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Creator Of Pink Flamingo Lawn Ornaments Passes Away At 79

Tue, 2015-06-23 17:25



Your lawn might look a bit sadder today: The man who created those unmistakable bright pink flamingo garden adornments has died at 79. Donald Featherstone was a trained sculptor who came up with the flashy bird design in 1957 for plastics company Union Products, based on a bird he saw in National Geographic. Millions of the lawn ornaments have been sold since then. [via Associated Press]

Why Have Restaurant Waiters Become Plate-Grabbing Vultures?

Tue, 2015-06-23 17:19



People eat at different speeds. That’s just how eating and people work. Yet there’s a disturbing trend in restaurant dining that some people have noticed: servers lurk, ready to grab your plate whether everyone else at the table is done eating yet or not. Why would they do this? Rushing the whole table makes economic sense for a restaurant, but why snatch away plates when other people are still eating?

That’s what Roberto Ferdman over at Wonkblog wondered, especially after one incident where this happened to him while out to dinner. Not waiting until the whole group is done upsets group dynamics, making people feel rushed when they should have no reason to be. Why are servers doing this?

Sightings of the trend date back to 2008, apparently, and the New York times made the practice part of a very long list of things that restaurants should avoid doing in 2009.

Some servers and even management told Ferdman that they were under the impression that this is what customers want, apparently never having talked to a customer before. Maybe that’s true in the hottest food spots where tables are at a premium and people are grateful for the opportunity to dine there, but in normal restaurants, people hate feeling rushed.

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No, you may not clear my plate: The most annoying restaurant trend happening today [Wonkblog]

Doctors Warn: Squatting In Skinny Jeans May Lead To Nerve Damage

Tue, 2015-06-23 17:14

(Sierra Tierra)

(Sierra Tierra)

If you’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that there was something not quite right about the trend of encasing your lower half in skintight denim, you may be right: Researchers say squatting while wearing skinny jeans can cause not only temporary discomfort, but nerve damage as well.

Doctors in Australia report in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry that a 35-year-old woman was hospitalized for four days after experiencing muscle damage, swelling, and nerve blockages in her legs.

She’d apparently been squatting for several hours in skinny jeans while helping a friend move, remaining in that position for long periods of time while emptying cupboards.

She said her pants felt increasingly tight and her feet grew numb as she walked home later, causing her to trip and fall. The unidentified woman remained on the ground for several hours, unable to get up, before finally making it to the hospital.

“We were surprised that this patient had such severe damage to her nerves and muscles,” Dr. Thomas Kimber of the Royal Adelaide Hospital in Australia told the Associated Press.

A CT scan of the right leg and scans of both lower legs showing "hypoattenuation and oedema of muscles of the posterior compartment of the calves, consistent with myonecrosis."

A CT scan of the right leg and scans of both lower legs showing “hypoattenuation and oedema of muscles of the posterior compartment of the calves, consistent with myonecrosis.”

He says tight jeans have been linked to nerve lesions in the groin before, but nothing like the nerve problems and muscle damage what he and his colleagues saw in this situation.

Squatting compresses the nerves in the lower leg, he explains, which restricts blood from getting to the calf muscles, something that’s only made worse when your legs are trapped in tight denim prisons of pain.

Get a little elastic in that fabric though, and you could be okay.

“I think it’s the non-stretchy nature of jeans that might be the problem,” he added, since having some give in tight pants means the nerves and muscles aren’t getting squeezed.

This only further solidifies my “soft pants are the best pants” and “harem pants are healthy” fashion theories. When I say “fashion theories,” I mean I refuse to submit to a denim prison of society’s making.

Fashion victim: rhabdomyolysis and bilateral peroneal and tibial neuropathies as a result of squatting in ‘skinny jeans [Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry]
Doctors warn against dangers of skinny jeans: Don’t squat [Associated Press]

Verizon Completes $4.4B Acquisition Of AOL

Tue, 2015-06-23 16:52

verizonaol_logos (1)It’s not often you hear about a shotgun wedding between two tech companies, but that’s apparently what happened for Verizon and AOL, as the recently betrothed said today that they had officially completed a $4.4 billion acquisition proposed just a month ago.

Verizon announced it has concluded its acquisition of AOL early Tuesday after purchasing all outstanding shares of the media company for $50 per share.

The deal, which officially makes the once-iconic dial-up Internet business a subsidiary of Verizon, expands the nation’s largest mobile phone operator’s portfolio to include AOL’s collection of media and technology companies including The Huffington Post and TechCrunch.

As Consumerist reported shortly after the news of the deal broke in May, Verizon executives specifically said that purchasing AOL, and all its advertising and user targeting software, “supports our strategy to provide a cross-screen connection for consumers, creators and advertisers to deliver that premium customer experience.”

While that strategy could be good for consumers, it also stands to put their privacy at risk.

For Verizon the deal also represents a larger presence in the arena of video offerings. Though the company already distributes mobile video through its mobile phone network, the array of platforms owned by AOL will give the company an opportunity to provide content through the internet.

The purchase of AOL will allow Verizon to tap into the former company’s software used to buy ads across the web and to connect user identity across mobile and desktop platforms.

Verizon and other mobile phone companies have struggled in the past to identify users as they move between products, in part because of the poor performance of cookies on mobile devices.

In announcing the completion of the acquisition, Verizon reiterated that AOL CEO Tim Armstrong would stay on at the company.

Verizon Completes Acquisition of AOL [Verizon]

Health Group Remakes Iconic Coke Ad With People Suffering From Soda-Related Diseases

Tue, 2015-06-23 16:44

From fast food restaurants removing sugary drinks from kid’s menus to city governments considering taxes on soda, the soft drink industry has been the target of a crusade to end – or at the very least reduce – consumers’ love affair with fizzy, sugar-laden drinks and raise awareness of the negative impact such calorie-filled beverages have on one’s health. Today that mission continued with the release of a video that aims to curtail the incidence of soda-related disease by turning the most iconic soft drink commercial on its head.

Forty-four years after Coca-Cola released the popular – and catchy – “Hilltop” ad featuring people from around the world singing about peace and buying each other Cokes, the Center for Science in the Public Interest put its own spin on the promotion, showcasing real people suffering from diseases related to soda consumption.

“For the past 45 years, Coca-Cola and other makers of sugar drinks have used the most sophisticated and manipulative advertising techniques to convince children and adults alike that a disease-promoting drink will make them feel warm and fuzzy inside,” Michael F. Jacobson, executive director for CSPI, said in a statement. “It’s a multi-billion-dollar brainwashing campaign designed to distract us away from our diabetes with happy thoughts. We thought it was time to change the tune.”

And so they did. While the classic ad – which recently returned to consumers’ minds during the finale of Mad Men – is bright and cheery, CPSI’s version takes the viewer to a more serious place – the hospital.

Instead of smiling, happy faces, the new “Change The Tune” ad features people suffering from hypertension, diabetes, tooth decay and weight gain singing new lyrics to the “Buy The World A Coke” song.

“I’d like to buy the world a drink that doesn’t cause disease,” the song goes. “I’d like to teach the world about what sugar did to me.”

Although CSPI certainly targets Coca-Cola in its new version of the ad, other soda makers weren’t left out. A scene featuring large cups of soda with words such as obesity and weight gain scrawled on them feature logos for other sugary-drink companies, including Pepsi.

“Soda is just one of several contributors to diet-related disease, but it’s a major one,” Dr. Jeffry Gerber, a Denver-area physician who appeared in the film, says in a statement. “I see the connection between soda consumption and chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity every day of the week. It’s hard to ask patients to practice moderation when all of the advertising, marketing, and overall ubiquity of soda rewires people to overconsume sugary drinks.”

The new ad will be featured in several languages and provided as a resource to health advocates around the world where Coke and Pepsi sell their products, CSPI says.

In recent years, there has been an increased push by health groups such as CSPI, government officials and regulatory entities to reduce the amount of sugary calories consumed in soft drinks.

Back in 2013, CSPI called on the Food & Drug Administration to limit the amount of sugar in soft drinks and other sweetened beverages.

“As currently formulated, Coke, Pepsi, and other sugar-based drinks are unsafe for regular human consumption,” CSPI executive director Jacobson said at the time. “Like a slow-acting but ruthlessly efficient bioweapon, sugar drinks cause obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The FDA should require the beverage industry to re-engineer their sugary products over several years, making them safer for people to consume, and less conducive to disease.”

Other regulatory proposals included former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to limit the size of soda containers. That plan was met with fierce disapproval and required many court appeals before essentially being quashed last summer.

Across the country in California a bill that would require warning labels on sugary drinks was discussed in San Francisco earlier this month. And another California city, Berkley, became the first in the nation to approve a tax on sugary drinks last November.

We’ve reached out to Coca-Cola for comment and will update this post if we hear back.

Health Advocates Remake Famous “Hilltop” Ad
[Center For Science In The Public Interest]

KFC Wants An Apology After Lab Tests Show Fried Rat Shape Is Actually Just Chicken

Tue, 2015-06-23 16:08

The company's photographic assessment of the rat-chicken situation.

The company’s photographic assessment of the rat-chicken situation.

Last week after a KFC customer posted photos and video of what he claimed was a fried rat he’d received with his order of chicken, the company said it believed the whole thing was a hoax, and asked the man to turn over the food in question for independent testing. Lab results are in… and the word is, it’s a bird. Chicken, to be exact.

The man retained an attorney after KFC said it had trouble getting in touch with him to confirm the animal source of the fried food, reports the Los Angeles Times. Though KFC says he refused to communicate directly with them, the company was able to get its hands on the food for testing through his attorney.

The company now says a third-party independent lab has confirmed it was a piece of hand-breaded chicken, as KFC had maintained. And as such, KFC would really like it if the customer would admit he was wrong.

“The right thing for this customer to do is to apologize and cease making false claims about the KFC brand,” KFC said.

Whether or not he’ll do that is uncertain. Last week he remained firm in his stance that he had bitten into a chewy piece of deep-fried rodent.

“Honestly, it doesn’t matter what others think I know what I bit into and what it looks like never in life have [I]… seen a chicken strip with a long tail,” he wrote.

Mystery of the rat-shaped KFC chicken is solved: It’s a bird [Los Angeles Times]

Walmart Pulls All Confederate Battle Flag Merchandise From Its Stores

Tue, 2015-06-23 15:24



Walmart has decided it will stop selling all Confederate battle flag merchandise in its stores and online, in the aftermath of the racially-motivated shooting last week at a Charleston church that left nine people dead.

The public outcry against the rebel banner has prompted Walmart to announce that it will no longer feature any merchandise with that symbol on it.

“We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer. We have taken steps to remove all items promoting the confederate flag from our assortment — whether in our stores or on our web site,” said Walmart spokesman Brian Nick (via CNN). “We have a process in place to help lead us to the right decisions when it comes to the merchandise we sell. Still, at times, items make their way into our assortment improperly — this is one of those instances.”

Previously, Walmart sold items like a four-foot by six-foot version, a woman’s belt buckle and various decals, among other items. Those products appear to be gone from the site at this point.

Sears also announced that it would be removing all merchandise featuring the Confederate battle flag from its site. Though it didn’t sell any items in its stores with the image directly, it had third-party vendors that did so online.

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.

Walmart, Sears to stop selling Confederate flag merchandise [CNN]

NHTSA Opens Yet Another Investigation Into Fiat Chrysler, This Time For 121K Dodge Darts For Possible Brake Issues

Tue, 2015-06-23 15:07


A week before Fiat Chrysler is schedule to answer for its perceived lackadaisical attitude toward 22 recalls, federal regulators announced they’ve opened a separate investigation into one of the car maker’s vehicles: the Dodge Dart.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation opened an inquiry into nearly 121,000 model year 2013 Dodge Dart vehicles after receiving 18 consumer complaints regarding braking issues.

According to a notice [PDF] from NHTSA, the complaints revolve mainly around issues in which the brake pedal can suddenly become hard to depress, leading to the need for an unexpectedly long braking distance.

Some of the drivers who submitted claims to NHTSA say they heard a “popping” or “hissing” sound when applying the brake, followed by a hard pedal feel and reduced brake effectiveness.

“My son was driving and he parallel parked so he could run into a store,” one complaint states. “When he returned he put it in gear and signaled to pull out. Suddenly, there was a loud popping sounds and what sounded like air whooshing out of the brake pedal. He attempted to apply the break and he said it felt like something was stopping it from going down.”

In several cases, Dart owners say they were driving at moderate rates of speed when the issue occurred and had to apply the emergency brake in order to come to a stop.

“While driving at approximately 40 miles-per-hour, the vehicle did not come to a complete stop when the brakes were depressed,” another complaint states. “The contact had to shift into a lower gear, apply the brakes and then the emergency brake.”

“When I was coming off of a highway, I tried to brake and my brake sounded like it accumulated air and then I heard a pop,” a Dart owner recalls. “The brake went stiff and I could not use the brake. My car kept on going at 50 miles-per-hour and I could not use my brake. Luckily enough I used my hand brake to stop myself and avoid a crush into a busy street.”

Some owners say that after the issue a dealer replaced the brake booster and master cylinder in order to correct the problem.

NHTSA’s preliminary evaluation will assess the scope, frequency and safety-related consequences of the alleged brake defect. An investigation can, at times, lead to a recall.

Ticketmaster Sells Me Useless Parking Pass, Won’t Give Me A Refund

Tue, 2015-06-23 14:30

(Sadat Shami)

(Sadat Shami)

Adam recently attended a performance by comedian Kevin Hart in Boston, a city where parking is scarce and expensive. Ticketmaster offered him the opportunity to pay for his parking in advance along with his tickets, and he did. Doing so didn’t simplify his night out, though, since there was no one at the automated garage to accept his parking pass. He paid with a credit card and sought a refund from Ticketmaster later. They wouldn’t give him one, until Consumerist intervened… and also learned how the parking garage really worked.

He wondered how to use a computer printout at a parking garage, and he called the company that was, according to their website, the owner of the garage. They claimed not to own the garage. That was confusing, so Adam contacted Ticketmaster to ask how the prepaid parking worked.

It took a few attempts to get a relevant answer, which may have been an early warning sign. The e-mail response from Ticketmaster was pretty straightforward, explaining the locations of the garage entrances and explaining how the parking passes worked.

“Prepaid parking tickets will be scanned upon entering the garage,” the helpful customer service representative wrote, along with accurate-looking directions to the garage entrance. Excellent.

In hindsight, Adam should have called the venue (TD Garden) directly instead of going right to Ticketmaster: they, might have some idea who owns the garage. You know what they say about hindsight, though: you don’t have it when you’re waving a piece of printer paper at an unresponsive automated interface.

Yes, ticketing and payment were completely automated at the garage. “When we arrived at the lot, no employee or signage of any kind was present,” Adam told Consumerist. He and his companion couldn’t figure out how to use the passes, so they paid again to park in the garage that they had already paid for.

There must have been an error or miscommunication between Ticketmaster and the parking garage. Right? Adam contacted Ticketmaster for a refund, and they refused. He finally received this rather condescending response from a customer service representative:

I’m sorry to inform you, but we can not offer you a refund. The event has passed, and it is not on our end you didn’t find the parking lot. There ways to find out information [sic], you could have called the venue to find out about the parking, showed up a little earlier, or drove around till you saw a usher [sic].

Thank you, Ticketmaster representative: Adam will be sure to do that as soon as he builds his time machine so he can go back and attend the show again. It was Ticketmaster that gave Adam bad instructions, and where would they find “a usher” in an unmanned parking garage in the neighborhood surrounding a massive urban sports and entertainment venue?

That was Adam’s last exchange with the company: after that, he turned to Consumerist. We contacted Ticketmaster’s communications department, and we were able to do two things: get his $42 back (event parking in Boston is no joke) and find out what it was that he was supposed to do with the parking pass.

It turns out that the kiosks in the parking garage are able to scan the printout from Ticketmaster, and there’s no human interaction required. That sounds confusing, especially if there isn’t clear signage with instructions. New England Consumerists, maybe don’t bother buying your parking from Ticketmaster when attending events at TD Garden.

“We very seldom receive complaints of this nature, but will certainly work to prevent any future issues – this includes addressing this matter with our customer service staff,” the Ticketmaster representative told Consumerist. She also said that they brought Adam’s complaint back to the venue so everyone can avoid having this issue again in the future.

It’s excellent that Ticketmaster promises to improve the information that employees give out along with the parking passes that they sell. It’s a convenient service (I’ve used it with no problems in the past), but confusing and pricey when it goes wrong, as it did for Adam.

Martha Stewart Omnimedia Sells Out, Will Be Corporate Sibling To Franklin Mint

Tue, 2015-06-23 00:14

(Mike Mozart)

(Mike Mozart)

While Martha Stewart’s lifestyle and publishing empire isn’t as popular as it once was, its founder’s name is still a good shorthand for domesticity and good taste. That’s why the news today that her company has been acquired by Sequential Brands, the owner of Justin Bieber’s denim brand and the Franklin Mint, surprised many people.

From a business point of view, it makes logical sense, Sequential is the company that has also ended up owning the Linens-N-Things brand, which it operates as an online store, Jessica Simpson’s clothing brand, and Heelys: those sneakers with built-in roller skates that were a menace to adults last decade.

Then there’s the Franklin Mint, home of commemerative statues and dolls for every occasion, and a company that thought a framed shadowbox full of gold-plated, hologrammed state quarters was a good idea, because just gold-plating or just hologramming is not enough for these monsters.

Anyway, back to Martha Stewart. The company, which is publicly traded, was worth as much as $1 billion at its peak, but a collapse in the publishing industry followed Stewart’s imprisonment, making lifestyle magazines no longer as profitable a venture as they once were.

About half of the company’s revenues come from the magazines and other publications. The other half comes from the sale of licensed products in different store: you may remember when JCPenney and Macy’s squabbled over which retailer had the right to sell branded housewares merchandise. The empire also includes home-improvement supplies and crafting supplies, and even branded collections of pet toys and accessories.

One financial analyst told Reuters that the main advantage of merging with Sequential is that the new owners are better positioned to expand Martha Stewart Living into international markets. However, he thought that the sale price was too low, and the company would sell for more if it were sold off in parts.

Martha Stewart’s Media Empire Sold for Fraction of Its Former Value [New York Times]
Martha Stewart Living to sell itself in $353 mln deal [Reuters]

Privacy Group’s FTC Complaint: Uber Shouldn’t Track Users When They’re Not Using The App

Mon, 2015-06-22 23:43

(Adam Fagen)

(Adam Fagen)

A digital-privacy group has filed a complaint against Uber, saying the company’s new privacy policy says it could use a rider’s location information to track where they are even when the app is running in the background, and also takes issue with the company’s policy regarding collecting address book information. The Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C wants the FTC to investigate.

Under fire in the group’s complaint [PDF] is the new privacy policy for riders that Uber introduced in May, which is slated to go into effect on July 15.

Specifically, the part under “Location Information” that reads: “…we may also collect the precise location of your device when the app is running in the foreground or background. We may also derive your approximate location from your IP address.”

And in the “Contacts Information” section: “If you permit the Uber app to access the address book on your device through the permission system used by your mobile platform, we may access and store names and contact information from your address book to facilitate social interactions through our Services and for other purposes described in this Statement or at the time of consent or collection.”

EPIC says in its complaint that Uber’s updated privacy policy is an unlawful and deceptive trade practice.

“These changes ignore the FTC’s prior decisions, threaten the privacy rights and personal safety of American consumers, ignore past bad practices of the company involving the misuse of location data, pose a direct risk of consumer harm, and constitute an unfair and deceptive trade practice subject to investigation by the Federal Trade Commission,” the complaint reads.

“What the company calls a privacy announcement actually serves a different purpose,” Julia Horwitz, a coordinator at EPIC told Bloomberg News. “It actually gives the company many more permissions.”

Uber says these updated privacy polices don’t constitute a shift in a shift in practices, and are only meant to lay out what data the company collects and why.

“There is no basis for this complaint,” Uber said in a statement. “Our new privacy statements are much simpler to read and set out more clearly the data we collect, as well as how we use it. That is a significant improvement for riders and driver-partners. In our announcement we were also transparent about what new data we might collect going forward — and the fact that users will be in control.”

The company says it’s not currently collecting background location data and has no plans to do so starting July 15. It points out that users will be able to opt out of gathering location data in the background, if it chooses to start collecting that information, as well as choose not to share contact information with the app.

On iOS devices you can change such settings on an app-by-app basis, telling each app whether it can collect location data while you’re using the app, in the background or never. You can also limit which apps can use information in your address book.

But Android’s mobile platform applies such permissions to either all apps a user downloads, or none. If for example you don’t want your contacts to sync with Uber, you’d have to enter someone’s information manually, when you want to split a fare with a friend or share promotional offers.

Likewise with sharing location data: if an Android user wanted to bar Uber from refreshing location information the background, they would have to turn that off for all apps (which someone might want to do, understandably). That is, unless Google at some point changes its settings to allow users to modify settings for each individual app instead of across the entire platform.

EPIC’s complaint goes on to say, however that even though users can disable these settings, “Uber can still collect location information through the phones’ IP addresses.”

To that, Uber again said EPIC’s allegations are misleading, and that it receives Internet-protocol addresses as part of the traffic data that all apps receive.

A spokesman for the FTC told Bloomberg that the agency carefully reviews complaints from consumers, but declined to comment on whether the FTC is investigating Uber’s practices.

Uber’s Customer Tracking Draws FTC Complaint From Privacy Group [Bloomberg]

Senator Pushes For System To Notify Consumers ‘The Moment Access To Their Credit Is Requested’

Mon, 2015-06-22 22:56
(Chris Blakeley)

(Chris Blakeley)

It seems like every day, another retailer, service provider, or government agency falls victim to a data breach, and if a hacker uses that stolen info to open up a new line of credit in your name, you may not know until long after the fact. One lawmaker is hoping to curb identity theft by giving consumers a heads-up whenever their credit reports are accessed.

Today, New York Senator Chuck Schumer announced a proposed plan that aims to better protect consumers from falling victim to identity thieves by directing the three national credit reporting agencies (CRAs) – Experian, Equifax and Transunion – to create a notification system to alert consumers whenever access to their credit is requested.

Currently, credit bureaus are not required to provide consumers with notification when a third-party asks if their credit is in good standing.

“The most frightening thing to many people is that they have no idea whether they have been the victim of an attack until it’s too late,” Schumer said in a letter to the CRAs. “Too many people have faced the reality of learning that someone else has opened new lines of credit in their names only once their score has already been run into the ground.”

Under the plan, the CRAs would be required to notify individuals by phone or email anytime there is an inquiry rewarding their credit. The alerts would be made even if the inquiry were authorized, such as those made when an individual applies for a loan, credit card or mortgage .

The voluntary system would be similar to notifications that consumers receive from credit card companies when there is an instance of suspicious activity.

If someone receives the notification they would then have the ability to freeze their credit before new purchases are made or before access to credit turns into costly fraud.

“Despite widespread hacking and identity theft across the country, consumers are not notified when access to their credit is requested to create a new account,” Schumer said in a statement. “Instead, consumers are often in the dark until their credit is drained or their credit score has tanked.”

Schumer says that if the CRAs are unwilling to take the lead on such a system, she would work with relevant federal regulators or pursue legislation to ensure mandate the adoption of a notification system.

Schumer announces plan that would require consumers be notified the minute access to their credit is requested [Sen. Charles Schumer]

Ad Watchdog: Toy Lightsaber Doesn’t Light Up, Commercial Is Misleading

Mon, 2015-06-22 21:56

lightsbaerAs far as we know, the Jedi are not real. Lightsabers are not real. For children, though, the lines between real life and fiction can get a little fuzzy. That’s why the ad industry’s self-regulation body is not impressed with Hasbro’s ad for an awesome double-bladed lightsaber, since it cuts footage of an animated character together with footage of a kid playing with the toy, which creates the impression that the toy lightsaber lights up. It doesn’t.

There are other “Star Wars” licensed lightsabers that do light up, and kids who are fans would probably know that, which is one possible point of confusion that the Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus points out.

We couldn’t find the 30-second version of the ad under question, but here’s a 15-second cut that has the major elements, including the animated Inquisitor character wielding his lighted saber.

While the actual toy in the ad doesn’t light up, every other lightsaber in the ad does. “child viewers could reasonably takeaway the message that the toy does light up,” CARU notes, since there’s only a brief disclaimer

CARU Recommends Hasbro Modify Advertising for ‘Inquisitor Lightsaber’ to Better Assure Viewers Understand Product’s Capabilities [ASRC]

Court Case Illustrates Just How Difficult It Is For Borrowers To Discharge Student Loans In Bankruptcy

Mon, 2015-06-22 21:43


Students being crushed under the weight of mounting student loan debt have few options when it comes to receiving forgiveness for their debts, and bankruptcy is often the least obtainable – thanks in part to the nearly impossible to meet “undue hardship” standard. To see just how difficult and seemingly arbitrary this guideline is, all one needs to do is hear about a recent federal court case out of Maryland that determined a woman couldn’t escape her debt obligation because she had failed to make a good faith effort in repaying the loans despite the fact she’s unemployed, disabled and living below the poverty line.

A federal district judge ruled this month that the 45-year-old woman could not discharge $37,400 in student debt during bankruptcy proceedings despite the fact her entire $10,000 income comes from Social Security disability benefits and public assistance, Bloomberg reports.

The woman, who hasn’t worked since 2008, initially took out student loans worth $13,250. However, over the years that debt ballooned to more than $37,000.

She initially sought to discharge the debt in bankruptcy. When a judge ruled she couldn’t skirt her obligations, she took the case to the U.S. District Court in Maryland.

It was there that a judge ruled the woman failed to meet the undue hardship test.

As we’ve previously reported, discharging student loans in bankruptcy is a long and tedious process that often provides little relief to consumers.

In order to shake student loans debt in bankruptcy court, borrowers must prove undue hardship through a court determination. That means it is entirely up to the court to decide whether a borrower meets the three-pronged standard. To make matters worse, the standard can vary a great deal, because the bankruptcy code does not provide an actual definition of undue hardship.

In general, one prong of the undue hardship standard relates to a plaintiff’s ability to prove that repaying the debt would make it impossible to “maintain, based on current income and expenses, a ‘minimal’ standard of living.”

The second prong includes proving that “additional circumstances exist indicating that this state of affairs is likely to persist for a significant portion of the repayment period of the student loans.”

While the woman was successful in proving those two standards, the court ruled that she was incapable of proving the third: “that the debtor has made good faith efforts to repay the loans.”

According to Bloomberg, the judge found the woman failed this test because she didn’t attempt to repay her loans while holding a government-sponsored job in 2008.

However, at the time the woman was only making $11,000, just $1,000 more than her current income. She told the court she used the additional funds to pay credit card debt and other expenses.

Although the woman is currently still on the hook to pay her student debt, the district court judge provided her with information on government forgiveness programs that may be of assistance.

Courts Rule That Disabled Woman Living Below the Poverty Line Must Repay Student Loans [Bloomberg]

SCOTUS Sides With California Farmer Who Refused To Pay Raisins Into The National Reserve

Mon, 2015-06-22 21:26



A few years back we heard the tale of a California farmer who was raisin’ a stink over the government’s insistence that he pay 1.2 million pounds of raisins into the national reserve without paying him for them. Today, the Supreme Court of the United States sided with him, saying the Fifth Amendment requires the government to pay just compensation when it takes personal property (movable property), just as when it takes real property (things like land).

Quick background: Around 2002, the farmer had refused to let the government take away 1.2 million pounds of raisins, under something called a “marketing order” that takes the raisins and dumps them into a national reserve. In this case it was Marketing Order 989, which was initiated as part of the New Deal as a way to keep demand for raisins high when prices decline.

The raisins that go into the reserve are then sold off by the Raisin Administrative Committee, which runs the reserve. These are raisins the farmers got nothing for, but that are then exported in noncompeting markets, given to charity or other purposes. It gets them off the open market and keeps the supply for commercial buyers low. That means you could be paying higher prices for raisins than you would if the farmers were allowed to sell all their crops off.

Farmers are supposed to get whatever’s left of the net proceeds RAC makes after deductions for the export subsidies and the Committee’s administrative expenses.

For their refusal to fork over the free raisins, the government ultimately fined the farmers about $480,000, the market value of the fruit, plus “an additional civil penalty of $200,000.”

In the opinion penned by Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority today [PDF], he explains the system and notes that during the years at issue in this case, the net proceeds from the RAC were less than the cost of producing the crop one year, and nothing at all the next. Which means the farmers basically got nothing.

“Growers generally ship their raisins to a raisin ‘handler,’ who physically separates the raisins due the Government (called ‘reserve raisins’), pays the growers only for the remainder (‘free-tonnage raisins’), and packs and sells the free-tonnage raisins,” Roberts wrote. “The Raisin [Administrative] Committee acquires title to the reserve raisins that have been set aside, and decides how to dispose of them in its discretion.”

The farmers in question produced some of the raisins at issue here themselves and acquired some from other producers, “paying those growers in full for all of their raisins, not just the free-tonnage portion.”

The decision today doesn’t invalidate marketing orders, which have been permitted for a while as a condition for selling in interstate commerce. But essentially, the government can’t make raisin growers give up their property without just compensation.

The court held that when the government “physically takes possession” of property, that constitutes a “per se taking,” instead of a regulatory one, so that just compensation is required, whether it’s personal property or real estate.

The court also rejected the United States Department of Agriculture’s argument that promising to share future proceeds from the sale of the reserve raisins was enough to meet that requirement of just compensation.

Though eight of the justices agreed on that (with Justice Sotomayor dissenting), when it came to deciding what “just compensation was,” the justice voted 5-4, with Justice Roberts concluding:

“The Government has already calculated the amount of just compensation in this case, when it fined the [the farmers] the fair market value of the raisins: $483,843.53,” he wrote, saying the government can’t go back on that valuation now. Instead of giving the farmers that amount, he says they should “simply be relieved of the obligation to pay the fine and associated civil penalty.”

All of the justices agreed, however, that “Raisins… are a healthy snack,” Roberts wrote in the part of the opinion joined by Breyer, Ginsburg and Kagan.

“I could not agree more,” Sotomayor agreed in a footnote.

Instacart Gives Shoppers Employee Status, Says It’s To Improve Customer Experience

Mon, 2015-06-22 20:36



App-based, on-demand services make it easy to order a variety of products and services, and many of the workers who bring you those services are full- or part-time contractors. Some companies, like on-demand ride providers Uber and Lyft, are actively fighting in court to not be forced to give their workers “employee” status. Another company, shopping service Instacart, is proactively making their grocery pickers in some states employees.

Why would they do such a thing? It’s not because they want to get ahead of legal problems, though this announcement comes shortly after the the California Labor Commission declared that a former Uber driver should be considered an employee. Instacart says that the change is because the company wants to improve customers’ experience, which in turn means training order-pickers.

“What we found is that our shoppers require training and supervision, which is how you improve the quality of the picking. You can’t do that when they are independent contractors,” the company’s founder and CEO explained in a statement.

The first cities to change their labor model are Boston and Chicago, and others will follow later. Nationwide, Instacart has an estimated 10,000 shoppers-for-hire, so hiring and training them all is a huge undertaking.

In cities where this change is being implemented, Instacart is separating its workforce into two categories: the fleet of delivery drivers will remain independent contractors with more flexible shifts–and, more importantly, they will continue to provide their own vehicles. The shoppers or order-pickers will be part-time workers with more regular shifts.

Shoppers will work fewer than 30 hours per week, which means that Instacart won’t be obligated to provide them with health insurance, but the company will have to withhold payroll taxes, pay unemployment and worker’s compensation insurance, and pay the employer’s portion of Social Security and Medicare.

Order-picking is a very precise skill when your warehouse is an entire Whole Foods or Costco store, and making workers who do that job into employees means that Instacart gets more control over their work and how they’re trained.

Instacart Reclassifies Part of Its Workforce Amid Regulatory Pressure on Uber

CFPB Asks Google, Bing & Yahoo To Help Stop Student Loan Debt Scams That Imply Affiliation With Feds

Mon, 2015-06-22 20:21


The Internet is teeming with scammers, fraudsters, and hustlers determined to part consumers from their money, and as a $1.2 trillion venture, student loans often present an attractive avenue for these ne’er-do-wells. In order to better protect individuals from such schemes, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is enlisting the help of the country’s major search engines. 

In letters to Google, Bing and Yahoo, CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman Rohit Chopra expressed concern that debt relief scammers are using aggressive advertising through search products to sink their teeth into unsuspecting consumers.

While many of the search engines have their own policies in place to protect consumers against misrepresentations in advertisements, the CFPB urges the companies to work with federal and state agencies to ensure search products are not being used by debt relief companies to prey on student loan borrowers by implying an affiliation with the federal government.

“By more closely monitoring advertising on key search terms and helping to drive traffic toward unbiased sources of information, your users will gain greater value from your search products and scammers will be less likely to flourish,” the letter [PDF] to Google states.

These unscrupulous companies – many of which require large upfront fees to help student loan borrowers enroll in a plan that can be done for free – have increased in presence in recent years, the CFPB says.

The U.S. Department of Education offers numerous plans to borrowers with federal student loans to make payments more affordable. These include options that let borrowers set their monthly payment based on their income. Monthly payments under these plans can be as low as zero dollars per month for unemployed or very low-wage borrowers. The Department of Education does not charge any fees to apply for or enroll in these plans, for which many student loan borrowers qualify.

Last December, the CFPB released a special advisory warning consumers to be on the lookout for such scams.

According to the analysis of Google Trends, the CFPB believes that struggling borrowers are falling victim to these scams when searching for help using keywords such as “student loan default,” “student loan forgiveness,” and “Obama student loan relief.”

“This bears a close resemblance to the foreclosure crisis, where borrowers were given conflicting information about their options and found scammers who made false promises on loan modifications in exchange for upfront fees,” the letter states.

As a result, back in 2011, Google partnered with the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program to help stop scammers preying on homeowners in trouble.


Two Arrested After Video Surfaces Of Guy Streaking Through Walmart, Dousing Himself In Milk

Mon, 2015-06-22 19:47

(via WYMT)

(via WYMT)

A man seen on video running almost naked through a Kentucky Walmart wearing only his socks, shoes and a Halloween mask has been arrested, along with the suspected cameraman, after the footage hit the Internet last week. The man also treated shoppers to the sight of him pouring milk on his naked body and yelling that he was on fire.

The county sheriff obtained arrest warrants on Friday after the video was circulated starting on Wednesday, and police arrested the two suspects on Saturday, reports WSAZ News.

“I wouldn’t want to go in Walmart and see somebody walking around naked or running around naked, so they need to go to jail,” Pike County Sheriff Rodney Scott said, according to WYMT News.

Police are still looking to find the getaway driver who waited for the streaker to finish his rounds inside the store. The two men have been charged with criminal mischief, disorderly conduct and indecent exposure, in what police believe was a planned prank.

Although the video first appeared on YouTube, it was taken down as it includes nudity.

“The first question I would have would be, ‘Why?'” Scott said. “Why would they want to do it?”

That question may never be answered. Heck, maybe some people just like to get naked and pour milk on themselves — no judgment! But you shouldn’t do that in public.

Amazon Tweaks Review System To Crack Down On Fakes, Highlight The Most Helpful Entries

Mon, 2015-06-22 19:26
(Zach Egolf)

(Zach Egolf)

Amazon is taking its recent crackdown on fraudulent reviews a step further by implementing a system to ensure customers see the most authentic – and helpful – reviews of a product first.

CNET reports that Amazon’s new machine-learning platform aims to identify and showcase the best assessments by overhauling an algorithm that places value on reviews.

Under the new system, the e-commerce giant will assign more weight to recent reviews, those that have been written by a verified purchaser and those that are seen as more helpful by other customers.

Additionally, the overall rating for a product will now be based on the new system rather than simply being the average of all the stars reviewers bestow upon it.

“Amazon is enhancing the customer reviews system, adding a few changes we hope will help make product feedback even more useful to customers,” Julie Law, an Amazon spokeswoman, tells ABC News. “The system will continue to learn which reviews are most helpful to customers and improve the experience over time.”

For the time being, the new system – which started on Friday – won’t be noticeable to most customers, CNET reports. That’s because the company will start by gradually altering star ratings and top reviews on product pages. Over time, the system will learn which kinds of reviews are most helpful and make additional tweaks.

News of the new system comes just two months after Amazon filed its first lawsuit against businesses it claims sell fake reviews to third-party sellers.

The lawsuit against four websites –,, and and their operators – accuses accuses the companies of an array of illegal business practices that undermine customer trust and the integrity of the online retailer.

Amazon says in the lawsuit that it actively monitors its website for “false, misleading and inauthentic reviews.” However, in certain instances that practice hasn’t been sufficient, leading the company to determine legal action was necessary.

The online retailer is seeking unspecified damages and requests that the sites cease and desist activities related to the retailer, provide information on each fake review created and the accounts of the people who paid for them.

Amazon looks to improve customer-reviews system with machine learning [CNET]
How Amazon Is Using Artificial Intelligence to Crack Down on Fake Reviews [ABC News]

Subway Celebrates 50th Anniversary By Changing HQ Street Name To ‘Sub Way’

Mon, 2015-06-22 18:50



Subway, the seemingly ubiquitous sandwichery, turns 50 this year. Happy birthday, Subway! The company has decided to celebrate by renaming the Milford, Connecticut street where its headquarters is located in its own honor, and local government has agreed to the change. The new name: Sub Way. Of course.

The previous name of the street comes from one of its neighbors on the same stretch of road, a company that used to have a much bigger presence in the area than it does now. The street’s name is Bic Drive, after the Bic Corporation, whose headquarters used to be on the same street.

Confusingly, the name Sub Way will only be on the half-mile section where Subway’s headquarters is located: Bic asked to keep its name on the half-mile section of road where it still has a lighter factory.

There are expenses associated with an address change like this…for Subway’s neighbors, even when you’re only changing a half-mile section of the road. As part of the requirements to rename the street, the company agreed to bear the costs of changing the mailing addresses on neighboring companies’ stationery, signs, and any other items with pre-printed addresses that have to be changed.

Subway gets OK to change part of Bic Drive to `Sub Way’ [Milford Mirror] (Thanks, Alex!)