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City Asks For Fiber Network Help, 5 Years After Being Left At Altar By Verizon FiOS

Thu, 2015-07-23 21:17

(Alec Taback)

(Alec Taback)

Back in 2009, it looked liked Alexandria, VA, residents would get a new high-speed Internet option in the form of Verizon FiOS. The city even went through the bureaucratic process of issuing Verizon a franchise. Then the D.C.-area community got dumped at the altar by Big V and has been looking for someone, anyone to step in ever since.

In a request for information [PDF], the acknowledges that its approximately 150,000 residents “have limited options for broadband internet service,” and that Alexandria leadership “regularly receives feedback from our citizens requesting additional options that are not available on the market today.”

Verizon was all set to provide broadband fiber service to Alexandria (the city and company had not yet finished negotiating a pay-TV franchise deal) when, in Feb. 2010, the president of Verizon’s Virginia operations dropped the bomb that the company didn’t need Alexandria anymore.

As the company has repeatedly stated in its explanations for why its network construction has cooled, Verizon’s initial build-out goal for FiOS was to only make the service available to 18 million homes.

And in the company’s breakup letter [PDF] to Alexandria, it explains that “we now have sufficient franchises in Virginia and nationally to reach those goals… As a result, we will not be able to add the City of Alexandria to our existing portfolio, and at this point, I do not know when that will change.”

But, like many a cad who woos someone only to kick them to the curb, Verizon tried to leave Alexandria with a message of “but you’re still pretty and plenty of folks will love you; maybe even me.”

“Verizon and the City have done the work necessary to make Alexandria an attractive place to invest,” concludes the letter, “if and when Verizon decides to expand its FiOS network.”

After a half-decade of hiding in its room and pining for the one that got away, Alexandria is finally back on the fiber singles scene. And unlike the initial FiOS deal, it ideally wants someone to provide both broadband and pay-TV service, which would bring real competition for Comcast.

Alexandria is giving interested providers until Sept. 3 to respond to the request for information.

[via Ars Technica]

Thousands Of Pigs Left Homeless Amid Craze For Tiny Pet Swine

Thu, 2015-07-23 20:14



Whether it’s kittens, lizards, puppies or cockatoos, humans just love their pets. But often when one species has a spike in popularity, many pets are left without homes once the craze dies down, and folks realize it’s not always easy raising an animal. You know, because animals have a tendency to eat a lot, and grow, things many pig owners weren’t expecting when they bought their pets.

The teacup pig fad isn’t entirely new, points out the Associated Press, having first popped up a few decades ago, only to be revived now and then. The trouble is, breeders and online sellers employ a tricky tactic, telling would-be pet owners that if they feed their new porkers only a certain amount, they won’t get much bigger after they turn one, and will stay small.

Many times that just isn’t true, and the animals demand more and more food, growing larger and larger. If they don’t eat enough, and eat the proper food for, they’ll starve.

One former pet owner found that out the hard way when the mini pig she brought home started raiding her kitchen and digging through the trash. She’d been told by a breeder to only feed it a half-cup of food twice a day. When she took him to the veterinarian, the doctor said her piglet was acting up because he was starving.

She’d been told he would only grow 12 inches tall, but instead, he grew to 20 inches and 180 pounds. Her husband couldn’t handle it anymore she says, telling her, “Either the pig goes or I go.”

The pig ended up at a rescue home, something that’s been happening a lot these days. Shelters are becoming overcrowded, and some sanctuaries have had to put limits on how many pigs they can take.

“There are not enough homes out there anymore. These pigs are in big trouble,” the operator of Lil’ Orphan Hammies pig rescue told the AP.

She’s saved 1,000 pigs since the rescue started 23 years ago, and gets 20 calls a day from people trying to find a new home for their pigs.

It’s definitely not easy out there for a pet porker: Anna Key, vice president of the North American Potbellied Pig Association, estimated that 90% of pigs adopted in the U.S. end up at a rescue or a sanctuary.

Though breeders claim restricted diets can keep pigs tiny because they’re learning to eat less (which sounds awful), rescues say they’re just getting emaciated and losing muscle mass.

“I have never seen a full-grown, healthy, 35-pound pig live to maturity,” the owner of a Pennsylvania farm rescue told the AP.

Pet porkers pack rescues as trendy teacup pigs fatten up [Associated Press]

Former Operator Of Penalized $5.2M For Illegal Billing

Thu, 2015-07-23 20:08

Here is what looked like before the URL was handed over to the Dept. of Education.

Here is what looked like before the URL was handed over to the Dept. of Education.

Five years ago, we told readers looking to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to steer clear of, as it was not the official Dept. of Education site for the FAFSA. Today, federal regulators announced a $5.2 million settlement with the company behind the now-defunct website for illegal billing practices.

According to the complaint [PDF] filed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with a federal court in California, until earlier this month a company called Student Financial Aid Services, Inc., was operating, and offering FAFSA preparation services online or over the telephone, for a fee.

The site offered three different premium plans, all of which were set up as “negative option” renewal subscription plans. That means that unless the subscriber specifically told the company to halt the subscription, or unless the company decided to end the recurring charges, the user’s account would be charged each year for FAFSA prep help even if no help was requested.

The problem with the model wasn’t necessarily the automatic renewals, but the deceptive ways in which the site got users to enroll.

The CFPB alleges that users were told these premium plans were available at “no additional cost,” when in fact there were annual fees of $67 to $85, which were charged automatically to the consumer’s card or bank account on file for up to four years.

Additionally, the site failed to clearly explain or disclose the recurring nature of these charges, according to the complaint. The only indication of recurring charges was a statement on the payment page that read, “worry-free annual billing.*”

The asterisk in that sentence referred to a 6,500-word Terms of Use document elsewhere on the site. But the CFPB says that even those who read the fine print would not have been able to discern they were being put into a negative option renewal subscription, as that aspect was not mentioned. Nor were the annual fees that would be charged.

And subsequent post-purchase confirmation e-mails from the site did not indicate that there would be recurring charges for service, whether it was requested or not.

It wasn’t just the website that was misleading, the company’s phone sales operation also glossed over the nature of the recurring charges.

The complaint alleges that SFAS phone reps “did not clearly disclose that the consumer’s credit card or debit card would be charged each year regardless of whether the consumer was still attending school or making use of the Company’s FAFSA preparation service in the following application year.”

Phone reps’ script also misleadingly upsold the premium tier service as an“upgrade … at no additional cost to our Gold status.”

In all, between 2011 and 2013, the CFPB alleges that SFAS processed approximately 206,000 automatic charges against the accounts of consumers who did not file a FAFSA through the company during that application year.

“Student Financial Aid Services, Inc. made millions of dollars at the expense of consumers through its illegal recurring payment scheme,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray in a statement. “Our enforcement action will put money back in the pockets of consumers who were misled while seeking to access federal student aid.”

Per a consent order [PDF] with the CFPB, the company must pay $5.2 million that will be used to repay those who were charged for unauthorized, recurring service fees. no longer sells SFAS services. Instead, it offers visitors a portal to either the Dept. of Education website or a login for existing customers to access their accounts.

“Students and families applying for federal student aid shouldn’t have any confusion about whether they’re on the official FAFSA website or a commercial website,” said United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “This transfer will help provide clarity for parents and students.”

Lawsuit Accuses Kohl’s Of Advertising ‘False’ Original Prices

Thu, 2015-07-23 20:05

(Daniel Oines)

(Daniel Oines)

Is it fair to consumers when a retailer sells their own private-label products at a “discount” from the prices that they set in the first place? Two Kohl’s shoppers in California say that it isn’t, and they’ve filed a federal class action suit alleging that discount department store Kohl’s does exactly that.

If this sounds familiar, yes, it’s very similar to a lawsuit filed against TJ Maxx that we shared yesterday, where the closeout retailer is accused of making up the prices on “Compare at” tags on its merchandise.

The two lead plaintiffs claim that the real problem is with the store’s own brands, which include Sonoma, Apt. 9, Croft & Barrow, Daisy Fuentes, Elle, Mudd, Jennifer Lopez, and Simply Vera. Since Kohl’s owns these brands, the “original price” that they set on any item is arbitrary.

Yet shoppers love discount games, so all a retailer has to do is start us out with the idea that an item is “worth” more than they want to charge for it. If they want to sell a dress for about $24, they could mark the “original” price as $40 with a 40% discount. Easy!

The lead plaintiffs say that’s exactly what is happening every day at Kohl’s. (PDF download) “As a result,” their lawyers write in their initial complaint, “Plaintiffs and members of the proposed Class… received items of lesser value and quality than they expected and Kohl’s unlawfully, inequitable, and otherwise improperly was thereby unjustly enriched and benefited.” In other words, that $24 dress was never worth $40 to anyone.

It’s one thing when an off-price retailer sells clothes from other brands that you could theoretically find in a department store, even if the items bearing fancy brand names that you find in stores like TJ Maxx and Marshalls or in brand outlets are actually produced specifically for the off-price or outlet market.

While Kohl’s does business in the same way nationwide, this class action only applies to California, alleging violations of that state’s false advertising, and unfair competition laws.

The plaintiffs ask that Kohl’s stop tagging items with what they call “false, untrue, and misleading ‘regular’ or ‘original’ prices,” as well as restitution for items that they have bought based on those “false” original prices.

Original Complaint [PDF]

Cheaper, More Competitive Broadband: Not Gonna Happen Anytime Soon, Analyst Tells Congress

Thu, 2015-07-23 19:45

(Tom Richardson)

(Tom Richardson)

A committee in Congress yesterday held a hearing on promoting broadband infrastructure investment. That is, getting more wires put in the ground so more people can get online faster and more reliably. That’s a laudable goal that we here at Consumerist tend to cheer on. But one theme became clear from the testimonies of the assembled analysts, industry members, and local public companies who spoke: real improvement is going to be a long, ugly series of fights… and consumers are going to keep paying a lot more while it happens.

There are a lot of different problems and policy questions rolled up under the umbrella of “broadband infrastructure investment.” Ultimately, there are two main separate, but connected, kinds of projects we’re talking about.

The first pressing problem has to do with reaching all of the underserved or entirely unserved areas of the country — about 55 million people, or just around 1/6 of the population. The FCC has a mandate from Congress to bring broadband coverage to as many people as possible, and so government broadband pushes often rightly focus on the parts of the country that are still largely offline, or crawling along on the best dial-up speeds 1995 could offer.

The other problem is one of adding more competitors to areas that are already served. Because competition in broadband just plain sucks, and the FCC also has a mandate to protect and promote competition in communications where they can. Millions upon millions of us live in areas where only one high-speed provider operates, despite deregulation in recent decades that promised to open up a free market where competition would flourish. But that just keeps not happening, because the barriers to entry are just too high.

And so your bills are going to go up for a well-worn and predictable reason: because they can.

That was the message from industry analyst Craig Moffett.

Moffett started his testimony by, in his own words, pointing out the obvious: infrastructure deployment is really expensive, and companies are only going to do it if they expect a healthy return on the wad of cash they spend. He continued that the large, incumbent, publicly traded cable companies — Comcast, TWC, Charter, and Cablevision — all make healthy returns on their broadband systems, now, because much of the outlay was done in earlier years.

But AT&T and Verizon aren’t making a whole lot of money on upgraded networks. And that’s why Verizon has pretty much called a halt to FiOS expansion, even while it kills off its copper-wire phone and DSL networks as quickly as it can.

In short, Moffett said, “the returns to be had from overbuilding — that is, being the second or third broadband provider in a given market — are generally poor.” And if a business isn’t going to make money doing something, they won’t do that thing.

“Stated simply,” Moffett concluded, “it means that market forces are unlikely to yield a competitive broadband market.”

And not only are we all stuck in an uncompetitive market, but our broadband providers are also our TV providers, in many cases… and we’re buying less TV. Money they can’t make from us on one side, they will have to make up on the other.

“This may sound nefarious,” said Moffett, “but it’s not intended to be so. It’s simply an observation that cable operators have historically benefitted from the fact that their infrastructure can support two separate businesses … Absent reforms to restrain the runaway growh in programming costs, video will become unprofitable and broadband will be left to carry the entire burden of incremental deployment.”

All else being equal, he added, that either means that either new broadband builds will become less frequent and stop happening, or broadband prices will jump.

Or we could see both.

Speaking later in the proceeding, Rep. Anna Eshoo of California called Moffett’s appraisal of the situation “highly pessimistic,” adding that it was “depressing” to hear his descriptions of the telecom marketplace. And yet, it’s the marketplace we all have to live in at the moment — and Moffett’s analysis seems spot-on.

Take Comcast, for example, which released their most recent quarterly earnings report just this morning. The headline news was that their broadband subscribers officially outnumber their TV subscribers. They also demonstrated that their revenue from high-speed internet has increased by over 10% as compared to this time last year.

But here’s the key number: their “total revenue per customer relationship” has increased 4.5%. That means that Comcast’s hand-over-fist money-making machine isn’t growing by reaching new households (although it does routinely pick up some of those, too); it’s growing by making more off of every existing customer. In short, we’re all paying more.

Breaking that monopoly, of course, takes exactly the kind of infrastructure investment the hearing was convened to discuss. Some of the new competition comes from corporate expansion — AT&T and CenturyLink promising to unveil new fiber networks, or Google making its slow roll across the country. But much of that comes from local public entities starting their own municipal cable and fiber networks.

Businesses in search of maximum profit not only don’t want to go rural, but also really hate municipal networks. And yet cities just keep starting and expanding them. And despite incumbent businesses arguing against it, the FCC recently voted to allow two cities to preempt industry-funded state laws and expand their own municipal networks. (That legal fight is still ongoing.)

In the end, businesses and communities do not always share goals, as Deb Socia of Next Century Cities, an organization of communities that have or plan to launch municipal networks, summed up.

“When you think about profit … I think the ways that our cities are looking at ‘what is a profit’ are a little bit different than the ways that a company might look at what a profit is. Right?” Socia said.

She then listed off a set of civic goals that communities routinely want to meet and enhance, including economic development, transportation, and education before asking: “What is that worth? How do we ensure that our tribal lands and our rural communities can benefit in the same ways that our other communities are able to?”

You can watch the full video of the hearing below.

Costco Cuts Back On Chilean Salmon In Favor Of Antibiotic-Free Fish

Thu, 2015-07-23 19:29

(Renee Rendler-Kaplan)

(Renee Rendler-Kaplan)

Amid concerns of antibiotics overuse contributing to the development of drug-resistant superbugs, American consumers are increasingly demanding antibiotic-free meat and fish. That’s bad news for Chilean salmon farmers who are facing a bacterial outbreak and treating their fish with record levels of antibiotics — and losing the business of Costco and others.

Chile is the world’s second-largest producer of salmon, pumping out 895,000 metric tons of the fish in 2014. At the same time, Reuters reports that salmon farmers in the South American nation used 1.2 million pounds of antibiotics (up 13% from the previous year) in an effort to fight off the Piscirickettsiosis (or SRS) bacteria, which causes lesions, hemorrhaging, swollen kidneys and spleens, and ultimately death in infected fish.

While the farmers insist that the fish treated with the antibiotics are safe, U.S. retailers — especially Costco — are moving away from Chilean salmon.

Costco purchases some 600,000 pounds of salmon each week to fill its warehouse stores around the country, and until recently 90% of that came from Chile.

But in recent months, the company has moved to cut that by more than half to 40%. The majority (60%) of Costco’s salmon will be coming toward Norway, which produces more salmon (1.3 million metric tons in 2013) and uses virtually no antibiotics (2,142 lbs. total in 2013).

And Costco is just the latest to look for alternatives to Chile. Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s have already phased out antibiotic-treated Chilean salmon.

“The whole industry is starting to shift,” explains the Costco exec who oversees fresh foods to Reuters. “If I was to ask you your biggest concern on produce, you might say pesticides. When we ask people in protein, generally it’s going to be hormones or antibiotics.”

The situation in Chile is slightly different from the usual debate about antibiotics in farm animals. In most cases here in the U.S., cows, pigs, and chickens are provided continual, low-dose amounts of antibiotics, primarily for growth promotion.

Following recent guidance to drug-makers from the Food and Drug Administration, farmers now claim they use the drugs for “disease prevention,” even though this prophylactic, sub-therapeutic approach to antibiotics is exactly the kind of practice that physicians and scientists say engenders the development of drug-resistant pathogens.

But in Chile, the farmers claim that the antibiotics to prevent SRS infection are medically necessary.

“This is only something given to sick fish so they don’t die. It’s not something preventive,” the CEO of salmon producer Camanchacha tells Reuters.

And much like farm animals are weaned off antibiotics to minimize the chance of drug residues in meat products, the Chilean salmon go through a detox period before being harvested. And the FDA says its inspections since Oct. 2014 of these fish have not turned up any unapproved drug residues.

However, the issues of drug residues is different from the conversation about drug-resistant pathogens. Even though the fish may be cleansed of the antibiotics by the time they hit store shelves, the constant use of the drugs in salmon farms still can result — and has resulted — in the development of resistant bacteria.

In 2014, a Chilean government report noted antibiotic-resistant strains of SRS turning up in the country’s salmon farms. And they will likely continue to pop up so long as farmers keep using the same antibiotics.

Farmers say that without a vaccine to treat SRS, they have no choice but to continue with the antibiotics treatments.

Addicted to antibiotics, Chile’s salmon flops at Costco, grocers [Reuters]

Strangers Pitch In To Keep Woman’s Car From Being Towed While She’s In The ER With Infant Son

Thu, 2015-07-23 19:07



You know the feeling — you’ve only got a little time left on the parking meter but you’re stuck somewhere, forcing you to face either a parking ticket, or even worse, having your car towed. One woman who was unable to feed the meter after spending hours in the ER with her infant son reached out to her fellow mothers, and was rewarded with an outpouring of generosity from total strangers.

A Toronto woman had to rush her six-week-old son to the hospital recently, and didn’t think she’d be too long, so she put enough money in the parking meter to cover her car for four hours, The Canadian Press reports.

But when she had to wait three hours to even see a doctor, she realized the meter would soon expire. So she reached out to a Facebook group for local mothers, asking whether anyone knew if her car would be ticketed or towed.

Strangers answered her, and also showered her post with offers to stop by and fill up the parking meter for her.

“I’m not far. I can go put change in it for you in about an hour on my way back home if you are still there,” one wrote.

“I live not too far from the hospital. Will head over now and top up the meter for you!” another added.

Nine hours later, she picked up her car to find that there were still five hours left on the meter, and that her Facebook feed had exploded with messages from people she didn’t know, wishing her and her son well.

“I was completely overwhelmed. I was completely grateful,” she said. “It made a very tough and stressful situation a lot easier for me. It made me able to focus on my son’s needs rather than having to worry about my car being towed.”

She adds that hundreds of mothers have been asking for updates on her son’s condition, as well as offering parking passes for her to use on her next trip to the hospital. She says now she’s inspired to return the favor, and will be keeping in touch with those who reached out to her.

That feeling you’re having? It’s the warm fuzzies. Feels nice, doesn’t it?

Strangers stop woman’s car from being towed during infant son’s hospital visit [The Canadian Press]

Comcast’s Broadband Customers Officially Outnumber Its Cable Subscribers

Thu, 2015-07-23 18:10

comcastq2The writing was on the wall last quarter when Comcast’s dropping pay-TV subscriber base was only 6,000 more than its growing pool of broadband customers, but with today’s release of the latest subscriber numbers it’s official: Comcast now has fewer cable customers than it does Internet subscribers.

In fact, the difference is now quite substantial, with Comcast gaining 180,000 broadband customers and losing 69,000 pay-TV subscribers. That leaves the company with 22.31 million pay-TV subscribers, more than 200,000 short of the 22.55 million broadband users.

Interestingly, the company recently saw growth in subscribers signing up for bundles of at multiple services, with gains of 46,000 customers signing up for two products (i.e., cable and phone, or cable and Internet, etc.) and 42,000 new additions to customers getting all three Comcast products.

The company recently made a big play to retain these Triple Play customers in the Northeast, offering to bump up their Internet speeds at no extra cost. Customers without the three services have to pay more for the faster broadband.

Yellowstone Park Officials Reminding Visitors Not To Get Too Close To Animals Just To Get A Good Selfie

Thu, 2015-07-23 18:05

(Ben Schelling)

(Ben Schelling)

That question your parents asked you at least once in your life is coming into play now at Yellowstone National Park: officials are warning visitors not to get too close to wild animals to get a good selfie, even if everyone else is doing it.

The thing about wild bison is, they’re wild, and as such, very unpredictable, park officials are now reminding visitors. The fifth person to be injured this year in the park after a confrontation with wild animals was trying to take a selfie with one of the huge beasts near a trail on Tuesday, reports CNN.

She and her daughter turned their backs on the bison, which was about six yards away, in order to grab a photo with it, the National Park Service said.

“They heard the bison’s footsteps moving toward them and started to run, but the bison caught the mother on the right side, lifted her up and tossed her with its head,” the park service said in a statement Wednesday. The woman had minor injuries.

Despite the fact that they’d read warnings about getting too close to wild animals, the family saw other people close to the bison so they decided that meant it was safe, a ranger said.

“The family said they read the warnings in both the park literature and the signage, but saw other people close to the bison, so they thought it would be OK,” the ranger said. “People need to recognize that Yellowstone wildlife is wild, even though they seem docile. This woman was lucky that her injuries were not more severe.”

Park authorities tell visitors to keep at least 25 yards between themselves and large animals like bison, and a full 100 yards away from bears and wolves.

“Bison can sprint three times faster than humans can run and are unpredictable and dangerous,” park officials warn.

Bison attacks woman who was trying to take selfie with it in Yellowstone Park [CNN]

New York Lottery Seeks Missing Buyer Of $7 Million Ticket

Thu, 2015-07-23 17:54

This is not an especially helpful wanted poster, but it is helping publicize the situation

This is not an especially helpful wanted poster, but it is helping publicize the situation

A year ago, someone walked into a bodega (or, as we say in the rest of the country, a “convenience store”) in Canarsie, Brooklyn, and bought a lottery ticket. Perhaps he or she lost the ticket, or missed checking the winning numbers, because the buyer won $7 million, yet has not come forward. They need to do so before tomorrow.

Lottery prizes must be claimed within one year, and the lottery has no clues to go on in this case. That’s why they’ve made the hilariously vague but attention-getting poster that you see above. Officials know that the winner was human, though they probably shouldn’t rule out three cats standing on each other’s shoulders and wearing a trenchcoat.

While the poster shows a person wearing a hat, they don’t even know that much: unlike in other cases where authorities have searched for missing lottery winners, the store doesn’t have surveillance camera footage still around from a year ago so they could pull a photo of the winner from it.

If you do happen to be the person who bought a lottery ticket for the July 24, 2014 drawing at the Milky Way Deli in Canarsie, you should call the lottery at ­(518) 388-3370.

Lottery uses stick-figure sketch in effort to find $7M winner [New York Post]

Sen. Al Franken Calls For Federal Investigation Into Apple Music

Thu, 2015-07-23 17:45


In response to concerns arising from the recent launch of Apple Music, U.S. Senator Al Franken called on both the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the possibility that the tech giant may be creating an anticompetitive environment in the streaming music market.

In a letter [PDF] sent yesterday to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FTC Chair Edith Ramirez, the senator from Minnesota notes that Apple’s restrictive agreements with app developers — especially those that compete directly with Apple Music — may “have the potential to limit choices and raise prices for consumers.”

Franken points out that Apple currently charges a non-negotiable 30% fee on revenues from in-app purchases of subscription services made through apps operating on Apple devices. This extra cost for these services can result in higher prices for consumers, but Franken says that companies are restricted from explaining this to consumers or from pointing out that they can get the service for less elsewhere.

For example, Spotify generally charges customers a rate of $9.99/month when they sign up for the service through its own website. But customers who choose to sign up through Apple are charged $12.99/ month.

“These types of restrictions seem to offer no competitive benefit and may actually undermine the competitive process,” writes the senator, “to the detriment of consumers, who may end up paying substantially more than the current market price point.”

The National Journal reports that Spotify has begun to push back against Apple, creating an advertising campaign that urges customers to sign up for the service via their website and save the three dollars.

Franken’s call for an investigation may be a little late, as earlier this week The Verge reported that the FTC had launched an investigation into Apple’s dealings with rival streaming services.

Citing sources close to the matter, the publication reported that investigators had already issued subpoenas to other streaming services regarding their dealing with Apple’s App Store.

Even before Apple Music launched last month, the service and Apple’s dealings with rival services had come under intense scrutiny.

Back in May, multiple sources said that the Department of Justice was keeping tabs on Apple while it reportedly tried to narrow the playing field ahead of Apple Music’s release. The sources said the scrutiny was initiated by Apple’s alleged push for major music labels to put the kibosh on free music offered by Spotify and other similar streaming services.

Then, just before the service launched in June, the attorneys general for both New York and Connecticut announced they had made inquiries about Apple’s negotiations with record labels to see if the company may have conspired to harm the business of competitors like Pandora or Spotify.

Of course, any investigation into anticompetitive practices wouldn’t be a first for Apple.

When Apple moved into the e-book market several years ago, the company colluded with the country’s largest book publishers to fix prices and gain a foothold in the market.

Federal prosecutors showed that Apple convinced book publishers to change their pricing models so that the publishers set the retail price rather than the sellers. This prevented any one seller from offering deep discounts to compete with Apple. It also resulted in consumers paying more for e-books on Amazon than they were for printed and bound copies of the same titles.

The publishers in that case all settled without admitting any wrongdoing, but Apple was ultimately found liable at trial.

Al Franken Urges Federal Probe of Apple Music [National Journal]

Police: Man Who Called 9-1-1 Lied About Having Chest Pains, Just Wanted Help Fixing His AC

Thu, 2015-07-23 17:20

(Alan Rappa)

(Alan Rappa)

Despite the plethora of services that are available these days at the touch of a button, there are still those who seem determined to stick with calling 9-1-1 — even when there’s no actual emergency. Police in Pennsylvania say a man who called complaining of chest pains was fit as a fiddle, and actually just needed help fixing his air conditioning.

During a conversation with a police dispatcher, the 27-year-old also said he was having difficulty breathing, according to a criminal complaint cited by the Smoking Gun. But when emergency medical personnel arrived at his apartment, he “related to them that he was fine and did not have any medical issues,” the complaint says. “However he was having issues with his air conditioning and asked if they could fix it.”

Paramedics didn’t stick around to tinker with his AC, and instead notified 9-1-1 that the call had been bogus, leaving for a “pending true medical emergency.”

The complaint says the man has made “false/misleading/non emergency calls” on more than 60 occasions over the last three years. He was arrested last December for prior 9-1-1 calls, though criminal charges were later withdrawn as part of a plea deal, wherein he wasn’t supposed to make such calls anymore

He’s been accused of obstructing emergency services and disorderly conduct, and is scheduled to appear in court in August on the two misdemeanor charges.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard of people misusing the 9-1-1 system when they found something in their life was amiss: There was the man who called 9-1-1 a dozen times claiming he was overcharged for beer; people who called police because Facebook was down; a man who called 9-1-1 repeatedly because his wife threw his beer away and the Subway customer who called emergency services when he got the wrong sauce on his flatizza. And that’s just to mention a few.

Cops: Man Called 911 To Get Help Fixing His AC [The Smoking Gun]

New Legislation Would Cap Checked-Baggage Fees At $4.50

Thu, 2015-07-23 16:38

(Eric Norris)

(Eric Norris)

If you go to the airport today and check any bags, there’s a good chance you’re going to pay around $25 per checked bag for the luxury of not having to lug your stuff around and cram it under the seat in front of you. A recently introduced bill in the House of Representatives would not only put a cap on checked-baggage charges, but would slash the current level to $4.50/bag.

Florida Congressman and Chair of the House Transportation Oversight Subcommittee John Mica introduced the Baggage Fee Fairness Act of 2015 [PDF] on Wednesday.

The bill doesn’t specifically state the $4.50/bag cap, but instead limits fees on bags to the “total amount of passenger facility charges that could be imposed (without regard to whether the charges are actually imposed) on the passenger by eligible agencies for boardings associated with that flight” under paragraphs (1) and (4) of 49 U.S. Code § 40117(b).

It’s those sections that currently place the maximum passenger facility charge (PFC) per agency at $4.50.

“It’s time to bring some fairness to the soaring fees that airlines are charging consumers for basic services,” explained Rep. Mica in a statement. “This is fair and equitable since airports have been held to that fee level for handling passengers at the same $4.50 limitation by law for the past 15 years. During that decade and a half, most major carriers have imposed dramatically increased baggage and service fees.”

While the legislation ostensibly appears pro-consumer, the airline industry trade group Airlines For America alleges to Bloomberg that the bill is a “misguided attempt” to increase the PFC at a time when Congress is going through the contentious re-authorization process for the FAA.

Mica has argued that the billions spent on baggage fees and other ancillary charges aren’t subject to federal taxes so while they contribute to airlines’ bottom lines, they aren’t adding to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (AATF) that finances airport safety and air traffic control systems and equipment.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” says Mica.

Airlines For America contends that a higher PFC would ultimately do more harm than good, pointing to a Dec. 2014 Government Accountability Office report [PDF], which found that the sought-after increase of the PFC to $8.50/agency could decrease consumer demand on air travel and could reduce total AATF revenues by about 1%.

Fiat Chrysler Offers Software Patch For Some Internet-Connected Vehicles After Hackers Hijack Jeep

Thu, 2015-07-23 16:10


After a journalist’s report of being inside a 2014 Jeep Cherokee while hackers miles away took over his car as part of an experiment, Fiat Chrysler has announced it’s offering a software patch for some of its internet-connected vehicles. That being said, the company didn’t directly acknowledge the hacking event itself.

The company released a statement saying that just like other technology like smartphones and tablets, sometimes vehicle software updates are required “for improved security protection to reduce the potential risk of unauthorized and unlawful access to vehicle systems.”

“The software security update, provided at no cost to customers, also includes Uconnect improvements introduced in the 2015 model year designed to enhance customer convenience and enjoyment of their vehicle,” Fiat Chrysler says, via Automotive News.

A story on by Andy Greenberg on Tuesday told how hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek had remotely taken control of the Jeep he was driving, as part of a pre-arranged demonstration designed to call attention to the Uconnect Infotainment system’s vulnerability. It’s installed in 2013-14 Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram vehicles, and the 2015 Chrysler 200, with an 8.4-inch touch screen and Wi-Fi hot spot.

Fiat Chrysler doesn’t have the capability to push software to affected systems wirelessly, so the company is instead directing drivers to where they can download the security patch themselves, or take their vehicle to a dealer for the software to be upgraded for free.

The hackers had said they were planning on releasing part of the code they used to infiltrate the system at an upcoming Black Hat conference, to convince automakers that their products are vulnerable. Fiat Chrysler does not approve.

“Under no circumstances does FCA condone or believe it’s appropriate to disclose ‘how-to information’ that would potentially encourage, or help enable hackers to gain unauthorized and unlawful access to vehicle systems,” the company said in the statement.

Jeep hacking prompts FCA software update to enhance security [Automotive News]

Microsoft Now Accepting Requests To Remove Revenge Porn From Bing, Xbox Live & OneDrive

Thu, 2015-07-23 15:37
(Mike Mozart)

(Mike Mozart)

Microsoft joined the growing list of tech companies taking steps to crack down on so-called revenge porn – the posting of nude photos or videos online without the consent of the subject – by honoring requests to remove links to the images or the content from appearing in results on its search engine Bing and other platforms.

The tech company announced the move late Wednesday in a blog post, saying it was a first step to help “put victims back in control of their images and their privacy.”

Starting immediately, Microsoft says that once notified by a victim it will remove links to photos and videos from search results on Bing, and remove access to content itself when shared on OneDrive or Xbox Live.

Although the company allowed people to report such illicit content in the past, the new effort to address the problem of revenge porn included the creation of a dedicated reporting web page to make it easier for victims to let Microsoft know about particular photos and videos.

For now, the system is in English only, but the company say it will be expand to other languages in coming weeks.

“Clearly, this reporting mechanism is but one small step in a growing and much-needed effort across the public and private sectors to address the problem,” Jacqueline Beauchere, Microsoft’s Chief Online Security Officer, said in the post. “It’s important to remember, for example, that removing links in search results to content hosted elsewhere online doesn’t actually remove the content from the Internet – victims still need stronger protections across the Web and around the world.”

Revenge porn is an issue many social-based and search sites have been dealing with in recent years.

Back in June, Google announced it had created a “narrow and limited policy” that will treat the photos and videos in the same manner it treats other sensitive personal information, such as bank account numbers and signatures, that may appear in search results. As a result, the company said it would start accepting requests for removal via a web form.

Prior to accepting requests for removal, some victims of revenge porn have been able to have images delisted from Google Search by making copyright claims on the images. But if the victim isn’t the copyright holder of a revealing photo — say it was taken by an ex or a friend — this method falls short. Google’s new policy may close such loopholes that allowed these search results to remain.

In March, Twitter outlawed revenge porn through new terms of service. Just days before that, Reddit banned revenge porn with an update to its privacy policy that prohibits the posting of nude and sexual images without the consent of the subject.

Additionally, sites that existed solely to publish such content have come under fire from lawmakers and federal regulators.

In January, the operator of one now-defunct site dedicated to revenge porn called “” was the focus of a complaint from the Federal Trade Commission, which alleges he used deception to acquire nude content to post online, among other things.

He settled with the FTC and was ordered to destroy all images and personal contact information he collected from victims and people who knew them.

Shortly after that case, in February, the operator of a similar venture called was found guilty of identity theft and extortion for running the site, which included thousands of sexually explicit images, mostly of women, that were published by anonymous users without the subjects’ consent or knowledge. He’s facing up to 20 years in jail as a result.

NYC Mayor Ditches Plan To Curb Uber Expansion In The City

Thu, 2015-07-23 15:29


It seems Uber will get its way in New York City after all: Though Mayor Bill de Blasio was pushing for limits on how much the ride-hailing service and other for-hire vehicle companies could expand their fleets, city hall is now backing down from that plan amid backlash from Uber, Governor Andrew Cuomo and some famous folks.

City hall dropped a proposal that would’ve curbed the growth of for-hire vehicles on the streets of the Big Apple. Uber has agreed to fork over data for a four-month study of the impact of cars on traffic congestion and the environment, reports Bloomberg News, and the city won’t cap its growth while that study is ongoing.

“These elements represent a smart and fair way to address the issues posed by the FHV industry in New York,” First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris said in a statement. “The City’s goals and obligations are clear — protect the public, encourage growth and innovation, and keep New York City moving.”

“This is great news for all New Yorkers, including Uber riders and drivers.”

Uber, of course, is pleased. The legislation would’ve put limitations of just a 1% increase in FHVs per year for companies with more than 500 vehicles, and 5% on those that have between 20 and 499 vehicles.

“Together, we can build an even better, more reliable transportation system,” an Uber spokesman said in a statement. “This is great news for all New Yorkers, including Uber riders and drivers.”

Mayor de Blasio was at odds with Gov. Cuomo — one of many quibbles the two have been having on a variety of topics — with Cuomo saying in a radio interview on Wednesday that the Uber measure wouldn’t have helped traffic and could have affected the rest of the state if Uber drivers left the city for neighboring counties.

“Uber is one of these great inventions, startups, of this new economy and it’s taking off like fire to dry grass and it’s giving people jobs,” Cuomo said. “I don’t think the government should be in the business of restricting job growth.”

Model Kate Upton and other celebrities also came out on the side of Uber, Tweeting disapproval of de Blasio’s plan out to their millions of followers.

Uber itself had launched a campaign against the measures this week with TV commercials and a “de Blasio” button in its app that showed how much longer passengers would have to wait for a ride if the proposal went through, and urged customers to write to the mayor and city council and voice their support for the company.

De Blasio Scraps Plan to Curb Uber’s New York City Growth After Backlash [Bloomberg]

Starbucks Teams Up With Lyft To Give Drivers, Riders Extra Points Through Its Rewards Program

Thu, 2015-07-23 15:16


Take a Lyft, earn a free cup of coffee? Well, something like that anyway. Starbucks and ride-sharing service Lyft teamed up on Wednesday to unveil a new arrangement that gives customers – and drivers – of the car service extra perks through the coffee chain’s loyalty program.

Starbucks announced the new partnership Wednesday, saying the multi-year deal will increase value for current customers and attract new customers for both companies.

Under the program, all Lyft drivers will have the option of becoming My Starbucks Rewards loyalty program gold status members, and both drivers and riders will have the opportunity to earn Starbucks loyalty “Stars” redeemable for food and beverages at participating Starbucks stores.

And if you happen to take an extra enjoyable Lyft ride, the coffee chain (not so) subtly suggests you tip your driver with Starbucks eGifts through the Starbucks mobile app, the company says.

“Lyft and Starbucks share a lot of the same customers and importantly we share a commitment to doing right by our customers and our people,” John Zimmer, co-founder and president of ride-sharing company says. “In the days, months and years ahead, we will launch exciting programs for loyal community members, and new products that will change the way we move around our cities.”

The partnership is just the latest for Starbucks, which has been touting its mobile capabilities and emphasizing its loyalty program recently.

Starbucks announced on Tuesday that it had reached a deal with the New York Times in which top news stories will be available for free through the coffee chain’s mobile app.

Customers will also have the opportunity to earn reward stars through paid digital and print subscriptions to the NYT, the company said.

Back in May, Starbucks announced a similar program with Spotify. Under that partnership, stores and customers were linked with the music subscription service, allowing loyalty members to access Starbucks music on Spotify, influence in-store playlists and earn stars by making purchases through the music service.

Starbucks Adds Lyft to Growing Network in Retail’s Most Robust Digital Loyalty Ecosystem [Starbucks]

Campbell Soup Company Climbs On Bandwagon, Will Eliminate Artificial Colors And Flavors By 2018

Thu, 2015-07-23 14:30

(Jennifer Snyder)

(Jennifer Snyder)

Joining competitors in the packaged food market like General Mills, Nestlé USA, and Kraft and chain restaurants like Subway, Panera, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, Campbell Soup Company announced this week that it will stop using artificial colors and flavors in all of its products sold in North America in 2018.

Food companies have noticed where the public’s taste is headed, and that’s toward products that are all “natural.” As consumers learned when Starbucks briefly switched to a “natural” red food coloring made from red insects and switched back after the Frappuccino-drinking public collectively said “ew,” the sources of those natural colors aren’t always palatable to consumers.

The company recently reorganized itself, attempting to become relevant to consumers. You’re probably more familiar with brands like Pepperidge Farm and SpaghettiOs, but Campbell also owns a few brands in the natural and organic sector, like vegetable and juice company Bolthouse Farms and the baby food brand Plum Organics. They also recently acquired Garden Fresh Gourmet, a company out of Michigan that makes salsa and hummus.

The company is giving itself a few years to find alternatives to current ingredients that don’t meet the “natural” standard, and the deadline they’ve set is the end of the fiscal year in 2018. That’s almost exactly three years from now: be prepared for some of the familiar flavors of your childhood to change. Maybe.

Campbell to Cut Artificial Flavors, Colors by End of 2018 [Bloomberg]

Would You Have Spotted This Skimmer Found On An ATM In Mexico?

Thu, 2015-07-23 00:15

Banks and credit unions here in the United States are reporting ATM card fraud that originated with skimmers in the touristy town of Puerto Villarta, Mexico. Imagine the opportunity from a criminal’s point of view: an area full of American tourists with nice, magnetic-strip cards! Would you have been a victim? It helps if you know how to spot a compromised cash machine.

Here’s the front of one machine where skimmers were found. Does anything look amiss?

(Krebs on Security)

(Krebs on Security)

Here, the cover of the little alcove containing the PIN pad is covered with a part that matches almost perfectly and looks like part of the ATM. It isn’t, though: that surface conceals a pinhole camera meant to capture your hand as you punch in your PIN, and the batteries needed to keep that camera going while lots of victims come and go. The best clue to the fraud is maybe the

Give it another try. Here’s a closer view of the machine’s card reader. What do you see?

(Krebs on Security)

(Krebs on Security)

Yes, the added part is over the card reader, which has the actual skimmer that captures the card numbers. This is why it can be a good idea to give any parts of an ATM that look a little iffy a pull: this reader might have come right off if someone had done that.

Spike in ATM Skimming in Mexico? [Krebs on Security]

Amazon Adds 5% Cash Back For Prime Members To Store Credit Card

Wed, 2015-07-22 23:02

amazonprimecardHey, you, person who buys things on Amazon but who doesn’t have a Prime subscription. Yeah, you! If the discounted shipping, streaming media, and the deals and festivities of Prime Day weren’t enough to convince you to subscribe to the service, what about a credit card? Yes, Amazon already has a variety of credit cards, but what about a special Prime credit card?

Actually, the card is the same store credit card that they had before, but being a Prime member adds one benefit: you get 5% back on all of your purchases as a credit on your following statement. Yes, that is pretty much the same thing at Target’s RedCard: both are cards that can only be used at one store, but the difference is that Target gives you the discount at the time of the purchase.

Amazon didn’t make a big deal out of this new benefit, just sort of quietly slipping it onto the store card page. It’s been around since March, but without an on-site ad blitz or even a press release. Jason Del Ray over at Re/Code happened to notice it while shopping on the site.

My favorite thing about this story is that now I’ve learned that Amazon’s store credit card has its own reviews page, which is almost as interesting as the reviews page for Amazon gift cards.

Amazon’s Latest Prime Perk: A Five Percent Cash-Back Credit Card [Re/Code]

Study Shows The Obvious: Amazon Prime Members Spend More On Amazon