mardi 31 mai 2016

Staples CEO Stepping Down After Failed Office Depot Acquisition

Staples announced today that its chairman and chief executive officer, Ron Sargent, is giving the public his two-week notice: he’ll be stepping down on June 14, after the company’s next shareholders meeting. Sargent has been CEO of the office superchain since 2002, and has worked for Staples since 1989, when the company was only three years old.

ron-sargent-ceo“With the termination of the merger, we mutually agreed that now is the right time to transition to new management to lead Staples through its next phase of growth,” Robert Sulentic, the board’s Independent Lead Director, said in a statement. New management with a plan for growth other than acquiring the chain’s only national competitor in selling office supplies to medium and large businesses, that is.

Staples really, really wanted to acquire Office Depot, a national competitor in retail office-supply stores and in the corporate contract supply business. The Federal Trade Commission was granted an injunction stopping the merger earlier this month. The retailers didn’t bother putting up a defense against the agency’s claim that their merger would be bad for competition and for their corporate customers.

The company’s president of North America Operations, Shira Goodman, will take over as interim CEO, and they will interview internal and external candidates for the permanent post. Sargent will stay on as a “non-executive” chairman until the current fiscal year ends and the end of January 2017.

Academy Sports Is Totally Ready To Poach Sports Authority Customers

Competitors aren’t even waiting for Sports Authority to close its doors before trying to poach the chain’s customers. Here’s a coupon that arrived in reader Sandra’s mail last week, which manages to use the closing of Sports Authority as a draw without actually naming the retailer.


“While your sporting goods options are changing,” the coupon says, “you can always count on Academy for top brands at the lowest prices around. Save today on gear for all the adventures, games, and fun that awaits you.”

That depends on how many competing chains are in Sandra’s area, and how long ago the store closing sale at her local Sports Authority store, if there still is one, began.

Industry leader Dick’s is also opening its doors to Sports Authority customers, offering $20 in rewards program credit to Sports Authority rewards members who sign up for their similar program. Without promotions or bonus points, a customer would normally have to spend $600 to earn that much credit.


(Thanks to Sandra for posting this coupon to the Consumerist Facebook page!)

5 Things You Should Know About Uber’s Xchange Leasing Program & Its Costs

Last summer, Uber launched a car leasing program that aimed to remedy the one big obstacle for anyone who wanted to sign up as a driver and hit the road — if you don’t have a car, you’ve got nowhere to put passengers. Nearly a year after Xchange Leasing began connecting would-be drivers with new vehicles, experts say the program may not be all it’s cracked up to be for already financially vulnerable drivers. 

Xchange Leasing, a wholly owned subsidiary of Uber that offers short-term leases to drivers by partnering with dealerships, recently received a $1 million credit from Goldman Sachs that aims to expand the program to more drivers, Bloomberg reports.

When the program launched last year, there were few details available aside from the fact that it would involve multi-year leases with the option for drivers to return their vehicles without penalty after 30 days.

While Uber contends that the program offers people who may otherwise be rejected by traditional lenders an option to obtain a vehicle and make a living, consumers advocates and financial experts express concerns that Xchange may be causing more harm to drivers than it is providing an outlet for them to make money.

Bloomberg spoke with several advocates, advisors, and drivers to glean a bit more understanding about the risks and benefits of Xchagne. Here are five things we learned from the report.

#1. The Terms — Leasing a vehicle can be a more expensive option for any consumer looking for a new set of wheels. Under an Xchange lease, which features 28 pages of terms and conditions, drivers pay a $250 upfront deposit and weekly payments to Uber over a three-year period.

The weekly payments are automatically deducted from the driver’s Uber earnings. If the driver wants to keep the vehicle after the three-year term is up, they must pay the residual value, Bloomberg reports.

#2. Returning The Car — After 30 days, an Uber driver taking part in the leasing program can return the vehicle to Uber with two weeks notice. The return doesn’t incur an additional fee but the driver is on the hook for the remaining payments.

#3. All-In-One Program — In addition to partnering with dealerships, Xchange handles advertisements to drivers, manages risks, and pays repo men to collect vehicles when drivers stop making payments.

In the case of Xchange, where payments are automatically deducted from Uber driver’s take-home pay, the lessee has stopped driving for the company.

#4. A Predatory Program? — Auto experts tell Bloomberg that while Uber contends the leasing program offers flexibility and option that otherwise wouldn’t be available, the costs are significantly higher than other leasing programs.

For examples, Experian estimates the average weekly payment for a new car lease is $96, while a 2013 vehicle through Xchange costs $130 a week.

“I’d say the cost is greater than the benefit for your average driver,” said Mark Williams, a lecturer at Boston University’s business school who reviewed the terms of a blank lease agreement provided by Uber, along with some average weekly lease payments and a driver-reported account. “The terms, the way they’re proposed, are predatory and are very much driven toward profiting off drivers rather than to facilitate an increase in drivers.”

After reviewing the terms of one lease, experts estimate that a driver would pay $25,210 plus $5,000 for the residual value for a 2015 Honda Civic, far more than the Kelley Blue Book fair purchase prive of $18,142.

#5. The High Costs — One driver tell Bloomberg that the high weekly cost, coupled with Uber lowering the cost of rides simply make his lease unaffordable.

The driver, who leased a 2016 Toyota Corolla, paid $155 a week for the vehicle. Two months after starting the lease, the company slashed prices and he began having trouble keeping up with payments.

“It got to the point that I would drive just to meet my payment,” he said. “If you were short on your payment for a week it would roll onto the payment for next week. It starts adding up.”

In the end, he stopped driving for Uber and asked Xchange to come get the car. However, he says it stayed in the parking lot for several months, until one morning it was gone.

Another driver tells Bloomberg that two weeks after entering a lease with Xchange, Uber deactivated his driver account with no notice.

While he has kept the vehicle, keeping up with payments has been difficult. If he continues with the three-year lease, he’ll pay $31,200 to Uber. And if he wants to keep the car after the term is over, he’ll need to pay an additional $6,000, Bloomberg reports. Conversely, the average purchase price for the car — a 2016 Chevy Cruze — is $16,419.

Inside Uber’s Auto-Lease Machine, Where Almost Anyone Can Get a Car [Bloomberg]

States Hungry For Online Sales Tax Looking At Challenge To South Dakota Law

Amazon now collects sales tax in more than half the states, but that still leaves a substantial portion of the country not paying taxes on their purchases. Even in states where Amazon is collecting taxes, some other online retailers say they don’t have to collect taxes because they have no physical presence in the state. A new South Dakota law is a direct attack on these companies, and if it stands up to legal scrutiny it could have nationwide implications.

The basis for the current rationale for many online sales tax rules — that a retailer must collect tax if it has a physical presence in a state — comes from a 1992 Supreme Court ruling involving the other Dakota.

In Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, the state tried to argue that Quill — a mail-order office supply company — should have collected sales tax on purchase in the state because it provided software to customers that allowed them to place orders and check Quill’s inventory.

The Supreme Court disagreed, saying that the software didn’t create a nexus sufficient enough to allow the state to require that Quill collect taxes.

(This is where we pause to remind you that if your state has a sales/use tax, you are obligated to pay it. States will occasionally go after individual consumers that they know made purchases from out-of-state sellers, but it’s preferable to collect all the sales tax from the original seller, so many online purchases go untaxed.)

Given that a retail website is effectively no different than that software — a website might look nicer than the Quill floppy disk, but both let you see if something is in stock and place an order — states have generally passed laws that comply with the Quill SCOTUS ruling.

Then in April, South Dakota governor Dennis Daugaard signed SB 106 [PDF], which throws out any sort of physical presence requirement and instead uses sales revenue and volume to argue for the existence of a nexus.

Rather than worry about whether or not a distribution center or an affiliate counts as a physical presence, SB 106 says you must collect sales tax if your gross revenue from the sale of “tangible personal property, any product transferred electronically, or services delivered” into South Dakota exceeds $100,000.

Similarly, if someone’s sales revenue doesn’t reach that mark, but they nonetheless make at least 200 transactions in the state, then they too are required to collect sales tax.

South Dakota is one of a handful of states that doesn’t have income tax, and the text of SB 106 makes no attempt to gloss over the fact that revenue from the online sales tax is needed.

“The inability to effectively collect the sales or use tax from remote sellers… is seriously eroding the sales tax base of this state, causing revenue losses and imminent harm to this state through the loss of critical funding for state and local services,” reads the statute. “The harm from the loss of revenue is especially serious in South Dakota because the state has no income tax, and sales and use tax revenues are essential in funding state and local services.”

Almost immediately after the law passed, the American Catalog Mailers Association and online retail trade group NetChoice filed suit [PDF] in a South Dakota court, seeking to have the law blocked.

“Because SB 106 violates the Quill physical presence requirement, usurps the role of Congress in regulating interstate commerce, and unlawfully expands the State’s taxing authority over companies, individuals, and organizations located throughout in the United Sates, and potentially the world, based solely on their having customers in South Dakota, the law is plainly unconstitutional,” reads the complaint.

Considering the precedent set by Quill, it’s likely that the state will not prevail in the lower court, or in the state appeals courts. As Pew’s Stateline blog points out, this is a law that was written with the goal of ultimately forcing the Supreme Court to revisit Quill, a ruling that Justice Anthony Kennedy recently stated was “questionable even when decided.”

Much has changed since that 1992 ruling. At the time, mail-order was a relatively small subset of the retail sphere, so the amount of uncollected sales tax was not crippling to governments that relied on the tax revenue. E-commerce is now an integral part of the retail landscape, but the sales tax issue is applied unevenly and in a patchwork fashion.

At the same time, calculating and collecting sales tax has become less onerous. Remote sellers no longer need to pull out a binder with all the various local sales tax rates to determine what to charge. For most sellers, this information can be figured out when the customer enters a shipping address.

“The argument against it is that it will hurt the small online sellers,” J. Craig Shearman of the National Retail Federation tells Stateline. “That might have been true in 1992, but that was a generation ago. As the saying goes, there’s an app for that.”

General Mills Recalls Flour Possibly Linked To E. coli Illnesses

While you might associate infection with E. coli bacteria with meat and sometimes fresh vegetables, the bacteria can turn up in some unexpected places. Like flour. Yes, investigators checking out a multi-state E. coli outbreak have potentially linked it to flour from General Mills sold under its own labels and store brands.

So far, the outbreak includes 38 people in 20 states. Authorities made the possible link to General Mills flour products when about half of the patients remembered baking something from scratch before showing symptoms, and some of them in turn remembered that they used General Mills flour products.

While the link isn’t definitive and tests haven’t actually turned up any of the bacteria in flour, the company is recalling some products “out of an abundance of caution,” as companies always say.

E. coli lives in a variety of places, but the O121 variety lives inside the intestines of mammals, meaning that poop came in contact with the flour somehow. Flour, of course, comes from wheat, which is a plant, which is grown outside, and this is why you’re supposed to bake things before eating them.

People with long memories and a love of gobbling raw chocolate chip dough might remember when Nestle’s refrigerated dough was found to contain E. coli, which may have come from the flour used to make the dough.

Here’s the info on recalled items:






If you have any questions about flour products or about this recall, contact General Mills using their contact form, or at 1-800-230-8103.

General Mills announces flour recall [General Mills]

Abercrombie & Fitch’s Hollister Poised To Profit From Bankruptcy Of Fellow Teen Retailers

While teen retailers like Aéropostale and PacSun are going down in flames, its rivals are hunched on the sidelines, waiting to pick their bankrupted bones clean. There’s still money to be made catering to teenagers, after all, and analysts say Abercrombie & Fitch could be the one making it.

The company’s Hollister brand and specialty clothing company Zumiez have the most overlap with failing teen mall staples like Aéropostale, PacSun, QuikSilver, Wet Seal and others that have declared bankruptcy and closed stores recently as they try to restructure, MarketWatch reports, which provides an opportunity to zoom in on some market share.

Analysts at Keybanc Capital Markets analyzed more than 1,400 Aéropostale and Pacific Sunwear locations and compared them with Hollister, American Eagle Outfitters, Zumiez, and Tilly’s Inc, and found that Hollister and Zumiez have the most exposure at malls where Aéropostale and Pacific Sunwear stores are located.

Aéropostale filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month and is expected to close 113 U.S. locations and 41 in Canada. PacSun joined the bankruptcy club in April, though it has yet to announce plans for store closures.

“Long term, we expect Hollister and Zumiez to benefit from the reduced competition,” KeyBanc analysts wrote.

Abercrombie & Fitch could use some good news, with its recent turnaround efforts stymied by traffic declines, especially among tourists. Hollister is currently a bright spot at the company, with Abercrombie & Fitch president and Chief Merchandising Officer Fran Horowitz-Bonadies talking up the “double-digit lift in traffic and sales” the brand is experiencing on a recent earnings call reported by MarketWatch.

The company isn’t making any secret about its desire to capture the teen retail throne, either.

“Our focus for Hollister is to be the iconic brand for the global high school consumer,” said Horowitz-Bonadies.

Burger King Has A New “2 For $10” Meal Deal, But Who’s It Actually For?

Burger King already has one entry in the ongoing fast food meal-deal war that focuses on one person — a 5 for $4 menu that includes a bacon cheeseburger, small fries, chicken nuggets, beverage, and a chocolate chip cookie — but that apparently isn’t enough to keep up with the competition. And so, the company has launched a 2 for $10 deal. But with two entire meals included in this bundle, who exactly is the company courting?

While most of the meal deals offered by fast food restaurants including those at McDonald’s, Hardee’s/Carl’s Junior, Wendy’s, and Pizza Hut focus on a quick, inexpensive lunch or dinner for one person, BK’s latest creation appears to cater to a duo.

WhopperMealThe new deal, dubbed the “2 for $10 Whopper Meal,” features two quarter-pound Whopper burgers, two small fries, and two small drinks, Burger Business reports.

So does the fast food giant think couples will be coming through the door on date night? Or perhaps friends swinging by on a road trip for a quick bite?

Either way, Burger Business points out that those hungry for a little (or a lot of) BK might not see the new package as a good deal: you could buy two of the company’s 5 for $4 meal deals — that’s 10 items, including dessert — for less than the Whopper offer.

That’s essentially the same conundrum McDonald’s faced when revamping its “McPick 2 for $2” meal to the more expensive “McPick 2 for $5” deal, a move that drew the ire of budget-conscious fast food lovers. 

The back and forth with meal deal menus can be confusing for customers who could get a similar — and consistent — deal at other fast food restaurants.

Like with McDonald’s previous change, the new bundle puts Burger King out of line with other fast food meal deals: Pizza Hut will sell you items from a set menu for $5 each as long as you buy at least two; Wendy’s is offering a $4 meal where you get a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, chicken nuggets, fries, and a drink; and Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. have a $4 meal with a double cheeseburger, chicken sandwich, fries, and drink.

BK’s 2 for $10; The Counter’s New Menu [Burger Business]

South African Regulators Give Green Light To $107B Anheuser-Busch, SABMiller Merger

Anheuser-Busch InBev has one more regulatory body to mark off on its “Places To Get Approval For $107 Billion Takeover Of SABMiller” checklist: South Africa’s Competition Commission gave its blessing to the mega-beer merger Tuesday after placing several conditions on the approval.

The SAB portion of SABMilller has its roots in South Africa. Though the parent company’s global headquarters has been based in London for more than 60 years, South African Breweries still operates out of the Johannesburg area.

According to Bloomberg, the South African regulators missed four deadlines for reviewing the merger before they finally signed off on the deal.

By acquiring SABMiller, AB InBev would gain significant market share in Africa, where beer sales are expected to grow in the coming years.

Of course, giving the green light to creating the largest beer producer in the world comes with a few conditions.

Under the approval, AB InBev must sell SABMiller’s 26% stake in local wine, cider, and spirits producer Distell Group within three years of closing the deal.

AB InBev might not have a difficult time finding a buyer for the producer. Remgro, which already owns a portion of Distell, has previously said it would be interested in taking over SABMiller’s stake.

Other conditions to approval include separating the combined company’s bottling operations with Coca-Cola and Pepsi Co., protecting jobs, and setting up a $64 million fund to support local farmers, Bloomberg reports.

“These conditions address issues that were raised by various stakeholders since the announcement of the acquisition,” Competition Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele said in the statement.

Approval in South Africa comes just a week after European regulators gave their blessing to the combination following AB InBev’s moves to sell off some of SABMillers brands overseas.

So far, AB InBev has agreed to sell the Peroni and Grolsch brands to Japan’s Asahi Group for $2.9 billion.

It also pledged to sell SABMiller’s eastern European business in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia for $8 billion. However, the company has yet to announce a buyer for those assets, which include brands like Pilsner Urquell in Czech Republic and Dreher in Hungary.

By selling off SABMiller’s assets, AB InBev will continue to have a small presence in Europe.

The betrothed companies previously reached a deal to sell SABMiller’s stake in the Miller/Coors brand to Molson Coors for $12 billion. The massive deal between the companies must still receive regulatory approval in the U.S. among other areas.

Here’s a look at the brands that are currently being sold off to pave the way for the merger:

Brand Owner Buyer Price
Miller/Coors SABMiller Molson Coors $12 Billion
CR Snow (Chinese brand) SABMiller China Resources $1.6 Billion
Peroni, Grolsch, & Other European Brands SABMiller Asahi Group $2.9 Billion
Eastern European Brands (Pilsner Urquell, Dreher, and others) SABMiller To Be Determined ~$8 billion
Distell (spirit, wine, beer producer in South Africa) SABMiller Remgro (rumored) To Be Determined

South Africa Regulator Backs AB InBev Takeover of SABMiller [Bloomberg]

For $628 A Night You Can Cook In The French Cottage Where Julia Child Cooked

If you’re the kind of person who’s read and tried every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (or you’ve at least seen that movie about the woman who did) you’ve already gotten pretty close to the legendary Julia Child. But now you can get even closer: you can rent out the chef’s cottage in Provence and cook in her kitchen (or sleep in it, if you want).

Airbnb is currently listing La Pitchoune, or La Peetch, Child’s summer cottage in the Provencal village of Châteauneuf for $628 per night.

The home is owned by an American couple that want to honor Child’s legacy, Bloomberg reports, with ideas for the place including private Airbnb rentals along with all-inclusive culinary and yoga retreats, starting in 2017.

Child’s presence can still be felt in the house with touches like a black book filled with instructions on how to deal with the home’s idiosyncrasies and where to find the best butcher in town.

And then there’s the kitchen, perhaps the biggest draw for food fans out there: it’s exactly how Child left it, including her pegboard walls.

“The kitchen has been maintained impeccably,” author Luke Barr, who lived in the home for a month while writing Provencal 1970, told Bloomberg.

In case any foodies get grabby with those kitchen tools or other household fixtures, the owners have added one thing Julia didn’t need: hidden cameras. Which can easily double as TV cameras, if you’re feeling inspired.

You Can Now Rent (and Cook in!) Julia Child’s Provence Cottage [Bloomberg]

Americans Apparently Don’t Hate Mobile Ads As Badly As Rest Of The World

If you’re using ad-blocking technology on your smartphone, you’re not alone. Some 2.5 million Americans are employing mobile browsers and other tech on their devices to avoid unwanted ads, but that’s nothing compared to the vast number of consumers blocking ads in China, India, and Indonesia.

This is according to new data from PageFair, which reports that the use of mobile adblocking browsers — which have a default setting of blocking all ads — grew by 90% in 2015 alone, with some 408 million people using them worldwide. That’s around 21% of all smartphone users.

adblockgraph1Thing is: Almost all of those users come from the Asia-Pacific region. According to the report, this area only accounts for 55% of all smartphones, but 93% of ad-blocking browsers.

The overwhelming majority of mobile ad-blocking is occurring in just a few countries: China, with 159 million ad-blockers; India (122 million); Indonesia (38 million); and Pakistan (10 million).

Granted, these are all among the world’s largest countries, but other large nations don’t even come close to the same level of adoption. The combined usage in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Malaysia, and the U.S. only comes out to about 1/10 that of China, even though these five nations together have a population about half the size of China’s.

It’s not just a population or geographical issue. Asian countries like Japan and South Korea didn’t even make the list of countries with notable levels of ad-block adoption.

So why are users in developing countries clamoring for ad-blockers while others are not? The authors of the report theorize that it has something to do with the relative cost for data. Just like everything else you see on your phone, ads use up data, so if you can block the ads, it should free up more data for the content you actually want.

“Adblocking browsers will continue to grow wherever data costs are high,” reads the report. “Unless the bandwidth cost of current advertising is addressed, the ad-funded digital media industry will never get a chance to flourish in many developing economies.”

Though the U.S. is just testing the waters with regard to mobile ad-blocking the authors do note, that Western countries have a high rate of ad-block tech on their desktop computers, indicating a desire to keep these ads out of their lives, and this “may easily shift to mobile unless advertising practices change.”

SodaStream Wants You To Make Your Own Beer At Home

Though you probably know at least one at-home brewer who has gone to some lengths to buy all the equipment and materials necessary to whip up a batch of beer in their own kitchen, there are others who perhaps aren’t willing to go those lengths, but still like to be a bit DIY. For those folks, SodaStream has a new “homemade” beer system that brews beer much in the same way it makes soda — no knowledge of wort or hops required.

The Beer Bar only makes one beer so far, a light beverage called “Blondie,” which contains 4.5% alcohol by volume and has “a smooth authentic taste, and a hop filled aroma,” SodaStream says.

The system works by adding Blondie concentrate to sparkling water, resulting in about three liters of beer per one liter of Blondie concentrate.


“We are excited to launch a brand dedicated to serving the global growing trend of home crafted beer,” Daniel Birnbaum, Chief Executive Officer of SodaStream said in a statement.

So far, the Beer Bar is available only in “some of Europe’s beer capitals,” the company says, including Germany and Switzerland. Other markets are expected to launch the Beer Bar in late 2016 and 2017.

Allegiant Airlines Flight Delayed Three Times

Enduring a flight delay or two is never a fun experience, especially when you’re coming off a nice, relaxing holiday weekend. But the passengers on an Allegiant Airlines flight encountered not one, not two, but three delays after their plane experienced several issues Monday, including one that required the plane to turn around mid-air. 

The Allegiant Airlines flight from Orlando to North Carolina was delayed three times for a total of 10 hours on Monday, WESH-TV reports.

Issues with flight 768 began shortly before take off, when the plane returned to the gate for a medical emergency.

After taking off, Allegiant tells WESH that the flight turned around mid-air because of an electrical issue.

FlightAware shows the plane was in the air for about 45 minutes before returning to Orlando. (FlightAware)

Upon returning to Orlando, passengers exited the aircraft and mechanics were seen inspecting the cockpit area.

Passengers tell WESH that they were told the flight would resume in about 15 minutes. However, that turned into 10 hours of boarding and deplaning before the flight ever returned to the air.

When the flight began boarding again several hours later, passengers were halted as a piece of emergency equipment had to be inspected. The plane eventually landed in Raleigh, N.C., around 7:45 p.m., about 11 hours after originally scheduled.

The long delay is just the latest issue for Allegiant. Last fall, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it had increased scrutiny of the airline after a series of repair issues, onboard fires, and safety concerns from those who fly the airline’s planes.

Allegiant Airlines flight delayed three times before leaving Sanford [WESH-TV]

Lands’ End, Eddie Bauer Deny PETA Accusations Of Using Down Ripped From Live Geese

If you yank the soft down feathers from the body of a goose that’s still alive, here’s the thing: the goose can grow that plumage back, and you can pluck it again. That’s apparently the inhumane practice on some poultry farms in China. A continuing investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals discovered live-plucking on farms linked to suppliers of well-known U.S. retailers Lands’ End, Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean, Sears, and Amazon.

As anyone with hair might imagine, having feathers plucked while alive and awake is extremely painful and stressful for the birds. PETA sent camera-equipped investigators to farms that supply brands claiming to use responsibly-sourced down, and found bald birds as well as people who admitted that they pass off live-plucked down as being plucked after geese are slaughtered.

“We advertised that it’s all plucked after slaughter,” PETA says that one industry representative told an investigator. “Nobody dares to buy it if you say it’s live-plucked.”

That might come as a surprise to customers who buy items certified by the Responsible Down Standard or from companies that promote their down as otherwise cruelty-free.

Lands’ End has posted its response to this and similar accusations on their site, saying:

“Lands’ End does not use, purchase, or source live plucked down which is a barbaric practice that is completely out of line with our values… Our customers can be assured that we are fully committed to having a responsible, trustworthy, and ethical supply chain. We take all allegations extremely seriously and we vigorously investigate each one of them to ensure that all needed actions are taken, including suspending any supplier that does not live up to our high standards.”

We heard back from Eddie Bauer as well, which also denied PETA’s allegations.

“We take this issue very seriously,” a company representative said in a statement to Consumerist. “Eddie Bauer does not purchase live-plucked down, does not use live-plucked down in its products, and does not condone cruelty to animals.”

Eddie Bauer’s representative went on to explain that the company uses one supplier, Allied Feather and Down, and investigated the specific allegations from PETA that down from live birds could have been used in their products.

“AFD confirmed that they do not source from the factories PETA identified, as they are not [Responsible Down Standard] certified,” the company said.

We also contacted L.L. Bean, Sears, and Amazon, the other retailers specifically named in PETA’s allegations, and will update this post when we hear back from them.

If it’s true that suppliers pluck live birds in secret and lie about the feathers’ origin, that would make investigations back to the original source difficult. Global supply chains are complex and difficult.

Exposed: Despite ‘Responsible Down Standards,’ Farms Still Live-Plucking Geese [PETA]

Supreme Court: Sprint Must Face $300M Lawsuit Over Uncollected Sales Tax

Four years after New York sued Sprint for allegedly failing to collect more than $100 million in sales tax in the state, the U.S. Supreme Court has shot down the wireless carrier’s effort to avoid liability.

This morning, the Supremes denied Sprint’s petition without comment, meaning an Oct. 2015 ruling by New York’s highest court stands. That decision only dealt with the state’s ability to even bring the case against Sprint. The issue of whether or not the company failed to collect taxes is still to be determined.

The company argued that the New York Attorney General’s Office based its case on state laws that were trumped by federal communication laws and that it was ignoring the financial implications for its taxpayers in pursuit of state tax revenue.

According to the Attorney General’s case [PDF], which was originally filed in 2012, Sprint deliberately failed to collect more than $100 million in sales tax from customers in New York in order to keep costs low in an effort to maintain market share and remain competitive.

New York AG Eric Schneiderman said at the time that the company continued to under-collect on taxes even after the company was told it was breaking the law. His office estimated that the wireless company’s bad behavior resulted in $30,000/day in taxes that are not being collected.

The AG’s complaint alleges that Sprint “repeatedly and knowingly submitted false records and statements to New York State tax authorities. Sprint concealed this practice from taxing authorities, its competitors, and its customers.”

In October 2015, a New York Court of Appeals rejected Sprint’s claim that a 2002 state law imposing sales taxes on interstate mobile phone services violated the U.S. Constitution.

Sprint has said the 2002 state law being cited by the AG’s office was preempted by the federal Mobile Telecommunications Sourcing Act that regulates state taxation of mobile telecommunications services.

The Court of Appeals decision allowed the state to continue pursuing the lawsuit, which currently seeks triple the amount of taxes that allegedly weren’t collected.

U.S. top court rejects Sprint appeal in $300 million N.Y. tax case [Reuters]

McDonald’s Customer Run Over By Her Own Car In Drive-Thru

Though the drive-thru at fast food restaurants serves a very simple, transactional purpose, sometimes what happens there is far from expected — and can even be dangerous. To that end, police in Pennsylvania say a McDonald’s customer ended up at the hospital after her own car ran over her in the restaurant’s drive-thru lane.

Pennsylvania State Police said a 76-year-old customer’s food had fallen to the ground after a McDonald’s worker handed it to her, reports The woman opened her door and leaned over to pick it up, and her car accelerated forward.

As the car moved, the driver’s side door hit the building, and the woman fell out. The car didn’t stop until it crashed into a block wall in the parking lot… and then rolled backward and ran over the customer.

She was taken in an ambulance to a local regional airport and flown to a hospital in Pittsburgh with moderate to severe injuries, and was listed in serious condition as of Monday night.

Woman, 76, run over by own car at McDonald’s drive-thru []

Disney Not Happy About Snow White, Captain America Seen At Chinese Theme Park

Competition is great: when there are more options for something, consumers usually come out ahead. That applies to entertainment theme parks as much as to anything else: if there are more places to go, crowds will be mitigated, prices will be competitive, and amenities will probably improve. But “competing” doesn’t actually mean “duplicating the other guy’s stuff and displaying it at my place instead.” At least, it’s not supposed to.

And yet, Bloomberg reports, that’s exactly what seems to be happening overseas, as a fight between Disney and Chinese company Wanda heats up.

Disney has been building a new major resort in Shanghai, to join their list of international destinations in Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. The Shanghai resort opens June 16, and will obviously be a big deal for the company in a major, growing, international consumer market. In short, there is money to be made in China, and Disney intends to use their existing, globally popular intellectual property to make that money.

But China is, as they say, a very competitive market — and Chinese business is competing. There are already hundreds of theme parks in China; Disney is far from alone. So Dalian Wanda opened up their own Wanda City giant theme park complex this weekend in Nanchang, about 450 miles southwest of Shanghai.

All would be well and good, but Wanda City’s kickoff opening ceremony weekend featured some very familiar costumed characters on hand to amuse crowds. Like archetypal Disney Princess Snow White, and square-jawed Avenger Captain America.

Disney, which is notorious for clamping down hard on its IP rights, is not pleased. “We vigorously protect our intellectual property and will take action to address infringement,” the company told Bloomberg in a statement. “Our characters and stories have delighted generations, these illegal and substandard imitations unfortunately disappoint all who expect more.”

Wanda representatives counter that the costumed characters were in a “non-ticketed area” of the complex, and said, “The non-Wanda characters were operated by individual stores within Wanda Mall. They do not represent Wanda.”

Bloomberg spoke with a lawyer who said that the hands-tied excuse out of Wanda was not likely to fly: “Legally, the bottom line is that the owner of a space is responsible for infringement that has occurred,” he said, “unless they argue that they cannot exercise control over their tenants — which would require thorough proof that they have done all they can to control the situation.”

At least, despite some barbs from Wanda top executives, Disney can feel comforted that it’s not personal: the characters were spotted next to Pokemon and King Fu Panda merchandise, neither of which are anything close to being Wanda properties.

Snow White Spotted at Wanda City Triggers Backlash From Disney [Bloomberg]

JetBlue Passenger Says She Was Told Her Shorts Were Too Short To Fly

Air travel can be a mixed bag of fashion, as passengers of all different style sensibilities come together on a different kind of runway. Sometimes, those styles come into conflict with airline staffers, like in the case of a JetBlue passenger who was told her shorts were too short to fly, and that she’d have to change if she wanted to board the flight.

Earlier this month, a burlesque dancer from Seattle was waiting for a connecting flight home at Logan International Airport in Boston, after flying from New York that day wearing a long-sleeved sweater, thigh-high socks, and shorts, reports KIRO 7 News. She tells the news station she had been waiting by the gate for about 45 minutes when a gate agent approached her.

[“She] told me that she was really sorry for bringing this up but just what I was wearing was not appropriate and the flight crew had discussed it and the pilot had decided that I needed to put something else on or I would not be allowed to board the flight,” she said.

The problem was her shorts, she said, but she didn’t have any other clothing with her to change into. Instead, she asked if she could tie her sweater around her waist or use a blanket to cover up, but was denied. She ended up buying $22 pajama bottoms at an airport store so she could get home.

KIRO 7 News

JetBlue said in a statement to KIRO 7 that the gate and on board crew discussed the passenger’s clothing, and “determined that the burlesque shorts may offend other families on the flight.”

“While the customer was not denied boarding, the crew members politely asked if she could change. The customer agreed and continued on the flight without interruption,” the airline said, adding that it supports its crew members’ discretion “to make these difficult decisions,” and has reimbursed the customer for the cost of the replacement clothing she had to buy. She’ll also get a credit for a future flight “as a goodwill gesture.”

The woman tells KIRO 7 that she didn’t mention the fact that she’s a burlesque dancer before or after the confrontation.

She says she wants the pilot to apologize, for the airline to have a clear dress code for airline passengers, and offer cash or a larger flight credit.

“I was told it was the pilot’s final say so these are official rules that can be broken,” she said.

Seattle burlesque performer: Airline did not allow me to board plane because of my short shorts [KIRO 7 News]

YouTube Threatens Legal Action Against Service That Lets You Download Videos

Most of us are perfectly happy with going to YouTube and streaming that clip of Pookie being exhorted — in language that is not safe for work — to lay waste to his place of work, but some folks may want to watch this video offline, or do some tinkering with the clip. Some YouTube videos are available for download, but most are not, which is why people turn to services that allow you to get your own copy of a streaming video. YouTube, not surprisingly, is not a fan of such services and is dangling the threat of legal action against at least one.

TorrentFreak reports on a legal letter sent to the folks at TubeNinja, a service that lets users download videos from YouTube, Vine, Vimeo, and others.

Is it legal to download these videos? Depends on the video, why you’re downloading, what you’re going to do with the downloaded footage, and who you’re asking.

As we explained in an earlier story on services like PlayOn that allow you to record streams from Netflix, HBO Go, and others, the 1984 “Betamax ruling” by the Supreme Court held that making your own videotaped copy of a TV broadcast for your personal, non-commercial use is not copyright infringement.

Additionally, SCOTUS ruled that VCR manufacturers could not be held liable if their devices are misused to create bootleg copies.

While technology has developed well beyond the VCR, the Betamax ruling has been applied to subsequent devices, which is why PlayOn and others contend that they are not doing anything illegal; recording a movie as its streams from HBO Now is no different from recording it off a live broadcast from HBO, they argue, so long as you don’t go making copies for others, or using the recorded footage in any other commercial format.

Unlike PlayOn, which records a copy of the video as it’s being streamed, meaning it takes two hours to record a two-hour movie, services like TubeNinja download the entire file as quickly as possible. One could argue that this is different from the type of recording that is protected by the Betamax ruling. After all, your VCR could never perfectly replicate a full episode of Cop Rock in only a few minutes.

Aside from having an offline copy to watch at your leisure, there are several reasons why you could legitimately use an otherwise copyright-protected video.

The Fair Use doctrine holds that videos (and other copyrightable works) can be used in criticism, comment, news reporting, education, scholarship, or research, without violating copyright.

So if you’re giving a lecture on the cultural impact of viral videos, you should be able to download a number of the relevant clips and re-edit them together into a new piece for use at your lecture.

These gray areas around the use of downloaded videos, along with the fact that YouTube doesn’t own the copyright to the videos it hosts, explains why Google is dancing around the legal issue in its letter to TubeNinja.

Instead, that letter focuses on violations of YouTube’s terms of service, which prohibit the “downloading of any video from the site” unless it’s accompanied by a “download” button. Additionally, the letter accuses TubeNinja of violating the site’s developers’ terms of service which put restrictions on the use of YouTube’s API (application program interface — how the site interacts with other services).

While the YouTube user who downloads videos with TubeNinja may be — and probably is — in violation of their agreement with YouTube, TubeNinja’s owner says that’s not his problem.

“Our own ToS clearly states that the user is responsible for the legitimacy of the content they use our service for,” he explains to TorrentFreak.

As for claims of violating YouTube’s API, TubeNinja says it doesn’t use the API to obtain the videos, so it has no plans of ceasing the YouTube download functionality.

TorrentFreak notes that, YouTube made similar threats of legal action against another downloader service back in 2012, but that this service remains online and popular four years later.

Samsung Thinks Adding More Ads To Its Smart TVs Is A Solid Business Idea

Despite what its actual customers say, for several years now, Samsung has believed that putting ads on their customers’ smart TVs is a really good idea. The idea really delighted the company when they first started slapping ads on smart TV home screens back in 2012, and customers remain exactly as not thrilled about it now as they were then.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the company is looking to sell more ads on its televisions, and will upgrade software on TVs that are already out there to make them serve up more ads.

If you’re wondering how much money there is in serving up ads to TV customers, a source told the WSJ that last year the company took in $20 million to $30 million from ad displays on TVs, but the advertising unit doesn’t actually make a profit.

Samsung takes in about $24 billion selling televisions every year, selling about 50 million sets annually, but why leave things there when they could keep earning money from a customer’s TV after it’s been sold? Samsung also earns extra money through partnerships with streaming services. They get a cut of subscription revenue from Samsung customers who use Netflix, for example.

Last year, customers accused Samsung of inserting pop-up ads in a third-party streaming app, which the company said was an issue only in Australia even though customers worldwide reported the problem.

Samsung Adds More Ads to Its TVs [Wall Street Journal]

Report: For-Profit College Students Earn Less After Graduation Than They Did Before

For-profit college chains often market themselves to non-traditional students — single parents, lower income individuals, military servicemembers — as a viable path to better job prospects and more money. However, a new report suggests that enrolling in of these sometimes costly schools may not help students reach their goals.

A study recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that most students who enroll in certificate, associate and bachelor’s programs at for-profit colleges and universities generally see a decline in earnings five or six years after attendance, when compared to how much they earned before attending classes, Inside Higher Ed reports.

“Analysis of degree-seeking students suggests that on average associate’s and bachelor’s degree students experience a decline in earnings after attendance, relative to their own earnings in years prior to attendance,” the report states.

The study is based on Dept. of Education and the Internal Revenue Service data on 1.4 million students who enrolled in for-profit schools between 2006 to 2008.

Authors of the study suggest that the finding of negative economic impact of enrolling in for-profit colleges could be partially due to a large number of students who never graduate, but still acquire loads of student loan debt.

“The negative earnings effects we find are troubling given the debt that students incur to attend for-profit institutions,” the study says. “Examining the distribution of average annual earnings effects and average annual debt payments reveals that the vast majority of for-profit students experience both higher debt and lower earnings after attendance, relative to the years before attendance.”

Of those student who do graduate, the report found that many see a positive impact on wages, however, the authors suggest this is a minority for bachelor degree-seeking students, where only about 30% actually graduate. For master’s degree students, 60% of whom graduate, the impact is more positive.

When it comes to students seeking certificates, the report found that of the top 10 areas of study only graduates of cosmetology experienced higher earnings than their public sector counterparts.

However, the report notes, that none of the top 10 fields can be “shown to generate positive total earnings gains for for-profit students.”

“In absolute terms, we find no evidence of improved earnings post-enrollment for students in any of the top 10 for-profit fields and we can rule out that average effects are driven by a few low-performing institutions,” the report concludes.

Not So Gainfully Employed [Insider Higher Ed]

Starbucks Adding Nitro Cold Brew To The Menu At 500 Locations This Summer

Because there’s always time for a new trendy thing in coffee to catch on across the nation, Starbucks will have a new option on tap for customers at around 500 locations this summer: Nitro Cold Brew.

The company’s new offering will be available at stores in seven major U.S. cities this summer: Seattle, New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland.

So what exactly is Nitro Cold Brew? It infuses nitrogen in cold-brewed coffee, which gives it a “smooth and creamy sweetness,” Starbucks says. Cold-brewed coffee is made from steeping coffee beans in cold water for hours, unlike iced coffee, which is made by pouring hot coffee over ice.

“It almost comes out like a Guinness beer,” CEO Howard Schultz told CNNMoney of Nitro Cold Brew. “These are craft products, not dissimilar to the trend of craft beer.”

Starbucks started serving Nitro Cold Brew at its Roastery and Tasting Room in Seattle in March for $3.95, and it proved to be the second-best selling item on the menu.

Beyond the new nitro brew, Starbucks has a slew of other summer offerings, including a new “cold bar” menu at all 10,000 North American stores this summer. The bar will feature classics like iced coffee, cold brew, and iced espresso, as well as some new items like a “vanilla sweet cream” to top off a cold coffee and a “double shot on ice” made with chilled espresso, a dash of milk, and sugar.

This is all just the start of cold coffee’s world domination, at least according to top boss Schultz.

“For over 40 years we have perfected the craft of roasting and brewing the finest hot coffee and while we have always offered our customers new options in cold coffee, nothing will compare to the pace of flavor, craft and brewing innovation we will see in the next few years,” said Schultz said in a press release.

Pizza Hut To Cut Back On Preservatives, Antibiotics, Additives

Pizza may not have a reputation as a health food, but that’s no reason to use ingredients that may make the pizza even less good for you. In an effort to reach consumers clamoring for less-questionable fast food, Pizza Hut has announced some upcoming upgrades to its ingredients.

By the end of March 2017, Pizza Hut will cease using cheese with artificial preservatives. The company has set the same deadline for cutting out antibiotics in the chicken it uses — “for its pizzas.” It’s important to note that qualification as Pizza Hut also sells chicken wings and pasta dishes that contain chicken.

This summer (by the end of July), all the meat used at Pizza Hut will be free of two controversial food additives: butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), the latter of which is currently listed as a known carcinogen in California.

The company tells Fortune that it also plans to remove additional preservatives and additives by 2020.

The Consumerist Guide To Understanding Your Verizon Wireless Bill

We’ve spent a few months looking at why cable and internet bills are so confusing, and where all the fees come from. But if there’s one bill in our virtual mailboxes that’s even more bloated and byzantine than pay-TV bills, it’s wireless bills. Hundreds of millions of us get them, but odds are that most of us don’t understand every fee, tax, or surcharge we pay. So now it’s the mobile industry’s turn under our microscope. Up first: Verizon Wireless.

When you sign up a mobile plan — some combination of voice, text, and data — you agree to pay something like $39 or $75 per month for your service. But when you get your actual monthly statement, the price you pay can be more than 50% on top of that advertised rate, thanks to a heap of sometimes confusing charges and fees.

Who’s to blame for these extra costs? Everyone from state and local governments to the wireless provider itself. How can you tell which is which?

The below bill was provided to Consumerist by a real-life Verizon Wireless customer. This subscriber has a shared family plan with two smartphones on it — a pretty common scenario, especially for couples without kids or with kids too young to need or want a phone of their own — for the nominal rate of $45 per month.

However, this customer actually pays $125.77 per month. That means that of their total monthly bill, just over $80 — or 64% — is actually some kind of additional cost, charge, tax, or fee. Some of those are expected; some are not. Here’s how it all breaks down.

A Note: Mobile bills, as pieces of paperwork, tend to be sprawling; this sample from Verizon is nine pages long. To that end, we’ve done some cropping and re-aligning to make the relevant parts easier to read and discuss, and we’ve had to break it all down into multiple images. Aside from redacting consumers’ personal or identifying information, however, the bill’s actual content remains unchanged.



Verizon provides an overview of billing, and how it’s apportioned to each line, up front, along with a description of the subscription plan.

We haven’t broken it out here, because the line-by-line breakdowns that follow are more descriptive, but this one-shot view of which charges are apportioned to which line does appear here first.

If any line on the account had gone over its allotment of talk minutes, text messages, or data use, overage fees would also appear here in a quick-to-view grid.

 RED numbers (1, 2) are Verizon-originated charges.

Account Charges and Credits

1.) The Verizon Plan Medium 3 GB
This is the quoted price for the service bundle you subscribe to. In this case it’s Verizon’s “Medium” service tier, which includes 3 GB per month of data and unlimited talk and text. The data pool is shared among all devices on the plan.

On its website, Verizon describes the plan like so:


This is the “simplified” plan structure Verizon rolled out in August, 2015. (This subscriber has been a Verizon customer for ten years, but was off-contract for several months at the time of their last phone / plan upgrade in November 2015, and so was rolled into the “new customer” structure.)

This is the price you expect to pay, and the one you sign up for.

2.) 21% Access Discount
This consumer gets a discount from Verizon thanks to an agreement their employer has negotiated with Verizon Wireless. Many large corporate employers provide some similar mobile plan discount as an employee benefit, usually with the wireless provider that the company uses for its own business needs.

However, it’s worth noticing that the employee discount, in this case 21%, only applies to a very thin slice of the total $125 bill: the $45 for the “Medium Plan.” It does not apply to separate charges for smartphone use, for data use, for phone payments, or for anything else.

Not pictured: Any other applicable credits or refunds to your account, for specific service or billing issues, would appear in this general portion of the bill.

(KEY: RED numbers [3-12] are Verizon-originating fees; BLUE numbers [13-14] are government-mandated fees)

Monthly Charges

3.) Smartphone Line Access
Verizon charges you $20 per month, per line, for having and using a smartphone. This is not a charge for data usage, nor is it any kind of device payment plan. It has nothing whatsoever to do with any usage. This subscriber has to pay Verizon $40 a month, on top of their $45 usage subscription plan, simply because the phones on both lines are smartphones.

(This is different from the one-time $20 upgrade fee customers incur when they upgrade their phones, or the one-time $20 activation fee they charge customers when those new phones are turned on. Those charges would appear under a different part of the bill or, more likely, would be charged up front at the point of sale.)

4a.) Device Payment Agreement [number]
4b.) Device Payment Agreement [different number]

When Verizon changed its billing structure in 2015, they did away with the traditional two-year contract and heavily subsidized phone purchase.

So when this customer went to upgrade some months ago, instead of paying $200 each for new smartphones and being locked into a two-year contract with Verizon, they traded in their old phones and pay the balance of the new ones — between $300 and $400 per line, in this case — in monthly installments, over the course of two years.

From a consumer perspective, it works out about the same: you’re locked into a 24-month plan with a large lump sum payment due if you go elsewhere before you’re done. It’s just that now it’s the balance of the phone payment, and not an early termination fee (ETF).

In this subscriber’s case, one of the phones being paid off over time is an iPhone 6S and the other is a Samsung Galaxy S6.

Usage and Purchase Charges

5.) Voice
This is where Verizon lists charges for voice minutes used. Most of its available new plans include unlimited voice, but some plans still meter minutes.

A full breakdown of what numbers each line called or were called by, where those calls originated, when the calls happened, and how long each call lasted appears on subsequent pages of the bill. (We’re leaving those pages out for brevity and for consumer privacy, but they’re pretty self-explanatory.)

6.) Messaging
This is where Verizon lists charges for text (SMS) messages sent and received. Most of its available new plans include unlimited texting, but some plans still meter messages.

7.) Data
This is where Verizon lists how much data each individual line on the account used. If the sum across all phone lines is greater than the monthly plan, you win an overage fee. Both users on this particular account mainly use their phones on WiFi, though, and so their data usage is well within the 3 GB allotment they subscribe to from Verizon.

Not pictured: Other purchase and usage charges, like roaming fees, international calling, international travel plans, or charitable donations or purchases made by text message, appear under this section of the bill when incurred. If you do have charges in this section you don’t remember, double-check them to be sure they’re not from cramming.

Verizon Wireless’ Surcharges+

8.) Fed Universal Service Charge
The FCC’s Universal Service Fund pays for programs like Lifeline that help subsidize and expand phone and internet coverage to rural and/or low-income Americans who would otherwise remain unserved.

The Universal Service Fund is paid into by telecom operators, who are permitted — but not obligated — to recoup that cost from consumers. That said, basically all carriers pass through their USF contributions as line-item fees to their subscribers. This is Verizon’s.

(Many states also have a state-level universal service fund into which phone companies must contribute, but this subscriber’s does not.)

9.) Regulatory Charge
The FCC collects annual fees from telephone and cable operators; that’s part of where the commission budget comes from.

Just like with the USF fee above, the FCC rules permit — but do not require — operators to recover regulatory fees from subscribers in monthly installments. Technically speaking, Verizon doesn’t have to pass this fee through to consumers. (But everyone consistently passes this fee through to customers.)

10.) Administrative Charge
Verizon’s describes this as basically a catch-all fee for recouping costs of things it is required to do.

Verizon uses these charges to pay for costs including property taxes, facility fees, regulatory obligations, and related costs of doing business. The company also says that this is a Verizon fee, not a tax, and that is subject to change.

11.) [State] Gross Receipts Surchg
The state where this subscriber lives levies a gross receipts tax on most large commercial enterprises with revenue exceeding a certain threshold. The state law does not explicitly say whether businesses can or must pass the fee through to consumers as a line item, but it also doesn’t say that they can’t. So Verizon does.

12.) Local BUS Lic Surchg
The municipal area where this subscriber lives imposes a Business License Tax on most commercial enterprises with revenue exceeding a certain threshold. For telecom companies, it’s equivalent to 0.5% of gross revenue (earned in that jurisdiction). The local law, like the state law, does not explicitly say companies can or must pass the fee through to consumers as a line item, but also doesn’t say they can’t.

Taxes, Governmental Surcharges and Fees+

13.) State 911 Fee
The state where this subscriber lives imposes a charge on every phone line — landline and wireless — to contribute to financing the state’s Enhanced 911 services. Two phone lines on one bill means two fees on one bill. The vast majority of states impose some similar kind of fee.

14.) Communication Sales Tax
The state where this subscriber lives imposes a sales tax on all wireless phone service, same as they do on landline, cable, and satellite service.

In this instance, it’s the same flat sales tax rate as on all other purchases. However both the subscriber’s state and municipal jurisdictions levy a sales tax (a scenario like a 5% state tax plus another 1% locally) and Verizon has rolled them together into one flat sales tax charge.

Googling “[state name] communications tax” should be the fastest way to find the voice tax rates in your state. Rates may also vary based on county or municipality.

Verizon Wireless not your mobile phone provider? Fear not! We’re just kicking off this series, and will have bills from AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint coming down the pike in the days to come.

vendredi 27 mai 2016

Target Shutting Down Curbside Pickup Pilot Program Effective June 15

If you were hoping that Target’s curbside pickup would eventually reach your city, your hopes are for naught: Target tells Consumerist the pilot program will be discontinued effective June 15.

After Consumerist received word that the program — which it started in October 2014 with partner Curbside, and was being tested in 121 stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles — would be shut down, we reached out to Target headquarters.

The company confirmed what we’d heard, saying in an emailed statement that it had “learned a lot” from the pilot, but “as we’ve shared for months now, at this time Target is focused on making sure we deliver and execute on retail fundamentals.”

That includes devoting more of its resources toward “enhancing” its “core of digital-stores offerings such as Cartwheel, Order Pickup and shipping online orders from stores.”

“The pilot with Curbside will be discontinued in mid-June as part of those efforts,” Target says.

Because we’re feeling nostalgic, here’s a (very brief) timeline of events that led up to the program going kaput:

October 2015: Target and Curbside launched their pilot program at stores in the San Francisco Bay area. (Warning: auto-play video at that link)

October 2015: Target and Curbside expanded their partnership to an additional 100 stores, bringing the service to select stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.

May 17, 2016: Target digital chief told Re/Code that customers shouldn’t expect to see an increase in partnerships with startups like Curbside and Instacart.

Verizon Strike Appears Near End After Unions, Management Reach Agreement In Principle

After more than six weeks, thousands of striking Verizon workers may be heading back to work soon. According to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, the telecom giant and union leaders have reached an agreement in principle.

In mid-April, around 39,000 Verizon employees — members of the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers unions — went on strike as contract negotiations fell apart, affecting millions of landline phone and FiOS customers in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

“Today, I am pleased to announce that the parties have reached an agreement in principle on a four-year contract, resolving the open issues in the ongoing labor dispute between Verizon’s workers, unions, and management,” said Perez in a statement Friday afternoon. “The parties are now working to reduce the agreement to writing, after which the proposal will be submitted to CWA and IBEW union members for ratification.”

Perez did not disclose any of the terms of the agreement, but did praise both labor and management for working with federal regulators over the last two weeks to reach this point.

“The parties have a shared interest in the success of Verizon and its dedicated workforce,” says the Secretary. “Indeed, these two interests are inextricably intertwined.”

Perez says he expects the striking Verizon workers to be back at work in the coming week.

Some Health Providers Are Sharing Patients’ Info Online In Reaction To Bad Yelp Reviews

Now that we live in a world where it seems everything can be rated — from your restaurant experience to your root canal — privacy issues are popping up in unexpected places. Like in health care providers’ responses to negative reviews from patients on Yelp, for example.

ProPublica teamed up with The Washington Post and found many situations where doctors and others zapped by negative reviews have replied to those patients’ negative reviews online, and in doing so, revealed details of medical treatment.

Yelp gave ProPublic access to its public reviews, totaling more than 1.7 million, and let the group research them by keyword. ProPublica identified more than 3,500 one-star reviews in which patients mentioned privacy or HIPAA (otherwise known as The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 which outlines patients’ rights to privacy, among other things [PDF]).

There was a dentist’s reply to a patient who blamed him for losing a molar, which read: “Due to your clenching and grinding habit, this is not the first molar tooth you have lost due to a fractured root. This tooth is no different.”

Or a chiropractor who disagreed with a mom’s reviewing claiming that he’d misdiagnosed her daughter with scoliosis: “You brought your daughter in for the exam in early March 2014,” he wrote. “The exam identified one or more of the signs I mentioned above for scoliosis. I absolutely recommended an x-ray to determine if this condition existed; this x-ray was at no additional cost to you.”

Affected patients say they suffer doubly in theses cases: first there’s the poor service or care, and then the pain that comes with the disclosure of information they thought was private. Sometimes, the shock of having such details revealed works, and patients back off.

“I posted a negative review” on Yelp, a client of a California dentist wrote in 2013. “After that, she posted a response with details that included my personal dental information. … I removed my review to protect my medical privacy.”

The patient took their story to the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which enforces HIPAA, ProPublica reports, and the office warned the dentist about posting personal info in Yelp reviews. It’s also currently investigating a New York dentist for disclosing personal info about a patient who complained about her care.

Health professionals responding online to reviews are allowed to speak generally about how they treat patients, but must get permission to discuss individual cases, HHS says. Rating your health provider doesn’t give them the right to rate you in return, basically.

“If the complaint is about poor patient care, they can come back and say, ‘I provide all of my patients with good patient care’ and ‘I’ve been reviewed in other contexts and have good reviews,’ ” Deven McGraw, the office’s deputy director of health information privacy told ProPublica. But they can’t “take those accusations on individually by the patient.”

For the most part, however, reviews of doctors and dentists stick to a few common themes that aren’t about health care delivered, but rather things like the office wait, the front desk staff, billing procedures, or bedside manner, according to Yelp’s senior director of litigation, Aaron Schur.

Many providers are appropriate in responding to online reviews, he says, while some don’t respond at all.

“There’s certainly ways to respond to reviews that don’t implicate HIPAA,” Schur told ProPublica.

For more on ProPublica’s report, check out the source link below.

Stung by Yelp Reviews, Health Providers Spill Patient Secrets [ProPublica]

Drug Companies Subpoenaed Over Questionable Charity Connections

Whenever there is a report of a drug company jacking up the price of a prescription medication, the pharma industry is often quick to point out that there are non-profit charities ready and willing to help patients get these drugs at a more affordable rate. However, those charities may have very close ties to the drug maker that could not only help the company turn a profit, but avoid some tax obligations. In recent months, several large pharmaceutical companies have been subpoenaed as part of an ongoing federal investigation into these connections.

It works like this: Bob’s Drug Company acquires the rights to prescription drug Gleemonex and decides to jack up the price 500%, knowing that some people will not be able to afford the co-pay. However, it’s in the interest of Bob to keep as many patients using Gleemonex as possible, so it looks for ways to make the drug more affordable to those most in need: low-income patients on Medicare.

Now, Bob’s Drug Co. can’t directly fund the co-pay of a Medicare patient. That would effectively be Bob paying Bob, which is an illegal kickback under federal law. What Bob can do is call Sally’s Drug Charity, which will cover the Medicare co-pay on certain drugs.

So Bob makes a sizable donation, which Sally can then use to make Medicare co-pays, meaning patients continue using Gleemonex.

Thing is, while the Medicare patient isn’t having to go broke paying for Gleemonex, taxpayers might be. After all, the co-pay is usually only a fraction of the full amount that Medicare pays to the drug maker. Thus, Bob continues to get the full Medicare payment and enjoy the tax write-off from his donation to Sally’s charity.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek recently published an entire cover story on how the pharma industry uses these charities for their own financial, tax, and public-relations benefit. You should definitely check it out.

Today, Bloomberg published a story on the string of subpoenas issued to four high-profile pharma companies — Valeant, Gilead Sciencse, Biogen, and Jazz Pharmaceuticals — since last fall, mostly by federal prosecutors out of Massachusetts.

The nature of the subpoenas is vague, though they do reference investigations into the companies’ relationships with co-pay charties.

With Medicare on the hook for the balance of these prescription payments, the federal government is taking a particular interest in the possibility that drug makers have exerted too much influence over these charities as donations have grown.

Since 2010, donations to the seven biggest co-pay charities have more than doubled, reaching $1.1 billion in 2014.

Going back to the above fictional example: Under the law, Sally is not supposed to be swayed by Bob or other donors when it comes to which drugs it chooses to cover, which patients to accept, or how much of each drugs co-pay it will subsidize. So if Sally is covers co-pays for a competitor to Gleemonex, she can’t be swayed by Bob’s big bucks to give preferential treatment to his drug.

Recent reports indicate that some charities’ practices may have been motivated by donor money. For example, former employees at one charity told Bloomberg that when patients needed Jazz narcolepsy medication Xyrem, they were processed in a time manner, while patients seeking co-pay help for competing narcolepsy drugs were sometimes steered away or wait-listed if that other company wasn’t also donating to the charity.

The charities have denied allegations of favoritism of bad practices.

Technology That Improves Phones Also Means Scam Calls Are Easy And Dirt Cheap

The same technology that means you can talk to friends or loved ones anywhere in the world for pennies per minute or for free has a harmful downside: it also means that scammers anywhere in the world can call you cheaply, too, using overseas call centers and an utter lack of human empathy to drain the pockets of victims, who are mostly senior citizens.

We’ve shared stories about most of these scam types in the past, from IRS scams to grandparent scams to lottery scams and tech support scams. The fraudulent calls simply don’t stop, and experts agree that the best way to get rid of them is with robocall-blocking devices, to keep them away from vulnerable people altogether.

The combination of cheap technology to make calls and block one’s number is perfect for scammers, who once would have had to invest tens of thousands of dollars for a system to block or to “spoof” their caller ID. Today, robocalling technology is cheap. It’s hard to catch phone scammers and harder still to prosecute them when they work abroad.

Members of the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging have been encouraging phone companies to add robocall-blocking, as have our policy-minded colleagues down the hall at Consumers Union.

How bad is the problem? The Federal Trade Commission reports that they received a record 1.7 million complaints during the first four months of 2016. Those are just the people who took the time to complain.

Part of that may be greater awareness of the problem and more people reporting the calls they do receive to the FTC, but the calls simply aren’t going away.

One woman who fell for a tech support scam went along because the scammer sounded competent and authoritative. “He sounded like he knew what he was talking about,” she told the Wall Street Journal, “so I just kind of followed along.”

Phone Scam ‘Onslaught’ Has Authorities Scrambling [Wall Street Journal]

Ticks Are Your Enemies, Here Is How To Destroy Them With Your Dryer

If you’re going for a hike this holiday weekend to enjoy the beauty only nature can provide, there is one thing you should know: ticks are your enemies, they’re out for your blood, and it’s up to you to destroy them.

The Centers for Disease Control has some handy tips on how to prevent tick bites — walking in the center of trails, using strong repellants containing DEET, treating clothing with permethrin products, etc. — but even the best laid battle plans can’t always keep one of the little suckers from hitching a ride home with you.

To rout out any ticks that may have latched on while you were out tramping through the woods or other brushy areas, the CDC recommends you bathe or shower as soon as you can after you come inside, preferably within two hours, and conduct a “full-body tick check” with a hand mirror.

Don’t stop there, because the ticks certainly won’t: leaving clothing around that may be hiding ticks is also a bad idea. If you can’t wash your clothing in hot water, you can at least tumble dry clothes in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes (damp clothing will take longer), which will kill off any ticks stuck on clothing, the CDC recommends.

Simply washing/dunking clothes in cold and medium temperature water won’t do the trick either, the CDC warns. If you don’t have hot water and need to wash your clothing, make sure to tumble dry on low heat for at least 70 minutes or high heat for 40 minutes. The clothes should be warm and completely dry.

Notable tick borne diseases these steps will help prevent include: Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, Ehrlichiosis, Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Over 427M Hacked Myspace Passwords Set Loose Online

Okay, okay, we know what you’re thinking: “Myspace?” you scoff, “It’s 2016! I haven’t had a Myspace account since I was a kid! My gosh, what’s next, CompuServe?”

And, yes, we get it — MySpace isn’t exactly the new hotness these days. It’s barely even the old hotness. It’s more like an old, forgotten sock in the laundry room. But the leak, reported by Motherboard, of 427,484,128 passwords is still a big honking deal.

For one thing, although Myspace is the punchline of any internet joke, it still boasts 50 million unique users per month — not a number that holds a candle to Facebook’s 1.6 billion, granted, but still no small feat.

But there’s an even bigger reason, aside from those 50 million loyal users, that this is a problem: because we, as a cultural beast, kind of completely suck at password management practices. We reuse them, even when we know we’re not supposed to. We use bad ones, even when we know we ought not. We — especially if we are teenagers or young adults signing up for an early social network — follow predictable patterns.

So maybe, in the year of our Facebook two thousand sixteen, you don’t care what someone does with your old Myspace account. But the 360 million e-mail address/password combos in the leaked data are certain to yield at least a few active, useful combinations that work on other sites.

As Motherboard also points out, if the numbers pan out then this would be one of the largest password heists ever on record… and somehow, over the course of nearly 13 years of continuous Myspace operation, has never once been mentioned before. That means one of two things: either Myspace never figured out they were being hacked, or did, and chose not to disclose it ever. Both options are awful for users of the site.

Also, in case you are curious, many of the passwords in the database are, indeed, terrible. “password1” ranks right near the top, as do “abc123,” “123456,” and “myspace 1.” Perhaps also reflecting the site’s demographic base, “f*ckyou1” and “iloveyou1” also both appear more than 120,000 times.

Hackers Claim to Have a Stunning 427 Million Myspace Passwords [Vice Motherboard]

Chicago Officials: TSA Wait Times Have Dropped To Less Than 10 Minutes At City’s Airports

After weeks of excessively long lines at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints plagued travelers going through Chicago’s airports, the city’s officials says wait times are down to less than 10 minutes.

While everyone hates unending lines at the airport, Chicago’s had it pretty bad recently, including a backup at O’Hare International Airport that was so bad, 450 American Airlines passengers were stuck overnight.

Things are looking up at the start of the Memorial Day weekend though, as officials in the Windy City say aver security wait times at O’Hare have dropped to eight minutes, and to nine minutes at Midway, the Chicago Tribune reports.

This isn’t some kind of ancient travel god magic, of course, as TSA has been yelled at by pretty much everyone recently for the heinous wait times at airports all around the country. To alleviate the excessive issues at Chicago airports, the agency recently sent additional screening staff to the city’s airports , and is expected to send additional staff next month.

Delays started to ease earlier this week, when officials reported that wait times had been trimmed down to 15 minutes.

Let’s keep this going guys — let’s aim for NO waiting at all. Now that would be some ancient travel god magic.

After shake-up, TSA wait times in Chicago drop to less than 10 minutes: city [Chicago Tribune]

Is Facebook Trying To Scuttle Facial-Recognition Lawsuit By Changing Illinois Law?

Earlier this month, a federal court gave the go-ahead to a lawsuit alleging that Facebook’s photo-scanning, facial-recognition feature violated Illinois state law. Having lost that legal battle, it looks like Facebook may be trying to get out of the lawsuit by simply changing that Illinois law.

The law in question is the Biometric Information Privacy Act, which sets restrictions on the collection and storage of biometric data.

At issue is whether Facebook’s Tag Suggestions feature — which scans users’ photos and then tries to match that data to previously tagged users — should be considered as biometric data under this law.

The BIPA does currently state that “photographs” do not count as biometric identifiers, but does that mean a physical photograph or any image of a human? Is there a difference between a photo that is archived without any sort of analysis or data gleaned from it, versus a photo that is scanned, analyzed, and compared to millions of other similarly uploaded images? The BIPA does not say, and that is a dispute that would likely make for lively debate at hearings or in a trial.

However, yesterday, some members of the Illinois General Assembly introduced a rider — piggy-backed on a bill about unclaimed property — that amends the BIPA in such a way as to effectively win Facebook’s case before it gets to court.

First, the amendment revises the term “photographs” to make it clear that it means both “physical and digital photographs” are exempted from the definition of “biometric identifiers.”

The rider then goes on to clarify that you can’t create a biometric identifier from these photographs, meaning all data collected from scans of Facebook photos is exempted from the law.

Perhaps most importantly, the rider adds an entirely new definition to the law. If passed, a “Scan” would only refer to “data resulting from an in-person process whereby a part of the body is traversed by a detector or an electronic beam.”

Thus, Facebook would not be “scanning” users’ photos under the law, because it would be taking information from a digital version of a photo.

The Illinois legislative session is drawing to a close in the coming days, so this rider will likely come up for consideration soon.

Facebook has not yet replied to Consumerist’s request for comment on this story, but we will update if we hear anything back.

The social media site had previously tried to get the Illinois case dismissed by arguing that all the plaintiffs had, by okaying the Facebook terms of use, agreed that California law governs any disputes with the company. California does not have a law similar to BIPA.

While the court found that the plaintiffs had indeed agreed to the Facebook terms of use, it ultimately determined that Facebook could not use this clause to negate the Illinois state law.

“There can be no reasonable doubt that the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act embodies a fundamental policy of the state of Illinois,” explained the court, noting “if California law is applied, the Illinois policy of protecting its citizens’ privacy interests in their biometric data, especially in the context of dealing with ‘major national corporations’ like Facebook, would be written out of existence.”

Mayborn USA Recalling More Than 3M Spill-Proof Cups Because Drinking Mold Is Gross

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Before you hand that sippy cup over to your toddler, you might want to take a minute to make sure it’s not one of three million spill-proof vessels being recalled due to risk of mold. We may not know everything about kids here at Consumerist, but we’re will to bet swallowing mold wouldn’t be a popular experience.

Mayborn USA is calling back three million Tommee Tippee Sippee cups because mold can develop on a removable, one-piece valve inside the cups, if the piece gets wet (which it will if you’re using it) and stays wet, and is “infrequently cleaned,” the Consumer Product Safety Commission says.

The cups have a 7 to 10 oz. capacity and were sold for children ages 4 to 12 months. They were sold in a bunch of places: BuyBuy Baby, CVS, Giant, Kohl’s, Marco Baby, Marshalls, Meijer, Sam’s Club, Ross Stores, Target, Bealls Outlet, Walgreens, Wal-Mart and other mass merchandise stores nationwide, as well as online at,, and from December 2014 through May 2016 for between $4 and $7.

“What’s a little mold?” you might be saying. Well, it might not make you feel very good, the CPSC says, noting that ingesting it can pose “a risk of gastrointestinal symptoms and infections in consumers with compromised immune systems.”

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled Sippee cups and contact Mayborn to receive a free replacement cup.