website utilities

People before Profit

Follow on:

The Consumerist

Teenagers Turning Restaurants Into The Cool New Hangout Spots As Malls Die Off

Fri, 2014-04-11 23:00



A word to any Hollywood screenwriters working on a scene where old cops go back to high school disguised as implausibly believable students — put those characters at a mall and real teenagers will know you don’t know what’s cool these days. Namely, malls are out, and restaurants are in as the new spot to hangout.

Ever since the 1950s, the mall was the place teens begged their parents to let them go to hang out mostly unsupervised, inspiring such cinematic classics like Mallrats and intense brain games like Mall Madness.

But as malls go the way of the dinosaur, kids these days would rather spend their time and money hanging out and eating food at restaurants than by the mall fountain and shopping at Spencer’s (which yes, still exists, for now), reports Quartz.

Teen mall traffic is down by 30% over the last 10 years, according to Piper Jaffray’s 27th semi-annual study into teen behavior. In 2014, teens on average logged 29 trips each to the mall, compared to 38 visits in 2007. And for the first time since the study started, teens are spending more money on food and events than clothing.

“Restaurants have become a gathering place and teens are increasingly suggesting they prefer dining out to other forms of status brand spending,” the report says. “We see restaurants as the next generation hang out for teens.”

That could be an unwelcome change for other patrons, as cops responded to a Brooklyn McDonald’s recently to deal with a ravening horde of teens accustomed to showing up there on a daily basis, reports the New York Daily News.

“It’s out of control,” one employee said of the usual scene.

Dozens of students had been converging on the McDonald’s every afternoon as school let out, yelling at each other, throwing things, running into people and generally causing a disarray. That is, until adults reclaimed the spot by way of three cops and a security guard.

“I’m going home,” one girl told the NYDN, noting there were now too many police at the McDonald’s.

Ah, authority, the constant killjoy.

American teens don’t hang out at malls anymore. They eat at restaurants [Quartz]
Cops, security guard restore order at Brooklyn McDonald’s [New York Daily News]
Hordes of local youths terrorize a Central Brooklyn McDonald’s during lunch hour, yelling, cursing, running wild and vandalizing furniture, workers say [New York Daily News]

Evenflo Also Recalls 1.4 Million Car Seats For Sticky Buckle Issues

Fri, 2014-04-11 22:14

seatHey, remember when Graco recalled more than 4 million child safety seats because their buckles have a tendency to latch a little too well when gummed up with food or beverages? It seems that they weren’t the only manufacturer to use the extra-sticky buckles. Evenflo has recalled just under 1.4 million of their seats for the same problem.

Affected models are the Momentum 65, Chase, Maestro, Symphony, Snugli All-In-One, Snugli Booster, Titan 65, SureRide DLX, and Secure Kid seats. All recalled seats were manufactured between 2011 and 2014. To find out whether your seat falls within the recall period, visit Evenflo’s recall page.

You may have to wait for replacement restraints to arrive, but the seats aren’t dangerous to use in the interim. Just be careful to keep the buckles clean: car seat manufacturers have posted detailed cleaning instructions (PDF download).

Harness Buckle Recall [Official Site]

Taco Bell Employee Guilty Of Threatening Co-Worker With Knife In Front Of Customers

Fri, 2014-04-11 22:03

(Paxton Holley)

(Paxton Holley)

Dear Taco Bell employees: If you’re going to threaten one another with knives (which, for the record, we do not recommend), kindly do so out of the view of customers; and certainly don’t threaten your fellow employee while he or she is in the middle of taking an order from a customer.

The Lincoln Journal Star reports that last year, a Taco Bell manager in Lincoln, NE, spotted one employee holding an 8″ knife — taken from the restaurant’s prep area — against the back of a co-worker who was at the counter taking a customer’s order at the time.

The manager managed to get the knife out of her co-worker’s hand and fired him on the spot. She contacted the police, who arrested him the next day.

At first, he told officers that he’d only been joking around, but he later changed his story in court, saying it was he who felt threatened. He testified that the employee he’d held at knifepoint had said he was in a gang and had been involved in drive-by shootings. The defendant said he was only acting in self-defense.

He also claimed to have made complaints to the manager about this supposed gang-banger of a co-worker, but the manager not only denies that claim. She also cast doubt on his self-defense claim by saying she’d heard the man say he was going to stab the 17-year-old.

The prosecutor said this defense was “not even in the world of reasonableness,” and the jury seemed to agree, taking only about three hours to find him guilty of making terroristic threats and use of a deadly weapon.

He could face up to 25 years in prison when he’s sentenced in June.

Science Says: Swatting Fruit Flies Is Annoying Because They’re Basically Tiny Fighter Jets

Fri, 2014-04-11 22:00

Goose and Maverick, meet your competition.

Goose and Maverick, meet your competition.

As proven time and time again after you leave those bananas on the counter for too long, the grasping meathooks we call hands are basically ineffective when faced with the ever elusive fruit fly. But don’t feel bad, it’s not just your giant, clumsy hamfists, it’s that fruit flies are basically mini fighter jets. And they’re all named Maverick or Goose, obviously.

While I can’t speak to actual fruit fly naming conventions, scientists are behind this new idea that says fruit flies are so damnably missable because they’re evading swats by banking the same way fighter jets do, reports the Los Angeles Times.

According to findings published in the journal Science, when researchers put the bugs through their paces by firing lasers at them, the fruit flies would make incredibly sharp turns to avoid getting hit. The flies would turn at a speed faster than five times their normal speed when trying to avoid a threat, said researchers.

But instead of just going right or left, the flies execute superfast banked turns by rolling and pitching their bodies at the same time. The little buggers can do one of those within less than one hundredth of a second after registering a threat — 50 times faster than the blink of an eye, say scientists.

And those sweet moves could shine light into the inner life of fruit flies (Do they binge watch TV like us? What’s the most attractive rotting fruit?).

“The insects turn because they have some internal control circuitry, just like a pilot [who's] turning a plane,” said one physicist who wasn’t involved in the research. “And by looking how the insects turn, we might be able to say what the ‘pilot’ is thinking.”

Rest easy, my sausage-fingered friends. And just make sure you toss that banana before the entire cast of Top Gun shows up.

Fruit flies make blazing fast turns like fighter jets, study says [Los Angeles Times]

You can follow MBQ on Twitter where she may ask for other ways to describe fat fingers and is always grateful for your helpful responses (you know who you are): @marybethquirk

More Families Are Saving For College, But It May Not Be Enough To Match Rising Tuition Costs

Fri, 2014-04-11 21:34



If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a million times: college tuition is rising and along with it, student debt. While a new report shows that families are doing their best to help cover the costs by saving more, it likely won’t be enough.

According to Sallie Mae’s annual “How America Saves for College” report [PDF], the average family now has a total of $115,604 saved in various forms. But while 51% of these families are saving for college, only 10% of their savings are going toward their kids’ education.

This year’s report, which surveyed 2,020 parents with children under 18 years of age, found that families’ increased their average college savings by nearly $4,000, or 30%, from the the previous year.

saving over time

Families with teenagers have set aside an average savings of $21,416 for college. According to the latest College Board figures that’s enough to cover the $8,893 average tuition cost at an in-state public school but not enough to cover a single year’s tuition at private colleges ($30,094)or out-of-state residents attending public universities ($22,203).

Once again, parents say they strongly value higher education, with 89% of those surveyed saying that college was an investment in their child’s future. In fact, 90% of families are willing to stretch financially to given their child the opportunity to obtain a college education.

“The vast majority of American families – rich or poor- believe that a college education is an investment in their child’s future and are firm in their desire to have their children benefit from higher education,” the report says. “Despite difficult economic circumstances and the extensive public discussion about college costs, they remain steadfastly committed to the prospect of their children attaining a college degree.”

feeling of savings

While nearly half the families with children under 18 years of age are saving for college, the other half are not, and for a number of reasons.

The primary reason for not saving is a lack of funds in general. The report found that families who aren’t saving for college are more likely to be in the low-income group and less likely to have earned a college degree themselves.

Saving for college isn’t the only planning parents are doing when it comes to their child’s future. The report found that 41% of families have started to research other options to pay for college.

That planning includes researching college costs, financial aid opportunities and borrowing alternatives. More parents are encouraging their children to study to increase the changes of scholarships and to enroll in Advanced Placement courses in high school to receive college credits.

Sallie Mae began issuing the survey in 2008 to determine how American families were planning for their child’s education.

Following the recession, the survey found a significant decrease in families saving for college with the number falling from 62% in 2009 to 50% in 2013. This year, researches say the decline seems to be leveling off with 51% of families saving for the cause.

“Following a decline in the ability of American families to save for college, this year there has been an increase in savings among high- and middle-income families,” the report says. “While college-specific savings in low-income families has declined, their overall savings have gone up.”

Ads Offering Tax-Relief Are Full Of Broken Promises, Just Want Your Money

Fri, 2014-04-11 21:15



This may not come as a surprise to any of you, but those ads on the radio that offer to settle your debt to the Internal Revenue Service for a fraction of the bill may be a scam.

Officials with the Federal Trade Commission are warning consumers to be aware of these so-called “rescue” programs that, in reality, can cost consumers thousands of dollars and provide no tax relief, the Washington Post reports.

To make matters worse, some consumers told the FTC they not only paid thousands of dollars in upfront fees for the tax relief service but also subsequently found unauthorized charges to their credit cards or withdrawals from their bank accounts.

The companies who tout the chance to settle consumer debts for mere pennies often don’t even send the necessary paperwork to the IRS for consideration into the Offer in Compromise (OIC) program, which allows consumers to pay less than their full tax payment under certain circumstances.

In fact, the odds are against an applicant being accepted into OIC.

To qualify for the program consumers must show they can’t pay their full tax liability because it will create a financial hardship. If IRS officials don’t believe that your debt can be paid in full as a lump sum or through a payment plan you may be one of the lucky few accepted into the program.

Last year, the IRS received nearly 74,000 requests for the program and only accepted 31,000 consumers.

Taxpayers can actually apply for the IRS relief on their own. To determine eligibility consumers can use the agency’s pre-qualifier tool at

If you don’t qualify for the OIC program there are other options available. The IRS has expanded its help for struggling taxpayers including payment agreements.

Consumers who are lucky enough to receive a tax refund from the government, should still be on the look out for those who want to take that money away from you in the form of identity theft.

Earlier this year, the National Consumers League issued a scam alert warning consumers of ways scammers can take your hard-earned cash. Generally, tax season identity scams work in two ways: scammers use a stolen Social Security number to file the tax return, or they use the stolen identity to obtain a job. In both cases consumers aren’t likely to discover the problem until much later.

Unfortunately, rescue companies and identity thieves aren’t the only groups targeting taxpayers. Last month, the IRS issued a warning for consumers to be mindful of unsolicited calls claiming to be from the agency and requesting mont for owed taxes.

In all, the agency reported it received more than 20,000 reports involving victims who lost at least $1 million in the scheme.

Tax-relief ‘rescues’ are really a ruse [The Washington Post]

Ask Tax Dad: I Just Can’t Quit Itemizing My Deductions

Fri, 2014-04-11 21:11

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

Bezel writes:

I have been itemizing my [deductions] for the past 15 years. I have had no changes to my tax situation, other than a small decrease to investment income/interest. This year my prep software informed me that the standard deduction is more favorable than itemizing. Is this possible? Is there any negative impact on my 2014 taxes by not itemizing? Thank you.

I believe I can answer this, Bezel. You should file your return using your itemized deductions or the IRS’ standard deduction, whichever gives you the lowest taxable income. Your tax prep software should aid you in this, unless you checked a box saying that you wish to itemize even if your taxable income would be lower.

For those not familiar with “Standard” and “Itemized” deductions, the IRS allows all taxpayers to lower their taxable income by subtracting certain expenses. These are called deductions. A complete list would be longer than most Consumerist posts, but the most common ones include state and local taxes or sales taxes paid, mortgage interest, student loan interest, property taxes, charitable or religious contributions, gambling losses (if you have large enough gambling winnings that you have to include them on your tax return), and some other deductions.

If a taxpayer doesn’t have a substantial amount of these deductions or just doesn’t want to bother, he or she is allowed a Standard Deduction instead. Here’s an interactive guide that will help you calculate your standard deduction. In most cases, the higher your deduction, the less your taxable income, and the less tax you pay. Of course, the taxpayer must keep records of all these payments in order to itemize them on Schedule A.

Clark asks:

My wife and I left Lansing, MI and moved to MA in 2012. However, she had $4.74 in Lansing local income tax withheld in 2013 from a job in a different city. Do we need to file a Lansing return?

You would need to file a city of Lansing return if you want to obtain a possible refund of the $4.74. Otherwise, the City will probably not come looking for a tax return from you.

Kate asks:

Hi Tax Dad! I filed my federal return and then realized that I’d completely forgotten to include information about taking withdrawals from a Roth IRA (I’m 30 and the IRA only had $200 in it anyway), plus the interest from my regular savings account (said interest was under $10). I know I’ll have to file an amended return but will I also need to do one for the state return as well?

Hi Kate: yes, you should do a calculation of your taxable income after the changes, and file an amended return if you owe more tax. (Or less tax, but that wouldn’t be the case here.) Remember that your contribution to, or basis in, the Roth IRA is usually not taxable, but earnings are.

If you do file a 1040-X Amended Return, you should also file an amended return for your state, even if your state tax owed did not change.

Rebecca writes:

I got married in November, and my husband is here on a student visa. We have submitted all of his paperwork to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for his permanent resident application, but it will take about 6 months. In the meantime, I can’t file my taxes until I file more paperwork to get him an ITIN (?). Is then something I can do myself, or is it very likely that I’ll botch it and I should really go to a professional?

Hi Rebecca: I must admit to no experience with non-resident taxes, but in consulting with IRS and some colleagues, here is my advice. I am assuming you have filed either SS-5 for a SSN or W-7 for a ITIN, and hopefully neither one will take more than 6 months for approval.

I would suggest filing with the IRS for a 6-month extension, Form 4868, on your tax return. You would need to do a quick calculation of your tax return and pay the approximate amount of taxes you might owe. If your husband’s paperwork is completed any time within the 6 months, which would be to October 15, you would be able to file your return. In most cases, filing jointly with your spouse would be the best way to go.

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

Teen Sells 3.85-Carat Yellow Diamond She Found At Gem Park For $20,000

Fri, 2014-04-11 21:00

(Crater of Diamonds State Park)

(Crater of Diamonds State Park)

First of all, before we get into money talk, color me flabbergasted by the fact that there’s a park where apparently you can find free gems, take them home at your leisure and then sell them. Crater of Diamonds State Park exists, and it’s made one 14-year-old girl way richer than most kids her age.

The Arkansas park is the only diamond-producing site open to the public in the U.S., bringing in gem hunters from all over trying to find the next big thing.

That big thing for the Oklahoma teen in this case was a canary yellow 3.85-carat diamond that she found while rooting around in the dirt at the park for two hours last October with her family, which she just sold for $20,000, reports the Associated Press.

She told KWTV at the time that she would probably sell the diamond to pay for college if she decided not to turn it into jewelry.

“I thought it was a piece of paper or foil from a candy wrapper,” she said of the discovery. “Then, when I touched it, I thought it was a marble.” She adds that she believes God told her to slow down and take a look, which is when she realized it was a diamond.

Since the park opened in 1906, 75,000 diamonds have been discovered there, along with other gems like amethyst, garnet, peridot, jasper, agate, calcite, barite, and quartz.

Girl Gets $20K for Diamond Found in Arkansas Park [Associated Press]

Staples Now Testing In-Store 3D Printing

Fri, 2014-04-11 20:55

staples3dIn an earlier, more simpler time when color printing was costly (and when people still printed things out), many consumers and small businesses used Staples and other office supply stores to fulfill their printing and copying needs. Can they do the same for 3D printing? Staples is willing to find out by dipping its toe into the 3D-printed waters with a pair of in-store tests.

The retailer announced today that it has partnered with 3D Systems to launch pilot printing services at one store on 5th Ave. in Manhattan and another on Wilshire Blvd. in L.A.’s Studio City neighborhood.

The two stores will have photo booths that allow customers to scan in their facial info for use in 3D printing.

The two stores will have photo booths that allow customers to scan in their facial info for use in 3D printing.

In addition to allowing customers to print 3D-ready files, the stores will feature an “immersive 3D printing experience center” where customers can try their hand at creating 3-dimensional items of their own. This includes a photo booth that can capture data to create 3D figurines of themselves.

Since it’s still a developing technology, there will be a 3D Systems employee working at both stores to walk people through the process, and we assume to unplug and plug back in the machines when they start acting up.

Staples recently got into the business of selling 3D printers to retail customers, so the store sees this pilot program as a good way to introduce consumers to the world of 3D printing, presumably in the hope that they will ultimately spend their money on it.

“The test with 3D Systems will help us learn about our customers’ needs for a local 3D printing service, and how Staples can help them make more happen for their business through 3D printing,” explains Damien Leigh, senior vice president of business services for Staples, Inc.

Payday Lenders Can’t Use Tribal Affiliation To Garnish Wages Without Court Order

Fri, 2014-04-11 20:01

For years, a handful of sketchy payday lenders have been using purported affiliations with tribal lands to try to skirt federal and state laws. But courts and regulators have recently been cracking down on these operations, saying that a tribal connection does not shield a business from prosecution. One operation facing charges from the Federal Trade Commission has now agreed to pay nearly $1 million in penalties over charges that it illegally garnished borrowers’ wages and wrongfully sued them in tribal courts.

Back in 2011, the FTC sued Martin Webb, operator of various online payday lending operations, including Great Sky Financial and Western Sky, whose TV ads are likely familiar to regular viewers of cruddy daytime and late-night TV shows, for allegedly attempting to garnish borrowers’ wages without first obtaining a court order, in violation of the FTC Act.

These same companies were subsequently accused of suing borrowers in a South Dakota tribal court that had no jurisdiction over these loans. The tribal court has no jurisdiction over people who are not members of the tribe and who do not reside either on the reservation or elsewhere in South Dakota.

“Regardless of tribal affiliation, debt collectors must comply with federal law,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The defendants surrendered around $420,000 following a partial judgement in favor of the FTC back in Sept. 2013, shortly after Western Sky announced that it would have to stop funding new loans.

The recently announced settlement adds another $550,000 in penalties to that total, settling charges that Webb and his companies violated the Credit Practices Rule, which prohibits payday lenders from requiring borrowers to consent to have wages taken directly out of their paychecks in the event of a default.

Western Sky is under investigation or being sued by authorities in several states, including Colorado, New York, Oregon, Minnesota, and Maryland.

It and other payday lenders located on tribal lands have repeatedly been accused of issuing triple-digit interest loans to borrowers in states that either outlaw payday lending or have established interest rate caps that effectively ban payday operations from lending.

The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently announced that it is in the late stages of drafting lending reforms that would hopefully curb some of the more predatory aspects of payday lending.

Report: 44% Of Twitter Accounts Have Never Issued A Single Tweet

Fri, 2014-04-11 20:00



If someone who signs up for a Twitter account but then fails to ever launch a single tweet, can we call said person a Twitter “user”? Or is there some other name for the 44% of all Twitter account holders who have never tweeted, perhaps “The Untweeted,” à la Game of Thrones or “Career Lurkers”?

In any case, a new report says that almost half of all the 974 million accounts on Twitter have never ever sent a tweet. Not about yesterday’s lunch, no musings on the pitch and frequency of the cat’s meowing at the bird outside the window, not even “how does this thing work?”

The report (via the Wall Street Journal) comes from Twopcharts, a site that monitors Twitter account activity, but that number hasn’t been confirmed by Twitter itself. A spokesperson said simply that the company doesn’t comment on third-party data.

It’s unclear if these are ghost accounts, abandoned by their owners before they were even given a chance to breathe life into the social world, or maybe the kind of person like that friend of yours who simply follows and lurks in order to stay abreast of current events. Twopcharts can only track when an account tweets its own message or retweets one.

Of course, Twitter would prefer its users to be tweeting, because that’s how it earns ad revenue. And the more you use Twitter, the thinking goes, the more likely you are to keep using it in the future.

More importantly, if you’ve never tweeted, then you’ll never have to feel like you’re standing in a huge, roiling crowd and shouting at the top of your lungs, but no on can hear you.

Report: 44% of Twitter Accounts Have Never Sent a Tweet [Wall Street Journal]

You can follow MBQ on Twitter where she has actually tweeted, at least once or twice by now: @marybethquirk

Detroit Police Bust Multi-Million Shoplifting Ring Accused Of Stealing $15K Of Stuff Per Day

Fri, 2014-04-11 19:00



While you might think you know about shoplifting based on that ill-advised stint in middle school when everyone was doing it, cops in Detroit have fried a much bigger fish than your normal grab-and-go thieves: Investigators say they’ve just busted a shoplifting ring responsible for stealing as much as $15,000 worth of merchandise a day and reselling it on the Internet.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the accused thieves worked out of a 7,600-square-foot warehouse that served as the hub for the multimillion-dollar theft ring. Cops say it’s the largest such operation they’ve seen.

The county sheriff called the operation “amazing in size and scope,” and said it probably has been doing business for years before drug investigators happened upon it last month.

Investigators say the shoplifters were given shopping lists of what to steal, like cold medicine, antacids and other over-the-counter drugs from CVS, Walgreens and others. Theft of those items led investigators to the ring, thinking perhaps it was connected to making methamphetamine.

The “shoppers” would then wear special clothing designed to hide their ill-gotten gains, stuff their pockets full and bring the goods to the warehouse. They were allegedly paid $2,500 in cash per day for their hauls.

Investigators discovered $75,000 in cash, about $30,000 in merchandise from CVS and Walgreens, $10,000 in items stolen from other retailers and an additional $3 million in perfumes, lotions and creams stolen from Victoria’s Secret in Las Vegas.

Five people have been charged with felony counts of organized retail crime and receiving and concealing stolen property in connection to the ring.

“They bought this warehouse about nine months ago for $200,000 in cash,” the sheriff said of the operation, which another official described as “tidy.” “They were generating enough cash that they could plunk down $200,000 in cash to buy a facility to expand their operations.”

Police: ‘Amazing’ $15,000-a-day shoplifting ring targeted CVS, Walgreens [Detroit Free Press]

You can follow MBQ on Twitter if you’re willing to forgive her for the key chains she definitely did not mean to take from that crap store at the mall when she was 12: @marybethquirk

Federal Government Takes Taxpayers’ Refunds To Cover Decades-Old Overpayments

Fri, 2014-04-11 18:50


In a massive program like Social Security, sometimes people get overpayments ranging from a few bucks to a few thousand bucks. It used to be that if whatever government entity overpaid a family didn’t catch up with them and recoup the money, the statute of limitations on the debt would run out after ten years. A teeny section of the 2008 farm bill changed that, and now the government is snatching up taxpayers’ refunds to cover their dead parents’ decades-old debts.

The relevant sentence looks like impenetrable legalese:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, regulation, or
administrative limitation, no limitation on the period within which an
offset may be initiated or taken pursuant to this section shall be

What it means to ordinary citizens is “if you’ve ever received money from the government that you weren’t supposed to, we’ll catch up with you, and we can take your tax refund.” The Washington Post looked into this phenomenon and profiled people who have had their refunds taken: of course, since it’s Washington, D.C., many of the people profiled are government employees. That adds an extra level of irony.

The Treasury department reports that it has recovered $424 million in “offsets” owed to various parts of the federal government. While keeping the Social Security trust fund running is important and all, pursuing taxpayers for their long-dead parents’ Social Security payments looks very bad.

Take one person profiled by the Post: his father died 45 years ago, and his mother received Social Security survivors’ benefits. She died 12 years later. Now, 33 years after her death, the government finally caught up with her son to take his tax refund. Some taxpayers appeal, but only about 10% of them are successful.

The amount of my federal payment (e.g., income tax refund) has been reduced (“offset”). Why? [Treasury Department]
Social Security, Treasury target taxpayers for their parents’ decades-old debts [Washington Post] (Thanks, Max!)

Washington State Sold Computers Loaded With Sensitive Personal Information

Fri, 2014-04-11 18:42

(William J Sisti)

(William J Sisti)

It’s not just retailers and manufacturers that carelessly sell used and refurbished electronics containing sensitive information left behind by a previous user. The state of Washington has sold or given away hundreds of surplus computers that contain things like Social Security numbers, medical records, tax forms and other confidential information.

For several decades, Washington state has run a program that sells off or donates around 10,000 surplus government-owned computers each year. State law requires that these computers undergo a thorough cleansing before hitting the market to ensure that no confidential data is shared.

But the Seattle Times reports on a recent state audit that found private data on a handful of computers slated for this program that still contained sensitive information. The auditors estimate that around 9% of the computers sold or given away may not have had their hard drives wiped before being made available to the public.

“With the right knowledge of data retrieval, the confidential information we found could be obtained in a few minutes,” states the audit report. “Had these computers been sold, the presence of confidential information on their hard drives posed a risk of harm to private individuals and the state.”

The state’s chief information officer is trying to downplay the problem, claiming there have been no reports of sensitive data going public, and pointing out that the state halted the surplus sale in advance of the audit report.

Washington is now beefing up its rules about handling these surplus computers and will be putting them through a secondary scrubbing before being sold.

Sony Tells Users Of New Vaio Laptop To Stop Using It Unless They Like Being Burned

Fri, 2014-04-11 18:13

SonyNothing can interrupt your productivity quite like having your computer catching fire. If you own one of the new Sony Vaio laptops that’s an actual possibility.

On Friday, Sony warned users of its new Vaio Fit 11A to immediately discontinue use because of the potential for batteries to burn or catch fire, The New York Times reports.

There have been three reports of overheating resulting in partial burns to the housing unit of the convertible laptop, company officials say.

Not all the computers, which launched in February, contain the issue. Affected units use nondetachable internal battery packs sourced from an unnamed third-party supplier and contain the product name beginning with SVF11N1.

Officials estimate that 26,000 units, 497 of which have been purchased in the United States, contain the issue.

Consumers with computers matching the description should “immediately discontinue use, shut down and unplug the PC.” The company plans to develop a program within the next two weeks to repair or replace the affected units free of charge, or to refund the purchase price.

In 2010, the company recalled 535,000 Vaio laptops for overheating, creating a potential burn hazard for users.

Friday’s announcement comes just a month after it was revealed that Sony was attempting to find a buyer for the Vaio line, essentially getting itself out of the PC business.

Sony Warns Some New Laptop Batteries May Catch Fire [The New York Times]

AT&T, Verizon, Sprint Disabling Samsung Galaxy S5′s “Download Booster” Feature

Fri, 2014-04-11 18:06

galaxys5Isn’t it awesome when a smartphone manufacturer comes up with a really interesting feature, only to have it crippled by your wireless provider? That’s what has happened to the Samsung Galaxy S5′s “download booster” functionality that simultaneously pairs available WiFi and LTE service for more rapid downloads. It’s an interesting feature, but one to which AT&T, Verizon and Sprint customers won’t have access, at least at launch.

The latest in the wildly popular Galaxy line of devices comes out today, but earlier this week Android Police noticed that the download boost feature was missing from display versions of the phone, and Fierce Wireless has confirmed with both Verizon and Sprint that the S5s they sell to customers will not include access to the boost functionality.

So far, none of these providers have offered a specific explanation about why they are blocking access to download booster, though AT&T did tell Fierce that “We are evaluating Samsung’s download booster feature. We thoroughly test new software, features and functionality to ensure that it meets our standards for a quality user experience.”

Thus, it seems possible that this feature could be enabled in later software updates.

T-Mobile appears to be the only of the four major carriers to allow this feature on the S5. We’ve reached out to T-Mo to confirm that it will indeed not be disabling download boost on the phones it sells; if/when we hear back, we’ll update here.

UPDATE: A T-Mobile spokesperson confirmed to Consumerist that it will indeed be including the download booster feature on the S5s it sells to customers.

[via DSLreports]

Subway: No More “Yoga Mat” Chemicals In Our Bread By Next Week

Fri, 2014-04-11 18:00

(Morton Fox)

(Morton Fox)

Back in February, Subway pledged to stop using Azodicarbonamide, a controversial chemical that it uses to improve elasticity in its bread but that also shows up in things like yoga mats. You won’t be doing any downward dogging (that’s how yoga people talk, right?) on Subway’s bread soon, as the company says it’s almost done phasing out the chemical.

The ingredient is approved for use in food by the Food and Drug Administration, but its use in products from everything to the aforementioned mats to dough prompted a food blogger to launch a campaign against it recently.

Subway’s chief marketing officer, Tony Pace, tells the Associated Press that the phaseout should be complete within a week.

“You see the social media traffic, and people are happy that we’re taking it out, but they want to know when we’re taking it out,” Pace said. “If there are people who have that hesitation, that hesitation is going to be removed.”

And if you’ve turned away from Subway during this time of yoga mat unrest, he adds that the company is “happy to invite consumers back in who might’ve had hesitation.”

At the time of the blogger’s petition in February, Subway said it’d already started to test “Azo-free bread” in four markets and was in the process of removing it from all breads.

“We’re always trying to improve stuff,” Pace said.

Look at that — companies, they’re just like us! I’m always trying to improve my stuff, because having the best stuff possible is ideal.

Subway: ‘Yoga mat’ chemical almost out of bread [Associated Press]

You can follow MBQ on Twitter if you also like to talk about improving stuff, or heck, just stuff in general: @marybethquirk

Walmart Toe-Sucker Sentenced To 60 Days In Jail

Fri, 2014-04-11 17:43

(Clean Wal-Mart)

(Clean Wal-Mart)

Last month, we told you about the North Carolina man who misled a Walmart customer into letting him help her try on shoes, and then crossed a big line by sucking on her toes. Yesterday, the faux podiatrist was in court to hear his fate.

WSOC-TV reports (warning: auto-play video) that the man — who told the customer he was a podiatry student in order to get his hands (and mouth) on her feet — entered a guilty plea to assault charges at the Gaston County, NC, court on Thursday.

He was immediately sentenced to 60 days in jail, but he’s being given credit for the 21 days he’s already served.

“I apologize to the victim,” he told the court. “I am ready to take full responsibility for my actions.”

According to WSOC, he has a criminal history of doing lewd things to female feet that goes back to 2001, so excuse us if we’re a bit skeptical about his sudden willingness to straighten out and fly right from now on.

[via NY Daily News]

Regulators Warn Banks To Plug Any Heartbleed Security Holes ASAP

Fri, 2014-04-11 17:00

heartbleedbad2While most major services you use like Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter and others have likely (and hopefully) patched up any security holes at risk from the Heartbleed bug, U.S. regulators are warning banks to update their systems as well, and quickly.

The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council says the Heartbleed encryption bug could’ve allowed hackers to access the private encryption keys to banks’ servers, potentially giving them access to your personal information, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is a member of the council, and said it isn’t aware of anyone using the Heartbleed flaw to attack, but banks should pretty much know they’re big targets for a breach. You know, what with all that financial information and money they deal with.

Some banks have responded to the Heartbleed brouhaha, saying they’re checking their systems and haven’t found any breaches.

“Bank of America has experienced no issues as a result of the Heartbleed Bug, and has determined our sites are not vulnerable,” a spokesman told the WSJ.

Citigroup says the bank’s “initial assessment indicates it has not impacted our retail banking or credit card websites, and we are taking appropriate steps to safeguard all of our websites.”

A Wells Fargo spokeswoman said the “vulnerabilities associated with Heartbleed have had no impact on the safety of banking online with Wells Fargo.”

The alert focused more on the internal passwords and systems used by bank employees, rather than warning bank customers that their accounts could’ve been compromised.

Again, if you haven’t changed your passwords yet (check this handy list from Mashable of which ones you definitely need to change) you should. And don’t use the same password across numerous sites, if you can avoid it.

U.S. Regulators Tell Banks to Plug ‘HeartBleed’ Security Hole [Wall Street Journal]

Consumerist Friday Flickr Finds

Fri, 2014-04-11 16:40

Here are eleven of the best photos that readers added to the Consumerist Flickr Pool in the last week, picked for usability in a Consumerist post or for just plain neatness.

(吉姆 Jim Hofman)

(吉姆 Jim Hofman)



(Great Beyond)

(Great Beyond)

(Joel Zimmer)

(Joel Zimmer)

(Rick Drew)

(Rick Drew)

(gblahe (Plump Panda Photography))

(gblahe (Plump Panda Photography))



(Karen Chappell)

(Karen Chappell)





(Nicholas Eckhart)

(Nicholas Eckhart)

Our Flickr Pool is the place where Consumerist readers upload photos for possible use in future Consumerist posts. Want to see your pictures on our site? Just be a registered Flickr user, go here, and click “Join Group?” up on the top right. Choose your best photos, then click “send to group” on the individual images you want to add to the pool.