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The Consumerist

TiVo Invokes Aereo’s Corporate Corpse To Market An “Exclusive” Deal That Costs $70 More Than No Deal At All

Mon, 2015-07-06 21:13

(Reflection717)

(Reflection717)


Aereo only operated for two years, and in that time the company commanded a small but loyal fan base. Customers in the cities where the streaming service operated enjoyed being able to capture, record, and stream local over-the-air broadcasts… until the company got shot down by the courts and went bankrupt. Now, another company is trying to fan those flames of affection for its own marketing — and the deal on offer is not good at all.

A former Aereo subscriber in Massachusetts received an e-mail today with the subject line “Aereo Bankruptcy Resolution.”

At first, she said, the Aereo-branded message looked like it was going to be just that: some kind of information about the bankruptcy process. Instead, though, it turned out just to be a thinly-veiled ad for TiVo. The e-mail (reprinted in full at the bottom of this post) urges former Aereo customers to jump on the TiVo Roamio OTA DVR as soon as possible.

Aereo shut down late last year, after losing their Supreme Court case and a handful of last-ditch efforts to keep the lights on. The company finally gave up and filed for bankruptcy in November, 2014.

When Aereo’s assets went on the auction block, TiVo snapped up the defunct company’s trademarks and subscriber lists. TiVo was pretty transparent about their plans for that data.

At the time, CEO Tim Rogers said that the acquisition “will enhance our ability to serve the growing segment of consumers who want access to both broadcast television and over the top content,” adding, “TiVo has found success in providing a more comprehensive offering and sophisticated user experience than any other player in the marketplace and we look forward to expanding on that success.”

In other words, TiVo planned to ply their wares selectively to former Aereo customers, and now that day has come. And the deal’s a doozy.

“With the court’s blessing,” the message our reader received says, “we’ve been granted permission to contact you because, like you, we feel there’s never been a better time to make the most of this free, over-the-air bounty.”

And what better way to make use of a free bounty than by paying TiVo $20 per month (with a two-year commitment) to access it?

The special deal for former Aereo subscribers is, unfortunately, very much the wrong kind of special. The standard subscription fee for the TiVo Roamio OTA is $15 per month plus $50 for the device. Over the course of two years, that works out to about $410.

Signing up through TiVo’s e-mailed promotional URL for the free device and a $20 monthly fee, on the other hand, will cost $480 over that same time span. In other words, taking this offer will cost users $70 more than ignoring it and just heading to a big box store or TiVo’s website directly.

Expanding success, TiVo: you’re doing it wrong.

aereo_tivo_letter

The full text reads:

Hello,
As a former Aereo customer, you’ve experienced firsthand the power and potential of over-the-air television. However, as a result of the Supreme Court’s Aereo ruling last year, these uncompressed, eye-popping HD signals and the free programming they deliver remain a largely untapped resource.

We’re working to change all that.

With the court’s blessing, we’ve been granted permission to contact you because, like you, we feel there’s never been a better time to make the most of this free, over-the-air bounty.

TiVo fought for the right to keep you informed on our progress, and we’re happy to inform you that our new TiVo Roamio™ OTA was conceived, developed and introduced for people just like you. This HD antenna DVR and streaming player in one brings two exciting worlds of content together in a single experience. You can also watch local TV wherever you are. We’ve set aside a small cache of these DVRs for former Aereo customers and want to offer it to you at an exclusive price, $19.99/mo. with a 2-year commitment. I encourage you to visit tivo.com/aereo_ota_offer to learn more while supplies last. Use promo code:ZH0Z016EU1

And thank you for helping us keep the Aereo dream alive.

Best regards,
Aereo Transition Officer

P.S. Don’t miss this opportunity. TiVo Roamio™ OTA was created with your needs in mind.

8 Years Later, Universal Music Still Defending Takedown Of “Dancing Baby” YouTube Video

Mon, 2015-07-06 20:15

Back in February 2007, a mother of a young boy posted a short, grainy video of her baby “dancing” around the kitchen while a Prince song plays, barely audibly, in the background. In the eight years since, the video has received nearly 1.3 million views on YouTube — not because it’s a particularly interesting clip, but due to its role in a copyright lawsuit that won’t go away.

While most copyright claims on YouTube are now performed by automated systems that compare sounds and images with databases of copyrighted content, at the time the dancing baby video was uploaded, many record and movie companies had actual humans monitoring YouTube.

Thus, in the summer of 2007 a real person at Universal Music saw the above video and was somehow able to discern above the distorted audio and screaming children that the song blaring in the background is “Let’s Go Crazy” from the 1984 Prince and The Revolution album Purple Rain.

Additionally, that presumably living and breathing sentient being also came to the conclusion that this 29-second non-commercial home video was a valid case of copyright infringement and had it included on a list of Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notices sent to YouTube.

The video was initially removed by YouTube and remained down for about six weeks, but after retaining an attorney, the mom was able to convince the Google-owned site that her video constituted a “fair use” of the song and it was reinstated.

For many YouTubers, that would have been the end, but the mom decided in July 2007 to take a more lasting stand against frivolous copyright claims. She sued, with assistance from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the publisher in federal court [PDF], claiming Universal had violated the DMCA by failing to consider the video might constitute “fair use” before demanding a takedown.

Though it rarely gets enforced, the DMCA does stipulate that “Any person who knowingly materially misrepresents” that something infringes on copyright “shall be liable for any damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees, incurred by the alleged infringer… who is injured by such misrepresentation, as the result of the service provider relying upon such misrepresentation in removing or disabling access to the material or activity claimed to be infringing.”

In the mom’s eyes, Universal knowingly misrepresented an infringement claim to YouTube when it did not take into account the possibility that the inclusion of background music in a very short amateur video might constitute a fair use.

Universal countered that the DMCA doesn’t mention fair use and that fair use is not an authorized use of a song, but an excusable use. To the publisher, this means that the shoot first, ask questions later approach of the takedown demand was appropriate — Universal requested a takedown because it was not an authorized use, and it was reinstated when it was later determined to be fair use.

However, in a 2008 order [PDF] denying Universal’s motion to dismiss, the District Court judge notes that the Copyright Act’s section on Fair Use explicitly states that fair use is “not an infringement of copyright.”

Universal claimed that requiring copyright holders to consider fair use before requesting a DMCA takedown would slow down the process of combating actual infringement, but the judge wasn’t won over by this argument, pointing out that the DMCA “already requires copyright owners to make an initial review
of the potentially infringing material prior to sending a takedown notice… A consideration of the applicability of the fair use doctrine simply is part of that initial review.”

But this wasn’t the end, and the case has yet to reach trial. Instead, there have been multiple requests for summary judgement from the court. In Jan. 2013, the court denied such requests from both sides.

The mom had presented evidence making her case that Universal did not instruct the employee in charge of reviewing YouTube videos to consider fair use, and he admitted in a deposition that the fair use doctrine did not enter into his decision. However, the court said no to granting a summary judgement in her favor because she had yet to prove that Universal was willfully blind to fair use in this case.

On the flip side of the coin, the court held that Universal admitted to considering some factors related to fair use in the takedown process, but did no analysis to determine if this was actually a case of fair use. Thus, the court could not come down on the publisher’s side. Additionally, the court disagreed with Universal’s contention that the mother was precluded from claiming any damages as a result of the takedown action.

The case is now pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, where tomorrow morning EFF Legal Director Corynne McSherry will argue that the purpose of the DMCA wasn’t just to give copyright holders an easy and quick way to issue takedowns of content without any consequence.

The DMCA has rules, and copyright holders should be held accountable, contend supporters of this lawsuit.

“Unfounded and abusive takedown notices inflict real harms on [online service providers], Internet users, and copyright holders,” reads an amicus brief [PDF] filed in 2013 by Google, Twitter, Tumblr, and Automattic. “Every time an unfounded takedown notice results in the removal of legitimate, non-infringing content posted by a user, it constitutes unjustified censorship of the user’s right to share speech with others and interferes with the OSP’s business of hosting and disseminating that user’s speech.”

A loss by Universal could have a wide-ranging impact on the automated takedown process. It would mean that publishers could be held accountable, and face damages, for submitting takedown requests of legitimate content. Right now, the onus is on the alleged offender, who must often jump through bureaucratic hoops to make the case that they did not infringe on the copyright — or that they are actually the copyright holder of the very thing they are being accused of stealing.

AT&T Claims 11.7M People Could Get Gigabit Fiber If They Get To Buy DirecTV

Mon, 2015-07-06 19:20
(frankieleon)

(frankieleon)

AT&T and DirecTV are still hoping their mega-merger is on track for approval. While they wait, the FCC has been asking them to clarify some of their earlier statements about why this deal is a good idea for the public. And buried in those new answers is the nugget that post-merger, AT&T plans to bring fiber networks to almost 12 million customers… kind of.

AT&T claimed in April that merging with DirecTV would free up the cash for the merged entity to reach an additional 2 million customers with wired broadband. Adding that to their other plans, AT&T now tells the FCC the total plan is to build out fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) service to 11.7 million customers.

The plan, as submitted to the FCC (highly-redacted PDF), presumably includes AT&T’s existing GigaPower subscribers and calls for the entire build-out to be completed within four years of the merger’s close. AT&T provided the commission with a more detailed, year-by-year projected timeline, but that information is not, alas, fit for public consumption:

Super detailed!

Super detailed!

FCC filings aside, if AT&T’s upgrades are anything like Comcast’s Gigabit Pro service, would-be subscribers should perhaps not hold their collective breath. Kabletown’s 2 GB symmetrical service, which was supposed to launch in May and June and is slated to reach 18 million homes by the end of this year, has yet to launch anywhere or even to have a pricing structure announced.

At this point, the merger seems likely to be approved. If that happens this summer, that would mean AT&T would theoretically be done with their fiber builds in the middle of 2019.

[via DSL Reports]

American Apparel Closing Some Stores, Launching New Line In Turnaround Effort

Mon, 2015-07-06 17:57
(Michael Kalus)

(Michael Kalus)

For much of the past year, American Apparel has been embroiled in a public dispute — and several lawsuits — with founder Dov Charney. It appears that problems for the retailer aren’t just confined to the former CEO’s alleged bad behavior, as the company announced it would undergo a $30 million cost-cutting effort in an attempt to return to its former funky glory.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the company launched a restructuring plan that includes cutting jobs and closing stores over the next 18 months.

While the company didn’t specify how many jobs would be cut or stores would be closed, it said the new plan is an attempt to adapt to the changing retail industry while preserving jobs for the “overwhelming majority” of its 10,000 employees.

Still, American Apparel says even if the cost cutting measures succeed, there’s no guarantee that it will have sufficient financing to meet funding requirements.

In another effort to turn sales around, the company plans to launch a new fall merchandise line focused on basic clothing items.

“Historically, the fall season has not been a major focus for the company,” Chief Executive Paula Schneider said. “The new styles are designed to increase revenue as we continue to evolve our product offering during this important selling season.”

American Apparel to Close Stores, Streamline Workforce [The Wall Street Journal]

Amazon Is Data Mining Reviewers’ Personal Relationships

Mon, 2015-07-06 17:44

In spite of her assertions to the contrary, Amazon insists that Imy is a personal friend of an author whose book she tried to review, but the site won't disclose how it came to this conclusion.

In spite of her assertions to the contrary, Amazon insists that Imy is a personal friend of an author whose book she tried to review, but the site won’t disclose how it came to this conclusion.

Any Amazon customer is likely aware that the e-tail giant knows a lot about them. That’s how the personalizes product suggestions and customizes the marketing e-mails it sends. But some Amazon users are now finding out that the site knows — or at least it thinks it knows — who your friends are, and is restricting their reviews accordingly.

Blogger Imy Santiago writes of a particularly odd experience with Amazon that resulted after she tried to review an e-book she’d recently read.

“Your review could not be posted to the website in its current form,” stated an automated message from Amazon, saying her review had violated the site’s review guidelines, but without saying where she’d gone wrong.

After another failed attempt to post the review — also denied without giving a specific explanation — Imy wrote to Amazon hoping to get some more details on why her write-up was being blocked.

“We cannot post your Customer Review… to the Amazon website because your account activity indicates that you know the author,” explained the response from the company. “Customer Reviews are meant to give customers unbiased product feedback from fellow shoppers. Because our goal is to provide Customer Reviews that help customers make informed purchase decisions, any reviews that could be viewed as advertising, promotional, or misleading will not be posted.”

According to Imy, Amazon is making an “erroneous and quite presumptuous assessment” in asserting that she knows the author of the book she’s trying to review.

In her appeal to Amazon, she concedes that the independent publishing community is a small one and that she may have had social media interactions with the author, but “knowing of an author online, and personally knowing an author in real life are two different things. By your definition it would mean that bloggers such as myself are being barred from reviewing books they legitimately purchased, which in turn contravenes with the notion that reviews for a verified purchase are highly encouraged.”

Imy says it is “unfair to the authors whose work I love, to be punished for a claim that simply cannot stand. I don’t know any authors on a personal level.”

Her appeal fell on deaf ears, as the response from Amazon simply restated, “We removed your Customer Reviews because you know the author personally.”

As to how the company came to this conclusion, we’ll never know.

“Due to the proprietary nature of our business, we do not provide detailed information on how we determine that accounts are related,” concludes the denial of Imy’s appeal. “We cannot share any further information about our decision and we may not reply to further emails about this issue.”

We’ve written to Amazon for comment on this story and will update if we hear anything back.

American Airlines CEO Denies Claims Of Industry Collusion

Mon, 2015-07-06 17:17

(yooperann)

(yooperann)


While the Department of Justice investigates the possibility that airlines colluded to keep ticket prices high, the top executive at American Airlines is trying to assure his employees that the company did nothing wrong.

The Dallas Morning News reports that Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines — which recently merged with U.S. Airways — sent a message to employees over the weekend.

“On behalf of your entire leadership team, let me be crystal clear: there has been no illegal behavior on the part of American Airlines,” Parker said in the letter. “We will comply fully with the demands of the [Civil Investigative Demand] and this fact will be proven.”

Last Wednesday, the Dept. of Justice announced it had requested information from airlines as part of an investigation into “unlawful coordination,” but hadn’t specified exactly which airlines were involved.

Parker goes on to tell employees that the airline is unaware what set off the investigation, aside from recent public comments about aircraft capacity.

In fact, he says that capacity with the airline has grown faster than demand in recent years, leading to fares actually falling.

“We at American have definitely answered a number of questions from investors, analysts and the media over the years about capacity,” Parker wrote. “But there is nothing illegal about that – indeed, transparency is rightly expected by all of our external stakeholders.”

American previously faced an antitrust lawsuit related to its proposed merger with U.S. Airways back in 2013. Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal cited the lawsuit and consequent findings in a letter sent to the Department of Justice last month calling for an investigation into possible collusion.

While the merger between the two companies eventually went through, Blumenthal says the issues found beforehand are still problematic.

“DOJ’s original complaint painted a stark picture of an extremely consolidated market, in which a few firms wield enormous market power to the detriment of consumers and competition – and in which high-level executives believe there is an unmistakable link between fluctuations in capacity and fares hikes,” he states. “The Justice Department also correctly predicted that this kind of behavior would continue should the merger be allowed to proceed – as it ultimately was.”

Parker said in his letter to employees that the airline hoped that it had reached a resolution with regard to the merger that satisfied the Dept. of Justice concerns.

“So it is discouraging that less than two years later, with traffic and capacity up, and fares down, DOJ still doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the airline industry is as competitive a business as there is in the world,” he wrote.

Parker: ‘There has been no illegal behavior on the part of American Airlines’ [The Dallas Morning News]

Should Hotels Be Required To Include Mandatory “Resort Fees” In Published Room Rates?

Mon, 2015-07-06 16:39

(Larry Smith)

(Larry Smith)

In order to minimize surprise when it comes time to pay, airlines in the U.S. now need to include all mandatory fees in their published airfares, but the same isn’t true for hotels. Many destinations now tack on so-called “resort fees” that claim to cover things like access to in-hotel gyms and pools, but which are mandatory for all guests whether you use those amenities or not. Even though these required add-on charges can significantly increase a guest’s total bill, hotels do not have to include the fee in their listed rates.

Back in 2012, the Federal Trade Commission issued warning letters to 22 different hotel operators — the agency didn’t name names — that weren’t being transparent enough about their resort fees.

Advocacy group Travelers United recently called on the FTC to take legal action against hotel operators who fail to include all mandatory fees in their listed rates.

“If a hotel charges a mandatory fee, it should be included the nightly room rate,” writes the group. “Failing to do so deceives about the true cost of the room and undermines the power to comparison shop.”

But when L.A. Times travel writer Hugo Martin spoke to an FTC attorney about the issue, the agency didn’t seem terribly interested in going after resort fees.

“At this time, we don’t have evidence to prove that not including the resort fee in the room rate is deceptive if a hotel prominently discloses the resort fee upfront and includes it in the total price” said the FTC staffer.

So the question is: Are these fees being “prominently” disclosed?

Knowing that many Las Vegas hotels include resort fees, we picked three at random to see how they displayed their fees.

TREASURE ISLAND:

ti1
After selecting the dates and number of guests, the TI website gives you several options with their corresponding prices. The “Total” price is for just the room rate without any mention of a resort fee… But when you go to actually book the room —

ti2
This is where you find out about the $29 (plus tax) resort fee that you can’t opt out of. With taxes, the fee adds $97.44 to your total stay, increasing your total bill by more than 50%.

HARD ROCK

hardrock

This hotel’s site includes the $25 (plus tax) resort fee up front before you get to individual room rates, but in very small print and apart from the per-night numbers.

hardrock2
Here again, the “Total Room Rate” does not actually include the mandatory fee, even though it’s nearly 2/3 the dollar value of the nightly room rate.

hardrock3
It’s not until you get to this payment screen that you actually see how much of an impact the mandatory fee has on the total invoice, increasing the amount due by around 70%.

THE VENETIAN

This is by far the most expensive hotel of the three we looked at, meaning the resort fee will have a smaller overall impact on the resulting tab, but the hotel’s website seems to do the most to not include the fee.

venetian1
No mention of the fee in the initial offer page, though the Venetian does give an average nightly room rate.

venetian2
Things get a little more transparent on the next page, where there is a mention of the rate not including a $29 (plus tax) resort fee. But when you go to actually book the room you want —

venetian3
The “Grand Total,” which includes the room tax and the nightly room rate still does not include the resort fee, which the hotel says is “payable upon check-in.”

While the FTC might not be able to force hotels to include resort fees in their total rates, it could provide clear guidance to the industry on best practices for displaying these fees so that consumers aren’t misled. The agency could also take legal actions against hotels that go too far in their attempts to hide their mandatory fees from guests.

Amazon Celebrates 20th Birthday By Creating A New Holiday For You To Buy Things

Mon, 2015-07-06 16:05
(Alan Rappa)

(Alan Rappa)

Black Friday is coming four months early for Amazon Prime members. The online retail giant is celebrating its 20th birthday in a big way its upcoming deal-filled Prime Day.

The company announced the birthday extravaganza Monday, saying it plans to offer “more deals than Black Friday” to commemorate turning the big 2-0.

Next Wednesday, July 15, Amazon Prime members in U.S., U.K., Spain, Japan, Italy, Germany, France, Canada and Austria will find exclusive deals every 10 minutes starting at midnight.

“Prime Day is a one-day only event filled with more deals than Black Friday, exclusively for Prime members around the globe,” Greg Greeley, vice president of Amazon Prime, says in a statement.

To get the excitement flowing for Prime Day, Amazon announced it will host a PrimeLiving Photo Contest.

The contest asks customers to submit photos using the hashtag #PrimeLiving, showing off how their Prime benefits. The company will pick one winner from each Prime-eligible country to wing a $10,000 Amazon gift card.

Amazon did not elaborate on whether or not Prime Day is a one and done event or if the company might bring it back each year.

Step Aside Black Friday – Meet Prime Day [Amazon]

Newest Oreo Addition: Same Flavors, Less Cookie

Mon, 2015-07-06 15:48

(Danny Ngan)

(Danny Ngan)


It seems like every new month brings a new Oreo flavor, from cotton candy to lemon and brownie batter. (And that’s just this spring and summer!) The cookie conglomerate’s newest cookie, though, isn’t a new flavor at all. It’s just 40% less cookie.

“Oreo Thins” are hitting store shelves on July 13. If your first thought is “diet Oreo,” you’re not alone — but parent company Mondelez swears that’s not their intention, the Associated Press reports.

Apparently the thinner cookie is, instead, meant to invoke sophistication: Oreos are for kids, according to their maker, but Oreo Thins are for grown-ups. The skinnier cookies aren’t meant to be twisted or dunked but instead just eaten — despite the fact that apparently half of Oreo eaters do in fact dunk or dismantle their sweet treats.

“If people want to do that, it’s clearly up to them,” a senior Oreo executive told the AP.

So why is Oreo sucking all of the joy out of life? Because the thinner cookies sold like gangbusters after a trial run in China, and — despite cotton candy, s’mores, red velvet, and brownie batter — Oreo’s cookie sales are apparently slumping in North America. The company hopes that the thinner new product, which costs the same amount as the old product, will reverse the trend.

Oreos get thin, going for ‘sophisticated’ air [Associated Press]

Ford Recalls More Than 400,000 Vehicles Because They Should Turn Off At Some Point

Mon, 2015-07-06 15:17

(saguarosally)

(saguarosally)

When you’re done driving your vehicle, it’s best to, you know, turn it off. But that’s apparently not always possible with more than 400,000 new Ford models.

The car maker announced over the weekend that it would recall 433,000 model year 2015 Focus, C-MAX and Escape vehicles because of an issue with the body control module.

Ford says that the issue can cause the engine to continue to run even after turning the ignition key to the “off” position and removing the key; or after pressing the engine start/stop button located on the dash.

The company is unaware of any accidents or injuries related to the recall.

Of the recalled vehicles, 374,781 in the United States, 52,180 in Canada and 5,135 in Mexico.

Owners of affected vehicles will be contacted by the company and dealers will update the body control module software.

Ford Issues Safety Compliance Recall In North America [Ford]

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

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

(Steve Depolo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Mike Matney)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Chris Camargo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thu, 2015-07-02 20:55

(frankieleon)

(frankieleon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Micah Baldwin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thu, 2015-07-02 20:25

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pledge €6 and get a greek Feta and Olive salad

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

Pledge €25 and get a bottle of Greek wine

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

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

Google Subsidiary Apologizes For Including Concentration Camps In Mobile Game

Thu, 2015-07-02 20:18

(screenshot via Die Zeit)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thu, 2015-07-02 19:38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thu, 2015-07-02 19:08

(RoniLauren)

(RoniLauren)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Ralph Krawczyk Jr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiat Chrysler has contended that the repair rate has increased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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