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The Consumerist

Panera Bread Wants To Tape Its Employees While They Make Your Food

Wed, 2015-03-18 21:50
(Mike Mozart)

(Mike Mozart)

Over the years video footage of fast food kitchens has surfaced showing employees doing some not-so-pleasant things. But Panera Bread is hoping its own foray into behind-the-scenes footage translates into more accurately prepared meals.

Business Insider reports that Panera will begin testing a pilot program that records employees as they fulfill orders.

The company says that managers and executives of the restaurants will review the surveillance to identify areas of improvement and then give direct feedback to employees.

The program, which is currently being tested in select markets, is part of a push by the company to improve order accuracy and customer service.

In another move to bolster accuracy and reduce the amount of time it takes for customers to get their food, the chain is also trying using ordering kiosks instead of cashiers. The former cashiers do get to keep their jobs — they’ll just be delivering food to customers’ tables.

Panera Bread is going to start recording video of workers [Business Insider]

Target Introduces Extended One-Year Return Policy

Wed, 2015-03-18 20:46
(Nicholas Eckhart)

(Nicholas Eckhart)

While 90 days might seem like enough time to decide whether or not those sheets really match your bedroom decor, Target seems to think you might want to think on it a bit longer than that: The company announced today that it will offer customers a one-year return window for select items.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Target has extended its return policy from 90 days to 365 days, creating one of the most liberal return policies for a major retailer.

“Our enhanced return policy offers our guests convenience we think they’ll appreciate, while providing additional assurance of the quality of owned and exclusive brands found only at Target,” Kathee Tesija, chief merchandising and supply chain officer, said in a statement.

The new return policy covers all of Target’s 32 private label brands including Archer Farms, Liz Lange, Merona, Mossimo, Threshold and Circo. The only Target-affiliated brand not covered by the policy is the company’s frequent collaborations with well-known designers.

Also covered under the extended policy are unopened items purchased for wedding, baby and college gift registries. The one-year clock for those items begins on the date of the event.

A spokesperson from Target tells the Star Tribune that the policy is also good for returns made because of quality issues, such as clothing that fades in the wash or rips at the seams.

Much like the current Target return policy, items must be accompanied by an original receipt. However, if a customer doesn’t have a receipt, the purchase can be verified if it was bought with a credit or debit card, gift card or check.

The extended return policy comes just a month after Target reduced its free shipping requirement to $25, undercutting other retailers such as Walmart and Amazon.

According to the Associated Press, the company’s new one-year plan also differentiates Target from rival retailers.

At Walmart, items bought in the store can be returned within 90 days, while online purchases have 90 days from the date received.

Amazon, on the other hand, gives consumers 30 days from the receipt of the shipment to return items. However, some products sold from third-party vendors have different requirements.

Target extends its return policy to one year on select items [Minneapolis Star Tribune]
Target to offer a one-year return policy [The Associated Press]

Sears Promises Early Payment To Vendors, Ties Up Cash Flow

Wed, 2015-03-18 20:07

searsflagWhile Sears struggles to get customers into its stores and lost $1.7 billion last year, the retailer is also encountering problems in keeping its shelves stocked with merchandise. The company’s vendors are reportedly nervous to ship to the retailer given its poor financial results and touchy cash flow situation. Vendors are asking Sears to pay their bills sooner in exchange for a discount. This ties up tens of millions of extra dollars’ worth of capital up at a time.

This is an issue that came up before the holidays as well, when the companies that insure retail shipments limited how many shipments to Sears they would cover at any given time, due to worries about the company’s continuing existence.
One source familiar with Sears’ supplier agreements told the Wall Street Journal that the company is promising a quicker turnaround on its payments in exchange for small discounts of maybe 3-5%. That isn’t the kind of spectacular sale that pulls customers in for deep discounts on ladies’ casualwear, but it’s a nice deal in the wholesale biz.

The problem for Sears is that paying off those bills from suppliers sooner ties up more of their money. A credit analyst told the WSJ that Sears is paying vendors an average of 9 days earlier than at this time last year. For every day that the payment is moved up, it ties up an additional $48 million of Sears’ already limited funds.

In a statement to the Wall Street Journal, a Sears representative explained that Sears is not having any problems paying its bills or filling its shelves with merchandise. He pointed out that higher fees to insure shipments to Sears only reflect a perception in the industry that Sears is about to collapse, and don’t reflect reality. Sears is totally going to pay its suppliers and meet its obligations.

That’s good news, but unless they’re able to fix their core business soon, they may not be able to meet their obligations by borrowing money from the boss or forming a real estate investment trust with the stores that they own.

Sears Tries to Calm Supplier Jitters [Wall Street Journal]

How To Verify Your Identity In Case The IRS Suspects Suspicious Tax Return Activity

Wed, 2015-03-18 19:54



In the aftermath of revelations that fraudsters exploited TurboTax and had possibly filed bogus returns in many states, the Internal Revenue Service is contacting people linked to suspiciously filed returns, and asking them to verify their identity to find out if the return is real or not.

First of all — unless you get a letter from the IRS instructing you do so, there’s no need to verify your identity with the agency, the IRS says.

The IRS says taxpayers might receive a letter when the IRS prevents a suspicious tax return from going through that are flagged as possible identity theft, but do include a real person’s name and/or Social Security Number.

Should you receive a request in the form of Letter 5071C from the IRS, the agency says there are two ways, and two ways only, to verify your identity: You can either go to and answer a series of questions, or call a toll-free number on the upper corner page of the letter.

The taxpayer should have their prior year tax return and current year tax return on hand, as well as supporting documents like Forms W-2 and 1099 and Schedules A and C. They’ll then confirm that they either did or did not file the return in question, and the IRS will proceed accordingly to assist them in the next steps against identity theft, or process their refund.

The IRS clarifies that it will not email or call taxpayers in this process, so beware if someone purporting to be from the agency does so.

Taxpayers Receiving Identity Verification Letter Should Use []

Seattle & The Empire State Building To Serve As Testing Grounds For Starbucks’ New Delivery Service

Wed, 2015-03-18 19:30



When creating a plan to test its long-awaited delivery service, it comes as no surprise that Starbucks would choose its own turf in Seattle. But in a bit of an unusual choice the company also chose a second location: The Empire State Building.

The Seattle Times reports that Starbucks will begin two distinct approaches to testing delivery at the selected locations in the second half of the year.

For coffee lovers in Seattle, the delivery service will be provided by a third-party service called Postmates.

The San Francisco-based on demand delivery service operates similarly to Uber, in that it relies on technology and part-time staff using their own bikes and cars to make deliveries, the Times reports.

While the service will come with a fixed delivery fee, an exact cost hasn’t been pinned down just yet. However, Postmates currently has delivery fees starting at $5 for other merchants.

Deliveries in New York will take on a decidedly different strategy, one Consumerist reported on earlier in the year, called “green apron delivery.”

With this approach actual Starbucks employees will be making the java drop-offs in the 102-story office building.

In order to keep up with demand from walk-in customers and deliveries, the current Starbucks located in the Empire State Building will be expanded to create a separate area for delivery order preparations.

Deliveries in both New York and Seattle are only be available to Starbucks loyalty program members as part of its mobile order and pay app.

Starbucks chief digital officer Adam Brotman says that customers can also use their Starbucks app to monitor their drink delivery progress.

Starbucks to test delivery service this year in Seattle, New York [The Seattle Times]

6 Things To Think About Before Paying $50-$70/Month For PlayStation Vue

Wed, 2015-03-18 19:24

psvueguideAfter months of limited testing without a price tag, Sony’s PlayStation Vue live TV streaming service launched today in only a few markets with packages ranging from $50/month to $70/month. Since I live in Philadelphia, one of the launch cities, I was able to get my hands on Vue to determine how it stacks up against basic cable and Dish’s recently debuted Sling TV service.


Even the lowest tier of service offers a wide variety of popular channels, including Animal Planet, Bravo, CartoonNetwork, CNBC, CNN, Comedy Central, Discovery, DIY, E!, Food Network, Fox Business, Fox News, FX, FXX, HGTV, HLN, Investigation Discovery, MSNBC, MTV, Nickelodeon, Syfy, TBS, TNT, TLC, Travel, USA, and VH1. In all, the least-expensive offering offers you more than 50 channels for $50/month. That’s effectively the same per-channel cost as Sling’s base package.

Upping to the middle $60/month tier of service only adds four channels in spite of the additional $10 monthly cost, meaning you get fewer channels per dollar. The most expensive tier tacks on more than 20 additional channels, giving you the best value of the three tiers, but at a cost that might be approaching the cable bill you hope to ditch.


Unlike Sling, which does not include access to any over-the-air network feeds, PlayStation Vue currently includes local CBS, FOX, and NBC channels.

Right now, neither ABC nor CW are included, meaning you’d still need to use an antenna to get the full local network lineup. Additionally, it’s possible that Vue might not be able to include local network affiliate programming as it expands into new markets where the affiliates may not be owned and operated by the big networks.


While Vue is currently restricted to streaming over the PlayStation Network, anyone who owns a PS4 need not clutter up their home with a cable box or even a dongle or stick. No need to run new wires or wait for an install tech.

Unlike Sling, which works on mobile devices as well as in your home (some pay-TV providers also allow for live-TV viewing on wireless devices), Vue will not travel with you. That will likely change as the service evolves, but for now you’re stuck watching the stream on whatever screen is attached to your PS4.


Vue allows you to record shows and store them in the cloud for 28 days. This functionality is not available on Sling, which only allows for limited rewind and on-demand capabilities on a few channels. Also, when you store a show in the DVR, it looks like you will be able to watch the entire program, even if you started watching it late (we haven’t been able to confirm this works for every show, but haven’t come across a recording that didn’t let you rewind).

The DVR functionality is not intuitive. Rather than “record” a show, you press a button to add a show to “My Shows,” which not only begins storing the current show. And once you add a title to My Shows, Vue will record every episode of that show going forward for 28 days.

Also, while you can record shows and rewind/forward through them, skipping through commercials or jumping to a part you want to see is not good. Currently, forwarding through recorded video only jumps ahead 10 seconds — a process that takes about 7-8 seconds for each jump.


The base “Access” package for Vue includes Fox Sports 1 and 2, along with NBC Sports. The $60/month “Core” tier adds the Big Ten Network, the Golf Channel, and (at least here in Philadelphia) the Comcast Sports Network. The “Elite” $70/month tier adds a trio of Fox College Sports channels to the mix.

No ESPN, which is included in the base package for Sling.


There don’t appear to be any pros in this category. Vue currently has no premium networks included in any of its packages. Consumers will soon have access to HBO Now (with Showtime and others reportedly set to follow), though that service will not be available on PlayStation in the immediate future.


People who may want to consider PS Vue:

• Current basic cable TV customers looking to get a service that comes close to replicating the pay-TV experience but without having to deal with a cable company.

• People without cable who want access to live TV without contractual commitment.

People who may want to think twice before signing up for Vue:

• ESPN addicts, and anyone wanting access to all local networks without an antenna.

• Anyone looking to get live TV on a mobile device.

• Cable customers who have pay-TV subscriptions primarily for access to premium networks.

Man Claims He Wasn’t Cooking Meth In Walmart Bathroom, He Just Had The Ingredients

Wed, 2015-03-18 19:05



A man arrested in connection with a backpack containing what police called an active methamphetamine that was found in the bathroom of an Indiana Walmart apparently doesn’t want officials to get the wrong idea. He admits that yes, the bag was his and yes, there were ingredients in it to make meth. But he wasn’t trying to cook it in the bathroom, he claims.

The 25-year-old suspect arrested this week after a fight with police at a restaurant said he left the backpack in the store because a bottle of drain cleaner in it was leaking through the backpack and burning him, reports The Muncie Press.

But though he admitted to not only leaving the bag there but buying products at the store earlier to buy fuel and tubing to make meth, police say he maintains he wasn’t producing meth in the bathroom.

So far he’s been charged with aiding in the manufacture of meth, dumping controlled substance waste, battery on a police officer and resisting law enforcement, after police say he tried to flee when officers approached him in a Taco Bell restroom.

Meanwhile, the bathrooms at Walmart have remained closed since the incident, by order of the Delaware County Health Department. A Walmart rep said a professional crew had already come through to clean the restrooms, but they can’t reopen until a final round of tests is completed to make sure it’s safe.

Man says he wasn’t cooking meth inside Walmart [The Muncie Press]

Sony Unveils Pricing For PlayStation Vue Streaming Service, Confirming It’s Not Very Cheap

Wed, 2015-03-18 18:19
(Taro the Shiba Inu)

(Taro the Shiba Inu)

For months now Sony has left the pricing details of its PlayStation Vue streaming television service up to our wandering imaginations. Now the company has all but confirmed previous reports that the service would cost a pretty penny, while announcing its availability in certain areas of the country starting today.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Sony has made PS Vue available for consumers in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia – that is if they’re willing to shell out $49.99 to $69.99 for the service.

Although the price range for the live channel service comes in lower than the previously reported cost of $60 to $80, it might not be worth cutting the cord for just yet.

While choosing to go with Sony instead of traditional cable might relieve some of the headaches associated with service providers, PS Vue users will still require Internet access. And right now, the company is recommending 3-5 megabits per second for a single stream and 25 mbps for three or four streams, the WSJ reports.

That means PS Vue customers will likely have to pay an additional $30 to $70 for local cable or phone company Internet in order to actually stream TV.

As for the actual content provided by PS Vue, customers will receive a range of 50 to 85 channels, depending on the service tier they choose.

Vue’s cheapest tier of $49.99 offers 50 live broadcast and cable channels. The next tier, referred to as “core,” comes in at $59.99 and offers additional regional sports networks and the Big Ten Network. Finally, the “elite” $69.99 tier adds several smaller channels to the package. Each tier will also have access to Sony’s forthcoming original content programs.

Of course none of the PS Vue packages include Walt Disney Co. channels like ABC or ESPN, as well as premium channels like HBO and Showtime.

However, Sony previously inked deals to offer other highly watched programming from Discovery Communications (Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, Investigation Discovery, the Oprah Winfrey Network, Discovery Family); Scripps (HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, DIY Network and Cooking Channel); and Viacom (BET, CMT, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Spike, VH1).

But for comparison’s sake, the WSJ reports that Time Warner Cable offers all of those channels – including Walt Disney Co. programs – in a 200-channel package at a promotional one-year rate of $49.99.

Executives for Sony say they are currently in talks with other programming companies and plan to offer additional channels in the future.

Despite the relatively hefty cost of PS Vue and a lack of some preferred channels, Sony says PS Vue has several other benefits for cord cutters.

First of all, the company says the service doesn’t include long-term contracts or pay penalties for canceling. It also won’t charge additional fees for up to three streaming outlets in the home, the WSJ reports.

As previously reported, the cloud-based DVR service has no storage limits and no restrictions on overlapping programs. Users can also tag “favorite” shows, giving them access to broadcasts for 28 days.

Additionally, PS Vue gives users access to the previous three days’ worth of “popular programming” so that users who forget to schedule a recording may not have to freak out or wait for a rerun.

Sony Unveils Pricing, Availability of Vue Online TV Service [The Wall Street Journal]

Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Accusing Herbalife Of Running A Pyramid Scheme

Wed, 2015-03-18 18:03

herbalife2After two years of accusations calling Herbalife a pyramid scheme, the company has won the dismissal of a lawsuit against it alleging it was set up to only enrich those few at the top of its multi-level marketing business.

The lawsuit from shareholders led by two pension funds claimed that the company behind weight-loss and nutritional products fraudulently portrayed itself as a legitimate company that could make money for distributors at the bottom level of the operation, reports Reuters.

Instead, shareholders alleged in the suit, it is an illegal pyramid scheme that rewarded those at the top only. That alleged misrepresentation of its business modelresulted in a loss of shareholders’ money, the suit claimed.

Herbalife sells its products directly, by using a network of independent distributors. Those distributors then sell the products and make money with those sales, as well as getting commissions from other people they set up in the business.

But U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer in Los Angeles said this week that the shareholders failed to show that questions about its business raised by hedge fund manager William Ackman and various investigators showed that the company had fraudulently inflated its stock price.

The plaintiffs had claimed that news about an investigation from the Federal Trade Commission, concerns from Sen. Edward Markey and questions raised about the value of the stock by Ackman and his hedge fund were “corrective disclosures” that showed Herbalife’s alleged misrepresentations caused the stock’s price to decline. But Judge Fischer said that nothing that later proved to be true had been concealed on Herbalife’s part.

“Just as black swans may exist, there may theoretically be some form of opinion that is factual or revelatory in nature such that it qualifies as a corrective disclosure,” Fischer wrote in a footnote. “Such an opinion would need to reveal to the market something previously hidden or actively concealed. That is not this case.”

Ackman, of Pershing Square Capital Management, has been crusading against Herbalife since December 2012, though Herbalif has maintained the entire time that it’s not a pyramid scheme.

“Girl Scouts sell cookies on a direct-selling method, and nobody attacks them,” said CEO Michael O. Johnson in 2013.

Herbalife hadn’t commented yet on the lawsuit’s dismissal.

Herbalife wins dismissal of U.S. ‘pyramid scheme’ lawsuit [Reuters]

HTC Will Replace Smashed Smartphones Within 12 Months

Wed, 2015-03-18 17:31

htc_selfie_ladyClumsy smartphone lovers of America, rejoice! The HTC One M9, which will hit pockets here in the United States in April, will have an intriguing new form of warranty protection: users will be able to replace their phone with no deductible or replacement fee once if it is damaged.

There’s one reason for this new policy that you might not expect: an HTC executive explained to the Associated Press that what the company really wants is for customers with the new phone to show it off. Without a case. They just need to call up HTC to receive a replacement phone in the mail, then mail the old one back when the replacement arrives.

It must be frustrating for smartphone designers that they keep coming up with beautiful and ever-thinner phone designs, and we insist on coddling our phones in thick, shatter-proof cases to protect them from accidental damage. They push themselves to create beautiful and thin phones, but we don’t even look at them. Will offering one free accidental damage replacement to every customer encourage people to walk around with naked smartphones?

The program doesn’t cover loss or theft, so if that’s coverage that you want, you’ll need to buy additional insurance coverage in addition to HTC’s new program.

Smashed your HTC One? No problem, they’ll replace [Associated Press]

Verizon To Pay $3.4 Million For Not Notifying Officials Of Massive 911 Service Outage

Wed, 2015-03-18 16:56

(Mike Mozart)

(Mike Mozart)

In April 2014 nearly 11 million people in seven states lost access to emergency services when a software programming error resulted a six-hour long 911 outage. The Federal Communications Commission determined in October that the lengthy outage could have easily been prevented, and today the agency began placing the blame by fining Verizon $3.4 million for failing to alert authorities.

The FCC announced [PDF] today that Verizon agreed to the $3.4 million settlement to resolve an investigation into the company’s role in failing to meet its emergency call obligations in its affected service areas of California.

The Verizon portion of the outage affected nearly 750,000 California residents in nine counties who were unable to reach a live operator at 13 emergency call centers in the northern portion of the state. The FCC says that its investigation revealed that 62 wireless emergency calls failed in that area during the outage.

According to FCC regulations, service providers like Verizon are required to alert Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP) – the centers that field 911 calls – when an outage occurred.

Verizon argued that it wasn’t notified by the contractor responsible for the area until after the outage was resolved.

Still, according to the FCC decree [PDF], the company “acknowledges that it is responsible for complying with applicable Commission rules regardless of any alleged failures by its subcontractors.”

As part of today’s settlement with the FCC, Verizon will adopt a robust compliance plan, developed in coordination with the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, that will include implementation of appropriate risk management processes in the rollout of Next Generation 911 services.

Additionally, Verizon will be required to provide improved oversight over its Next Generation 911 subcontractors in order to maintain up-to-date information for emergency call centers, and to coordinate with emergency call centers to periodically review the company’s outage notification procedures.

The massive 911 outage began in the late hours of April 9, 2014, when calls that couldn’t be routed through the PSAP in Colorado should’ve been rerouted to a PSAP in Miami. However, a coding error meant that the system in Colorado had no idea that there was a problem. So instead of going to Miami, thousands of call went nowhere.

In all, the FCC says 5,600 emergency calls in Washington state, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, California, Minnesota, and Florida went unanswered.

Verizon Agrees to $3.4 Million Settlement To Resolve 911 Outage Investigation [Federal Communications Commission]

Watch Texas Law Enforcement Blow Up 20,000 Pounds Of Illegal Fireworks

Wed, 2015-03-18 16:41

boomboomboomThough the people who bought a whole bunch of illegal fireworks never got to see it happen, their ill-gotten products have gone BOOM! in the end, anyway: Officials in Texas recently destroyed about 20,000 pounds worth of confiscated fireworks, bringing them to the end they were always destined to meet.

According to the Midland Texas Police Department’s post on Facebook, the department’s bomb squad assisted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in “the disposal” (translation: fiery destruction) of around 20,000 pounds of seized fireworks, over three days.

And yes, if you were wondering, officials only blew up the fireworks during the daytime, as “it was not meant to be a fireworks show.” The lesson being: If you buy illegal fireworks, you don’t deserve a show.

It wasn’t just about having fun watching stuff blow up, however — the MPD says the exercise was an informative one for its bomb techs.

Germany Bans Uber For Second Time, Fines Company $264,825 For Each Violation

Wed, 2015-03-18 15:58

Uber’s fight to transport customers in Germany hit yet another roadblock today as it was banned from operating within the country for the second time in 12 months. And this time, if the company breaks the imposed injunction, it can expect to pay a hefty to the tune of $264,825 per violation.

The Financial Times reports that the ban, imposed by Frankfurt regional court, prevents Uber from offering its traditional service and its low-cost UberPOP service across the entire country.

The ban, which doesn’t affect Uber’s black car and taxi services, is the result of a case brought by a taxi lobby group called Taxi Deutschland.

The group claims that Uber has been able to sidestep the strict regulations taxi drivers must abide by including mandatory health checks, fixed fares and required liability insurance, which can cost up to eight times private driver’s insurance used by Uber.

Representatives for the group tell Financial Times that “justice has been reinstated” under the ban.

For its part, Uber plans to pursue the case legally and look for alternative ride-sharing opportunities in the meantime.

“We respect the German legal system,” the company said in a statement. “We will now wait to see the court’s reasoning and review it thoroughly. In our opinion, however, the ban pronounced by the Court represents a fundamental infringement… We will not give up on the German market.”

Uber’s attempt to expand operations in Germany has been mired by a number of setbacks. Last September, German courts banned Uber saying the company didn’t’ comply with the country’s transportation laws. Just days later, however, the ban was lifted on technical grounds.

Uber ride-sharing banned – again – in Germany [Financial Times]

Nevada Bill Would Make It Legal To Treat Sick Pets With Medical Marijuana

Wed, 2015-03-18 15:47



Soon it might not just be humans holding medical marijuana patient cards (or something like it): Legislators in Nevada have introduced a bill that would allow pet owners to treat their sick animals with medical pot.

Sen. Tick Segerblom is sponsoring a measure that would let owners get marijuana if a veterinarian signs off and says an animal could benefit from the drug, reports the Associated Press. Pot’s effectiveness as a painkiller hasn’t been proven yet, however.

Some owners have said that their pets’ pain was alleviated by cannabis, including an L.A. vet who told the AP that his Siberian husky’s pain was eased in her final weeks after she’d had surgery to remove tumors. She was able to put on weight and lived six weeks until she had to be put to sleep.

“I grew tired of euthanizing pets when I wasn’t doing everything I could to make their lives better,” he told the AP. “I felt like I was letting them down.”

There are already critics: Sen. Mark Manendo, an animal rights advocate, said he wasn’t familiar with the idea of giving pot to pets.

“That gives me pause,” he said. “Alcohol is bad, chocolate is bad for dogs.”

Segerblom acknowledged that there’s a potential for some animals to react badly to cannabis, but said, “you don’t know until you try.”

There are many things that would have to happen to make this bill become law, which might not be terribly easy. The cannabis for canines and cats measure is part of a larger bill that seeks to overhaul Nevada’s medical marijuana law.

Nevada bill would allow sick pets to use medical marijuana [Associated Press]

American Express Partners With Macy’s, Exxon Mobil & Others For Coalition Loyalty Program

Wed, 2015-03-18 15:10
(Images Money)

(Images Money)

Forget about Costco, American Express seems to have moved on from being dumped by the warehouse club, announcing its partnership with a plethora of retailers and companies for a new venture: a coalition loyalty program.

The New York Times reports that American Express’s U.S. Loyalty division will operate a new program in which consumers can earn points at one retailer and redeem them at another.

The free program, called Plenti, is expected to launch in May with seven companies already signed on, including AT&T, Macy’s, Exxon Mobil, Rite Aid, Nationwide Insurance, Hulu and Direct Energy – a company that provides gas, electric and plumbing services under the names Benjamin Franklin and Mr. Sparky brands.

The wide variety of partners means you can earn points by picking up cold medicine at Rite Aid then hop over to Exxon Mobil to fill your gas tank at a discount, or earn points by purchasing a new coat at Macy’s and redeem those points the next time you’re in need of a plumber.

While Plenti is managed by American Express, consumers can earn loyalty points with any payment method including MasterCard and Visa purchases.

The program works by combining all existing loyalty programs – like Wellness Plus at Rite Aid – onto a single Plenti card, or a digital version on their smartphone for convenient access. Registered Plenti members then swipe or scan their cards at the time of purchase; or if they’ve forgotten their card, they can enter their phone number on the PIN pad to pull up their account during checkout.

Points earned through the program are good for at least two years.

According to American Express, the coalition loyalty program is a first in the U.S., although similar programs have been used in Canada and Europe for quite some time.

Abeer Bhatie, an executive with U.S. Loyalty, tells the Times that the company’s research proved there was a significant demand for a coalition program, but that it took about two years for all the pieces to fall into place.

While many of the companies taking part in the program already have their own loyalty programs, for other this is their first foray into rewards.

Representatives for AT&T, which doesn’t currently have a program, tell the Times that they see Plenti as a way to broaden their customer base and reward members for paying their wireless bill or buying products through retail outlets.

While the current version of Plenti already covers a wide range of businesses and consumer needs, Bhatia says that more partners from different areas of business are expected to be added over time.

American Express to Start Multi-Business Loyalty Program [The New York Times]

Kraft Recalls 242,000 Cases That May Contain Macaroni And Cheese And Metal Shards

Wed, 2015-03-18 14:39

(Mike Mozart)

(Mike Mozart)

Back in 2012, store-brand macaroni and cheese was recalled because it might have contained pieces of metal, leading us to call it “Mac ‘N’ Cheese ‘N’ Metal Shards.” Now a brand-name version of that product is available, since Kraft has recalled 242,000 cases of its signature boxed macaroni and cheese. It could possibly contain small pieces of metal, which is not an appropriate spice to add to macaroni and cheese.

All of the affected boxes are the standard 7.25-ounce size, but recalled items come in several configurations. The recall includes single boxes as well as 3-packs that are packaged in a single box, and shrink-wrapped 4- and 5-packs of boxes where they’re sold in bulk.

To identify recalled boxes, here’s what you need to know: recalled boxes have “best by” dates between September 18 and October 11, 2015, and the date is followed by “C2.”


If you have these in your pantry, you should take them back to the store where you purchased them for a refund. If you aren’t able to do that, or if you have any other questions about the recall, you can call Kraft at 1-800-816-9432.

While there were eight reports of metal pieces in boxes of macaroni and cheese, there were no reports of anyone eating them or injured by the metal pieces.

When Is Taking A Yellow Cab Cheaper Than Using Uber?

Wed, 2015-03-18 14:36



Anyone who’s ever found themselves facing Uber’s surge rates has probably grumbled something along the lines of, “Well, at least cabs don’t charge more when it’s busy.” Which is true in most places with taxis licensed by the city where they operate. But what about other times when surge isn’t in effect — which service provides a cheaper ride?

Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom took on this question using data mined from New York City’s Yellow Taxi fares, which are set by the city, reports the MIT Technology Review. This, compared to Uber fares, which are determined by Uber depending on the service you’re using, the time the trip takes and sometimes by the distance traveled.

The question is, despite the ease and popularity of using Uber, is it cheaper than conventional cabs? To find out, researcher Cecilia Mascolo at the University of Cambridge and a few others compared Uber’s prices with Yellow Taxi fares in NYC [PDF].

Using data obtained through a freedom of information request associated with NYC Yellow Taxi trips in 2013 and compared that to what Uber said it would charge for the same journeys.

The cab data covers hundreds of millions of trips, and includes the location of every pickup and drop off and the fare paid for each journey. Uber then suggested a maximum and minimum fare for those same trips using its cheapest service, UberX, and researchers took an average to come up with a figure to compare with cab fares.


So which is cheaper — at least in NYC — a cab or an Uber? It depends on how far you’re going, researchers say.

“Uber appears more expensive for prices below 35 dollars and begins to become cheaper only after that threshold,” say Mascolo and her team.

This works out nicely for Uber, the researchers explain, because humans usually take a lot more short trips and relatively fewer long trips.

“This observation therefore suggests that Uber’s economical model exploits this trend of human mobility in order to maximize revenue,” the researchers say.

While the Yellow Taxi data comes from 2013 and the Uber data is from 2014, taxi prices are set by NYC and haven’t changed since 2012, so the comparison should be a fairly good one.

However, researchers didn’t take Uber’s surge pricing model into effect. They argue that it’s still a useful comparison, despite that.

“We argue that the process of comparing two different companies that provide the same service in the same geographic area is of value to commuters,” they say.

The team developed an app called OpenStreetCab that is designed to help users compare Uber prices with cab prices, a tool that only works in New York so far.

Data Mining Reveals When a Yellow Taxi Is Cheaper Than Uber

Facebook Launches Payments System For Messenger App Users

Wed, 2015-03-18 13:46

fbookmoneyFacebook is dipping its toe into the pool of mobile payments, announcing this week that it’s launching a system that will allow users of its mobile Messenger app to send money to friends.

Joining the effort to turn our phones into wallets, Facebook says the new free payments feature will be rolling out in the coming months in the United Sates.

To send money to a friend, users start a conversation in Messenger, then tap a “$” icon to enter the amount they want to send. After tapping “Pay,” first-time users of the payments feature will be prompted to add a debit card for the initial payment, and will then have the option to assign a PIN for an extra layer of security.

Receiving money works much the same way — you’ll simply have to accept the payment after adding a debit card to accept funds from your friends.

Money is transferred right away, Facebook notes, but much like other payment systems, it could take a few days for the funds to appear in your account, depending on your bank.

For those worried about the myriad security dangers out there that come with using mobile payments, Facebook says in the announcement that as a payments processor for gamers and advertisers since 2007, it has processed more than one million transaction a day on the site, which is Facebook’s way of saying it knows what it’s doing, it seems.

“Incorporating security best practices into our payments business has always been a top priority,” Facebook says. “We use secure systems that encrypt the connection between you and Facebook as well as your card information when you ask us to store it for you.”

The company says it uses layers of software and hardware protection to keep payment systems in a secured environment, with an anti-fraud team monitoring the system for suspicious activity.

The optional PIN can be used as an extra layer of security, Facebook notes, as well as Touch ID on iOS devices and the option of two-factor authentication available to all Facebook users.

Send Money to Friends in Messenger [Facebook]

RadioShack Franchisees Don’t Want Surprises In Corporate Bankruptcy

Tue, 2015-03-17 23:52

(Phillip Pessar)

(Phillip Pessar)

While RadioShack has declared bankruptcy and plans to liquidate, closing or maybe continuing to exist in a co-branded venture with Sprint. However, there are about 700 RadioShack stores that are doing okay. These stores are dealers and franchisees, stores that carry RadioShack merchandise and perhaps their brand, but might sell other merchandise too. The bankruptcy of RadioShack has some terrible effects on these merchants, and they’re working together to make sure that they aren’t hurt as parts of RadioShack are sold off.

If you don’t happen to live in or visit one of the towns where these stores exist, you may have never heard of these franchise and dealer stores before. The Consumerist staff hadn’t. They were part of a strategy RadioShack had at its peak of using existing retailers to get their merchandise into towns that were too small to support a full RadioShack store by making franchise or dealer agreements with existing retail businesses. A general store could have a corner of gadgets, and everyone benefited. This has worked pretty well until now, with the number of dealer and franchise stores falling mostly because the small merchants who ran them are closing their stores.

RadioShack franchisees’ most pressing problem is that the chain is no longer allowing them to buy their inventory of RadioShack products on credit. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but on a monthly basis, the franchisees accept returns from corporate-owned stores, chargebacks, gift cards, service plan claims, and other credits. Now RadioShack wants payment before shipping merchandise to franchisees. That wouldn’t be a problem if they could guarantee that the money that RadioShack owes them won’t become debts that are part of the bankruptcy.

In a motion they filed in RadioShack’s bankruptcy case, the Boston-based bankruptcy attorney representing the dealers explains the problems that they’re dealing with:

Even though RadioShack has been financially deteriorating for a long time now, many of the [dealer and franchise stores] have had RadioShack stores for decades and have done their best to enhance RadioShack’s reputation, For at least the past year, however, availability of product to the [dealer and franchise stores] has not been balanced or plentiful and relatively few goods have been delivered to the [dealer and franchise stores] after RadioShack filed for bankruptcy.

“We, as independent businessowners, can’t just wait for the final shoe to drop and then scramble like crazy to figure out what to do next,” one store owner told the Boston Globe earlier this month.

Could some franchise stores take this opportunity to find other electronics suppliers and cut ties with the RadioShack brand? They might.

RadioShack franchisees band together amid bankruptcy [Boston Globe]

Driver In 2010 Fatal Megabus Crash Dies After Brain Injury, Stroke

Tue, 2015-03-17 22:33

(Doug Kerr)

(Doug Kerr)

You may remember the fatal 2010 crash of a Megabus in Syracuse, NY, where the double-decker bus missed its turn struck a low railroad overpass, killing four passengers. After four and a half years and multiple wrongful death lawsuits against the bus company, the aftermath of this accident became even sadder: the driver who crashed the bus has died.

John Tomaszewski was a construction worker who lost his business in the recession, and took a job driving the discount inter-city buses to support his wife and three small children. He didn’t thrive in the job, and his wife had urged him to quit before the accident.

After the accident, he struggled with guilt and never went back to work as a bus driver. He was charged with criminally negligent homicide in the county where the accident took place, and a judge (it was a bench trial without a jury) found him not guilty in 2012. Later that year, he suffered from a stroke. He lost his ability to speak or walk two years ago, and his health deteriorated since then.

Driver in Syracuse Megabus crash, whose wrong turn killed 4, has died [Post-Standard]