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IRS Investigating How Woman’s Tax Call Ended Up On Howard Stern Show

Wed, 2015-05-20 20:48

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The woman tells WBZ-TV that she simply called the IRS to discuss a personal tax issue. Meanwhile, the IRS rep she was speaking to was on hold while trying to call into Stern’s program. At some point, Stern took the IRS rep’s call off hold, but the man didn’t realize that he was now on the air and he continued to discuss matters with the taxpayer.

In the WBZ footage above, you can hear Stern trying to get the man’s attention by shouting his name, while co-host Robin Quivers tells Howard, “If he’s working we can’t interrupt him.”

“I said, ‘Are you talking to Howard Stern?'” recalls the woman. “And he says something to the effect of ‘I was’ or ‘I was on hold’ or something like that.”

Enough of the woman’s info, including her personal phone number, got out during the call that she says she’s been the subject of prank calls and that she’s now considering her legal options.

“My phone number is out there,” she explains, “my personal conversation and I just feel terribly violated and I feel like I’m in jeopardy that my credit information might be out there and I’m just totally devastated.”

The IRS tells WBZ that it knows about the incident, presumably because they were all listening to the show when it happened, and that it’s looking into the situation.

“The IRS takes the confidentiality of taxpayer information very seriously, and we have high standards that we expect and require employees to follow,” reads the statement.

The woman says she was told that the agent on the inadvertently broadcast call “was sent home on administrative leave and that the case was under investigation.”

Man Sues Blue Bell Claiming He Contracted Listeria-Induced Meningitis After Eating Contaminated Ice Cream

Wed, 2015-05-20 20:18


Investigator are still working to determine what caused the current Blue Bell Creameries listeria outbreak that has been linked to three deaths and at least 10 illness in four states dating back at least five years. But that hasn’t stopped a former Texas man from filing a lawsuit against the company alleging that he contracted listeria-related meningitis after eating the company’s products two years ago.

The Dallas Morning News reports that the 32-year-old man filed what is considered the first lawsuit to stem from Blue Bell’s listeria contamination and massive recall in federal court in Austin, TX, on Tuesday.

According to the lawsuit, the man says that while working at a retirement community in October 2013 he ate several Blue Bell ice cream products that were produced at the company’s Broken Arrow, OK, facility that has since tested positive for traces of listeria bacteria.

The man claims that after eating the products he developed a severe headache and sought medical attention.

Emergency room personnel diagnosed him with a migraine and sent him home where he later lost consciousness, the Austin Statesman reports.

When coworkers couldn’t reach the man by phone they went to his home and found him unresponsive with a fever around 107 degrees.

The man then spent six days unconscious in a local hospital, where tests found listeria in his brain and spinal fluid, leading to a diagnosis of listeria meningitis with encephalitis.

The lawsuit claims that after consuming the Blue Bell products that allegedly contained listeria, the bacteria infected the man’s blood and “migrated to his brain where it caused extensive damage.”

When the man regained consciousness he was unable to walk, talk or swallow. Despite receiving neurological treatment and rehabilitation, the suit claims the man’s “injuries and losses are permanent in nature and will continue for the rest of his life.”

While the lawsuit doesn’t seek a specific dollar amount, the Dallas Morning News reports that past medical costs have already exceeded $400,000 and future bills are expected to continue for the rest of the man’s life.

A food safety attorney representing the case says that although the man’s illness hasn’t yet been included in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of Blue Bell-linked illnesses, “all of these problems are without a question a result of the listeriosis.”

So far, the CDC has used genetic markings of the bacteria found in three hospital patients to match strains identified in Blue Bell products. It’s unclear what happened to the tests and samples taken during the man’s hospital stay.

Still, the lawyer says that there is “virtually no chance” the bacteria that infected the man came from another product.

Blue Bell recalled all of its products last month after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found listeria bacteria in several frozen treat items produced in Blue Bell’s plants.

Since then documents from Food & Drug Administration investigators have surfaced showing that the Texas-based ice cream maker knew of bacteria problems at its plants nearly two years ago, but failed to do anything about it.

According to the FDA, the testing, which included five samples in 2013, 10 in 2014 and two in 2015, found traces of listeria on floors, pallets used to store and carry ingredients and other non-food-contact surfaces at the plant.

Last week, the company entered into an agreement with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry requiring the company to inform state health officials at least two weeks before starting production of ice cream to be sold in the marketplace so the agencies can assess progress and test results.

Additionally, Blue Bell will provide trial production runs of its products for separate listeria testing by the two states.

Blue Bell recall lawsuit alleges ice cream caused man’s severe illness [Dallas Morning News]
Former Houston resident sues Blue Bell over listeria infection [Austin Statesman]

ConAgra To Pay $11M, Plead Guilty To Criminal Charge In Peter Pan Peanut Butter Salmonella Outbreak

Wed, 2015-05-20 20:08



Back in 2006 and 2007, ConAgra shipped out batches of Peter Pan peanut butter tainted with salmonella, sickening more than 700 people in nearly every state. Today, the company has agreed to enter a guilty plea to criminal charges associated with the outbreak and to pay $11.2 million.

The tainted Peter Pan had been produced in the ConAgra plant in Sylvester, GA, and shipped to stores nationwide. The Justice Department accused the Nebraska-based food giant of misdemeanor violations of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

According to the plea agreement [PDF] filed today in a federal court in Georgia, ConAgra is admitting guilt to charges of the introduction into interstate commerce of adulterated food.

Of the $11.2 million penalty, $3.2 million will be turned over in the form of forfeited assets. The remaining $8 is the largest criminal fine ever paid in a food safety case, according to the DOJ.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified more than 700 reported cases of salmonella poisoning tied to the Peter Pan plant, it estimates that several thousand additional cases went unreported.

After the Sylvester plant operations were halted in 2007, testing found the presence of salmonella in at least nine places within the facility.

In its plea, ConAgra admits that it had previously been aware of some risk of salmonella contamination in peanut butter.

For example, twice in Oct. 2004, routine testing at the Sylvester plant turned up the bacteria in finished Peter Pan products.

Employees attempted to find the source of the salmonella and identified several possibilities, including an old peanut roaster that was not uniformly heating raw peanuts, a storm-damaged sugar silo, and a leaky roof that allowed moisture into the plant.

Though ConAgra took efforts to address these problem areas, the fixes took years and weren’t completed until after the salmonella outbreak.

Additionally, between Oct. 2004 and Feb. 2007, ConAgra employees in charge of testing finished peanut butter failed to detect salmonella. Making matters worse, the company was unaware that some of these employees did not know how to properly interpret the results of the tests they were performing.

ConAgra has since made significant upgrades to its facilities and says that Peter Pan peanut butter is “is safe and wholesome for consumers to continue to eat.”

Oregon Testing Pay-Per-Mile System As An Alternative To State’s Gas Tax

Wed, 2015-05-20 20:03

(Great Beyond)

(Great Beyond)

With more fuel-efficient vehicles and hybrid cars hitting the roads every day and requiring less gas, some states are looking into how they can still collect enough money from drivers to keep maintain their roads and bridges. Oregon is one such state, with a new test program that allows volunteers to pay the state not for the amount of fuel they buy at the pump with a gas tax, but for how many miles they drive.

Greater fuel efficiency in cars means less revenue is generated for the state, prompting Oregon to seek alternatives to make up for that loss of cash from gas taxes. Starting July 1, up to 5,000 volunteers will be allowed to sign up to drive with devices that collect information about how much they’ve driven and where, reports

Those drivers will agree to pay $0.015 per mile traveled on public roads — with private property and out-of state miles not included — instead of the current tax they pay for gas. Fueling up will still mean paying that tax at the time, but drivers in the program will then either get a credit or a bill to pay the difference at the end of the month.

Though critics of the OreGo program, including electric and hybrid car owners who say such a tax would be unfair and perhaps deter others from purchasing green vehicles, state officials think it’s only fair for owners of such vehicles to chip in for maintaining roads like everyone else.

“We know in the future, our ability to pay for maintenance and repair… will be severely impacted if we continue to rely on the gas tax,” said Shelley Snow with the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Amid privacy concerns over the digital devices that track miles, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon said the state built protections into the program, such as drivers being able to opt out of the program and install an odometer device that doesn’t use GPS tracking.

If your device does use GPS, the state and private vendors that supply the devices will destroy records of location and daily metered use after 30 days. Law enforcement won’t be able to access that information either, unless a judge gives approval.

After the test program, it’ll be up to the state legislature to decide whether to adopt a mandatory road usage charge.

So far Oregon is the only state to try this kind of program, though California created a committee last year to research alternatives to the gas tax and possibly develop a pilot program and Washington state also set money aside for something similar. A bill in Indiana is currently in the works that would direct the state to look at alternatives and come up with a test project along those lines as well.

Oregon to test pay-per-mile idea as replacement for gas tax []

GM: That Car You Bought? We’re Really The Ones Who Own It.

Wed, 2015-05-20 19:17

(paul bica)

(paul bica)

Congratulations! You just bought a new Chevy, GMC, or Cadillac. You really like driving it. And it’s purchased, not leased, and all paid off with no liens, so it’s all yours… isn’t it? Well, no, actually: according to GM, it’s still theirs. You just have a license to use it.

At least, that’s what an attorney for GM said at a hearing this week, Autoblog reports. Specifically, attorney Harry Lightsey said, “It is [GM’s] position the software in the vehicle is licensed by the owner of the vehicle.”

GM’s claim is all about copyright and software code, and it’s the same claim John Deere is making about their tractors. The TL;DR version of the argument goes something like this:

  • Cars work because software tells all the parts how to operate
  • The software that tells all the parts to operate is customized code
  • That code is subject to copyright
  • GM owns the copyright on that code and that software
  • A modern car cannot run without that software; it is integral to all systems
  • Therefore, the purchase or use of that car is a licensing agreement
  • And since it is subject to a licensing agreement, GM is the owner and can allow/disallow certain uses or access.

The U.S. Copyright Office is currently holding a series of hearings on whether or not anyone other than the manufacturer of a car has a right to tinker with that car’s copyrighted software. And with the way modern design goes, that basically means with the car, at all.

Folks who like to tinker with their cars, as well as independent (non-dealer) mechanics say they need the copyright exemption in order to be allowed to continue repairing their own cars, or keeping their businesses open. Manufacturers, like GM, say that it’s a safety issue: if people who aren’t authorized mess with any one piece of software, they could make the entire ecosystem of connected code unsafe.

An attorney from the Electrnnic Frontier Foundation also testified at the hearing, telling the Copyright OFfice that restricting access to onboard computers in vehicles drives up costs, hurts competition, and stifles innovation. It also prevents third party researchers from conducting independent safety and security research without becoming lawbreakers.

The first of the two sessions of hearings started yesterday in Los Angeles. The other will take place next week, in Washington, DC. The Copyright Office is expected to issue a ruling in July determining just what you can and can’t do with the things you thought you bought.

General Motors says it owns your car’s software [AutoBlog]

Who Doesn’t Want A $1,150 Machine That Makes Coffee And Soda?

Wed, 2015-05-20 18:54

bblend_largeKeurig, maker of digital rights management-laden coffee pod brewers, has seen its sales fall in recent weeks as customers made it known that they do not care for the latest version of the company’s machine. Yet what if there were a machine that could make both hot and carbonated beverages, and was available for the low price of $1,150? That device is coming, from Whirlpool and AB InBev.

Yes, you may know AB InBev as the owner of Budweiser and a whole bunch of other beer brands, but this machine is not a SodaStream for beer. If it did that, and if it made good beer, it could be worth that high sticker price. Sorry about that. While it’s starting out in Brazil, it could become available elsewhere eventually. The idea is to sell a single machine that makes hot and cold drinks, from coffee to juice, all from cartridges like the beverage systems that we’re used to.

The promotional video, which contains a weird amount of stock footage for things other than people enjoying delicious beverages, promises that the machine will automatically recognize what type of beverage cartridge you’ve loaded, adjusting the temperature and carbonation accordingly. That sounds a lot like the Keurig 2.0 technology that customers don’t seem particularly interested in.

Whirlpool and AB InBev team up on hot-and-cold drink machine [Reuters]

NHTSA Says It Could Take Days Or Weeks Before All Takata Recalled Vehicles Are Identified

Wed, 2015-05-20 18:23
(I Am Rob)

(I Am Rob)

Japanese auto parts maker Takata finally buckled under pressure from federal regulators Tuesday, declaring that nearly 33.8 million vehicles sold in the United State come equipped with airbags that can spew pieces of shrapnel upon deployment. While about 17 million of those vehicles had already been part of recalls by major automakers, millions of others have yet to be identified, leaving consumers wondering if they’re driving around with what some people have likened to an explosive device in their steering wheel.

Unfortunately, those consumers likely won’t know if their vehicle is affected by what is now the largest auto recall in U.S. history for days or weeks, the Washington Post reports.

That’s because transportation officials say they need to conduct more tests and work with automakers before populating a final recall list.

NTHSA posted a notice [PDF] on their site Wednesday advising car owners that “it generally takes anywhere from a few days to several weeks for automakers to gather individual VINs associated with a recall. It is important that you check back periodically as a recall on your vehicle may not show up immediately.”

So far, regulators has complied a partial list of affected vehicles – mostly those included on previous manufacturer initiated recalls.

That list – which can be found on the Post – includes several major models such as the Honda Civic, Dodge Ram, BMV 3 Series, Mazda 6, and Toyota Corolla.

The agency says individuals can check to see if their automobiles are included by entering their 17 digit VIN on the website, which produces a list of all recalls associated with a particular vehicle.

However, checking today probably won’t get you very far. An attempted search on the site by Consumerist resulted in the following error message:


An additional check of NHTSA’s recall lookup tool also ended in an error saying the site “is experiencing unusually high volume and may cause delays or disruption in some functionality. If you experience a disruption then please visit later to conduct your search.”

The Post reports that consumers attempting to call their dealerships to glean information about being included in the recall ran into similar issues, with dealers providing conflicting or no answers to inquiries.

Even when people finally have an answer to whether or not their car is on the recall list, those placed on the roster can expect an additional wait before their vehicles are in the clear.

The Post reports that regulators are anticipating it could take months or even years before enough replacement airbags and other parts are available to replace those deemed defective by Takata.

Until then, automakers have advised that individuals can continue to drive their vehicles, despite the fact that the airbags have been linked to six deaths and 105 injuries.

How to know if your car is part of the biggest recall in history [The Washington Post]

Pizza Hut Employees Fired For Writing “KKK” & Drawing Swastika Inside Pizza Box

Wed, 2015-05-20 18:19

pizzahutracismIf your racism runs so deep that you feel compelled to spell it out for people on the inside of fast food containers, maybe you shouldn’t be in a job that involves serving food to other human beings. Perhaps the three Arkansas Pizza Hut employees who were fired for this sort of behavior will remember that when they look for their next jobs.

FOX16 in Little Rock reports that some customers of a Pizza Hut in Bryant, AR, opened up their pizza box and saw that “KKK” and a swastika had been scribbled on the inside of the lid in marker. Underneath the pizza, someone had written a racial slur.

In response to incident, Pizza Hut HQ says that the employees involved in the scribbling have been fired for their “inexcusable” actions.

“We have a zero tolerance policy for this type of behavior and regularly train our employees to treat everyone fairly, equally and with respect,” reads a statement from the company. “As soon as the local franchise owner found out about this he contacted the customer and apologized. We extend that sincere apology to everyone who was offended by this ignorant act. Obviously not a true reflection of the company or the local franchisee who acted very swiftly in responding.”

The customers say they were indeed offered free dinner as a make-good, but one tells FOX16, “I don’t want it. I can’t eat Pizza Hut again. I won’t.”


NYC Food Vendor Accused Of Charging Tourists $30 For A Hot Dog

Wed, 2015-05-20 18:12

(NBC New York)

(NBC New York [link has video that autoplays])

One of the joys of street food is that it’s usually cheap, compared to what you’d get in a sit down restaurant or even a fast food joint. But New York City officials say a rumble broke out near Ground Zero recently when a food vendor was accused of charging tourists $30 for a hot dog, while sticking to the $3 price for locals.

NBC New York (warning: link has video that autoplays) says fights have been breaking out at one particular food stand near the World Trade Center site, with customers accusing the vendor of overcharging not only for hot dogs but for soda, water and pretzels.

The news station says multiple people have reported ripoffs, some saying he’d tried to charge $20 to $30 for a hot dog, or say, $15 for a pretzel and a water. The channel’s cameras captured the vendor apparently trying to charge a local $15 for a hot dog and a pretzel.

“I said, ‘What are you, a crook?'” the customer later told NBC 4 New York. “I’m not a tourist, so I know the price in New York.”

A representative from the Alliance for Downtown New York said she heard about fights breaking out last week over the sky-high prices, saying “it gives New York a bad name.”

“To rip-off somebody, to charge them $35 for a hot dog and a pretzel, that leaves a terrible impression,” she said.

The head of security for the Alliance added that there have been five times in the last week that they’ve “observed altercations on the street over the prices being charged for hot dogs, pretzels, water, soda.”

The issue is exacerbated by the fact that the vendor’s prices aren’t posted, as required by the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs. The department says it’s investigating the vendor’s practices now, encourages those who feel they’ve been charged more than the posted price, or who find a stand that doesn’t have prices listed at all, to file a complaint at or to call 311.

In general, if a street cart is selling $30 hot dogs, you can always walk a few feet or a few blocks and find more street meat at a much better price.

Fights Break Out Over $30 Hot Dog Price at Stand Near Ground Zero: Officials [NBC New York] Bans Members Without Investigating Complaints Against Them First

Wed, 2015-05-20 17:55

caredotcomWe live in a world where consumers not only expect instant gratification from the online products and services they pay for, but also instant justice when they believe they’ve been wronged. That’s why a growing number of websites now take a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to complaints — removing content, and locking down accounts before they investigate. While many sites try to balance this preemptive practice by allowing affected users to appeal, that can’t be said about one prominent site that connects users with professional caregivers.

Becoming a new parent is hard enough, but trying to figure out what you’re going to do about care for your child when you have to go back to work is another problem entirely. That’s why some moms and dads turn to services like that are set up to help connect parents in their search for caretakers (as well as petsitters, housekeepers, and other “care” services), with those seeking employment.

So when Consumerist reader “Theresa” found herself suddenly locked out of her account in the midst of her search for a nanny, she was confused.

Theresa, who was looking for help with taking care of her newborn in advance of her return to work, tells us that she recently went to login to only to find she could not access the site.

When she called customer service to report that her password no longer worked, she received an e-mail informing her that a refund had been processed for the three-month premium membership she’d paid for.

Wait, what? She hadn’t asked about a refund, she wanted to get back into her account.

She replied saying as much, mentioning that she had interviews set up that day and as such, really needed access to her account.

A customer service rep replied, and said that after researching her issue, she’d found that her account had been closed by

“Unfortunately we are unable to accept your membership,” the e-mail explained. “This decision is final and irreversible. No exceptions will be made to these terms.”

So no explanation, no warning, and no way to appeal?

In an effort to figure out why Theresa might have been given the boot from the site, we looked at’s Privacy Policy and Terms of Use, which state that it’s not required to release the specific details about why an account has been closed.

The site does, however, provide a list of common reasons why an account might be terminated. The customer service rep wouldn’t disclose that information when Theresa asked, though going through the list item by item, Theresa discounted all of the reasons… except for possibly two.

“The individual does not meet membership criteria (e.g., is underage)”: Not the issue, Theresa is over 18.

“ does not offer its services where the member is located”: The company does offer its services in the area Theresa lives in Florida, so this wasn’t it either.

“The member is not active in the service”: Not applicable here, Theresa had been on the site for a few weeks setting up interviews.

“ determines that the services offered by the member are not being sufficiently utilized”: Theresa hadn’t hired a nanny yet, so she couldn’t be under-utilizing any other member’s services.

“The member has misrepresented himself or herself and/or has provided false information to”: Not the case, as Theresa had submitted all required information truthfully, she says.

“We were unable to verify the information the member provided when he/she registered”: Again, Theresa hadn’t provided any unverifiable information.

“The member has posted or searched for inappropriate words/phrases and/or content on”: Nope. Theresa is a new mom trying to find a nanny, and wasn’t using the site for any nefarious reasons.

“The member has been accused of, arrested for, or convicted of a crime”: Theresa doesn’t have a criminal past either, so this wasn’t it.

By process of elimination, there were only two items on the that Theresa says don’t apply to her, but couldn’t be eliminated outright — only because they involve other people making allegations against the banned user:

“Allegations of theft, abuse, or neglect have been brought against the member” and “The member has been alleged to have harassed other member(s) of”

Could it be possible that someone had made this sort of complaint about Theresa?

Theresa says that she had only positive encounters with candidates she’d set up interviews with or corresponded with — and had even had her mother present for some of those meetings who could vouch for her — so she didn’t think she’d done anything that an interviewee could take umbrage with: no abuse, or harassment, and she certainly hadn’t stolen anything from interviewees. Neglect could only take place if she’d already hired someone, which she hadn’t.

She wondered, however, if someone was perhaps upset at not getting the job and had decided to retaliate by complaining to But if that were the case, could an unfounded complaint from a disgruntled candidate be enough to get her axed from the site, without any chance to resolve or investigate the situation?

While would not discuss the specifics of Theresa’s case with Consumerist, when we asked in general if it investigates complaints on the possibility that an angry or vengeful member might lie in retaliation for not getting a job, a rep for the company said that with 14 million members, “it’s not practical to investigate every complaint.”

Once your account has been terminated, there’s no recourse to plead your case, confirmed to Consumerist, saying, “We do not have an appeals process for members whose accounts have been terminated.”

This is pretty surprising, considering much larger sites like YouTube and Twitter have appeals processes for suspended users.

What also upset Theresa about the ban was the fact that while the site wouldn’t tell her why she’d been banned, it could alert others to the fact that she’d been kicked off the site.

The e-mail about her account termination noted that the site may “remove a member for any reason or no reason,” and any decision to do so “does not constitute and should not be interpreted or used as information bearing on the member’s character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living.”

Then she received an e-mail after her termination that said reserves the right to alert other members of her termination. Her concern is that such an alert might tacitly suggest to others that she’d done something wrong, despite’s disclaimer.

Though it might seem unnecessary to share the news of a member’s termination, if using a service is the primary means of communication you have with someone else you’re either trying to hire or be hired by, it would be useful to know if that person was no longer using the site, for whatever reason. Someone seeking work who ended up finding a job, for example, would likely not want to keep receiving communication from employers, so letting them know the account is no longer active would be helpful in that scenario.

Though Theresa was unable to get her account restored, there’s still a happy ending to her ordeal: She ended up hiring one of the candidates she had interviewed before her account was terminated.

But while Theresa says she thinks is “important and necessary for working parents,” she adds that “no new mother should be treated the way I was.”

“It is shocking that a company that prides itself on being an advocate for working families wouldn’t do any due diligence before summarily canceling the account of a new mom desperate to find good care for her baby before going back to work,” Theresa tells Consumerist. “I understand it’s hard to vet millions of members, but transparency is the minimum responsibility good faith requires.”

Sam’s Club Doing Worse Than Costco, Will Try More Organic Food Maybe

Wed, 2015-05-20 17:18



If you’d like to study the uneven economic recovery of the last few years, just compare warehouse chains Costco and Sam’s Club. While both warehouse chains serve people who like to buy their granola bars 48 at a time, Walmart-owned Sam’s serves customers who are less affluent than the more urban customer base of Costco.

Overall revenue is down at Sam’s, and their same-store sales have increased only a tiny bit over last quarter. Discounted gas is an important member benefit, and overall lower gas prices may mean that the middle class customers of Sam’s simply aren’t bothering to make the drive over to the store for gas, picking up a box of 40 Bagel Bites while they’re at it. Yet Costco also offers gas discounts, and their customers are spending more at the warehouse store. Their revenue is up 8%.

One stock analyst told Bloomberg Business that the problem is very simple: the products at Sam’s Club simply aren’t as good as the ones offered at Costco.

Another issue might be that lower-income and middle-income Americans simply haven’t recovered from the most recent recession as well as their wealthier counterparts. That would have a direct effect on their spending at warehouse clubs, and even on the decision of whether to join or not. A card that gives someone the right to buy massive packages of toilet paper is not a necessity, even if toilet paper itself is.

Sam’s Club Losing to Costco in Battle for 30-Pack Toilet Paper [Bloomberg News]

California Grass Painters Dyeing More Lawns Green Than Ever Before Amidst Drought

Wed, 2015-05-20 17:06

(Mike Matney Photography)

(Mike Matney Photography)

We first heard of homeowners spray-painting their lawns green last summer to avoid local “brown lawn” fees on the West Coast, a trend that has only grown now that grass isn’t growing amidst California’s current drought. The owner of one such service that provides landscape painting says he’s taking more orders than ever before, as lack of rain keeps lawns thirsty and dry.

The owner of a West Sacramento business says business is booming. He charges about $0.25 per square foot, which is much cheaper than replacing an entire yard with drought-friendly plant material, another alternative.

“I probably have about seven appointments scheduled in just the next week or so,” he told News 10 (warning: link has autoplay video).

If you’re worried about things that creep and crawl, he says the dye he uses is an all-natural earth pigment that won’t hurt pets or people.

“It’s just like the regular old grass when they eat it,” he explains. “It won’t hurt them at all.”

Painting lawns green is big business in Sacramento [News 10]

Cablevision Sues Verizon Over FiOS Ads, Claims Verizon’s Touted All-Fiber Network Actually Isn’t

Wed, 2015-05-20 16:41



Most of the country doesn’t have much competition for broadband services. But in some of New York City’s boroughs, particularly Brooklyn and the Bronx, Cablevision and Verizon FiOS fight head to head for residential customers. The battle between the two is often ugly, and with a new lawsuit filed yesterday, it just got uglier.

Here’s the background: Verizon claims that their FiOS networks in New York are entirely fiber-optic. Cablevision runs an ad in that market claiming that Verizon’s networks actually use coaxial cables in part, and are therefore not actually all fiber. Verizon challenged Cablevision’s ads with the National Advertising Board, industry’s advertising self-regulation group. Cablevision, however, is not responding in that NAB process, and is instead filing suit against Verizon.

In the lawsuit, Cablevision is asking for the court to give them the all-clear (a declaratory judgement) to continue airing their ad on the basis that it is true and “exposes Verizon’s false and misleading marketing claim against FiOS.”

So what is Verizon saying that isn’t true? According to Cablevision, Verizon uses coax, and not fiber cable, inside the home in “all or nearly all cases.” Verizon might be fiber to the home, in other words, but not through it — FiOS customers’ routers, cable modems, and set-top boxes are using the same kind of wiring as anyone else’s.

Cablevision also contends that “in certain situations,” Verizon has used ordinary coaxial cable outside the home, as well as inside it, and therefore their all-fiber claims are even more false.

In a statement, Cablevision said, “Consumers deserve to make informed decisions based on facts, and Cablevision is asking the court to intervene to stop Verizon from attempting to continue to mislead the public.”

In their statement, meanwhile, Verizon representatives said, “Cablevision cannot compete with Verizon FiOS, or even come close to providing the Internet speeds and performance available from Verizon’s 100% fiber-optic network. Since their network can’t compete against FiOS, they resort to legal stunts, which we will challenge vigorously.”

Not only is this not Cablevision’s first lawsuit against Verizon, but it’s not even their first one this year. At the end of January, Cablevision sued Verizon over their wifi ads. In that suit, Cablevision claimed that Verizon’s “fastest wifi” ads were misleading, as the two companies offer basically the same service through the same routers.

Both lawsuits are now in progress.

California Suspends GI Bill Eligibility For ITT Tech

Wed, 2015-05-20 16:40

ITTThousands of California students planning to use veterans benefits to enroll at ITT Technical Institute campuses will need to find other means of financing their education after the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs suspended ITT Educational Services’ eligibility for GI Bill funding.

The California State Approving Agency for Veteran Education (CSAAVE), a division of the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs, suspended ITT Educational Services ability to accept GI Bill benefits after the company failed to provide required financial filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, reports.

The suspension, which covers all 15 ITT Technical campuses operating in the state, only stops new enrollments and re-enrollment of veterans and their dependents who use the GI Bill. The 1,400 currently enrolled ITT Tech students using the benefits to fund their education are not affected by the suspension.

“CalVet takes very seriously our duty to ensure our California Veterans receive the education and training they are paying for with their earned GI Bill benefits,” Keith Boylan, CalVet Deputy Secretary of Veteran Services, said in a statement. “CSAAVE suspended ITT because ITT does not meet the required accreditation standards for approval.”

CalVet says that the company’s inability to provide the SEC with audited financial statements provided enough evidence to support the suspension of fund eligibility.

ITT Educational Services has until July 13 to produce the required financial documents. If it fails to do so, CalVet has the authority to withdraw the company’s VA provider status in California. At that point all students currently enrolled at the campuses would no longer be able to use GI Bill benefits to pay for their education at ITT schools in the state.

The action in California is just the latest issue ITT Educational Services has faced with regard to its finances.

Last week, the SEC filed fraud charges against current and former executives with the company for their part in concealing problems with company-run student loan programs.

The charges against the company, former CEO Kevin Modany and current CFO Daniel Fitzpatrick stem from their alleged fraudulent concealment of the poor performance and looming negative financial impact of two student loan programs the company financially guaranteed to investors.

According to the SEC complaint, the loans performed so poorly by 2012 that the company’s guarantee obligations were triggered. However, instead of disclosing the issue to investors, the SEC alleges that ITT and the executives engaged in a fraudulent scheme and made a number of false and misleading statements to hide the magnitude of ITT’s guaranteed obligations to the loan programs.

In addition to its SEC issues, ITT Technical Institute also made an appearance on the Department of Education’s Heightened Cash Monitoring list.

Placing schools on the list is a step the Dept. of Education’s Federal Student Aid office can take to provide additional oversight for a number of financial or federal compliance issues – that could can put restrictions on the college’s ability to access federal aid.

California Suspends ITT Tech GI Bill Eligibility []

ATM Debit Card Data Theft Is Up As Much As 317%

Wed, 2015-05-20 16:30

(Ludovic Bertron)

(Ludovic Bertron)

While retailers and payment networks work to cut down on data breaches in stores and online, it looks like fraudsters are relying more on stealing your card info at the ATM, as recent months have seen an unprecedented spike in the number of debit card data thefts from both non-bank and in-bank ATMs.

The Wall Street Journal reports on data from FICO, which operates card-monitoring services covering about 2/3 of all debit cards in the U.S.

According to the company, the level of skimming attacks — where a criminal compromises an ATM machine to capture data from an ATM user’s card — on debit cards reached a 20-year peak in the first three months of 2015.

ATMs not located at banks saw the highest increase, a jump of 317% over the same period a year earlier. But ATMs actually located on bank property didn’t do too well either, up 174%. FICO can’t give actual numbers of incidents because of its deals with the financial institutions it monitors.

ATMs and other unattended places where you swipe your card — like gas pumps and even the card readers used to unlock bank vestibule doors after hours — have long been targets of scammers who install skimming devices that collect the information on a card as it’s inserted. More sophisticated skimmers also employ cameras and other technology to collect information that’s not stored on the card, like a user’s PIN.

This information can be used to make online purchases, drain a user’s bank account, or make counterfeit cards with identical information.

The banking industry is hoping that the introduction of chip-embedded cards in the coming months will reduce the level of fraud, as they are often the ones on the hook for fraudulent transactions. Many retailers have already began upgrading their payment equipment to work with the new cards, but the ATM rollout is just beginning.

An exec for NCR, a company that makes many of the ATMs currently in use, tells the journals that skim artists “know there is still vulnerability [at the ATM] and they are trying to capitalize on it.”

Group Of Travel Sites Claim Delta Air Lines Has Cut Them Off From Using Its Data

Wed, 2015-05-20 16:03



Travelers often turn to travel websites to search for the cheapest fares and quickest flights out there, but a group of more than a dozen sites now says Delta Air Lines has shut them out, and is keeping its data to itself.

A report set to be released today by the Travel Technology Association says sites like TripAdvisor, Hipmunk and no longer have accesses to Delta’s information, reports the Wall Street Journal. The report says Delta claims it didn’t authorize those sites and others to use its data.

The group cites this move as another example of airlines trying to restrict how sites can use their fare and schedule data, if at all, claiming that American Airlines and United have also changed their policies to limit how the sites use their data.

Southwest Airlines already keeps its data from travel sites, in an effort to push customers to its own site, where it’s easier to upsell passengers on seat upgrades and frequent-flier points.

Though these sites Delta has shut out make up somewhat of a small piece of the pie when it comes to flight searches, the group says its members fear in general that the airlines are preparing to eventually pull out of such fare-comparison sites all together, which the organization says would make it easier for airlines to rase fares.

“Delta has been the most egregious, but this is about the large carriers leveraging their market dominance to restrict and selectively choose the winners and losers—and the losers are the American public,” Bryan Saltzburg, head of flight search at TripAdvisor told the WSJ. “We are far from the only company impacted from this. We just feel strongly enough to talk about it.”

Other sites like Expedia and its new merger partner Orbitz and Priceline declined to comment to the WSJ.

While Delta wouldn’t specifically comment on this case, it said it “reserves the right to determine who it does business with, and where and how its information is displayed.” It said it would “continue partnering with a limited, but responsive and adaptable group of online retailers.”

This has shades of the American versus Orbitz kerfuffle last year, when the airline temporarily yanked its flight data from Orbitz over a booking fee feud, before deciding to kiss and make up a week later.

Travel Websites Allege Delta Air Lines Is Shutting Them Out [Wall Street Journal]

KFC Creates Tray Keyboard, So Your Greasy Fingers Don’t Smudge The Smartphone

Wed, 2015-05-20 15:45

KFC restaurants in Germany rolled out a limited-time tray liner that moonlights as a keyboard for your smartphone.

KFC restaurants in Germany rolled out a limited-time tray liner that moonlights as a keyboard for your smartphone.

For many consumers sitting down for dinner now includes an extra guest: their smartphone. But sometimes the meal can get a bit messy. To keep your grubby fingers off your pristine mobile device, Kentucky Fried Chicken has created the Tray Typer; a bluetooth keyboard that keeps you connected even with the greasiest of fingers.

The Verge reports that the keyboard, which replaces the traditional paper liners found on fast food trays, is part of the company’s latest advertising campaign in Germany.

The rechargeable high-tech tray liner is reportedly durable enough to be wiped down and used over and over at the restaurants.

However, the launch of the limited-time gimmick was so popular, a representative for the advertising company that made the product tells The Verge, that each one that was handed out during the initial campaign ended up going home with customers.

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KFC Tray Typer keyboard is finger clickin’ good [The Verge]

West Coast Port Slowdown Is A Bonanza For Fashion Bargain-Hunters

Wed, 2015-05-20 01:18



The cargo-unloading slowdown on the West Coast of the United States had far-reaching effects on the global economy, causing problems for everyone from McDonald’s in Japan to truckers in Los Angeles. It was especially harmful to the fashion industry, which saw hot styles shipped over from Asia cool down as they sat off the coast, unable to be unloaded and put in stores. However, this means a bonanza for off-price retailers.

Some of these clothes and accessories might find their way to the department store chains’ own downscale stores, like Nordstrom Rack and Off 5th. There are entire off-price chains built on opportunities like this, though, and TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Ross, and their colleagues are ready to buy up all of those clothes that have finally found their way out of the cargo backlog. This led to a great first quarter for TJX, owner of TJ Maxx and Marshalls,

Off-price retailers do produce their own clothing as well, often licensing the name of a prominent brand but making the clothes themselves a little bit downmarket from similar items from the original. However, the port slowdown has apparently been great for fashion discounters and for bargain-hunters alike.

Off-price retailers strike gold from West Coast slowdown [Reuters]

SprintShack Stores Will Be Fully Staffed And Stocked In June

Wed, 2015-05-20 00:22

sprintshackThe deal that Sprint made with the new owners of RadioShack means that the mobile carrier gets to effectively double the number of retail stores that it runs. That’s great for Sprint, but means that they need to hire people or move existing employees to the new stores. Don’t worry: Sprint will be ready and even have their signage out front by July.

We learned this from an appearance by the company’s chief financial officer, Joe Euteneuer, at a JP Morgan investor conference this week. He told investors that the good part about taking over stores that are already open is that there isn’t a lot to do: they need employees to work in them, of course, but the only other things they need to do are stock the shelves with Sprint, Virgin Mobile, and Boost phones, and put signs up with prominent Sprint branding.

Another interesting piece of information is that the numbers of people who begin Sprint service and then return their devices to the store within the initial 14-day return period is lower than ever, which is probably because the carrier is close to finished with their LTE network buildout.

Sprint-RadioShack Stores to Be Fully Staffed by Mid-June [Wireless Week]
Sprint’s Euteneuer: We’re looking at 600 MHz auction, but don’t need to participate [Fierce Wireless]

Senator Calls For Investigation Into Three For-Profit College Chains, Restrictions On Future Campus Sales

Tue, 2015-05-19 23:28


The struggle to protect students from potentially harmful for-profit college chains continued today as Illinois Senator Dick Durbin urged the Department of Education to investigate the business practices of three of the country’s largest propriety education companies – ITT Educational Services, Career Education Corporation, and Education Management Corporation.

In a letter [PDF] to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Durbin pushed the Dept. to increase its oversight of the companies, hold them accountable for their actions and put restrictions on any campus sales in order to protect students and taxpayers.

The companies are three of the largest for-profit players in the country; ITT Education Services owns the ITT Technical chain, EDMC operates a number of small colleges including The Arts Institutes and Argosy schools and CEC owns several career colleges and universities including Colorado Technical and American InterContinental.

Durbin asks the Secretary Duncan to provide information related to any steps the Dept. has taken to address allegations that the three schools have engaged in harmful practices such as inflating job placement rates, perpetrating deceptive recruitment tactics, pushing students into high-cost private loans and failure to provide required financial documents to regulators.

ITT Educational Services was recently charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

CEC has faced a number of lawsuits and investigations stemming from accusations it inflated job placement rates for its graduates.

Likewise, EDMC – which is partially owned by Goldman Sachs – has faced its share of issues in recent years, from falling enrollments and financial difficulties and increased scrutiny from state and federal regulators.

Back in 2011, the company was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice and four states. That lawsuit accused the company of violating a federal law against paying recruiters based on the number of students they manage to enroll.

“For each of these companies, what steps has the Department taken to ensure that current and prospective students are informed of ongoing investigations and lawsuits?” the letter asks.

Durbin warned that the Department’s failure to fully scrutinize ITT Tech, EDMC and CEC would be akin to risking “another Corinthian-style debacle.”

Now-bankrupt Corinthian Colleges Inc. – the operator of chains Everest University, Heald College and WyoTech – endured a slow downfall after finding itself under investigation from several state and federal agencies beginning in 2012.

The school entered into an agreement with the Department of Education last July to sell or close a majority of its campuses. Prior to the agreement CCI enrolled 72,000 students and received $1.4 billion in federal student aid. The company closed all of its campuses last month.

“The collapse of Corinthian Colleges, Inc. should be a wake-up call for the Department of Education and lead to earlier and more aggressive oversight of for-profit colleges,” the letter states. “Unfortunately, Corinthian is not unique in the for-profit industry. Other major for-profit education companies, including CEC, EDMC, and ITT Tech, face a litany of investigations and lawsuits similar to Corinthian and are all on the Department’s own Heightened Cash Monitoring list. The Department must investigate these companies and aggressively hold them accountable for wrongdoing in order to protect students and taxpayers.”

In the letter, Durbin argues that the Dept. allowed CCI to continue receiving billions of dollars in federal funds despite a litany of investigations and lawsuits levied against the company.

“Those mistakes must not be repeated,” Durbin writes. “Failure to act now with respect to wrongdoing by other for-profit colleges will harm a large population of student borrowers and subject the Department to a new wave of legitimate claims for loan relief.”

In addition to requesting information about steps to oversee the companies, Durbin urged the Dept. to put conditions on any sale of CEC, EDMC and ITT Tech campuses.

Both CEC and EDMC have recently announced they would sell or close a number of schools in the wake of falling enrollment and decreased revenue.

“In August 2014, with respect to the sale of Corinthian campuses, you assured me in writing that ‘the Department will not approve a sale to another entity if that entity is currently under State and/or Federal investigation,'” Durbin writes. “Today, I ask you to make that same commitment with respect to the potential sale of brands or campuses owned by CEC, EDMC, and ITT Tech.”