsealed court documents, from 1998 to 2002 the man owned, controlled, financed and/or worked for multiple businesses that issued short-term payday loans, often in violation of these state laws.

Prosecutors alleged that the man engaged in a number of deceptive practices to evade usury laws including paying a federally insured bank – which is not subject to state laws – to pretend it was the actual lender; relocating operations to a state considered “usury friendly;” and paying thousands of dollars to an Indian tribe to pretend that it was the loan lender.

Through these practices the man and at least three co-conspirators pilfered tens of millions of dollars from consumers, mainly through the collection of fees for the loans.

Typically, the loans issued by the man’s operation came with finance charges or fees between 10% and 30% of the amount borrowed, according to Philly.com.

While these charges may not seem like much, it certainly adds up. For example, if a borrower obtained a $500 loan, they would generally pay between $50 and $150 in order to obtain the loan. When coupled with interest charges during the two week span of a typical payday loan, the annual percentage rate would be much higher, often between 260% and 780%.

In one case, he allegedly incorporated his business under the names of family members in Utah, then forged their signatures on company documents. When banking regulators began investigating that operation, he moved the business to Delaware where it operated under several names but offered the same type of loans.

According to prosecutors, the man took steps such extensive steps to conceal his involvement in the business because of a past tax evasion charge. At the time of his 1997 conviction, the man told the judge that his life of stealing began as a young boy when he took a candy bar, put it in his pocket, and never paid for it.

A lawyer for the man declined to provide comment on the case.

The man also faces charges for helping his two sons run another multi-million dollar telemarketing scam that allegedly tricked more than 70,000 people into buying worthless credit cards.

Prosecutors say the men sold the credit cards, marketed as general-purpose, for $79.95 each. In all, the scheme brought in about $7.5 million. The man’s sons pleaded guilty to earlier charges regarding the scam and are awaiting sentencing, Philly.com reports.

Jenkintown man accused of scamming 70,000 victims [Philly.com]

IKEA Raising Minimum Wage Again, This Time To $11.87/Hour

Wed, 2015-06-24 16:15
(Håkan Dahlström)

(Håkan Dahlström)

Almost exactly a year after IKEA announced it would raise the hourly starting wage for employees from $9.17 to $10.76, the furniture retailer says it will give workers another 10% pay boost.

Bloomberg reports that IKEA will raise the hourly minimum wage it pays employees to $11.87 in an attempt to keep workers, well, working.

The latest increase is set to take effect on January 1 for about 32% of IKEA’s hourly staff and some working in the company’s distribution system.

Following the new increase, IKEA’s average hourly rate will be $15.45 at its 43 U.S. stores.

“Every year we evaluate our wage structure,” Rob Olson, chief financial officer of IKEA’s U.S. unit, tells Bloomberg. “It is not about being the leader, it’s about doing the right thing for our co-workers.”

While the company says the newest wage increase — which follows a 17% boost that took effect just six months ago — was promoted by updates to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator and considerations of local competition and minimum-wage regulations in different cities, employee turnover also played a part.

IKEA says that since its last wage increase it has seen a stronger job applicant pool and saw staff turnover decrease by more than 5%.

Those reductions – which saved the company costs related to recruitment — are expected to continue with the increase to $11.87, Olsen tells Bloomberg.

“We’ve been ahead of the industry sector average for a while, and we want to be even further ahead,” he says. “We’ve seen that trend already.”

The company plans to evaluate wages each year and provide adjustments as needed.

Ikea Will Raise U.S. Minimum Wage to $11.87 to Retain Workforce [Bloomberg]

Warner Bros. Ditching Certain ‘Dukes Of Hazzard’ Toy Cars Amidst Confederate Battle Flag Controversy

Wed, 2015-06-24 15:43
Not a toy car.

Not a toy car. (Kim Scarborough)

Joining retailers like Walmart, Amazon, eBay, Etsy and Sears in ditching products that feature the Confederate battle flag, the studio that holds the consumer license for images of the iconic car from The Dukes of Hazzard says it won’t sanction the manufacturing of any products that feature the flag known as the rebel banner.

Warners Bros. consumer licensing division has handed out licenses for plenty of products in the past for the Duke brothers’ General Lee car, but says now that the one licensee that still includes the rebel banner on toy cars won’t be allowed to do so.

“Warner Bros. Consumer Products has one licensee producing die-cast replicas and vehicle model kits featuring the General Lee with the confederate flag on its roof — as it was seen in the TV series,” a spokesman for the company told Vulture. “We have elected to cease the licensing of these product categories.”

There will still be plenty of merchandise out there featuring the General Lee, but those products come without the flag on the top. The one company affected in this case is Round 2, a model company out of Indiana.

This is a change for Warner Bros. consumer licensing — as recently as 2012, the division said it wouldn’t be pulling the flag from General Lee’s roof after rumors of such a plan surfaced.

“We were not and are not planning to change design of the General Lee on merchandise,” Warner Bros. said at the time.

The Controversy Over the Confederate Flag Has Reached Hazzard County [Vulture]

Four Alaska Airlines Crew Members Sue Boeing Over Toxic Fumes That Leaked During 2013 Flight

Wed, 2015-06-24 15:37
(David Transier)

(David Transier)

We imagine that working as a flight attendant can be a difficult job: serving hundreds of passengers each flight, traipsing from one city to another, and ensuring that the cabin of the aircraft is equipped and prepared for all situations. One thing these crew members shouldn’t have to worry about: working in an environment with toxic fumes. But that’s apparently what happened during an Alaska Airlines flight in 2013, and now four flight attendants are suing Boeing Co.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the flight attendants filed the lawsuit in U.S. Circuit Court of Cook County, IL, against the aircraft manufacturer for fraud, negligence and design defects related to the Boeing 737-890 aircraft after toxic fumes seeped into the plane’s cabin.

According to the suit, three of the four flight attendants lost consciousness during the July 2013 flight from Boston to San Diego. The plane made an emergency landing in Chicago, where all three crew members were rushed to the hospital.

Since then, the employees say they have suffered from “devastating health effects” such as memory issues, tremors, blinding headaches, fatigue and gastrointestinal problems.

The flight attendants contend that the scary situation was a result of the Boeing jet’s design.

Nearly all Boeing jets pull air through the engines to pressurize the cabin, however, that air can become toxic if it is exposed to heated engine oil, the suit contends.

“By reason of Boeing’s design decisions, the environmental control system on the subject aircraft lacked filters which would have purified the cabin air and prevented the subject flight attendant crew from being exposed to toxic fumes,” the lawsuit said.

A Boeing representative did not respond to the L.A. Time’s request for comment.

While the lawsuit doesn’t list a dollar amount for damages, the flight attendants say the costs should cover long-term physical problems, mental anguish, emotional distress, medical bills and lost wages, among other issues.

This isn’t the first time flight attendants have experienced air issues on planes, Jeffrey Peterson, the president of the Assn. of Flight Attendants at Alaska Airlines, tells the L.A. Times.

“We support our fellow flight attendants in their efforts to seek justice after breathing in contaminated air on board the aircraft,” he said. “In fact, AFA has been fighting for cleaner cabin air for decades while the industry has refused to acknowledge the problem.”

Flight attendants sue Boeing over ‘toxic fumes’ on Alaska Airlines jet [The Los Angeles Times]

Zulily Will Test Accepting Merchandise Returns

Wed, 2015-06-24 15:28

zulily_screen_grabThe great flash-site boom of the past decade has one great success story that has survived the recession: Zulily, which started out selling children’s clothing and toys and has slowly expanded into clothes and accessories for women. That expansion means that the company is trying something that it previously found unthinkable: they’re testing merchandise returns.

That’s been a key part of the company’s business model, and what let it offer such low prices. They would offer an item for a limited period to customers, order the items from a vendor once customers placed all of their orders, and then ship the orders. Customers don’t mind the long waits for merchandise and the no-returns policy because items were so cheap.

It’s one thing to order items for children, who keep growing and will fit a larger size eventually. Adults stay the same size, or at least aspire to, and the Zulily model doesn’t work as well for grown-ups. One shopper explained her strategy for buying items for herself from Zulily when she wasn’t familiar with the brand.

“There have been times where I ordered two of the same item in different sizes because I wasn’t sure of the fit, then I was stuck trying to get rid of the second,” she explained. This shopper happened to be part of the merchandise return test: the company quietly offered her the opportunity to return some (unused, unworn) items for store credit only.

So far, this policy only applies to customers who are in the test program, and only specific items, which includes adult clothing and some home goods.

Zulily Tests Online Returns Program [Wall Street Journal]

Gainful Employment Rules Survive Another Hurdle, Judge Strikes Down For-Profit College Industry Lawsuit

Wed, 2015-06-24 14:55
(MeneerDijk)

(MeneerDijk)

Gainful employment rule: 2, for-profit education industry groups: 0. A federal judge struck down a second lawsuit to block new regulations aimed at reining in for-profit colleges set to take effect in just one week.

The Associated Press reports that the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge John Bates upheld the rules, putting an end to the second of two lawsuits filed by the for-profit education sector intended to diminish or block provisions that would penalize for-profit colleges if too many of their graduates failed to succeed.

For-profit colleges, which receive about 90% of their funding from student aid, have continually come under scrutiny for failing to demonstrate that students could find gainful employment in the fields in which they had been trained.

The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities filed the 77-page lawsuit [PDF] lawsuit back in November 2014, asking the court to strike down the gainful employment rule, saying that such regulations are “unlawful, arbitrary and irrational and will needlessly harm millions of students who attend private-sector colleges and universities.”

The suit – which named Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as a co-defendant – called into question the Department’s central feature of the regulation – a test to determine if a school has provided adequate tools for students to find employment – saying it “lacked reasoned basis.”

In his 37-page opinion, Judge Bates dismissed APSCU’s argument, ruling that the Department of Education has the right to demand that schools show their graduates make enough money to repay their student loans.

“Of course, the association might not agree with the department’s explanations,” he wrote. “But that alone does not make them irrational, arbitrary, or capricious.”

General counsel for APSCU, Sally Stroup, tells the AP that the group is disappointed in the court decision and would continue to consider other options.

Under the new rules [PDF], which take effect July 1, for-profit colleges will be at risk of losing their federal aid should a typical graduate’s annual loan repayments exceed 20% of their discretionary income, or 8% of their total earnings.

Discretionary income is defined as above 150% of the poverty line and applies to what can be put towards non-necessities.

So for example, say the typical recent graduate of a career education program earns $25,000. That student would need to average annual student loan payments less than $2,000, or the school would be at risk for losing federal financial aid.

According to the government, about 1,400 programs serving more than 840,000 students would not pass the new accountability standards set forth in the finalized rules, but ASPCU says those finding are unsubstantiated.

The court’s decision to uphold the upcoming rules was met with approval from several legislators who have worked to bring the unscrupulous nature of some for-profit colleges to light.Illinois Senator Dick Durbin called it “good news for students – too many of whom have been lured into worthless for-profit college programs that leave them deep in debt and unable to find a job.”

“Multiple attempts by the for-profit college industry to escape accountability and block the implementation of the Gainful Employment Rule have now failed,” Durbin said in a statement. “In light of this clear court ruling, any attempt by Congress to block implementation of these regulations is nothing more than shielding an industry that accounts for 44% of all student loan defaults from the scrutiny it deserves.”

Tuesday’s court decision comes just less than a month after the U.S. District Court of New York ruled against the for-profit industry in a similar suit. 

While Bates’ ruling is a victory for the upcoming gainful employment rules, the regulations continue to face opposition from not only the for-profit industry but legislators.

Just last week, the House Appropriations Committee released a spending bill that would prohibit the Dept. of Education from enforcing the rules.

According to the bill [PDF], the Dept. of Education would not be allowed to use its funding to “implement, administer, or enforce the final regulations” related to gainful employment.

That includes preventing the Department from moving forward with establishing a college ratings system, placing new requirements on teacher preparation, defining “credit hour,” and dictating how states must license institutions of higher education.

While gainful employment rules will still go into effect as planed on July 1, if the proposed provisions gain approval and are signed into law, the new protections would be repealed in October.

US court upholds tough rules on for-profit college loans [The Associated Press]

Federal Judge Blocks Formation Of Foodservice Supply Voltron

Wed, 2015-06-24 00:48

(Don Buciak II)

(Don Buciak II)

Sysco and US Foods, the two biggest national foodservice suppliers, want to merge, and the meanies at the Federal Trade Commission won’t let them. Regulators think this merger would be bad for the companies’ customers–and their customers are food service institutions ranging from the most humble snack bars to the fanciest restaurants. Back in February, the FTC sued to stop the merger, and today a federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction blocking it.

The companies are the two biggest suppliers in the United States, and are considered “broadline distributors” that can supply just about everything a foodservice establishment might need, from frozen ravioli to napkins to ketchup packets.

The management of each restaurant, cafeteria, or ice cream stand might choose specialized or local suppliers for some items, and that’s the companies’ argument: those smaller companies supply the majority of food that pros serve, but there aren’t many distributors that sell everything.

If the merger as proposed went through, even after both companies sold off some local distribution centers to competitors, the newly formed USyscoFoods (not its actual proposed name) would control 25% of the foodservice supply business in the United States. That seemed like a lot to the commissioners of the FTC, and it could threaten competition across the industry: even the customers of both companies’ customers.

“Consumers across the country, and the businesses that serve them, benefit from the healthy competition between Sysco and US Foods, whether they eat at a restaurant, hotel, or a hospital,” the FTC’s Office of Competition said in a statement when commissioners voted to block the merger.

In a statement, Sysco expressed disappointment in the judge’s decision, and said that the company would consider its options, which may include ending the two companies’ courtship. It would be a sad breakup for them: this merger has been in the works since December 2013.

Federal Judge Halts Sysco-US Foods Merger [Wall Street Journal]

Another Wasteful Expense At Olive Garden: Excessive Carpet Shampooing

Tue, 2015-06-23 23:12

(David Buchwald)

(David Buchwald)

The table-waiting, breadstick-hoarding board of directors over at Darden, parent company of Olive Garden, has some more extremely practical advice for its restaurants on the ground: they need to shampoo their carpets less. This is an example of an actual cost-saving measure proposed by the company’s CEO.

That might seem minor to you or me, since we only have one house full of carpet. Olive Garden, has more than 800 restaurants that are carpeted, and when they’re paying someone to shampoo that carpet and to replace it when it wears out from too-frequent shampooing, that adds up.

CEO Gene Lee explained during a recent conference call with investors that the normal protocol for carpets is to clean them once a month, and any more than that “you end up actually destroying the carpet,” with no benefit in the meantime.

Darden’s board was recently taken over by dissident investors who were unhappy with how the restaurant was run, from salted pasta rusting out pasta pans to excessive breadstick use. It’s that board that is now scrutinizing every invoice to look for expenses to cut.

It’s not all salted spaghetti and carpet wear patterns, though: Darden announced today that it plans to sell restaurant buildings that it owns to a real estate investment trust, which would help the company pay debt and free up some cash.

Olive Garden’s Latest Cost-Cutting Plan: Clean Carpet Less Often [Bloomberg News]

NHTSA Considering Options To Speed Up Takata Airbag Replacement, Seeks Updated Recall Details

Tue, 2015-06-23 22:20
(I Am Rob)

(I Am Rob)

Now that automakers have identified all 33.8 million vehicles equipped with potential shrapnel-shooting Takata airbags, federal regulators are looking for ways to speed up the repair process.

Regulators with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say they are currently deciding whether or not to issue an “accelerated remedy directive” to the Japanese parts maker and the 11 automakers affected by the massive airbag recall, the Detroit News reports.

The directive would work to ensure the airbags are fixed as quickly as possible.

Similarly, NTHSA is considering ordering automakers to allow repair shops to complete recall repairs for the defective airbags. Currently, repairs stemming from recalls are only done at authorized manufacturer dealers.

Both possibilities were discussed by NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Tuesday morning, where he reported that the agency had sent special orders to automakers and Takata seeking updates on their progress in fixing affected vehicles.

The special order seeks a record of all Takata airbags that use ammonium nitrate. The request also asks for updates on how many air bags are defective, how long it will take to produce enough replacement parts and how many replacement air bags already installed will need to be replaced again, the Detroit News reports.

Takata announced earlier this month that about 400,000 airbags that had previously been replaced would need a second replacement.

Additionally, the parts maker must provide information on how it plans to ship new inflators to automakers for repair. Takata has until July 10 to provide NHTSA with the requested information.

In addition to seeking new information from Takata, NHTSA asked for updates from each of the 11 automakers affected by the airbag recall. The manufacturers were asked to provide information on the number of vehicles covered by the Takata recalls and how they will trace replacement parts.

NHTSA requested that the companies begin gathering information for the coordinated remedy process.

Rosekind says he expects to begin meeting with the companies on July 1 to discuss strategies and hold a public hearing in September to reveal a plan to oversee the recalls.

NHTSA wants details from Takata, automakers on recall [The Detroit News]

Amazon, eBay And Etsy Join List Of Retailers That Have Removed Confederate Battle Flag Items From Their Stores

Tue, 2015-06-23 21:44

(Alan Rappa)

(Alan Rappa)

Amazon, eBay and Etsy have joined fellow retailers Walmart and Sears in announcing that they’ve removed all merchandise featuring the Confederate battle flag from their stores.

Today’s parade of retailers yanking rebel flag merchandise comes after the racially-motivated massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last week that left nine people dead.

“We believe it has become a contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism,” eBay spokeswoman Johanna Hoff said in a statement. “This decision is consistent with our long-standing policy that prohibits items that promote or glorify hatred, violence and racial intolerance.”

Etsy’s statement is along the same lines:

“Today, we are removing confederate flag items from our marketplace,” the company told Mashable. “Etsy’s policies prohibit items or listings that promote, support or glorify hatred and these items fall squarely into that category.”

And finally, e-commerce giant Amazon confirmed to Time.com that it will be putting the kibosh on the flag as well.

Meanwhile, Target pulled a Confederate soldier costume from its site after CNBC asked about it, saying: “Our intention is never to offend. We all recognize the great sensitivity around this and have removed the item from our website.”

Again, the Confederate battle flag is not to be confused with the official flag of the Confederacy (of which there were three official iterations). Sometimes called the rebel banner, the flag was the battle emblem for Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, notes PBS. It was rejected for use as the official flag of the rebels, but it was included in two later official flags as a smaller rectangle in a larger design.

Facebook Develops Technology To Recognize You Even When Your Face Is Covered

Tue, 2015-06-23 21:19
(Raymond Bryson)

(Raymond Bryson)

If you regularly shield your face in photos for fear someone might recognize you on Facebook, then you might need to find another way to stay incognito when it comes to the social media site.

That’s because Facebook says it has developed an algorithm that can recognize people in photographs even when their faces are obscured, The New Scientist reports.

The technology was developed in Facebook’s artificial intelligence lab and presented in a paper [PDF] at the Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition conference earlier this month.

“In the absence of a clear, high-resolution frontal face, we rely on a variety of subtle cues from other body parts, such as hair style, clothes, glasses, pose and other context,” the paper states. “We can easily picture Charlie Chaplin’s mustache, hat and cane or Oprah Winfrey’s curly volume” hairstyle.

However, the researchers contend that technology capable of accurately identifying individuals based on these characteristics in non-frontal photographs wasn’t previously available… until now.

The new algorithm – called PIPER (Pose Invariant Person Recognition) – uses characteristics such as hairstyles, clothing, body shape, poses and partial facial views to identify an individual.

Researchers tested the method on a data set of almost 40,000 photos collected from public Flickr albums.

In all, they say the system achieved 83% accuracy over 581 identities in the test set. When frontal face photos were put through the experiment accuracy increased to 93.4%.

The existence of more powerful – and accurate – facial recognition software has become a topic of concern for companies and consumer groups in recent months.

Advocates are concerned because facial recognition is not the wave of the future, but of the present. Facebook currently offers tagging suggestions for photos.

To address concerns of the fairly new and unregulated technology, the Commerce Department recently brought together privacy advocates and industry representatives to hammer out a new code of conduct.

However, those discussions didn’t go so well, with several advocates claiming the process was broken and couldn’t be fixed, leading them to essentially abandon the talks.

Facebook can recognise you in photos even if you’re not looking [New Scientist]

McDonald’s Pushing Hot Cheese On Susceptible Wisconsinites In Test Of Its New “Lovin’ Value Menu”

Tue, 2015-06-23 21:07

(JeepersMedia)

(JeepersMedia)

[Scene opens with a lone, shrouded figure alone on stage, head bowed under the spotlight, slowly clapping] We’ve got to hand it to you, McDonald’s. When you go after a particular test market, you really know how to go after it. To wit: The fast food chain is testing its Lovin’ Value Menu at 125 locations in southeastern Wisconsin. That menu features a new item — mozzarella sticks, in a direct pitch to the cheesy heart and soul of every Wisconsinite.

Though McDonald’s tested mozzarella sticks elsewhere in 2014, this time it’s personal, and part of McDonald’s new Lovin’ Value Menu.

Items on the test menu start at $1, reports FOX 6, and include not only the aforementioned three cheese sticks with marinara sauce but traditional items like the cheeseburger and McChicken sandwich.

“We know our customers in Wisconsin love cheese, and we are thrilled to be able to offer them a delicious side that tastes so great and is such an amazing value,” a local franchisee and member of McDonald’s USA operator advertising board told the news station. “The portion size gives customers the opportunity to eat it as a snack or, if they are a little hungrier, use it to accompany a meal.”

The Lovin’ Value Menu and its push for “mini meals” are pieces of the customization puzzle McDonald’s is putting together as it attempts to come back from decreasing sales.

“Our customers told us they are looking for the ability to customize their meals a little more,“ the franchise said, echoing the corporate line. “People are snacking more often these days and looking for more options to create a right-sized meal for them. Mini meals allow them to do just that at an amazing value.”

I will say the absolute best, most delicious mozzarella sticks I’ve ever had come from a restaurant in my hometown of Milwaukee (you know who you are, honey), so McDonald’s has a pretty high standard to meet.

New “Lovin’ Value Menu” being tested at 125 McDonald’s restaurants in southeastern Wisconsin [FOX 6]

Musicians Will Get More Than $0 During Apple Music Trial, But How Much Is That?

Tue, 2015-06-23 20:57

(Jaap Joris)

(Jaap Joris)

Maybe Taylor Swift doesn’t wield as much power over the world’s largest corporations as we thought. Yesterday, it seemed that her open letter to Apple was influential in convincing the company to pay royalties to song owners and performers during customers’ trial period for their forthcoming Apple Music service. There’s a catch, though: artists won’t be getting 70% of zero, but they may not be getting the full royalties, either.

That’s because we still don’t know what the royalty rates will be for artists when customers are in the trial period and once they’re paying subscribers. The Wall Street Journal learned that Apple won’t necessarily be paying artists the same amount during the trial period: the company says that they will pay artists a higher rate once subscription fees start rolling in. A higher rate than what?

Here’s the problem: the proposed rate of 71.5% means that Apple would take 71.5% of the money they take in for subcription fees and redistribute them to artists. That’s great, once they have paying subscribers, but Apple is offering to pay artists royalties on $0 income.

Say that Apple took in $1 million from subscriptions in a month, and 50% of all songs played on the service were by Taylor Swift, after the month was over, Apple would cut Taylor a check for $357,500. What do they do with no income to use for the figures?

That would be in line with what competing streaming services do. For example, competitor Spotify pays artists discounted royalties when they’re offering discounted subscriptions to attract new paying customers, and even more discounted royalties when a free (ad-supported) subscriber listens to a song.

Apple will probably just make up a fixed amount per song play for early Apple Music artists. Will artists go along as long as it’s more than zero, or will they refuse to take part in Apple Music if they don’t like the payment structure once it’s announced?

Apple Music launches on June 30. We’ll find out then.

Apple Yet to Disclose Payments for Artists [Wall Street Journal] (via 9to5Mac)

Political Campaign Stores Raking In Not Only Cash, But A Treasure Trove Of Data For Candidates

Tue, 2015-06-23 20:00

Ted Cruz's online campaign store on left, Hillary Clinton on right.

Ted Cruz’s online campaign store on left, Hillary Clinton on right.

In an age when data is just as powerful as money, it may come as no surprise to learn that sales of political stickers, T-shirts, buttons, mugs and other merchandise emblazoned with a candidate’s brand not only go toward filling campaign coffers with money, but also provide presidential hopefuls with valuable personal data that sheds light on what kind of people/voters are out there shopping.

The New York Times has a great article on the ins and outs of political shops and online stores many candidates have been opening to garner support: From Ted Cruz to Rick Perry, Bernie Sanders to Hillary Rodham Clinton, many in the presidential race so far are shilling official merchandise.

These stores provide not only an opportunity to spread a candidate’s brand by those literally wearing their support on their sleeves, but also as donations to campaign war chests. Because candidates can’t profit personally from such sales, when you buy a pen reading I HEART SO-AND-SO, it’s not a product purchase, technically, it’s a donation, and the item you receive as a result is considered a premium.

That technicality results in a very attractive amount of data that can be further utilized by a campaign. When customers go through checkout and provide their name, email, shipping address and phone number, they’re also met with the statement, “federal law requires us to collect the following information”: employer, occupation and whether you are retired, as with any other online donation.

In the retail world, that also boils down to valuable data, as the products we choose to buy provide information about our personal preferences outside of who we’re supporting in a political race.

For example, as the NYT says:

The choice of a product can reveal whether you are a beer drinker, a sports fan or what cellphone you use. It can suggest that there are a lot of joggers headquartered in a specific region of the country, indicating that a campaign may want to direct its health communications to that state; or that you really, really, hate the other guy. It can reveal that you have a baby, or at least are close to someone who has a baby.

This means that the more products a candidate offers in their online store, the more information they can potentially get about who’s shopping and in turn, voting, and how to target communications to them. Or if you buy a lot of stuff, perhaps you’d make for a good local volunteer for the campaign.

For more about how candidates pull these operations off, check out the full NYT article. It’s worth the read, especially as we head into the 2016 race. Now we know we can expect an onslaught of political merch (delicious branded cheese, please. Just gonna put that out there for whoever wants to pick it up).

Presidential Hopefuls Sell Swag, Collect Data [New York Times]

Groups Call On Subway’s Sandwich Artists To Use Antibiotic-Free Meat In Their Masterpieces

Tue, 2015-06-23 19:57

(Mandy Jansen)

(Mandy Jansen)

With major fast food chains like McDonald’s, Chick fil-A, Chipotle, and Panera all now sourcing at least some meat that wasn’t raised using medically important antibiotics, a coalition of some 50 consumer and health advocacy groups are asking Subway, the fast food chain with the most stores in the U.S., to give drug-free meat a try.

Overuse of antibiotics in livestock and by physicians has resulted in the development of bacteria that is now resistant to the drugs created to kill them. This can render those antibiotics useless, putting human life and safety at risk. Around three quarters of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. each year are for use in farm animals, much of it for non-medical uses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2 million Americans become infected with drug-resistant pathogens each year, with 23,000 dying annually as a result. A recent report from our colleagues at Consumers Union found that an overwhelming majority of U.S. physicians had recently treated patients antibiotic-resistant illnesses.

CU is one of the dozens of groups that signed the letter [PDF] to Subway CEO Frank De Luca, calling on him to agree to a phase-out schedule for ending the use of antibiotics in all the meat sourced by the chain.

Many farm animals are regularly treated — usually through their feed — with low doses of antibiotics, solely for the purpose of increasing the size of the animals. Scientists say this continual, sub-therapeutic use of these drugs only aids in the development of resistant pathogens.

“Antibiotics important for human medicine should only be used to treat sick animals and, on rare occasions, for non-routine disease control, but never for growth promotion, feed efficiency, or routine disease prevention,” reads the letter.

After decades of inaction, the FDA has in recent years slowly come around to the notion that it must do something to curb overuse of antibiotics. There are still too many loopholes that allow their continued overuse — like simply giving farmers the option of changing the reason they use drugs (from “growth-promotion” to “disease prevention”) without necessarily feeding their livestock any fewer drugs.

“While we will continue to push FDA to adopt stronger policies on antibiotics use in animal agriculture, companies like Subway can make a vital contribution to stemming antibiotic resistance by disallowing routine antibiotics use among your suppliers,” continues the letter. “Subway can also play a role in encouraging better animal husbandry on farms. Reduced crowding, improved diets, more hygienic conditions and longer weaning periods, among other changes, can minimize the need for prophylactic drugs.”

The groups acknowledge Subway’s current regional testing of a chicken sandwich in California with meat described as having been raised with “no antibiotics ever,” and expresses hope that this is the beginning of a new trend for the company.

“In the coming months, we hope you will move quickly to serve only meat and poultry produced without routine antibiotics in all Subway restaurants, and help protect the effectiveness of these essential medicines,” concludes the letter.

Allegiant Air Pilots Once Again Raise Concerns With Airline’s Safety Practices

Tue, 2015-06-23 19:53
(Paul Thompson)

(Paul Thompson)

Pilots of Nevada-based budget carrier Allegiant Air are once again expressing their concerns that the airline’s bare minimum approach to maintenance and operations comes at the cost of passenger safety, this time in a letter to the company’s board of directors.

CBS News reports that (warning: link has video that autoplays) the union representing Allegiant pilots sent a letter [PDF] to the company’s board asking it to intervene in what the pilots says are cost cutting measures that put customers at risk when traveling with the airline.

“Allegiant is continuing to cut corners on industry-standard practices, including ignoring FAA recommendations on running important safety programs, using scheduling systems that create pilot fatigue and frustration and spending shareholder dollars on unnecessary legal fees and hours in court,” the letter states.

To illustrate the issues, the union points out that the airline has encountered 38 potentially dangerous incidents including failing engines, pressurization problems, and smoke in the cockpit between January and March of this year.

CBS News reports that passengers of the airline were part of two rather scary experiences just this month.

In one case, a flight had to make an emergency landing at an airport near Tampa. After reports of smoke were made in the cabin, passengers had to evacuate the aircraft using emergency exit slides. A second disturbance occurred in Idaho when passengers stood on the wing of the plane after seeing smoke.

“Allegiant Air is on a dangerous path that has shareholders, pilots and customers concerned,” the letter states. “We hope you will use your leadership to change the direction the company is heading.”

For its part, the airline insists its safety record is among the best in the industry, telling CBS News that the union’s claims are “an effort to manipulate the public” following stalled contract negotiations.

The Federal Aviation Administration says that when a carrier suffers from internal issues – such as labor unrest – the agency will increase oversight. However, the FAA did not address whether or not it found safety issues with regard to Allegiant.

Pilots accuse Allegiant Air of cutting safety along with costs [CBS News]

Hulu Will Sell Showtime’s Standalone Streaming Service For $9

Tue, 2015-06-23 19:26

shonethuballThe folks at CBS have already shown they are willing to try something new with the upcoming launch of the standalone Showtime streaming service, making it available through Sony’s PlayStation Vue live-TV platform in addition to being sold through iTunes and Roku. Today, the company announced another partnership that will sell Showtime through Hulu at a discounted rate.

According to the companies, existing Hulu subscribers will be able to get Showtime for $8.99/month starting in early July. That’s $2/month less than the subscription for users who order through iTunes or Roku. PS Vue subscribers who are also PS Plus members will also get the lower rate if they order through Sony.

Aside from the price savings for Hulu subscribers, having Showtime on this platform instantly makes it available on all the devices and operating systems that Hulu works on.

This stands in stark contrast to the current state of HBO Now, the premium streaming service that launched earlier this year. HBO charges $15/month for that service and, aside from Cablevision broadband subscribers, its availability has not yet expanded beyond iTunes. HBO does, however, make its live broadcast available through Sling TV.

All versions of the Showtime service will not only include on-demand streaming but live access to both the East and West Coast feeds of the network.

Brothers Accused Of Dine-And-Dash Spree Through Cleveland’s Finest Restaurants

Tue, 2015-06-23 19:09

red-handedThere are your amateur dine-and-dashers, and then there are the brothers in Cleveland who are accused of a dine-and-dashing spree through a half-dozen restaurants in three days. They allegedly rang up tabs of hundreds of dollars at each spot, then would casually go outside for a smoke and not come back for the check. Restaurant owners spread the word on social media, and were able to apprehend the pair.

The brothers picked out the finest items on the menu, as one does when they don’t plan on paying. “Top shelf champagne, foie grois, short ribs,” the chef-owner of one of their targets recounted to TV station WKYC.

The following day, they ran up three more big tabs at nice restaurants. The owner of the second restaurant hit on day one sent out an alert to other restaurant owners, and they were watching for the pair.

During lunch on Friday, one of the brothers appeared at a sixth restaurant for lunch, only 10 minutes after the owner saw the photo circulated on social media. The brothers used to work at that bar, and had actually been banned from the establishment earlier.

The owner pinned the diner down with his foot, which made for a fine photo op and a warning to other serial gourmands. “Next time just ask me for a sandwich. I’d be happy to help you out,” the owner who stomped on the dine-and-dasher told the TV station.

Social media helps bust serial dine-and-dasher [WKYC]

Amazon Makes Echo Available To Everyone, Not Just Invited Prime Members

Tue, 2015-06-23 18:49

amazonechoIf you’ve been patiently waiting for your chance to boss around a speaker, now is your time: Amazon has finally made Echo (also known as Siri in a box) available to the masses.

The Verge reports that the e-commerce giant plans to open its web-connected home entertainment speaker up to purchases by anyone who wants to shell out $179.99 starting on July 14.

Echo, which was first unveiled in November, functions much like other voice-activated devices: always on and always connected to the internet.

In all, Echo allows users to update to-do lists, set alarms and timers, check the weather, get sports and news, get answers to questions from Wikipedia, stream music, or just talk without having to worry about a sarcastic reply (that is, until machines inevitably become self-aware and sassy).

Last month, Amazon rolled out an update that enabled consumers to voice purchase any item they previously bought through their Prime accounts.

Amazon previously restricted how Echo could be purchased, allowing only Prime members who placed their names on a waiting list and received invitations from the company to buy the speaker.

According to The Verge, even customers who received invites had a hard time actually acquiring Echo, as wait times for shipping spanned weeks to months.

Amazon’s voice-controlled Echo is now available to anyone that wants it [The Verge]

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