mercredi 30 novembre 2016

Feds Say New York’s “I Love NY” Highway Signs Violate The Law

Whether or not you actually feel affection toward New York, drivers cruising the state’s highways and byways are no doubt familiar with the proliferation of blue “I Love NY” signs that dot the roadside promoting tourism. But there’s one party that definitely doesn’t love the state for using those signs — the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Transportation warned the state that signs aren’t compliant with federal standards as cited in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices [PDF], which says that tourist information signs either constructed within rest areas on freeways and expressways or located within close proximity to these facilities cannot contain “an excessive number of supplemental panels… so as not to overload the road user.”

New York’s signs are too big and filled with too much information, the federal DOT warned the state — before they started going up more than five years ago — and thus, could be dangerously distracting to drivers, The New York Times notes.

But the state went ahead and put up 514 of the signs anyway, and officials are not shy about how much they love them.

“The goal is to get people who are on the roads off the roads and into communities and fostering and promoting the economy of the State of New York,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in his State of the State address in 2014, three years after federal officials first called attention to the issue.

New York is now facing fines and the potential withholding of federal financing for state highways, with state and federal transportation departments slated to meet next month to discuss things. That being said, the state doesn’t seem ready to give up its beloved signs: officials see the signs as an important way to promote tourism, and industry that generated $102 billion for New York in 2015.

“This issue has been discussed for years and involve issues like the interpretation of rules,” a spokesman for the state Transportation Department told the NYT, including things like which direction the signs can face, and whether or not they can include email addresses and the like. “This isn’t high crime, but minor disagreements that we look forward to meeting with the feds in order to resolve. The ‘I Love N.Y.’ tourism program is highly successful and a big economic driver.”

Federal officials say they aren’t messing around, however.

“We have been clear with the New York State Department of Transportation that its tourism-related signs are out of compliance” and need to be removed, a spokesman for the federal transportation department told the Times. “If it becomes clear that is not going to happen, we will make a determination about the penalty. It could be a range of things, from withholding federal approval for projects to withholding highway funding. We hope it does not come to that.”

The ‘Legendary Franchisee’ Who Invented The Big Mac Has Died

While you might want to believe that Ronald McDonald cooked up the first Big Mac, McDonald’s signature sandwich was in fact created by a Pittsburgh-area franchisee who had the earth-shattering idea of stacking two patties and buns into a single sandwich that would fill the bellies of his super-hungry customers. Now we bring you the sad news that this visionary franchisee has passed away.

Michael James “Jim” Delligatti — who started selling the Big Mac locally in 1967 before it went national the next year — didn’t live to celebrate the 50th birthday of his creation, but he did live to the age of 98. His son claims that he kept eating Big Macs more or less weekly for decades, which is probably not a longevity secret that other people should try.

According to the Associated Press, Delligatti owned 47 McDonald’s franchises around Pennsylvania. The McDonald’s menu was pretty simple at the time, something that current franchisees probably long for. Local customers wanted a bigger sandwich than a plain burger, and he listened. The chain resisted complicating the menu at first, but eventually added the popular burger stack to its menu. It became a signature item, and the company is even adding both larger and smaller versions to its menu as a limited-time offering.

As if that weren’t enough, Delligatti was also one of the early franchisees to create a fast food breakfast menu including hotcakes and sausages, originally meant for for night-shift steelworkers looking for breakfast food after their work day. In a statement, McDonald’s described him as a “legendary franchisee within McDonald’s system.”

Student Loan Repayment Programs Will Eventually Forgive $108B In Debt

While several recent reports have suggested that many student loan borrowers face needless hurdles when trying to reduce their monthly payments through the Department of Education’s income-driven repayment plans, a new study has found the programs are working and will eventually forgive $108 billion in outstanding student debt. 

The Wall Street Journal reports that a soon-to-be released Government Accountability Office report estimates that $137 billion of student loan debt currently enrolled in the Dept. of Education’s income-driven repayment plan will never be repaid.

While $108 billion is a huge amount of money, it’s just a sliver of the $1.26 trillion — yes, with a “T” — in outstanding student loan debt currently held by the government.

Still, according to the report, students enrolled in the plans — which cap a borrower’s student loan payment at a percentage of their monthly income — owe some $355 billion. Of that figure, $137 billion won’t be repaid, including $108 billion that will be forgiven after 10 or 20 years, per the terms of the plan.

The remaining $29 billion will be written off by the Department because a borrower has been disabled or has died.

The income-driven repayment plans are designed to prevent borrowers from defaulting on their loans.

Borrowers of federal student loans are eligible to enroll in income-driven repayment programs that cap a borrower’s student loan payment at a percentage of their monthly income. Additionally, borrowers who make payments under income-driven plans can have their debts forgiven after a minimum of 20 years of payments.

According to the GAO report, the $108 billion in forgiven student loan debt doesn’t include any funds the Dept. writes off as part of the “Borrower Defense” program. Under that program, student loans are forgiven if a student can prove their college lured them to enroll with deceptive practices.

The tab for that particular program will likely see a significant increase in coming years following the demise of several for-profit college chains, including ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian College Inc’s Everest University, Heald College, and WyoTech brands.

While the GAO report notes that it will likely take 40 years before the entire cost of the programs is known, past budget proposals have shed a bit of light on the increasing costs.

In 2015, the Washington Post reported that the President’s 2016 budget proposal contained a revised estimate of the costs of the repayment plans, totaling $22 billion more than previously expected.

For a little perspective, in April 2014 the estimated cost of the same program was expected to reach $14 billion, exceeding government expectations by 90%.

U.S. to Forgive at Least $108 Billion in Student Debt in Coming Years [Wall Street Journal]

AT&T Confirms Live Access To NBC Is Still Mobile-Only On ‘DirecTV Now’

Earlier this week at the official launch event for the DirecTV Now live-TV streaming service, I and others noticed that while the live feed for the local NBC affiliate was showing up on the DirecTV Now mobile app, the channel was absent from the lineup of stations available for viewing on your actual TV. AT&T staff that we spoke to at the event insisted that this would not be the case when the service launched, but DirecTV Now is now live — and NBC is still not working on users’ TV sets.

When we asked about the lack of NBC in the demo version, AT&T explained that this was because we were being shown a beta version of the app; the launch version would include NBC in the markets where the network owns the local affiliate (New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, among a handful of others).

We’re currently trying DirecTV Now out (NOTE: We are paying for access and not using any discount or media access code) in Philadelphia, and immediately noticed this afternoon that the local NBC station appears to work just fine on the mobile app, but is nowhere to be found when watching DirecTV Now through an Amazon Fire TV stick.

READ MORE: 6 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Deciding Whether To Try ‘DirecTV Now’

A rep for AT&T now tells Consumerist that the lack of NBC on TV is a “technical issue” that the company hopes to correct “in the coming weeks.”

It’s unclear what that technical issue might be, or why AT&T can stream various other NBC properties.

While NBC isn’t currently available live on DirecTV Now users’ TVs, the network’s on-demand library is available for streaming to your TV. So you’ll miss your local news, but you can watch The Blacklist. Whether that’s a good tradeoff will depend on your tolerance for late-model James Spader.

Here are some other issues and concerns we’ve heard about from readers:

• The lack of regional sports network (RSN) coverage. AT&T had told us on Monday that “if an RSN is available on DirecTV in your market, then it will be on DirecTV Now.” However, that doesn’t appear to be true. For example, DirecTV in NYC carries YES, MSG, and SNY sports channels, but DirecTV Now only appears to carry YES. More baffling is the lack of ROOT Sports channels in some markets, as AT&T owns this brand.

• If you want to use a Google Chromecast to bring DirecTV Now to your TV, you’ll need an Android device. That option won’t be coming to iOS until next year some time.

• While the service is portable, access to local stations is not. For example, we started using the service this morning on a mobile device in the New York City market — but with a Philadelphia billing address. As a result, no local TV stations were available until the device reached the Philadelphia area. So don’t plan on being able to watch your local stations on the road, or being able to watch the local stations of whatever town you’re visiting.

• We’ve heard about — and experienced — numerous problems with logins, password resets, error messages, and unavailable customer service. For now we’re willing to chalk that up to launch day glitches and congestion.

You Could End Up Paying More For Your Christmas Tree This Year

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in many homes across America, but could tree shortages caused by droughts and other problems in some states dampen holiday spirits?

Although you’ll likely be able to find plenty of trees, you might end up paying more for a tree this year in some parts of the country, or finding there’s less variety to choose from.

For example, one grower in drought-stricken Southern California said prices went up by 10% because many sellers have left the market in the last few years.

“We’ve never seen a shortage. Nothing like this at all,” he told CBS Los Angeles of his 37 years in the Christmas tree business.

Drought is also affecting California’s neighbors to the north in Oregon, where consumers are also facing higher prices for their holiday flora, reported.

Growers have left the market there as well, or are selling fewer trees, in response to poor weather and an overabundance of supply in recent years. Such a shortage in the Pacific Northwest might boost prices elsewhere in the country as well, as trees from that region are often sold to buyers outside the state.

According to, there may be less variety in Tennessee this season as well, due to wildfires that have been destroying any vegetation in their path, though growers report business is still okay the moment.

In North Carolina, Mother Nature might not disrupt the Christmas tree market this year, but farmers say drought in the western part of the state could cause problems down the road.

“I wouldn’t say it’s affected the crop this year, but the next year or two you’ll see a shortage in the trees because the amount of water, and the weather depends on how much the tree grows,” one grower told WWAY-TV.

There will be plenty of trees in Hawaii this year, but if you want a particular kind of tree, say, a Douglas fir, you should shop early, one grower explained to Hawaii News Now. That’s because the state imported 20,000 fewer trees this year than it did last season.

And in Alabama, some growers say they have enough trees, but they might be a bit smaller than usually because of a drought in that state, WHNT-19 reported.

Whatever happens, just don’t cut your own and then refuse to pay.

Why GM Is Okay Losing Money On The Electric Chevy Bolt

When it comes to electric vehicles, consumers have to be willing to spend a pretty penny in order to reduce their emissions. But it’s not just car owners that are shelling out for more environmentally friendly rides, carmakers are too: on top of the cost to create, test, and manufacture the vehicles, companies, like General Motors, are regularly taking a hit when it comes to putting keys in customers’ hands. But why?

Bloomberg —  citing sources familiar with the matter — reports that for each new zero-emission Chevrolet Bolt (not to be confused with the similarly named, but not all-electric Volt) sold GM will lose about $9,000.

While that isn’t a small chunk of change, it appears to be a necessary sacrifice for carmakers who want to continue selling vehicles in certain states with strict clean-air rules. Currently, 10 states — including California, New York, and New Jersey — have laws on the books that require carmakers to make up a certain percentage of their sales though electric vehicles.

In order to do this, many manufacturers are going into the red, and that’s apparently something they’re willing to do.

For GM, Bloomberg, citing a source familiar with the matter, reports, that means taking a $8,000 to $9,000 loss on each roughly $37,000 Bolt sold.

Of course, GM isn’t the only carmaker to take a hit: analysts estimate most carmakers are losing an average of $10,000 per electric vehicle sold. In 2014, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne revealed that the company lost about $14,000 for every battery-powered Fiat 500e sold.

Last year, Reuters reported that Tesla had lost an average of $4,000 on each car it sold. The losses were an estimate based on the company’s operating costs and reduced production targets.

Still, Bloomberg reports that the losses are a necessary evil: companies have to sell EVs to stay compliant with the law and selling more means they can make other EV vehicles like trucks or SUVs that might be more appealing to buyers.

A big part of why carmakers are willing to take the losses are the zero-emission vehicle credits begin doled out.

According to Bloomberg’s math, in California GM would need to sell 30,794 Bolts or Volts to avoid hefty fines or being prohibited from selling vehicles in the state. For each car sold, GM will be awarded four credits. Any excess credits can then be sold to other carmakers, making GM money.

Bloomberg notes that it’s not all doom and gloom for manufacturers. One day, EV models could become the hallmark of carmakers — when charging-stations are widely available and battery prices are lower.

Until then for any would be EV owners, discounted cars and incentives — such as the $7,500 tax credit — could make buying a Bolt, 500e, or other EV model appealing in some cases, Bloomberg notes,

GM’s Ready to Lose $9,000 a Pop and Chase the Electric Car Boom [Bloomberg]

Senators Make Last-Ditch Attempt To Block Expanded Government Hacking Authority

There’s a change coming that could arguably make it a lot easier for feds to snoop through your digital stuff, even if you’ve done nothing but been the victim of some malware. If Congress doesn’t act to stop it, that change to Rule 41 becomes effective basically at midnight tonight. So a handful of Senators who want to block it are all but begging their colleagues to act now.

So what is Rule 41? Here’s the TL;DR version: it’s a section of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure that details how legal searches and seizures can be conducted.

The dispute is over some amendments to the rule written by the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body for the federal court system. In April, the Supreme Court approved those changes, which would allow federal magistrate judges to issue warrants that let law enforcement remotely search through computers outside of the court’s physical jurisdiction, and to seize data on those computers if the device’s location is “concealed through technological means,” or if the computer was part of a botnet used in a cyber attack.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation ran a deep-dive explanation of the implications of this change back in April, but in short, critics argue that the changes to Rule 41 drastically expand procedural power (the things law enforcement can legally, regularly do) to access more people’s stuff with less reason.

In May, several senators introduced the SMH Act (yes, really) seeking to limit the Rule 41 changes from going into effect.

“An agency with the record of the Justice Department shouldn’t be able to wave its arms and grant itself entirely new powers,” Sen. Ron Wyden (OR) said at the time. “The American public should understand that these changes won’t just affect criminal … the amendments would also dramatically expand the government’s ability to hack the electronic devices of law-abiding Americans if their devices were affected by a computer attack.”

When the bill was put forward, the Justice Department immediately fired back, saying the lawmakers’ concerns were unfounded.

The bill hasn’t moved yet, but meanwhile, in October, 23 members of Congress followed up with a letter to the DOJ, asking just what it plans to do with the expanded authority Rule 41 will grant it.

The DOJ responded to that letter last week, and some of the Senators who signed on to the original found its response to be lackluster at best.

And that brings us to today. The rule changes go into effect on Dec. 1, which comes in just a handful of hours. The deadline is here, and if anyone in Congress is going to act, it’s now or never.

So some of the Senators that have been raising this issue for months are pushing for now. Wyden, joined by Sens. Chris Coons (DE) and Steve Daines (MT) are asking the Senate immediately to pass or vote on measures that would either block or delay the implementation of the Rule 41 changes.

“By sitting here and doing nothing, the Senate has given consent to this expansion of government hacking and surveillance,” Wyden said in a statement. “Law-abiding Americans are going to ask ‘what were you guys thinking? when the FBI starts hacking victims of a botnet hack. Or when a mass hack goes awry and breaks their device, or an entire hospital system and puts lives at risk.”

“If we fail to act today, these changes to Rule 41 will go into effect tomorrow without any hearing or markup to consider and evaluate the impact of the changes,” Coons added. “While the proposed changes are not necessarily bad or good, they are serious, and they present significant privacy concerns that warrant careful consideration and debate.”

Daines was more concise, saying about it only: “We can’t give unlimited power for unlimited hacking – putting Americans’ civil liberties at risk.”

If Congress does not act before the clock chimes midnight, then the amended Rule 41 will be in effect.

Is It Time To Get Serious About Cracking Down On Stealth Instagram Ads?

If you’ve used Instagram, you’re almost certainly familiar with apparently real people touting tummy-flattening tea, an array of subscription boxes, the benefits of some multilevel marketing scheme, or the latest in fashion, beauty, and electronics. If these people are being paid to shill these products, then they have to clearly be flagged as ads. Though the Federal Trade Commission has pledged to get serious about going after advertisers who taint your Instagram feed with these stealth ads, some consumer advocates say the FTC simply isn’t doing enough.

In the last year, the FTC harshly scolded (but did not penalize) retailer Lord & Taylor for its misleading use of social media influencers to push its clothes. The store provided free clothing to these social stars — and paid them as much as $4,000 — to show off a particular new dress. Lord & Taylor had to approve the copy of these Instagram posts, but allowed them to be shared without any indication that these posts were bought and paid for.

The Lord & Taylor settlement made some minor headlines, and sources at the FTC told Consumerist that the hope was that other companies would see it as a warning to not follow Lord & Taylor’s example.

However, in a letter [PDF] to the head of the FTC’s Consumer Protection bureau, a coalition of consumer advocates points to dozens of examples of unmarked ads — many of them from A-list celebrities, including Ryan Reynolds and Vanessa Hudgens — taken from Instagram in just a span of a few weeks this fall.

“Undisclosed paid product endorsements continue to persist as a serious problem on Instagram, and the Federal Trade Commission has yet to take action to enforce its policy, which states that paid endorsements should be identified with #advertisement or #ad,” reads the letter, which called for enforcement actions against “serial offenders, marketing agencies and endorsers that continue to violate FTC policy.”

The letter includes 50 examples of what the appear to be ads but which carry no disclosures about these people getting paid or getting free stuff.

Here’s a pair of matching probably-ads from David and Victoria Beckham:

Speaking of celebrity families, here are two from the Kardashians. You’d think they would know better after the big to-do over Kim Kardashian got in trouble for doing a bad job of touting a prescription drug on social media:

In addition to celebrities (both bona fide famous people and “internet-famous” folks) getting paid, or receiving free stuff, in exchange for posting stealth ads, the advocates point to websites that “send users free products in exchange for reviews and social media posts. Once a user receives a free sample, they are encouraged to post a photo on Instagram to advertise the product to their friends. The more posts promoting a product that a user makes, the more free products they receive.”

And rather than tell users to include disclosures like “#ad” or “#advertisement,” some sites encourage users to employ less-transparent disclosures like “#GotItFree”:

Even when a marketing site does tell its users to include the proper disclosures, the advocates claim that many people simply fail to include this required information.

“Undisclosed paid product endorsements on Instagram are a consistent and dangerous problem that is not going away,” concludes the letter, signed by representatives for Public Citizen, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and the Center for Digital Democracy. “We urge the FTC to act immediately, aggressively and comprehensively to protect consumers from this deceptive advertising practice. We request that the FTC investigate the serial non-compliance with FTC’s endorsement policy among Instagram ‘influencers’ and hold those who violate FTC policy accountable.”

China Wants To Assign Every Citizen A Credit Score For Their Lives

Imagine if the authorities compiled a score based on your everyday actions, which followed you around and affected your ability to do everything from get your kid into college to booking a stay in a fancy hotel. While this sounds like a particular plot line from the most recent season of the Netflix series Black Mirror, it’s actually a new way that the Chinese government has devised to exert control over its citizens.

In this real-world application, a few local governments are trying out the idea of social credit scores. The Wall Street Journal spoke to a woman who got a $6 fine for using her son’s transit pass, but was warned that the infraction could affect her social credit score, affecting other areas of her life. It could even affect her son by limiting what schools he can get into in the future.

This is a system being tested locally in some cities now, and the Communist Party wants to deploy it nationwide by the end of the decade. Sure, the Party keeps files on every citizen, but the score is a way to make antisocial behavior affect them instantly and in more areas of their lives.

Spreading misinformation online (“misinformation” here being what the government considers to be false)? Jaywalking? Getting pregnant with an unauthorized additional kid? Neglecting your elderly parents? All of these are offenses that would become part of your “social credit” score, which the government uses to decide their worthiness for a variety of services.

Normal credit score infractions like paying a loan back late count too, of course, but compiling things like pedestrian crimes, birth control failures, and online activities is new and a bit frightening.

Human rights activists in China and around the world find this just a little bit terrifying. If you don’t, ponder one of the program’s slogans: according to the WSJ, planning documents repeat that the scores would “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

(via Technology Review)

No More Free Parking At 8 Las Vegas Casinos

Like the drinks you get while gambling, casino parking in Las Vegas is often a “freebie.” But if you’re planning a trip to Vegas soon, be prepared to possibly pay for parking or driving around to find a free garage to dock your ride.

Caesars Entertainment Corp. announced Tuesday that it’s putting an end to free parking at eight of its nine properties in Sin City in favor of a a paid valet and self-parking initiative. The changes will roll out in December, though implementation dates will vary by location.

Every property besides the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino will now charge for parking: Linq and Harrah’s will start charging for valet services next month and charge for self-parking at a later date when new equipment is installed. Caesars Palace, The Cromwell, Paris, Planet Hollywood, Bally’s, and the Flamingo will implement the new policy in 2017.

Guests have reported that parking is scarce at its casinos, Caesars said, with the exception of the Rio, which has a bigger parking area and hasn’t had any crowding problems.

“We believe that implementing a paid parking program while also investing in LED parking guidance systems will help address these issues,” said Bob Morse, President of Hospitality at Caesars Entertainment, in a statement.

If you’re a local resident with proper ID or a Total Rewards loyalty member with Platinum status or higher, you can still self-park for free. Platinum and above rewards members can also get complimentary valet services. For more information on pricing at each property, check out Caesars’ parking page.

Caesars isn’t the first Las Vegas biggie to change its parking policy recently: MGM International announced its own paid parking program earlier this year, starting in June. That may have led MGM guests to seek free parking at Caesars properties.

Don’t want to pay? You can check out Las Vegas’ guide to parking — which as of Nov. 30, still had to be updated to reflect Caesar’s upcoming changes.

(h/t The Las Vegas Sun)

Chinese Factory Accused Of Labor Violations Loses Disney Contract

“Dongguan Qing Xi Juantiway Plastic Factory” isn’t a household name, but you’d probably recognize the products it made for the world’s largest entertainment company: the factory was one of thousands making official products featuring Disney characters. The company put another supplier on notice as well for its own labor violations.

Disney doesn’t hire the factories, but licenses its products to suppliers, which in turn contract with the factories. Still, products with its characters on them are an important part of Disney’s image, and customers don’t want to hear that their Moana or Elsa or Snow White toys were made by workers who are underage, suffering, or both.
Bloomberg reports that Disney has its own standards for the tens of thousands of factories making its products, called the Disney International Labor Standards Program, and the nonprofit China Labor Watch flagged these two factories as making Disney products and problematic.

In a memorandum made public yesterday, Disney noted that Dongguan Qing Xi Juantiway Plastic Factory “failed to remediate hiring and human resource issues identified during an investigation of the facility last year, despite our encouragement of remediation and their contractual requirements to us.” Disney did not specify what those issues were.

Aother company, Lam Sun Toy Limited Co., received a warning about its failure at “accurate record keeping, health, fire safety, and human resources practices.” It has the choice to shape up or lose its right to manufacture Disney products.

Thief With Impeccable Timing Grabs Bucket Of Gold Flakes Worth $1.6M From Armored Truck

He only had about 20 seconds of distraction, but that’s all it took for one thief to walk off with about $1.6 million worth of gold flakes on a busy New York City street.

Surveillance video obtained by NBC 4 New York (warning: link contains autoplay video) shows how the theft went down on a September afternoon in midtown Manhattan: the suspect is seen dilly-dallying near an armored truck while two guards bustle around it. One guard leaves to make a pickup, and the other goes toward the front seat of the vehicle to grab his phone.

In that moment, the suspect walks up to the 86-pound bucket of gold flakes, picks it up, and flees the scene — albeit slowly, as it’s clearly no easy thing to carry off such a heavy haul. Indeed, in the video, you can see as he scurries a few feet, then sets the bucket down to take a breather. He hoists it onto his shoulder, walks, and sets it down again.

Eventually, after shuffling along for an hour — taking a route that would normally be just a 10-minute walk — the suspect got into a van and drove off.

“I think he just saw an opportunity, took the pail and walked off,” an NYPD detective told NBC New York. Police don’t think he had any idea what was in the bucket when he boosted it.

Investigators believe he’s now hiding out in Miami or Orlando with his pot of gold, and hopes someone who recognizes him will come forward with more information. Any leprechauns out there looking to get back at this guy, now’s your chance.

Consumer Advocates Sue Government Over Long Wait For New Automobile Safety Features

Earlier this year, federal vehicle safety regulators reached a voluntary agreement with nearly two dozen car manufacturers to make forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking features standard in their cars starting in 2022. But some consumer safety advocates believe this is too long a wake and have gone to court in the hope of pressing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration into taking more immediate action.

Consumer Watchdog, the Center for Auto Safety, and Public Citizen filed the lawsuit [PDF] in federal district court in Washington, D.C. Wednesday claiming NHTSA failed to respond to the groups’ formal request that the agency require automakers to adopt advanced safety technologies.

The groups sent NHTSA a petition [PDF] back on Jan. 16, asking the regulator to begin the rule-making process to require cars to use Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB).

AEB is composed of a set of three technologies that use combinations of radar, reflected laser light, and cameras to alert the driver of a likely collision and intervene if needed. Specifically, AEB can warn drivers that a forward collision is imminent, intervene when the driver does not respond to the warning, and apply supplemental braking when the driver’s braking is insufficient.

The groups contend that such features could prevent or limit the injuries and property damage sustained in nearly one million crashes each year.

According to the lawsuit, NHTSA failed to follow federal law in responding to the petition in a timely manner, and asked a court to require the agency respond to the request within 30 days.

Under federal law, NHTSA is required to grant or deny a petition within 120 days of receipt. That, the groups say, didn’t happen.

Instead, NHTSA — which estimates that such braking systems could save up to 110 lives a year — announced in March a voluntary agreement with carmakers to put AEB technology in almost all the cars they make starting with 2022. However, under the deal, manufacturers of manual transmission vehicles, and some heavier SUVS and trucks would have more time to equip cars with the safety features.

While the agreement was meant to placate concerns and get the ball rolling on such safety systems, Consumer Watchdog, the Center for Auto Safety, and Public Citizen claim the deal essentially allows manufacturers to “roll out weak versions of the technology on an unenforceable ‘voluntary’ basis.”

The groups contend that the voluntary agreement announced does not require that AEB become standard equipment in cars, and that carmakers who do not include the systems in vehicles by 2022 will face no repercussions.

“Voluntary standards don’t work,” Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and president of Public Citizen, said in a statement. “They protect manufacturers, not consumers. AEB is one of the most important lifesaving automotive systems available today.”

Instead of responding to the petition and focusing on a timely issue that the groups believe could save lives, the groups say NHTSA has wasted time on initiatives and rule-making that won’t be necessary for years to come.

“This year, NHTSA devoted enormous agency resources to ‘driverless vehicles,’ which are years or even decades away, while a safety system that is ready to start saving lives right now has been relegated to the whims of the auto companies,” Harvey Rosenfield, Consumer Watchdog, said in a statement.

Claybrook brought up the possibility of an AEB lawsuit last March before a Consumer Federation of America panel on autonomous driving. She asked panelist and NHTSA Associate Administrator Nathaniel Beuse why the agency had allowed carmakers to establish the timeline themselves rather than issue a rule.

At the time, Beuse argued that the sometimes-lengthy federal rulemaking process — and the inevitable heavy lobbying and legal challenges that can result — would have likely taken as much, if not more, time than coming to the voluntary agreement with the industry.

Gree Re-Announces 2013 Dehumidifier Recall Linked To $19M In Property Damage

Federal safety regulators are hoping the fourth time is the charm for millions of recalled dehumidifiers that have now been linked to 450 fires and more than $19 million in property damage: Gree Electric Appliances — the manufacturer fined a record $15.45 million over the fiery dehumidifiers earlier this year — has re-announced the recall. 

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, along with Gree, re-announced the recall — which covers nearly 2.5 million dehumidifiers — Tuesday aiming to get more consumers to replace their defective, and dangerous, machines.

Gree manufactured the recalled 20, 25, 30, 40, 45, 50, 65 and 70-pint dehumidifiers with brand names Danby, De’Longhi, Fedders, Fellini, Frigidaire, GE, Gree, Kenmore, Norpole, Premiere, Seabreeze, SoleusAir, and SuperClima.


The CPSC originally recalled the devices back in Sept. 2013 after receiving reports of dehumidifiers that overheated and caught on fire. A month later the agency updated the recall.

In 2014, Gree and the CPSC expanded the recall to include additional models.

Under the recall, consumers were urged to stop using the dehumidifiers immediately and to contact Gree about a refund.

However, that process quickly frustrated customers who contacted Consumerist. Their main complaints were that their refunds were significantly delayed, or that the amount they received didn’t cover the expense of buying a new appliance – when they were able to find any dehumidifiers available in stores at all. In some areas, they were responsible for hefty recycling fees to get rid of the appliances as well.

Of course those complaints came from customers who owned dehumidifiers that hadn’t caught fire. In March 2016, the CPSC fined Gree a record $15.45 million to settle charges that it failed to report fires to the Commission, “knowingly made misrepresentations to CPSC staff,” and put UL safety marks on products that didn’t meet UL standards.

At the time, the agency said that the dehumidifiers had caused approximately $4.5 million in property damage Today, that cost has jumped to nearly $19 million, according to the CPSC’s latest announcement.

Consumers who still own a recalled Gree dehumidifier should contact the company for a refund, and, of course, stop using it.

The dehumidifiers were sold for between $110 and $400 from Jan. 2005 until Aug. 2013 at retailers such as AAFES, HH Gregg, Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s, Menards, Mills Fleet Farm, Sam’s Club, Sears, Walmart and other stores nationwide and in Canada, and online at and

Affected dehumidifiers can be identified by the brand name and pint capacity printed on the front of the dehumidifier, as well as the model number and date code printed on a sticker on the back, front or side of the unit.

The CPSC and Gree’s re-announcement of the massive recall comes less than a month after the agency announced the recall of 3.4 million dehumidifiers made by China-based electronics manufacturer Midea. Those products, sold under brands like GE, Honeywell, Kenmore, and Sunbeam, have been linked to $4.8 million property damage.

Philip Morris CEO: We Might Stop Making Traditional Cigarettes Someday

After decades of making money off brands like Marlboro, Philip Morris is looking to shift its focus away from traditional cigarettes and toward smokeless products. As part of that effort, the company’s CEO says it may stop making cigarettes altogether — eventually.

CEO Andre Calantzopoulos said as much during an interview with the BBC’s Radio 4 in the United Kingdom, where the company is launching a new heat-not-burn product, IQOS.

“There will come a moment in time where I would say we have sufficient adoption of these alternative products… and sufficient awareness to start envisaging together with government a phaseout period for cigarettes, and I hope this time will come soon,” Calantzopoulos said.

It won’t happen immediately, however, as there is still a lot of demand for traditional tobacco products. But Calantzopoulos says the company is focused on moving away from cigarettes, admitting that those products “cause disease,” and notes that the company’s “primary responsibility”, once the technology is available, to commercialize less harmful alternatives.

“I think we’re transforming our company to achieve this,” he said. “We’re moving very massively our resources and the focus of the organization from our existing traditional business to the new one so, as far as we are concerned, we will do everything we can to accelerate the reaching of consumers to this product.”

The IQOS system — which Philip Morris has invested more than $3 billion in over the last decade — has a device that’s a little bit like an e-cigarette, which heats up mini tobacco sticks that are about half the size of a normal cigarette. Users heat up the sticks with their device and smoke without really smoking: the device is considered a hybrid between e-cigarettes and the analog type. Philip Morris says IQOS will be available in 35 countries in 2017.

Report: Albertsons In Talks To Acquire Price Chopper, Expand To More States

According to those ever-mysterious “people familiar with the matter,” the northeastern grocery chain Price Chopper is in “advanced talks” with national chain Albertsons in an acquisition deal. The acquisition could still fall through, but it would mean that the closely held grocer could have a new owner after more than 80 years as a mostly family-run company.

The current mega-Albertsons, the country’s second-largest grocery chain, was formed in the 2014 merger of Albertsons and Safeway, making it the parent company of familiar brands like Albertsons, Safeway, Vons, Jewel-Osco, Shaw’s, ACME, Tom Thumb, Randalls, United Supermarkets, Pavilions, Star Market, and Carrs.

Reuters reports that the proposed sale price of the chain was $1 billion. If the deal goes through, it would only be the latest in a trend of national mega-chains gobbling up local chains as standalone grocery stores prepare to fight competition from Walmart and potentially from Amazon, as both mega-retailers open online pickup grocery centers, and Amazon makes a big push to expand its grocery business across the country.

Looking at a map of Albertsons subsidiaries and their territories, it’s notable that two states where the company has no business are Price Chopper’s home state of New York and neighboring Connecticut: two states full of Price Chopper stores.


The Northeastern Price Chopper is not connected to the small Midwestern chain of the same name. The larger Price Chopper recently announced an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in rebranding itself as Market 32, a more upscale brand with more prepared food and less chopping of prices.

Netflix Will Finally Let Users Download Some Content For Offline Viewing

It’s been whispered and buzzed about for a long time now, but it’s happening at last: Netflix says it will allow users to download select TV shows and movies to their mobile devices so they can watch them even when they’re not online.

Although there were recent rumors that offline viewing might not come to U.S. subscribers, Netflix announced this morning that members worldwide will be able to download some content at no cost.

Titles that are available for downloading will feature a download button on the details page. There are some streaming series and movies already available for offline viewing, including Netflix originals like Orange is The New Black, Narcos, and The Crown, “with more on the way,” Netflix says.

The new feature is available on all plans as well as any phones or tablets running on Android and iOS — you’ll just have to update your Netflix app to the most recent version. Thus far, the download option doesn’t seem to include downloads to a desktop computer or laptop.


After years of insisting there would be no download option, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings started to change his tune last April, saying the company should “keep an open mind” to the idea.

Then, in June, a report from a communications trade company LightReading suggested that the feature could be coming to the streaming platform before 2016 is over and done. Which brings us to today, a month before 2016 is over.

Malicious Android Apps Have Taken Over More Than 1M Google Accounts

Is there something lurking in your phone that shouldn’t be? Malware designed to look like real Android apps has taken control of more than a million Google accounts since August, according to a new report from security researchers.

According to Check Point, the new malware campaign, Gooligan, has been busy breaching accounts since August, slipping in under the radar with names like StopWatch, Perfect Cleaner, and WiFi enhancer.

Gooligan is infecting 13,000 devices every day, Check Point says, targeting devices on Android 4 (Jelly Bean, KitKat) and 5 (Lollipop), which amounts to about 74% of Android devices out there. It’s installing at least 30,000 fake apps on breached devices, every day, or more than two million apps since the attacks started.

Using stolen information like email addresses and authentication tokens, attackers can gain access to users’ sensitive data from Gmail, Google Photos, Google Docs, Google Play, Google Drive, and G Suite.

“This theft of over a million Google account details is very alarming and represents the next stage of cyber-attacks,” said Michael Shaulov, Check Point’s head of mobile products. “We are seeing a shift in the strategy of hackers, who are now targeting mobile devices in order to obtain the sensitive information that is stored on them.”

Check Point says it alerted Google immediately when it realized what was happening.

“We appreciate Check Point’s partnership as we’ve worked together to understand and take action on these issues. As part of our ongoing efforts to protect users from the Ghost Push family of malware, we’ve taken numerous steps to protect our users and improve the security of the Android ecosystem overall,” stated Adrian Ludwig, director of Android security, Google.

If you’re worried about your account, Check Point has a free online tool that will tell you if your device has been breached. If so, you’ll need to reinstall your operating system, Check Point says.

“This complex process is called flashing, and we recommend powering off your device, and approaching a certified technician or your mobile service provider, to re-flash your device,” said Shaulov.

mardi 29 novembre 2016

21 Lawmakers Come Out To Defend The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

While most federal agencies will soon see a change in leadership and direction after President-elect Donald Trump takes office, the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is supposed to be shielded from such sudden changes. A recent court decision put that protection — and the future of the CFPB itself — in question, but today a group of 21 federal lawmakers, along with a coalition of consumer advocates and civil rights groups, asked the court to keep the CFPB’s structure intact.

A quick round of catch-up for those coming in late: The CFPB has only one director — currently Richard Cordray, who still has a few years left on his term — and under the law that created the Bureau, the CFPB Director can only be removed from office by the President “for cause,” meaning the Director would need to screw up really badly.

In most cases where a federal agency has only one director, the President has the authority to remove that director at will. On the other side of the coin are the agencies with multiple commissioners (and usually a chairperson) who can’t be easily removed by the President, but where no single commissioner’s vote counts more than the others.

While it is rare for an agency to have a leadership structure like the CFPB’s, it’s not unheard of. The heads of the Social Security Administration, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and the Office of Special Counsel are each protected from removal at the whim of the President.

Even though nothing in the Constitution provides details on independent federal agencies, and no law exists requiring that an agency have either a commission that can’t be fired or single director that can, a split three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in October that the CFPB’s structure is unconstitutional.

“The independent agencies collectively constitute, in effect, a headless fourth branch of the U.S. Government,” wrote Judge Brett Kavanaugh in the majority opinion. “They exercise enormous power over the economic and social life of the United States. Because of their massive power and the absence of Presidential supervision and direction, independent agencies pose a significant threat to individual liberty and to the constitutional system of separation of powers and checks and balances.”

Earlier this month, the CFPB petitioned full D.C. Circuit to rehear this case, arguing that the the Supreme Court has held that the President can “create independent agencies run by principal officers appointed by the President, whom the President may not remove at will but only for good cause,” and that the Constitution did not give the President “illimitable power of removal” over the officers of independent agencies.

If the D.C. Circuit grants the CFPB’s petition for a rehearing, it means the earlier appellate panel decision has no legal effect and Director Cordray’s position is protected pending the outcome of the full-circuit hearing.

Which brings us to today, when 21 Senators and Congresspersons filed a brief [PDF] with the appeals court, calling on the judges to rehear this case.

“[T]he panel decision fundamentally altered the CFPB and hampered its ability to function as Congress intended,” write the lawmakers. “It also called into question the constitutionality of other regulatory agencies with similar structural features… Moreover, the panel’s decision is at odds not only with the text and history of the Constitution, but also with long-standing Supreme Court precedent.”

In addition to the lawmaker’s brief, a coalition of consumer advocacy groups — including Americans for Financial Reform, Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Responsible Lending, and the National Consumer Law Center — filed a brief of their own [PDF] in defense of the CFPB’s structure.

The advocates contend that the judges in the earlier decision reached their conclusion “without even once addressing why Congress took such care to structure the CFPB as it did or how the CFPB’s design is so critical to its proper functioning… This structure allows the Bureau to make decisions that protect consumers — even when those decisions are opposed by intense lobbying.”

The lawmakers’ amicus brief was signed by Sen. Sherrod Brown (OH), Rep. Michael E. Capuano (MA), Rep. John Conyers Jr. (MI), Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD), Sen. Dick Durbin (IL), Rep. Keith Ellison (MN), Rep. Alan Grayson (FL), Rep. Al Green (TX), Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (MA), Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (NY), Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ), Sen. Jeff Merkley (OR), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI), Rep. Nancy Pelosi (CA), Sen. Jack Reed (RI), Sen. Harry Reid (NV), Rep. Brad Sherman (CA), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA), Rep. Maxine Waters (CA), and former Congressmen Barney Frank (MA), and Brad Miller (NC).

The full list of groups signing the other brief: Americans for Financial Reform, California Reinvestment Coalition, the Center For Responsible Lending, Consumer Federation of America, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the National Consumer Law Center, the National Council Of La Raza, United States Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, Inc., and Woodstock Institute.

Fast Food, Airport, And Health Care Workers Stage Nationwide Walkout

The threatened strike of low-paid workers at Chicago’s O’Hare airport didn’t happen at Thanksgiving time as originally proposed, but did occur today as part of a nationwide series of strikes. In some cities, protesters blocking public streets were arrested, but the predicted disruption of air travel at the country’s busiest airports didn’t happen.

According to the Chicago Tribune, O’Hare officials say that the protest isn’t having a noticeable effect on travelers. Employees who walked off the job today included janitors, baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants, and cabin cleaners, part of a protest backed by the Service Employees International Union that topped 1,000 people just at O’Hare, about 500 of them airport workers.

Organizers of the airport protest told media outlets that they expected to disrupt operations, but airport officials said that they did not expect disruptions for travelers. (If you flew through O’Hare today and observed anything, let us know.)

(Fight for $15)

One passenger flying American told a Chicago Sun-Times reporter that the wait was a little longer than usual for a wheelchair attendant, but not enough to cause problems.

“I think attendants need more money,” the woman, who uses a wheelchair and flies about twice a year, told the newspaper. “I’m happy to have them strike for it.”

The minimum wage varies across the country and from city to city: it’s $10.50 per hour in Chicago, for example. Protesters who are part of the movement seek a $15 minimum wage and the opportunity to join a union.

Other workers who joined protests included fast food workers, home care workers, and drivers for ride-hailing apps, especially Uber. Fight for $15 says that protests took place in 340 municipalities across the country, with major gatherings at O’Hare, Boston’s Logan Airport, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

One of the attendants at O’Hare, Oliwia Pac, wrote about the harder parts of her job for the Guardian. She is a college student who works mostly as a wheelchair attendant, and is also the person who accompanies unaccompanied minors between flights.

“I have stood out on jetways in -30F weather with only a thin flannel to keep me warm,” she wrote. “I have been told to push two wheelchairs at once. I have worked 17-hour shifts. I get cuts and bruises all the time. But every day I go home and do not know if I have earned enough to get by.”

Giddy Investors Already ‘shipping Comcast, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile Mergers Under Trump Administration

This is shocking, we know, but: big businesses really like to make money. And when you’re already as huge as, say Comcast, one of the best ways to make oodles more money is to snap up another company and start raking in its revenues, too. Could Comcast snap up Verizon? Charter grab Sprint? At least one tech stock analyst thinks that deals like this, which might sound outlandish today, could be on the table soon.

A UBS investor memo, noticed by DSL Reports, shows that for some Wall Street investors, the future looks bright.

Based on the transition team President-Elect Donald Trump has named, it seems likely that incoming, as-yet-unnamed FCC leadership will be less focused on consumers and more focused on business than the current Commission has been. (Although the FCC has hardly been hostile to all mergers — AT&T/DirecTV and Charter/TWC/Bright House were approved since 2015, even though Comcast/TWC was blocked.)

The full memo [PDF] looks at prior mergers in the cable and telecom space, and then lays out a whole bunch of potential new mergers we could theoretically see proposed in the coming years: Comcast/Sprint, Comcast/T-Mobile, Charter/Sprint, Charter/T-Mobile, Sprint/T-Mobile, Dish/T-Mobile, Verizon/Sprint, Verizon/Dish, Verizon/Comcast, and Verizon/Charter

These aren’t deep-dives; each theoretical merger gets a brief one-page overview with a few positives, a few negatives, and a handful of industry implications. For example, the Comcast/T-Mobile page posits that the two would see a great deal of synergy from integrating wired and wireless products and infrastructure, while the Comcast/Sprint page points out that such a merger would result in high spending to upgrade Sprint’s network.

Sprint is the most-likely acquisition target, the memo posits — specifically citing the changing political climate as why.

“With the confirmation of Jeffrey Eisenach to oversee the FCC transition, we believe consolidation could be back on the table with Sprint as a likely participant,” the company’s profile begins. And indeed, in a table reviewing all of the suggested mergers, purchasing Sprint is full of check marks in every column — all of which equal “more money” — for every other business.

FCC makeup aside, though, the memo also points out that to a certain degree, continued consolidation might be all but inevitable. The delineation between “phone” and “TV” is no longer as strong as it once was, and with the internet everywhere and available on all devices, formerly-separate industries are slowly drifting together anyway.

In investor speak, that drift is “secular changes in technology and usage [leading] to the convergence of the cable and wireless industries.”

The memo continues, “The transformation of the internet into a mobile-first platform combined with the rapid migration of video from proprietary networks to digital and the rise in in competitive pressure this entails increases the value of an integrated fixed and wireless service to cable providers.”

In other words: even without a huge shift in the regulatory landscape making the business end seem like a good idea for investors right now, we’re getting there anyway. Video — through Netflix and Amazon, Sling TV and DirecTV Now — is increasingly decoupled from video providers, so everyone may as well go all-in on being an internet company… and internet means mobile.

Would You Pay To Wash Your Clothes At Someone Else’s House?

Not that long ago, you might have bristled at the notion of paying a stranger to chauffeur you around town in the back of their car, or that you could easily rent out the extra room in your house like a hotel. Is turning your laundry room into a laundromat the next step?

Electrolux is testing an Uber-like laundry service that matches people who have dirty clothes with those who have machines in which to wash those clothes.

Engadget, citing a Financial Times interview (behind a paywall) with Electrolux CEO Jonas Samuelson, reports that the company is testing a system in which customers would play to clean their clothes at someone else’s house.

Samuelson didn’t elaborate on how long the tests had been going on, or if they had been successful so far.

The system has a dual purpose: provide a place for machine-less consumers to do their laundry that isn’t a cramped coin-operated room and assist those who own the machines to pay for them.

The latter purpose would come in handy, Engadget notes, as using such an Uber-like system would require owners to either have connected devices or be on their smartphones regularly to fill out schedules and availability of machines.

Although actual details on how the system will work were unclear, Engadget points out several concerns that would have to be addressed before it could go be rolled out more widely: who pays if clothing is damaged in the washing machine or dryer? What if a non-owner damages a machine?

And what the heck are you supposed to do for the couple of hours it takes while some stranger is doing their laundry? Do you put out magazines for them to read? Install a snack machine; maybe a video game?

Electrolux is testing Uber-like laundry machine sharing [Engadget]

New York Bars Scalpers From Using Bots To Snap Up Tickets Before Everyone Else

Perhaps you’ve been here before: you’re waiting patiently, albeit a bit anxiously, for the moment when you can buy tickets to a concert or sporting event online. But despite your best efforts and quick action, you find that someone has swooped in and snapped up all the tickets, leaving you to the mercies of online resellers that may jack up the cost of tickets.

That scenario could become less frequent now that New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law that makes using so-called “ticket bots” — software designed to manipulate systems that are designed to limit the numbers of tickets sold to an individual — illegal.

Previously, NY law barred the use of ticket bots, but only imposed civil sanctions for brokers who violate that law. Now, using ticket bots, maintaining an interest in or control of bots, and reselling tickets knowingly obtained with bots constitutes a class A misdemeanor. As such, violators could face substantial fines and imprisonment.

The new legislation also expands the definition of ticket bots to include any of the many systems out there used to quickly amass tickets before the general public can get their hands on them, whether that tool functions on its own or with human assistance.

“These unscrupulous speculators and their underhanded tactics have manipulated the marketplace and often leave New Yorkers and visitors alike with little choice but to buy tickets on the secondary market at an exorbitant mark-up,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement, thanking Attorney General Schneiderman and the sponsors of the bill for pushing the issue.

“It’s predatory, it’s wrong and, with this legislation, we are taking an important step towards restoring fairness and equity back to this multi-billion dollar industry.”

Bill Outlawing “Gag Clauses” That Punish Customers For Writing Negative Reviews Goes To President

After more than a year of waiting, Congress has finally okayed a piece of legislation that, if signed by the president, will stop companies from using so-called “non-disparagement” or “gag” clauses to prevent or discourage customers from writing honest reviews.

The Consumer Review Freedom Act gives the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general the authority to take enforcement actions against businesses that attempt to step on customers’ First Amendment rights by requiring that they sign a non-disparagement agreement.

These gag clauses generally threaten to punish the customer with financial penalties if they say anything negative about their experience with the company — even if it’s completely honest. Some companies have gone even further, fining customers for merely saying they intend to write something negative, or even encouraging others to give negative feedback.

Perhaps the most famous of these instances involves online retailer Kleargear, which tried — unsuccessfully — to slap a $3,500 penalty on a customer for complaining online about a transaction gone wrong; a transaction that she says occurred long before Kleargear even had a non-disparagement clause in its user agreement.

More recently, a Texas petsitter sued a couple for $1 million over an unfavorable Yelp review, using a gag clause that was strikingly similar to the one in the Kleargear agreement. That case was dismissed in August.

The Consumer Review Freedom Act was initially passed by the Senate in late 2015, with support from both parties and no need for roll call vote.

An identical bill in the House — the Consumer Review Fairness Act — took a little longer. That bill, in spite of bipartisan support, did not pass until Sept. 2016.

Even though both the House and Senate had passed virtually identical bills, they hadn’t technically signed off on the same bill yet, so lawmakers needed to figure out who would get credit for the bill that eventually ended up on the desk in the Oval Office.

Of course, that process was delayed by the whole election thing, but now that the Senate is back in session they unanimously voted yesterday to send the Consumer Review Freedom Act on to the White House, where President Obama is expected to sign it into law.

“By ending gag clauses, this legislation supports consumer rights and the integrity of critical feedback about products and services sold online,” said Sen. John Thune (SD), sponsor of the Senate version of the bill and Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee. “I appreciate the bipartisan efforts of my Senate and House colleagues to get this legislation over the finish line.”

Cyber Monday Set A New Sales Record… Or People Just Shop Online A Lot

This year, both Black Friday and Cyber Monday set sales records… for online shoppers. Americans armed with mobile devices, tablets, and computers pulled out their credit cards and placed orders, turning yesterday into the biggest sales day in the history of online shopping. Apparently, Cyber Monday isn’t as pointless as we thought, and rampant discounting does draw shoppers.

Reuters reports that online sales during the non-holiday were up 12% from the Monday after Thanksgiving last year, leading to total online sales of $3.36 billion, the most money ever spent online in a single day.

That statistic comes from Adobe, which has access to sales data from the top 100 online retailers, capturing about 80% of all sales. Adobe can also tell us what people bought, noting that big-ticket items included new video game consoles from PlayStation, televisions from Samsung, new iPhones, and tablets from Amazon. LEGO blocks, Barbie dolls, and Nerf dart guns were hot sellers in toys yesterday.

Cyber Monday began in 2005 as in invention of the National Retail Federation, with online retailers creating exclusive sales to entice shoppers to go online at work. It’s clear that shoppers are not yet suffering from deal fatigue, and instead went on a shopping frenzy. Some of those items might even be gifts for other people.

Is it a sign of nationwide economic health, or of consumers who can’t resist great discounts? Perhaps the record shopping day is a little of both.

Chicago Doesn’t Even Have Half The Health Inspectors Needed To Inspect High-Risk Restaurants

While it might be reassuring to see a sign posted in your favorite restaurant or other food establishment that it’s earned the approval of the city health department, that doesn’t necessarily mean health inspectors have actually been by recently to do their job.

An audit [PDF] of recent health inspections in Chicago found that the city’s Department of Public Health inspection program is “seriously understaffed,” with not even half the number of inspectors it would need to comply with state requirements.

In order to complete all the inspections necessary, CDPH would need 94 inspectors. It currently has 38 on staff.

Under Illinois law, there are three categories of restaurants, based on the level of risk: High-risk eateries — generally meaning restaurants, hospital kitchens, schools where the food is prepared on-site; Medium-risk — grocery stores, bakeries, delis; and Low-Risk — gas stations, convenience stores and other places where only beverages and pre-packaged foods are served.

The state requires that high-risk establishments are inspected twice annually. Medium-risk shops get a check-up every year, and low-risk stores are to be inspected every two years.

The OIG says that CDPH inspected only 3,566, or 43.9%, of high-risk establishments at least twice in 2015; only 2,478, or 80.1%, of medium-risk establishments at least once in 2015; and only 1,078, or 24.8%, of low-risk establishments at least once in 2014 or 2015.

All told, the city conducted 20,900 food inspections in 2015, falling far short of the 30,026 it was supposed to do.

“CDPH’s inability to meet the state standards not only undermines public trust in the city’s capacity to fulfill this fundamental local governmental function. It also places at risk millions of dollars in annual grant funding,” funding,” writes Inspector General Joseph Ferguson.

That being said, CDPH did conduct timely re-inspection of violations identified during initial inspections, the OIG noted, as well as timely inspections when responding to public complaints about restaurants submitted by consumers through the city’s 311 system.

The OIG is now recommending to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration that it collaborate with the Illinois Department of Public Health to design and implement a new inspection schedule that is “feasible to execute and sufficiently rigorous to promote food safety.”

If that doesn’t happen, OIG suggests that CDPH work with the Office of Budget and Management, “as well as the state officials charged with awarding grant funds dedicated for this purpose, to secure sufficient funding to achieve compliance with the existing inspection-frequency rules.”

The CDPH responded to the audit by agreeing with the OIG’s recommendation, and says it’s committed to achieving compliance with the help of the state.

(h/t Chicago Sun-Times)

Pressure Mounts For Tesla To Stop Using The Term “Autopilot”

What does the term “autopilot” mean to you? For many people, it applies to a machine that can steer itself with minimal human intervention, but for electric carmaker Tesla it’s a marketing term to describe a feature that is decidedly not hands-off — and which consumer safety advocates believe can cause potentially dangerous confusion.

Consumer Watchdog recently sent a letter [PDF] to California DMV director Jean Shiomoto, urging the agency to act on specific regulations proposed in September that would, in part, put restrictions on how carmakers can advertise self-driving vehicles.

Under the proposed rules [PDF] — which mainly pertain to the future development of self-driving vehicles — no car could be advertised as autonomous unless it meets the definition set forth by vehicle codes and was manufactured by a company that holds a valid autonomous vehicle permit.

Additionally, carmakers would not be able to use terms, such as “self-driving,” “automated,” “auto-pilot,” or other statements that are likely to persuade a “reasonably prudent person to believe a vehicle is autonomous” when it isn’t.

The DMV must immediately start the process to enact these “regulations protecting consumers from misleading advertising that leaves the dangerous – and sometimes fatal – impression that a car is more capable of driving itself than is actually the case,” argues the letter.

Watchdog contends that Tesla’s Autopilot features are the most prominent in the public eye, and the most confusing.

Autopilot – which steers the car more actively than similar systems that rely on automatic braking, steering assist or adaptive cruise control to aid drivers – has been aggressively marketed by the company.

Additionally, the company recently announced that it would make all new cars self-driving, but wouldn’t actually turn the system on yet.

“Manufacturers must not be allowed to advertise cars as, or describe them as, ‘self-driving’ when a human driver must actually monitor or control the vehicle,” the letter states. “Tesla, with its promotion of its so-called Autopilot feature, is a prime example of the deadly consequences of such unjustified hype.”

According to Consumer Watchdog, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has long hyped the feature, leaving the impression that the vehicle is autonomous. The group cites several Tweets, press conferences, and other announcements from Musk that allude to the feature being fully autonomous, including a video in which he sits in the driver’s seat of a Tesla vehicle demonstration with his hands off the steering wheel.

“That is too long to wait to stop Tesla and its CEO from risking even more lives by falsely promoting Autopilot technology as self-driving,” the group claims.

For its part, Tesla has said it would take steps to ensure that drivers or would-be drivers are aware of Autopilot’s functions. Additionally, in September, the carmaker unveiled Version 8 of its Autopilot software, announcing changes to the way in which drivers must keep their hands on the wheel. Tesla says that drivers who ignore three audible warnings in an hour to put their hands on the wheel will have to pull over and restart the vehicle to use Autopilot.

Still, Consumer Watchdog urged the DMV to take immediate action on the advertising portion of the rules, as enacting the full regulation would likely take a year.

“Currently there is nothing to stop the sort of hype spouted by Elon Musk with its potentially deadly consequences,” the letter states. “DMV should extract the advertising regulatory language from the rest of the draft autonomous vehicle regulations and start a formal rulemaking to enact that section immediately.

Consumer Watchdog’s concerns about Autopilot’s marketing was echoed by our colleagues at Consumers Union.

“The ‘Autopilot’ name is misleading to consumers, and Tesla should stop using it,” William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, said. “What’s more, this type of marketing can be dangerous, by giving consumers a false sense of security in the ability of a car to drive itself when it actually requires the constant attention of a human driver. We support the work of federal and state authorities to crack down on false, misleading, or unfair marketing claims about automated driving systems.”

A rep for Tesla tells the Los Angeles Times that “owners have communicated that they understand how Autopilot works and should be used, and this is clearly explained and reinforced every time a customer uses the feature.”

The company contends that the “inaccurate and sensationalistic view of Autopilot put forth by [Consumer Watchdog] is exactly the kind of misinformation that threatens to harm consumer safety.”

This, of course, is just the latest issue facing Tesla’s Autopilot feature, which was tied to its first fatal crash in June.

The car maker said in July that it would not disable Autopilot after the fatal crash, but a number of consumer safety advocates — including our colleagues at Consumer Reports — have called Tesla out for the potentially confusing messages surrounding the Autopilot feature.

In August, the owner of a Tesla in Beijing said he crashed his vehicle into the side of a vehicle that was partially parked in the road while using the feature. Tesla says the driver is to blame for taking his hands off the wheel, while the driver says he was misled about the Autopilot feature.

Shortly after the incident, Tesla said it removed that word, along with another term that means “self-driving,” from its website for customers in China.

Since then, regulators in Germany have asked the company to rename the “misleading” Autopilot feature to avoid any confusion that could lead to dangerous collisions.

[via Los Angeles Times]

Keno Players Say They Are Owed $2M, Even If They Won Because Of Computer Glitch

If you win a $1 million Keno game twice within a matter of minutes, you may be the luckiest person on Earth. Or you could also be trying to take advantage of a computer glitch.

This distinction is at the center of a legal dispute between a pair of Keno players and the Delaware Lottery.

The News Journal of Wilmington reports that in Dec. 2015, one of the plaintiffs purchased a $1 million winning Keno ticket. Minutes later, he and the other plaintiff bought another ticket that also won — for another $1 million. reports.

But when they tried to claim their reward, the Delaware Lottery refused to honor the tickets.

Lottery officials said [PDF] that there was a computer glitch on that date that lasted for about 20 minute. During that time, the Keno system transmitted the same numbers that had been drawn earlier in the day, rather than randomly drawn numbers.

An investigation found that the glitch wasn’t the result of tampering, but that some players noticed the re-transmission of the duplicate numbers and tried to take advantage of the malfunction, explained Delaware Lottery Director Vernon Kirk. Five winning draws were voided as a result, “because the numbers were not randomly selected and thus did not constitute a game of chance and were not otherwise in compliance with the lottery’s rules for Keno.”

The lottery refunded the purchase price of the tickets, but that wasn’t good enough for the two players now claiming they’re owed $2 million. Their lawsuit, filed in Delaware Superior Court, claims that the Delaware Lottery and Kirk violated state law and the rules governing the lottery system.

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Former JCPenney CEO: Sales Have Become A Cancer

Just days after JCPenney handed out a very limited number of $500 coupons to lure shoppers to stores on Thanksgiving, the retailer’s former CEO made it clear that he believes that similar promotions and sales could ultimately harm department stores. 

Former JCPenney CEO Allen Questrom told CNN’s Squawk Box that department stores’ tendency to offer a sale when business goes bad is probably doing more harm than good.

“The sale has become a cancer,” he said. “When business gets tough, we add another sale, but you add run out of days and discounts.”

Questrom isn’t saying that retailers shouldn’t offer sales at all, they just shouldn’t make it the focus of business.

“Sales can not be the only driver [of business], it has to be a part of it,” he said. “I think many department stores have failed, they put too much emphasis in sales. But product, presentation, excitement in the stores, the salespeople in terms of servicing the customer” are part of the equation.

“It’s not that you can’t have sales, but you need the right fashion,” he says, noting that companies like Zara and PreMark have the right balance.

Questrom’s thoughts on sales comes as many designers and retailers have cut back on coupons, adding to exclusions or limiting the number of promotions offered to customers.

These promotions often hurt department stores trying to appeal to millennials, Questrom tells Squawk Box.

“Millennials need inspiration not aspiration, they come from a different area,” he said noting that many retailers have been slow to transition from their long-time customers to younger shoppers.

One way to do this, besides shifting away from sales, would be to embrace the internet, just as many online-only stores — like Warby Parker — have adopted physical locations.

“I think stores will always be around, they’ll always be the majority of the business, but the retailers of the past have to understand how to utilize the internet,” he said.

JCPenney has had a turbulent love-hate relationship with sales in recent years. In 2012, then-CEO (and former Apple retail guru) Ron Johnson loudly declared an end to sales at JCP in favor of everyday lower prices. Within a few months, the company was already backtracking on that pledge, and after a year it gave up on the no-sales concept altogether before ending the brief Ron Johnson experiment in April 2013.

Ex JCPenney CEO Allen Questrom: Sales have ‘become a cancer’ for department stores [CNBC]

Patagonia Says It Raised $10 Million For Charity From Black Friday Sale

Outdoor outfitter Patagonia attracted positive attention when it announced that it would be open on Black Friday, but donate all of its sales (not its profits: all sales) from retail stores and its website to environmental charities. Now the sales have been tallied, and the retailer took in a total of $10 million.

The idea of closing on Black Friday used to be out of the question, until competing outdoors retailer REI began doing that last year, encouraging customers and employees alike to go enjoy the outdoors. The co-op harvested lots of good publicity for that move.

Patagonia, meanwhile, reports that it took in five times what it what expecting (warning: auto-play video at that link), or a total of $10 million in sales for the day.

If you want to be crass about it, this is also a good business move: some of those sales may have been to people new to the brand who will return on a day when the company isn’t raising funds for charity.

The company’s leaders were surprised and delighted at the response, noting that the high sales just mean they can give five times as much money to small, local environmental charities.

“The enormous love our customers showed to the planet on Black Friday enables us to give every penny to hundreds of grassroots environmental organizations working around the world,” the company said in a statement.

United Airlines Passenger Opens Exit Door, Hops Out While Plane Taxis

It’s always important to know where the exits are on an aircraft, but it’s also important that you not use the exit until the plane has come to a stop — and even then, you should not take it upon yourself to open the door. These are lessons that one United Airlines passenger apparently forgot.

According to Police in Houston, the United flight had just landed from New Orleans at Bush Intercontinental Airport on Monday when a female passenger opened a hatch on the plane to exit and jumped out into an airport operating area, KHOU-11 reports.

“I look over and sunlight and I just see a figure essentially step out of it,” one passenger recalled to the news station. “And then I’m like, ‘What was that?’”

He posted a video from across the aisle, showing the door open after unexpected exit:

Another witness said the woman opened an over-wing exit door, and said nothing before jumping out of the plane, then about 15 feet from the wing to the ground below.

Authorities chased her down and detained her. After she finished neuropsychological testing, authorities said she will be released and is not facing any charges.

There might be something about Houston that makes people overly excited to arrive: In April, a United Airlines flight attendant deployed a plane’s slide after it had landed at the same airport, rode it down, and walked away from her job.

And it’s been awhile now, but you may recall another famous plane exit, that of JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater. He became infamous in 2010 after he cursed out a passenger and then used the plane’s emergency slide to exit the plane and run away.

Do Airlines Really Ban Unruly Passengers For Life?

Here at Consumerist, we have seen more than our fair share of stories involving unruly or otherwise disruptive passengers who have gotten themselves kicked off flights for bad behavior. But upon hearing that Delta Air Lines had banned a passenger for life after he was caught on video yelling at his fellow travelers, we had to wonder: What do you have to do to get banned from an airline forever, and which U.S. carriers have such a policy in place?

On Monday, Delta’s CEO Ed Bastien confirmed in a company memo that a passenger who was filmed shouting politically-charged insults while boarding a flight from Atlanta to Allentown, PA, will no longer be allowed to fly on the airline.

“This individual displayed behavior that was loud, rude and disrespectful to his fellow customers. After questioning the customer, our team members made the best decision they could given the information they had and allowed him to remain on the flight,” Bastien wrote. “However, if our colleagues had witnessed firsthand what was shown in the video, there is no question they would have removed him from the aircraft. He will never again be allowed on a Delta plane.”

We reached out to Delta to ask what the airline’s official policy is regarding lifetime bans, and what kind of actions could lead to such a verdict.

A representative for the airline declined to provide more information on the ban, referring Consumerist to Bastien’s memo in regard to this specific incidence.

But in general, the rep said, “Delta employs a variety of security methods both seen and unseen to protect our customers and employees.”

We reached out to the other major U.S. carriers as well, and thus far have received responses from some of them.

American Airlines: A company spokesperson didn’t point Consumerist to a specific policy, but instead noted that “the safety and security of our passengers, employees, and aircraft is always our top priority.” While the rep said American would not discuss internal procedures, the airline did confirm it has “the ability to ban a passenger.”

Southwest Airlines: “Southwest does not have a related policy and we have not implemented a customer ban,” a company spokesperson told Consumerist in response to our questions.

Spirit Airlines: A representative for Spirit told Consumerist that the airline does ban people from flying, usually if they’ve assaulted the company’s employees, or threaten to do so.

“We would also ban people who threaten any terrorist activity,” a spokesperson explained to Consumerist in an email.”Essentially any reason that makes our employees, customers, or aircraft in physical harm, would lead to a ban.” There is no lifetime ban, per se, but when Spirit makes the decision to ban an individual, the airline determines the level of the threat, an appropriate timeframe for a ban, and then works with the company legal department to notify the customer of the ban’s duration, and what steps they could take to get reinstated.

The spokesperson noted outright bans are rare, and that the longest ban anyone at the company could recall was five years.

“Our security team reviews reports after incidents of law enforcement being called, and then reviews each incident and makes a decision to pursue a ban — or not — on a case-by-case basis,” the rep told Consumerist.

We also reached out to United Airlines, JetBlue, Virgin America, Alaska Airlines, and Frontier Airlines, and will update this post when we hear back.

McDonald’s Expanding Test Of Fresh Beef Patties

In yet another attempt to better align its menu with customer tastes, McDonald’s is expanding its year-old test of fresh ground beef — to Oklahoma. 

Business Insider reports that the Golden Arches is ditching frozen patties in favor of fresh beef patties at 75 restaurants in Northeast Oklahoma.

The patties — used in the fast food giant’s Quarter Pounder burgers and the Bacon Clubhouse Burger — are made from the same grade of beef as the frozen stuff, and are being cooked to order.

“These burgers are hotter and juicier than our previous quarter pound patties, and are made with fresh 100% North American beef that’s simply seasoned with a pinch of salt and pepper,” McDonald’s Chef Chad Schafer said in a statement.

McDonald’s began testing the fresh beef patties in the Dallas-Fort Worth area back in November 2015. Since then the company says it has received positive feedback from customers and franchisees.

Despite the expanded test and apparent acceptance of the fresh patties, taking the option nationwide could prove to be difficult, Business Insider reports.

While the concept of serving fresh meat might appeal to customers, it could open the company up to a slew of food safety issues, as franchisees pointed out in a recent survey. The franchises also noted that it could be arduous to serve customers quickly with fresh meat — which would need to cook longer to an appropriate temperature.

McDonald’s is abandoning frozen beef in a newly expanded test [Business Insider]

Reminder: Friday Is The Last Day To Redeem Your RadioShack Gift Cards

The bankruptcy of RadioShack at the beginning of 2015 probably seems like a distant event to you now, but the business entity that used to be the massive electronics chain is still wrapping up its affairs. One of those last pieces of business is the end of gift card redemptions. The Shack’s estate will stop accepting requests on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016.

“No one could possibly still have a RadioShack gift card lying around,” you might be saying right now. That’s not true: between Sept. 24 and Nov. 21 of this year, almost one year after RadioShack and state attorneys general negotiated a deal that put RadioShack cardholders first, 269 people apparently found RadioShack cards in their junk drawers and turned them in.


A total of $131,491.39 in priority claims, which were gift cards purchased from RadioShack stores or third-party retailers, have been returned to consumers under this program. That doesn’t count cards redeemed just after the bankruptcy. The rest of outstanding cards were promotional gift cards or cards with store credit for returned items, which were not considered “priority” cards but were still paid out.


Normally, consumers have until 30 days after a retailer files for bankruptcy to redeem any gift cards they still have around. The size and age of RadioShack as a retailer prompted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to take the lead in making a different arrangement instead of shoving regular consumers at the end of the unsecured creditors line when RadioShack had millions of dollars’ worth of gift cards outstanding when it went bankrupt.

Gather up any cards that you still have by Friday, and redeem them at the self-explanatory URL