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The Consumerist

Dollar Tree, Family Dollar Will Sell Off 330 Stores To Get Merger Approval

Thu, 2015-07-02 22:25
(Steve Depolo)

(Steve Depolo)

A year after the sordid dollar store love triangle began and nearly seven months after Family Dollar chose Dollar Tree to have and to hold for a mere $9.2 billion, the merger process appears to be almost over with federal regulators officially asking the new couple to ditch 330 stores.

The Federal Trade Commission announced today that discount retailers Dollar Tree and Family Dollar have agreed to sell 330 Family Dollar stores to settle charges that their proposed merger was likely anticompetitive.

Under the settlement, the stores on the chopping block will be sold to private equity firm Sycamore Partners within 150 days of the closing of the acquisition.

According to the FTC’s complaint [PDF], the original merger proposition was problematic because Dollar Tree and Family Dollar compete “head-to-head in terms of price, product assortment, and quality, as well as location and customer service in local markets nationwide.”

“Dollar stores offer convenience and value by providing a broad assortment of general merchandise at discounted prices in stores close to where consumers live or work,” said Debbie Feinstein, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition. “This settlement will ensure that consumers will continue to benefit from competition among their local dollar stores.”

Had the two companies not agreed to the settlement, the FTC says the acquisition would have eliminated direct competition between Dollar Tree and Family Dollar. And increase the likelihood that “Dollar Tree will unilaterally exercise market power.”

Earmarking 330 stores for divestiture isn’t exactly a surprise. Back in April, it was reported that the FTC was considering putting 340 stores on the sales block.

FTC Requires Dollar Tree and Family Dollar to Divest 330 Stores as Condition of Merger [Federal Trade Commission]

NYC Mailman Accused Of Stealing More Than $1M In Tax Refunds In Years-Long Scheme

Thu, 2015-07-02 22:00
(Mike Matney)

(Mike Matney)

Is there some kind of greedy bug sweeping through the New York City mail system? Okay, probably not, but for the second time in two months a postal employee has been charged by federal prosecutors with taking part in a scheme to pad their own pockets. The most recent case involves a mail carrier who allegedly stole more than $1 million in tax refunds.

The Associated Press reports that a 36-year-old Brooklyn man was charged with conspiracy and theft of government funds for his part in “delivering” bogus tax refunds to himself.

According to investigators, the mail carrier and his accomplices would file false tax returns using Social Security numbers for Puerto Rico residents they believed were unlikely to file on their own. These returns used addresses along the postal employee’s delivery route in the Bronx, allowing him to easily intercept the refund check

He and his fellow fraudsters would then deposit the checks into their own bank accounts.

“As a taxpayer and a United States Postal Service employee, I find the allegations against the defendant disturbing,” Philip Bartlett, Inspector-in-Charge of the New York office of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, tells USA Today. “I have little tolerance for those who would use their position of trust to facilitate criminal activity, as is alleged in this investigation.”

Last month, three postal workers were arrested and accused of allegedly rigging the postal service’s “Operation Santa” program that provides gifts to underprivileged children. A U.S. Postal Service agent says that the three employees worked their scheme between November 2013 and January 2014, writing fake letters to rake in gifts, and even allegedly replaced underprivileged kids’ addresses with their own to get the gifts delivered directly.

Feds: NYC Mailman’s Scheme Delivers $1M in Bogus Tax Refunds [The Associated Press]
Mailman charged with stealing $1M in IRS refunds [USA Today]

San Francisco Creates New Office To Regulate Airbnb, Other Short-Term Rentals

Thu, 2015-07-02 21:17
(Chris Camargo)

(Chris Camargo)

The city of San Francisco and Airbnb have a somewhat contentious relationship, most recently involving tens of millions of dollars in back-taxes the short-term rental company agreed to pay the city earlier this year. Now, to ensure things continue to go smoothly for renters and rentees of services like Airbnb, the city has created a new office for the sole purpose of enforcing rules regarding vacation and short-term rentals.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the city created the Office of Short Term Rental Administration and Enforcement to streamline host registrations and investigate violators of city rental laws.

An advisor to Mayor Ed Lee says that the new office is the first of its kind for cities in the U.S.

Under San Francisco law, those who list their homes as short-term rentals must be a permanent resident and register their intent with the city. Unit rentals are then limited to 90 days per year.

Only about 700 hosts have registered with the city so far, representing just a small segment of the more than 5,000 San Francisco listings on Airbnb, the Chronicle reports.

An official with the city’s zoning commission says enforcement can be difficult at times.

“All code requirements impose certain challenges,” Scott Sanchez, a zoning administrator, said. “We’re focusing on complaints about the bad actors who are clearly in violation of the code, taking multiple units out of the city’s housing stock.”

And that’s where the new office comes into play. The six-person department will first focus on outreach to encourage compliance among rental owners.

“The more we outreach, hopefully we will have less violators,” city administrator Naomi Kelly tells the Chronicle. “This will allow (the city) to be laser-focused on going after enforcement and bad actors.”

In another attempt to encourage compliance, the city plans to make required business licenses available online. The office will also start allowing hosts to complete their in-person interview portion of the process as a walk-in instead of scheduling the appointment in advance.

Airbnb applauded the city’s new approach to enforcement of short-term regulations, saying the city is finally “making the short-term rental permit process simple and frictionless for our many middle-class hosts.”

While the new office aims to provide the city with better oversight of the growing vacation and short-term rental industry, some groups continue to push for tighter regulations to curb the services.

S.F. to create city office to enforce Airbnb law [San Francisco Chronicle]

Washington Woman Is First U.S. Measles Death In More Than A Decade

Thu, 2015-07-02 20:55



Last year’s measles outbreak was dubbed the worst in the U.S. in 14 years, with 288 cases of the potentially deadly infection popping up in 18 states, but no one died. Similarly, the more recent measles cases at Disneyland and in Las Vegas raised awareness of the disease’s return but left everyone involved alive. Now health officials in Washington state are saying the pneumonia death of a woman there is believed the be the first measles-related fatality in the U.S. in a dozen years.

According to the Washington State Dept. of Health, the woman had visited a medical facility in Clallam County in the northwest region of the state this spring at the same time as another person who was later found to be contagious for measles. She is the sixth person in the county to be diagnosed with measles this year, and the 11th in the entire state.

The victim’s measles, which didn’t present common symptoms like rash, went untreated and the disease was not known to be involved her death until it was discovered at autopsy. The DOH says she had other health conditions and had been on medications that contributed to a suppressed immune system.

“This tragic situation illustrates the importance of immunizing as many people as possible to provide a high level of community protection against measles,” reads the statement from the DOH, noting that those with compromised immune systems are often unable to be vaccinated against the disease, and even if they can “they may not have a good immune response when exposed to disease; they may be especially vulnerable to disease outbreaks.”

Amazon Will Reportedly Pay Self-Published E-Book Authors $.006 Per Page Read

Thu, 2015-07-02 20:36
(Micah Baldwin)

(Micah Baldwin)

Last month, Amazon revealed it planned to begin a new payment system that entailed paying some authors per page read instead of per book purchased. Today, we know a little more about those impending payments, including the dollar value that Amazon intends to associate with each turn of the page.

The Guardian, citing an email from Amazon to authors, reports that the new payment system could pay some self-published authors just $0.006 per page read.

The company says in the email that customers read nearly 1.9 billion pages from books listed through Amazon’s Kindle Owners Lending Library and the Kindle Unlimited service last month. The company said that it expects to pay authors self-publishing through those services at least $11 million for June, July and August.

According to the Guardian, that means the payments received by authors could be as little as $0.006 per page read, estimating that if an author publishes a 220-page book each page would have to be read by every person who downloads the book in order for the writer to make the $1.30 they get under the previous pay-per-download payment system.

A literary editor tells the Guardian that the new system hasn’t exactly been welcomed with open arms by authors. She says six of her clients have already left the services, citing an estimated 60% to 80% reduction in royalties.

“A lot of self-published romance authors are disabled, stay-at-home mums, or even a few returned veterans who work in the field because a regular job just isn’t something they can handle,” the editor says. “People are shedding a lot of tears over this.”

Amazon set to pay self-published authors as little as $0.006 per page read [The Guardian]

Indiegogo Campaign To Bail Out Greece Has Raised $1.65 Million… Only $1.77 Trillion To Go

Thu, 2015-07-02 20:25

greekbailoutWith Greece facing such a dire debt crisis that it recently shut down the country’s banking system in order to keep money from flooding out across its borders, it’s going to take a massive effort to get the country back on solid financial footing. And in this day and age of crowdfunding, why not try to raise a couple of trillion dollars online?

That’s the tactic being taken by a 29-year-old London man who started an Indiegogo campaign to raise €1.6 trillion ($1.77 trillion) in order to help out the cash-strapped people of Greece.

“All this dithering over Greece is getting boring. European ministers flexing their muscles and posturing over whether they can help the Greek people [or] not,” reads the campaign. “The European Union is home to 503 million people, if we all just chip in a few Euro then we can get Greece sorted and hopefully get them back on track soon. Easy.”

True, if you could get 503 million folks to each contribute about $3.55, you’d have the full amount of the campaign. That’s not going to happen, but enough people have pitched in to bring the total up to €1.492 million ($1.65 million). Of course, that’s not even a full percentage of the amount needed for the campaign to succeed, so the Indiegogo “funded” meter still stands at 0%.

The campaign organizer, who says this isn’t a joke and claims to have no particular interest in Greek politics, is using a few reward tiers to for contributors:

Pledge €3 and get a postcard sent from Greece of Alex Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister. We’ll get them made and posted in Greece and give a boost to some local printers and post offices.

Pledge €6 and get a greek Feta and Olive salad

Pledge €10 and get a small bottle of Ouzo sent to you

Pledge €25 and get a bottle of Greek wine

“So come on, order a Feta and Olive salad,” urges the campaign, “maybe wash it down with an Ouzo or glass of Assyrtiko greek wine and let’s sort this shit out.”

Because this bailout attempt is a “Fixed Funding” Indiegogo campaign, any pledged money will be refunded to contributors in the event that it doesn’t reach the full level of funding. Given that the campaign still needs to raise more than 99% of its goal within the next five days, refunds seem to be the likely turnout.

Google Subsidiary Apologizes For Including Concentration Camps In Mobile Game

Thu, 2015-07-02 20:18

(screenshot via Die Zeit)

(screenshot of the Arbeit Macht Frei slogan, “Work Means Freedom,” seen at many concentration camps via Die Zeit)

It can be a good thing for game developers to include real-life sights in the unreal world of video games, but there are cases where such inclusions are simply unacceptable. This was the case for a unit of Google, which has apologized after including Nazi concentration camps as “portals” in a mobile role-playing game.

Players of Ingress by internal Google start-up Niantic Labs can suggest historic locations and monuments to be included in the game, which are then battled over by opposing sides to take control. These aren’t just images — Ingress takes place in the real world — you go to a location with your phone’s GPS on to “claim” it. That means players would actually be playing the game on their smartphones at those sites.

But after German weekly Die Zeit reported today that some of those sites — called “portals” within the game — were located within concentration camps like Dachau, Sachsenhausen and a slew of others.

“All of us here are completely appalled,” the head of the Sachsenhausen Memorial told Die Zeit. “This is most definitely no place for video games.”

The diirector of the memorial site at Dachau also reportedly told the dpa news agency that Google’s actions were a humiliation for victims and relatives of the Nazi camps, the Associated Press reports, prompting Niantic Labs — a subsidiary of Google — to offer an apology for the inclusion of those sites.

The founder of Niantic Labs told the AP in a statement that the company has started the process of removing the offending locations from the game, and that “we apologize that this has happened.”

When Google plays games in a concentration camp [Die Zeit]
Google unit sorry for including concentration camps in game [Associated Press]

Lifetime Bets On Cord-Cutters Willing To Pay $3.99/Month For Streaming Library Of Schlocky TV Movies

Thu, 2015-07-02 19:38

The recent Lifetime adaptation of V.C. Andrews' "Flowers in the Attic" -- or as we call it "How Can Things Possibly Get Worse for Poor Sally Draper?" -- will be among the offerings available at launch in the Lifetime Movie Club.

The recent Lifetime adaptation of V.C. Andrews’ “Flowers in the Attic” — or as we call it “How Can Things Possibly Get Worse for Poor Sally Draper?” — will be among the offerings available at launch in the Lifetime Movie Club.

Are you thinking about getting rid of cable but simply can’t because you have to catch the next Lifetime Movie Network schlockfest starring actors from ’80s and ’90s TV shows alongside 20-something Canadian thespians pretending to be American high school students? Then you may be in luck, as Lifetime’s parent company is launching a $3.99 on-demand streaming subscription service just for you.

Variety reports that the Lifetime Movie Club, which is slated to launch today on Apple’s iTunes (though it was not available when we looked), will feature a monthly, rotating library of 30 movies from the infamous cable-TV network.

According to the report, the initial selection will include everything from the network’s recent adaptation of everyone’s second-favorite incest romance, “Flowers in the Attic,” to more traditional Lifetime fare like “Too Young to Marry” to genuinely serious content like “A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story.”

However, the Wall Street Journal notes that anyone hoping to catch up on recently aired Lifetime movies, like the bizarre Will Ferrell/Kristen Wiig feature “A Deadly Adoption,” will be out of luck, as the network is hoping to prevent defections from cable subscriber ranks by only putting older content on the Movie Club.

This service stands apart from HBO’s recently launched standalone streaming service, HBO Now, in that it features a very limited library of older content, but at $11/month less. Showtime is set to launch its streaming service at $11/month ($9/month for Hulu subscribers) and will include live access to both the East and West Coast feeds of the network in addition to the streaming archive of new and old shows.

Book Subscription Service Pulling Some Romance Titles Because People Read Too Many Of Them

Thu, 2015-07-02 19:08



Although it feels like every subscription service wants to be like Netflix, that business model is proving tough to repeat for some. That includes the book subscription program offered by Scribd, which is reportedly pulling thousands of romance titles from its platform because people are reading too many titles, too fast.

This is proving troubling for Scribd’s bottom line, reports Nieman Labs, as the service has to pay publishers every time a user reads even part of a book. In an ideal business model, Scribd readers would be like those people who pay for a gym membership, but then barely ever go.

But to the romance “gym” they care certainly going, as the CEO of self-publishing site Smashwords revealed in a letter earlier this week that Scribd sent to publishers. It reads:

We’ve grown to a point where we are beginning to adjust the proportion of titles across genres to ensure that we can continue to expand the overall size and variety of our service. We will be making some adjustments, particularly to romance, and as a result some previously available titles may no longer be available.

Growing up with a slew of aunts who would trade boxes full of romance novels back and forth with my mother to supply their apparently unquenchable thirst for dark corners, sweet nothings and, most often, strong female characters, I’m certainly familiar with the voracious appetite evinced by the genre’s fans. Enough is never enough — there is always another romance novel ready to be digested quickly before it’s on to the next one.

Scribd’s CEO Trip Adler addressed readers’ concerns in a blog post after the news hit the rapidly fluttering fan, saying the company is devoted to providing plenty of fodder for readers.

“We’re working hard to establish more mutually beneficial terms with our publishing partners, so that we can continue to grow our catalog,” Adler wrote, adding that “romance is here to stay. We are maintaining a robust catalog of thousands of romance titles.” Titles will be rotated in and out, he adds, “so that romance readers always have something fresh to read.”

Anyone who’s already downloaded and started reading a title won’t have to fear that the book will just disappear, either, Adler notes.

In the meantime, it’s quite possible my mom’s trunk/closet/basement/garage hidey-hole is still full of boxes upon boxes of romance novels, so I’m sure she’d be willing to share.

NHTSA “Tentatively Concludes” Fiat Chrysler Failed To Adequately Address Dozens Of Recalls

Thu, 2015-07-02 18:48
(Ralph Krawczyk Jr)

(Ralph Krawczyk Jr)

Federal regulators took Fiat Chrysler to task for its leisurely pace in fixing 11 million vehicles recalled for one reason or another in recent years during an unusual public hearing today.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced back in May that it would hold the hearing to receive testimony from Fiat Chrysler to determine whether or not any action should be taken against the car maker for a plethora of what they see as poorly handled national recalls.

The Detroit Free Press reports that regulators have already “tentatively concluded” that Fiat Chrysler failed to fix many of the 11 million vehicles involved in 23 recalls in a reasonable time frame.

In other cases, the agency says it has determined that the auto manufacturer failed to create adequate methods of repairing the affected vehicles.

“In my experience, Fiat Chrysler’s recall performance often differs from that of its peers,” Scott Yon, chief of NHTSA’s Vehicle Integrity Division, said during the hearing. “Fiat Chrysler takes a long time to produce the parts needed to get vehicles fixed. Their dealers have difficulty getting parts for recalls. Their customers have trouble getting recall repairs done. Fiat Chrysler’s recall remedies sometimes fail to remedy the defects they are supposed to fix.”

NHTSA was quick to bring up the company’s slow pace in completing its most public recall involving millions of Jeeps that can explode following low-speed rear-end collisions.

That safety recall has been linked to at least 50 deaths. NHTSA said that as of the end of April the car maker had only fixed about 320,000 vehicles.

Fiat Chrysler has contended that the repair rate has increased.

Still, Yon said at the hearing that the repair rates are “not in line with either Fiat Chrysler’s own projection or NHTSA’s expectations.”

Yon also testified that while the car maker did identify the addition of a trailer hitch as a fix for the deadly safety issue, it waited six months before actually selecting a parts maker for the hitch.

Other testimony surrounded Fiat Chrysler’s action in several 2013 recalls, one involving rear wheels locking up and tie rod ends that can disable steering gears.

According to Yon, NHTSA continues to receive complaints from the owners of the affected vehicles even though campaigns to fix the cars began nearly 15 months ago.

Prior to the hearing, Fiat Chrysler defended its actions in an email to the Detroit Free Press, suggesting some of the blame belongs to NHTSA.

A spokesperson pointed out that in the case of the Jeep recall, regulators didn’t see a risk to safety initially.

When NHTSA announced it would hold the hearing, it said if evidence presented shows Fiat Chrysler failed to meet recall obligations laid out by federal law, they could require the automaker to repurchase or replace affected vehicles or take other action.

Federal regulators open Fiat Chrysler safety hearing [The Detroit Free Press]

One Of World’s Most Expensive Restaurants Caught Keeping Tips From Waiters

Thu, 2015-07-02 18:15

The five-course tasting menu at Per Se starts at $310 per person.

The five-course tasting menu at Per Se starts at $310 per person.

Celebrity chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant in Manhattan is one of the world’s most expensive eateries, with diners paying a minimum prix fixe of $310 each for dinner. And yet the restaurant has been caught charging certain customers for “service charges” that didn’t go to pay the people performing that service. Now it faces having to pay $500,000 in restitution to employees who should have received this money.

In 2011, the New York State Department of Labor enacted a new Hospitality Wage Order (HWO), which clarified that any mandatory surcharge like a service or “food service” fee would be treated as a gratuity to be distributed to tipped employees. Restaurants can have surcharges that aren’t treated like tips, but the customer must be made aware that the mandatory charge is not going to be used as gratuity.

According to a settlement agreement [PDF] with the office of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the state began investigating Per Se two years ago over allegations that the restaurant was tacking on 20% service charges for banquet and private dining customers. Rather than distribute this fee as tips to wait staff, Per Se was using the 20% surcharge to pay for the general operating expenses of the business without revealing this fact to customers.

In fact, AG’s investigation found that Per Se was allegedly misleading guests into believing that the 20% surcharges were indeed being treated like tips, with statements like “[K]indly note that service/gratuity is certainly included in the pricing.”

On its own, the restaurant subsequently changed its private dining contract to reflect that the surcharge was not a service fee but an “operational charge.” Schneiderman says the new language, which specifically says that “this is not a gratuity,” is sufficient for compliance with the HWO.

“Today’s agreement ensures that workers at Per Se will not continue to be cheated out of their hard-earned tips — tips that customers intended for them,” said Schneiderman in a statement. “And it reaffirms the right of satisfied restaurant-goers not to be misled about whether a ‘service charge’ is actually paid to workers as a tip, which the law requires.”

Bubble Wrap: Now With Less Pop

Thu, 2015-07-02 18:07


We’ve all been there: You receive a fragile packaged carefully wrapped in Bubble Wrap that’s just begging for you to start pinching the plastic between your fingers to create that joyous popping sound. The days of that sweet sound may be over as the biggest company in the Bubble Wrap game is revamping its signature product by removing its popping possibility.

The Charlotte Observer reports that North Carolina-based Sealed Air, maker of the iconic packing material, has created a new version called iBubble Wrap that loses its popping quality.

The new product is sold to companies in flat plastic sheets and then filled with special pumps. The company says iBubble Wrap – before inflated – uses about one-fiftieth as much space as traditional Bubble Wrap.

While the new wrap costs less than traditional Bubble Wrap, the custom pumps used to fill the material cost about $5,500.

Because the new version of the packaging material is laid out in connected air pockets, the filling migrates to other areas and doesn’t have the ability to pop.

Sealed Air says the new material is intended to cater to online retailers looking for less bulky ways to ship products all over the world, the Observer reports.

Sealed Air hopes to elate customers with deflated Bubble Wrap [Charlotte Observer]

Guy Puts His Cat Through X-Ray Machine At LAX, Everyone Freaks Out

Thu, 2015-07-02 17:57


No cats here. Whew. (JessicaKRoach)

Something important you should probably add to your check list when traveling with a pet: Make sure your furry friend doesn’t go through the X-ray machine at the airport, not only because it could be dangerous, but because everyone around you will promptly freak out. Officials at Los Angeles Airport say a traveler accidentally placed his cat in a bag during the security screening procedure, but agents say it seems the fuzzy guy is perfectly fine.

Transportation Security Administration officers discovered the pet when a JetBlue passenger placed his bag — not a pet carrier — on the conveyor belt to go through the X-ray machine, an LAX Police Department spokeswoman told NBC Los Angeles.

TSA officers took the cat out of the bag and determined it hadn’t suffered any harm for its short ride, while the passenger told a supervisor that he didn’t know animals weren’t supposed to go through X-ray machines.

Witnesses nearby promptly reported the incident on social media, Tweeting that folks were pretty much freaking out left and right. Comedian and writer Sara Benincasa and the Sklar Brothers (or perhaps just one of them?) were on-hand and issued a number of Tweets about the incident:

Standing in front of guy at TSA. I hand him a bin. I turn away and go through the scanner. I hear screams. HE PUT HIS CAT IN THE BIN.

— Sara Benincasa (@SaraJBenincasa) July 1, 2015

I have seen people pulled out of the TSA line for knives. Guns. I have never seen the rage of the TSA when dude just put his cat in the XRay

— Sara Benincasa (@SaraJBenincasa) July 1, 2015

The amount of screaming that's happening in the Jet Blue terminal at LAX is incredible right now and yet it feels completely appropriate.

— The Sklar Brothers (@SklarBrothers) July 1, 2015

The Sklar Brothers Twitter account later added that the traveler in question was on their flight, noting for any interested parties that he was wearing a fedora.

Gawker points out that this isn’t the first time a cat has taken a wild ride through the X-ray machine at LAX — another pet was put on the conveyor belt earlier this week, according to Twitter, at least:

I have now seen everything. A woman trying to put a live cat, no cage, through the xray thing at LAX security. Officers suddenly screaming!

— The Obvious Hiker (@ObviousHiker) June 30, 2015

LAX X-Ray Machine Reveals Cat in Passenger’s Luggage [NBC Los Angeles]

FCC, TracFone Reach Settlement: Provider Will Now Unlock Customers Phones’ Like They Said They Would

Thu, 2015-07-02 17:38



Unlocking your phone is legal, and the wireless industry agreed months ago to a set of conditions that went into effect earlier this year that allow consumers to do just that. Those companies all promised the FCC that they had a plan. And when you tell a federal agency that you have a plan, you probably actually should, and ought to follow it, too. One company didn’t, and that has landed them in some hot water with the commission.

TracFone sells prepaid wireless phones. They service millions of consumers but, specifically, also provide phones to millions of consumers enrolled in the FCC’s Lifeline subsidy program.

Lifeline: What is it, and how does it work?

In 2014, the President signed into law a piece of legislation that made it legal for you to unlock your own phone. In February of this year, the entire wireless industry — voluntarily, but in cooperation with the FCC — adopted a set of standards that would allow all consumers to have their phones unlocked. However, TracFone apparently missed that memo, and was not entirely cooperating.

As the official Consent Decree (PDF) explains, TracFone certified last year that it would comply with the unlocking rules for its Lifeline customers in the 2015 program year. But when the rules went into effect on February 11, the day everyone else started unlocking phones, TracFone still did not have a process in place for letting their customers unlock their devices, and that’s a no-no.

The FCC opened an investigation, which came to a close with the settlement TracFone and the commission reached this week. Consumers will indeed be able to unlock their TracFone phones, but old equipment can’t necessarily be switched on a dime. So the new plan goes something like this:

  • By September 1, TracFone will have a clear unlocking policy, that they will put on their website and send in a text message to all their eligible users.
  • Eligible users with old phones can trade them in for cash refunds equal to the phone’s trade-in value.
  • By May 1 of next year, non-Lifeline TracFone customers can trade in their old phones toward credit for unlocking ones, and Lifeline customers can straight up trade in their phones for unlocking ones.

TracFone also has to pay a $400,000 per month “offset” into the Universal Service Fund (which funds Lifeline) until all of their Lifeline customers have unlockable phones, which will probably motivate them to hit or beat their deadlines.

“Unlocking of cell phones has been widely embraced by the wireless industry and by consumers across the country,” Travis LeBlanc, head of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, said in a statement. “Today’s agreement ensures that millions of eligible TracFone customers will be able to use their phones on any compatible network they choose.”

The FCC estimates that at least 8 million TracFone customers will benefit from the settlement, to the approximate value of $80 million.

Behold: There Are Magical Places In This Country Known As “Pizza Farms”

Thu, 2015-07-02 17:21



Of all the dreams I’ve dreamed in all the nights of sleep I’ve had, never have I believed that a pizza farm could be a real thing. While this popular new form of agritourism might not feature fertile fields fairly bursting with hot, cheesy pies right off the vine, pizza farms have proven to be a popular way for those in the farming business to sell directly to customers looking for that “farm-to-table” situation.

These trendy “pizza farms” are popping up all over the country, have proved especially popular in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin (where apparently all the food geniuses live), reports the Associated Press, bringing in crowds by inviting them over for pizza straight from wood-fired ovens, topped with ingredients grown right there on the farm.

Customers set up picnics, bringing chairs and tables and packing soda, beer and wine to go with their pies, so they’re happy. Many farms also require that diners bring their own napkins, plates and utensils and clean up for themselves.

And small farms are happy too — especially those that set up commercial kitchens to comply with regulations on serving food, as they can can often use those kitchens to supplement their income by making other products to sell, like jams and baked goods.

“It’s fun to get people back out to the country,” one Minnesota pizza farmer told the AP.

Agritourism is a good way for small farmers to diversify, much like farm wineries, giving growers another way to make money from the land. And bring pizza to the people, which is basically the best thing you can do for someone in need of good pizza.

“Direct sales to consumers, that’s the best way to capture the most value for the dollar,” Greg Schweser, an expert on sustainable local food systems with the University of Minnesota Extension, told the AP. “There’s no middleman. There’s no wholesalers. That’s how small farmers are making it.”

Thank you, pizza farmers, for making at least one girl’s most fervent dreams come true.

Pizza farms offer reverse twist in farm-to-table movement [Associated Press]

Could You Soon Be Making Purchases By Scanning Your Face? That’s The Plan At MasterCard

Thu, 2015-07-02 17:11


Who has time to memorize the special code or password when you could just scan your face to approve an online purchase? While using facial recognition as confirmation you’re, well, you, might seem a little far-fetched, it could be a reality this fall according to MasterCard.

The credit card company announced plans this week to start testing a new program that asks customers to snap a photo of themselves to approve purchases, CNN reports.

The pilot program, which begins with about 500 customers this fall, will use fingerprints or facial scans to confirm one’s identity and securely complete purchases.

To use the new security feature – when it’s available – MasterCard members must download the company’s app.

When completing a transaction, a pop-up will ask customers for authorization, either a fingerprint of a photo. If using the facial recognition option, people simply look into the phone’s camera and blink.

According to MasterCard, blinking was the best way to prevent a thief from simply holding up a photo of someone else to use a stolen credit card.

Instead of keeping a photo in its archives, the company says the system will map out one’s face and convert the points to create a code that stays on the device. The company says it won’t be able to reconstruct customers’ faces and that information collected by the app will remain secure.

To create the program, MasterCard partnered with smartphone makers including Apple, BlackBerry, Google, Microsoft and Samsung, CNN reports.

The company hasn’t finalized deals with banks just yet, so it’s unclear just who will get to test out the program when it’s up and running.

MasterCard says the initiative is the company’s latest attempt to cut down on fraud, while alleviating the need to remember complicated passwords.

Currently, the company offers customers extra security through a program called “SecureCode,” which aims to stop hackers from using ill-gotten credit cards online.

That program, which has been used about three billion times in the last year, requires a shopper to enter a specific password when shopping online.

The company says they are also working on other secure methods to approve transactions including voice recognition.

MasterCard will approve purchases by scanning your face [CNN]

BP Agrees To Pay $18.7 Billion (Over 18 Years) For 2010 Gulf Disaster

Thu, 2015-07-02 17:00



More than five years after an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico left eleven people dead and released untold amounts of oil into the water, BP has agreed to make $18.7 billion in payments — spread out over nearly two decades — to settle all federal and state claims related to the disaster.

The biggest chunk of the proposed payment schedule is $7.1 billion that will go to the federal government and the five states along the Gulf Coast — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — for natural resource damages (NRD). These payouts, spread out over 15 years, will start one year after the settlement is approved and will ding BP’s coffers for around $490 million a year.

There will also be another $232 million set aside to cover any additional NRD claims that may arise between now and the end of the payment schedule.

Another $5.5 billion is slated to be paid to the feds for BP’s alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. Like the NRD damages, the payouts would start a year from now and be meted out over the course of 15 years.

Finally, BP will pay a total of $4.9 billion to settle other claims with the Gulf Coast states. The first payment of $1 billion will be paid after the deal is approved. Then in year three of the schedule, BP will fork over $260 million a year to the states through year 18.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch says the $18.7 billion settlement, which still needs to be approved by the court, represents the highest dollar value ever for a settlement with a single corporate entity.

If approved, “it would help repair the damage done to the Gulf economy, fisheries, wetlands and wildlife; and it would bring lasting benefits to the Gulf region for generations to come,” explains Lynch in a statement.

According to the Wall Street Journal, today’s settlement announcement means BP’s total bill for the 2010 tragedy is nearly $54 billion.

Sprint Partnering With UK Tech Retailer To Open Up To 500 New Stores In The U.S.

Thu, 2015-07-02 16:20
(Misfit Photographer)

(Misfit Photographer)

There could be a few more Sprint stores in the neighborhood soon, as the wireless company announced plans to partner with one of the U.K.’s biggest technology retailers to open new locations stateside.

CNET reports that Sprint entered into a joint venture with Dixons Carphone to open up to 500 stores in the U.S.

The plan is for Dixons Carphone to open and manage about 20 Sprint-branded stores in Chicago and Miami starting in early August.

If the first stores prove to be successful, the company will set things in motion to open hundreds of other stores.

Sprint and Dixons will each hold a 50% stake in the joint venture, which could result in an investment of up to $31 million, if all things work out.

This, of course, isn’t Sprint’s first foray into partnering with other retailers. The company announced earlier this year that it would team up with RadioShack to re-open stores that will be part phone store, part RadioShack merchandise.

While Dixons Carphone is currently the largest tech retailer in the U.K., it’s a rather new entrant in the arena. The company was formed from a merger between Carphone Warehouse and retail group Dixons just last year.

Carphone Warehouse previously attempted to enter the U.S. tech retail market in 2008 through a partnership with Best Buy. The larger U.S.-based retailer eventually purchased the U.S. stores from Carphone, CNET reports.

Before that foray, the pre-merger British company unsuccessfully attempted a U.S. market entry in 1987 by buying retailer Silo, but ended up selling the stores for a loss just six years later.

UK’s biggest tech retailer joins forces with Sprint to open 500 stores in US [CNET]

Hawaii Becomes First State To Ban Plastic Bags At Grocery Stores

Thu, 2015-07-02 16:18

(Taber Andrew Bain)

(Taber Andrew Bain)

While some cities in the U.S. have passed laws that ban plastic bags at grocery stores, Hawaii now stands alone as the first and only state that prohibits supermarkets from handing out the non-biodegradable carriers at the checkout.

The City and County of Honolulu’s bag ban went into effect on July 1, and covers Hawaii’s most populated island, Oahu, reports the Huffington Post. Oahu is the last populated island in the state to put the kibosh on the distribution of plastic bags. Though bags aren’t allowed anywhere in Hawaii with this recent ban going into effect, it’s different from other states, as the change happened on a county-by-county basis.

California likely would’ve been the first to ban bags at the statewide level after recently passing a law that outlawed plastic plastic bags, but that measure is on hold for the moment, until a referendum in November that will decide its fate.

On the municipal level, cities like Portland, OR, Chicago and Brownsville, TX have been successful in banning plastic bags in the past.

No matter where you live, bringing a reusable bag along with you to the grocery store is a good idea: It keeps non-recyclable plastic out of landfills, which is good for the Earth. And what’s good for the Earth is good for you.

Hawaii Just Became The First State To Ban Plastic Bags At Grocery Checkouts [Huffington Post]

Report: TSA Paid Out $3M In The Last 5 Years For Lost, Stolen And Damaged Baggage

Thu, 2015-07-02 15:21


If you’ve ever had your checked luggage stolen, damaged, lost or otherwise mishandled while flying, you probably know you’re not alone. But what you might not know is how often the Transportation Security Administration actually admits wrongdoing and compensates unhappy travelers in those cases. Enlightenment is here: A new report says the TSA has forked over about $3 million in the last five years for such claims.

Whether their luggage grew legs and walked off on its own or was otherwise misplaced, or had pieces missing by the time they got it back, USAToday (warning: link has video that auto-plays) reports that TSA first investigated to determine whether its security screeners were responsible.

The agency then approved or settled with passengers in around 15,000 cases, which amounts to almost one out of three claims filed between 2010 and 2014. Some travelers walked away with a couple dollars for missing food (yes, people steal food out of bags, apparently) or medicine, while others received thousands of dollars for jewelry, electronics or other pricy items passengers said were damaged or vanished while in TSA care.

John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York had the most paid claims at 857, with Los Angeles International following close behind with 791. Those numbers are higher than others due to the millions of passengers who are screened by the TSA there.

Passengers who filed claims and got paid the most went through Dulles International in Washington and Orlando International in that time period.

Smaller airports weren’t necessarily any better at not mucking things up: TSA approved 120 passengers’ claims in five years just at Reno/Tahoe International, which ranked around the same level as larger airports like Chicago Midway.

TSA says approved claims are only a small part of a bigger picture, with 2.5 million pieces of baggage getting screened by its agents daily. The agency has a zero-tolerance policy to theft, it says, and has tightened hiring requirements for screeners to curb claims. As anyone who reads this site knows, there have been many cases of thieving TSA agents, but USAToday’s investigation found that claims filed and paid are down about 35% from 2010 to 2014.

“TSA aggressively investigates all allegations of misconduct and, when infractions are discovered, moves swiftly to hold the offenders accountable,” said Bruce Anderson, a TSA spokesman. “TSA holds its security officers to the highest professional and ethical standards and has a zero-tolerance policy for theft in the workplace.”

Still, critics say $3 million is a lot of money to settle claims that shouldn’t be happening in the first place.

“Congress has been having problems getting straight answers about abuses at the TSA,” U.S. Rep. John Mica told USAToday. “Orlando, my major home airport in Florida… has startling statistics. It warrants further review, even a subpoena for the information if that’s what it takes.”

If you notice damage or find something missing, and think it happened while in TSA hands, the best thing to do is file a claim form online. Be prepared to provide proof of the damage, the cost of that damage or theft, and TSA’s negligence.

You can also file claims with airlines or airports as well, if you can’t figure out exactly who might’ve caused the damage or caused your baggage to disappear into the ether.

USAToday has more information on how TSA is trying to step up its game, as well as a handy interactive lookup tool for travelers to check how many claims the agency paid out at their airports.

Lost, stolen, broken: TSA pays millions for bag claims, USA TODAY investigation finds [USAToday]