lundi 31 juillet 2017

Wells Fargo Customers Sue Bank Over Alleged Insurance Scheme That Led To Vehicle Repossessions

After a recent report alleged that Wells Fargo had charged its auto loan customers for unnecessary and unwanted insurance — resulting in 25,000 repossessed vehicles — the bank now faces a lawsuit from one of those borrowers.

The potential class action [PDF], filed in a California federal court, claims Wells Fargo worked with National General Insurance to bilk millions of dollars from unsuspecting customers, by forcing them to pay for auto insurance they neither wanted nor needed.

According to the lawsuit, Wells Fargo received kickbacks from National General after the bank charged more than 800,000 borrowers for Collateral Protection Insurance, often failing to disclose the insurance plans were added to customers’ auto loans.

The Alleged Scheme

The insurance, which the bank required on auto loans beginning in 2006, was automatically added to customers’ tabs through Wells Fargo’s Dealer Services unit.

When a customer came to Wells Fargo for an auto loan their information was sent to National General. While the company was supposed to check to see if the customer already had insurance, that didn’t always happen, says the plaintiff.

Instead, a new insurance policy — often more expensive than the auto insurance customers had already acquired — would be added to the borrower’s account.

The Harm

Wells Fargo’s “latest-revealed scheme sustained financial damages beyond the costs of the unlawful auto insurance,” the suit states. “The financial harm included inflated premiums, delinquency charges, late fees, repossession costs, increased interest rates, and damage to customers’ credit reports.”

The plaintiff cites a New York Times report in claiming that 274,000 Wells auto loan customers were unable to pay for this insurance, with their loans eventually going delinquent. As a result, the bank illegally repossessed nearly 25,000 vehicles, alleges the lawsuit.

The Times noted that the delinquencies and repossessions were a consequence of the way Wells Fargo charged for the insurance. In some cases, customers who agreed to have their monthly loan payments deducted from their bank account automatically weren’t notified that the insurance payment would be added to that amount. As a result, some accounts could become overdrawn.

A Specific Case

In the case of the Indiana man named as plaintiff in the lawsuit, the man says the bank issued a CPI loan for a vehicle purchased in Feb. 2016.

Starting in May 2016, the man was charged $598 for the loan. However, he repeatedly contacted Wells Fargo to inform the company that he already had required insurance through Allstate, according to the complaint.

Despite this, the lawsuit claims Wells Fargo did not credit the man’s account for the unlawful charge or otherwise refund the funds collected. Instead, the bank continued to charge the man for the policy, causing him to incur late fees.

Making It Right

Wells Fargo admitted last week that it was aware of the issue, and had been for nearly a year. The company said that it initiated a review of the CPI program and related third-party vendor practices back in July 2016, discontinuing the CPI program in Sept. 2016.

“Since then, the company has gone through a comprehensive review using independent consultants to ensure the remediation plan it develops addresses customers’ situations in a thorough and thoughtful way,” the bank said in a statement.

However, it had not addressed the issue publicly until last week. At that point, Wells Fargo said it would refund customers who were financially harmed by CPI policies issued between 2012 and 2017.

The bank said it identified approximately 570,000 customers who may have been impacted by the scheme. In all, approximately $64 million in cash remediation will be sent to customers in the coming months, along with $16 million of account adjustments, for a total of approximately $80 million in remediation.

“We take full responsibility for our failure to appropriately manage the CPI program and are extremely sorry for any harm this caused our customers, who expect and deserve better from us,” Franklin Codel, head of Wells Fargo Consumer Lending, said in a statement. “Upon our discovery, we acted swiftly to discontinue the program and immediately develop a plan to make impacted customers whole.”

Wells Fargo notes that while it has been providing CPI-related refunds to some customers, beginning next month it will send letters and refunds checks to customers who are due additional payments.

As for the lawsuit, it seeks restitution, disgorgement of all profits and three times damages incurred by all plaintiffs.

Podcasters Take Their Annoyance With Tech Support Scammers Really, Really Far

If you’re looking for something to brighten your Monday, and you’ve always wanted to learn more about the actual people and businesses behind the robocalls that plague your phone, here’s just the thing. It’s a world-spanning epic that began with a tech support robocaller that happened to dial the number of the wrong bored podcast host.

“We are legion. Expect us.”

Specifically, a company in India called up Alex Goldman, co-host of the podcast Reply All, and told him in a slick British robo-voice that his computer was compromised. He knows that this is a scam, but feels compelled to call anyway. Maybe Goldman felt compelled to call because he knew that it was a scam, in the grand tradition of 419 Eater and the P-P-P-Powerbook.

This is a variation on a very common scam, which gets your attention through an online pop-up, a direct phone call, or a robocall, which warns you that your computer has been infected with a virus. As far as many users know, Microsoft can tell that your computer is infected with a virus from afar, so this scam is an effective one that can be lucrative. The software that these particular scammers were selling cost $400.

How far did it go? During the first call, Goldman asked the supposed “tech” whether he really worked for Apple. It eventually became clear to the scammer that he wasn’t going to make a sale to Goldman, but rather than assuring his customer that Apple had dispatched him to help, the tech, identified only as “Alex Martin,” pivoted to threats:

“We are anonymous. We are legion. Expect us.” Later, he clarified, “We will be demolishing all of your social identities.”

How could someone not be intrigued after that?

Zeus Troan

So, Goldman called back. He went through the scam once again, this time playing along until he reached the point where he would have to give over his credit card number. Then, he did something you should never, ever do — he gave control of his computer to the fake tech support staff.

Let’s be clear here: there was nothing detected. The tech had just typed the words in there. As you might be able to figure out from the word “Troan.”

“Ok, it says that your Apple ID is compromised, and a Zeus Troan is found,” the tech played along with his own typo.

Can I talk to Kamal?

In a heartwarming turn, Goldman actually strikes up a friendship with “Alex Martin,” the first tech he spoke to. Goldman tells Consumerist that over a period of a few months he probably called the scammer’s call center 100 times, asking again and again for “Alex Martin.” As he learned more about the company’s operations, he would also ask to speak to the boss — a guy named Kamal.

In an email interview, Goldman tells Consumerist that, despite the fact that he probably took up a lot of their time, he wasn’t deliberately trying to keep the scammy call center staff on the line.

“I’d love to say that I seriously impeded their operation,” he wrote in response to Consumerist’s hopeful question, “but it feels hard to imagine, because there are 50 or more people in their company. In all likelihood I was a welcome afternoon diversion for them.”

(Having worked in a call center, yes, his calls were probably both a stressor and an interesting diversion.)

We’re not going to tell you everything, but you should know that the episode ends with Goldman learning about the special relationship between Kamal and Alex Martin, and concludes with Goldman and a producer boarding a plane to India.

Go check this story out. If you aren’t into podcasts, there’s a link at the bottom of the episode page to open a transcript, which you can read.

Airport Employee Punches Passenger Holding Baby Because We Live In A Cruel And Absurd Universe

As Dostoyevsky wrote, a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel, so it’s of little surprise that a random airport worker lashed out with his fist at a passenger — a traveler who was not only holding an infant in his arms at the time, but who had languished for some 13 hours while waiting for his repeatedly delayed flight.

This scene of very human brutality played out over the weekend in, of all places, Nice, France, where travelers at Nice Côte d’Azur Airport were waiting on an easyJet flight to London Luton International in the UK.

According to travelers on the scene, this two-hour hop across the Channel was repeatedly delayed due to mechanical issues, leaving ticketed passengers realizing they could have driven most the 900+ miles across the full length of France, through the Chunnel and back to London — all while enjoying significantly more pleasant scenery than an airport terminal.

Compounding the absurdity of the situation, passengers on this flight (is it a “flight” if it never leaves the ground?) say they watched in confounded irritation as other easyJet planes departed Nice for Luton.

Travelers tell the Washington Post that airport and airline staff were not forthcoming with helpful information about when their plane might cease being useless, or if anything really matters in a universe devoid of meaning.

The Magic 8 Ball of fate finally appeared to be in their favor when, after more than a dozen hours, passengers were told they would finally be boarding — only to be mocked by the futility of existence when, following another 30 minutes spent idling on a skybridge, they were sent back to the gate for additional waiting.

That’s when the man holding the infant said something to an airport employee — a worker for a third-party company that, ironically, is supposed to aid travelers.

Things got heated between the two, then hands were raised, sending the boulder of civil discourse back down the hill again.

“The [airport] employee lifted his hand first and pushed the mobile phone out of the man’s hand,” one passenger, who Tweeted the amazing photo below, told the Washington Post. “You could see it go flying. The man pushed him back, like he was protecting the baby… And then he just whacked him.”

As Camus noted, while the Absurd Man may be amoral, that does not mean he is free — legally or ethically — to act immorally.

“The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions,” explained Camus, who was not at the Nice airport on Saturday because he died in 1960. “‘Everything is permitted'” does not mean that nothing is forbidden.”

And so it was that both the airport employee and the punched man were escorted from the scene, with easyJet absolving itself via Twitter of any responsibility in the matter, even though its delayed flight (and inability to get travelers on other flights) is arguably the spark of this brief, brutal explosion.

Our message to easyJet comes Sartre, who claimed that “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Much to the world’s detriment, Sartre never worked as a PR rep for a discount airline.

Instead Of Busing College Students To Stores, Target Opens New Locations, Tests Pickup Options

As back to school season kicks into high gear, retailers across the country are competing to fill students’ backpacks with supplies and adorn their dorm rooms with TV, mini-refrigerators, and other college-esque paraphernalia. Target just happens to be one of those retailers, and the big box store is upping its back to school game by opening smaller format stores, offering new pickup options, and hosting pop-up shops on campuses.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that after 15 years of busing college students to Target for special after-hours shopping events, the retailer is changing gears and coming to where the students are: campus.


Pop-Up Stores

Under Target’s previous college-targeting system, the retailer would bus students to stores for after-hour soirees where shoppers could pick up essentials while enjoying tunes from a DJ.

Instead of bringing students to stores, Target is now bringing the stores to students. The retailer is hosting two-day pop-up stores on college campuses, the Star Tribune reports.

The first such experiment will occur at University of North Carolina’s campus, where students can shop dorm decor and other items.

Smaller Stores

The pop-up shops, while offering a convenient way for students to grab necessities, also serves as an opportunity for Target to showcase its newer small-format stores, many of which are being built near college campuses.

Target recently opened at least two of the stores, which are around 20,000 square feet, near The University of Cincinnati and University of North Carolina. The company says it will provide complimentary rides — via Gotcha Ride — to and from the stores for students as the school year begins.

Target plans to open 30 new small-format stores by the end of 2017, doubling its presence in dense urban and suburban markets and on college campuses.

“Going off to college is a new life stage—students are making their own shopping decisions for the first time,” said Mark Schindele, senior vice president, Target Properties. “We want to help make students’ experiences fun and easy, serve up products and services they’ll love and show them the best that Target has to offer, so they become lifelong guests.”

Show Now, Pickup Later

The convenience of the newer, smaller stores has also given Target another avenue to meet shoppers’ demands. With shoppers increasingly spending time online, Target is now testing an online order and pickup service just for college students.

Not to be confused with Target’s other pickup service, the Shop Now, Pickup Later program — being tested at six universities this fall — aims to simplify the dorm move-in process.

Through the service, students prepping for their college adventure can preorder products online from a curated list of 300 products, including sheets, mini-fridges, and other dorm room essentials, the Star Tribune reports.

When it’s time to move into the dorm — even weeks later — customers will be able to pickup their orders at the closest Target to campus.

New Clues Revealed About iPhone 8 Display, Facial Recognition

For the better part of a year rumors have been swirling about the features and design of Apple’s yet-to-be launched iPhone 8. Speculation about the highly anticipated 10th Anniversary phone, which CEO Tim Cook blamed for the poor sales of the iPhone 7, may have reached peak levels this weekend after the tech giant accidentally pushed out firmware for its HomePod.

Apple has released the firmware that will power the HomePod smart speaker several months ahead of the device’s December launch. But, as MacRumors reports, that earlier update has unintentionally given the public a look at what we might see in the iPhone 8, which isn’t expected until September.

Facial Recognition

Among the details iOS developers claim to have discovered in the iOS 11.0.2 update is a reference to infrared face detection.

This, MacRumors notes, gives the impression that the new phone could rely on facial recognition in some capacity, such as for locking and unlocking the device.

Researches say that the BiometricKit framework included in the iOS contained a new “FaceDetect” method that detects when a person’s face is too close, too far from the camera, when there are too many faces in the camera, and other elements used for authentication.

Design & Look

The code also seems to confirm many of the previously rumored design elements of the iPhone 8. A photo of the likely device was found in the HomePod code under the area dealing with authentication for Apple Pay.

The simple depiction for “D22,” the possible codename for the iPhone 8, shows the full-frontal display of the device.

The photo suggests that the earpiece and sensor are still located in a notch at the top of the device, while there are no longer borders on the device, meaning the display reaches the edges of the phone.

Additionally, the phone doesn’t appear to have a home button anymore. This, again, suggests that Apple will use different means for locking and unlocking the device, such as the infrared facial recognition system mentioned above.

Previously, sources told Bloomberg that Apple was working to create a home button incorporated into the screen instead of a separate button below the display.

Court Says FAA Must Explain Why It Won’t Do Anything To Stop “Incredibly Shrinking Airline Seat”

Staples And Office Depot Circling Each Other Again With Merger In Their Eyes

From 2015 to 2016, retail-watchers carefully tracked the proposed merger of Staples and Office Depot, which itself had recently acquired OfficeMax. The Federal Trade Commission ultimately didn’t bless the deal, but the two chains have come back with a new idea: What if Office Depot were to acquire just the retail portion of Staples?

The New York Post reports that’s what the two companies are working on right now, according to mysterious “sources.” Instead of two competing retail big-box office chains, spinning off the consumer-facing part of Staples and selling it to Office Depot would mean just one big nationwide chain under the Office Depot name.

That might meet with the FTC’s approval. Back in 2016, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Commission, which argued that the storefront operations of both chains weren’t the as much of an antitrust issue. Ordinary shoppers can buy the merchandise available at office supply stores from a variety of retailers.

The companies’ large corporate clients, however, don’t have that choice, and the commissioners decided that it would be unwise to merge the only two national office supply vendors.

Earlier this summer, Staples sold itself to a private equity firm, and that firm had the idea to split up the business into three parts, separating its retail operations, its commercial supply operations, and its international operations.

When Staples was up for sale, a buyer that was reportedly Office Depot bid somewhere between $625 million and $700 million for the company’s North American retail operations.

The two companies tried to merge in 1997 as well as in 2015, but retail consumers were an actual concern 20 years ago. That’s not so much the case now, and maybe the two superstore chains are closer to being two metaphorical penguins afloat on tiny icebergs in a vast and cruel and rapidly changing retail sea, as the companies argued to the FTC while trying to save their proposed merger in 2016.

Google’s Tracking Of Offline Spending Sparks Call For Federal Investigation

Google recently announced a suite of new tools for advertisers, allowing them to link a customer’s offline credit card purchases with the things they look at online. Shockingly, some privacy advocates think this sort of tracking goes too far and have called on the federal government to investigate.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center this morning filed a complaint [PDF] with the Federal Trade Commission, asking the agency to investigate Google’s Store Sales Management consumer profiling technology and stop the company from tracking customers’ in-store purchases.

According to EPIC, Google’s system, which can allegedly track 70% of all credit and debt card transactions in the U.S., puts the personal information — including product searches, location searches and payment information — of shoppers and Internet users at risk of hacks or other data breaches.

The group alleges that Google is increasing that risk by refusing to reveal details about the algorithm that “deidentifies” — or removes shoppers’ personal details — customers while tracking their purchase.

“Google claims that it can preserve consumer privacy while correlating advertising impressions with store purchases, but Google refuses to reveal—or allow independent testing of the technique that would make this possible,” the complaint states. “The privacy of millions of consumers thus depends on a secret, proprietary algorithm. And although Google claims that consumers can opt out of being tracked, the process is burdensome, opaque, and misleading.”

The Advertising Tool

Businesses are willing to spend some money on advertising and outreach, but only if they see it translate into a return. Google’s system attempts to do just this.

Back in May, Google launched the Store Sales Measurement tool as a way to connect in-store revenue for purchases to adverting purchased from Google.

The technique correlates in-store purchases with actions users take on their smartphones using Google’s Internet-based services, such as searching for products or searching for alternative locations to make purchases.

To do this, Google collects credit card transaction information from credit card companies, data brokers, and others. The company then links this information to a customer’s phone searches or internet history.

Google noted at the time that the data it collects won’t have customers’ names attached to it. The data is anonymized and then hashed over. So what advertisers see is something more like, ten users, with names like 08a862b091c379fe9767615d10873, saw these ads in the morning, and spent between $23 and $28 on those products at a certain grocery store that afternoon.

Privacy Problems

Despite this, EPIC claims that Google’s reliance on a secret, proprietary algorithm to ensure customer privacy is anything but safe.

According to EPIC, the mathematical technique that Store Sales Measurement is based on is known to have security risks, as researchers were able to hack into a CryptDB protected database of healthcare records in 2015.

Additionally, the group claims that Google would not specify if users had consented to having their credit and debit card transactions shared with advertisers.

Google claims that users can delete and/or opt out of location history tracking on both Android and iPhone devices if they do not want to be tracked. To do so, users can visit their My Activity Page, click on Activity Controls and uncheck Web and Web Activity.

Still, EPIC claims that Google’s opt-out settings and description are confusing and opaque.

Also, because Google won’t identify which companies are providing it with transaction records, customers cannot know which cards not to use or where not to shop if they do not want their purchases tracked.

“Google’s collection of massive numbers of credit card records through unidentified ‘third-party partnerships,’ and Google’s use of an opaque and misleading ‘opt-out’ mechanism are unfair and deceptive trade practices subject to investigation and injunction by the FTC,” EPIC said in the complaint.

EPIC claims that if Google’s program is allowed to move forward and does not work as described by the company, millions of consumers’ credit card transactions and other private information could be at risk for exposure.

A rep for Google tells the Washington Post that its new advertising system is “common” and that it “ensures users’ data remains private, secure, and anonymous.”

Charter Decides It’s Not Particularly Interested In Being Acquired By Sprint Right Now

You would think that after just having finished a mega-merger with Time Warner Cable last year, Charter might want to take a break before diving into any more major transactions. And yet that hasn’t stopped Sprint from coming ’round knocking at Charter’s door.

What’s the would-be deal?

Late last week, news of Sprint’s interest in Charter first began to bubble up when thee Wall Street Journal reported that the two companies were in talks to come together and create one massive new multi-media entity.

Sprint had already been in talks with both Charter and Comcast — who are working together on mobile — about a deal that would allow both cable giants to resell mobile service on Sprint’s network through their own respective brands, much as they already do with the Verizon network.

But as the WSJ reported, coming out of those talks, Sprint chairman Masayoshi Son has gone farther, and is pursuing a full-blown merger with Charter.

The resulting business would be a massive, publicly-traded company that would bring together one of the nation’s two largest cable and internet companies with a large and established mobile provider, positioning it well to keep competing against Comcast and Verizon as the communications and media industries continue to consolidate their interests, power, and leverage.

Although Sprint is the smaller and more beleaguered of the two businesses, SoftBank, the Japanese company that owns Sprint, would be in charge of the merged company under Son’s proposal.

Why so merger-happy?

We were barely more than a week past the 2016 election when investors giddily started speculating about who could leap into metaphorical bed with whom, given the expectations that 2017 would bring a business-friendly and regulation-hostile administration.

The combinations investors mulled over included basically every pairing you can think of among the major internet companies (including the mobile phone ones). And indeed, although as yet none of the players has inked an actual deal with anyone, it doesn’t appear to be for lack of trying.

Verizon, for instance, has been making noise this year about wanting to merge with, well, anyone: Comcast, Disney, CBS… the list is not exclusive.

And Verizon did in fact make an actual offer for Charter earlier this year, reports say, but was rebuffed. Big V was willing to offer about $100 billion, but Charter — now including TWC, and a legitimate rival in size to Comcast — said that wasn’t enough.

Sprint is particularly eager.

Sprint has been trying to position itself for — or wheedle itself into — a merger for years now. It’s the smallest of the big four wireless companies by far, and hasn’t had the success in recent years that third-place T-Mobile has enjoyed.

Sprint went to the White House in March to discuss potential mergers, perhaps with either Comcast or T-Mobile, and the rumor mill has only been heating up since then.

All throughout May, chatter began flying about a potential Sprint and T-Mobile betrothal. And in public, the C-suites from both companies have largely seemed open to the idea.

A Sprint merger with Charter would not actually preclude Sprint also merging with T-Mobile, Bloomberg and the WSJ both note. The post-merger Charter/Sprint could simply then go on and also acquire T-Mobile, in what would indeed be an enormous transaction.

But Charter’s keeping coy.

After sitting on the rumors all weekend, Charter said on Monday that is has “no interest” in pursuing a merger with Sprint.

In a statement given to Reuters and others, a Charter spokesperson said, “We understand why a deal is attractive for SoftBank, but Charter has no interest in acquiring Sprint.”

That said, “not interested” doesn’t mean “never,” and “cool” doesn’t mean, “hostile.” Bloomberg reports that despite the rebuffing, the two companies are still in talks.

Investors, however, appear relieved: Charter’s stock price soared several percent after news of its disinterest in Sprint became public.

Utility Worker Accused Of Shooting Dog During Surveying Work For AT&T

A family in Michigan kept their dog safe in their own front lawn, hanging out behind an invisible fence. The problem with invisible fences, though, is that people wandering through the neighborhood can’t see them. Like the man who was reportedly performing surveying work for an AT&T contractor, and fatally shot the family’s dog, which he thought was attacking him.

The family recounted to WXYZ-TV (warning: auto-play video at that link) that their dog, Katie, age four and a half, was hanging out in the yard.

“I heard a pop and the next thing I know my dogs laying down on the ground dead,” one of the dog’s owners told the TV station. “I noticed a guy coming from my neighbor’s yard into our yard.”

The family reports that the shooter said he was cutting through their property to get to a meter, and that the dog “lunged at [him].” The family insists that their dog would not have acted that way.

The important question, which a representative of the man’s employer couldn’t answer, is whether he was supposed to be carrying a personal firearm on the job at all, let alone use it to shoot and kill someone’s pet.

His employer is also waiting to find out whether any laws were broken. In a statement, the company said in part:

We’ve instructed our employee to fully comply with local police in all respects, if requested. The Company is also prepared to fully cooperate with the police, if requested. At this stage, the Company has not been advised by the police as to whether they believe that any laws have been violated. If and when such a determination is made, the Company will be prepared to take that fact into consideration.

The utility worker is on leave pending an investigation, though his employer, a contractor for AT&T, wouldn’t tell WXYZ whether that leave was paid or unpaid.

Discovery Communications, Scripps Networks Bring HGTV & TLC Together In $14.6B Deal

Discovery Communications and Scripps Networks are putting Shark Week, Guy Fieri, House Hunters, and Bizarre Foods all under the same umbrella in a $14.6 billion mega merger of hugely successful, moderately entertaining media companies.

Maryland-based Discovery Communications announced today that it would pay $90/share for network rival Scripps Networks, creating a programming juggernaut representing 20% of ad-supported pay-TV audiences in the U.S.

Discovery, best known for its flagship Discovery Channel, maintains a total of 13 networks including  TLC, Animal Planet, the Science Channel, and others. Scripps brings another nine channels to the fold, including HGTV, Food Network, and the Travel Channel.

“We believe that by coming together with Scripps, we will create a stronger, more flexible and more dynamic media company with a global content engine,” David Zaslav, President and CEO, Discovery Communications, said in a statement.

Once the deal closes, likely early in 2018, the two companies believe they will see a cost saving of $350 million annually.

The combined company will produce approximately 8,000 hours of original programming, generating 7 billion short-form video streams monthly.

Discovery notes that by bringing Scripps under its umbrella, the network’s brands will receive a broader international audience. Scripps owns strong positions in international markets, which will provide Discovery with access to the UK and Poland.

The merger is also about getting access to the eyeballs of female TV viewers. Once combined, the merged company would control of the most popular cable networks with women, accounting for 20% of what all U.S. women watch in primetime.

Here Are This Year’s 8 Most Ridiculously Calorie-Filled Chain Restaurant Meals

samedi 29 juillet 2017

July 29 Is National Chicken Wing Day: Here Are Some Deals And Stunt Foods

There’s only one good thing about nonsense holidays like National Ice Cream Day or National Donut Day: If you like the food being celebrated, restaurants have events where you can get discounts or free items. National Chicken Wing Day, July 29, is no exception.


Buffalo Wild Wings: Small plates of boneless wings for $9.99, and traditional wings for $11.99.

East Coast Wings & Grill: Buy wings on the holiday, get a voucher for five free wings the next time you come back.

Hooters: Buy any 10 wings, get 10 smoked chicken wings free. They’re calling it “National Smoked Chicken Wing Day.”

Hurricane Grill & Wings: $1 wings and a free soda or beer if you spend $20 on food.

WingHouse: Buy 10 wings, get five free.

Wingstop: Buy wings, get five free boneless wings from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M.

We as a species deserve to have an asteroid take us out as soon as possible

The Office Tavern and Grill in New Jersey sent us an email about their offering for this “holiday,” which are wings that are 1,000 calories each. Per wing.

How on earth does that happen? The company wrote:

Each 1,000-calorie wing is freshly baked, breaded, fried, wrapped in bacon, tempura battered and fried again, crusted in potato chips and fried a third time, coated in melted Gorgonzola cheese and drizzled with spicy buffalo sauce and bleu cheese dressing.

What, no whipped cream? If you’re in New Jersey on Saturday, an order of these abominations costs $11.

vendredi 28 juillet 2017

How Home-Grown Tomatoes And Misread Tea Leaves Led To Pointless Police Raid On Innocent Family’s Home

When Bob Harte took his two young kids shopping with him at an organic gardening store in Kansas City, Missouri, he had no idea that he had inadvertently set in motion a series of events that would — eight months later — lead to the Harte family watching helplessly as armed sheriff’s deputies searched every corner of their house for nonexistent evidence of a marijuana grow operation.

Let’s go back to August 2011. Bob, a former CIA officer who had moved from D.C. to the Kansas City suburbs in 1999, was working on a hydroponic vegetable garden in his basement. One day, he packed his son and daughter into the car and drove across the river to shop at a Missouri store that sells hydroponic gardening supplies.

As he left the store, he was unaware that a Missouri Highway Patrol sergeant was staking out this store under the presumption that hydroponic farmers are likely to be cultivating illegal marijuana.

At home, Bob’s wife Adlynn — also a former CIA officer and now an attorney — was indulging her tea habit, brewing tea the way that many tea fanatics do: with loose tea leaves.

The sergeant who’d added Bob to his list of potential reefer kingpins did nothing with this information for several months. Like others, he was hoping to launch a high-profile operation that would take down multiple marijuana growers on April 20 (because heaven forbid anyone do something pot-related not on this day), but when he realized he didn’t have enough possible targets, he shared his intel, including Harte’s info, with the Johnson County (Kansas) Sheriff’s Department, which was ramping up for its “Operation Constant Gardener” on that same date.

(Side note: Presumably the “Operation Constant Gardener” title is a reference to the John LeCarré novel/film, even though that story is about corruption in the legal prescription drug industry.)

Misreading The Tea Leaves

In the weeks leading up to the raids, sheriff’s deputies collected three separate trash samples from the Hartes’ curb. They determined that the wet tea leaves found in the garbage were actually “saturated plant material” meaning it was marijuana that had been processed to extract THC, the plant’s active ingredient.

Even though tea leaves looked nothing like pot, police performed field tests on these samples that they claim turned up positive for THC. However, the test they used can not conclusively determine if a substance is marijuana; it can only provide a “presumptive” positive for THC. The Hartes’ attorney notes that this test also has a 70% false positive rate, particularly with food items like peppermint, vanilla, cinnamon, basil, ginger, oregano, lavender, and tea.

“What deputies did not do was conduct any type of drug investigation — no surveillance, no interviews with neighbors, no searching their files for any tips, no thermal imaging, and no checking of electrical records or anything else that might suggest an indoor grow operation,” noted their lawyer.

With only a shopping trip to a completely legal gardening store, and some wet tea leaves, the sheriff still managed to obtain a warrant, though the affidavit given in support of that warrant made no mention of the field test’s high false positive rate, the fact that the “plant material” did not in any way resemble marijuana, or that it was found in the kitchen trash.

The Raid

On the morning of April 20, 2012, the sheriff’s office carried out “Operation Constant Gardener,” which included a 7:30 a.m. raid on the Harte home by deputies “garbed in raid gear and armed with assault rifles.”

Adlynn says she came downstairs to find Bob on the floor surrounded by officers. Their son, 13, came out of his room with his hands up, while their 7-year-old daughter had no idea what was going on.

The family was forced to sit on the couch — in full view of passersby — while police searched the hydroponic garden in the basement, finding only a half-dozen tomato, squash, and melon plants. Tests of the plant material in the garden came up negative for evidence of marijuana, which the Hartes contend should have been enough to satisfy deputies given that their entire warrant had been based on Bob’s shopping trip and Adlynn’s tea leaves. But the search continued for hours.

“The deputies searched every room of the Hartes’ residence, going through closets and dresser drawers, containers, and even Mr. Harte’s toilet kit bag,” says the family’s attorney. “After 2.5 hours, they found absolutely nothing — no drugs, no drug paraphernalia, no evidence of any illegal activity. It was obvious after the discovery of the vegetable plants that the prolonged and illegal search was aimed simply at uncovering something that would get the deputies off the hook for their improper actions. But the Hartes had never used any type of drugs, and there was nothing to find.”

The family says that while the fruitless search — which included bringing in a drug-sniffing dog conscripted from the Overland Park, KS, police — continued, officers initially refused to show the search warrant to the Hartes or describe its contents. The family also claims that one deputy told them that police “knew” there were “narcotics” in the house.

Officers later suggested that the Hartes’ teen son was responsible for the marijuana they didn’t find, then recommended taking the young man to a doctor for drug testing and that the Hartes have a “family meeting.”

When the Hartes finally did see the search warrant, it mentioned that the search was looking for evidence of a “major grow operation,” and not for evidence of pot production for personal use.

It wasn’t until nearly a year later, and after the sheriff had rejected multiple requests, that the Hartes were finally able to get the full picture of the half-baked investigation that led to the search warrant.

Then in March 2013, they were finally able to see the whole story: Bob daring to shop at a hydroponics store; the multiple searches of the Harte family garbage; the fact that police had actually discarded the first supposed marijuana sample taken from the garbage after determining it was “misidentified”; the revelation that the Sheriff’s Department did not use its crime lab to do a conclusive tests on these samples until after the raid; or that those tests identified “no controlled substances.”

The Legal Battle Begins

In 2013, Hartes sued the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department, sheriff and more than 10 deputies and other officers. They also sued the Missouri Highway Patrol sergeant who not only provided the tip to the sheriff, but who also trained many of the Johnson County deputies on drug-related matters. The county’s Board of Commissioners was also named in the complaint [PDF].

The lawsuit alleges that the law enforcement officers violated the Hartes’ Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment protections by conducting a search without sufficient probable cause, relying on a warrant based on materially false or misleading statements, detaining the family after it was clear that there was no probable cause for the search, and excessive use of force, among other claims.

But their case appeared to hit a dead end in 2015, when a federal court judge in Kansas granted summary judgment [PDF] in favor of all of the defendants, finding that the officers and the board members had each made valid “qualified immunity” claims. Qualified immunity protects law enforcement officers and other public officials from being held liable for reasonable errors made in the commission of their duties.

“Tea Drinkers & Gardeners Beware!”

Many of those claims of qualified immunity went out the window this week, when a three-judge panel at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed most of the lower court’s grant of summary judgment.

“Law-abiding tea drinkers and gardeners beware,” writes Judge Carlos Lucero in his opinion [PDF]. “One visit to a garden store and some loose tea leaves in your trash may subject you to an early-morning, SWAT-style raid, complete with battering ram, bulletproof vests, and assault rifles.”

In their appeal, the Hartes argued that the search warrant was invalid because the officers who obtained it failed to take photographic evidence of the supposed pot samples collected from the trash, didn’t use a drug-sniffing dog at their disposal, didn’t immediately turn the samples over to the lab for confirmation of the positive field tests, and did no further investigation into the Hartes.

The judges didn’t all agree on the validity of the search warrant. Lucero joined Judge Nancy Moritz in finding that the Hartes should be allowed to make the case that officers provided false or misleading information to the judge who signed the warrant. Judge Gregory Phillips, dissenting, countered that while the evidence provided by the Hartes points to lazy police work, it doesn’t appear to rise to the level of taking away the officers’ qualified immunity.

Thus, the appeals court majority reversed this aspect of the lower court decision, ruling that the Hartes can move forward with their claim of unlawful search and seizure against the sheriff’s deputies, but they are limited to arguing that officers lied about the results of the field tests in order to obtain the warrant.

The panel also reversed the District Court’s dismissal of state-law claims alleged by the Hartes, including Trespass, Assault, and False Arrest.

The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s summary judgment in favor of the county Board, the sheriff, and the Missouri Highway Patrol sergeant. The allegations of excessive force are also off the table.

Unless either side appeals this matter to the Supreme Court, this case now goes back to the District Court.

[h/t Washington Post]

Report: 25,000 Wells Fargo Customers Lost Vehicles After Bank Charged For Unwanted Insurance

Nearly 25,000 Wells Fargo customers, including many servicemembers, lost their vehicles after failing to pay for unneeded, unwanted insurance the bank charged them for, according to a new report suggests. 

The New York Times reports that a 60-page internal report prepared for Wells Fargo executives details the bank’s latest customer service fiasco involving hundreds of thousands of people who were charged for unneeded insurance.

According to the report, more than 800,000 people who received car loans from Wells Fargo from Jan. 2012 through July 2016 were charged for unneeded insurance policies underwritten by National General Insurance.

Expensive Insurance

The insurance, which the bank required on auto loans beginning in 2006, was automatically added to customers’ tabs through Wells Fargo’s Dealer services unit.

When a customer came to Wells Fargo for an auto loan their information was sent to National General Insurance. While the company was supposed to check to see if the customer already had insurance, that didn’t always happen.

Instead, a new insurance policy — often more expensive than the auto insurance customers had already acquired — would be added to the borrower’s account.

The Times reports that several states’ insurance regulations require Wells Fargo to notify customers that the insurance was added. However, the report suggests that nearly 100,000 people did not receive proper disclosure.

Defaults and Repossessions

Of those pushed into the coverage, the report notes that 274,000 Wells Fargo customers were unable to pay for the insurance, eventually entering delinquency.

This, the Times reports, occurred because of the way Wells Fargo charged customers for the insurance.

In some cases, the report found that customers who agreed to have their monthly loan payments deducted from their bank account automatically weren’t notified that the insurance payment would be added to that amount. As a result, some accounts could become overdrawn.

In complaints filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau some customers reported that despite proving to Wells Fargo that they already had insurance, they continued to receive calls seeking payment on the bank-provided insurance policies.

This, despite the fact that Wells Fargo was supposed to cancel the policies and refund borrowers for the unneeded insurance.

In all, the report estimates that the bank owed customers $73 million, a figure that includes late fees, repossession costs, and insufficient fund fees charged when an account is overdrawn.

Difference In Figures

For its part, Wells Fargo tells the Times that the bank’s own determination found that just 570,000 customers were affected by the issues, and only 20,000 repossessions occurred.

“We take full responsibility for these errors and are deeply sorry for any harm we caused customers,” a rep for the bank said.

National General Insurance, which split commission on the policies with Wells Fargo until 2013, declined to provide comment to the Times.

A rep for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the regulator in charge of overseeing Wells Fargo, tell the Times that he could not comment on any action pending from the issues.

Please Do Not Buy Counterfeit Solar Eclipse Glasses

There’s a total solar eclipse coming across much of the country on Aug. 21, which will be amazing to watch. However, use caution, and make sure not to risk your eyesight to see it. Not only should you wear special eclipse-viewing glasses when you look at the sun, but you should make sure that those glasses aren’t counterfeit.

Counterfeit eclipse glasses are a thing?

Yes, there’s an online market for counterfeit eclipse glasses, and it’s a very robust one. In response to the demand for eclipse glasses, companies have popped up to meet that demand.

The glasses are essential because they let us safely look at the sun while it’s in partial eclipse, before the moon moves in front of it fully.

You can find hundreds of listings on Amazon, but just because a company says that they’re selling eclipse glasses, or throw around the correct ISO number, that doesn’t mean their products are safe.

A writer for Quartz bought some glasses on Amazon, and later learned that they were counterfeit, even though they claimed to be certified.

NASA has put the word out about these fake lens slingers, and named a few companies that are trustworthy providers of lenses or glasses. Here’s what you need to look for:

• The glasses should have certification information, with a designated ISO 12312-2 international standard.
• The actual manufacturer’s name and address should be printed somewhere on the glasses.
• Don’t use glasses that are wrinkled, scratched, or more than three years old.
• Don’t use regular sunglasses, no matter how dark they are.

NASA recommends buying glasses from from one of five manufacturers:

• American Paper Optics
• Baader Planetarium (AstroSolar Silver/Gold film only)
• Rainbow Symphony
• Thousand Oaks Optical
• TSE 17

This is not a money grab on the part of these manufacturers. “There are a zillion companies putting out the same product and they all have different names,” a representative of Rainbow Symphony told Quartz. “And this isn’t because I don’t want competition in the marketplace. We’re oversold and on backorder. It’s not my motive to keep competitors out of the market.”

Unfortunately, just looking for those five names on Amazon isn’t enough, since the counterfeiters are using names of the approved companies. NASA says that it will release more information before the eclipse, incuding the names of more approved vendors.

So far, experts haven’t found any counterfeit glasses that are inadequate or harmful, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any out there. It’s one thing to buy sketchy fidget spinners, but do you really want to risk your eyesight?

United Kingdom Discovers 2,529 Products Hit By Grocery Shrink Ray, Calls It ‘Shrinkflation’

The grocery shrink ray is a phenomenon that you may have noticed, where companies make their packaged products slightly smaller, charge the same price, and hope that no one notices. It’s not a new phenomenon, but the Office for National Statistics in the United Kingdom recently tallied up shrunken products in the last five years.

Toblerone and toilet paper

The best-publicized shrunken product during that period was, of course, the Toblerone from Mondelēz. The manufacturer shrank the chocolate bar’s distinctive triangles, angering its fans.

However, that’s just one of the 2,529 products that the government noted. Toilet paper brand Andrex, which uses the same puppy-centric marketing as its American cousin brand Cottonelle, shrank its rolls from 280 sheets to 221, but claims to have improved its quality while reducing the number of sheets, balancing things out. Maybe.

On the plus side, 614 consumer products got bigger during the same period.

Not buying companies’ excuses

The ONS dismissed the reasons that companies traditionally give for shrink raying products, noting that the cost of raw materials hasn’t increased recently, and that the impending Brexit of the U.K. from the European Union also wouldn’t have an effect on inflation or on costs. It actually became cheaper to import sugar into Europe over the period that the study covered.

It also wouldn’t explain items that shrank between 2012 and 2016.

Your Tank Of Colorful Coral Could Pose A Toxic Danger

Installing a massive water-filled tank full of colorful floral and different species of fish might sound like great way to give your home that enormous little touch of pizzazz you always envisioned. Or could prove to be a dangerous addition, as some species of floral can emit deadly chemicals.

The Washington Post reports that while poisonings related to in-home coral reefs are rare, they do occur.

Certain species of corals, including zoanthid corals, release potent toxins when they feel they are being attacked by a predator.

The most dangerous of these toxins is palytoxin, a chemical that burns the skin and eyes on contact, while also irritating an individual’s throat and lungs.

This is likely what occurred to an Australian family earlier this year. The Post reports that all seven members of the family were hospitalized after waking in the middle of the night, having trouble breathing.

Authorities believe that when the family cleaned its coral tank that night, the coral reacted by spewing a chemical that spread through the home.

The family’s home had to be quarantined and cleaning teams had to wear breathing apparatuses and hazmat suits to clean the chemical with bleach and vacuuming the remaining particles.

How Did We Get Here?

While it’s not uncommon to find a home with a large tank full of exotic fish, snails, sea horses, and other water animals, a coral reef tank is more unique.

According to the Post, it wasn’t until after the 1980s that home aquariums were able to sustain life aside of fish.

Not content with this, however, companies developed technology and tanks that mimicked the sun and other atmospheric requirements for coral to grow. Once this technology was in place, companies began importing live stony coral, at a rate that grew around 8% each year.

This availability, coupled with the popularity of films like Finding Nemo, and the Post reports the coral business peaked in 2005 when importers brought in 600,000 pieces of live coral into the U.S.

Still, in some cases the Post reports the toxic corals aren’t actually purchased by reef hobbyists, they instead grow from rocks put in tanks.

Knowing The Dangers

Although the import of live coral has decreased since the great recession, plenty of the live aquatic life enters the U.S. each year.

For the most part, the Post reports, these corals don’t undergo comprehensive tests for toxins by the Food and Drug Administration.

For this reason, it’s important for hobbyists — often likened to master gardeners — to understand the dangers of the corals’ toxins.

When the hobby began to grow, those interested in joining the fray turned to groups online, where others exchanged information about their corals and other tank life.

“The sharing of information has really helped,” one hobbyist tells the Post, noting that those that have been dealing with corals for years make it easier for others to get involved.

Additionally, hobbyists attending industry events and conferences have become aware of the dangers through lectures.

Still, the Post reports that even the most seasoned coral growers have fallen victim to the dangerous toxins.

For instance, one reefer who tried to kill a zoanthid by boiling it, was overcome by the emitted chemical. He received a runny nose that turned into coughing fits. He visited the emergency room for treatment, but asthma-like symptoms continue.

In another sad incident, one hobbyist warned others on a forum that his dog had stuck its head into a tub of zoanthid coral. The dog died a few hours later.

The Post notes that no one has died from palytoxin inhalation.

Outside Of Coral

Palytoxin isn’t relegated to just coral, the Post reports, as the chemical has also been known to be a food contaminant.

For example, in 2000, 11 people in Japan became ill after eating fish. While those individuals recovered, the toxin was linked to the death of a man who ate a tainted crab.

According to scientists, food contamination stems from algae, not corals. That’s not an uncommon occurrence, as an algae named Ostrepsis ovata bloomed in the Mediterranean Sea sickening about 200 people in Italy.

So Is Congress’ Effort To Repeal Obamacare Actually Dead For Real, Or What?

It’s been a heck of a week in D.C. On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate held a high-drama, high-stakes vote to move on a proposal to repeal and/or replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). That kicked off a frankly bonkers week of politics and politicking, with debate — and Senators’ support — all over the map. In the wee small hours of Friday morning, that effort finally shambled to a halt, fatally collapsing on itself. But is this actually the end of Congressional efforts to undo the ACA?

In many ways, covering or reading about D.C. right now calls to mind a monster B-movie. At the end, the vampire gets a wooden stake through its heart and falls into its casket. The lid falls down dramatically, the credits roll, and you know that the monster will remain out of the picture — until the inevitable Return of… film a couple of years later.

That shambling, undead interpretation of this particular initiative is as good an analogy of any other. In more literal terms, here’s where it stands.

Okay, what actually happened?

This all kicked into high gear on Tuesday, July 25, when the Senate narrowly voted, 51-50, to open debate on a healthcare bill.

That bill was the House’s American Health Care Act, but it was used effectively as a placeholder text while the Senate crafted its own plan to repeal and/or replace the ACA.

The rules the Senate was operating under set a 20-hour clock ticking as soon as the Tuesday vote was finished, and so Senators lined up a number of potential alternative bills to see who could agree on what during that debate window.

The first Senate alternative to come to a vote was effectively the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) — the bill that was basically deemed too dead to vote on merely a week earlier. It did indeed fail on Tuesday, 43-57.

On Wednesday, the Senate then moved on to its next option, which was functionally the Obamacare Repeal Reconciliation Act (ORRA) — a straight “repeal” plan. That, too, failed to advance, only securing 45 of the necessary 51 votes.

By Thursday, the time crunch was on. One Senator proposed an amendment that would basically create a national single-payer option, expanding Medicaid universally; the Senate immediately voted that down, 57-0.

That led us to the so-called “skinny repeal,” a slapdash effort that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shopped around on Thursday in a final effort to gain the support of at least 50 Republican senators.

However, support for that option was tepid and confused at best, and when the Senate finally voted on it in the middle of the might, it did not pass.

So this actual attempt is for-really dead?

This week’s effort is done, toast, kaput, pining for the fjords, ringing down the curtain, joining the choir invisible, d-e-a-d dead.

Nothing was resolved during the allotted 20 hours of debate allowed or mandated by the procedure they were using, and so now Senate business has to move on to something else.

But while this particular effort is over, there is absolutely nothing saying McConnell can’t try again with another bill. He, or another member of the Senate, can introduce a bill do to basically anything at any time, and it could be nearly verbatim to any of the ones that the Senate tried and failed to move through this week.

How likely are they to try again, though?

McConnell absolutely can try again. Whether or not he wants to, though, is an entirely different issue.

Passing a proper bill, without using budget reconciliation tactics, will require 60 Senators to come on board in order to be filibuster-proof and get past procedural thresholds. In the sharply split Senate we currently have, no repeal bill is going to get that far.

Reconciliation tactics, though, only require a simple 51-vote majority to succeed. But using reconciliation to squeeze something through has now proven challenging, to say the least.

While Republican members of Congress have been vowing to “repeal and replace Obamacare” for years, the reality is that they don’t agree on how or why. All through the whole long saga, Senate Republicans were fractured into a couple of different camps.

One camp, the more conservative, wanted to flat-out fully repeal the ACA and everything in it. As they worked toward a middle ground, the hardliners who wanted a repeal objected to the middle ground more and more.

Meanwhile the other camp, considered more moderate, wanted to preserve more Americans’ coverage and especially prevent Medicaid from suffering deep cuts. As proposal after proposal failed to meet their standards, they held the ground on their objection.

Reconciling “this goes too far” with “this doesn’t go far enough” is an uphill battle at best — and that key split in ideology and desired outcome still remains.

In remarks on the Senate floor after the vote failed, McConnell seemed willing to throw in the towel on that particular fight for now, saying, “it’s time to move on.”

But in 2017’s politics, you never know.

Aside from healthcare, though, we’re now six months into a new administration — one that is politically aligned with both chambers of Congress, and yet has no major policy wins to show.

Members of the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives — which narrowly passed its repeal and replace resolution in May — are unhappy with the Senate’s failure to do the same, Politico reports, with the far-right Freedom Caucus is particularly displeased.

“If they’re going to quit, well then by God, maybe they ought to start at the top with Mitch McConnell leaving his position and letting somebody new, somebody bold, somebody conservative take the reins,” Rep. Mo Brooks (AL) , told CNN on Friday.

Other House Freedom Caucus members were more optimistic, with North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan telling Fox News that they were “staying in” and ready to try again, with “a little bit of a shift” in approach.

It is, in short, a giant question mark. With some members of Congress wanting to double down, and leadership clearly wanting to move on to other priority items on the party’s agenda, all that we can really guess for sure is that this was not going to be the last high-drama week of the year for Congress.

Players In New Professional Esports League Could Make As Much As Major League Soccer Players

Not only can competitive video game players now receive scholarships to the University of Utah, they could parlay that love into a pretty well-paying professional esports career, where players will receive a salary and benefits rivaling other professional sport athletes. 

Activision Blizzard announced Wednesday additional details of its professional esports Overwatch League set to begin play this fall, including player salaries and potential bonus awards.

Players in the league, which was crafted to resemble other professional sport leagues such as the NFL and MLB, will make a minimum salary of $50,000 per year. At this rate, Bloomberg notes, the salary for Overwatch players rivals that of Major League Soccer players, who receive a minimum salary of $53,000.

However, Overwatch players stand to earn more than just their base salary. The League says that players can earn as much as 50% of their team bonuses. These bonuses, Activation Blizzard notes, will total $3.5 million in the first year, with the championship team receiving $1 million.

Additionally, players, who are singed to a one-year guaranteed contract, will receive health insurance and a retirement savings plan.

The League

Teams for The Overwatch League have already been confirmed in Boston, Los Angeles, Miami-Orlando, New York City, San Francisco, Seoul, and Shanghai. Activision Blizzard is expected to add additional host cities over time.

Teams will be built using a roster of the more than 30 million eligible Overwatch players. Teams will be able to add players during a signing window from Aug. 1 until Oct. 30.

Teams will also provide players with housing and practice facilities during the season, the company said.

FDA Considering Lowering Level Of Nicotine Allowed In Cigarettes To Reduce Addiction

Could your future cigarette purchase come with a little less nicotine? It’s possible, as the FDA revealed today a new multi-year roadmap intended to protect kids and reduce tobacco-related disease and death.

The FDA announced today a comprehensive regulatory plan that moves the issues of addiction and its relation to nicotine to the forefront of the agency’s efforts to implement the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.

“Congress gave FDA powerful tools to help reduce the harms caused by tobacco use when it passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2009,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said today. “And it sent a strong signal by calling it the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.  To put it simply: it’s all about kids and families. Congress made that clear in the law. And we take that responsibility very seriously.”

To this end, the agency says it will use its rule-making authority and seek input on public health issues in determining how it should move forward with the regulation of nicotine.

Tackling Addiction

According to the FDA, tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S., with more than 480,000 deaths occurring each year.

To reduce this number, the FDA plans to create a greater awareness that nicotine is addictive.

“The overwhelming amount of death and disease attributable to tobacco is caused by addiction to cigarettes – the only legal consumer product that, when used as intended, will kill half of all long-term users,” Gottlieb said.

Related: You Still Can’t Fire Up An E-Cigarette On Your Flight

Gottlieb claimed that unless the FDA does something, 5.6 million young people could die prematurely later in life from tobacco use.

“Envisioning a world where cigarettes would no longer create or sustain addiction, and where adults who still need or want nicotine could get it from alternative and less harmful sources, needs to be the cornerstone of our efforts – and we believe it’s vital that we pursue this common ground,” he added.

Reducing Nicotine

One step the FDA plans to pursue in order to reduce the prevalence of nicotine addiction is reducing the amount of nicotine found in cigarettes.

“Nicotine is astonishingly addictive,” Gottlieb said. “And when nicotine is attached to cigarette smoke particles, it’s not only highly addictive, but an addictive chemical mix of disease and death. So we need to take a fresh look at nicotine itself, and how the addiction that it causes relates to the potential harm of its delivery mechanism.”

The agency says it plans to begin a public dialogue about lowering the permissible nicotine levels in combustible cigarettes to non-addictive levels. This would involve reducing the amount of nicotine in cigarettes through product standards.

FDA intends to issue an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) to seek input on the potential public health benefits and any possible adverse effects of lowering nicotine in cigarettes.

By lowering the level of nicotine in cigarettes, the FDA believes it can decrease the likelihood that future generations become addicted to cigarettes, while also assisting those currently addicted to kick the habit.

“Because nicotine lives at the core of both the problem and the solution to the question of addiction, addressing the addictive levels of nicotine in combustible cigarettes must be part of the FDA’s strategy for addressing the devastating, addiction crisis that is threatening American families,” Gottlieb said. “Our approach to nicotine must be accompanied by a firm foundation of rules and standards for newly regulated products. To be successful all of these steps must be done in concert and not in isolation.”

Looking To Other Options

In addition to exploring a decrease in nicotine found in cigarettes, the FDA says it is committed to finding other innovative ways to influence public health changes.

The agency said today that it intends to extend timelines to submit tobacco product review applications for newly regulated tobacco products that were on the market as of Aug. 8, 2016.

Related: FDA Quietly Delays Stricter Rules On E-Cigarettes, Cigars

This action, the FDA said, will afford the agency time to explore clear and meaningful measures to make tobacco products less toxic, appealing and addictive.

For example, the FDA intends to develop product standards to protect against known public health risks such as e-cigarette battery issues and concerns about children’s exposure to liquid nicotine.

Additionally, the expanded timeframe will allow manufacturers to develop higher quality, more complete applications informed by additional guidance from the agency, the agency said.

Under expected revised timelines, applications for newly regulated combustible products, such as cigars, pipe tobacco and hookah tobacco, would be submitted by Aug. 8, 2021, and applications for non-combustible products like e-cigarettes would be submitted by Aug. 8, 2022.

Getting Input

The FDA says that it also plans to seek public input on other ways it can help protect public health related to new tobacco products.

This, the agency says, will insult looking for input on approaches to regulating kid-appealing flavors in e-cigarettes and cigars.

By seeking public input on the issues, the FDA says it will ensure that it has proper science-based policies in place to meaningfully reduce the harms caused by tobacco use.

“This comprehensive plan and sweeping approach to tobacco and nicotine allows the FDA to apply the powerful tools given by Congress to achieve the most significant public health impact,” Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said.


Apple Puts iPod Nano And iPod Shuffle Out To Pasture

So long, old friends: After many redesigns and colors, Apple has dropped the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle from its lineup. Why drop the teeny devices now? Their ancestor the iPod Classic is now gone, and the two devices were the only music players left that don’t use iOS. Worse, the iPod Shuffle doesn’t have Bluetooth.

Yesterday brought the death of the two older models of iPod, and the surviving model is what used to be called the iPod Touch.

This marks the first time since 2001 that Apple won’t sell a standalone music player. The iPod Touch is really a tiny tablet that runs iOS, the operating system of Apple’s phones and tablets. It only connects to WiFi, not mobile data, but otherwise resembles an iPhone.

Here’s where the death of the smaller iPods comes in. Like its cousin, the iPhone 7, the newest version of the iPod doesn’t have a 3.5 millimeter headphone jack. How can Apple sell you Beats wireless headphones and AirPods if the Shuffle doesn’t even have Bluetooth?

Starbucks Closing All Teavana Stores

It was almost five years ago that Starbucks paid $620 million to acquire mall tea chain Teavana, politely declining the $800 million tea tin upsell. While Teavana products are now for sale in every Starbucks cafe, including fruit-infused iced teas, the company announced this week that it will be closing the remaining Teavana retail stores over the coming year.

The retail tea biz

There are 379 Teavana stores in shopping malls, where employees brew very strong samples to entice shoppers to buy tasty loose teas.

Starbucks had also opened a few standalone Teavana-branded tea bars, but ended the experiment by converting these businesses into Starbucks cafes or closing them. Instead, Teavana products began to show up on the standard Starbucks menu, including an Oprah-endorsed chai and a piña colada-themed tea drink.

Starbucks will keep distributing Teavana drinks in grocery stores as well as selling the brand’s teas and brewed products in its cafes.

This is becoming a trend with Starbucks, which acquired the bakery La Boulange and began putting its baked goods in stores, later closing all of the chain’s standalone stores.

All the espresso in China

In the same earnings report where the company shared the Teavana news, it also said that it would be buying its entire business in China, buying the the other half of its business in that country from joint venture partners that own 50%. If you count that as an acquisition, it’s the company’s largest ever at $1.3 billion.

Honda Investigating Another Death Possibly Tied To Takata Airbag

Federal safety regulators and Honda have opened investigations into what could be the 13th U.S.-based death linked to recalled shrapnel-shooting Takata airbags.

Honda announced Thursday that a Takata airbag inflator ruptured during the crash of a 2002 Honda Accord in Florida last week, in which a 34-year-old woman was killed, Reuters reports. 

While an official cause of death has not been confirmed, Honda and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are investigating whether the ruptured airbag played a part in the woman’s death.

The crash occurred around 6:40 p.m. July 19 in Holiday, FL, when a 19-year-old in a Pontiac Firebird turned into the woman’s path, WTSP10 reports.

Consumerist has reached out to Takata for additional information on the crash and investigation. We’ll update this post if we hear back.

If the death is confirmed to be a result of the Takata airbag rupture it would become the 13th in the U.S. and 18th worldwide.

It would also be the 12th such death in the U.S. to occur in a Honda vehicle. Ford is the only other carmaker to have a vehicle involved in a Takata-related death. Earlier this year, the Dec. 22 death of a Georgia man driving a Ford Ranger pickup was linked to airbag shrapnel.

To find out if a vehicle is affected by the recall owners are urged to enter their individual VIN on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s database.

Consumerist Friday Flickr Finds

Here are eight of the best photos that readers added to the Consumerist Flickr Pool in the last week, picked for usability in a Consumerist post or for just plain neatness.

Want to see your pictures on our site? Our Flickr pool is the place where Consumerist readers upload photos for possible use in future Consumerist posts. Just be a registered Flickr user, go here, and click “Join Group?” up on the top right. Choose your best photos, then click “send to group” on the individual images you want to add to the pool.

jeudi 27 juillet 2017

GOP Finally Releases ‘Skinny’ Repeal Bill: The Health Care Freedom Act

After several days of mystery and voting for and against amendments on a bill that doesn’t really exist, Republican leadership in the Senate has finally released the text of the Health Care Freedom Act, better known as the “skinny” Obamacare repeal bill.

The Senate Budget Committee released the bill [PDF] via Twitter shortly after 10 p.m. ET on Thursday night. We presume they were waiting to see who was evicted from Big Brother.

The 8-page bill does the following:

• Negates the “individual mandate” — the requirement that all people must have some form of insurance or pay a penalty — by reducing the penalty for not having insurance to $0. This appears to be effective immediately and retroactive to the beginning of 2016.

• Negates the “employer mandate” — the requirement that businesses of a certain size must provide full-time employees with qualifying coverage — by reducing the penalty for not having insurance to $0. This appears to be effective immediately and retroactive to the beginning of 2016, but returning in 2025.

• Delays the tax on medical device manufacturers through 2020.

• Allows for increased maximums on Health Savings Accounts, starting in 2018.

• Denies federal funds to Planned Parenthood (or any similar program, but the definition is so specific that it’s really just Planned Parenthood) for one year.

• Shuts down all funding to the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which provides funding to a variety of public health concerns, like Alzheimer’s research, diabetes prevention, heart disease prevention, anti-smoking initiatives, immunization, scientific support for state and local officials to detect and respond to outbreaks, and much more. This fund is about 15% of the entire budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Funding would end starting in 2018, with no replacement offered.

• Allows states to seek “innovation” waivers. These waivers would give states the option of allowing insurers to not comply with several aspects of Obamcare, including the requirement that all plans must cover certain “Essential Health Benefits.” Once granted, these waivers can not be rescinded.

• Additional funding for the Community Health Center Fund for 2017. This money comes from the funds that would have gone to Planned Parenthood.

The GOP leadership has posited the Health Care Freedom Act as basically a procedural matter: Something at least 50 Republicans can vote on with the intention of sending the bill to a conference with the House of Representatives, where the finer details would be hashed out before passing a final version on to the White House.

However, Democrats and even some within the Republican party are concerned that this “skinny” bill is nothing but a pretense to get any repeal plan passed as quickly as possible.

Sens. John McCain (AZ), Lindsey Graham (SC), and Ron Johnson (WI) voiced their worries publicly Thursday afternoon, with Graham calling the “skinny” bill a “fraud” if there is no conference and the House GOP passes this bill on a fast-tracked vote.

That concern seemed to have some merit when it later revealed the House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (CA) had advised lawmakers in the House that they may have to declare “martial law” on Friday morning, indicating there may be a rushed, immediate vote with no conference.

McCain and his other senators called on Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (WI) to assure them that such a fast-lane vote would not happen, and that the bill would go to conference if it passed the Senate.

Ryan issued a response that acknowledged that sending the bill to conference was a possibility but stopped short of guaranteeing it.

“If moving forward requires a conference committee, that’s something the House is willing to do,” said Ryan in a statement released Thursday evening. “The reality, however, is that repealing and replacing Obamacare still ultimately requires the Senate to produce 51 votes for an actual plan.”

This did not immediately appear to be sufficient for Graham, who said that if he doesn’t receive more concrete assurances from Ryan, he’s a “no” vote.

“I’m not going to vote for a pig in a poke,” said Graham. “I’m not going to vote for a bill that is terrible policy and horrible politics, just because we have to get something done.”

While McCain has called for more definite assurances from the House that they won’t rush to pass the skinny bill — and also gave a stirring speech before his fellow senators on Tuesday, asking for more bipartisan participation on this and other issues — he has voted against multiple efforts by Senate Democrats to send healthcare reform back to committee where a true bipartisan reform of health insurance could be hammered out.

The Congressional Budget Office released a quick score of the “skinny” bill [PDF], effectively repeating its previous prediction that around 16 million additional Americans will end up without insurance as a result of this legislation. Additionally, the CBO estimates that insurance premiums for policies in the individual marketplace will rise by 20% above what the premiums charged under current law.

Insurance premiums are already locked in for the rest of 2017, but insurers will be setting 2018 rates in August. So, if the bill passes as is, we should have some idea of what sort of impact this repeal has on premiums. The effect on enrollment would be seen as that deadline arrives later in the year.

Larry Levitt of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation reviewed the bill and Tweeted out his views on the “winners” under this legislation: those who will no longer have to pay mandate penalties; makers of medical devices; and large employers who don’t provide insurance coverage to workers. Losers under this proposal would be, according to Levitt, are middle-class families who have to buy their own insurance without the help of subsidies, and now face likely hikes to their insurance premiums.

The American Medical Association, which has repeatedly come out against the repeal effort, did not hold back in its criticism of the “skinny” repeal bill, with AMA President David Barbe, MD, calling it a “toxic prescription that would make matters worse.”

Barbe predicts that the lack of an individual mandate — which insures that healthy Americans pay into the risk pool with the intention of providing care for as many people as possible — would result in higher premiums and further destablize the insurance marketplace.

One of the big sticking points in previous Senate repeal bills was the planned cuts to Medicaid funding. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski have both openly expressed concern about the impact that such changes would have on their constituents.

The “skinny” bill does not touch Medicaid directly, but there are some who still believe that not only is this legislation prelude to future Medicaid cuts, but that repealing the mandates will still ultimately have a negative impact on Medicaid enrollment, particularly for children.

Joan Alker, the Executive Director of the Center for Children and Families at Georgetown’s Health Policy Institute, wrote on Thursday about what’s known as the “unwelcome mat” effect, the idea that repeal will discourage participation in Medicaid.

Not everyone who is eligible for Medicaid coverage is enrolled in the plan, sometimes because they don’t know they are eligible or feel shame for participating. Alker points out that, even in states where Medicaid was not expanded to cover newly eligible families, there were increases in enrollment in the program from families who were encouraged to research their coverage possibilities and discovered they could receive Medicaid or CHIP benefits for their children.

She points to the huge slash in the number of uninsured children in Nevada in just one year: From an uninsured rate of 15% in 2014 to 7.6% in 2015.

“This is not because children by and large became eligible for something new as a result of the ACA. It is because enrollment in Medicaid for already eligible children went up,” explains Alker. This is the so-called “welcome mat” effect, but, according to Alker, the “skinny” repeal bill could roll out an “unwelcome mat” effect that “will result in fewer children and families having Medicaid coverage because participation rates in Medicaid will start moving in the opposite direction and start going down.”

More to come…