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The Consumerist

Kmart Layaway Customers: Keep Yours Eyes Peeled For Refunds

Thu, 2014-12-18 23:55
(Nicholas Eckhart)

(Nicholas Eckhart)

If you’re one of the many upset people we’ve heard from after Kmart canceled many layaway orders and at first, told some customers refunds might not arrive in time to buy replacement Christmas presents, keep your eyes peeled for that money to be coming back to you soon, if it hasn’t already.

Despite the fact that many customers initially reported hearing their refunds might be delayed until after Christmas, or arrive without enough time to go out and buy presents to replace any that wouldn’t be coming, the company says it’s processed all refunds for canceled layaway items, so customers should be seeing them soon.

A Sears Holding rep tells Consumerist customers can also expect free replacements if they can find them, shipped without charge:

Refunds have been processed on all cancelled items and our customers will receive the refunds in the next couple of days, if they haven’t already. In addition to the refunds, we are also working to find items that were identified as out of stock — and if we can find them we will provide those items for free and ship and no cost. If we don’t have the items, we are providing e-gift cards in the amount of the cancelled layaway that can be used toward the purchase of another item or items.

We’ve already heard from one of our readers who confirmed she received her refunded amount today, and hope that’s the case for others as well.

We’ll check back in with you all next week.

Aspiring McDonald’s Customer Falls Asleep In Drive-Thru, Arrested For Drunken Driving

Thu, 2014-12-18 23:09

(Great Beyond)

(Great Beyond)

The woman in line at the drive-thru at a McDonald’s near Cleveland simply wanted to order some fast food and be on her way. Presumably that’s what she wanted, anyway: she was in the drive-thru line. Restaurant employees called police when she was unable to order due to slurred speech, then fell asleep at the wheel, blocking the drive-thru.

There are plenty of neurological conditions that cause slurred speech and sudden sleepiness, but the woman in the drive-thru last week started to cry when police came by and said that they would be giving her a sobriety test. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that she declined a breath test, but failed other tests administered in the field. When officers asked her about any medical conditions that would affect her ability to perform sobriety tests, she claimed to have swine flu: a miserable disease, sure, but not one that makes people appear to be drunk. She also failed the ability-to-stay-awake-while-ordering-burgers test, which is not an official thing, but perhaps should be. The customer and was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.

Pick of the blotter: Drunk woman tries to order from McDonald’s drive-thru [Cleveland.com] (via Cleveland-booster Drew Carey)

Report: Envoy Air, ExpressJet More Likely To Lose Your Bags; Virgin, Frontier Least Likely

Thu, 2014-12-18 22:59

(TheeErin)

(TheeErin)

Each time I check my suitcase before hopping a flight, I say a little prayer that my things will make to my final destination. Luckily for me, I’ve had few issues with checked baggage (knock on wood), but thousands of other passengers haven’t been so fortunate. In fact, a new report from the U.S. Department of Transportation reveals that more than 1.6 million consumers have filed mishandled baggage reports in the first nine months of 2014. So, is there one airline that’s more apt to lose your luggage? Probably.

The Washington Post reports that according to the DOT data [PDF], some airlines were more likely than others to separate travelers and their belongings so far this year.

The passengers who filed mishandled baggage reports – those pertaining to lost luggage on domestic U.S. airline flights – most often used smaller, regional airlines, such as Envoy Air and ExpressJet Airlines.

Mishandled baggage from January to September 2014. [Click to Enlarge]

Mishandled baggage from January to September 2014. [Click to Enlarge]

Top of the list for airlines that mishandle bags was Envoy Air, a regional airline owned by American Airlines Group. Data from the DOT shows that the Envoy mishandles nine bags for every 1,000 passengers that fly the airline.

Next up is ExpressJet Airlines, a smaller airline owned by SkyWest Airlines, with roughly six bags out of every 1,000 passengers having been mishandled. SkyWest itself comes in third with just under five bags per 1,000 customers being mishandled.

Some of the U.S.’s larger airlines – Southwest, American Airlines and United Airlines – make an appearance on the list starting at number four. Each airline reportedly mishandles about four bags for every 1,000 passengers it records.

Which airlines are less likely to lose your bags if the U.S. DOT data is to be any indicator? That would be Virgin America, which mishandles less than one bag per 1,000 passengers, and Frontier Airlines, with about one and a half bags mishandled per customer.

According to the Post, the latest figures, while enlightening, probably don’t provide the clearest outlook on mishandled bags, as it likely underestimates the actual rates.

The figures could appear to be lower-than-actuality since they are calculated by using the total number of passengers traveling, and not just the portion who have checked their bags.

But even if you’re one of the unfortunate travelers who can’t seem to find their suitcase at baggage claim, all is not lost. Just remember the case of an Arizona woman who got a call that her belongings were found nearly 20 years after it was lost.

These airlines lose your luggage the most often [The Washington Post]

Verizon: We Can Basically Charge Netflix For Peering Forever And There’s Nothing The FCC Can Do To Stop It

Thu, 2014-12-18 22:37

(chrismar)

(chrismar)


The FCC is facing a lot of opposition this year, but Verizon in particular just really seems to thrive on challenging the agency. The latest move from the telco giant is a message to the FCC that even if they use Title II to regulate net neutrality, there is nothing the commission can do to prevent interconnection fee spats like the one Verizon and Netflix had this year.

Ars Technica noticed the filing (PDF), which Verizon submitted yesterday. The eight-page letter lays out Verizon’s familiar argument that the FCC can’t legally regulate Verizon’s broadband business under Title II but adds that even if they could, it wouldn’t help anyway.

Verizon and Netflix have had a particularly contentious relationship this year. Even after the two companies signed an interconnection agreement, it took months for FiOS customers to see any improvement in their (terrible) service, and the two companies engaged in very public finger-pointing over the matter.

That public spat continues in Verizon’s filing. Verizon writes that, “Internet players such as Netflix and Cogent have called for the Commission to reach beyond the last mile and regulate interconnection … But Netflix, Cogent, and numerous other Internet players make decisions on their own networks that affect the speeds or performance that end users experience.”

Verizon continues, “Any argument to regulate interconnection arrangements therefore would apply equally to those arrangements, but Netflix and Cogent presumably would object to doing so because those decisions — like Internet interconnection — raise issues that are distinct from the delivery of traffic in the last mile. By conflating last-mile regulation with interconnection issues,” Verizon concludes, “these entities are baldly pursuing regulatory rents that would reduce the costs of their business models by shifting them onto broadband subscribers.”

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has previously poked fun at the idea that ISPs deserve to be paid extra for delivering Netflix service to subscribers who request it.

The FCC announced in June that it would start gathering data on the peering agreements Netflix has made with Comcast, Verizon, and others in the past year. They have not yet announced any intention to change regulations around interconnection agreements, but the topic has repeatedly come up in discussions around net neutrality. The two differ because net neutrality has to do with how data is treated once it is on an ISP’s network, but peering happens one step farther up the chain, and has to do with how that data gets on to the ISP’s network to begin with.

As Ars explains, even using Title II regulation would not mandate that companies (like Netflix) be able to get the no-cost interconnection agreements they hope for. However, designating broadband ISPs as common carriers could give the FCC authority to insist on reasonable rates and to intervene in disputes between ISPs and content companies.

Verizon to FCC: You can’t stop Netflix-like interconnection payments [Ars Technica]

Gym Business Models Depend On You Being Too Lazy To Work Out

Thu, 2014-12-18 22:14

(Michelle)

(Michelle)

Generally, there are two different kinds of gyms: the kind that actually expect their members to show up regularly and work out, and the kind that depend on most of their members to not show up on a regular basis. How do you get someone comfortable enough with a gym to pay up, even if they’re too busy or too lazy to show up? Sounds weird, but that’s their entire business model.

NPR’s Planet Money lays it all out for us. The first trick is to recruit prospective members who wouldn’t consider joining a gym normally, but who can picture themselves visiting all the time. Some of these people might become fitness fans and daily visitors, but the business model couldn’t handle it if they all did. The Planet Money team visited a Manhattan Planet Fitness, for example, that has space for maybe 300 people to work out at, say, 5:30 PM on January 3rd. However, they have 6,000 dues-paying members.

This turns out to be a great deal for any members who like to work out frequently, and also not a bad deal for members who just like having a gym keytag and the ability to say that they belong to a gym. It’s there if they want to use it. Maybe tomorrow, or next week, but they’re definitely too busy today.

Episode 590: The Planet Money Workout [NPR]

Gov’t Report: True High-Speed Broadband Competition In The U.S. Remains Largely Nonexistent

Thu, 2014-12-18 21:40
 not enough.

Graph from the Department of Commerce report showing how many Americans have competition for broadband services at high speeds. Spoiler: not nearly enough.

You know broadband competition in most parts of the country is terrible. We know broadband competition in most parts of the country is terrible. The FCC knows broadband competition in most parts of the country is terrible. Heck, even Comcast kinda sorta knows that broadband competition is mostly terrible. And so the findings of a recent major government report, which finds that broadband competition is really terrible, should not be a surprise.

The Commerce Department has recently released a new report (PDF) that tells us in detail exactly what most of us already know from our lived experiences: for huge swaths of the country, broadband competition is a joke at best.

We see it play out everywhere: for most of us, broadband is cable, and cable is (a href=”http://consumerist.com/2014/05/10/why-starting-a-competitor-to-comcast-is-basically-impossible/”>by design) a local monopoly. Although alternate technologies exist, most of us don’t have fiber, and DSL just isn’t up to par.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said as much back in September, and the new round of data bear him out. For DSL-level speeds of 10 Mbps, a solid 70% of us can choose between Company A and Company B, but only 28% of Americans have a choice of three or more providers. And the picture gets more dire as the wires get faster.

Move up to 25 Mbps — which Wheeler has argued is likely the “table stakes” for broadband service going forward — and the situation sours fast. The silver lining is that 86% of Americans do have someone providing 25 Mbps service in their area. The bad news? For most of us, it’s exactly one someone. Only 37% of us have a choice between even two providers (often one cable company and either FiOS or U-Verse), and only 9% can choose among three.

Keep upping the speeds, and the numbers get worse. 59% of Americans have any access to speeds of 100 Mbps, and the vast majority of those have only one provider to turn to. Only 8% of Americans can choose between two or more ISPs for speeds of 100 Mbps or better.

The Commerce Department report also illustrates just how slow the much-vaunted expansion of gigabit fiber in the U.S. really is: only 3% of us have any access to it at all, and everywhere such service is provided, it’s a monopoly.

The report also breaks down what technologies are available: 89% of the country could sign up for DSL service, but only 21% of us actually do. 24% of households nominally have access to fiber, but only 8% are signed up. Most of us — 43% of the country — get our internet service from cable TV companies.

The report authors also account for wireless broadband tech. Though the technology is weaker, the competition is much stronger: 99% of Americans are considered to have access to 10 Mbps mobile broadband (though in reality, those speeds vary widely), and 71% of us have at least three providers to choose from.

The study also notes, however, that with unreliability, speeds usually below 25 Mbps, low data caps, and price-prohibitive overage fees, mobile is not yet viable as a full replacement for wired broadband.

Of Course People Are Already Trying To Sell ‘The Interview’ Movie Posters For Hundreds On eBay

Thu, 2014-12-18 21:31

(eBay)

(eBay)

While there will be no backsides warming theater seats at screenings of The Interview in the United States (at least, not on the movie’s planned Dec. 25 release date), there is still money to be made on the bro-com starring Seth Rogen and James Franco sent on a mission to kill the leader of North Korea. At least, people are still trying to make money off the flick.

There are already a bunch of movie posters for the film up for sale on eBay right now, with the most expensve currently carrying a price of $550.

The Huffington Post’s Alexander C. Kaufman caught the wave first, noting that the playbills for sale on eBay right now usually go for about $15, so this is quite a price jack-up for a movie that no one is going to be seeing in theaters any time soon. Heck, we don’t even know if it’ll go straight to DVD and TV on-demand services. Stranger things have happened.

But before you go tearing off to buy your piece of pop culture history at such an inflated price, know that what goes up, must come down.

“A year from now, you wouldn’t be able to get more than $15, maybe $20 for them,” Rudy Franchi, a movie-poster expert told The Huffington Post. “These things have no intrinsic value to begin with.”

Movie Posters For ‘The Interview’ Are Going For $550 [Huffington Post]

Uber Reportedly Revamping Security, Won’t Say Exactly What It’s Doing

Thu, 2014-12-18 21:28

uberFollowing several accusations of Uber drivers behaving horrendously and a lawsuit regarding the company’s vetting processes for potential vehicle operators, the ride-sharing company is reportedly trying to make it up to future customers by revamping their focus on safety – although the company failed to provide many specifics.

The Associated Press reports that Uber announced it would work to build new safety programs and intensify others in the coming year.

In a blog post titled “Our Commitment to Safety,” Uber officials say the company is in the process of a global review to assess the areas where greater safety investment is required.

While recently hired head of global security for the company, Phillip Cardenas, didn’t go into great detail about the upcoming changes in the post, he did provide a few snippets of information.

Among upcoming initiatives, Uber will create teams that can rapidly respond to safety-related reports and new ways to screen would-be drivers, the AP reports.

As far as potential screening options for the future, the company says that the varying infrastructure and complexity of background checks outside the U.S. is of great concern.

“We are finding solutions in many places that range from polygraph exams that fill gaps in available data to adding our own processes on top of existing screening for commercial licenses – which is what we are undertaking in India,” the blog post states. “We are exploring new ways to screen drivers globally, using scientific analysis and technology to find solutions.”

In addition to exploring other screening measures, Cardenas says it will work with “partners that have deep expertise in issues like women’s safety, conflict resolution, and road safety and incorporate their counsel into our global safety roadmap.”

Cardenas says Uber is also in the process of building Safety Incident Response teams around the world with the goal of providing 24/7, immediate support in the event of a safety incident.

Uber’s announcement of upcoming safety-related changes comes just a week after the district attorneys for San Francisco and Los Angeles filed a lawsuit against the company for a number of issues including allegedly misleading consumers on its background checks for drivers.

The company has also recently been party to complaints about driver’s often awful behavior.

Earlier today it was reported by the Boston Globe that an Uber driver in Massachusetts was arraigned and pleaded not guilty to charges that he raped and kidnapped a female passenger.

A Uber spokesperson told the Globe that the incident was a “despicable crime” and that the company will work with police to help with the investigation.

Last week, a London woman complained to that company about a driver who was ““very forward and quite creepy” and, more specifically, “Asked me if I wanted him to go down on me.”

Uber’s response to that situation was to apologize for the incident, say it was investigating the issue and offer a $31 refund.

In other events, Uber drivers have been accused of pulling a passenger from the car and smashing her phone, kidnapping passengers and groping passengers.

The AP reports that other serious incidents outside the U.S. have involved drivers allegedly sexually assaulting customers in India.

Amid Scrutiny, Uber Vows Bigger Focus on Safety [The Associated Press]

Choose The Right Shovel Before The Snow Actually Falls

Thu, 2014-12-18 20:57

(Scott Lynch)

(Scott Lynch)

Remember, the best time to shop for a snow shovel is before you actually need a shovel. Just grabbing the cheapest one at the closest store can create a lot of extra work for yourself in the long run if it isn’t the right shovel for you, your abilities, and the type of snow that you typically get. Know your abilities and know your shovel types. Maybe even buy more than one for different surfaces. [Consumer Reports]

Black Bear Has Absolutely No Problem Knocking Santa Claus Out

Thu, 2014-12-18 20:39

(YouTube)

(YouTube)

Hide your snowmen, hide your reindeer and get Santa Claus somewhere safe: Mother Nature might not agree with your taste in lawn ornaments and as such, has zero problems whatsoever with totally mucking up your holiday display.

Exhibit A: A black bear with no regard for The Naughty List was caught on tape in California stepping up to a Santa Claus sitting in Angeles National Forest near Glendora, CA, reports ABC News.

He walks over, checks it out, and apparently is greatly displeased with St. Nick. But perhaps there’s something to eat inside this rotund non-meatman? WHAP.

The photographer responsible set the decorative Santa out there along with a camera, something he’s been doing for a few years in the forest to check out the wildlife.

He’s gotten some good footage in the past, but nothing like this, he says. And this bear seems to have a thing against the holidays, unlike some other beasts.

“I put up the Santa Claus because the holidays were approaching and I thought it would be interesting and funny to see how the animals might react to it,” he said. “In October, I also put up some Halloween decorations at another camera spot, and female mountain lion walked right in between them without a care in the world.”

Not this bear. He is not cool with holiday decorations.

CFPB: Retailer Allegedly Using Illegal Debt Collection Practices Against Servicemembers Must Refund $2.5M

Thu, 2014-12-18 20:13
The CFPB, along with AGs from Virginia and North Carolina took action against Freedom Furniture & Electronics and its related companies for alleged illegal debt collection practices involving servicemembers.

The CFPB, along with AGs from Virginia and North Carolina took action against Freedom Furniture & Electronics and its related companies for alleged illegal debt collection practices involving servicemembers.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau continues its fight against companies that continuously take advantage of members of the military, despite protections afforded to them under federal laws. Regulators’ latest victory? A settlement demanding over $2.5 million in consumer relief from three companies that allegedly used illegal tactics to pilfer money from servicemembers and their families.

The CFPB, in conjunction with the Attorneys General from North Carolina and Virginia, announced today that they have ordered [PDF] Freedom Stores, Inc., Freedom Acceptance Corporation, and Military Credit Services LLC, along with their owners, to provide over $2.5 million in consumer redress and to pay a $100,000 civil penalty for allegedly using illegal tactics to collect debts, including filing illegal lawsuits, debiting consumers’ accounts without authorization, and contacting servicemembers’ commanding officers.

According to the CFPB complaint [PDF] Virginia-based furniture and electronics store, Freedom Stores (also known as Freedom Furniture and Electronics) operated a number of retail locations near military bases across the nation.The company offers credit to buyers but then transfers those contracts to an affiliated company, Freedom Acceptance Corporation.

Its owners, John Melley and Leonard Melley, Jr., also own Military Credit Services, which provides financing for purchases made at over 300 locations of the independent consumer-goods retailer.

Among the accusations against the companies is one particularly egregious bit of misbehavior that could have lead to service members being dismissed from their positions: the company illegally contacted the borrowers’ commanding officers to try to pressure buyers into repayment.

“A clause buried in the fine print of the purchase contracts required servicemembers to allow Freedom Acceptance and Military Credit Services to contact their commanding officers about their debt,” the complaint states. “The companies would contact the officers in writing and by phone to disclose the debts, humiliating the servicemembers and putting their careers at risk.”

Such actions have been known to lead to disciplinary proceedings or revocation of a security clearance for members of the military.

In addition to possibly costing consumers their careers, the CFPB claims that from July 2011 to December 2013, Freedom Acceptance Corporation and Military Credit Services filed thousands of illegal lawsuits in Virginia for out-of-state contracts.

In that time frame, the companies allegedly filed over 3,500 lawsuits in Norfolk, VA, against consumers who had not signed their financing contracts in Virginia and did not live there when the suits were filed.

Almost all of those lawsuits resulted in a default judgment, after which the companies garnished the consumers’ wages or put liens on their bank accounts. CFPB investigators found that some consumers did not even know they had been sued until they discovered their bank accounts had been drained.

The CFPB order accuses the inter-related companies of double-dipping into servicemembers’ funds.

“Most of Freedom Acceptance’s and Military Credit Services’ customers sent their payments via military allotment, but the companies also required consumers to authorize withdrawals from a bank account as a back-up payment method,” the complaint states.

As a result of the requirement, and the companies’ use of often incorrect payment processor reports, many servicemembers’ ended up having payments deducted from their paycheck and their bank accounts in the same month. This often led to unexpected overdraft fees and non-sufficient funds charges.

Finally, the order claims that collectors for the companies illegally debited bank and credit card accounts belonging to consumers’ family and friends.

This particular issue came to life when a parent or other third-party would authorize the companies to take a one-time payment on a consumers’ behalf. Instead of disposing of the account information, the company kept it on file and later used it to take funds without authorization or notification.

“Our nation’s servicemembers deserve better than to be targeted with illegal collections tactics when they are struggling to pay their bills,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a news release. “Today’s action sends a clear message that the Consumer Bureau will continue to aggressively defend the rights of servicemembers and all consumers.”

In addition to providing consumer redress and paying the civil penalty, the defendants are barred from further violations of the law and subject to monitoring by the CFPB.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and States Take Action Against Freedom Stores for Illegal Debt Collection Practices Against Servicemembers [CFPB]

Reminder: TSA Has Magic Machines That Will Find Gun Parts Hidden In A PlayStation 2

Thu, 2014-12-18 19:34

Discovered by the TSA.

Discovered by the TSA.

This just in: X-ray machines used by the Transportation Security Administration have the power to see through plastic — yes, even the plastic used in gaming consoles! — and will be able to detect the presence of things that should not be in your carry-on bag. One traveler recently foiled by the TSA apparently thought all the camouflage needed to hide gun parts was a Playstation 2.

He was wrong, as the TSA managed to use its magic machines and discover parts of a .22-caliber semi-automatic handgun nestled inside a PS2, reports CNN.

The man was going through New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport yesterday when TSA agents found the parts in the PS2, along with other pieces of the firearm that the agency says were packed elsewhere in his carry-on luggage.

It seems someone actually wanted to play that PS2 and not just use it as gun mule, as the suspect also had a copy of the game “Nicktoons: Attack of the Toybots” packed with his stuff as well. He was arrested on a weapons charge after the discovery.

This year, the TSA has found 2,100 guns at airport checkpoints, 16% more than they found in 2013. That’s not to mention all the other knives, blades, inactive grenades and other items prohibited in carryon luggage by the TSA.

As always, before you fly, check to make sure none of that is in your belongings, or if it’s a firearm, that you declare it and pack it unloaded in your checked bags.

Gun packed in a PlayStation 2 gets passenger arrested [CNN]

3 Tips For Snagging A Parking Spot During The Holiday Shopping Rush

Thu, 2014-12-18 19:14

(sfxeric)

(sfxeric)

For those shoppers scrambling to finish up their holiday shopping for the next week, there may be times when — gasp! — they must leave their homes and visit brick-and-mortar stores or malls. Those people are most definitely dreading the idea of finding parking, but you can make it a bit easier on yourself by keeping a few tips in mind.

MarketWatch spoke to some parking experts in the know to get some parking “secrets” to help during this particularly tasking time for parking. Check out a few we found especially noteworthy, and MarketWatch’s slideshow for more.

1. Take the first spot you see: Those people who circle lots constantly know who they are — you’re a “vulture.” And if you stalk someone else, waiting and waiting on them to load their cars up and leave, you’re, well, a “stalker.” And your creepy tactics could be backfiring — the experts say it’s better to just pick the first open spot you can see and walk to the store door from wherever that is. Unless the lot is completely full, in which case, back to creeping.

2. Get there early or go late: Holiday season or no, shopping in the middle of the day or right after work is going to be prime rush time. Instead, go in the first hour the store opens or the last hour before it closes, says Casey Jones, the former chairman of the board of the International Parking Institute.

“This way there’s not as much competition with shoppers who shop during their lunch break of right after work,” he says.

3. Bend technology to your will: Maybe you never thought of casing the joint beforehand to find little-known entrances and exits, but there’s a thing called the Internet and it can help. Simply pull up a map of the parking lot using a map app and check out the bird’s eye view of the area. That way you can look for ways in and out that others might not use that could help you better plan your parking.

7 secrets to scoring a plum parking spot [MarketWatch]

Long After ‘Serial’ Season Is Over, Global Tel-Link Will Keep Charging Inmates Outrageous Phone Fees

Thu, 2014-12-18 18:55

(Area Librarian)

(Area Librarian)

The last episode of the current series of hit podcast “Serial” was made available for download this morning. It’s the last time that millions of listeners will hear a brand name that has appeared in every episode but was likely unfamiliar to them. The people over at Global Tel-Link probably aren’t heartbroken that they’re losing the free product placement, though. As a telecommunications company providing phone service for prisoners, consumer name recognition isn’t very important to them.

Each episode of Serial opens with theme music and the scene-setting pre-recorded announcement: “This is a Global Tel-Link prepaid call from Adnan Syed, an inmate at a Maryland correctional facility.” If you are interested audio stories, true crime, or spending lots of time questioning the nature of truth and the limits of human memory, you might enjoy “Serial,” which is a detailed exploration of the events surrounding the murder of a high school student near Maryland in 1999. A lot of issues surrounding the case involve phones: there’s the Best Buy pay phone that may or may not have existed and that the electronics chain joked about last week on their Twitter feed, and the cell phone belonging to the man convicted of the murder that pinged various towers around Baltimore on that day.

Yet the series would be very different or wouldn’t exist without the community phones and Global Tel-Link. Since recording devices aren’t allowed during prison visits, the core of the program is hours of taped phone interviews between host Sarah Koenig and Adnan Syed, who was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend and has spent his whole adult life in jail or prison. Making phone calls from prison is not cheap, or even all that affordable. Yet maintaining connections outside of prison is important, especially for people who want to lead crime-free lives once they’re out. Bloomberg Businessweek calculates that the 40 taped hours of phone calls could have cost around $2,500 in prepaid prison phone credits.

How could they run up that kind of phone bill? That’s based on the highest rate found in U.S. prisons, which is $3.95 for the first minute and 89 cents for additional minutes. While the contracts with every prison differ, the bids to provide phone service for prisoners work in pretty much the opposite way from how government contracts are supposed to work. Instead of the lowest bidder, prisons choose carriers according to what share of the revenue the phone company will give to the prison. The highest rates have a mind-boggling 96% of phone revenue going to the prisons. The practice is specifically banned in some states, and the Federal Communications Commission is on the case.

Serial’s $2,500 Phone Bill and the Prison-Calling Racket [Bloomberg Businessweek]

Former Countrywide Exec Who Helped Secure Bank Of America’s Billion-Dollar Settlement Gets $57M

Thu, 2014-12-18 18:39
(Adam Fagen)

(Adam Fagen)

Back in August, the Department of Justice announced a record-setting $16.65 billion settlement with Bank of America to resolve multiple federal and state claims involving the bank’s bad behavior leading up to the collapse of the housing market. Now, the former executive who became a whistle-blower to assist federal prosecutors in the matter is set to receive $57 million of the hefty settlement.

The New York Times reports that former Countrywide vice president Edward O’Donnell reached an agreement with the government that allows him to collect part of the settlement that Bank of America agreed to pay in August.

The government’s agreement with O’Donnell comes from the portion of the global settlement – valued at $350 million – that Bank of America reached with federal prosecutors and California, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland and New York.

While officials determined that O’Donnell was entitled to a 16% share of the $350 million, he will also receive $1.6 million as a separate payment from Bank of America.

O’Donnell’s payout stems from a federal lawsuit he filed under the False Claims Act earlier this year. That lawsuit proved to be the turning point for federal prosecutors, as Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, joined the suit and used it as a basis to pressure Bank of America to reach a deal.

According to the Times, the former executive provided federal prosecutors with information about activity in Countrywide’s consumer markets division, including that the division “continued to push loan production to record levels in spite of clear signals that there were problems with early loan repayment performance.”

O’Donnell worked at Countrywide from 2003 to 2009. The mortgage lender was acquired by Bank of America in 2008.

The Times reports this isn’t the first time O’Donnell has acted as a whistle-blower in helping the government pursue claims against Countrywide and Bank of America.

O’Donnell previously filed another false-claims lawsuit that was used in a civil fraud cause against Bank of America and a former Countrywide official for selling shoddy mortgages.

That lawsuit centered on Countrywide’s High Speed Swim Lane (HSSL, aka “The Hustle”) program, which began in the final, doomed days of the housing bubble with the goal of approving as many loans as possible in order to quickly resell them to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac before they realized the mortgages weren’t worth the Post-It notes on which they’d been written.

That trial ended when a federal judge ordered Bank of America to pay a $1.27 billion penalty. Since the verdict was announced the bank has continued to maintain it shouldn’t be liable for a program that ended before its takeover of Countrywide.

Any payout O’Donnell could receive for his part in that case has yet to be determined, his lawyer tells the Times.

According to court filings, three other whistle-blowers could stand to receive a portion of Bank of America’s payout for their false-claims lawsuits against the bank.

Whistle-Blower on Countrywide Mortgage Misdeeds to Get $57 Million [The New York Times]

Traveler Gets Luggage Back From Airport’s Lost & Found 20 Years After Plane Trip

Thu, 2014-12-18 18:02

(_tar0_)

(_tar0_)

We’ve all been there — the airline has lost your luggage and it’s probably never going to show up again. But maybe if you wait 20 years, your missing property will find its way back to you.

That was the case for one Arizona woman who got a call this week that her luggage had been found — and not from a trip she took in August, but a bag she flew with 20 years ago, reports KVOA.com.

The Tucson woman thought at first that the phone call from the Transportation Security Administration’s lost and found at Tucson International Airport was regarding that most recent trip, and was shocked to find that the bag that had been found had disappeared back in 1994 after a trade show in Las Vegas.

“Well it’s a handwritten note with my notes and address of 20 years ago,” she says of a piece of paper tucked into the bag filled with art supplies valued at about $600. “When I looked at this note, it was dated, it dated me as 20 years ago! And I was just absolutely blown away.”

As for why it took so long for her bag to find its way back to her? It’s a mystery.

“Items that pre date our agency are interesting. But I understand that we just did some shuffling of equipment at the airport, so it’s quite possible that we came across something that somebody left unattended for a long period of time,” a TSA spokesman explained, adding that he liked her use of plastic baggies before they even required for liquids.

And the baggage she lost in August has been returned to her recently as well, so she must have some really stellar karma points stacked up.

Lost luggage turns up after 20 years [KVOA.com]

Ford Takes Takata Airbag Recall Nationwide, Adds Additional 500,000 Vehicles

Thu, 2014-12-18 17:40
(saguarosally)

(saguarosally)

For the second time this month Ford has announced plans to expand its recall of vehicles equipped with Takata-produced airbags that may spew shrapnel at passengers upon deployment. Not only does the latest recall cover nearly 500,000 vehicles, it finally takes into consideration the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrations’ request to include vehicles currently registered nationwide. 

The Associated Press reports that Ford agreed to expand its recall by 447,310 vehicles in all corners of the United States.

Ford’s expanded recall covers model year 2005 to 2008 Mustangs and model year 2005 and 2006 GT sports cars currently in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

In all, officials with the company say the tally of Ford vehicles recalled because of defective airbags now includes about 462,911 in the U.S. and its territories, 27,516 in Canada and 7,578 in Mexico affected by the recall.

So far, the company is aware of only one injury related to its use of Takata airbags. That incident, which promoted NHTSA to request the nationwide recall from automakers, occurred when the driver’s side airbag failed in a 2007 Ford Mustang in North Carolina.

Previously, Ford and other automakers had issued recalls in only areas of high humidity including southern Florida, along the Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Saipan and American Samoa.

Ford’s latest move puts pressure on Chrysler and BMW, the only two automakers that have not heeded NHTSA’s request to expand recalls. Earlier this month, Mazda and Honda announced they would take their recalls nationwide. Honda’s expanded recall covered 2.6 million vehicles in the U.S., while Mazda’s covered about 330,000 cars.

While automakers have begun to expand their recalls, Takata has firmly refused the same suggestion from NHTSA.

Shortly after NHTSA’s request, officials with Takata said during a congressional hearing that they wouldn’t initiate a national recall, in part because they don’t believe that NHTSA has the power to order such an initiative and because testing hasn’t shown what’s really behind the issue.

Officials with Takata took out full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers to reassure customers. [Click to Enlarge]

Officials with Takata took out full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers to reassure customers. [Click to Enlarge]

However, the AP reports that the company took out full-page ads in many of the country’s largest newspapers on Thursday to reassure consumers that it was working with regulators on the matter.

The ad featured a letter [PDF] from Takata chairman and CEO Shigehisa Takata, saying the company is working to perform tests to determine the cause of the airbag issues and to increase production capacity for replacement airbags.

“Takata will work in unison with automakers to advance our common goal of putting the safety of customers first,” the letter says.

The airbags have been the center of controversy since early summer when car makers began recalling vehicles after receiving reports that drivers and passengers were hit with flying pieces of metal when their airbags deployed.

So far, automakers have recalled nearly 12 million vehicles in the U.S. and about 19 million globally for the issues.

The airbag issues led to a number of ongoing investigations by NHTSA. One centers on Takata’s processes and the production of the airbag.

In the second case, NHTSA opened an investigation into Honda’s reporting procedures after it was revealed the company didn’t properly notify regulators about issues related to the Takata airbags. The car company currently faces the possibility of a record-breaking $35 million fine for its reporting failures.

It was previously reported that Takata uses an unusual chemical explosive – ammonium nitrate – for the chemical’s ability to make airbags inflate in a matter of milliseconds. Since then the company notified NHTSA of a change in its chemical compound.

Ford expands drivers air bag recall nationwide [Associated Press]

Police: Man Faked Heart Attack At Walmart While Pal Took Off With Cart Full Of Toys

Thu, 2014-12-18 16:49

Anti-Santa takes his toy haul from the store while people tend to his alleged accomplice

Anti-Santa takes his toy haul from the store while people tend to his alleged accomplice

You’re shopping or working at Walmart when a young man collapses in front of you, showing signs of a heart attack. What do you do? You tend to the victim, because you are a human being with a soul. However, police say when this happened in Florida, two men took advantage of the functioning souls of the people around them to steal a cart filled with toys.

Surveillance cameras caught all of the action, and police also note that the men arrived at the store and left together in the same vehicle, while pretending not to have anything to do with each other inside the store.

However, police caught up with the men, and there’s that surveillance footage that you see above. They’ve both been arrested and charged with grand theft. The items in the cart included a LeapPad tablet, a motorized Barbie car, a Barbie house, and whatever that giant Fisher-Price thing is that’s visible from the security camera.

Man fakes heart attack so friend can steal Barbie car, deputies say [WESH] (Warning: auto-play video)

New York AG Tells Walmart, Amazon, Sears To Stop Allegedly Selling Illegal Toy Guns

Thu, 2014-12-18 16:45

A prohibited toy gun from Amazon, via the NY AG's office.

A prohibited toy gun from Amazon, via the NY AG’s office.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office says several retailers are selling illegal toy guns online, as the items don’t carry an orange stripe required to mark them as fakes and not real weapons. His office annoucned today that it issued cease and desist letters to retailers including Amazon, Walmart, Kmart, Sears and more, demanding they stop the alleged illegal sales.

“When toy guns are mistaken for real guns, there can be tragic consequences,” Schneiderman said in a release announcing his office’s actions. “New York State law is clear: retailers cannot put children and law enforcement at risk by selling toy guns that are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.”

Those retailers allegedly sold prohibited toy guns online to residents of New York State, with at least one case of a sale at a Kmart store in Rochester.

The letter calls for retailers to immediately stop selling the toys online and in-stores, pending the final outcome of the AG office’s investigation.

According to the investigation thus far, officials say many of the prohibited toy guns, priced from less than $10 up to several hundred, can be found and purchased easily online in New York.

Some of those were advertised as “realistic looking” and “full size,” so without those orange stripes on both sides of the barrel, the AG says the fake assault rifles, shotguns and pistols could easily be mistaken for real weapons by not only fellow civilians, but law enforcement as well.

Report: U.S. Government Agrees North Korea Actually Is Behind The Hack Attack On Sony

Thu, 2014-12-18 16:25

sony_pictures_logoIt has been a bad, bad month for Sony Pictures. In the wake of the hack that loosed their employees’ most personal information onto the internet, threats of violence resulted in the cancellation of their Christmas-day comedy release The Interview. And now, federal investigators aren’t sure how to point the finger of blame — not because they don’t know who’s behind it, but because they do. North Korea is indeed to blame, administration officials say, and the U.S. has to figure out how to handle international relations in the face of what is not just another hack, but cyberterrorism.

The New York Times reports that federal investigators have concluded that North Korea is “centrally involved” in the Sony hack. The question then becomes: what to do about it?

Senior administration officials told the NYT that the White House still hasn’t decided if publicly accusing North Korea of the attack is the best tactic. Some in the administration feel that the North Korean government should be directly confronted. Others, however, point out that there may not be any consequences the U.S. can credibly threaten, and that revealing exactly how investigators made the link with North Korea could compromise U.S. intelligence operations in the area.

The hackers brought their intrusion to the attention of Sony employees rather dramatically a few days before Thanksgiving, though the attack itself began long before that. Early rumors immediately put agents from or sponsored by North Korea high on the list of suspects, and Sony’s own internal investigation supported the theory, and federal investigators agree.

This act of what some are calling “data terrorism” has been devastatingly successful. Not only are Sony’s movies and all of their dirty laundry out loose in the wild, but also after theater chains all backed out of showing The Interview, Sony has been compelled to cancel its release entirely.

North Korean representatives have been condemning the film since a trailer was released over the summer. Representatives for the country have denied involvement in the attack, but did say that the hack was a “righteous deed” and could have been carried out by “supporters and sympathizers.”

Investigators have uncovered some signs that indicate the hackers may indeed have had inside help from within Sony.

That a North Korean attack has effectively censored the release of an American film made by a Japanese-owned studio is a deeply troubling precedent. Its success means that hackers (from any nation) have every incentive to do something like this again.

U.S. Said to Find North Korea Ordered Cyberattack on Sony [New York Times]

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