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The Consumerist

Jerk.com Accused Of Using Facebook Profiles To Con People Into Removing “Jerk” Labels

Mon, 2014-04-07 22:15

A screengrab of an old Jerk.com profile. The FTC alleges that the site took millions of Facebook users' photos and info, allowed people to label them as "jerks" and then tried to charge them $30 to have that label cleaned up.

A screengrab of an old Jerk.com profile. The FTC alleges that the site took millions of Facebook users’ photos and info, allowed people to label them as “jerks” and then tried to charge them $30 to have that label cleaned up.

The Internet has its share of websites that let people post negative comments and statements about individuals and businesses, and then turn around and allow the insulted parties to remove that content (for a fee, of course). The Federal Trade Commission has accused one such site of creating millions of fake profiles in order to scam Facebook users out of $30 each.

According to the FTC’s complaint [PDF] against the operator of Jerk.com (and jerk.be, and jerk.org), between 2009 and 2013 there were upwards of 81.6 million unique profiles posted on the site.

Like the old “Hot or Not?” type sites, Jerk profiles showed a picture for each profile, accompanied by buttons that could let people vote “Jerk” or “Not a Jerk.” The profile could also be filled in with info like the person’s age, address, phone numbers, e-mail address, occupation, school, employer, license plate number, and Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, and eBay account information.

In addition to the photo and private info, haters could pile on in the comments section, writing things like the ever-charming “[She] just can go f**cking slaughter herself . . . Nobody in their right mind would love you . . . not even your parents love [you].”

Even better, the FTC says that as many as 6.8 million of the profiles on the site were of children below the age of 10. Nothing better than rage-filled, anonymous comments directed at a third-grader.

Documentation on the site claimed that all content was generated by Jerk.com users, and that for a $30 “premium” membership, people could go in and scrub up their profiles, but not remove them.

“No one’s profile is ever removed because Jerk is based on searching free open internet, searching databases and it’s not possible to remove things from the Internet,” read an explanation on the site. “You can however use Jerk to manage your reputation and resolve disputes with people who you are in conflict with.”

This is all sketchy enough, but the FTC’s big problem isn’t the scuzzy hold-your-reputation-hostage aspect, it’s the fact that much of the site’s content was allegedly stolen from Facebook and not posted by Jerk.com users.

From the complaint:

Beginning in February 2010, respondents, directly or indirectly, registered numerous websites with Facebook, including Jerk.com, Jerk2.com, Jerk3.com, Jerk4.com, and Jerk.be. Respondents accessed Facebook’s data through Facebook’s APIs and downloaded names and photographs of Facebook users. Respondents used this data to create unique Jerk profiles for millions of consumers.

Making matters even worse, many people who paid the $30 membership fee in hopes of de-jerking their profiles found they didn’t have any of the “premium” perks that had been promised by the site.

This contact form charged Jerk.com users a $25 fee just to e-mail the site's operators. Click to see full-size.

This contact form charged Jerk.com users a $25 fee just to e-mail the site’s operators. Click to see full-size.

And just to top things off, Jerk.com charged a $25 fee — JUST TO CONTACT THE SITE. See the FTC’s screengrab of the old contact form at left.

Not that any of these expenses or attempts mattered, as the FTC says Jerk.com ignored e-mails from users, did not respond to copyright takedown notices sent to the site’s hosting providers. It also ignored requests from law enforcement to remove images deemed to pose a safety risk, including one sheriff’s deputy’s request for the site to delete a profile that was endangering a 13-year-old girl.

The FTC is seeking an order barring the defendants’ deceptive practices, prohibiting them from using the personal information they improperly obtained, and requiring them to delete the information.

“In today’s interconnected world, people are especially concerned about their reputation online, and this deceptive scheme was a brazen attempt to exploit those concerns,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

At some point in the past year, the site seems to have been changed over to some sort of general complaints site that is still not worth the visit or a link.

Yum! To America: Pay No Attention To Our New Chicken Restaurant, It’s Not For You

Mon, 2014-04-07 22:02

Silly Americans, Super Chix isn't for you.

Silly Americans, Super Chix isn’t for you.

On the one hand, it’s kind of odd that Yum! Brands, parent corporation to one chicken establishment already with KFC, quietly opened up a new chicken shop in Arlington, Texas with little to no ado. On the other hand, the company says it pulled the sneak-opening of Super Chix because it’s not like you’ll be able to eat there elsewhere in the country anytime soon, if ever.

Tongues are wagging over the fast food surprise that some are calling a response to Chick Fil-A stealing the chicken crown from KFC in recent years, reports AdAge.

Among its limited offerings like fries and frozen custard is a chicken sandwich it’s touting as “the last true chicken sandwich,” a premium menu item that might bring up a Chick Fil-A comparison, but the entire concept is limited so far to a single location.

A Yum! spokesperson confirmed that Super Chix is part of the brand family, which isn’t apparent in any of its marketing efforts thus far or on the restaurant’s website. At the same time she said this restaurant idea will end up somewhere else in the world other than the U.S., if at all.

“This is an exploratory concept that may in the future be considered for international purposes,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “It is only in its infancy stage. We’ve explored other concepts over the years and they provide interesting learnings.”

Which all seems kind of odd, as the “hand-breaded” chicken is touted as free of MSG, high-fructose corn syrup and phosphates. You know, the kinds of things American consumers are increasingly worried about or at least paying attention to now in fast food.

So okay, Yum!, we’ll go along with this for now. But keep your eye out for any more Super Chix, just in case. We’ll just have to wait and see, though don’t be surprised if you start hearing about a new chicken spot in your town in a year or so.

Yum Targets Chick-fil-A With Concept Store in Texas [AdAge]

Potentially Harmful Chemicals Find Their Way Into Our Food Thanks To 56-Year-Old FDA Rule

Mon, 2014-04-07 21:24

NRDCThere are a number of federal protections to keep unsafe chemicals out of our favorite foods. But more often than not, those protections fail consumers. A new report by the National Resources Defense Council explores one of those failures: Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) designation.

Here’s how it works: the designation allows companies to use their own scientists or contractors to determine if a food additive is safe for consumption. Through use of that loophole a number of potentially dangerous chemicals are being poured into products such as cereal bars, chewing gum and sports drinks.

On Monday, the NRDC released a report [PDF], “Generally Recognized as Secret: Chemicals Added to Food in the United States,” highlighting the inadequacies and minimal Food & Drug Administration supervision found in the United States food safety protection system.

“Americans should expect that their food is safe to eat, but sadly today there’s no guarantee because safety oversight from federal agencies and food manufacturers is shockingly weak and hidden from public scrutiny,” said Tom Neltner, NRDC health scientist and report co-author.

One of those inadequacies is the use of the Food Additives Amendment of 1958 which exempted from the formal, extended FDA approval process common food ingredients like vinegar and vegetable oil that are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS).

Today, the Act has evolved to become a loophole that allows manufacturers to make safety determinations about the newest chemicals used in food without notifying the FDA. The chemicals are deemed safe by the manufacture’s in-house scientists or employees, a clear conflict of interest, the NRDC says.

Further, the safety of a chemical is usually determined without taking into consideration the potentially serious allergic reactions, interactions with common drugs, or proposed uses much greater than company-established safe doses.

In an attempt to limit these undisclosed GRAS determinations the FDA allows companies to voluntarily inform the the agency about their chemicals. However, when the FDA begins to ask tough questions the companies often withdraw their information, Neltner says.

Because of the frequency at which companies make GRAS safety determinations, the NRDC decided to explore the companies’ rationale for not participating in the voluntary notification program.

The NRDC identified chemicals that appear to be marketed in the U.S. pursuant to an undisclosed GRAS determination. In all, the report found 275 chemicals from 56 companies that are marketed for use in food based on GRAS.

Using a Freedom of Information Act request, the NRDC identified four case studies in which a company withdrew its voluntary GRAS notice to the FDA after the agency brought forward concerns about the chemical’s safety.

A company determined the use of Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) was safe in the production of 25 products including teas, sports drinks, and juices. However, documentation shows the FDA cited evidence the chemical may cause leukemia in fetuses in human cell tests and animal studies showing it affected the thyroid, testis, spleen, pituitary, liver and gastrointestinal tract.

Gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) is currently used in five products marketed in the U.S. including beverages, chewing gum, coffee, tea, and candy despite the FDA’s concerns that estimated exposure was well in excess of what the company itself deemed safe.

Sweet lupin protein, fiber, and flour is found 20 products in the U.S. including baked goods, dairy products, gelatin, meats and candy despite the FDA-raised questions about whether or not the chemical would cause serious allergic reactions in those with peanut allergies. The chemical is found in a plant related to the peanut family.

A company determined Theobromine was safe to be used 20 products including bread, cereal, beverages, chewing gum, tea, soy milk, gelatin, candy and yogurt despite the FDA’s questions about the estimated consumption being five times higher than the safe consumption level reported by the company.

Neltner said the NRDC could not name specific companies using the chemicals in their products, citing an agreement the organization made in order to gain access to a commercial database for their investigation.

Asked whether consumers would be able to connect any health issues with the consumption of the chemicals, Neltner says there wouldn’t have been enough time to completely explore the effects.

The NRDC concludes that a chemical additive cannot be “generally recognized as safe” if its identify, chemical composition and safety determination are not publicly disclosed to the FDA.

“Congress should close the loophole responsible for this failing now. Until it does, FDA should strictly limit companies’ conflicts of interest and require them to disclose to the agency when they self-approve the safety of a chemical,” Neltner says. “And consumers should demand that their grocery stores and their favorite brands sell only food with ingredients deemed safe by federal food safety experts.”

NRDC Report: Potentially Unsafe Chemicals in Food Threaten Public Health [National Resources Defense Council]

Consumerist’s At-Home, Hands-On Impression Of The Amazon Fire TV

Mon, 2014-04-07 21:04

AmazonFireTV-FireStandingLast week, Amazon unleashed its new video-streaming device the Amazon Fire TV (or fireTV, as the label reads), which the company says would be faster and easier to use than competing devices like the Google Chromecast Apple TV and the Roku products. We recently purchased one to see if it lives up to those promises (and because the Consumerist Bat Cave can never get enough streaming video).

Keep in mind this is not any sort of official scoring, rating, or endorsement of the Fire TV. These are my personal impressions of the device based on only a day’s worth of trying it out.

BEFORE YOU ORDER
It says it on the Amazon.com page for the Fire TV that the device does not come with an HDMI cord, which is the only way to connect it to your TV. That page is not lying; there is no HDMI cable in the box. So if you don’t have an extra one lying around your home, you’ll need to buy one, which can add a few bucks to the cost of your Fire TV.

Luckily, the Consumerist cave is rotten with extra HDMI cables of varying length and color, so I was able to just get right to hooking it up.

SETUP
It began simply enough. Plug in the Fire TV box (which about the size and shape of a thick CD case) and plug the HDMI into your TV. Put in your WiFi password (or connect via ethernet cable to your router) and things were looking good…

That is, until I was told there was an update needed. Between all the downloading and installing, it was somewhere between 5-10 minutes before the Fire TV restarted.

That’s when the helpful, but pretty unnecessary, cartoon introduction video kicked in.

For someone who has never used a device like this, it is probably pretty helpful. But to someone who has been around a few streaming devices in his time (and who just got off a flight that had been delayed five times), the ability to skip it would have been nice.

Then the problems started. Even though I’d had no trouble connecting it to the WiFi network at startup and the wireless router is mere feet from the Fire TV, the screen showed only the faintest WiFi signal coming through and it was unable to maintain an Internet connection. After 20 minutes of restarting routers, modems, devices, I determined it was the WiFi range extender in the Consumerist cave that was the problem. Once that was unplugged, the FireTV finally worked.

This problem may be unique to my home network (though I’ve never experienced anything like it before), but I figured I would share just in case anyone else was having a similar problem.

GETTING STARTED
Once I finally had things rolling, I expected to then have to go through the process of logging into my Amazon account and linking it to the Fire TV, but this was apparently already done before shipping.

I believe Amazon does the same thing with Kindles, so there’s precedence, but personally I’d rather not have Amazon shipping out a device that would give access to my account to anyone who hooks it up to a TV.

The remote is small and provides the basic ability of letting the user navigate the onscreen menu, and then your standard play/pause, fast-forward, rewind buttons. There is also a voice search button that I’ll get to in a bit.

I am a bit concerned about the size of the remote. It’s sturdier than many similar simple remotes, but it just feels like it’s destined to constantly end up in the couch, under the armchair, mixed in the kids’ toys (Not that I have kids, but I am familiar with the concept of children). Given that there is no manual way to operate the Fire TV without the remote, I can see some people (namely me) constantly mumbling “Where’d I put that flippin’ remote?”

One feature that would have been nice, but was understandably left off, was volume control. Having to keep two remotes at the ready makes me a tad sad.

SO IS IT FASTER?
One of the things that Amazon pushed hard at the launch event last week was that the Fire TV is faster than the competition. In terms of accessing Amazon content, it appears to have shaved a second or two from the loading/buffering times I’ve usually experienced on tablets and on the Amazon app on the Xbox 360.

Amazon’s predictive “Recommended” titles feature goes a small step further and queues up the start of these videos so that the wait time is no different than on a video from a disc.

One potentially annoying problem I noticed was that if you went to a video that you’d previously started, you are only given the “resume” option. So if you fell asleep watching a movie, or your significant other started watching something on your account but stopped without watching the entire thing, it looks like you’ll have to rewind to the point where you nodded off or fast-forward to the end.

Speaking of which, in spite of the improved speed, the video scrubbing interface still leaves much to be desired. When rewinding or fast-forwarding, the main image on the screen remains the same but you can try to keep track of where you are in the video via a much smaller inset screen that updates as you navigate.

WHAT ABOUT NETFLIX?
The only non-Amazon video app I have been able to give any chance is Netflix (the Showtime app is currently only available to subscribers of a small number of cable companies, and my cable provider is not on the list for the WatchESPN app).

The first time I loaded Netflix (after downloading the app, which took less than a minute), the startup time was similar to what I see on Chromecast or on the Netflix apps on gaming consoles. Load times for individual titles were slightly better, but I could just be having a good Internet day now that Comcast is getting paid by Netflix for better access to its customers.

The real improvement I spotted with regard to Netflix is being able to switch out of it and back with minimal lag. You can’t go straight from the Fire TV’s main screen to a specific Netflix movie, but when you click on the Netflix button, it’s not like starting up the app all over again.

BUYING/RENTING VIDEOS
Unlike some devices and apps that give you access to Amazon’s video selections, the Fire TV also lets you buy and rent the videos. That’s nice, but one thing I did notice was that the buy/rent menu defaults to only listing the HD purchasing options on the main screen. To get access to the slightly less expensive SD versions, you need to click through to another menu.

VOICE SEARCH
In short, it does work. I tried varying levels of complexity and could not stump the Fire TV (maybe I’m just not creative enough). The microphone on the remote works from as far out as a couple feet if you speak clearly enough.

All that said, I still felt like a horse’s derriere talking at my TV or into my remote.

GAMING (STILL TO COME)
I did also purchase the $40 gaming controller (which looks like some generics manufacturer knocked off an Xbox One controller), but I haven’t had time yet to do more than set it up. So the Fire TV’s value as a cheap way to get games on my TV is still to be considered.

FINAL FIRST THOUGHTS
While the Fire TV does live up to some promises about speed and improved search, its initial statement about the Fire TV being an open ecosystem with a wide variety of services available is the big sticking point. That will likely change in the very near future as access to new apps and services opens up, but anyone who already owns some sort of HD streaming device may wonder whether the $99 was a wise purchase just for some notable, but not Earth-shattering, improvements. Others who don’t have a competing device may want to consider the Fire TV, but should do so knowing that they might not immediately have access to all the services they would get elsewhere.

Watch Out For Scammy Links Promising New Info About Malaysian Airlines Flight 370

Mon, 2014-04-07 21:00

Careful where you click.

Careful where you click.

While much of the world is waiting and hoping for any sign of what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared on the way to Beijing on March 8 with 239 people aboard, there are those out there just waiting for the chance to take advantage of those hopes.

The Better Business Bureau is warning people about scams going around on Facebook, Twitter and via email, with enticing headlines like “Video of Malaysia MH370 plane found in Bermuda Triangle. Passengers alive” and “Missing plane has been found!” reports CNNMoney.

Those videos and links are just trying to get you to click for “exclusive” footage or some big revelation, when really you’ll likely be prompted to update your video player — don’t agree to that. It’s how the malware can get in and take over your computer, which is a very bad thing.

Also don’t fall for a survey scam if you’re asked to fork over personal information. Anything that asks you to share with your friends before watching could also be a bad idea, so if you’re unsure, hover over any links and avoid suspicious URLs. Or just skip them altogether, better to be safe than sorry, as my Uncle Ignatius always said.

Beware Flight 370 scams [CNNMoney]

Applebee’s Customer Says She Got A Free Metal Bolt With Her Hamburger

Mon, 2014-04-07 20:00

Mmm, crunchy. (KOB News)

Mmm, crunchy. (KOB News)

Getting an unexpected add-on to your food order might be nice if say, you’re getting free extra cheese. But I’m going to go ahead and say no one would appreciate a metal bolt in their burger, like one Applebee’s customer is claiming after a recent visit. Too crunchy.

A customer at an Albuquerque Applebee’s says her meal was ruined on Saturday when she bit down on a metal bolt in her slider.

“She bit into it and got a funny look on her face and we said what’s wrong?” her sister tells KOB News. What’s wrong is that the metal bolt she reportedly pulled out of her burger as an answer is not edible.

The family immediately told the server about the UNFO (Unexpected Not Food Object) and was told there was no manager on duty, but that the meal would be free. That didn’t sit well with the family, especially when the table next to them ordered up — you guessed it — a plate of sliders.

“I think they should have stopped selling the slider meat right then and there until they figure out where it came from, find out who processed the hamburger,” the customer’s sister said.

An Applebee’s spokesman says the restaurant is glad the customer is safe, and that it’s investigating the matter to find out where the bolt came from and make sure proper food handling protocol was followed.

Woman finds bolt in burger at local Applebee’s [KOB News]

Airlines Perform Worse, Passengers File Fewer Complaints

Mon, 2014-04-07 19:23

(triterion)

(triterion)

If you have very, very low standards, you’re seldom disappointed, right? That seems to be reason for Americans’ attitudes toward airlines. As an annual independent study of airlines’ relative crappiness shows that airlines are doing worse on quality measures like number of bags lost, number of flights that arrived on time, and other measures of things that can make flying a miserable experience.

Every year, researchers who are now based at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Wichita State University go through airlines’ mandatory filings and compile the statistics that can make flying a miserable experience. They weight the quality ratings to give greater importance to some stats: on-time arrival, for example, is the largest part of the ratings. This all results in the annual Airline Quality Rating report.

Overall, 78.4% of flights arrived on time in 2013. That’s down 3.4% from the on-time percentage in 2012. 3.21 out of every 1,000 bags were “mishandled” by airlines in 2013, also up slightly from 2012. (That’s only .03 percent of all bags, though, so not bad.)

Consumers’ standards are apparently getting lower, though, because fewer of us are complaining. Only 1.13 passengers per 100,000 filed complaints in 2013. That’s complaints that consumers took to the Department of Transportation, though–not complaint letters to the airlines or airports.

The top airlines, according to their total AQR scores, were Virgin America, JetBlue, and Hawaiian Airlines. Make your travel plans accordingly. The airlines with the lowest rankings are American Eagle, SkyWest, and ExpressJet.

Airline Quality Rating 2014 [Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University] (PDF Download)
As Airline Quality Worsens, Traveler Complaints Fall [Bloomberg Businessweek]

Amazon’s Dash Device: Speak Or Scan Grocery, Household Items Onto A Grocery List

Mon, 2014-04-07 19:00

Baby seems skeptical of this lint brush thing.

Baby seems skeptical of this lint brush thing.

In case your closet full of gadgets and gizmos isn’t quite stocked to the overflowing brim just yet, here’s another Internet connected doodad: Amazon has launched a device called the Amazon Dash that’s basically a stick you can talk into or use to scan groceries and household items to add them to your grocery list.

Of course, that list is for the company’s grocery service, AmazonFresh. Which means the black-and-white wand, which reminds me of a cross between a Ninetendo Wii controller and a pregnancy test, is only available in areas currently on AmazonFresh’s roster — Southern California, San Francisco or Seattle. Amazon has about 20 urban areas in mind for expanding the service this year, notes Reuters.

It’s equipped with a microphone and speaker so you can verbally add items to your shopping list, or if you notice you’re running low on organic freeze-dried Mediterranean kale or whatever, you just scan the barcode on the item.

Right now the product is free as it’s in a trial period, but it’s unclear what it will cost in the future, if anything. Which it probably will because things cost money, you see. Curious minds can sign up to request a Dash to try it out.

No word on what the stick will do if you demand to add the secret of life, the perfect lifemate or “That thing I ate that one time that was sooo good,” to the list, however, so if you end up asking it, please let me know.

Amazon launches Amazon Dash for delivery of groceries, household items [Reuters]

Follow MBQ on Twitter because it’s Monday and etc: @marybethquirk

April Food And Supplement Recall Roundup: So Long, Organic Peppercorns

Mon, 2014-04-07 18:30

ucm388109In our April Recall Roundup for food, supplements, and even a few over-the-counter drugs, the lemon cookies have peanut butter, the vegan hot chocolate mix has dairy, and a lot of organic peppercorns might be contaminated with salmonella.

Our monthly Recall Roundups have grown so expansive that we’ve had to separate them into two separate roundups: one for consumer goods, and one for consumables.

If you have any of these listed items in your pantry, first check the varieties and flavors against the ones listed on the recall site or press release, then check expiration date or lot numbers.

If there’s a match, don’t panic! If an item is listed as having undeclared walnuts and you’re not allergic to walnuts, for example, you don’t have to do anything at all. You can keep the item, eat it, not eat it, or return it to the store or the manufacturer for your own peace of mind.

Items that may be contaminated with bacteria or foreign objects are worrisome for everyone, and you should return them to the retail store where you bought them, or contact the company for a refund and further instructions.

13614305704_9d67be6d2c_oDESSERTS AND SNACKS
AH!LASKA Organic Cocoa Non-Dairy Chocolate Mix – contains undeclared milk
Chocolate Chunk LUNA Bars - undeclared macadamia nuts
Alprose Swiss Chocolate Dark Chocolate and bulk chocolate napolitans – may contain undeclared milk
Zesty Lemon Cookie Buttons (Hannaford supermarkets) – may contain peanut butter cookies instead, which is an allergen risk, not a disappointment risk
Parker Farms and Store Brand Cheese Snacks, Salsa, And Peanut Butter – possible Listeria contamination
Simply Lite Dark Chocolate Bars – may contain large quantities of milk protein
Fannie May Spring-Wrapped Chocolate Boxes – undeclared peanuts
Net Food Turkey Diced Apricots – undeclared sulfites

DAIRY
Belmont Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream (Aldi) – undeclared nuts


PACKAGED FOODS

ELF Herring Fillets in Wine Sauce – contains undeclared milk
Plum Organics World Baby Pouches – plastic spout may break
Tyson Foods and Spare Time Chicken Nuggets – may contain plastic shards
Backpackers Pantry Fettuccini Alfredo with Chicken – mislabeled; may contain jerk chicken with rice, which has different allergens

CONDIMENTS AND SPICES
Whole Foods Market 365, Frontier, Simply Organic, and Sprouts Farmers Market Organic Black Peppercorns – possible Salmonella contamination

SUPPLEMENTS
African Black Ant, Black Ant, XZen, XZone, and Mojo Risen – contain active ingredients of actual drugs (Viagra and Cialis)
Super Fat Burner, Maxi Gold and Esmeralda and Bella Vi – contain unapproved new drugs
Kratom products – contain unapproved new drugs
Reumofan Plus - contains unapproved new drugs

OVER-THE-COUNTER DRUGS
Alli Capsules – possibility of tampering
Pleo-FORT, Pleo-QUENT, Pleo-NOT, Pleo-STOLO, Pleo-NOTA-QUENT, and Pleo-EX homeopathic drug products – may contain traces of antibiotics

HEALTH CARE ITEMS
Thursday Plantation Tea Tree Mouthwash – possible contamination with Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria

Beware: Your Match.com Crush Probably Doesn’t Love You If He’s Asking For $86,000

Mon, 2014-04-07 18:10

(Sister72)

(Sister72)

You might not be able to mend a broken heart or get back any money you sent to the object of your affection under the mistaken illusion that he/she loved you, but that’s why we’re here, to learn from the unfortunate lessons served on others before you’re tempted to say, wire someone you met on a dating site $86,000.

Today’s tale of warning comes from the story of a New Jersey woman who cashed out her entire life savings on a fellow she met on Match.com, reports CBS New York.

Over the course of her six-month relationship with the man, who the victim said claimed to be 60 but used a fake picture and dating profile, the woman says she was scammed out of $86,000. He wove elaborate tales of financial problems to convince her he needed the money, she says.

“I cashed money out of an IRA; out of, you know, retirement money,” the woman said. “I’ve always been a very rational person, and everything told me: ‘No, you have to question this. It doesn’t sound right.’”

But although she never met her man, who claimed to be from New York but living in Malaysia, she trusted him enough to send the dough despite her misgivings.

“You want to believe, because you think you’re developing a relationship,” the woman said.

She likely won’t be able to get her money back, though the FBI is now investigating the case along with the local police. Instead, she just wants other lovelorn romantics to beware. And we do too — love might mean never having to say you’re sorry but you’ll be sorry when your bank account is drained and you’re still alone. Don’t send anyone money if you’ve never met, no matter how much love you think you feel.

Woman Scammed Out Of $86,000 On Match.com Relationship [CBS New York]

Lands’ End Divorce From Sears Complete, But They’re Still Roommates

Mon, 2014-04-07 17:53

landsendbyeAfter twelve years together, Sears and Lands’ End have officially split. They’ve been through a lot together: Sears bought the former sailing gear retailer in 2002, before the formation of the sprawling disaster that is Sears Holdings. For a while at least, absolutely nothing will change for consumers.

Sears is in the process of selling off its parts in order to…well, we’re not quite sure what Sears’ endgame is, but we shared the news of this breakup back in October when it was only a rumor. The day is finally here: the split happened on Friday, and the new Lands’ End stock starts public trading today.

Sears shareholders received .3 shares of stock for the new, independent Lands’ End. Once that happened, the price of Sears stock has fallen almost 20% as of this writing. We don’t normally follow the daily ups and downs of the stock market, but it’s interesting to note that investors find Sears shares a lot less appealing now.

That’s because Lands’ End is one part of the company that actually makes money, with $79 million in net income for the year. Now, um, not so much.

For now, the clothing company will keep its physical retail locations inside Sears stores. As of right now, their website still has Sears/Kmart logos and a promotion for ShopYourWay Rewards, but surely that will change later on.

Meanwhile, maybe Sears aims to become the corporate equivalent of a small Rust Belt town, sending away its best and most promising citizens so they have a chance to succeed, impoverishing its own future. Which is more poetic than saying that the board is “stripping the company for parts.” Isn’t it?

Lands’ End spun off from Sears, starts public trading today [AP]
Sears Completes Lands’ End Spinoff [Forbes]

What Documents To Keep And Which To Pitch After Tax Season

Mon, 2014-04-07 17:52

(Klaus M)

(Klaus M)

Tax season is upon us. Okay, it’s been here for several months, but now that it’s winding down you might be thinking about clearing all that clutter from your home office (or in our case a little corner in our apartment). But before you commence the Tax Document Purge of 2014 there are some records you need to keep around.

Sure, we don’t all have endless amounts of file space to keep every little piece of paper we’ve accumulated over the years, but there are a number of important tax documents we’d be better off keeping on hand, Kiplinger reports.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KEEP

Actual Tax Returns: Tax returns can help you in a number of circumstances from applying for a mortgage to the always possible visit from the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS has up to three years after the tax-filing deadline to initiate an audit, so Kiplinger suggests keeping supporting tax documents around for that long, as well. These documents include: credit-card statements, canceled checks, debit-card transactions and receipts showing deductions; letters from charities reporting gifts; and paperwork reporting mortgage interest, capital-gains distributions and income.

Records showing stock and mutual funds purchase dates and prices: When selling an investment you have to report the purchase date and price to establish a basis, Kiplinger reports.

While brokers are required to report the cost basis of stocks purchased in 2011 or later and mutual funds and ETFs purchased in 2012 and later, it’s a good idea to keep your own records.

Form 8606: This form, which reports nondeductible contributions to traditional IRAs, should be kept on hand until you withdraw all money from the IRA. By doing so you can assure that you can prove you’ve already paid taxes on the contributions so you won’t have to pay taxes again when you begin withdrawing the funds.

Records of home purchase cost and home improvements: There are circumstances, such as living in the home for less than two of the past five years or making a large profit from a home sale, that would cause a consumer to pay taxes on part of their profits. Homeowners can add the cost of major home improvements to reduce the taxable gain.

WHAT YOU CAN TOSS

Pay stubs: As soon as the information matches up to your W-2 for the year you can go ahead and pitch these.

Monthly brokerage statements: These can be tossed when the information matches your year-end report and your 1099s.

Credit card receipts: If they aren’t needed for tax purposes these can be disposed of once you check them against your monthly bill.

Utility, phone and cable bills: Toss these papers as soon as the next month’s bill arrives.

For more information and answers to tax season questions visit Consumerist’s Tax Dad:
Ask Tax Dad: Disabled Veterans, Commuting Actors, And Depreciating Dishwashers
Ask Tax Dad: Invasion Of The Dependent Relatives
Ask Tax Dad: How Do I E-File? What’s A Deduction, Anyway?
Ask Tax Dad: Micro-Business, Rental Home, Deadbeat Ex, And Government Shutdown
Ask Tax Dad: Send Us Your Questions For Consumerist’s Tax Columnist

Tax Records You Can Toss [Kiplinger]

Capri Sun Attempts To Clear Up Mold Doubts With See-Through Bottoms

Mon, 2014-04-07 17:00

I see through you.

I see through you.

Here at Consumerist, we’ve been unfortunate enough to see a lot of gross photos of a wide array of moldy terrors in packaged foods. So it must be that the fine folks at Capri Sun have heard our cries of disgust and are now attempting to alleviate the mold terror by switching to juice pouches with clear bottoms.

And unlike Lululemon’s luon yoga pants, this transparency is on purpose, after customer complaints prompted Capri Sun (and its parent company) Kraft foods decided to tackle the mold issue

Greg, Guidotti, senior director of ready-to-drink beverages at Kraft said the company research found 14% of moms (because dads weren’t questioned about juice?) know that food mold is found in the drinks now and again, which isn’t a huge number. But the means to talk about it have changed.

“The level to which things are accentuated in social media, it really changed the way we wanted to engage with moms,” Guidotti told AdAge. “We’ve spent a lot of time speaking to the consumer-response groups. We want to offer empathy and offer it with transparency.”

Along with the packaging, which hits shelves this month, there’s a new ad campaign with lines urging consumers to look for mold before they drink: “See the goodness before it’s gulped.”

Another point the company wants to start hammering home — the reason the mold grows in the first place is that Capri Sun doesn’t have artificial preservatives, colors or flavors, and hasn’t for decades. About 70% of consumers are unaware of that fact, something Kraft wants to change.

“The amplification of mold [issues] initiated some of our thinking, but as we did our deep dive, we saw a much broader trend around health and wellness,” Guidotti explained.

Capri Sun Rolling Out New Packaging, Campaign to Clear Up Mold Complaints [AdAge]

Follow MBQ on Twitter where there will be no pics of mold because yuck: @marybethquirk

No Surprise Here: Prepaid Card Fees Vary Considerably

Mon, 2014-04-07 16:44

(Misfit Photographer)

(Misfit Photographer)

There is a prepaid debit card on the market to fit just about everyone’s needs. Consumers can choose from cards with celebrity faces on them to cards from their preferred wireless provider. While prepaid cards can be convenient, and often the only option for the unbanked, they can also be littered with fees that suck up all your hard-earned cash.

A survey by Bankrate.com looks at 30 widely held prepaid cards and found that while all charge fees, the actual fee structures vary widely.

“Not all prepaid cards are created equal,” Greg McBride, CFA, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, says. “Some have many fees, some have few; some will waive or reduce monthly fees, others won’t; some permit free in-network ATM withdrawals, others don’t.”

Nearly 83% of the cards surveyed charge a monthly maintenance fee from $1 to $9.95, however 33% of issuers will waive the fee depending on the amount of money loaded to the card.

While prepaid cards are widely available in retail stores, consumers might be better off purchasing them online.

More than half the cards surveyed by Bankrate assessed an activation fee ranging from $2.95 to $9.95 when purchased at a retail store. Nearly 10% of cards surveyed do not charge an activation fee if purchased online or over the phone.

A trip to the ATM to withdraw funds or check your balance quickly adds up. Of the cards affiliated with an ATM network, 64% do not charge in-network withdrawals, however all 30 cards assess fees, ranging from $1 to $2.50, for using ATMs outside the network.

Checking your balance at an ATM will result in a fee between $0.45 and $3 for 77% of prepaid cards surveyed.

When you finally decide to use your prepaid card to, you know, make a purchase, you’ll be paying for more than just your goods.

While point-of-sale fees are rare, 17% of the cards surveyed charge a fee for PIN-based transitions and 7% charge a fee for signature-based transactions.

Although no one likes to imagine having a transaction decline at the register, it happens and it can also cost prepaid card users.

While a majority of the cards (77%) don’t charged for declined transactions, 23% charge between $0.40 and $2 for each failed purchase.

Not using your card? No worries, most prepaid card issuers no longer charge inactivity fees. But of the 17% of cards that do, thy charge between $1.95 to $5.95 for a monthly inactivity fee.

While the cards surveyed showed a marked improvement in a few fee categories, such as inactivity, the products can still cut a hole in your pocketbook.

McBride, with Bankrate, says that while the cards are a viable option for consumers they should do their research before committing.

“Call me old-fashioned, but if you’re going to build wealth and save and invest for the future, you need to be part of the traditional financial system,” he says.

But for consumers who are unable to establish traditional checking accounts, prepaid cards may be their only option. And with consumer demand for the cards at an all-time high, consumer advocates are pushing for better protections.

Earlier this year, Pew presented a model disclosure box that would allow consumers to easily and clearly compare prepaid card options and fees. JPMorgan Chase announced its Chase Liquid prepaid cards would be the first to use the new disclosure box.

Prepaid Debit Card Fees Vary Considerably [Bankrate.com]

Comcast Or Monsanto: Who Will Win The Worst Company In America 2014 Final Death Match?

Mon, 2014-04-07 16:00

wcia2014deathmatchlargeA seed company and a cable company are all that remain of the 32 bad businesses that paraded into the Worst Company In America Arenadome only a few weeks back. One is a battle-tested vet with a Golden Poo on its mantlepiece; the other a tournament newcomer who doesn’t seem put off by its competitor’s years of experience. Both of today’s Final Death Match contenders dream of a world where they are the only supplier in their respective industries, and will go to any means necessary to make that dream a reality.

Voting is now open in the Final Death Match 2014 Battle Royale Extraordinaire Deluxe Supreme. The poll will close at 5 p.m. ET today and we’ll announce the results tomorrow!

For those who are still trying to make up your mind about which contender deserves your vote, there is more info about the competitors below. The rest of you can vote right here:

wcia2014header
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KABLETOWN; POPULATION: EVERYONE
Not so long ago, Comcast was just another inept large cable operator that, like its kin, didn’t care about shoddy service; techs who may or may not show up; questionable billing procedures; and charging fees for everything under the sun. But in the last five years, Comcast showed that it could somehow convince federal regulators that it should also be allowed to buy a major broadcaster/movie studio/cable network by promising it wouldn’t suck as much and paying lip service to the notion of providing Internet access to low-income families.

The extent of Comcast’s hubris became clear shortly after the NBC merger was approved, when the FCC commissioner who helped push the deal down her fellow regulators’ throats left public service for a fancy new job as a lobbyist… for Comcast.

Now, only a few years down the road, Comcast has a whole new slate of commissioners and legislators to schmooze so that it can go through the completely unnecessary process of buying Time Warner Cable.

The major argument made by Comcast and its defenders is that because Comcast and Time Warner Cable don’t overlap, there’s really no loss in competition if the two merge into one.

But that completely overlooks the obvious — that there is almost no overlap for most terrestrial cable providers. By Comcast’s logic, it would then be perfectly okay for Comcast to be the only cable and Internet provider in the country, since there isn’t really any competition among the players in this marketplace to begin with.

Comcast loves to omit important facts when making its case for the merger. Like when it claimed that it was the biggest backer of net neutrality and bragged about being the only ISP that is still abiding by the FCC’s recently gutted neutrality rules. Comcast simply forgot to mention that it’s never actually been a supporter of strong net neutrality and that the only reason it’s still abiding by the old rules is because it agreed to do so when it merged with NBC.

Comcast also failed to mention in that story how it realized last summer that it could get around net neutrality concerns by allowing Netflix traffic to bottleneck, slowing things so badly that Netflix ultimately agreed to pay a pile of cash for more direct access to the Comcast network.

The fact is that, no matter what Comcast and its merger-happy supporters may state, many consumers just don’t believe that anything good will come of a merger between the two companies.

We just hope Comcast HQ doesn’t get the stupid notion this year to try to rig the vote like its sad 2011 attempt.

Just like Comcast employees couldn’t hold back on telling us about that stab at gaming the contest, here’s a little NSFW clip that even the folks who work for Comcast couldn’t help but share:

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THE CASE AGAINST MONSANTO
For more than a century, and long before it ever got into the seed business, Monsanto was pumping out a long list of products — some of which it created, some of which it manufactured for others — that history has not been kind to: saccharin, PCBs, Agent Orange, DDT, AstroTurf. Then there are those items that are currently the subject of much heated debate, like recombinant bovine growth hormone and, of course, genetically modified plant seeds.

Monsanto hasn’t done itself any favors by trying to quiet the public debate on these controversial topics. Among the more notorious instances involves a Tampa TV station’s planned 1997 report on a bovine growth hormone product Posilac (which has subsequently been sold off to big pharma company Eli Lilly). Before the story aired, Monsanto allegedly put pressure on the station to alter the piece. It never aired and the reporters involved were subsequently fired, though the station claimed it was for insubordination.

The company has also spent millions of dollars in its push against legislation that would require labeling of food with genetically modified content, while at the same time lobbying for rules that would ban producers of hormone-free dairy products from labeling their items accordingly.

It’s also complained to the Federal Trade Commission that companies who labeled their products as “hormone-free” were misleading consumers by implying that hormone-free is somehow better than regular milk.

While Monsanto isn’t a household name, its Roundup herbicide certainly is. The company not only created the herbicide, it also makes a ton of money off of its patented, genetically modified Roundup Ready seeds, which can grow crops that are resistant to the chemical in Roundup.

Roundup Ready seeds now account for the overwhelming majority of corn, soy, canola, and other crops grown every year. And it’s Monsanto’s methods for maintaining that dominance that have earned the company a huge heaping of hate from the public.

While farmers have been storing, reusing, and reselling seeds forever, that just can’t happen in a world dominated by patented seeds that come with very specific terms of use. Monsanto has filed many, many legal actions against farmers for breaking its rules.

Monsanto’s most notorious practice is suing — or at least threatening to sue — farmers whose crops may have been inadvertently contaminated with patented Monsanto seeds. The company claims that it only goes after those farmers who deliberately infringe on the patents, but a number of Monsanto’s detractors say the legal threats are a strong-arm tactic to get farmers to use Monsanto seeds.

This Daily Show piece from a few year’s back probably sums up the feelings of many of the Consumerist readers who are voting for Monsanto:

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Tyson Foods Recalls 75,000 Lbs Of Chicken Nuggets Because Eating Plastic Is A Bad Idea

Mon, 2014-04-07 15:59
Look before you chomp.

Look before you chomp.

There are some foods that really shine when they’re dipped in savory sauces, but no amount of barbecue sauce is going to make that bit of plastic taste like a chicken nugget. Which is why Tyson Foods is recalling more than 75,000 pounds of chicken nuggets that could possibly contain crunchy bits of plastic.

The company is pulling 75,32 pounds of frozen, fully cooked nuggets from stores over the concern that they could be contaminated with “extraneous materials,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced.

Consumers had complained of finding small bits of plastic in the nuggets, with some reporting minor oral injuries as a result of accidentally snacking on the stuff. Tyson has traced the problem back to a product scraper inside a blending machine.

Check your freezer for the below items, which are part of the recall:

5-lb. bags of “Tyson Fully Cooked White Meat Chicken Nuggets – Item # 16142-928 with a “Best if Used By” date of “Jan 26 2015” or “Feb 16 2015.” The manufacturer codes “0264SDL0315 through 19” and “0474SDL0311 through 14” can also be found on the bags. These products were produced Jan. 26, 2014 or Feb. 16, 2014 and shipped nationwide to Sam’s Club.

20-lb. bulk packs of “Spare Time Fully Cooked Nugget-Shaped Chicken Breast Pattie Fritters w/Rib Meat – Item #16142-861 with identifying case codes of “0264SDL0315 through 19” and “0474SDL0311 through 14.” These products were produced Jan. 26 and Feb. 16, 2014 and were shipped for institutional use in Indiana and Arkansas.

The product bags bear the establishment number “P-13556.”

If you’ve got a recalled product, cut the UPC and date code from the back of the bag before you throw it out, and mail it to the below address for a full refund:
Tyson Foods – CP631
P.O. Box 2020
Springdale, AR 72765-9989

Got questions? Call Tyson Foods Consumer Services toll free at (866) 328-3156.

Adults Set Bad Example, Punch Cop In The Face During Chuck E. Cheese Brawl

Mon, 2014-04-07 15:30

(**bc**)

(**bc**)

Another weekend has passed, and so has another round of kids’ birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese establishments across the country. Guests enjoyed the pizza, the games, and the animatronic animals. Visitors in New Hartford, New York probably didn’t enjoy another fixture of the chain: brawls between adults that require police intervention.

In this case, the Chuck E. Cheese was the one in the suburbs of Utica, New York. At least only two guests were involved, this time. The brawlers were a 24-year-old man and a 46-year-old man. Both were charged with disorderly conduct. The younger man punched a police officer in the face and resisted arrest, and was also charged with second-degree harassment, resisting arrest, and second-degree obstructing governmental administration. He was taken to the county jail.

We don’t know whether the men knew each other before their encounter at the restaurant, or why they were fighting. Police didn’t specify whether either or both of the two men were the fathers of kids who were partying at the time. Past mass brawls have occurred at other Chuck E. Cheese’s establishments usually involve prize tickets, an important form of currency.

Two charged following fight at Chuck E. Cheese’s [Observer-Dispatch]

Believe It Or Not, Outlawing Payday Loans Will Not Lead To Looting & Pillaging

Sun, 2014-04-06 17:00

(aloucha)

(aloucha)


Critics of payday lending say the practice traps many borrowers in a debt spiral, forcing them to take out additional loans to pay back the first. Yet these short-term loans do have proponents (many of them profiting from the industry) who claim that without this pricey option for quick cash, desperate consumers will turn to more unsavory means, leading to increased crime rates and other doom and gloom predictions. But does that really happen?

According to consumer advocates in states where payday lending is prohibited (but where the masses have not resorted to rampant looting) the answer is no.

Today, 13 states prohibit or ban the short-term, high-interest loans intended to get the borrower through to the next paycheck. The laws generally enact a rate cap which puts the annual percentage rates at or below 36%.

“Payday loans are predatory, abusive products that take advantage of disadvantaged borrowers and trap them in vicious cycles of debt, interest payments, and repeat borrowing,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, where payday lending is prohibited tells Consumerist in an e-mail.

While it appears to be a growing trend by states and the federal government to rein in predatory payday lending – no state has allowed payday lending to begin service since 2005 – that doesn’t stop the payday industry from using scare tactics and misleading information to keep the practice up and running.

pullquotewidepayday

BUT CONSUMERS NEED QUICK CASH
Last week during a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau panel discussion on payday lending, Jamie Fulmer, Sr. VP of Public Affairs with payday lending operation Advance America, said his company found that 98% of customers were satisfied with their payday lending experience.

“Every customer who walks in our door can expect to meet their individual needs,” he said.

That might be true for the short-term, but a recent report from the CFPB found that 4 out of 5 payday loans are made to consumers who are stuck in a debt trap. By renewing or rolling over loans the average monthly borrower is likely to stay in debt for 11 months or longer.

Many payday lending supporters put an emphasis on the convenience and availability of payday loans.

One report [PDF], titled “Effects of State Payday Loan Price Caps & Regulations,” from the University of Washington insists that payday loans are the best option for consumers.

“Payday loans—short-term unsecured loans intended to be repaid upon the receipt of expected income within a pay period—may legitimately be the most attractive option, due to their convenience, reliability, and availability on short notice.”

But what Zywicki and Sarvis fail to demonstrate in their article, and Fulmer failed to mention at the panel discussion, are the future consequences of taking out a short-term, high interest loan.

“What happens if a car breaks down and you need $300 to get the car fixed?” Ellen Harnick, senior policy counsel with the Center for Responsible Lending says. “If you don’t fix the car then you lose your job. What payday lending leads people to think is it’s a good solution so they don’t pursue other solutions. They take the loan because there’s a shortfall, but in two weeks they have a $345 shortfall because they now have the loan and the fee.”

And so the cycle of debt, and creation of a rollover loan situation begins.

“The standard argument is consumers really need this thing and that’s not true,” Harnick says.

IF YOU BAN PAYDAY LOANS, CONSUMERS WILL HAVE NOWHERE TO TURN
Payday industry leaders and supporters often try to illustrate the importance of payday lending by claiming that without the option consumers would have no viable alternatives available at their disposal.

One report [PDF] from the University of Washington “Effects of State Payday Loan Price Caps & Regulations” insists that few financially attractive alternatives to payday lending currently exist in the marketplace.

“Without access to payday loans, consumers likely use overdrafts, pawnshops, and late bill payment to cover short run credit needs.”

But advocates say that simply isn’t the case and a number of states have proven it’s not.

For instance, New York offers two products. The Credit Builder Loan for low-income borrowers with little or no credit, and a Score Builder Loan for those with low credit scores. Both options have a 14.25% interest rate and no fees for a six-month loan.

In North Carolina, the State Employee Credit Union offers a Salary Advance of up to $500 at 12% APR with no fees. The loan must be paid back in full by automatic payments on the next payday.

Borrowers in Connecticut can find help in the form of personal loans from the First New England Federal Credit Union. The loans feature APRs between 10.25% and 17.99% depending on a borrower’s credit score.

“In the absence of payday lending, people do a lot of things; they negotiate payment plans with creditors, they juggle bills, they sometimes borrow from family and friends,” Harnick with CRL says. “If it’s not available they will find other methods.”

Of course there have been products masquerading as viable alternatives, such as legitimate banking institution’s Direct Deposit Advance programs. The services differ little from the typical storefront payday loan operation – both offer high-interest, short-term loans meant to get consumers out of emergency financial situations, but in reality have been found to trap them in an ongoing cycle of debt.

pullquotetpayday1aFacing tighter regulations, banks such as Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank have announced the discontinuation of the programs, something Blumenthal, the senator from Connecticut applauds.

“It is also important to ensure that traditional banks do not provide products that are essentially payday-in-disguise, such as ‘deposit advance loans.’” he says. “These products cause real harm to Connecticut families, and we must ensure that such bad actors find no refuge in our state.”

PAYDAY LENDING BOOSTS THE ECONOMY
Payday lenders often argue that the small-dollar loans help boost the economy in a positive way. The argument is that when a consumer has more money they’ll spend it on goods and services, in turn pumping funds into the economy.

It’s been argued that traditional storefront payday lending creates jobs, an estimated 77,000 jobs nationally according to the Community Financial Services Association of America (CFSAA), a payday lending advocate.

CFSAA estimates that the industry contributed over $10 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product in 2007.

However, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that in 2011 the U.S. economy took a net loss of $774 million due to the payday loan industry.

“The economic activity generated by payday lending firms receiving interest payments is less than the lost economic activity from reduced household spending. Specifically, each dollar in interest paid subtracts $1.94 from the economy through reduced household spending while only adding $1.70 to the economy through spending by payday lending establishments.”

Additionally, a number of studies have concluded that borrowers who use payday lending are left in worse circumstances than when they first took out the loan.

savingsA 2008 report from researchers at Vanderbilt and the University of Pennsylvania, “Do Payday Loans Cause Bankruptcy” [PDF], found that a borrowers chance of filing for chapter 13 bankruptcy doubles within two years after receiving their first payday loan.

Consumer advocates have found that, in reality, regulating or eliminating payday lending actually proves to be better for the economy. Connecticut, North Carolina and New York each reported saving consumers millions of dollars through the use of interest rate caps.

CRL’s “Springing the Debt Trap” report [PDF] found that Connecticut saved $64 million, North Carolina saved $153 million and New York saved $345 million.

Savings and alternative forms of small dollar credit have led to consumer’s often changing their tune about needing payday loans.

CONSUMERS: ‘WE DON’T NEED YOUR LOANS’
“Generally, we can say that when states have adopted rate caps there has not been a clamor from consumers to have triple digit lending come back,” Lauren Saunders, attorney with the National Consumer Law Center says. “There’s a transition period in those states where consumers get cut off from predatory loans, but once they are gone, people find other options that are better for them.”

pullquotetpayday2That certainly seems to be the case in North Carolina. The state offers a unique perspective on payday lending; it was banned for nearly 200 years before the state legislature allowed payday lenders an exemption from the state’s 36% rate cap.

When the sunset period ended in 2001, the legislature determined the loans weren’t good for consumers and did not extend the exemption.

Harnick, who works in North Carolina, says the legislature’s finding concluded that payday lending not only does not help consumers, but in most cases it makes people’s situation substantially worse.

Shortly after the exemption ended, the North Carolina Commissioner of Banks requested the University of North Carolina conduct a study on the consequences of the rate cap.

The report [PDF] found that 9 out of 10 households said payday lending was a bad option. Additionally, three out of four former payday loan users said the loans were harmful.

“Three-quarters of low- and middle-income people were unaffected by the ban on payday lending…of those that were affected by the end of storefront payday lending, more than twice as many reported that the absence of payday lenders had a positive impact on their lives.”

“Even consumers who were presently facing a shortfall of funds said it was better that payday lending was not available,” Harnick said.

FOR STATES WITH RATE CAPS, THE FIGHT IS NOT OVER
Even with strict rate caps, predatory lending has found its way to consumers in states like Connecticut through the Internet.

Sen. Blumenthal has been working to prevent online payday lenders from skirting state regulations and taking advantage of consumers.

“Like many states, Connecticut has strong usury laws that have all but eliminated storefront payday lending in the state. But out-of-state, online lenders continue to try to skirt Connecticut’s restrictions,” he says in an e-mail to Consumerist. “In fact, many of the constituent complaints I hear in Connecticut are about these sorts of online lenders, which is why I have co-sponsored the SAFE Lending Act – a bill that would close loopholes in federal law that enable these abuses.”

The payday lending industry and their supporters continually push to be let back into states where they are banned.

“North Carolina has been fortunate that our legislature has banned payday lending, but there have been efforts to bring it back,” Harnick says. “Lenders are eager to bring it back. The North Carolina legislature has thankfully not taken the bait, but lobbyists have invested a lot of money to try to take back the state.”

States such as Connecticut, North Carolina and New York have proven that enacting rate caps can have a positive impact on consumers and the economy. And that should be used to help further extend protections to other states and the federal government.

“I think that people have spoken in these states and legislatures have listened and that what we are seeing now is continued pressure to put in strong federal standards,” Tom Feltner, Director of Financial Services with Consumer Federation of America, tells Consumerist. “So that those states that have taken steps can keep protections and states where they are unprotected this will be a baseline that states and federal regulations can build on.”

And federal protections could be in place soon.

Last week, CFPB director Richard Cordray announced the agency was in the “late states” of working on rules to stop predatory lending.

Keep Your Onions & Potatoes Separated And Other Tips For Storing Fruits & Vegetables

Sat, 2014-04-05 17:00
(Jonathan Coffey)

(Jonathan Coffey)

We’ve all got kitchens and we all eat food, but not everyone can agree on where and how to store that food so it doesn’t immediately turn into a moldy mess or dry out into a worthless husk. Last week, we looked at the the best places and methods for keeping your bread, dairy and eggs fresh, and in this second Spoilage Wars installment, we’ll deal with the fruits and vegetables you endeavor to keep from rotting away.

Since we’re not the experts, we once again turn to Julia Collin Davison — executive food editor for the book division of America’s Test Kitchen and on-screen test cook for America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country from America’s Test Kitchen — to learn from her experience.

GARLIC:
Where to store: Countertop
In a bag or not? Davison says garlic should be ideally be kept in an open basket with room for air circulation at room temperature. Don’t remove the papery outsides until just before use, as it protects the garlic.
What about those green shoot? Chances are you’ve encountered cloves of garlic that have started to develop green shoots in the center. Davison says not to worry about these. Just take them out when you’re cutting up the garlic because they don’t always taste so great.

ONIONS:
Where to store: Countertop
Be careful about the neighbors: Just like garlic, you’ll want to keep the onions in a ventilated space. In fact, it’s perfectly fine to store the two alongside each other, says Davison. What you don’t want is to have your potatoes and onions in close proximity, as gases from the onions can hasting sprouting in potatoes.

Speaking of taters…

POTATOES:
Where to store: Pantry or cupboard
Kept in the dark: Davison says your potatoes should be stored inside a paper bag in a cool, dark, dry place. And as mentioned above, away from onions and their sprout-encouraging gases. Sprouted potatoes are safe to eat, notes Davison, but you should remove the sprouts themselves using the tip of a vegetable peeler or other tool. The potato sprouts are considered toxic due to their potentially high concentration of glycoalkaloids, which can have an effect on the nervous system.

CORN & FRESH PEAS:
Where to store: Refrigerator
Keep ‘em where you can see ‘em: Don’t shove these foods into the cold recesses of the back of the fridge, says Davison. Instead, keep them in the front where it’s warmest (but still cool, because it is a refrigerator, after all). The fridge will keep them fresh but if it’s too cold, they could become dried out.

And when you’re storing corn on the cob, keep the husks on and wrap all the ears of corn in a damp paper towel, keeping the whole thing inside a plastic bag.

“You want to keep the corn is as humid an environment as possible,” explains Davison, “so no cold air can get in there and dry things out.”

KEEP THESE ITEMS OUT OF THE FRIDGE –
TOMATOES, APRICOTS, AVOCADOS, BANANAS, KIWIS, MANGOS, NECTARINES, PAPAYAS, PEACHES, PLUMS, PINEAPPLE

Where to store: Countertop
How: Fruit bowls and baskets don’t just look cute in photos. They’re good places to keep your fresh produce. Davison says that the best way to store tomatoes is stem-down if they’re off the vine. This prevents moisture from escaping and bacteria from entering, and thus prolongs shelf life.

The foods in this group are prone to “chill injury,” says Davison says, so it’s best keep them out of the fridge. This is especially true for tomatoes.

“If they’re stored in the fridge the starches really become mealy,” explains Davison.

FRIDGE-FRIENDLY FOODS–
APPLES, CHERRIES, GRAPES, CELERY
Where to store: Refrigerator, though apples, cherries, and grapes will all survive on the countertop too (just not as long).
How: While corn and peas have to stay up front, these foods are good to go anywhere in the fridge, says Davison.
An extra tip about celery: According to testing by Davison her ATK colleagues, the best way to store celery is to wrap it in foil first.

The next installment of Spoilage Wars will look at the best way to keep your condiments, oils, herbs and spices from losing their potency.

What The Heck Is The Trans-Pacific Partnership & Why Should I Be Concerned?

Sat, 2014-04-05 16:00
(Philip Cloutier)

(Philip Cloutier)

It’s 2014, and we’re living in an increasingly globalized economy. International trade has been ramping up for centuries, and a carefully-plotted web of agreements keeps goods, services, and money moving around the world. The U.S. is already a part of many such agreements and organizations —  NATO and NAFTA might sound familiar — but a new international trade agreement, under negotiation right now, has a lot of watchers very worried about potential consequences for everything from healthcare to copyright law in the United States.

The agreement kicking up all the concern is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Most of the nations involved in the process have had cooperative trade arrangements for years — so why is this particular treaty gaining so much attention? The answer is threefold: the process, the contents, and the fact that it’s still in the works and can be changed. Let’s take a look at all those parts.

Who’s involved?
The countries taking place in the negotiations include Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Peru, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, and Japan.

The enormous free trade deal has been in progress in one way or another for the better part of a decade; the U.S. jumped on board in 2009. Together, the involved nations represent about 40% of the global economy, according to the LA Times.

That’s an awful lot of Pacific rim countries that aren’t China.
Noticed that, eh? As the Washington Post pointed out, such a large agreement among other nations can be used to counterbalance China’s enormous economic weight, in a sense. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on who you ask.

pullquotewidettp

What traded stuff does this agreement cover?
The thing about your modern, 21st century trade agreement is that it’s not really just about trading goods. Long gone are the days when international trade was only about agriculture, manufacturing, and import tariffs.

Those things — farming and manufacturing — are still absolutely key, and central parts of the TPP. But in the “knowledge economy,” trade is also about patents, copyright, digital goods, and a whole lot more.

The known categories in the 29 chapters of the agreement include regulations relating to intellectual property and copyright law, banking regulation, agriculture, pharmaceutical regulation, environmental protection, tobacco sales, apparel manufacture, labor law, and regulations about publicly vs. privately owned utilities and enterprises.

The history and background of the economic factors contributing to this sort of thing are huge and messy. For an easy-to-understand explainer, there’s a comic book up at Economix Comix that looks at free trade, trade treaties, and the economic background, causes, and effects of such a massive free trade agreement.

Wait, the “known” categories? Does that mean there are unknown ones?
pullquotetpp1Possibly? Probably? The biggest challenge is that nobody actually knows for sure what this agreement covers.

One of the biggest objections to the TPP, in both the United States and in other participating nations, is that it’s even hard to know exactly what to object against. Trade negotiations are almost always secret proceedings, and this one is no exception. For everyone who isn’t privy to what goes on behind the closed doors, everything we know comes from a few leaked drafts that have dribbled out over the years.

Okay, negotiations are secret. But then everyone gets to find out what’s in it before it’s actually signed, right?
Yes, sort of, but also sort of not.

Trade agreement formation, in the United States, is basically a three-step process:

  • The office of the United States Trade Representative, which reports up to the President, negotiates the agreement with other nations.
  • The Senate votes on the completed treaty. It takes a ⅔ vote in the Senate — so, 67 senators — to approve the treaty.
  • The President ratifies (signs) the approved trade agreement.

With regular laws, details get agreed on, disagreed on, and hashed out as a bill moves back and forth through the House and Senate. Lawmakers get to pick and choose which parts they like and which parts they hate, and try (ideally) to compromise on those points to create a better law, that everyone can live with. For better or worse, that’s the system with which American laws are made.

But with international agreements, there’s something called fast-tracking. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a short-cut through the approval process. If Congress grants the President fast-track authority, that means the fully-negotiated, finished treaty goes to the Senate for a vote: no amendments, no filibusters, no changes or negotiations. It’s a wholesale yes/no, binary option.

Fast track authority was first enacted in 1974, and a series of bills since then have extended it. The most recent was the Trade Act of 2002, but the authority granted by that extension expired five years later, in 2007, and has not been renewed since.

The Obama administration has been making noise about renewing the fast-track authority since 2012; a bipartisan bill to that end was introduced in the House (HR 3830) and the Senate (S 1900) earlier this year.

pullquotetpp2So this thing’s going to get fast-tracked through the Senate.
Quite possibly! Also quite possibly not. The politics of this one are not breaking down along the standard party lines in the way one would usually guess.

Govtrack.us gives the House bill a 63% chance of being enacted, but spots the Senate version a lowly 3% chance. And there are plenty of groups out there pushing hard against fast-track authorization.

There a lot of techie/internet sites and groups against this. Why?
While most of what’s in the TPP is still a secret, the drafts of two chapters have made it out into the wild, via Wikileaks. One of those two chapters covers environmental and climate issues but doesn’t contain very much in the way of firm regulation or enforcement mechanisms.

The other, though, is all about intellectual property rights. That IP chapter contains some really questionable provisions about copyright, digital files, and internet use.

For example, the TPP contains a restriction on the creation of temporary copies of files — a provision that the EFF calls “profoundly disconnected from the reality of the modern computer.” (Because your computer does that dozens of times a day just to function.) It also would impose criminal penalties for “non-commercial copyright infringement,” continue expanding copyright durations, limit fair use, increase penalties for avoiding region-locking media, and more.

Overall, the IP chapter has a lot in common with the previously-abandoned ACTA treaty and the narrowly-avoided SOPA bill of 2012.

So international agreements change U.S. law?
They can indeed. Much in the same way that state laws are subject to being overridden by tougher federal standards, when a nation agrees to participate in an international agreement like this, their laws become subject to its terms.

A case from Australia is perhaps the most famous recent example of this. Australia adopted a law requiring plain packaging — that is, without visible branding symbols, and bearing a large health warning — on tobacco products. The Asian subsidiary of tobacco giant Philip Morris, based in Hong Kong, promptly turned around and sued Australia, claiming that the new law violated the terms of a trade treaty between Australia and Hong Kong.

While Australia’s High Court ruled that the plain packaging law did not violate Australia’s constitution, the trade dispute is still pending with the WTO, and other nations are now involved.

In fact, international agreements have already been the primary driver of U.S. digital copyright law. The current major legislation under which most IP/internet/copyright issues fall, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of1998, includes provisions directly in response to international agreements from 1996.

Now what?
Since the TPP is still under negotiation, there are still a bunch of different possible outcomes. It could go forward as-is, it could fall apart entirely, it could be a bunch of different things in-between.

The last big negotiation session for all participating nations was in Singapore in February, but a number of sticking points remain. Some of them are being hashed out in smaller meetings of just two and three countries. Some appear not to be going anywhere at all.

DC political observers go through waves of pessimism and optimism about the TPP. This week they appear to be feeling both hopeful and doomed at the same time.

Insiders and watchers do seem to agree on one key point: without fast-track approval, the TPP won’t make it through. The negotiations won’t necessarily all be moot at that point — that’s a lot of work to waste and the parties who want concessions will still want them. Those points could be re-formed into a number of smaller agreements, or a new major multilateral agreement — but the TPP as we know it would be a no-go in the U.S.

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