lundi 31 mars 2014

Dunkin’ Donuts Sticks Marshmallow Peeps On Donuts, Calls It Breakfast

PEEPS DonutIf you really need to get moving in the morning, try the new seasonal offering from Dunkin’ Donuts: flower-shaped donuts with a layer of colorful frosting, topped with a marshmallow Peep. You could also call it a sugar-coated pastry with a sugar-encrusted sugar blob on top. “As America’s donut leader, we are always seeking new and innovative donut varieties to help our guests celebrate special moments and occasions,” Dunkin’ Brands Executive Chef Stan Frankenthaler says in a press release, because of course Dunkin’ Donuts has an executive chef.

More Details Revealed On WEBLEARN Debit/Cred Card Scam

blsscam Last week, we told you how our banking sources had linked the recent rash of fraudulent debit and credit card charges from a mysterious company listed as WEBLEARN to the scammers behind a similar scheme that had dinged victims’ accounts for bogus $9.84 transactions during the holidays. Some further investigation by those better equipped to do so has turned up more on this link.

Cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs writes today about the connections between WEBLEARN and the folks behind the so-called $9.84 scam.

Krebs confirmed what we’d heard from the bank folks — that this scam, like the earlier one, was using a third-party card-payment processor, in this case a company called BlueSnap, to push through its fraudulent transactions.

The processor in the $9.84 scam was company named Credorax, which lists offices in Malta, Israel, London, and Massachusetts. In January, it claimed to have been just an innocent dupe of the scammers. Interestingly enough, BlueSnap also has offices in Malta, Israel, London, and Massachusetts.

BlueSnap also used to go by the name of Plimus. In 2011, Krebs wrote about Plimus because it was processing payments for a scam artist who was selling computers that were pre-loaded with botnets. It was also sued for its part in allegedly creating fake online reviews and marketing campaigns for various affiliated websites.

Writes Krebs of the similarities between WEBLEARN and the $9.84 scam:

As with the $9.84 scheme, this latest round of phony charges appears tied to an affiliate marketing scheme for “online learning” (hence, the “Weblearn” notation on victims’ credit card statements). One site that’s connected to the Weblearn scheme is, which actually includes commented-out code hidden in its HTML content stating that “the charge will appear on your credit card as WebLearn8884612032.”

That same site is closely tied to a network of other flimsy affiliate learning systems, including,, and As we can see from the checkout page at, the base price of the “system” is $8.83, but different checkout totals can be achieved ($11.08 and $10.78, e.g.) simply by selecting different items to add to your shopping cart.

Regardless of who is behind the scams, or whether they are caught or stopped, these sort of nickel-and-dime schemes will continue so long as their are bad, clever jerks with access to computers.

So it’s worth reposting the following advice:

1. Be vigilant about checking your debit and credit card statements

Yes, it’s annoying and time-consuming (and depending on how little you have in your bank account and/or how much you owe to a credit card company, it might be depressing), but checking your statements a couple of times a week is the best way to catch these things before it’s too late. The longer these transactions go unnoticed, the harder it is for investigators to do their job, and the harder it is to make your case that it’s fraud.

2. Be mindful of all transactions, not just WEBLEARN

When looking at your statements, don’t just look at the company names for obvious scams. Look at the names and the dollar amounts and make sure each transaction on your card makes sense to you. The $9.84 scam used multiple names but the same amount, while the WEBLEARN scam is using different dollar amounts but the same company name. Previous scams have used company names that look a lot like businesses you might spend money at in order to fly under the radar.

3. Call your bank or credit card company immediately
Even if you get through to someone who promises to refund your money, you need to contact your bank and/or credit card issuer so they can investigate. Likewise, if you’re unsure of a transaction on one of your cards, the bank can usually provide more information that will help you determine whether or not some strange-looking purchase is legitimate or not. After all, something that looks like it’s coming from a company you’ve never heard of might be a legit purchase in the unfamiliar name of a holding company or franchisee.

Comcast, Verizon March On To Worst Company Quarterfinals

wcia2014header Today, four of the biggest names in Consumerist news, including one former champ, fought it out in the Worst Company Sandbox of… Sand. Each member of this cruddy quartet may be deserving of the Golden Poo, but only two could move on the next round.


Both of these contenders were dominant in their Round One matches, with Comcast taking nearly 90% of the vote against Yahoo and Facebook earning three times the votes given to DirecTV. But they can’t both win, so today’s bout was to see which of those two drubbings was a true indicator of widespread hate. And while Comcast’s 69% Round Two win is nowhere near the margin of victory it enjoyed in Round One, it’s a clear sign that anyone who wants the Golden Poo will probably have to pry it from the hands of the Kabletown Krew.

But there are still some fights to be fought before we can go crowning any contender. Up next for Comcast is Verizon, which beat fellow telecom titan in the other Round Two action from today…

Verizonatt VERIZON VS. AT&T

We had a hunch going into today’s match between the Death Star and Big V that many voters would be deciding based on which of the company they were customers of, as opposed to AT&T and Verizon’s bigger-picture anti-consumer behavior, like forcing everyone into arbitration, or, ya know, gutting the core of net neutrality. Regardless of why they voted, it was the bigger (at least in terms of wireless customers) company coming out on top, with Verizon barely eking out a narrow victory over its longtime rival.

Given how close this battle was and how well Comcast has performed thus far, it would be a pretty big upset for Verizon to beat Comcast in the quarterfinals. We’ll find out when that voting opens later this week.

Once again, here is how the WCIA bracket stands with only two matches to go in Round Two:


How Much Does It Cost To Propose At Your Home Team’s Baseball Game?

It's $209 to pop the question at the Minnesota Twins' Target Field. (Christopher V.)

It’s $209 to pop the question at the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field. (Christopher V.)

Getting your face on the kiss cam? Amateur. Proposing to your loved one via a billboard message for everyone at the game to see? That’s how the pros do it, and it can cost a pretty penny. It’s Opening Day across our baseball-loving land and while spring weather might not be in the air everywhere, love can be — but at what price?

The enterprising folks over at have put together a pretty neat infographic (though that word makes my internal organs recoil in on themselves) showing the range of prices offered at all 30 MLB teams’ stadiums — including the handful of parks that don’t allow for such romantic gestures. They’ve probably never been in love before, and for that, I’m truly sorry.

It’ll cost you anywhere from the bargain price of $39 at a Pittsburgh Pirates game all the way up to the grandaddy of marriage packages, at $2,500 for a live video of a proposal at a Los Angeles Dodgers game. Although that might seem like a hefty amount, the proceeds go to charity and many stadiums offer extra perks like a commemorative baseball marked with the date.

Some packages are quite reasonably priced — like at Miller Park, host to my hometown team, the Milwaukee Brewers — $100 for a single-line message up to 35 characters or your very own full scoreboard message for $250. Basic, gets the message across, done.

Others come with more perks the more you pay — $500 at Marlins Park will get you a message on the scoreboard, a live video, a PA announcement and a dozen red roses delivered by Billy Marlin, the team mascot.

Check out for the whole list, and if your team doesn’t offer proposals? Just make one of those big obnoxious signs and flap it incessantly until a cameraman notices you.

You can follow MBQ on Twitter but please don’t propose unless you’re Aaron Rodgers, not that you’re trying to, just saying: @marybethquirk

At The Melting Pot, Kids Eat Free For $15

At Erica’s local Melting Pot, they have what sounds like a super fun event, a Little Chefs dinner where kids can cook macaroni and cheese fondue and a chocolate dessert fondue, while wearing chef hats and learning the magical ways of cheese and chocolate. That sounds fun…but Erica received an e-mail from the restaurant that made this all seem very confusing.

“Check out this email from the Melting Pot I just received! Kids eat Free!” she wrote. “For this promotion, ‘free’ is defined as $15.”

That’s one way to look at it. It could also be that kids eat for free, but it costs them $15 or $25 to cook. Actually, it looks like the people who put together this e-mail scrambled the text for the Little Chefs event and the graphics for a separate event where kids do eat for free, with the purchase of an adult entrée.

Melting Pot is a franchised restaurant, but we checked in with their national media relations team to make sure we’ve got the confusion sorted. If they get back to us, or if Erica lets us know that they’ve issued a correction e-mail, we’ll update this post.

NHTSA: New Vehicles Must Have Rearview Technology Starting May 2018

In four years, when you buy a new car or truck it’ll have a rearview camera as a standard feature. That’s because it’ll have to under a new rule just issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The NHTSA just issued its final rule after delaying it the first time around — the requirement was supposed to go into effect by 2014 but was pushed back in 2012. The agency says it took its time to make sure the rule was flexible enough, pointing out that many automakers have already started installing systems on their own.

The rule applies for all vehicles under 10,000 pounds, including buses and trucks, that are made on or after May 1, 2018. All those vehicles will have to include technology that expands the field of view to allow drivers to see behind the vehicle in a 10-foot by 20-foot swath.

At the heart of the rule is the fact that many drivers end up backing over things they shouldn’t, putting themselves and anyone standing behind a car in potential danger. The NHTSA says there are an average of 210 fatalities and 15,000 injuries per year due to backover crashes.

“Safety is our highest priority, and we are committed to protecting the most vulnerable victims of backover accidents — our children and seniors,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “As a father, I can only imagine how heart wrenching these types of accidents can be for families, but we hope that today’s rule will serve as a significant step toward reducing these tragic accidents.”

Sad About Losing SiriusXM ’40s On 4? Try Asking For A Refund

40sjoelWhen we posted on Friday about SiriusXM temporarily bumping their station ’40s on 4 to make room for a station that’s 24/7 Billy Joel, we didn’t realize how many people enjoy rocking out Greatest Generation-style in their cars. One fan was able to get a small concession from SiriusXM, and this might work for others, too.

Sirius, of course, counters that they are offering a solution: they’re making the ’40s on 4 content available online through Interweb-connected devices. No, Landon wasn’t able to get the station restored to his radio. “I was able to call Executive Customer Service at 212-584-5100 and get 3 months’ credit to cover the time that the 40’s on 4 was going to be off the air,” he wrote to us. “It was quick and painless.”

212-584-5100 isn’t the standard customer service number: it’s the corporate switchboard for SiriusXM. When someone answers, ask for a customer service representative located in North America, or for executive customer service. GetHuman also has some toll-free numbers that customers report are equally effective.

Follow the standard rules of executive customer service: be professional and polite to the operator and to the representative. Make reasonable demands: we think that a three-month credit for the run of the Billy Joel station is a fair compromise, and calling will also let the people in charge at SiriusXM know that their customers are unhappy.

We can’t confirm whether this will work for everyone, since SiriusXM still hasn’t answered our original request for a statement about the programming change.

You Don’t Have To Go Home, But You Can’t Stay At Walmart Drinking Beer For 2 Days

Tempting, we know. (plasmadis)

Tempting, we know. (plasmadis)

Back in the wilder days of my college youth, we knew the fun was over when the bar powers that be came on over the loudspeaker, saying “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” Perhaps a New York Walmart could’ve used such a reminder for a woman accused of trespassing at the store for two days, just chilling out and drinking some beer.

Police say the woman was first spotted in the store Thursday night taking cans of beer from the store and drinking them where she stood, reports the Albany Times-Union.

Workers told her to hit the road, but then found her five hours later asleep in a shipping container in the “employees only” receiving dock area, according to the State Police, with beer cans scattered on the floor nearby.

She was booted once again but was discovered the next day at the store, allegedly with a 24 oz. beer shoved in her pocket. While employees waited for the police to arrive, she reportedly went into the bathroom and chugged the evidence.

The attraction of just settling down with a beverage where you buy it might be nice, but more appropriate behavior for say, a bar, or the privacy of your own home. Besides, the last time I slept in a shipping container I swore would be my last. Couches are infinitely more comfortable.

Woman drinks beer, trespasses at Walmart [Albany Times-Union]

Organization Promising Fraud Protection Scams $20 Million From Senior Citizens

Scamming people is wrong. Scamming senior citizens is immoral, disrespectful, and a number of other adjectives. Still, there are companies in the world that prey on the elderly. The Federal Trade Commission has put a stop to one such organizations that bilked more than $20 million from seniors.

The FTC announced Monday that a U.S. District Court issued a temporary order to halt a scam that claimed to protect consumers from fraud but in reality defrauded millions of dollars from senior citizens.

In shuttering the scam, allegedly perpetrated by Ari Tietolman and his companies, First Consumers, LLC, Standard American Marketing, Inc., and PowerPlay Industries LLC, the court found that the FTC was likely to prevail at trial and that funds should be preserved so they could potentially be returned to the victims.

According to the FTC complaint, from May 2011 to December 2013 Tietolman and associates used a telemarketing boiler room in Canada to cold-call seniors claiming to sell fraud protection, legal protection, and pharmaceutical benefit services. The cost for the defendants’ alleged services ranged from $187 and $397.

In some instances, the telemarketers who carried out the scam allegedly impersonated government and bank officials, and enticed consumers to disclose their confidential bank account information.

The account information was used to create checks drawn on the consumers’ bank accounts and deposited into corporate accounts the scammers established in the United States.

“The defendants’ conduct in this case was simply outrageous. They targeted and called senior citizens and lied to them to get their bank account information. Then they used this information to withdraw money from their bank accounts,” Jessica Rich, Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a news release. “Consumers can count on the FTC to be aggressive in the fight against this type of fraud”

FTC Stops Mass Telemarketing Scam That Defrauded U.S. Seniors and Others Out of Millions of Dollars [Federal Trade Commission]

What’s In A Name? Vermont’s New Maple Syrup Grading System Has Some Confused

Gone are the days of different grades of maple syrup, at least in Vermont, where the sticky shadow of Canada’s industry makes people take maple syrup very seriously. The state has switched up the grading system for syrup, removing “Grade B” altogether and confusing some customers in the process.

The naming convention used to be split between Grade A and Grade B, but now it’s all Grade A, and uses names that conjure up images of coffee, notes NPR’s The Salt blog.

Instead of names “Fancy” and “Grade A Dark Amber,” there are colors like “Golden,” “Amber” and “Dark,” with flavor descriptions of “Delicate,” “Rich,” “Robust” or “Strong.” And what used to be below Grade B, formerly known as “Commercial Grade,” is now Very Dark with a Strong taste, and can be sold to retailers if its quality is good enough.

It’s confusing to some, or maybe it’s just that syrup names are so entrenched in the collective Vermont mind that it’ll take some getting used to.

“I like the old grading system much better,” said one customer tasting syrups at a recent event at one sugarhouse. “More of a Fancy,” she said of the lightest syrup, which is now called Golden Delicate. “That’s the name I’m used to for it.”

Sugarmakers in Vermont are hoping that names like “Robust” will make people think of coffee, and help those that aren’t used to buying syrup get a better idea of what the products will taste like.

“Not very many people have a chance to come to a sugarhouse and to sample different grades, and have somebody explain to them about the differences,” says one sugarmaker. “They’re standing in front of a supermarket shelf, and they’re wondering if they’re really going to like what’s in that jug.”

She explains that customers would sometimes think Fancy was the highest quality syrup, and then be disappointed that it wasn’t, leading to future syrup confusion.

“If you got that and you thought, “Wow, if this is their best syrup, it doesn’t have much flavor. I guess I don’t like maple syrup,’ ” she explains.

Vermont sugarmakers would like to see the grading convention adopted by other states to provide a uniform experience for customers, but the state is on its own so far. Your move, Canada.

By Any Other Name, Does Vermont’s Maple Syrup Taste As Sweet? [The Salt]

Anti-Theft Kill Switch For Smartphones Could Save Consumers $2.6 Billion A Year

Smartphones are a popular target for thieves, in fact nearly 1.6 million phones were stolen in the United States in 2012. The anger knowing that you’ll have to shell out big bucks to replace it is almost comparable to the feeling of helplessness and rage one feels after having their trusty phone snatched away in the first place. But one simple change to all smartphones could lessen those feeling and keep $2.6 billion in consumers’ collective pockets.

The report [PFD], from researchers at Creighton University, details how a kill switch feature could reduce smartphone thefts and save consumers billions of dollars a year in the cost of replacement phones and phone insurance plans.

The kill switch would render phones uses for criminals by allowing consumers to disable their stolen devices. Law enforcement officials tell the Huffington Post that the feature could eliminate phone thefts, even those cases where the theft is a bit murky, because criminals would no longer have an incentive to steal the devices.

If thefts were no longer a concern, more than half of the 1,200 smartphone owners surveyed for the report say they would buy less expensive phone insurance coverage, which would result in an estimated savings of $2 billion, the report notes.


Additionally, consumers could save $581 million in replacement costs with the implementation of the anti-theft feature.

While insurance plans can help lower the cost of a replacement smartphone, insured consumers are still shelling out an estimated $150 per replacement. Uninsured owners spend approximately $474 for each replacement phone. Of the 1.6 million phones stolen in 2012 only 34% were insured. The report finds the estimated annual loss for replacing insured phones totaled $81.5 million, while the cost to replace uninsured phones was nearly $500 million.


The report author William Duckworth says that consumers seem to largely favor adding the feature.

According to the survey of 1,200 smartphone users:

  • 99% of smartphone owners feel wireless carriers should give all consumers the option to disable a cell phone if it is stolen

  • 83% of smartphone owners believe that a Kill Switch would reduce cell phone theft

  • 93% of smartphone owners believe that Americans should not be expected to pay extra fees for the ability to disable a stolen phone

“Overall, it seems clear that Americans want the Kill Switch and that an industry-wide implementation of the technology could significantly improve public safety and save consumers billions of dollars a year,” William Duckworth, the report’s author says.

With cell phone thefts on the rise in many major cities legislators have begun to take steps to create industry-wide anti-theft mandates.

Bills that would require smartphones to have an anti-theft feature have been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate this year. No votes have taken place on either bill.

On Saturday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that two city officials joined the Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S) Initiative. The international coalition of prosecutors, police chiefs, attorneys general, public officials and consumer activists are working to encourage the smartphone industry to implement meaningful solutions to stop the theft of popular mobile communications devices such as smartphones and tablets.

While a kill switch feature may be gaining ground with legislators, industry groups are divided on the idea.

Wireless industry trade group CTIA has previously opposed anti-theft features, the Huffington Post reports. The group has argued that a hacker could exploit the feature to shut down the phones of consumers or law enforcement officials.

Officials with Asurion, a third-party insurance provider for some major wireless companies, say the new report underestimates the number of phones stolen and doesn’t take into account the number of claims filed for phones that are simply lost.

“Asurion has no objection to properly implemented kill switch technology,” company officials tell the Huffington Post, “there is no solution that will totally eliminate the theft of smartphones as there are other values in the black-market for the phones, such as parts.”

Still some companies have already begun implementing anti-theft features. In September, Apple introduced Activation Lock, a program that allows consumers to render their devices useless once stolen.

Consumers Save $2.5 Billion A Year If A ‘Kill Switch’ Stops Phone Thefts, Study Finds [The Huffington Post]

Time Warner Cable Glitch During “The Walking Dead” Finale Infuriates Upstate NY Customers

twdbigLast night, the season finale of “The Walking Dead” aired on AMC. Viewers were glued to their televisions as they always are during a major television event, but something terrible happened last night. In the Syracuse, NY area, the AMC signal cut out about 38 minutes into the broadcast.

Viewers were not pleased.


This is where I would make clever allusions to something in the show’s plotlines and compare it to the rage that people felt when their signal cut out, but the truth is that I was the person assigned to this story because I’ve never watched the show and thus wouldn’t be contaminated by spoilers.

The injustice of having an important program that you were looking forward to interrupted is something that we can all understand.

We haven’t heard yet whether Time Warner Cable has made an offer of gift cards as it did when the feeds of some customers in Los Angeles were interrupted during the halftime show of this year’s Super Bowl.

Incidentally, there is only one cable provider in most of the region where this happened: Time Warner Cable’s only competition are satellite providers and Verizon FiOS in the areas where it’s available.

‘The Walking Dead’ season finale’s glitches outrage Time Warner Cable customers []

Walmart Finally Admits That Its Empty Shelves Are A Big Problem

walmartempty1 For the past few years, a growing number of Walmart customers have complained about threadbare shelves, while Walmart workers say it’s a result of being understaffed and mismanaged. Now the nation’s largest retailer is admitting that it’s losing billions of dollars by trying to be cheap.

According to a recent BusinessWeek story, Walmart execs announced at a company meeting earlier this month that improving the level of merchandise that is in-stock and available for customers to buy is a top priority.

As Walmart workers told us last year, a number of Walmart stores have plenty of inventory in the back of the building, but some of it never reaches the floor because there are too few employees — or too many employees being directed to do non-shelving work — to keep shelves stocked.

Last fall, Walmart finally began to add some hours for employees to do more stocking work, but complaints from customers have not stopped.

At the company meeting, executives said they will add more hours in an effort to improve “in-store execution.” If it fails to make a change for the positive, the company figures to lose $3 billion a year.

Whether or not that works will likely depend on who they hire and how they treat the new hires. One Walmart worker told Consumerist that her store has a way of overwhelming new part-time hires with too much work, leading to a high level of turnover, meaning time is wasted training people over and over again.

Over the last five years, Walmart’s workforce has decreased in size, while the company has continued to open up stores in new locations around the country. We’ve been told that workers get a higher hourly wage to stock, but that many cashiers and other employees have been drafted into shelving duty during their regularly scheduled hours and without any bump in pay for that time.

Right now it’s a wait and see if Walmart’s latest plan will work. The condition of its shelves is one of those few things that a retailer can’t hide from consumers’ eyes.

Even Business Travelers Don’t Want Anyone Yakking Away On The Phone In Mid-Air

Who do you think of when you imagine the chatty kind of person who might want to make phone calls in the middle of a crowded airplane, mid-flight? While your mental picture might land on a businessperson in a suit yelling something about mergers and Hong Kong markets and getting that deal done before they close, a trade group representing business travelers has come out against the idea.

The Global Business Travel Assn. submitted its official opposition to the Federal Communication Commission’s plan to possibly lift the ban on voice calls on planes, reports the Los Angeles Times.

That group represents about 6,000 travel managers and pegs the idea of calls on planes as “detrimental to business travelers.” And because everyone loves the late folk singer Pete Seeger, the group quoted him by saying “there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak.”

And while the average traveler certainly has a right to peace and quiet, business travelers carry a lot of financial heft and could have the power to sway any change in regulation: Business travel accounted for $491 billion in spending in 2012, the LAT reports, or about 3% of U.S. gross domestic product.

Both the FCC and the Department of Transportation closed commenting on the cellphone ban in mid-March, and looking at a survey of the DOT’s comments, it appears that most travelers loathe the idea of anyone gabbing in mid-air. Because whether it’s a conversation about the mergers and acquisitions or the guy next to you repeatedly cooing to his lady love that she’s his only iddle biddle pumpkin facey-wacey, no one wants to hear it.

Opponents of allowing cellphone calls on planes gain powerful ally [Los Angeles Times]

You can follow MBQ on Twitter and read any tweets quietly on a plane if that’s what you’re into: @marybethquirk

Coke And Mentos Geyser Tests The Limits Of A Condom

mentosIt probably isn’t necessary for us consumers to test the structural integrity of our condoms, but this video published last week features a bold Italian experimenter doing just that.

Yes, the man’s running commentary is in Italian, but you don’t need to understand every word in order to get what’s going on here.

What we’re not clear on is what Nutella adds to the fizzy reaction. We won’t argue that everything is better with Nutella, but we don’t really see what that adds, other than adding something Italian to the mix. Which it does, sorta.

Thanks to the magic of Google, you can watch the video with real-time subtitles here.

Coke + Nutella + Mentos + Durex ITALIA world record [YouTube]

You Cannot Grow Bananas In Ohio

Bananas thrive in a subtropical climate: a place where the temperature is warm, the humidity is high, and there’s about twelve hours of sunlight per day. You know, like Ohio.

Like many people, Rob prefers to buy locally-grown produce when possible. “I was very excited to see that my local Wal-mart is now offering Ohio grown bananas,” he wrote to Consumerist. “At least I assume they mean that, given the ‘Ohio’s own’ sign.” Somehow, he thinks that these bananas weren’t grown right down the street.


Isn’t it because Chiquita is based on Cincinnati? Well, no: they took off for the warmer climate of Charlotte, North Carolina a few years ago. Not that you can grow bananas in Charlotte, either.

Banana Cultivation Guide [Helpful Advice]

Returning Stuff You Didn’t Buy From Kohl’s For Cash Won’t Go Over Well

While we applaud creativity in many endeavors, ripping off a store with a bit of trickery just to get some cash out of the deal is a no-no, clever though it might be. Or in the case of a man accused of scamming a Kohl’s store in St. Louis out of some cash, it’s only a matter of time before your ruse is spoiled.

See, the thing about retail stores is there’s usually some kind of record of its inventory, you know, the products it sells. Which is why employees eventually realized that a man who’d returned six pairs of sunglasses with Kohl’s price tags on them for $109 in cash wasn’t on the up and up — those glasses weren’t even sold at Kohl’s, reports KMOV.

Turns out the suspect allegedly bought six pairs of sunglasses at the Kohl’s store, then police say he went back to his car, took the price tags from those glasses and stuck them on five pairs he already owned.

He’s then accused of going back inside and returning the glasses that he hadn’t purchased there and getting the money. It was only a matter of time before employees realized “Hey, these aren’t our glasses,” and called the police.

It seems the suspect is still out there, perhaps returning more sunglasses he doesn’t own for more cash that’s not his. Be on the lookout.

Clever thief sought after scamming Arnold Kohl’s store []

samedi 29 mars 2014

Let’s Count The Ways In Which The NY Times’ Love Letter To The Comcast Merger Is Full Of Bull

This NY Times column from March 28 reads like it was written by Comcast's PR department.

This NY Times column from March 28 reads like it was written by Comcast’s PR department.

Yesterday, the NY Times’ “Common Sense” column demonstrated anything but common sense in a thinly veiled love letter to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, who is apparently the savior of cable TV and will somehow bestow wonderful, magically awesome levels of customer service on Time Warner Cable, if only those big-bad regulators in D.C. would just see what is so obviously a perfect deal for consumers. If only that were true.

Let’s look at author James B. Stewart’s article and try to figure out exactly how much Kabletown Kool-Aid he’s consumed…

1. Ignoring Comcast’s Role In Current State Of Cable TV

Early in the article, Comcast inheritor Roberts laments the current state of cable competition, in which a company’s presence is often determined by deals made with municipalities many moons ago.

“Cable is a relic of an antiquated model,” admits Roberts. “The result is we’re not in New York or Los Angeles. How great can that be?”

In a sense, he’s right. Comcast should have been in New York City and/or Los Angeles, but not as the sole provider like TWC is for much of those two cities. No, Comcast should have been able to compete with everyone else, giving consumers choice and compelling providers to compete on rates and customer service.

But Roberts can not wash his hands of the situation that he and his company-founding father before him played no small part in creating, and from which Comcast has benefited greatly.

Take the Philadelphia area, which has long been dominated by Comcast, but which used to have multiple other regional providers serving different parts of the region. In the last two decades, Comcast has gobbled up much of those companies, creating an effective monopoly in the area thanks to all those exclusivity deals each of the acquired providers had made in the ’70s and ’80s.

Furthermore, while Philly leadership pretends it’s about prettying up the city, a recent move to regulate and remove satellite dishes from buildings all around the city has Comcast written all over it.

And look at Boston, where the city is so ridiculously overrun by solely Comcast coverage that former Mayor Thomas Menino had to petition the FCC to allow the city to regulate the company’s soaring prices.

It is the cable industry, including Comcast, that sought these sorts of deals and guarantees, and which has allowed them to continue because they allow providers to get away with charging high rates and provide minimal customer service.

Roberts even admits as much later in the Times piece, when he says the only feasible way for Comcast to be a player in NYC is for it to buy Time Warner Cable, as it would be too expensive to run its own lines.

2. No One Asked Us…

Stewart then goes on to make a completely asinine statement implying about those who are against the Comcast merger:

The sheer size of the deal, and the intense public interest in unfettered Internet access, have galvanized an array of opponents, from Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, to the Consumers Union to the Writers Guild of America…I suspect few of them, if any, are Time Warner Cable customers.

Let’s just look at how utterly, absolutely stupid of a statement that is.

First, I’m not going to speak for my colleagues at Consumers Union, but I happen to know for a fact that they — and many other employees of Consumer Reports, including myself, and several other Consumerist writers — have had, or currently have, cable and Internet service from Time Warner Cable. It’s a company based in Yonkers, NY, which is only a few miles north of NYC and many of CR’s employees live in areas where TWC is the only option. A simple phone call or e-mail to anyone at the company would have told Mr. Stewart so.

And then there’s the Writers Guild, which has a large number of members in New York City (that’s why there is a WGA East office in Manhattan, Mr. Stewart. All those writers for Comcast’s own Saturday Night Live and Tonight Show are probably TWC customers. That’s not to mention all the people who write for the soap operas, talk shows, and the various series that film in NYC. Again, I’m sure someone at the Guild, or the use of the author’s much-touted common sense, would have figured this one out.

I don’t know Sen. Franken’s current living situation, but I do believe he’s lived in NYC at some point in the past 25 years, since he used to broadcast his Air America radio show from Manhattan, and worked on Saturday Night Live in the early ’90s, which means he’s likely to have been a TWC customer at some point.

3. Personal Bias Is A Bad Measuring Stick

Let’s just assume that Mr. Stewart’s ill-informed attempt to discredit merger critics were based in actual fact and that none of these people concerned about a merger between the nation’s two largest cable and Internet providers have ever had to deal with TWC’s horrendous service.

What does that matter?

Did one need to be either an AT&T or T-Mobile customer to oppose that failed merger? Does he think that members of the FCC and the DOJ are going to say, “Well, I can’t be part of this decision because I’m a DirecTV gal”?

In fact, it may be best if the people making the decision have minimal experience with either provider, as their personal biases can’t get in the way. The last thing I want is some regulator deciding they will approve this merger because they once got double-billed by Time Warner Cable and somehow think this merger will stop such nonsense from happening in the future (Spoiler Alert: It won’t).

Speaking of which…

4. The Grass Is Always Slightly Less Brown

Stewart seems to be living under the delusion that Comcast’s customer service couldn’t possibly be worse than TWC’s. He even cites J.D. Power regional ratings to back up his point, saying that TWC was the lowest-rated in almost every region for its pay TV service. And this is indeed true.

A summary of the JD Power ratings for Comcast and TWC's pay-TV services. We've circled all the instances in which the two companies scored the same or in which TWC outscored Comcast. Note that neither company managed to do better than a 3 on the JD Power scale, indicating a score of "About Average." Click chart for full-size.

A summary of the JD Power ratings for Comcast and TWC’s pay-TV services. We’ve circled all the instances in which the two companies scored the same or in which TWC outscored Comcast. Note that neither company managed to do better than a 3 on the JD Power scale, indicating a score of “About Average.” Click chart for full-size.

What the author at the venerated newspaper omits is a link to the JD Power study, as that would show that Comcast performed just as poorly half of the time, and the instances in which Comcast outscored Time Warner Cable, it did so only marginally (a fact Stewart waits until the very end of the story to even mention before allowing Roberts to shrug it off with all the awesome super-rad tech that will help curmudgeonly Stewart finally find Mad Men on his cable listings… Kids today!). Nowhere in the seven rated categories for each of the four regions does either company score better than “About Average.”

And you’ll notice that of all the companies that rank or rate TV and Internet providers, Stewart cherry-picks one that sort of helps to make the case that Time Warner Cable is a bad company.

In fact, there are multiple sources that would have indicated the same thing, but which would have also shown that Comcast is just as bad, if not worse.

Circling back once again to our colleagues at Consumer Reports, whose recent survey of telecom providers turned up equally bad results for the two merger partners, and where Comcast received especially low marks for customer support.

Recent data from Netflix showing how Verizon and Comcast have allowed its downstream speeds to slow to a crawl during the last half of 2013, while TWC continued to provide adequate support for the service. Click for full-size chart.

Recent data from Netflix showing how Verizon and Comcast have allowed its downstream speeds to slow to a crawl during the last half of 2013, while TWC continued to provide adequate support for the service. Click for full-size chart.

Stewart conveniently left out this information from Netflix, showing that Time Warner Cable downstream speeds have remained sufficient, and even improved, during the months that the all-great Comcast passive-aggressively throttled Netflix content by allowing it to bottleneck until the Internet’s biggest traffic consumer decided to pay the toll.

And the folks at the American Customer Satisfaction Index, whose latest ratings of pay-TV companies and ISPs showed both Comcast and Time Warner Cable bringing up the rear in the two categories. Comcast was the bottom-scraper when it came to Internet service, while it allowed TWC the honor of being the caboose on the pay-TV train.

Neither company has provided any shred of evidence that customer service, billing, or reliability will improve post-merger. There has been lip-service paid to the notion that by combining their assets, they will be better able to invest in much-needed resources.

But given the potholed track record of these two companies, why would we have any reason to believe that savings on manpower, networks, maintenance, and content will be reinvested in improving customer service when all a merger would do would be to create an even larger company with minimal competition and even fewer reasons to provide competitive rates or customer service?

5. The Myth Of Geographic Overlap

Here’s the argument you hear repeatedly from Stewart and other cheerleaders for this merger: Comcast and Time Warner Cable don’t currently overlap, so it’s not really creating a monopoly.

It’s a valid point, and one that those opposed to the merger will have to repeatedly rebut in the coming months, but it’s a deflection of the bigger issues involved here.

Because the cable industry has virtually no competition — even the large satellite companies can’t compete in providing broadband services — they can get away with things like unexplained rate increases; new fees for old products and services; using customers as hostages in blackout battles with broadcasters.

Far from giving Comcast a reason to pass savings on to customers, a nearly doubled subscriber base could actually provide the company with an incentive to continue nickel-and-diming customers. An extra dollar a month from 30 million customers is a nice chunk of change at the end of the year. Data caps and usage-based pricing for Internet users would be a gold mine for the merged company, especially with consumers having few-to-no options for broadband service.

Stewart mocks the notion put forth by law professor and author Susan Crawford, among others, that a merged Comcast/TWC would create a “monopsony,” a company that would effectively be negotiating with vendors on behalf of an entire industry. The mega-provider would be able to demand the absolute lowest rates from networks and other providers, which Stewart sees as only resulting in good, claiming the future Comcast-zilla “has an incentive to pass at least some of those savings on to customers to increase demand for its services with lower prices.”

Again, we ask where he’s imagining this incentive coming from? If Comcast has no competition and customers can’t get their Internet and TV service elsewhere, why on Earth would the company not continue to chisel away at subscribers’ wallets?

6. Who Cares About The Broadcasters?

Continuing on with the discussion of creating a monopsony, the Comcast ad in the Time — because that’s what it is: a huge, effectively sponsored, story that only cost Comcast a few bucks to get Stewart to Philly and show him around its shimmering USB drive on JFK Blvd. — rightfully points out that antitrust law is intended to protect consumers, so why should anyone care about broadcasters and other content creators not getting their full due?

“It’s hard to imagine that the wildly popular ESPN or Netflix needs protection from regulators in Washington,” writes Stewart, ignoring the ripple effects and other problems associated with monopsony.

Say Comcast goes to Sony to discuss online streaming rates for it’s TV and movie studios’ content. The mega-company, which not only has cable customers, but Internet users, and a built-in TV audience on a major broadcast network, multiple news channels, and a slew of cable offerings, could use that leverage to guarantee it pays a lower rate than anyone else in the industry. This drives up rates for competitors, who either pass that cost on to customers or who have to be more selective about what they license for their customers’ use.

It provides a barrier for entry to startup companies or new ventures from existing companies; makes it harder for smaller, regional providers to grow and compete; and could drive some companies — on both the content and provider side — out of business. Less choice, higher prices. That’s a consumer issue, Mr. Stewart.

Additionally, cable companies are the gatekeepers for much of the information entering Americans’ homes. With no current net neutrality rules, a cable company can literally decide what its customers can and can’t see. Even though Comcast is still obligated to oblige by the recently gutted rules through 2018, the above-referenced Netflix standoff shows that it has the means and the leverage to get around such weak-kneed regulations.

7. Someday My Cable Prince Will Come…

Stewart makes the fallacious claim of an “array of consumer television and broadband options” available to consumers, disregarding all studies showing that very few people have access to more than one cable provider; that satellite TV customers generally need a cable company to get broadband; that Verizon has stated publicly that it has no immediate plans to build out its FiOS fiber network into new areas of the country.

He even made me laugh a bit by speculating that Google may bring its Google Fiber network to New York City at some point in the next millennium. Verizon, which has the poles and the existing landline network all in place, has been trying to wire that city for years with FiOS and has barely made a dent in Manhattan and many of the more populated areas of the city.

I actually did a spit-take when Stewart tossed out the suggestion that Sprint’s pie-in-the-sky plan to provide wireless broadband service would someday be a viable non-cable option for consumers. At this point, that idea exists only in the speeches that SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son gives to make the case for his own desired merger of Sprint and T-Mobile USA. Yes, widespread broadband Internet seems like an inevitable future for data to the home, but it’s unlikely to come from any of the major wireless providers who are currently too busy enjoying their tiered data plans and their associated overage fees. And the notion that Sprint, which has not been able to keep up with its competitors in terms of speed and reliability, would be the superhero to swoop in and provide competition to New Yorkers is just ludicrous.

You simply can’t wipe away all the problems with this merger with a few glib, biased complaints about how much you currently hate Time Warner Cable. You can’t say that the deal won’t create a monopoly because there already is one. You can’t pin your hopes for future competition on what-ifs and maybes.

How Comcast Uses Low-Income Families To Look Good For Regulators

Back in 2011, Comcast launched a program to help low-income families. The program, Comcast Internet Essentials, lets certain families enroll in 5 MBps broadband for $10 a month. In timing that was completely coincidental we’re sure, shortly after announcing their plan to buy Time Warner Cable, Comcast announced an indefinite extension to the program.

It’s not the first time that Comcast has waved the flag of its commitment to underserved populations right as regulators were poised to take a fine-toothed comb to its business dealings. Internet Essentials is now here to stay — but who does it really serve?

The Internet Essentials program is aimed at helping a niche that badly needs help.

Let’s say this up front, and clearly: expanding broadband access to lower-income households is a laudable and deeply necessary goal. In 2014, internet access is basically how everyone does everything. Need to apply for a job? Do it online. Need to access state and federal services? Do it online. Need to contact a school, do your homework, research something? Do it online.

Internet access isn’t just about the newest in entertainment (though it is that, too). It’s access to jobs, to education, to commerce, to news and information, to friends and family, and basically to the entire world at large. Being locked out of it due to high prices can be crippling in a hundred little ways, especially to a family with children who may be falling academically and socially behind their more moneyed peers.

The gap of the digital divide is real, and it’s persistent. The Pew Internet Project has tracked internet access for years. On average, 85% of Americans access the internet. But an average is just that: averaged. Breaking down the data by household income, on the other hand, highlights the disparity.

Broadband internet access by income, via The Pew Internet Project.

Broadband internet access by income, via The Pew Internet Project.

Pew’s research, from last fall, shows just how big that divide is, and the correlation is undeniable: the more money you make, the more likely you are to have broadband internet access.

Given how expensive a utility broadband can be, it’s not surprising that workers hanging onto the lowest rung of the economic latter have trouble buying into it. But as digital tools become more and more prevalent in the classroom, kids who aren’t well-versed in them are at a distinct disadvantage for catching up to their classmates.

So with Internet Essentials, Comcast really is trying to fill in service for a segment of the population that generally goes underserved. 300,000 families are using the service, according to Comcast’s most recent progress report, and that’s 300,000 families who weren’t connected before.

That’s the good news. Now here’s the rest.

There aren’t as many families benefiting from Internet Essentials as there could be.

While it’s great that over a quarter million families have enrolled, it could be a lot more. But somehow, Comcast just keeps managing to stand in its own way.

There are two major obstacles to getting low-income families enrolled in the program, according to outreach workers. The first is is the set of eligibility requirements Comcast lays out. To enroll in Internet essentials, families must:

  • Be located where Comcast offers Internet service

  • Have at least one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program

  • Have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days

  • Not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment

Of those four requirements, that 90-day requirement is apparently the biggest stumbling block. Families who were overextending themselves to pay for a full-price Comcast package have to go completely without all service for three full months in order to reduce their costs. 90 days is a full semester of the school year — a long time for a family to cut itself off.

The other barrier is the enrollment process itself: Internet Essentials is separate from Comcast’s standard service. It uses a different website and phone number for enrollment and information. Consumers who call Comcast’s regular line and try to ask for the cheap internet generally get shunted into some kind of promotional triple-play package. Comcast representatives don’t redirect callers to the other phone number.

So the consumers most likely to be able correctly to sign up for Internet Essentials are high-information consumers who have the time and resources to use the internet to research how to get the best choice in internet access. And the target user of Internet Essentials is a lower-information consumer, potentially with education and/or language barriers, who doesn’t necessarily have the time and resources, or internet access, to do all the research over best choices.

It’s not just the enrollment that has a mismatch between “service on offer” and “needs that need filling.” Comcast has been touting their partnership with Khan Academy as a way to provide more free online education to low-income families… and while that sounds nice, the truth is, low-income kids aren’t the ones really using streaming online courses. College-educated men are.

Comcast benefits far more than low-income families do.

The other main problem with Internet Essentials is that it’s crap. A download speed of “up to 5 Mbps” is, by the standards of 2014, painfully slow. Those fancy online educational tools that are supposedly the main benefit of the program? Many of them don’t work so well on that connection.

In other words, Comcast is giving their low-income customers access to what they pay for — not access on par with what most other Comcast customers can buy. It’s both a fifth of the cost and a fifth of the service.

The focus on families with children eligible for free or reduced lunch is also a big problem with the program. Pew found that “internet non-users are heavily dominated by older adults.” No kids at home? No connection.

And what about when those kids grow up? Eligibility is directly tied to having children in the home. When Junior, thanks to his reduced-rate Comcast connection, graduates from high school and gets a full scholarship to State U, will Mom and Pop back home still be able to get e-mails from him? Slate wondered about that in a piece questioning Comcast’s motives back in January. Comcast exec David L. Cohen immediately fired back with a complete non-answer:

“As to the issue of families losing access when kids graduate, the piece ignores our commitment to continue to offer Internet Essentials to any family so long as there is a single eligible child in the household.”

And as to the issue of families losing access when kids graduate, the executive ignores families’ commitment to not producing infinite children, and eventually having a youngest who turns 18 and graduates, thus ending the parents’ eligibility.

Comcast, meanwhile, is not acting out of a sense of charity or philanthropy. They’re satisfting federal requirements to help bring broadband access to the poor. And Internet Essentials is only available where Comcast already operates — so Comcast isn’t spending a dime to run infrastructure to any place where it doesn’t already exist.

They sure get to benefit from looking philanthropic, though. Community outreach is a huge part of Comcast’s extensive lobbying efforts. And in looking to gain the blessing of federal regulators on their impending buyout of Time Warner Cable, “benefit to the community” is one of their best cards to play.

If Comcast succeeds in buying out TWC, they can argue, then that means they can expand the Internet Essentials program to 19 of the 20 biggest cities in the country. Since broadband access is a huge factor in the merger, Comcast wins from being able to claim that expanding their reach equals reducing the digital divide. If the poor and underserved get to benefit just as much as executives do well the merger must be a good idea, right? Right?!

And of course, every added customer for Comcast is, well, another customer for Comcast. Although actual provider choice and competition are terrible for everyone, options can be even more limited for lower-income families. It’s not just for reasons of cost; it’s because they’re generally renters, not property owners. Renters in multi-unit buildings generally have exactly one choice for TV and internet access: the company their landlord has signed a contract with.

Having Internet Essentials gives Comcast the leverage to go to a community and say, “we have this low-income program; sign more contracts with us so we can help disadvantaged families in your area.” And cities do. More reach, more leverage, less competition: a win all around for Comcast.

So is it just window-dressing?

Just because Comcast gets to win all around, of course, doesn’t mean low-income families have to lose. A terrible internet connection is still better than no internet connection, and over a quarter million families probably are better off now than they were before. That’s not a bad thing.

But as often happens with Comcast, the good news they’re selling isn’t the whole story. When it comes to the digital divide, and to fairly serving the underserved, there’s a long way yet to go.

Stories You Might Have Missed Because You Were Too Busy Being Awesome

weekinreview We post a lot of stories during the week, and we know that most of you have jobs, families, lives, hobbies, nagging itches and other more important things to do than read every single thing we write. So for those who might be playing catch-up on the weekend, here are some of the things you might have missed…


Fraudulent WEBLEARN Debit/Credit Card Charges Possibly Linked To Earlier “$9.84″ Scam

Despite Regulations, Survivors Face Foreclosures After Reverse Mortgage Borrower’s Death

Why You Should Care That Facebook Spent $2 Billion To Buy Oculus

Drug Companies Say They Won’t Sell Antibiotics For Non-Medical Use In Animals, But Are They Telling The Truth?

4 Out Of 5 Payday Loans Are Made To Consumers Caught In Debt Trap

15 Things Everyone (Including Renters) Should Know About Homeowner’s Insurance


Verizon: Everything Is Great, Let’s Not Mess It Up By Fixing Net Neutrality

It’s Not Just You: Pretty Much Everyone Hates Their TV & Internet Providers, Survey Finds

AT&T Promises: Kill Net Neutrality And You’ll Pay Less For Internet


10 Meaty Secrets Of The Steakhouse

Let’s Just Call The Burger-Within-A-Burger What It Is: A 10,000-Calorie Stack Of Meat & Cheese

Pizza With 90 Slices Of Jalapeno Pepperoni Has Advertisers Sweating Over Its Naughty Name


Complete coverage of the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger and why it’s bad for consumers

The latest stories on the ongoing GM ignition recall

vendredi 28 mars 2014

GM Adds 971,000 Vehicles To Ignition Recall, Confirms 13th Death Tied To Defect

Not a good way to end the week for General Motors, which not only added 971,000 vehicles to the ignition-related recall that had already been issued for 1.6 million car, it also confirmed that the defect is indeed tied to 13 deaths.

While the previous recall had stopped with model-year 2007 vehicles, the additional recall affects 2008-10 Chevrolet Cobalts, 2008-11 Chevrolet HHRs, 2008-10 Pontiac Solstices, 2008-10 Pontiac G5s and 2008-10 Saturn Sky vehicles.

The concern is that some of these newer vehicles may have been repaired using the same defective ignition switches that were used in the older cars. GM believes that only about 5,000 of the 971,000 cars will actually need an update, but says it is adding these cars out of caution.

Initial reports about the GM recall had tied the defect — in which the ignition switch can turn back into the “off” position unexpectedly, making vehicles difficult to control or stop, and deactivates the air bags — to 13 deaths, but GM would only confirm a dozen.

Detroit News reports that Transport Canada had been investigating the June 2013 incident involving the crash of a 2007 Cobalt in Quebec, but that GM confirmed on Friday that a failure of the ignition was indeed involved in the fatal incident.