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The Consumerist

Investors Want McDonald’s To Spin $20 Billion In Property Off Into Real Estate Investment Trust

Tue, 2015-08-25 20:57

(yarnzombie)

(yarnzombie)

While McDonald’s doesn’t own the majority of its restaurants, it does own tens of billions of dollars’ worth of the real estate where those restaurants operate, leasing them to franchisees. That’s a valuable asset, and the company is facing pressure from some investors to spin off its land and buildings into a separate, publicly traded McDonaldland. I mean, real estate investment trust. Which they should name McDonaldland.

Investors in other companies are keen on the REIT idea, too. Darden plans to transfer a number of its own restaurants to an REIT, and investors want Macy’s to do the same. Selling property to a trust is the only reason why Sears posted a profit during the most recent quarter.

The Wall Street Journal points out that REITs have benefits for investors, since their tax structure is different from a regular business. Almost half of McDonald’s value is in its worldwide real estate, which would leave the remaining company to be valued based on its earnings from franchise fees.

This trust would own only McDonald’s property in the United States, and that’s a substantial amount of real estate. Experts don’t even know exactly how much there is, but they know that there’s between $20 billion and $35 billion that the company could raise, which they could go on to use to buy shares of the company back, pay debt, or invest in more pantry spices.

The higher-ups at McDonald’s haven’t ruled out the idea, but they also haven’t confirmed that they’re going for it. The company’s chief financial officer will update shareholders in November.

McDonald’s Lands in a Real-Estate Dilemma [Wall Street Journal]

Subway Says It Is Now Taking Android Pay, Even Though It’s Not Live Yet

Tue, 2015-08-25 20:52

The Subway FreshBuzz newsletter declares that Android Pay is live at the fast food chain, but it looks like Google is not yet ready to announce this news.

The Subway FreshBuzz newsletter declares that Android Pay is live at the fast food chain, but it looks like Google is not yet ready to announce this news.

After leaked McDonald’s memos indicated that Android Pay — Google’s answer to Apple Pay — would launch this week, we have another sign from the fast food industry that the debut of the mobile payment platform is imminent.

A Consumerist reader forwarded us a Subway FreshBuzz newsletter he received in his inbox today that — in addition to promoting whatever sandwich the company is hoping will get everyone’s mind off this Jared debacle — proclaims “Android Pay Is Now At Subway!”

The newsletter has a link enticing readers to learn more about Android Pay, but it just links to the official Android Pay site, which currently states that it’s “coming soon,” with no launch date:
androidpaycomingsoon

Subway — along with McDonald’s, Best Buy, GameStop, Staples, Macy’s, Petco, and others — has already been confirmed as a launch partner for Android Pay. It would just be nice if Android users had some more precise idea of when they’d be able to try this payment option.

We’ve written to Subway for clarification on the Android Pay launch and will update if we get anything in response.

Credit Bureaus, Bank Of America, Wells Fargo Top List Of Most Complained-About Financial Companies

Tue, 2015-08-25 20:21

complainedaboutgraphThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has released its latest report on the various complaints the agency has received about banks, lenders, debt collectors, and other financial services. Amid a sudden increase in the number of complaints involving credit report errors, the country’s largest credit bureaus now dominate the top of the CFPB’s list of most complained-about companies.

According to the CFPB report [PDF], it received nearly 6,700 complaints about credit reporting in July 2015 alone, that’s a 56% increase over the previous month and more than double the monthly average of around 3,200 for this category.

And since 97% of credit reporting complaints involved the three largest credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — it’s no surprise that these companies occupied three of the top five spots on the complained-about list.

Equifax topped the list, with 991 complaints in July alone, followed by 926 complaints about Experian. TransUnion managed to avoid the bronze medal in this field by coming in fourth with 732 complaints.

Beating out TransUnion was Bank of America, with 858 complaints, while Wells Fargo rounded out the top five with 720 gripes filed against it.

Most complaints (77%) filed against the credit bureau involve people trying to dispute incorrect information on their reports.

“Consumers frequently complain of debts already paid or debts not yet due showing up on their report, negatively affecting their credit scores,” reads the report.

creditreportingcomplaints

There is also the issue of access to credit reports. In order to minimize fraudulent access, the bureaus use identity authentication questions that even the person they’re about might not have the answer to. Do you know every street address your mother has lived on? Do you remember every phone number you’ve had at every place you’ve lived? If not, you might not be able to prove you are the person you claim to be.

“Consumers consistently report issues related to accessing their credit reports as a result of rigorous online identity authentication questions,” reads the report. “If unable to access the reports over the Internet, consumers have to send copies of sensitive, identifying documents through the mail, which consumers feel is time-consuming and potentially unsecure.”

In terms of the two banks in the CFPB’s top five, consumers are frequently complaining about mortgage-related issues with both BofA and Wells Fargo. The two banks also saw quite a lot of complaints about their regular bank accounts and related services. Bank of America was also the subject of a not-insignificant number of credit card complaints.

While BofA might have been pushed to third place for this report, it still has the highest monthly average of complaints (1,034); no other company is even comes close to that average:

complainedaboutchart

Since the CFPB first began accepting complaints through its online portals, more than 48,600 have been filed against BofA. Wells Fargo is a distant second with nearly 34,000, followed by JPMorgan Chase at around 27,500.

But for all this talk of most complained-about companies, none of them are in the most complained-about category: debt collection.

In July, the CFPB received a whopping 8,224 complaints about debt collectors, representing nearly one-third of all complaints filed with the bureau. But since this industry is so varied, no one company receives enough to penetrate the ranks of the credit bureaus or big banks.

Toyota Officially Testing Airbag Inflators From Takata Rivals

Tue, 2015-08-25 20:17
(I Am Rob)

(I Am Rob)

A week after it was reported that Toyota planned to buy 13 million airbag inflators from a rival of Takata in an attempt to reduce the risk associated with millions of recalled safety devices from the Japanese auto parts maker, the car manufacturer announced it will indeed be testing alternative replacement components. 

Reuters reports that Toyota is currently testing airbag inflators from Autoliv and Nippon Kayaku as replacements for the millions of volatile Takata-produced airbags that have so far been linked to eight deaths and more than 100 injuries. The auto maker has already approved the continued use of parts from Daicel Corp.

The company says that tests of the new inflators are the first step in making sure the safety devices are compatible with its vehicles.

“(Inflators) are not like stationary, which can be simply swapped. We need to test them first and make sure they’re safe,” a Toyota spokeswoman said on Tuesday.

Back in May, Takata recalled 33 million vehicles equipped with its airbags; 12 million of those belonged to Toyota.

Last week, sources close to the company said it had already asked Nippon to increase production of inflators to 13 million, to be used in the company’s cars until 2020.

At the time, the source said that having the parts on hand would give Toyota the ability to quickly replace any potentially defective inflators in the future.

In addition to asking Nippon to increase its production, Toyota asked the company to expand its facilities to meet the new demand. It was unclear whether or not Toyota would help foot the bill for the requested expansion.

Autoliv, Reuters reports, already supplies parts for Honda – which was once Takata’s biggest customer.

Toyota says testing potential alternatives to Takata air-bag inflators [Reuters]

We Are Unsure How To Feel Knowing That Pig’s Milk Cheese Exists

Tue, 2015-08-25 20:15

(Adam Fagen)

(afagen)

While we consumers have grown accustomed to milk from animals besides cows being used to make cheese — like sheep’s milk cheese and goat cheese — there’s something a bit… different about pig’s milk cheese. Which is in fact, a thing.

It’s unlikely find pig cheese at your local grocery store, but one pig farmer in the Netherlands is at the forefront of the sow’s milk product, reports Vice’s Munchies channel.

Erik Stegink of Piggy’s Palace is making cheese in collaboration with a cheese store, and says the process isn’t so easy as it is when using cow’s milk or other dairy-producing animals, noting that the first batch was made with cow’s milk added as well.

“Pigs produce less milk in comparison to cows: every two hours they release the milk for about 30 seconds so you have to be quick,” he told Munchies. “Four of us were at it with coffee cups, and per time you only get about 100 milliliters. If you want to collect 10 liters—which is needed for about two pounds of cheese—you’re busy for at least 40 hours.”

He admits that he doesn’t think pig’s milk cheese is going to take off, making him a wealthy innovator in the process, but hey, if you can do it, why not?

“I consider it to be nothing more than a whimsical product,” he explains, adding that he and his fellow cheesemakers made it just because they enjoy it, and they were curious.

As for the taste, he says there are distinct differences — it’s saltier and creamier, yet grainier.

“It’s a completely different process and requires a lot of attention,” he says. “Several of the wheels were unsuccessful and this is the first one we dared to eat.”

Perhaps by the time pig’s milk cheese makes its way across the pond we here at Consumerist will have opened up a bit to the idea. Heck, we might even try it. Because if there’s one thing we know about cheese, it’s that it’s good.

Pig’s Milk Cheese Is Tasty, But It Won’t Make You Rich [Munchies]

Amazon Quietly Launches Same-Day Beer, Wine Delivery In Seattle

Tue, 2015-08-25 19:16
(Alan Rappa)

(Alan Rappa)

When you’re hosting a party and notice that the alcoholic beverages are running a little low, you might momentarily panic: who in their right mind wants to leave such a great shindig to go on a beer run? No one, that’s who. And now, with the long-awaited addition of alcohol delivery to Amazon’s one- or two-hour Prime Now service, no one has to… unless you live outside of Seattle, in which case you still have to go to the store.

When Amazon announced the launch of its expedited delivery program in Seattle today, the company quietly revealed the newly expanded service would offer something new: alcohol delivery.

Instead of making a big to-do about adding beer and wine delivery to Prime Now for the first time in the U.S., Amazon stealthily snuck a few mentions of the beverages into a statement about the expanded services.

“Residents of Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland can now get one-hour delivery on tens of thousands of items like paper towels, wine, beer, chilled and frozen items like milk and ice cream, televisions and Kindle devices,” the company said in its announcement.

Rumors have swirled for weeks that the e-commerce giant would rollout beer, wine and liquor delivery in Seattle after it was reported that the company had applied for liquor licenses for three warehouse sites in the area.

A spokesperson for Amazon tells Re/Code that it will evaluate customers use of the alcohol delivery service, but plan to “continue to expand it.” However, the company did not specify what cities might expect boozy deliveries in the future.

Including alcohol delivery is a first for the company’s Prime Now operations in the U.S. Amazon’s Prime Now service in the U.K. already offers such deliveries.

As with all previous Prime Now rollouts, customers in Seattle must be members of Amazon’s $99/year Prime service to receive deliveries in either two hours for free or one hour for $7.99.

Huggies Tells Parents There Isn’t Any Glass In Its Baby Wipes After Video Controversy

Tue, 2015-08-25 19:11

(First Coast News)

(First Coast News)

After one mom’s video of small, hard, shiny particles on a Huggies baby wipe hit the Internet’s you-know-what fan, prompting parents to seek a recall, parent company Kimberly-Clark is clarifying that it doesn’t use glass to make its wipes.

A Florida mom posted a video online showing odd bits on Huggies brand baby wipes she’d been using, after she and her husband said their two kids were complaining about irritated skin, reports First Coast News.

“I was really upset at first,” the mom said. “There was a really big hard piece on it. It honestly kind of looked like glue.”

Others made videos as well, with some people saying the particles looked like glass shards.

But Kimberly-Clark maintains that those bits aren’t glass.

“It is important to note that no glass is used during the manufacture of our wipes,” the company said in a statement addressing the controversy, noting that the specks were most likely melted fiber particles of the wipe material used in the manufacturing process.

After testing the material, the company confirmed that no glass was found in the wipes, sharing the outcome of an analysis done by an independent testing firm of the wipes that customers returned.

“We can confirm NO glass or fiberglass was present. We found only microfibers used to manufacture our baby wipes. A shimmer can be caused by the microfibers reflecting light,” Kimberly-Clark says in a new statement, noting that in “extremely rare occasions,” the manufacturing process can cause “tiny particles of microfiber to form on the wipe that can be felt, but do not present a safety risk.”

“Based on the findings of the independent testing, we are confident that our product is safe,” the company says.

Palm Coast mom finds what some believe to be glass in Huggies baby wipes [First Coast News]

People Trust Optometrists More Than Costco Or 1800CONTACTS, At Least According To Optometrist Group

Tue, 2015-08-25 19:08

(Angry JulieMonday)

(Angry JulieMonday)

As we’ve previously reported, there’s a legal war going on — with optometrists and manufacturers on one side, and discount and online retailers on the other — over how much you should have to pay for your contact lenses. Both sides of this battle have recently released surveys they hope will help win over public opinion.

Just a quick catch-up on this whole situation for latecomers.

Unlike most healthcare professionals, optometrists are allowed to sell products directly to their patients. And until online discounters and big box stores got into the market, many consumers were buying their lenses through their eye doctors.

In 2013, the largest contact lens manufacturers (Bausch & Lomb, Alcon, and Johnson & Johnson), accounting for some 80% of the market in the U.S., began establishing price floors for their products to help protect the optometrists they depend on to prescribe their lenses.

With a price floor in place, consumers end up paying the same for lenses at their doctor as they would from Costco or 1-800-CONTACTS, and that price is whatever the manufacturers say it is.

Utah — which also happens to be the state that 1-800-CONTACTS calls home — recently passed a law [PDF] intended to prohibit contact lens companies setting price floors in the state, though the manufacturers are fighting it.

And so the two sides have take the fight to the court of public opinion.

The first salvo was fired late last week in the form of survey results released by a group called “See Clearly, America.”

Questions asked in the survey included “Who would you say it is RISKIEST to purchase prescription contact lenses from?” To which only 1% responded that their “Family eye doctor” was the riskiest. More than half picked “An online retailer like 1-800 CONTACTS, Vision Direct, Coastal Contacts, or Lens.com,” while 21% said “A store like Walmart or Costco” was the riskiest.

Note that the question doesn’t point out that the lenses you buy at these online and retail stores are the same as the ones you get from your family doctor; so really the only risk is from damage during shipping.

Another question asked “Who would you say is most likely to offer the most personalized eye care for you?” And not surprisingly, nearly 9 out of 10 respondents picked the family eye doctor — because that’s the eye doctor’s job. Only 4% picked either the online sellers or big box stores — because it’s just their job to sell you the lenses the doctor prescribed; not offer “personalized eye care.”

Similarly 89% of survey respondents said the family eye doctor cares most about your eye health. Here’s a hint: if your eye doctor cares less about your eye health than a retailer, then you should be looking for another eye doctor.

But just because your eye doctor cares a lot about your eyes doesn’t mean that price floors should be used to make sure you can’t buy the exact same lenses from someone else for less.

So who is “See Clearly, America,” aside from the rare group that inserts a comma into its name?

The press release for the survey doesn’t mention it, but See Clearly is actually a campaign, started in 2013 (the same year that the price floors began), sponsored by the American Optometric Association, a trade group representing nearly 40,000 optometrists in the U.S..

When we asked a rep for the AOA why the survey results announcement wasn’t transparent about SCA’s affiliation with the optometrists’ group, he explained that “See Clearly is a just a differently branded project designed to educate the public about important eye health issues.”

We also asked 1-800-CONTACTS for a statement regarding the See Clearly survey, but rather than provide a comment on the data, the online retailer released survey results of its own.

The 1-800-CONTACTS survey doesn’t directly counter any of the See Clearly findings. Instead, it seems intent on talking up the benefits to buying your lenses online.

According to their survey, 70% of people who buy lenses from online sellers replace their contacts as recommended most of the time, compared to only 61% of those getting lenses from their eye doctors.

Online buyers are, at least according to these results, more fastidious about replacing their contact lens cases on a regular basis (every 9 months or less), with 60% of online contacts customers swapping out their cases this frequently, compared to 51% for customers who go the traditional route.

Of course, 1-800-CONTACTS’ questions and results aren’t without ulterior motive, as the company uses them to point out that when customers don’t have to pay full-price for contacts, they can afford to get new lenses as recommended.

Price floors were effectively outlawed for nearly 100 years until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2007 case of Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc., that manufacturers could set minimum retail prices in some situations.

The court determined that retailers facing price floors could take the money they would have lost through discounts and invest it in “greater customer service” so as to gain a competitive edge. But opponents of price floors for contact lenses contend that these pricing arrangements put all the burden on retailers.

In its argument against contact lens price floors, Costco claims that eye doctors already have the patient, the prescription, and the product in one place ready to make the transaction. And since there is no incentive for the patient to shop around for a lower price, the doctors would have an edge over retailers.

Best Buy Figures Out Key To Retail Success: Competitive Prices, Good Service, Apple Watches

Tue, 2015-08-25 18:37

(frankieleon)

(frankieleon)

We don’t cheer on the demise of companies here at Consumerist: when a company appears on this site repeatedly, it’s because we want them to be better. Best Buy used to be a frequent subject of posts here, but now they aren’t. Americans haven’t all abandoned the retailer: it’s actually doing well, with its mini-store concept paying off. What’s coming up soon for the company? More Apple mini-stores.

Specifically, the company has become an Apple authorized reseller. They’ve sold Apple products for years, but weren’t an official location for service for Apple products. Now they will be, though whether you want freshly-trained Best Buy employees cracking open your Apple Watch is a whole other question.

Yes, your Apple Watch: the chain started with a pilot program, but announced today that they’ll first spread the wrist computers out to a few hundred stores, then roll it out to every full-sized Best Buy store.

Overall, Best Buy is succeeding by…getting back to the basics of what retail is supposed to be. “our strategy of offering advice, service and convenience at competitive prices is paying off,” Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly said in a statement accompanying the quarterly results.

We thought that these were basic rules of retail, but Best Buy lost its way for a while, instead making up its own rules about not letting any computer out the door without being “optimized” by Geek Squad. Now they’ve learned their lesson, and offering something as simple as price-matching is helpful in de

Best Buy Posts Surprise Sales Rise; Shares Jump [Reuters]

Possible Food-Borne Illness Sickens 77 At California Chipotle

Tue, 2015-08-25 18:16
(Kerry Lannert)

(Kerry Lannert)

Health officials in Ventura County, California, are investigating a possible outbreak of a food-borne illness after dozens of people who either ate or work at one local Chipotle fell ill.

The Ventura County Star reports that a Chipotle in Simi Valley closed for a short time last week after nearly 60 customers and 17 employees complained about feeling ill following a visits to the restaurant on August 18 and 19.

For now the cause of the outbreak, which sent some people to the hospital, remains unknown.

Mike Byrne, Ventura County Environmental Health Division food safety supervisor, says that inspectors and specialists are following up with those who became sick to try to determine if the illnesses stemmed from a specific food problem or if changes are needed make sure food is safe.

Customers and employees reported various symptoms following their visits, including fever, diarrhea and vomiting.

One customer tells NBC Los Angeles that she and her sister became ill after eating at the restaurant on August. 18.

“We were throwing up, going to the bathroom. We had really bad chills,” she says. “I just want to get the answer.”

The eatery closed for one day while inspector disinfected the area and brought in all new food, Byrne says.

While the location reopened on Saturday, employees who became ill have not returned to work in an attempt to avoid reintroducing any possible pathogen, the Star reports.

Dozens report feeling sick after eating at Chipotle in Simi Valley [Ventura County Star]
Dozens of Customers Report Feeling Sick After Eating at SoCal Chipotle [NBC Los Angeles]

FDA Warns Company Behind “Just Mayo” That Its Product Isn’t Actually Mayonnaise

Tue, 2015-08-25 17:41

justmayoWhat difference does a food label make? A whole heck of a lot, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Which means if your product doesn’t abide by federal guidelines, it can’t masquerade as something it’s not. As such, the FDA is warning the makers of “Just Mayo,” a vegan-friendly spread, that it can’t call itself mayo because mayonnaise contains eggs, which its product does not.

Back at the end of last year, Hellmann’s maker Unilever backed off on a lawsuit it’d filed against Hampton Creek over the mayo/not mayo issue, noting that it yanked the suit “so that Hampton Creek can address its label directly with industry groups and appropriate regulatory authorities.”

Eight months later, the appropriate regulatory authorities have come a’knocking, by way of a warning letter from the FDA to Hampton Creek, dated Aug. 12 and posted online on Tuesday. The letter addresses “Just Mayo” and “Just Mayo Sriracha” products.

“The use of the term ‘mayo’ in the product names and the image of an egg may be misleading to consumers because it may lead them to believe that the products are the standardized food, mayonnaise,” the FDA said, which must contain eggs by definition.

“Additionally, the use of the term ‘Just’ together with ‘Mayo’ reinforces the impression that the products are real mayonnaise by suggesting that they are ‘all mayonnaise’ or ‘nothing but’ mayonnaise,” the FDA adds, though again, the products aren’t technically mayonnaise. They also include “contain additional ingredients that are not permitted by the standard of identity for mayonnaise, such as modified food starch,” the agency notes.

The FDA also takes issue with Hampton Creek’s claim that Just Mayo is cholesterol-free, and points to statements the company makes on its site about heart health, including, “When your heart is healthy, well, we’re happy. You’ll never find cholesterol in our products.”

“Adjacent to this statement is a heart-shaped symbol with a smiling face,” notes the FDA. “Together these statements and heart symbol are an implied health claim that these products can reduce the risk of heart disease due to the absence of cholesterol.”

However, the FDA says, Just Mayo contains too much fat to make such health claims.

The agency instructs Hampton Creek to ensure its products comply with regulations and gave the company 15 days to respond to the letter.

When reached for comment, a Hampton Creek Foods representative told Consumerist there was no statement to share at this time.

Federal Court Rules: Chicken Sandwich Not Protected By Copyright

Tue, 2015-08-25 17:34

pechuchickenYou may recall that we recently tested various burger recipes sent in by readers. What if I took one of those recipes, slapped the name “Morranwich” on it and made it the basis of a billion-dollar burger empire? While the reader whose recipe I used for the sandwich might be really upset, they couldn’t make a copyright claim against Morranwich Worldwide (a division of Cyber Dynamics Systems Corporation) because, as precious as a sandwich recipe might be, it’s not copyrightable.

Yesterday, a federal appeals reminded everyone of this in a ruling involving a copyright and trademark claim against a fast food chicken chain.

The seeds of this case were planted back in 1987, when a man named Norberto started working for South American Restaurant Corporation [SARCO], a franchisee and operator of Church’s Chicken locations in Puerto Rico.

At some point, Norberto suggested an addition to the Church’s menu. After some testing, the new chicken sandwich, dubbed the “Pechu Sandwich” by Norberto, eventually went on sale locally in Dec. 1991.

In 1999, Puerto Rican trademark officials granted a registration for that name. By 2005, that registration had been conferred on SARCO, who filed and received a federal trademark registration for “Pechusandwich” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Norberto sued SARCO for a percentage of the profits it has earned from the sandwich he claims to have created. He alleges that the company violated Section 38 of the Lanham Act by committing fraud upon the USPTO in the procurement of the Pechu Sandwich trademark.

He subsequently argued in appeal that SARCO had violated his copyright by allegedly stealing the recipe and name for the sandwich.

But as a panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals For the First Circuit notes in its opinion [PDF] that you can’t really claim copyright on a sandwich.

First, recipes and food products are not among the eight copyrightable categories enumerated by Congress (literary works; musical works, including lyrics; dramatic works, including musical score; pantomimes and choreographic works; pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works; motion pictures and other audiovisual works; sound recordings; and architectural works).

Additionally, previous courts have held that a recipe is a “mere listing of ingredients” that don’t merit copyright protection, and that they “are functional directions to achieve a result” and therefore not copyrightable.

“A recipe — or any instructions — listing the combination of chicken, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and mayonnaise on a bun to create a sandwich is quite plainly not a copyrightable work,” reads the court’s opinion.

And while you can trademark a name like “Pechu Sandwich,” the court explains that copyright protection does not extend to “words and short phrases, such as names, titles, and slogans.”

As for Norberto’s claim that SARCO committed fraud in obtaining the Pechu trademark, the court says that the plaintiff “simply fails to sufficiently allege that any false statement exists,” that Norberto “merely offers conjecture about SARCO’s actions and intentions,” without providing any facts to back up his contention that SARCO “intentionally, willfully, fraudulently and maliciously procured” the trademark in question.

[h/t: @markjkings]

Sallie Mae Spinoff Navient Could Face CFPB Lawsuit Over Student Loans

Tue, 2015-08-25 17:06

imagesIn the short time since Navient – the nation’s largest student loan servicing company – spun off from the nation’s largest student loan originator Sallie Mae, the company has come under scrutiny for it allegedly unfair practices of overcharging and imposing excessive fees on consumers’ loans. While those practices resulted in a $97 million settlement with the Depts. of Education and Justice, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, they could soon lead to a lawsuit from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Navient revealed in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing [PDF] on Monday that the company’s wholly-owned subsidiary Navient Solutions Inc. (NSI) could soon be party to a lawsuit regarding its servicing practices.

According to the filing, Navient received a letter from the CFPB on August 19 serving as notification that the regulator’s enforcement office is considering recommending legal action against the loan servicing company.

The letter relates to the agency’s ongoing investigation into Navient’s “disclosures and assessment of late fees and other matters,” and stated that “in connection with any action, the CFPB may seek restitution, civil monetary penalties and corrective action against NSI.”

Known as a Notice and Opportunity to Respond and Advise (NORA), the CFPB letter is intended to give Navient the opportunity to present its positions to the CFPB before an enforcement action is recommended or commenced, something the servicing company plans to do.

“NSI continues to believe that its acts and practices relating to student loans are lawful and meet industry standards and, where applicable, the statutory or contractual requirements of NSI’s other regulators,” Navient said in the SEC filing. “The company is committed to resolving any potential concerns.”

Navient, which was spun off from Sallie Mae in 2014, has faced several probes by federal and state agencies, including increased scrutiny over its contract with the government.

Earlier this month, a group of senators sent a letter to Inspector General Kathleen Tighe raising concerns that the Dept. of Education’s probe into its student loans servicer’s compliance with the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) was riddled with problems.

The Dept. of Education’s review, which was released in May, found that less than 1% of servicemember files serviced by Navient, Great Lakes, Nelnet and American Education Services contained violations of SCRA, including a provision that limits the amount of interest on military personnel student loans to no more than 6%.

Those findings were in contrast with a May 2014 investigation by the Depts. of Education and Justice, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.. Those agencies jointly announced a sizable settlement against both Sallie Mae and Navient for overcharging and imposing excessive fees to nearly 78,000 military members.

The two companies agreed to pay a combined $97 million to settle charges that they violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act which caps loan interest rates at 6% for active duty military members.

The Huffington Post points out that the New York Department of Financial Services, along with the attorney general’s offices in both Washington and Illinois have launched investigations into the company’s debt collection practices.

[via The Huffington Post]

Priest Sentenced To 6 Months In Prison For Groping Woman On US Airways Flight

Tue, 2015-08-25 16:43

(zonaphoto)

(zonaphoto)

Almost exactly a year after he was caught groping a female passenger on a US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, a Catholic priest has been sentenced to six months behind bars in a federal prison, followed by six months of house arrest.

According to a grand jury indictment [PDF], on Aug. 17, 2014, the priest touched the woman’s breast, buttocks, and inner thigh for his own sexual gratification, and without her permission.

Reuters reports that when the priest boarded the flight, he asked if he could be moved to a seat in the rear of the plane to “sit next to his wife.”

At some point, the woman sitting next to the convicted groper woke up to find him touching the top of her leg and wrapping his arm around her body to grab her breast.

She got up from her seat, went to the plane’s lavatory and called a flight attendant to report the assault.

The priest was relocated to the front of the plane for the remainder of the flight. At Los Angeles, he was greeted by the police.

The priest’s explanation for touching the woman was that he believed it to be consensual because — being asleep — she did not reject his probing hands. He also chalked up her unconsciousness to “coyness.”

In May, a federal district court jury in California found the priest guilty of abusive sexual conduct. At sentencing, the woman testified that she still experienced “fear, frustration and anxiety,” especially since her work requires frequent air travel.

“Spam King” Pleads Guilty To Sending More Than 27M Unsolicited Facebook Messages

Tue, 2015-08-25 16:42

(Raymond Bryson)

(Raymond Bryson)

When your email or other messaging account is flooded with messages promising cheap$ R0lexes! and invitations to collect a million dollars from the estate of a long-lost foreign dignitary relative, it’s not easy to place the blame: is it a robot programmed for maximum annoyance? A wee, cackling, evil spam elf? Sometimes, it’s just a human: a man known as the “Spam King” has admitted in court that he’s behind more than 27 million unsolicited messages sent through Facebook’s servers.

The Las Vegas man pleaded guilty on Monday to fraud and criminal attempt, admitting that he’d committed mass spamming efforts in 2008 and 2009, San Francisco U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said in a statement reported by Bloomberg.

He sent unsolicited ads disguised as friend posts over a three-month span, reports the Associated Press, collecting Facebook user account information by sending “phishing” messages to users and tricking them into providing their passwords, prosecutors said. He’d then take that info, log into their accounts and spam their friends’ Facebook walls. Unsuspecting folks who clicked the link would then be redirected to websites that paid the Spam King for the Internet traffic.

The 47-year-old also admitted that he violated a 2009 court order not to access Facebook’s computer network.

Though Facebook was awarded $711 million in damages against after suing him in 2009 under federal anti-spam laws known as CAN-SPAM, the social network never collected any money from him, due to his bankruptcy, notes Engadget.

The judge in that case recommended criminal charges, prompting a two-year FBI investigation. A grand jury subsequently charged him with electronic mail fraud, damage to protected computers and criminal contempt.

He’s now facing up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine upon his sentencing on Dec. 7 by U.S. District Judge Edward J. Davila in San Jose.

Facebook ‘Spam King’ Guilty for Sending 27 Million Messages [Bloomberg]
‘Spam King’ Pleads Guilty To Sending 27 Million Messages To Facebook Users [Associated Press]

Why The Stolen Ashley Madison Data Is (Legally) Fair Game For The Internet

Tue, 2015-08-25 16:23

ashleymadison-580x370
If your credit card information gets stolen in a data breach, there are certain rules in place that limit your liability and protect you from fraud. But if a hack makes personal, potentially very embarrassing, information public — as in, say, the Ashley Madison hack — there’s not much anyone can do to stop others from seeing or writing about it.

It’s been a bad week for Avid Life Media, parent company of infidelity-centered dating site Ashley Madison. Since the site was hacked a month ago, huge volumes of personal and site data have been released into the wild.

Ashley Madison is doing everything they can to stem this leak, like the proverbial child with his finger against a hole in the dam. It is, of course, far too late for that; to extend (and torture) the metaphor, the dam, the kid, and everything else have already been flooded out and are swimming around in a brand new, very deep lake. Filled with sharks.

It’s Time To Try The Old D-M-C-A…
One of the few tools available to the beleaguered company as they try to put the toothpaste back in the tube is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

As CNN and Motherboard have both explained, Ashley Madison is filing DMCA requests left and right, claiming that as they own copyright on the leaked materials, it is unlawful to redistribute or look at them. The claims are basically the same sort of takedown requests a film studio would file to get as-yet-unreleased movies pulled offline.

Whether they have a leg to stand on with those claims, however, is another story.

Motherboard delved into a lengthy explanation about what’s copyrightable and what’s not after Ashley Madison challenged a tweet from one of their staff writers. The TL;DR version of the law, which is important here, is that you can copyright original works, but not lists of facts.

The famous case setting that law is Feist v. Rural Telephone Service. One phone book company, Feist, used the listings held in another phone book company’s (Rural’s) book, when they printed and released their own book. Rural sued, and eventually the whole affair ended up before the Supreme Court. The Court ended up ruling that the information was not copyrightable, and so lists of facts are not considered to be copyrighted information.

Parts of the Ashley Madison data dump are copyrightable information. The source code for their websites, for example, is original work. Any advertising copy they published on their sites is, likewise, original to them. (And the source code for all of Avid Life’s sites has, indeed, been leaked, so they have some grounds there.)

But a big fat *.csv file full of data? That’s a set of facts, and as such, not a thing that is subject to being copyrighted.

Plenty of other information Ashley Madison has or had access to is also subject to copyright: anything the users write on their profiles, and the images they share. But the account-holders — all 30-odd million of them — are the ones who own that material. That’s been how leaked or stolen material has been successfully taken down before, for example when celebrities’ private photos were stolen from their phones in 2014. Google and other companies did comply with requests to take the images down, because those individuals owned their images and had grounds to request their removal.

You Can’t Put The Toothpaste Back In The Tube
As much as Ashley Madison and all its users wish it were not so, not only is the data probably not subject to copyright claims… but also even if it were, the media can still talk about it as much as they want.

The hackers absolutely broke laws when they stole information from inside Avid Life Media. But media who report on the information are not breaking laws. National security concerns aside (that’s covered by different law), the press can basically run with any information given to them innocently, even if the person giving it to them obtained it illegally.

That’s courtesy of another Supreme Court case, Bartnicki v. Vopper. In that case, a radio station broadcast a recording that had been given to them. The recording itself was in violation of federal wiretapping laws, but the radio station was found not to be liable.

If a media outlet hired a hacker, or paid a hacker, or said, “someone please hack this company for us,” it would be a different story. But in the case of the Ashley Madison breach, as far as we know, the hackers had their own motivations, and were not acting at the suggestion or behest of any particular outlet (or anyone else at all).

When the hackers put their mountains of information on the internet for anyone to use, the contents of those files became fair game for all media to report on and use, from mobile apps and websites through print papers and radio stations.

That’s the same principle that was at play in the wake of the Sony Pictures hack. Sony tried to get reporters to stop reporting; reporters said no. Sony also threatened to sue Twitter if they didn’t suspend a particular user, because he was posting material from the hack. (Eight months later, that user’s account is still up and active.)

What Is Illegal?
It is clearly against the law to try to extort or blackmail anyone based on information from the leak. Those are crimes in and of themselves, and can be prosecuted as such.

The information from the breach is, likewise, absolutely stolen, and the hackers can face a whole boatload of penalties for accessing systems and grabbing information…. if anyone can find them. Avid Life is offering a half-million (Canadian) dollars as a reward for information that leads to catching the thieves, and so far nobody has indicated any particular leads.

Sadly, in the wake of the breach multiple users of the site are reported to have committed suicide. Although it is not yet known if their deaths were directly related to the breach, it is under investigation.

Criminal matters aside, though, Avid Life is still, predictably, in for a whole world of legal hurt.

Users whose data was included in the hack, even though they paid to have it all deleted from the site, are understandably displeased with the company, as are plenty of their other customers. The company’s already facing a lawsuit on its home turf in Canada, and at least four lawsuits against Ashley Madison have been filed in U.S. federal courts, with a class action not unlikely to follow.

Former Airline Catering Employee Sues American Airlines After Cargo Box Falls On Him

Tue, 2015-08-25 15:41
(yooperann)

(yooperann)

Depending on your job, going to work each day might entail putting yourself in harm’s way. However, most of us probably don’t envision going about our daily tasks and having a nearly 700-pound cargo box fall on us. But that’s exactly what happened to a Houston man, and now he’s suing American Airlines.

WFAA New 8 reports that the former employee of an airline catering company filed a lawsuit alleging employees of the airline improperly maneuvered a Boeing 777, causing a 679-pound cargo box to topple over on the man.

The incident, which occurred in July 2014 at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, began when the man was tasked with unloading food services from an inbound American flight.

He claims in the lawsuit that maintenance employees improperly maneuvered the aircraft out of the gate, and when the engines were turned on to move the plane to a maintenance hanger, the blast blew the cargo container off a dolly and on top of the man.

“I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t see it coming,” the man tells WFAA. “He hit the fuel so hard, the jet blast just hit everything.”

According to a DFW Airport Police report, a witness told investigators that when he approached the box all that was visible was the man’s tennis shoes.

That same report indicated that video footage of the incident appeared to show the jet blast was responsible for the crates moving, WFAA reports.

In all, the man says he was knocked unconscious and suffered extensive leg injuries.

A spokesperson for American Airlines tells WFAA that it is “reviewing the allegations to determine next steps.”

Man crushed by cargo box at DFW sues American Airlines [American Airlines]

Judge Dismisses Jim Beam False Advertising Lawsuit Over “Handcrafted” Label

Tue, 2015-08-25 15:33

(Andrew*)

(Andrew*)

A lawsuit that claimed Jim Beam’s “handcrafted” description was all a lie has been dismissed by a federal judge in California, noting that the use of stills is common in the industry, and that customers understand the whiskey is made using some machines.

Beam Suntory, the maker of Jim Beam and other Kentucky bourbon brands, walked off with a win in San Diego on Friday, reports the Associated Press.

The plaintiff had claimed he was tricked into buying a bottle of Jim Beam’s white label bourbon at a fancy price because of the handcrafted claim on the label. But his lawsuit claimed Jim Beam is made using an automated process that doesn’t include a lot of human involvement.

“Such conduct by defendants is ‘unfair’ because it offends established public policy and/or is immoral, unethical, oppressive, unscrupulous and/or substantially injurious to consumers in that consumers are led to believe that Jim Beam bourbon is of superior quality and workmanship by virtue of it being ‘handcrafted,’ when in fact it is not,” the suit said.

But U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns ruled that stills and other equipment have always been a part of the bourbon-making process.

“A reasonable consumer wouldn’t interpret the word ‘handcrafted’ on a bourbon bottle to mean that the product is literally ‘created by a hand process rather than by a machine,'” the judge wrote.

This is the third recent win for Beam Suntory: two lawsuits against Maker’s Mark bourbon were also dismissed this year, that had taken issue with the bottle labeling promoting the whiskey as homemade.

“We are pleased with this swift and decisive victory, which ends the last remaining lawsuit against the labeling of our bourbon brands,” a company spokesman said of the judge’s decision in this case.

The plaintiff had been seeking class-action status. His attorney says it’s unclear at this point whether he’ll appeal.

“Obviously we’re disappointed with the results,” he said Monday.

Judge Dismisses Suit Claiming Jim Beam Bourbon Was Falsely Advertised [Associated Press]

Sears Hires Experienced Consumer Appliance Executive To Run Hardlines, Maybe Sell Stuff

Tue, 2015-08-25 14:30

(Pete Kraynak)

(Pete Kraynak)

In a department or discount store, “hardlines” refers to tools, appliances, and furniture: the items that your parents still shop at Sears for, but that you don’t. Sears has hired a new executive in charge of their hardlines departments, which include the company’s three most important house brands: Kenmore appliances, Diehard automobile batteries, and Craftsman tools.

The new president of hardlines, Lynn Pendergast, previously worked at Johnson & Johnson, HP, and General Electric. She worked in appliances at General Electric, yet as far as we know is not the real-life female version of Jack Donaghy.

One investor speculates that the company’s goal is to put its signature products in even more stores as the network of physical Sears and Kmart stores shrinks. Notably, you can find Craftsman products at Costco and Ace Hardware, Diehard batteries at Meijer, and both lines at Blaine’s Farm and Fleet stores. Will consumers want to buy, say, a Kenmore stove at Home Depot, if the companies agreed to make that happen?

Manifesto-writing CEO Eddie Lampert said in a statement that he believes that Ms. Pendergast is a “proven executive” and that she is “a strong fit for Sears Holdings as we pursue our member-focused transformation.”

As a reminder, here “member” refers to the Sears Holdings Shop Your Way Rewards program, which most people join after being badgered by a cashier to provide their e-mail address or phone number. It’s one of the more simple and useful retail rewards programs, but that isn’t saying very much. Yet the focus on “members” is because Lampert believes that the rewards program is integral to the future success of Sears Holdings, and possibly also because he hates the word “customer.”

Sears looks to boost Kenmore and Craftsman brands with new hire [Reuters]

Car Dealerships Still Don’t Understand How Customer Surveys Should Work

Tue, 2015-08-25 00:36

(frankieleon)

(frankieleon)

For years now, we’ve shared stories of how the current system of car dealership surveys is unfair to everyone involved. If you’re in the market for a car or considering a career in car brand marketing, consider how something as simple as a customer service survey has devolved into bullying, pleading, and lies.

It’s unfair to the dealerships, which manufacturers penalize for scores that are less than perfect. It’s unfair to salespeople, who can lose a large part of their income: one salesperson told us that they lose $100 of their $150 per vehicle commission if a customer happens to rate the dealership snacks only an 8 out of 10. It’s unfair to the brands, which aren’t getting honest feedback from customers when dealership staff have an incentive to intervene and tell customers how to answer the survey.

Most importantly for us, it’s unfair to customers, who get follow-up calls or e-mails from sales staff or dealership management offering an all-expenses-paid guilt trip if they don’t give a perfect score.

That’s what happened to Ruby, who received a personal phone call when she gave a bad score to a dealership that she thought deserved one.

“I recently filled out a customer survey after… a bad experience with Toyota sales rep,” she wrote. “After filling out the survey I was contacted by phone and was told off by the sales rep in question about the survey. I felt violated by Toyota.”

While this employee works for a local dealership, in Ruby’s mind, he or she represents the entire Toyota brand. That’s why the company wants to keep an eye on their salespeople through surveys like this. Usually, though, when you complain about an employee on a survey, you assume that the feedback won’t make its way back to that employee with your phone number attached to it.

It’s possible that the survey results would affect the salesperson’s commission or the entire dealership’s marketing budget for the coming month. That’s too great a burden for any one survey-taker.

Yet Another Car Dealership Begs For Perfect Survey Scores
Car Salesperson: Give Me Perfect Survey Score Or I Barely Get Paid
Giving A Ford Dealership Bad Survey Grades Is Basically Tossing Their Employees Out On The Street

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