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The Consumerist

Sears Survives For Now, May Not Make It Through 2016

8 hours 52 min ago
sadsears

(Nelson Minar)

Earlier this week, we learned that Sears Holdings Corporation is borrowing $400 million to pay its bills from a hedge fund owned by its own CEO. Yet experts look at this transaction from the outside and wonder: what does it tell us that the company’s own CEO has stopped offering it unsecured credit?

As consumers, the future prospects of Sears shouldn’t matter all that much to us: if they’re offering nice deals on fridges or flannel shirts, then we shop there. If they aren’t selling much of anything that interests us, then we won’t. People in the investment biz have more important questions, though: they wonder whether Sears is going to survive the next few years, and whether Lampert’s loan to the company is part of an elaborate scheme to cash in on his investment in the end, even as ordinary investors and Sears employees lose out.

What the $400 loan tells us is that the company has problems with cash flow: it doesn’t just need to pay current employees, buy merchandise, and pay rent on its leased stores, but the company also has plenty of other expenses: debt service, pension contributions, and improvements to their stores and online selling channels. Those 5-minute counter and geolocation apps don’t program themselves, you know.

Experts think that by borrowing cash and selling or leasing real estate, Sears should be able to survive for another few years. What happens then?

Sears Loan Highlights Pressure on Cash [Wall Street Journal]

Newspapers Want To Charge Subscribers Extra To Receive Black Friday Ads

Thu, 2014-09-18 23:24

(Adrian Scottow)

(Adrian Scottow)

If your household still receives a daily or Sunday newspaper, take pity on your neighborhood’s paper carrier. It’s hard work to haul the ad-stuffed Thanksgiving editions of the paper to subscribers’ doorsteps. Still, that probably isn’t what papers like the Chicago Tribune and Detroit Free Press had in mind when they announced that they’ll be charging subscribers an extra dollar or two for the privilege of receiving a bunch of ads.

No. We are not making this up. Jim Romenesko has the story, and these two Midwestern papers probably aren’t the only ones that have thought of it so far.

tribpremium

The Tribune frames the Thanksgiving paper as a “Premium Issue,” for which they will charge “an additional fee up to $2.00″ to subscribers’ bills. Again, they’re calling this paper a “premium issue” even though the majority of the extra content is advertisements. That companies pay the newspaper for.

The Detroit Free Press, meanwhile, wants to charge subscribers the newsstand rate, which subscribers tell Romenesko is $1 more than the price subscribers would normally pay for that extra-large Thanksgiving paper.

Is this normal? I've never seen a paper jack up the price of a specific issue. @romenesko @abeaujon @evanmcmurry pic.twitter.com/bfuAll3xYx

— Steve Friess (@SteveFriess) September 18, 2014

The good news for subscribers who like to complain (and you’re reading Consumerist, so that’s probably you) is that both papers say that they’ll waive the fee for any subscribers who notice the problem and call the paper up to complain. So that’s nice. Everyone else, apparently, is on their own.

DEAR NEWSPAPERS: SUBSCRIBERS DON’T WANT TO PAY EXTRA FOR BLACK FRIDAY COUPONS [Romenesko] (Thanks, Joe!)

FTC: No, You Probably Can’t Lose 20 Pounds By Using An Ab Glider For Three Minutes A Day

Thu, 2014-09-18 23:13

abNo matter how old a Federal Trade Commission consent order is, if you break it you’re bound to pay a pretty stiff penalty. Just ask the folks over at ICON Health & Fitness Inc. who agreed to pay millions of dollars in penalties for continuing to make deceptive weight loss claims in fitness equipment advertisements.

The FTC announced today that ICON will pay $3 million to settle charges that it violated a 1997 consent order by advertising that use of the Pro-Form ab Glider for just three minutes a day would result in significant weight loss. (Shockingly those claims aren’t true.)

According to the FTC’s latest complaint [PDF] against the company, since at least August 2010 and through June 2013, ICON ran several advertisements making weight-loss claims for the ab Glider.

Ads included video infomercials on television, on ICON’s website and on social media networks. The ads often featured television personality Elisabeth Hasselbeck and several consumer endorsers claiming that using the ab Glider for only three minutes a day would lead to lost pounds, inches and clothing sizes.

(Sounds a bit like the Ab Circle Pro, right? You remember, the device we told you about a few months ago that supposedly magically makes your head – er, waist – smaller?)

The FTC found that none of the consumers featured in the advertisements actually shed their pounds by just three minutes of work on the glider. Instead, the FTC revealed the consumers had subscribed to a controlled diet, used the device for more than 3 minutes a day and performed additional exercises to lose weight.

Because ICON could not substantiate the advertised resulted were solely from using the glider for three minutes each day, the FTC charged it with violating a 1997 order against the company.

That order, stemming from the company’s deceptive marketing of the Pro-Form Cross Walk Treadmill, required ICON to support weight loss claims with competent and reliable scientific evidence.

And without further ado, here is an example of a Pro-Form ab Glider infomercial:

Marketers of the Pro-Form ab GLIDER™ Agree to Pay $3 Million in Civil Penalties for Violating 1997 FTC Order Prohibiting Deceptive Weight Loss Claims [FTC]

Home Depot Says 56 Million Credit/Debit Cards Compromised In Breach

Thu, 2014-09-18 22:57

(Patrick)

(Patrick)

Weeks after it was first reported that Home Depot’s in-store payment systems had been breached for many months, the world’s largest home improvement retailer has finally given some idea about the number of accounts that may have been compromised.

The bad news is that, according to Home Depot, between April and September of this year, thieves stole info on approximately 56 million accounts.

The not-disastrous news is that this number is much smaller than had been predicted, given the volume of customers who shopped at Home Depot during that 5-month period. The Target breach in 2013 only lasted for a few weeks, but resulted in the theft of information of more than 100 million customers.

Home Depot’s statement doesn’t offer an explanation for why the number of compromised accounts is so much smaller than originally predicted, but journalist Brian Krebs, who broke the story on the attack, reports today that it looks like the breach may have been confined to self-service checkout terminals at around 1,700 U.S. stores.

While self-checkout lines have their fans, many Home Depot customers still prefer to go through the traditional checkout line when paying. If Krebs’ reporting is accurate, that means that only a fraction of shoppers were made vulnerable during the breach.

And, as someone who had to have his card replaced when it was used to try to buy sketchy diet supplements from a Korean website, I will admit to having shopped at Home Depot only days earlier and to having used the self-checkout line.

While there have been reports that the malware used in this attack was the same or similar to that used in the Target theft, Home Depot claims this was “unique, custom-built malware” made to evade detection.

“The malware had not been seen previously in other attacks, according to Home Depot’s security partners,” reads a statement from the company, which says it took affected payment terminals out of service after being made aware of the breach in early September.

Other not-horrendous news: Home Depot restated its previous claim that it doesn’t look like PIN information was stolen for debit card users.

“We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience and anxiety this has caused, and want to reassure them that they will not be liable for fraudulent charges,” said Frank Blake, chairman and CEO. “From the time this investigation began, our guiding principle has been to put our customers first, and we will continue to do so.”

Updating To iOS 8? Remember To Turn Off Your Bluetooth Afterward

Thu, 2014-09-18 22:44

iPad users may not notice that the bluetooth has been turned back on after updating to iOS 8.

iPad users may not notice that the bluetooth has been turned back on after updating to iOS 8.

In advance of the new iPhones coming out later this month, Apple has begun rolling out iOS 8, the latest iteration of its operating system for iPhones and iPads. With some who’ve updated their devices already complaining about inefficient battery use, we wanted to remind you of a power-draining annoyance that occurs with every recent update of iOS.

That’s right: Bluetooth. While some people choose to always have their bluetooth on because their devices are always connected to some sort of peripheral like a headset or keyboard, most people only use it sparingly, if at all.

Which is why it baffles us that every iOS update now automatically turns a device’s bluetooth back on when completed. It doesn’t really benefit your device in any way, though a Forbes.com piece from earlier this year theorized that it may be to bolster the efficiency of location marketing service iBeacon.

Regardless of why Apple chooses to turn on your Bluetooth, remember to turn it back off when you’re done updating your device (unless you want it on, of course). This is especially true of iPad users, who are more likely to set their tablets to update and then let it do its thing until the device is needed again. As you can see from the above image, iPad users may also not notice the tiny, thin bluetooth icon against a busy background.

In terms of other ways to maximize your device’s battery using iOS 8, Mashable has this helpful post, walking you through the new app-specific battery usage tools (that are similar to what some Android users have been messing around with for years).

How Do Uber and Lyft Work And Why Should I Even Care?

Thu, 2014-09-18 22:22

Chances are you’ve heard the term “ridesharing” floating around lately, as rivals Uber and Lyft work themselves into a froth trying to outdo each other. But depending on where you live and what your transportation needs are — maybe you own a car or taxis are readily available on-demand through local services — you could have no clue what these companies actually do. And you might not care, but if you don’t have a car and need to where a car can take you, you should know your options.

While services like Zipcar or FlightCar hook up regular drivers who need to hire a car to drive themselves somewhere to do whatever is that needs doing, Uber and Lyft both summon drivers to passengers in need of a ride. But which one do you need, and what’s the difference in prices?

UberImage courtesy of if winter ends Section Permalink Bookmark Section Share on Facebook Share on Twitter
Founded in 2009 and available in 45 countries and 70 cities, Uber is a smartphone app that connects passengers to drivers with vehicles for hire. All hiring and payment goes through Uber and not the driver (except with uberT, see below). Drivers must have a valid license as well as the commercial licenses to drive professionally in whichever city they operate in.

HOW IT WORKS
Passengers choose which kind of car service they’d like to request on the app, then plug in their location and in some cases, destination addresses. The app then alerts the customer when a car has been confirmed, and shows the driver’s name and license plate number while also displaying the driver’s route and estimated time of arrival. Riders then tell the driver where to go if that info isn’t already in the system, and then a receipt is emailed to the customer after the trip has completed. Passengers and drivers rate each other, as an incentive to be both good customers and provide feedback on drivers.

FARES
Uber sets the fares for each service in each city based on its own formula calculated using either a per mile rate or a per minute rate, on top of a base fare of a few dollars. Passengers don’t need to tip, as the gratuity is included in the entire fare. When demand for a car is high — during inclement weather or rush hours — customers are alerted of “Surge Pricing,” which the company says is a way to incentivize more drivers to get on the streets to accommodate all those customers.

Passengers also have the option to split the fare with other riders they’re in the car with, by selecting that option in the app.

BUT WHICH UBER DO I WANT TO USE?
There are many kinds of Uber services, depending on which city you live in.

uberX: The cars aren’t as fancy as a traditional limo service — “The low cost Uber,” sample cars in NYC, for example, include Toyota Camry, Lincoln Town Car, Chrysler 300.
Who would use this: It works much like getting a cab, so in cities where you can’t always find a taxi on the street, this might be what you’d use to get home from a restaurant with up to three friends. I’ve known people who use uberX for moving stuff across town.

UberBLACK: “The original Uber,” this is the premium option and as such, costs more than uberX, akin to a limo or black car service that uses licensed chauffeurs of luxury cars.
Who would use this: Anyone heading somewhere fancy or who just wants a nicer car than uberX.

UberXL: If you’ve got a bigger group you’re traveling with, this is the “low-cost” option to get more people into one vehicle. It costs somewhere in between uberX and UberBlack.
Who would use this: There are dinner reservations in 10 minutes and you have seven people who refuse to walk.

UberSUV: The premium option for those with a big group, this charges the highest rates of all the various Ubers, with sample vehicles including Chevrolet Suburban, Cadillac Escalade and GMC Yukon XL.
Who would use this: When everyone needs to get to the opera, this is what they might want.

uberT: Hails taxis (and boro-taxis in NYC) to the app user’s location, but the customer handles the payment outside of the Uber app.
Who would use this: People who can’t find a taxi on the street but still want to use a taxi.

Confused? Just remember — the services with the lowercase “u”s are cheaper than the ones with the uppercase “U”s.

LyftImage courtesy of happy via Section Permalink Bookmark Section Share on Facebook Share on Twitter
Started in 2012, Uber’s biggest competitor is so far only available in the United States in 64 cities, including Washington D.C. Like Uber, it connects passengers to drivers using their own cars through an app that handles payment. Drivers do not need to have a commercial license to drive professionally, at least not according to the Lyft site, just a regular driver’s license for at least a year prior to driving and their own vehicle (newer than 2000 and in good working condition). Passengers and drivers rate each other, and if you give someone three or below stars, you won’t be matched up again.

HOW IT WORKS
Customers use the app to select what kind of ride they want and enter their pickup address, and are connected to a Lyft driver. The app displays a photo of the driver and the car’s license plate number and model. Cars arrive bearing a pink mustache (though new drivers won’t get their mustaches until they’ve completed 30 rides), making them hard to miss.

FARES
Lyft currently has two ways of charging fares — it collects donations, where riders see a suggested amount but can choose what to pay. Some example cities where donations are the way to pay: Austin, Ann Arbor, Madison, WI, Orlando.

Other cities have a set charge that’s calculated using time and distances, on top of a base fare. There’s also a minimum fare, with all rates and fares varying by city. Tip is included in the entire fare, but passengers have the choice to add an extra tip at the end. And just like with Surge Pricing in Uber, Prime Time pricing goes into effect when cars are in higher demand.
Example cities that have a set charge: Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, New York City.

The company claims it “tends to be a bit cheaper (and a whole lot more fun) than other transportation alternatives,” but checking fare rates for both Lyft and Uber in NYC show both have a base fare of $3 and a $0.40 per minute rate or $2.5 per mile charge.

BUT WHAT KIND OF LYFT DO I WANT?
Lyft: The original service, these cars fit up to four passengers. Licensed drivers with cars newer than 2000 model years (in good working condition, according to Lyft’s requirements) are connected to riders who have a place to go.
Who would use this: A person who doesn’t really care what kind of car shows up(these aren’t luxury vehicles), but just needs to get from point A to point B.

Lyft Line: So far available only in San Francisco and Los Angeles — passengers use the app to set a route, and a driver then picks up matched passengers along that route for a fixed price. The more riders, the cheaper it is.
Who would use this: If you’re really short on cash and can’t afford a cab on your own, but don’t have pals to split one, this might work. It all depends on if anyone else wants to go your way.

Lyft Plus: Bigger vehicles to accommodate up to six passengers, or suitcases, boxes and other large-ish things you might need to move. Slightly higher base fare, per mile and per minute rates, and higher minimum fare.
Who would use this: Anyone who’s got a bunch of buddies and a destination in mind, or someone who doesn’t want to rent a car/van/short-term car to get from one place to another with a bunch of stuff.

Toyota Recalls 20,000 Vehicles Due To Possible Fuel Leaks

Thu, 2014-09-18 22:16

(frankieleon)

(frankieleon)

Well, it’s been about four hours since we posted an automotive recall, so apparently it’s time again. Today, Toyota announced that it is recalling 20,000 cars with 2GR-FE engines, which include the 2014 Toyota Avalon, Camry, Highlander and Sienna, and the 2015 Lexus RX. The cars may leak fuel, which in turn poses a risk of fire.

Toyota says that there have been no reports of fires, crashes, or other terrible things as a result of fuel leaks from these engines.

The core problem is with a fuel delivery pipe in this particular engine: it may or may not be welded correctly and could leak. That depends on which supplier the engine came from, which Toyota technicians can’t determine without inspecting your car. If the engine and its fateful incorrectly welded tube came from the problem supplier, the Toyota dealership will replace it.

Most of the 20,000 affected vehicles are here in the United States, though some were exported to other countries.

Toyota recalling 20,000 late-model vehicles on potential fuel leak [Reuters]

Walmart Mexico Investigated Over Promotional Cockfight

Thu, 2014-09-18 21:42

(Andrew McDaniel)

(Andrew McDaniel)

Walmart’s Mexican operations are being investigating by authorities in the city of Boca del Rio, where customers complained a Walmart store hosted a cockfight to promote a soft drink company. The retailer says it’s the customer gripes are overblown and that, while there were indeed roosters pecking at each other, no actual cockfighting took place.

“It wasn’t a cockfight,” a rep for Walmart Mexico told Bloomberg about the alleged incident, explaining that the birds weren’t equipped with blades and that no roosters were harmed. “There wasn’t anything that would be in violation of any game regulations.”

Gambling on cockfights is illegal in Boca del Rio and could result in a fine of up to around $7,200 for the store. The Walmart rep also says there was no gambling at the event.

The promotional event took place on Sept. 15, in advance of Mexican Independence Day on the sixteenth, and was to promote a soda company from the area. Local animal rights groups alerted authorities after seeing photos of fighting birds posted online.

Even if the event doesn’t qualify as the typical, bloody cockfight, a Boca del Rio city official tells Bloomberg that it’s still illegal to bring live animals into a retail store.

“This commercial establishment has a specific license to sell certain products, but not to organize an event different from its activities,” explains the official. “And this was an event totally different from the activities that they were licensed to carry out.”

The company now has until Sept. 24 to show the city evidence disproving the cockfighting allegations.

It’s Apparently National Cheeseburger Day. Where’s Our Gift?

Thu, 2014-09-18 21:39

These are not actual cheeseburgers, but they still look tasty. That's how powerful the image of the cheeseburger is. I'm also just really hungry. (Eric Spiegel)

These are not actual cheeseburgers, but they still look tasty. That’s how powerful the image of the cheeseburger is. I’m also just really hungry. (Eric Spiegel)

We know that most of you are probably all caught up in the annual sybaritic bacchanal that is National Dipped Fruit Week (you really don’t want to see the current state of the chocolate fountain in the Consumerist Cave), but let us not allow our cheese-and-chocolate-covered euphoria blind us to an equally important food holiday going on right now: National Cheeseburger Day.

There is still time to celebrate — or buy us a card, like you never do, you ungrateful little… — and luckily the folks at BurgerBusiness.com and The Epoch Times have put together round-ups of various offers and challenges available to those of us who observe this most special of days.

Check out those links, or just go to your favorite local burger joint and remind them of their not-at-all-legal obligation to serve up some sort of special sandwich to acknowledge the holiday.

Toxic PCB Contamination At Walmart Return Center Leads To Evacuation, Lawsuit

Thu, 2014-09-18 21:31

The Exel warehouse used to process returns from Walmart was evacuated for a toxic contamination in late August.

The Exel warehouse used to process returns from Walmart was evacuated for a toxic contamination in late August.

Hundreds of workers at an Indianapolis Walmart returns processing center may have been contaminated with a toxic substance last month. While the center was evacuated and employees are now undergoing medical tests, one employee has filed a lawsuit against the mega-retailer.

The center, where logistics company Exel processes merchandise returned from Walmart stores, has been empty since August 20 when the building was evacuated after it was confirmed that the toxic substance PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyl, was present, WTHR-TV reports.

PCB is a synthetic organic chemical compound that is highly toxic and classified as a “probable human carcinogen.”

Upon clearing the center, officials with Exel told employees they would receive their full pay and benefits, but would not return to the center until they were told they could come back.

The 600 full-time employees and contract workers were notified five days after the initial evacuation that Walmart had discovered the highly toxic substance in their center.

PCBs, banned in the United States for decades, were once commonly used as coolants and stabilizers in products such as fluorescent light ballasts, transformers, paints, cements, electrical components, pesticides, lubricating oils and sealants

A spokesperson for Exel says the contamination was found by accident, when equipment was being moved inside the center. Third-party testing then revealed the substance was indeed PCB.

However, it is still unknown where the substance came from, how long it had been in the center and how much of it was found.

“It’s a situation that continues to evolve, and we’re working diligently with Walmart to understand it more,” Exel Vice President of Communications Lynn Anderson tells WTHR.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), which is investigating the case, say elevated levels – 48 parts per million – of the substance were found in a maintenance area of the facility. The levels, while troubling, fell just short of the 50 parts per million exposure reading that requires higher thresholds of environmental oversight.

An IDEM assistant commissioner says early testing has indicated that building materials, such as the caulking used in the 50-year-old warehouse’s concrete floors and insulated siding, may be the potential source of the PCB contamination.

Officials with Exel say they plan to begin independent testing of the warehouse next week, but in the meantime they are actively looking for another facility to restart operations.

WTHR reports that for the past two weeks, full-time Exel employees have been undergoing medical tests to determine which employees were exposed to PCB and if exposure will affect their health. Test results can take up to a month to be returned.

However, contract workers at the facility say they have not been offered testing, assistance or direct communications from either Exel or Walmart.

Despite the companies’ attempts to reassure workers, through meetings and testing, some employees remain upset by the situation.

“We are nervous and we are worried about what we might find out and what might happen to our bodies later,” one employee told WTHR after being tested. “We have a lot of questions, but we have to wait for answers and we do not know what the outcome will be.”

One long-time worker filed a lawsuit, seeking class action status, against Walmart accusing the company of negligence.

“At no point, however, has Exel or [Walmart] informed Plaintiff and the Class as to the extent of the contamination, the length that Plaintiff and the Class were exposed to the contamination, or the results of any inspection or evaluation of the facility,” the suit states.

The complaint requests that the Walmart commit to “a court-supervised PCB surveillance program that would provide ‘temporary, preliminary and permanent equitable and/or injunctive relief’ for medical screening(s) to monitor the short- and long-term effects of exposure to the PCBs.”

Randy Hargrove, a Walmart spokesman told The Indianapolis Star, that the company has yet to review the complaint.

However, he did say the company was cooperating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and IDEM.

Hundreds of Indianapolis Walmart warehouse workers tested for PCB exposure [WTHR-TV]
Lawsuit filed over discovery of PCBs at Walmart facility [Indianapolis Star]

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Cash4iPhones Provided Crappy Trade-In Offer For Samsung Galaxy Note, Too

Thu, 2014-09-18 20:32

(John Karakatsanis)

(John Karakatsanis)

Last week, we shared a reader’s story of trade-in woe from his experience trying to sell his old phone to the site CashForiPhones.com. The site also buys other electronics, like portable computers and mobile phones not made by Apple. Reader James reports that he received a very fair quote from the company, followed by an awful offer once the company had his phones in hand.

James writes that he ended up with three Samsung Galaxy Note 3 phones from a vendor. All were sparkling new in their boxes and unused, and he had no need for them, so he decided to cash them in. The company made him a great offer: $1,074 for the three phones. He shipped them to the company, then waited for their final offer after checking the phones over.

Instead of an offer, he received a mysterious PayPal deposit of $163.00 from “Cash4Laptops and eCycleBest.” That was not the amount James agreed on, and it was a crappy offer for any one of the phones, let alone all of them. Naturally, he got on the phone to complain about this.

“I called when they opened and after 2 hours of waiting on hold, I finally reached someone,” he wrote to Consumerist. That sounds unpleasant. Even less pleasant was the company’s counter-offer: they raised their offer for all three phones to $393. “I could take them to at least 3 other sites and get at least $300 for each device,” James grumbled, and he asked for the phones to be sent back.

Sure, it’s phone-trading season, especially for Apple fans, but ask around and be sure to thoroughly check out the company that you choose to recycle your device, especially if it is worth some real cash like James’s phones.

PREVIOUSLY:
CashForiPhones Keeps My iPhone, Cuts Cash Offer By $222

Study: Most Corporate “Best-Of” Awards Pretty Much As Meaningless As You Thought

Thu, 2014-09-18 20:18

(Patrick)

(Patrick)


We’ve all been there: some company you really hate runs an ad singing praises about all the awards they’ve gotten claiming they’re “number one!” in something. You frown at the TV, thinking, “Who the heck named them best of anything?” Now, a new study has found that the instinct to call shenanigans on those corporate awards is exactly right. Far from being meaningful recognitions of performance, those “awards” show exactly one thing: how much a company is willing to spend on marketing.

A research team at UMass – Amherst has recently published a study (PDF) looking at the origins of all those corporate awards. It turns out, they’re all pretty much as fictitious and contrived as you’d think. Their case study? T-Mobile, who between 2011 and 2013 basically went all-out getting others to tout their supposed greatness.

During the three-year span the research team studied, T-Mobile received 47 “best-of” awards. Most of them were either “good place to work” type awards (for example, being the best call center in a given city) or related to overall corporate governance. Of these, pretty much all come from “self-nomination,” which means T-Mobile found potential ratings organizations and then sent their own application materials in. That, in and of itself, is not particularly nefarious; it’s how major awards like the Emmys and Oscars work, too. But, the study found, everything keeps getting dodgier from there.

The programs T-Mobile submitted those application materials to had some major problems of their own. They “lack transparency in terms of the criteria used for evaluation,” the study found, meaning there’s no rubric or guidance out there that says what standard(s) an award-winning organization should meet. There’s also no independent verification of the data. T-Mobile (or another company) submits their own information, and nobody checks to see if it’s true.

That may-or-may-not-be-true data comes from surveys given to employees. Employee surveys can be meaningful, but only if they’re done in some very specific ways. In general, the study found that the surveys used in these instances did not adhere to well-known best practices in survey research. The surveys also typically have “low and unrepresentative response rates,” which makes their data questionable. And they’re also administered by the employer, instead of by a neutral third party, which seriously calls the validity of the data into question. (Not many people are really honest about displeasure with their companies and their working conditions when they think those comments can come back to hurt them.)

And as a bonus, the researchers found that, “Many of the firms conducting national evaluations also provide consulting services to the very companies they are rating. This,” they observe, “creates a strong potential for conflict of interest.”

Yes, it would seem to, wouldn’t it.

Calling the validity of the awards further into question? Consulting better-known, better-run organizations that use “more rigorous and objective measures” to check out the same criteria finds basically the opposite of what the awards-giving groups say.

The study’s authors conclude, “These ratings and awards cannot be seen as objective measures of corporate performance. Instead, they are best understood as parts of marketing programs operating in the guise of contests and competitions.” They add, “Rather than evaluating actual company performance, the ratings are a better indicator of a company’s allocations of resources to win awards and its work to create a facade of good behavior.”

Makes you wonder what a company could do if they spent all that time and energy on improving their business instead.

White House Acknowledges Over-Use Of Antibiotics In Farm Animals, Shrugs

Thu, 2014-09-18 20:07

(Patrick Dockens)

(Patrick Dockens)

Last year, the FDA released voluntary guidance for the pharmaceutical industry, which sells 80% of all antibiotics in the U.S. to farmers, primarily because they promote growth in animals. That guidance asked drug companies to please stop selling antibiotics for that purpose, but allows them to keep selling just as many drugs for “disease prevention,” even though it’s been proven that continuous, low-dose use of antibiotics renders their medical use less effective and contributes to the development of drug-resistant pathogens. Today, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report that some had hoped would recommend the FDA take a harder line on this issue. Those people are probably a bit disappointed.

The PCAST report [PDF] does acknowledge that there is a growing problem with the over-use of antibiotics, not just in agriculture, but also in the medical field, where about half of the antibiotics given every year are unnecessary or prescribed in a way that doesn’t maximize their effectiveness.

It also makes note of the financial costs of infections from drug-resistant bacteria, with direct health care costs of upwards of $35 billion a year, and another $35 billion lost annually in productivity from all the time taken off work, including the 8 million total days spent in hospitals.

“And the problem is worsening,” reads the report. “A number of bacterial diseases are almost or entirely untreatable because the causal agents have acquired resistance to all of the antibiotics that can be deployed against them.”

PCAST makes several recommendations for stemming the tide to antibiotic resistance, from the bureaucratic — appointing a member of the National Security Council staff as White House Director for National Antibiotic Resistance Policy (DNARP) — to the financial — expanding funding for state and local public health departments for programs targeted at the detection of antibiotic resistance, reponse to outbreaks, and “aggressive” prevention activities — to the innovative — supporting research into new antibiotics and alternatives to antibiotics.

But where the recommendations fall short is on agricultural use of antibiotics, even though farm animals consume four times the amount of antibiotics as those prescribed to the entire U.S. population.

PCAST even writes in the report that “it is clear that at least some drug-resistant pathogens have evolved under selective pressure from antibiotic use in agriculture and may have contributed significantly to resistance in clinical settings.”

It also states that any national strategy to reduce the emergence and incidence of antibiotic resistance must include “substantial changes in the use of antibiotics in agricultural settings, in order to preserve antibiotic utility in human medicine.”

And yet, the report takes a wait-and-see approach to this issue, offering its support to the previous FDA guidance (which only came about as the result of a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and others who wanted the FDA to fulfill the decades-old legal obligation it had been ignoring).

PCAST says the FDA should, rather than actually force farmers to stop using drugs for growth promotion, sit back and assess the progress of its voluntary guidance “by monitoring changes in total sales of antibiotics in animal agriculture and, where possible, in usage of antibiotics; and by developing and undertaking studies to assess whether decreases are observed in antibiotic resistance among farm animals.”

And only if the FDA eventually determines that its guidance is as pointless as it appears to be, does PCAST recommend that it “should take additional measures,” though it offers no recommendations on what those measures might be.

“Waiting for an agency that has failed for over 40 years to take action on the overuse of antibiotics in livestock feed is not a wise strategy,” reads a statement from advocacy group Keep Antibiotics Working. “To make matters worse, the report fails to make a strong call for FDA to put in place a system to collect information on antibiotic use that is needed to determine if FDA’s policies that [PCAST] endorses are actually working.”

Additionally, KAW points out that many farmers will go the cheapest and easiest route, so as long as they are able to get their hands on low-cost antibiotics that are proven to increase animal growth, they have no incentive to look into alternatives.

“Today’s report from the President’s science advisors underscores the crisis we’re facing as bacteria become increasingly resistant to antibiotics,” says Mae Wu, health attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Unfortunately, much more follow through is needed from the Administration. Just as the administration is taking steps to deal with abuse of antibiotics in humans, it must take steps to curb the overuse of antibiotics in animals, which consume about 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States. Shying away from taking these needed steps will not yield the ‘substantial changes’ that PCAST says are necessary.”

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter from New York, an outspoken critic of over-use of antibiotics and the only microbiologist in the House, says that she appreciates PCAST’s recommendations for greater surveillance of antibiotic use in agriculture, but also takes issue with the report’s failure to recommend stronger actions from the FDA.

“I maintain that voluntarily asking industry to change labels is not enough to protect human health,” said Rep. Slaughter in a statement. “Not only does it give industry two more years to begin complying, it leaves a loophole a mile wide for using antibiotics daily to prevent disease when they are clearly only meant for treatment.”

While some defenders of the use of antibiotics in animal feed claim that farmers do use discretion and primarily use these drugs for disease prevention, a recent investigative report found that many of the nation’s largest chicken farms are providing drugs — some of them belonging to classes of antibiotics that are considered “critically important” to humans — without regard to whether their birds were at risk for illness.

That same report spoke to a farmer who has raised chickens for Perdue for years, including some flocks that were antibiotic free. He claims there was no difference in the mortality rate between those fed the drugs and those who were not, implying that the antibiotics fulfill no medical need and are used solely for growth promotion. But he also says that both types of flocks grew to full size, which makes one wonder if farmers aren’t throwing away money on medically unnecessary drugs that also don’t result in bigger animals.

Some In Wisconsin Upset Over Local Stores Selling “Slender Man” Costume After Attack On 12-Year-Old

Thu, 2014-09-18 20:05

Disapproving pumpkin. (Kmo139)

Disapproving pumpkin. (Kmo139)

Residents of a Wisconsin town where two young girls are accused of repeatedly stabbing a third girl, as part of an attempt to please a fictional online character known as “Slender Man,” aren’t too happy with some local stores for selling Slender Man Halloween costumes.

The 12-year-old victim survived the May attack, which has left the southeastern Wisconsin town and the country shocked by nature of its viciousness. So the fact that two nearby stores are selling a Slender Man costume isn’t going over well with many locals.

“Just the reaction with the neighborhood and the girl’s finally back in school and feeling good… and I just think this would set her back,” one shopper told WITI in Milwaukee.

The two stores carrying the costume tell WISN they have no plans to remove them from the shelves, but another local store owner says he won’t carry it.

“We don’t mind scary, but we try not to be sick. I have two daughters and I try to run my business so that they would be proud. So we try and carry a selection of stuff that is appropriate for families and having fun,” he said.

The two 12-year-old suspects have both been charged as adults with attempted murder. One has been ruled not competent to stand trial and committed, while a judge is currently deciding if the other is fit to do so.

Bad taste, or just an oversight? Stores selling “Slenderman” Halloween costume [WITI]
Some area stores selling Slenderman costume [WISN]

Radar From The Future Can Catch Drivers Texting Behind The Wheel

Thu, 2014-09-18 19:22

(frankieleon)

(frankieleon)

Law enforcement officials may soon be getting a high-tech helping hand in their fight against distracted driving. A Virginia company is reportedly working on a radar gun that detects, not speeding, but text messaging.

The Virginian-Pilot reports that ComSonics is developing a detection gun that could make it simpler for police officers to enforce texting while driving bans.

The device works by detecting the radio frequencies being emitted from the vehicle. But what about other, legal cellphone activities that can happen behind the wheel such as hands-free calls?

Officials with the company, which manufactures and provides calibration for speed enforcement equipment, say the device’s capabilities allow it to differentiate between text messages, phone calls and data transfer frequencies to pinpoint the likelihood that the driver is indeed shooting off a text message.

As for any concerns about privacy, the company says the device is unable to decrypt the information being transmitted by drivers.

Malcolm McIntyre, ComSonics’ calibration services manager, say the new equipment is similar to products used by cable technicians to detect leaks.

While McIntyre says the device is close to production, it would have to garner legislative approval and adoption by law enforcement agencies before actually being used on our roadways.

New device in the works to catch texting drivers [The Virginian-Pilot]

Toy Company Brings Production Of Lincoln Logs Back To The U.S.

Thu, 2014-09-18 19:01

(pjpink)

(pjpink)

With John Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright) as its creator and President Abraham Lincoln’s childhood home as inspiration, Lincoln Logs are about as American as they come. It’s fitting, then, that the toy will once again be made in the United States after a stint in China.

K’NEX, the company that holds the product license from Hasbro right now, announced that the wooden toys will be produced entirely at a factory in central Maine, reports the Press Herald, while some of the plastic pieces in certain sets will still be produced in China.

A company called Pride Manufacturing — which makes wooden things like golf tees and cleats, and cigar tips — says the Lincoln Log production will bring about five to 10 jobs to the company of 130, which is a lot of jobs in a town of 1,100 people, a town selectwoman added.

“Five jobs really is a lot when you have a small population,” she explained. “Pride (Manufacturing) is very important to our town. We have so many people, locals that are employed by Pride, and they carry a large percentage of our tax base. We want to do everything we can to help them get the machinery and equipment they need.”

The toys were invented by Wright in 1916, and have always been made from real wood, according to the company website, and made every little kid want to live in a log cabin, according to me.

“We couldn’t be happier to bring these jobs back to the United States and specifically to Maine,” said K’NEX’s senior vice president of operations, Larry Fanelle, according to the Associated Press.

Manufacturing of Lincoln Logs shifts to Maine, and fits nicely [The Press Herald]
Production of Lincoln Logs Toy Returning to US [Associated Press]

This Taco Bell Now Closed Afternoons After Becoming High School Fight Club

Thu, 2014-09-18 18:37

closedbellIf I ran a Taco Bell or any other fast food restaurant, I’d do anything to keep my doors open during the afternoon hours to make money from customers grabbing late lunches, early dinners, and mid-afternoon snacks. But one Bell eatery in California says it can’t be open in the afternoons thanks to local high school kids who have turned the franchise into a fight club.

According to CBS San Francisco [Warning: multiple auto-play video ads that you can't stop or mute], a Taco Bell in Antioch, CA, has not only become an after-school hangout for local teens, but also a place for angry adolescents to work out their personal disputes without fear of being called to the principal’s office.

“At school you get suspended or something for that,” explains one student, “If you’re not at school you go to the plaza and fight and get away with it.”

Another student tells CBS that people are bringing weapons with them.

And with a new school year creating all sorts of new feuds between pimply pugilists, Taco Bell employees tell CBS that the fighting has reached a new level.

“One time a girl knocked over all of our stuff,” says one worker. “All the stuff on the front counter, she just knocked everything off and she threatened one of my coworkers and told her she was going to kill her.”

She says that was enough for the coworker to quit. And even the students who fight outside of the restaurant end up coming to the Bell to regroup and plan their next bout.

“It’s getting worse,” says the employee.

Her boss recently posted a notice explaining that the Taco Bell will be closed from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Police say they are working with the businesses in the area, but that it’s hard to police hundreds of teenagers.

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Sears Promises 5-Minute Returns And Exchanges Without Leaving Your Car

Thu, 2014-09-18 18:05

Pete Kraynak

(Pete Kraynak)

Sears is expanding the number of in-person services that they offer to customers who are horrified at the prospect of walking into a Sears. Now you can perform in-person returns and exchanges at your local store, but without getting out of your car. What kind of wizardry is this? It’s the department store chain’s new bid to win over customers with ease and convenience.

How does it work? Sears produced this handy little animation, which explains how the service works, but also shows the customer inexplicably abandoning his dog in the Sears parking lot. Most of this animation is identical to oone that the department store released earlier this year for their curbside pickup service, right down to the ending where the dog runs after the car as it pulls away from Sears.

Things might go a little differently than planned if employees use the same methods to game this service that they were spotted using for the chain’s in-store pickup service. Customers were also promised service within 5 minutes for that, which employees quickly solved by just stopping the clock before it reached 5 minutes. Simple enough.

This is a benefit for Shop Your Way Rewards members, an elite privilege that you can only earn by giving your e-mail address to a Sears or Kmart cashier. It requires you to request a return or exchange ahead of time using the company’s website, then showing up in the designated parking spot at the Sears store and signaling an employee with a smartphone app that you’re ready to swap your merchandise. Thanks to the online request that you already made, the item you’re exchanging for will already be ready to go at the store’s pick-up window. In theory.

The retail-biz site Racked has some misgivings about this plan, mainly on behalf of the workers whose behinds will be on the line if customers are forced to wait longer than five minutes to finish their transactions.

Sears’s Drive Thru Service Has Employees Literally Running (via Business Insider)

Can’t Make It Up: GM Recalls Vans For Explosion Risk, Fiat Recalls Cars For Leg Airbag Irregularities

Thu, 2014-09-18 18:04

(funky_abstract)

(funky_abstract)

The only time I want to see a car blow up is in an action movie where it’s filled with bad guys. I don’t want to see a van driving down the highway burst into flames because of a natural gas leak. That’s probably why General Motors issued yet another recall Thursday, just a few hours after Fiat Chrysler announced the recall of several thousand cars because of an issue with leg airbags.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, GM issued a recall [PDF] of nearly 3,200 natural gas-powered vans because of an increased risk of fire or explosions related to a leak.

The recall covers Chevrolet Express vehicles made between September 10, 2010 and April 28 of this year, as well as GMC Savana vehicles made between May 23, 2011 and April 21 of this year.

The affected vans may leak gas from their compressed natural gas high-pressure regulators, which could, in some situations, lead to fire or explosions.

In an unrelated issue, Fiat Chrysler announced [PDF] that it would recall nearly 25,500 model year 2014 and 2015 Fiat 500L vehicles because of issues in the driver’s knee airbag.

Yes, that’s right, the Fiat 500L comes equipped with a knee airbag designed to protect the driver’s leg in the event of a frontal impact crash.

According to the NHTSA, irregularities in the “knee airbag folding process,” which was done at a plant in Serbia, could prevent the airbag from inflating properly.

The issue was first detected during crash tests conducted by NHTSA. The tests found the airbag did not meet requirements set forth by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard “Occupant Crash Protection.”

In the event of a crash, the improper deployment could cause injury to drivers if they are not wearing a seatbelt.

In both recalls, dealers will notify owners and fix the issue free of charge.

The 5 States (Plus D.C.) With The Highest Levels Of Credit Card Debt

Thu, 2014-09-18 17:33

(lemonjenny)

(lemonjenny)

If you were asked to guess which states had the highest average credit card debt, you might assume it would be dominated by places with high real estate costs, where consumers need to spread out their other purchases in order to make the rent or mortgage every month. Or you might go the other way and guess that states with low costs of living but high unemployment rates would top that list. But a new analysis of credit card data paints a different picture than either of these assumptions.

The folks at Credit.com looked at credit card debt data from Experian, one of the three major credit reporting agencies, and compiled a list of the states with the highest level of average per-card debt.

Alaska topped the list, with an average per-card debt of $2,299, making it the only state with an average above $2,000. With above-average costs of everything from housing to transportation to food, the vast northern state was recently ranked as the fourth most-expensive place to live in the U.S., so it may not surprise many people to find that Alaskans have a high level of credit card debt.

But many of the remaining states with the highest level of credit card debt fall have average costs of living.

Like Virginia, which came in second on the Credit.com list with an average per-card debt of $1,817. Given that it beats out neighboring Washington, D.C., ($1,793 average) by only a small amount, we have a hunch that the residents in the more-expensive D.C. suburbs are bringing up the average for the rest of the state.

D.C.’s other neighbor, Maryland, comes in fourth with an average debt of $1,750. Again, we have to wonder how much of this debt is concentrated near the capital.

But for the rest of the high-debt states, you’ve got to travel far from the I-95 corridor. The Credit.com list doesn’t include many of the country’s most expensive places to live, like Hawaii, Connecticut, New York, California, or Massachusetts.

Instead, there’s Washington state and its per-card average debt of $1,741. And Colorado, with $1,697 in per-card debt.

What’s important to point out about the Credit.com report is that it deals with per-card debt, not per-person debt. Many consumers have multiple credit cards, meaning someone in Virginia could have three cards for a total of $5,451 in debt and still be considered average.

One positive trend from the data is that the per-card debt is declining in all of these states, except D.C., where there was a slight year-over-year increase in the average balance.

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